StrengthsQuest Results — Commentary and Cautions

In class recently, we each were asked to take the StrengthsQuest inventory, which is a test designed to identify our top five “strengths.”  My top five, in order are:


Taking The Test.  I’m generally a good test-taker, but I think I might be a terrible personality test-taker.  What time I don’t spend over-analyzing each question to try to guess the algorithm, I spend over-thinking my responses.  Add in my difficulties resisting the temptation to answer repeat questions with the opposite response out of spite . . . and you don’t have a good recipe for personality test success.  Despite this, I found myself generally agreeing with the results of this one.  In this blog post, I discuss a few thoughts on my test results.

Being Competitive in an Anti-Elitist World.  Like my classmate Tanya, my #1 strength is competition.  I can definitely agree with this assessment — I am someone who likes to win.     This is not always seen as a strength.  At times, telling others my top “strength” is competition has felt more like a confession . . . I just hope no one reports me to the Handicapper General.

A few other quotes from my “signature themes” that I found to be particularly powerful:

Life is something of a minefield. Others can run through it recklessly if they so choose, but you take a different approach . . . You walk with care.
So . . . I guess not everyone sees life as a minefield?  Ha ha.  This quote is from the description of Deliberative.  I’ve always thought of myself as a bit paranoid, but I like this reframing of the attribute — paranoid walking down the street is one thing, but in a minefield?  Well, that just makes sense.

You enjoy the challenge of analyzing the symptoms, identifying what is wrong, and finding the solution . . . you enjoy bringing things back to life.
I really liked this one (from Restorative).  I’d never thought of my love of puzzles and problem solving in this way — as an enjoyment of bringing things back to life.

On Wednesday you might have a strong desire to make headway on a goal you’re passionate about.
Well, I did get a lot done on Wednesday, I guess . . . but this one was from my weekly horoscope, which brings me to my final point . . .

You are impatient with generalizations or “types” because you don’t want to obscure what is special and distinct about each person.
So, although I found this inventory to be a fun an interesting exercise, I have trouble taking the results of any personality test too seriously.  The general human tendency toward confirmation bias guarantees that we will find something to agree with in our test results.

I would love to hear more about your experience with StrengthsQuest or other personality tests — do you feel they accurately described you?

Assessment and Feedback

This week, our discussion centered around grading and assessment issues and the potential negative effects that grading and assessment can have on learning outcomes.

The Observer Effect.  The original purpose of grading was to quantify the quality of student learning.  However, grading suffers from something similar to the “observer effect” in physics — by measuring student learning, we unavoidably alter student learning — and the consensus seems to be that, in the current grading system, we are not changing it for the better.  Knowing this, one might argue that we stop assessing students altogether, and let their learning processes take their natural, unmeasured course.  However . . . why do we teach, if not to influence student learning?  Can we alter our methods of “measurement” to influence students in a positive way?  I believe that although grading might not be necessary in the classroom, feedback is essential to the learning process.

As one article on alternative assessment techniques describes it:

Feedback is information about how we did in light of some goal. We hit the tennis ball and see where it lands, we give a speech and hear (as well as witness) audience reaction as we speak, we design an experiment and check the results for error margin, we use the word processor and the spell checker underlines misspellings – feedback.

On a molecular level, the concept of feedback is essential to how the body regulates its functions.  In biochemistry, the term “feedback inhibition” is used to describe a situation in which the presence of a product inhibits the enzymes that create it.  This forms a self-regulating system — when you’ve produced enough insulin, you disable the process that makes insulin, and so on.


In the same way, learners can use feedback to regulate their learning process.  Therefore, while getting an A-F on a paper doesn’t tell the student much, hearing what the instructor (or a peer) got from the essay, what they though was done well / less well, or what feelings that writing evoked for the reader, the student can better see their own strengths and weaknesses.  Without feedback, students might feel like they aren’t being heard — like they are shouting into emptiness.


One example of a good use of feedback from my own student experience was in a class that required blogging.  Although our instructor did not grade our blogs, she responded to every student each week (it was a smaller class than this one).  This helped me see what another person was getting from my blog, and it helped me feel as if someone was “out there” on the other end.

