Article Review: Conceptual Change via Vicarious Learning in Physics

 The study, Conceptual Change Through Learning In An Authentic Physics Setting by Derek Muller and his peers at the University of Sydney looked into the effectiveness of students learning “vicariously,” or through other students. The study separated an introductory quantum mechanics class into two groups. The control group was presented a class worth of material via a video in a normal lecture fashion and the experiment group was presented a video where they watched a professor teach the material to a student in a 1 on 1 setting. A key part of the experiment video was that the student’s “alternative/incorrect conceptions” were presented, discussed and changed. The purpose of the study was to gather data on whether or not learning vicariously produces better results than a lecture. Students in both groups were tested before and after and it was found that the students in the experiment group performed better than those in the control group. I cannot come up with a better study to research the effect of vicarious learning but I wonder which variables effected the results. My experiences with learning align with the results and discussion of this study. Confusion for me comes from either a) the ignorance of specific information, or b) an incorrect model. When I have an incorrect thinking model it does not matter how much more information I receive, I will be confused until I fix my misconception. After re-reading this study and looking into Muller’s other work I am fascinated by this line of research and the results a longer research project (longer than one class period) would have.

The study has a foundation on previous cognitive psychology research. In 1997 Guzetti found that textbooks that discredit misconceptions are more effective in “promoting conceptual change than texts written in narrative or expository style.” (Derek Muller, 2007, p. 521) In 1985 Schunk and Hanson found that younger math students have a higher self-efficacy after watching a peer solve a problem. Possibly the largest influence of the study was that of the 1994 one on cognitive load. The idea of “cognitive load” is that learners can get distracted if there is too much going on. For example, “vicarious learning” could be distracting for learners. This research prompted the the main questions of the study and are:

      1. Can vicarious learning, despite the increase in cognitive load, be as effective as didactic modes of instruction?

      2. Can alternative conceptions, dialogue, and representation of a student on-screen encourage learners to consider their prior knowledge and reflect upon their learning?

      3. Can vicarious learning provide affective benefits like improving self efficacy or validating students’ concerns?

      4. Do students perceive this strategy as potentially helpful for fostering a question-asking environment in lecture?

I first wondered the effect the novelty of the video had on the students. Would students pay more attention simply because the video was different? If this is true then any video that was significantly different from the norm would have an effect. However, the novelty may have a negative effect based on cognitive load theory. Would the novelty of the study video distract from the physics concepts?

The results were that students in the experiment and control groups scored an average of 9.1 and 6.8 respectively on a post-class test. This suggests that learning vicariously is more effective than normal lectures for certain scenarios. I wonder what scenarios, information, and students are conducive to lectures and which are conducive to vicarious learning lectures. Other than “cognitive load” theory, I cannot suggest any reason why vicarious learning would not increase student efficacy, encourage metacognition and teach problem solving strategy unless it was poorly done. Therefore, I would suggest that any individual creating lecture videos should consider designing the format to use a vicarious learner.

My learning style seems conducive to vicarious learning. I find it a greater cognitive load to attempt engagement in a normal lecture because I am trying to identify my misconceptions while taking in new information on the subject. I am usually identifying the multiple hypothetical-models in my brain that I have created and trying to see which aligns best with the new information. This vicarious style seems filter some incorrect models for the learner and then provide the information that fits the model.

Despite my fascination of this study I acknowledge the potential pullback especially in higher level courses. Most people in college have succeeded their whole life in lecture-style settings and any change would be resisted. I have seen this resistance be distracting for students in Physics 101 and 102: Physics by Inquiry where students used an inquiry based textbook with student dialogues. I admit I hated analyzing the student dialogues at first. I thought they were in-efficient. I slowly became used to the new format of the course and became a proponent of the style after repeatedly leaving classic lectures as confused as I went in and repeatedly leaving PHY 101 & 102 feeling like I learned something. It is very frustrating to see yearly increases in tuition with little increase in quality of education. I have classes that haven’t changed since before computers were integrated into schools. I have no problem finding research in physics education but for some reason universities implement new ideas extremely slowly. The idea of learning vicariously would need to be researched much further before it was used over a semester however the results are very promising.


Derek Muller, D. A. M. (2007). Conceptual change through learning in an  authentic physics setting. Springer, 35(6), 519-533.

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Article Review: “Improved Learning in a Large-Entrollment Physics Class”

The article, “Improved Learning In A Large-Enrollment Physic Class” (Louis Deslauriers, 2011) discusses the effect the “deliberate practice” style of teaching has on a post-secondary, introductory, physics class. The study compared the results from replacing a traditional lecture with “deliberate practice” for 1 week worth of lectures. The results showed a significant difference in test performance between the control and experiment groups on an optional test but it is not clear as to what the increased performance in the experiment group can be attributed to. However, the difference is so large that, if the study holds to peer review, traditional lectures should be significantly decreased in their use. Personally, it takes more energy to engage in intense critical thought for an hour rather than sit in a lecture but I learn much better in a “deliberate practice” environment. 

The idea of deliberate practice comes from a 1993 study on cognitive psychology. It describes a scenario where students are forced to work through difficult problems and use scientific reasoning as opposed to a standard lecture where students attend and follow along with note-taking. The study took two introductory physics classes that had been taught using a standard lecture model supplemented with clicker questions. The control class was left alone except for the optional test that was given after the week long experiment. The experiment class was changed from a lecture style to the first half of the class being clicker questions and instructor feedback then groupwork with instructor feedback. All students were given 3% of the course grade as extra credit for participating in clicker questions, taking the test and for the experiment group, handing in their groupwork. 211 students took the optional test in the experiment class and 171 did so in the control with average scores being 74% and 41% respectively. 

The results suggest that a “deliberate practice” method of teaching is much more effective than a standard lecture style in high-enrollment, introductory physics classes. However, it is not clear whether the results can be attributed solely to the teaching style. The experiment class had more incentive to be more engaged during the class because part of their bonus points were given to completion of in-class groupwork. It is possible that the requirement to hand in in-class notes would yield similar results but unlikely because note-taking is less engaging than problem solving. Also, it is possible that students would normally wait until graded tests or midterms to engage in their own deliberate practice with their peers to study. It is possible that standard lectures over a semester are more effective because students receive lecture as well as their own deliberate practice but students in a semester-long, deliberate practice-style course would opt out of a second round of deliberate practice before their tests and have a net loss of the lectures. It is also possible that many students slip through the cracks in lecture courses because they cannot find a group of peers to schedule their own deliberate practice sessions. 

Personally, so much of my effort in lectures is focused on trying to pay attention that I have little attention left to actually pay attention. The amount of knowledge that I already have on the subject relates to my ability to engage during lecture. Too little and I am hopelessly lost, too much and I am bored to sleep. I wonder the percentage of students that have a given lecture in their zone of proximal development. I would much rather have 1 on 1 time with a graduate student than attend a lecture. The deliberate practice style of teaching sounds much more effective. There would definitely be resistance from students; working on difficult problems takes much more effort than taking notes, but only until the practice became wide-spread. 

Education reforms extremely slowly. New teachers draw on their previous teachers for guidance and the ones who want to be teachers are the ones that did well in the current system. Instead of holding teachers accountable to imperfect assessment tools we should be subsidizing districts who implement new styles of teaching based on research. However, research in education needs to be extensively peer-reviewed before implementation so that the results can be attributed to the correct variables. This is exemplified in this study where the high results could come from a number of places. 

Reference List

Louis Deslauriers, L. D. (2011, May 13). Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class. Science, 332, 862-864. DOI:

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Pre-Estimate Checklist: Talking To Painters Over The Phone

Don’t Bother With An Estimate If The Contractor Doesn’t Have These Three Things

brought to you by Seacoast Paint Pros – painting contractors for York County, Maine

1) Pleasant Demeanor

If he sounds like he doesn’t want to do the job, don’t hire him. How can you trust him to fulfill the work that you won’t see such as a thorough prep, use of quality materials and tools, and full second coats.

Screen shot 2013-02-23 at 1.10.29 PM

2) Busy Schedule

If he is open for an estimate the day you call him or the following morning then he is most likely desperate for a job. Estimates are the most important part of a contractors schedule, but he should at least pretend like he has a lot of work lined up.

3) Ability to say “I don’t know”

New products and technologies come out every year. It is impossible to keep up with everything. If you have a unique problem or ask about a new product the contractor should use his resources to find the best solution.

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Article Review, “Making Textbook Reading Meaningful”

Educational Leadership‘s March 2012 article, “Making Textbook Reading Meaningful” poses the problem that learning from informational texts is so essential to success in middle school yet students find them boring and 80% are either too advanced or not advanced enough for a given text. Five practices were found and confirmed successful by researchers at the University of Maryland. The techniques used to increase student motivation to read textbooks seem reasonable, prepared and researched but the article ignores a major discussion. Although I was interested in the article and I think that it is a productive line of inquiry, my first thought based on the premise was on the role of textbooks in a technologically advanced society. While reading through the article I anticipated reading the author’s thoughts on this idea but I was disappointed and confused at its disregard.