What do you think?  I appreciate your feedback :).

Apparel and Authenticity

In class this week, we talked briefly about the importance of being “authentic” in the classroom.  I can understand some of the reasoning behind this — it makes sense to me that we are better teachers when we are playing to our strengths and not trying too hard to be something we are not.  However, I’m not sure it is always that simple — what if some aspects of our “authentic” personality are not appropriate for the classroom?  As an extreme example, I might naturally use inappropriate language, etc . . . or I might hate teaching and wish I was working on my research (hopefully not).  There are also more subtle pressures that might place limits on our authentic self . . .

Importance of Clothing.  One example we discussed in class, and which at least two students blogged about this week (here and here), is the type of clothing that we feel we “should” wear as an instructor.  One of these blogs discussed a study in which they found that GTAs that dressed more professionally encountered fewer behavioral problems from students.  I also wonder if choice of attire changes if you commit to an LC approach — in the article, they discuss the role of professional dress in maintaining student/teacher distance . . . but is this counterproductive to LC teaching?

Choice of clothing can also be an issue for some women in male-dominated fields.  Although some women report that they feel comfortable in skirts, others feel that they should play down their femininity to fit in.  According to one woman in science:

Anything feminine totally undermines your credibility

And consider one young female engineer’s story about her internship experience:

I tried wearing skirts all summer during my first internship and I got the “look” from the guys, I did not do it agian [sic] during my second internship. Instead I opted to look like them . . .

My point here is, for women in male-dominated fields, the decision to dress in a feminine way can have more than surface meaning.

What do you think?  Do you feel any particular pressures to act or dress a certain way in the classroom that you feel are unique to your gender/class/race/etc.?

Groups or Teams?

This week, I’d like to continue my exploration of PBL by taking a closer look at the question:  groups or teams?  In other words, how is a group different from a team, and how do each play a role in education and in the workplace?  In one of the readings before spring break, Michaelsen, Knight, and Fink differentiated between groups and teams and argued that teams result in greater quality of student learning:

The authors argue that quality of student learning increases progressively with traditional teaching < casual group use < cooperative learning < team based learning

Figure 1.2 from Michaelsen, Knight, and Fink comparing different teaching methods involving small groups.

Similarly, in the workplace, groups can be divided into three categories (listed from least effective to most effective):

  • Dependent Level
  • Independent Level
  • Interdependent Level

Dependent Level groups are highly directed by the supervisor (in the classroom, the teacher).  I would argue that this could be similar to traditional instruction, with each student getting information from the teacher on how to learn the material.  Some might refer to this as “spoon-feeding.”

Independent Level groups, I think, are the type that we are most familiar with.  The group cooperates by dividing up task, accomplishing them individually, and reporting their findings to the rest of the group.  These groups may meet infrequently and have little understanding of what the other members of the group are doing.  I think this could be analysis to what the authors refer to as a “group” rather than a team.  Although these may not be ideal for student learning, I, personally, find this structure pretty familiar both from my classroom “group projects” and my work experiences.

Interdependent Level groups are true teams.  Many argue that these groups are the only type in which the group performs better than any individual (rather than just as an average of individual abilities).  Compared to a looser group, teams meet more frequently and produce a product that is truly collective, rather than a stitching together of individual contributions (see Table 1 in the “For Dummies” article for a more detailed comparison of groups/teams).  These are considered the best for student learning as well as work performance, but I personally wonder how often this actually happens in practice . . .

In closing, although it’s clear that we want “teams” rather than “groups” in our clasrooms, I’m still not sure, as a teacher, how to encourage “groups” to transform into “teams” . . .

. . . relatively painlessly for all parties involved, that is.

What do you think?  Have your “group project” experiences (as a student or a teacher) reached the level of “team projects?”  If so, how did you get there?


Students or Learners?

I just stumbled across the blog Casting Out Nines (by Robert Talbert) in The Chronicle blog network — I like it!  In particular, I was reading through a post from back in December called “We need to produce learners, not just students,” which stresses the importance of teaching that focuses less on producing someone who can get a good grade on the test (a student) and more on helping that student become someone who wants to learn new things and takes the initiative to do so (a learner).  The approach to teaching (and learning) outlined in this post illustrates exactly what we were getting at with our class discussion last week of using PBL in the classroom and our earlier readings from Freire.  It also touches on another topic that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately — the shared responsibility for learning between the student and the teacher.  In class, we agonize over the students who believe they are “given” grades and refuse to take any responsibility for their own learning; at the same time, though, we recognize the responsibility of the teacher to facilitate that learning (to some degree).  Our differences of opinion lie in where that balance is.

“. . . if you graduate from university and don’t have the skills or dispositions necessary to teach yourself new things for the rest of your life, it doesn’t really matter what your GPA says: You’re not educated.” (Talbert)

This quote is the first half of a statement made in Talbert’s post, and, to me, it highlights the need for the student to take steps in claiming responsibility for their own learning.  In an academic market where the student is the customer and the customer is always right, forcing greater accountability can be risky for the teacher.  As we touched on in our PBL case study, approaches like PBL and the inverted (flipped) classroom are often met with significant student resistance.

And if I shepherd a student through the university without putting them in a position time and again to hone these skills and dispositions, it doesn’t matter what my title or my course evaluations say: I’m not an educator.” (Talbert)

If the first statement made us feel that we had escaped some of our responsibilities, the second half gives us an even greater charge — to do more than simply “cover” the material at the expense of learning.  As we said in class, the biggest challenge in this might be knowing when to remain silent and avoiding the temptation to give “the” answer.

What do you think?  Have we found a good balance in sharing the responsibility for learning?  How can PBL help/hinder this balance?

Gender-Related Stereotype Threat in STEM

In our last class, we discussed the nature of stereotype threat and the effects it can have on performance, as described in Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi.  One of the examples he discussed, the underperformance of women on math tests due to stereotype threat, is part of an issue that is very important to me — the relatively small number of women in STEM fields (science/technology/engineering/mathematics).  Part of the reason for this is that my undergraduate institution, as one specializing in engineering, was predominately male.  On their website, this university announces that it has one of the highest female populations among the nation’s technological research universities, with women making up approximately 25% of undergraduates.

Several years ago, I wrote a paper for an undergraduate class in which I argued that effective mentoring is the key to increasing female representation in STEM.  At the time, I was thinking in particular of female role models.  For example, in one study I cited, female students performed better on math tests when they were administered by female role models (such as a female STEM graduate student or professor).  However, after reading the section in Whistling Vivaldi about the author’s positive cross-racial mentoring experience, I realize that I need to expand this idea to include “allies.”  The simple interventions Steele describes to combat stereotype threat in general have been described as empowering, and I agree.

But there are obstacles.  In class, we mentioned the controversial 2005 remarks made by Lawrence Summers, former President of Harvard, about the mathematical aptitude of women.  In an article later that same year in The Chronicle, it was pointed out that his remarks alone could contribute substantially to the stereotype threat issue (presumably because of his status at the time as President of Harvard).  The academic community responded with outrage, for the most part — however, some argued that ostracizing Summers compromised academic freedom.  Further, the debate is ongoing — last year in The Chronicle, this article described studies that downplayed the importance of stereotype threat, ensuring that the controversy would continue.

Evolving Our Definition of Discrimination: An Exploration of “Weightism”

Although we like to think that discrimination based on prejudice is something we only do unintentionally, when we’re on autopilot, I think we should be cautious lest we think that conscious discrimination has been eliminated from mainstream culture.

What do I mean by that?

For example, thankfully, it is no longer socially acceptable for someone to (openly) question my ability to be an engineer because I am female.

However, let’s consider another physical attribute:  body weight.  The way I see it, maintaining a healthy BMI is a lot like the diversity buckets we talked about in class — everyone starts in a different place.  For example, metabolism depends on things like age, gender, and genetics.  Social and economic factors also play a huge role here, as we saw in this article about the availability of healthful food options in Ramona Gardens.  That being said, the perception exists that anyone can reach a healthy weight with enough determination and self-discipline, leading to attitudes of weightism, or weight bias.