I do not foresee any reader disagreeing with any of the five practices. It seems reasonable that 1) developing dedication, 2) building self efficacy, 3) showing students the text’s value, 4) using social motivation and 5) giving students choices would all increase student motivation to read texts. The article delves slightly deeper into each point with explanations of how to develop each practice with 2 or 3 methods per practice. For example, educators can develop dedication by teaching in-depth units of study and by using multiple complex texts with which they will naturally compare and contrast readings.

Although a discussion is included for each practice they seem basic. One also seems contradictory and others under-developed. Developing dedication is a practice to increase student motivation but are not the two the same idea? Furthermore, one of the major problems posed by the article is that many students are not advanced enough in reading comprehension to use complex texts yet using complex texts is a method to increase student motivation. Another practice, giving students choices in which texts to use, is a great idea to motivate students however the method reported is to allow students to “choose which portions to emphasize in a science chapter that includes more topics than the teacher can fully cover.” (p. 67) This does not seem like a choice.

A more thorough article would relate the ideas to relevant research other than the authors own. I would accept the extremely limited choice suggested if it was stated that that was the maximum that past research has found in the relationship between level of student choice and motivation because of cognitive development at that age. Relevant references for the section on “Show Students The Text’s Value” would reference papers that measures a middle school student’s ability to accurately value a given text. Do they have the ability to determine the best source for research or learning? This was not stated so I leave the section assuming the recommendation is to exaggerate a texts value which is counterproductive in developing student efficacy in reading texts.

I will not deny that my own experiences as a learner align with the article. I have observed that increased self efficacy yields an increase amount of struggle before quitting. If this is true then learners with a low self efficacy might quit before they have learned everything possible. When I value a text as low I am faster to dismiss the ideas. I am more motivated to finish a lab report if my lab partner depends on it than if my professor assigns a due date, which is an example of the power of social motivation. Last, when I choose which medium to use I am more engaged with that medium. With that said, the article has obvious gaps in discussions and connections to relevant studies. It would be acceptable if the authors had created methods which used textbooks to produce amazing advancements in learning but the climax of the article simply stated, “We have found that when teachers implement the practices fully for at least four weeks, students increase their motivation to read informational texts as well as their achievement.” (p. 68) From my experience, the people who don’t make their numbers known don’t have good numbers to report. This more than anything contributes to my negative recommendation of the article.


Guthrie, J. & Klauda, S. (2012, March). Making Textbook Reading Meaningful. Educational Leadership, 69(6), 64-68.


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Paths Of Discovery Effecting Learning

In my philosophy of education I stated how I believe that people assimilate new information through a series of discoveries. This comes from my observations in school that labs and assisted projects seem a much more meaningful component of my education. It is important to note that there are many people have the opposite learning style as myself. A possible explanation for this is that they are fooling themselves into thinking that lectures are better or that they are able to follow the lecturer closely enough to be able to make the discoveries sitting down. Either way, for the purpose of my following writing I will take it is a truth that discovery is a major component of learning.

It is interesting how little meaning a string of key words can have – like my first sentence above. As I did all throughout school, Grace often combines relevant vocabulary into a grammatically correct sentence in response a question that is a perfect example of what Neal Stephenson calls “bulshytt.” I mean in my opening paragraph that a learner gets something more out of discovering. By discovery I mean a mental struggle to determine truth, meaning or data where the learner is forced to synthesize information, recognize a pattern, deduce, infer, analyze or use another form of cognition that involves engagement. Why is the mental struggle important? In a mental struggle we sometimes determine truth by picking the simplest fit with the idea in question in a  series of counter-factual realities (another Anathem reference) and other times we compare the problem with as much of what we know as possible. What if each comparison creates a link with the new idea and more links create a strong web which cements the new information stronger in our brains. Again, I don’t know.

I realized at the end of last year that I most often lead my sister to discovery through encouraging her to synthesize information. I wondered how various methods of discovery affects how a learner can use their knowledge. We were engaging in preliminary discussions of our upcoming experiment/project making spaghetti bridges. I was having trouble getting her to suggest that we measure the strength of a bridge in how many pennies it can hold. I got her to realize that a unit can be anything as long as people agree on exactly what it is. Then I got her to realize that a unit is one of something that we measure in multiples of. I told her to write these two ideas down, combine them and tell me how we were going to measure the strength of a spaghetti bridge. She has made a lot of progress in thinking for herself over the months and she sat down with her whiteboard and started combining the two sentences in different ways and substituting various words in each sentence with other words and finally came to the conclusion that we can measure the strength of the bridge with multiples of something and made the leap to say that we will see how much of something the bridge can hold.

This is how Grace learned that strength has something to do with how much something can hold without breaking. She made this discovery with the idea of units so I wonder if she will always think of strength in units. Will she have trouble in the future thinking about strength if a question is posed without units? Will she ever make the mistake of discussing strength without units? How would her understanding change if she made the same discovery through a different mental process such as pattern recognition or divergent thinking? (I don’t even know what that would look like.) For the people that like science but not math, is this because they have somehow avoided discovering scientific concepts without mathematical ideas? I would love to have access to the UMaine databases of journals to see what actual smart people think of this but I’ll have to wait a week for when I return.

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Nature Pictures From The Fall



stone bridge on hike to waterfall
stone bridge on hike to waterfall


primate at the zoo

primate at the zoo

elephant at the zoo

elephant at the zoo

turtles at the zoo

turtles at the zoo

black swan at the zoo

black swan at the zoo

goat at the zoo

goat at the zoo

flamingos at the zoo

flamingos at the zoo



101_2708 101_2707 101_2705 101_2701 a hawk decided to visit our house


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Philosophy of Education

Students often wish that they could drag and drop a textbook into their brain to learn math but it is not that easy. It isn’t as easy as listening to a mathematician or even as easy as listening to someone outline the steps of solving a problem. This question drives me, How exactly do people learn? Capitalism tells us that the premiere method of knowledge transfer is lecture supplemented with recitations, labwork and projects. This recipe has produced productive citizens for the past hundred years but it does not feel like the best we can do. I am convinced that improved methods can decrease failures and raise the ceiling of student capacity. I am fascinated by research in education but for now all I have are my experiences and education to provide consider this puzzle.

The Purpose of Education

It seems an objective observation that all governments, from tribes to modern nations, must pass on information from one generation to the next. A tribe must teach its youth to hunt and other basics of survival or the elders will starve. In the same way, a modern nation must teach its youth to run a working and sustainable economy or the future elders will suffer. Based on this insight I believe the purpose of education is to prepare youth to be productive citizens. I take it as a fundamental truth that people are most productive when they are happy and it seems that knowledge of something gives one a greater ability to appreciate and enjoy it. Also, a modern nation needs an intelligent workforce. Therefore, allowing students to appreciate the world and providing them with necessary information and and more importantly the reasoning skills are my two goals as a teacher.

The Way People Learn

Part constructivism and part connectivism, I believe that learners create their own meaning behind schema and events and strengthen their meanings through connections to other schema. If it is true that students create their own meaning then it seems most reasonable that the best way to create one’s own meaning is through discovery. It is not realistic for students to discover everything on their own. Newton was a genius for formalizing the theory of gravity and it was his life’s work. What educators can do is guide students to discovery by asking the correct questions. Doing this will take intense study and introspection and the correct questions will vary from student to student because their needs will differ. Some will need to learn how to think and some should be encouraged to struggle through a problem. In each case, a successful teacher will be able to identify the problem and take the correct path to solve the block.

The Ideal Environment

Obviously, people are different than computers and there are other variables in learning besides the way knowledge is transferred and one of the most important is the environment. Some environments harbor anxiety which seems to shut down brain functioning. Most anxiety in school is a fear of failure. My entrepreneurial and athletic background forced me to confront and accept failure head on. I believe that helping students to get over their fear of failure is extremely beneficial and the most important part of creating an environment conducive to learning. I would do this by developing a classroom culture where failure is not feared. I want to lead by example of someone who isn’t afraid to struggle through something new and I want to disclose my history of approaching failure head on. Just as in companies, developing and maintaining a culture requires constant introspection permeating all aspects and will take years to perfect.


Another variable in learning is a students level of engagement. It is extremely difficult to keep students engaged in lecture and to lead students to discovery but it is also difficult to keep twenty students on task when they are separated into seven different independent groups. There is no easy solution but I think maintaining a culture where the students take responsibility for their education will help. Standards Based Grading seems conducive to this and beneficial all around. SBG will teach students that a high level of engagement and metacognition with one item is more powerful than rushing through a number of items for credit. I do not believe that technology is the solution to the engagement problem. I visited an elementary school classroom that had a smartboard and the children were extremely excited about doing tasks with the technology (even when they were the exact same tasks as on paper) but my experience with children is that their level of excitement quickly dies down. However, technology definitely has a place in education.