As a high-profile example, does anyone remember back in 2009 when President Obama named Regina Benjamin as Surgeon General?  Despite her superb medical qualifications, many cited her weight as evidence that she was not a good choice to lead the nation in the battle against obesity (ABC News; Telegraph).  Some believed she should release her BMI to the public to show that she was “healthy” despite the fact that she “appeared overweight.”

Personally, I find this a little scary.  How would you feel if your BMI was used as a job qualification, like your GPA or GRE score?  I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on this issue.

Literacy, Letteracy, and Google

When reading the chapter “Yearners and Schoolers” from Papert‘s The Children’s Machine, I was fascinated by his discussion of how digital media has transformed how we define literacy.  After reading his description of “literacy” versus “letteracy,” or the ability “to decode black marks on white paper,” I was interested to see how literacy is “officially” defined today.  I started simply, with Merriam-Webster, where “literate” was defined as

(a) educated, cultured;
(b) able to read and write.

These two definitions did not satisfy me — they are two very different things — which is it?  So I checked with Wikipedia, which sent me to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organizatoin (UNESCO). In one publication, UNESCO proposes an operational definition of literacy, which encompasses much more than just “letteracy”:

Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy
involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop
their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider

Papert goes on to describe a hypothetical “Knowledge Machine” that revolutionizes the way (pre-letterate) children learn — by interaction with a database of knowledge through “speech, touch, or gestures.”  According to the book, this will allow children to

become highly literate independent of their progress toward letteracy.

Pause and reflect on that.  Whoa.

Since the publication of this book in 1993, substantial progress has been made toward creating an actual “Knowledge Machine.”  When first reading the concept, I was reminded of a recent ad from Google (particularly at 0:39):

The girl in the ad is showing some serious “development of knowledge and potential,” as well as understanding, interpreting, creating, etc.  Literacy without letteracy?

We have a Galaxy Note II at our house, so, inspired by the girl from the ad and Jennifer from the book, we asked it:  “Google, how do giraffes sleep?”  On the front page of results, we saw some of the same images of curled up giraffes that we showed in class . . .

Have you also thought about how these new technologies can change the definition of literacy?  I would love to hear your thoughts.

Too Much Education? Or, How MOOCs Change Everything.

The recent blog post “Attack of the MOOC!” really got me thinking about the MOOC revolution and what it means.  The dendrology example Brandon gives is really exciting to me as a scientist/engineer — the idea of leveraging the power of a global classroom community for science and design is pretty awesome.  However, why stop here?  In a blog post back in December, I talked about my experiences as a student in a small rural high school and how online classes are dramatically increasing access to education for students in those areas.  Today, I want to go even further — how can MOOCs change our attitudes, as a society, toward education?

Too Much Education?  In Digital Media: New Learners of the 21st CenturyDr. James Gee ends the video by discussing his ideal vision of education in the 21st century, which will prepare all people to produce knowledge and collaborate to make a better society.  He said we would then have the “nice problem” of everyone being “too smart” for some jobs.  On the other hand, there is a growing sentiment in higher education that we may already have “Too Many PhDs and Professionals” for our economy to support.  How can we reconcile these two ideas telling us that we need both more and less education?

I propose that what our society suffers from is not overeducation, but something more like “overcertification.”  We have come to value the piece of paper more than the education it symbolizes, and we often treat higher education primarily as a financial investment.  BUT — I think MOOCs have the potential to change this.  How?   One interesting thing to consider is that most MOOCs are non-credit bearing.  Millions of people SIGN UP ANYWAY.  Why?  To learn something new.  Or maybe . . . to produce knowledge and collaborate to make a better society.

You’ve heard what I think — what about you?  Do we have too much education, or too little?  Would you sign up to take a class for a class for no credit?  Why or why not?

New Header Image!

Just finished my new header image, so I thought I’d take a moment to acknowledge the photos I used to create it.  All images were located using and are licensed under a CCL.

Test tube photo:
photo by Horia Varian on Flickr

Tarantula photo:
photo by mikebaird on Flickr