Technology can help with collaboration, simulation, management, exploration and stimulation and if it is not maximizing one of those categories then it probably more of a problem. I’d bet that spending $2,000 on giving poor students lunch every day would produce much better results than purchasing a smartboard. Although maximizing the effect of technology in terms of the above categories is helpful, technology allows for innovative practices that the above categories miss such as the inverted classroom and online lectures. I am interested in using these methods but my first thoughts are that while I can probably find a better lecturer than myself on the internet, the videos are nothing more than a textbook in a slightly different medium and the inverted classroom and Khan Academy are not the answer to education.

The above outlines how I will run my classroom. As much as possible I want my students to learn by discovery which will mean more group activities and informal experiments. I want to reinforce the idea that failure is an important part of both the scientific method and learning. I want to empower my students to take responsibility for their education and lifelong learning through my classroom culture and I want to use technology to help me achieve my goals.

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Teaching Characterization Through Harry Potter Trading Cards

Project: Grace is making a set (10-20 characters) of trading cards for each Harry Potter book. Some characters will show up in each set and some will only be in one (showing dynamic vs. static characters). The design that Grace decided on is: one side with a drawing of a scene that best represents the character along with a caption and the other side with the name, house, year and a short paragraph describing the character. The cards are each cut to fit into a plastic page that holds trading cards in binders.

At some point I expect Grace to realize that the thought that goes into creating a good trading card is similar to the thought that goes into making good characters (ones that are enjoyable to read). But what does make a character enjoyable to read in literature? Orson Scott Card says at the end of Ender’s Game that one can’t help but love someone that they truly understand. I think this truth to it. Even a bully is hard to despise if you truly understand why they are the way they are. So how do you get someone to truly understand a character? One of the most common pieces of advice in writing is: show don’t tell. This isn’t all the information on how to make a good character but it is a lot to work with and more than deep enough for a fifth grade lesson.

Cover Art For Harry Potter #1

In order to attempt to convey who a character truly is Grace is picking the scene that best shows a given character and writing a short paragraph describing him/her. Our first discussion was what scene to draw for Harry in book 1. I was proud and relieved when Grace chose to show Harry in front of the mirror of Erised. I agree that the most important part of Harry’s character in book 1 is that he desperately longs for his parents and he has a tendency to go on adventures when he isn’t supposed to.

As usual, the difficulty I have found in leading this project is to get Grace to sit down and think about each card. Her default setting is to pump out work as fast as she can which often produces results like her book 3 card that shows Lupin as a werewolf. To her credit, the first thing that people remember about Lupin is his affliction but it is definitely not the most important part of his character. We don’t enjoy reading about him because he is a werewolf and he is a favorite character long before this is revealed. In fact, it is an important point that James, Sirius, Harry, Ron, Hermione and Dumbledore like him despite the fact that he is a werewolf. So why do we like Lupin? I’d argue that it is because Lupin cares for Harry while we have sympathy for him and there we feel a latent connection. I’d argue that the best scene for Lupin is him teaching Harry how to perform a patronus.

Readers also enjoy seeing characters grow and change. This is shown through the cards by  comparing the scenes for a given character from book to book. Grace’s card for book two has little to do with his parents because they are not discussed as much. It is important to give reasons for change so I asked Grace what would cause Harry to not desperately miss his parents in book two. After some pushing she came to the answer that Harry finally made some friends who fill part of the hole. I told Grace that while editing she should try to give her character arcs meaning.

My Goodreads profile shows that I’ve read over 100 fantasy/scifi books and I have a minor in English but I definitely don’t know everything. Do you have a different scene in mind for Harry in book 1? What scenes would you choose for your favorite characters?

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Teaching The Revolutionary War Through PBS’ Liberty’s Kids

When I gave up on my dream of playing pro basketball and decided on teaching I looked to my history teachers. History was my subject in high school and fortunately nobody asked me, “John, math is your worst subject, your group won best presentation at the civics competition and you have 9 AP credits in History; why do you want to teach physics?” It might have been my senior year physics teacher that had too many students to keep me from lighting things on fire in the back of the lab or it might have been my realization that history wasn’t going to change much in the future and therefore wouldn’t be that exciting to teach. I’m not sure but I do know that I have a bit of knowledge in the subject.

Revolutions often fail, and even countries who succeed in revolting have a hard time staying afloat. It is absolutely amazing that the colonists were able to do what they did. With a little bit of hand waving the Revolutionary War between the Colonists and British is as epic as the Rebels vs. Imperials. PBS tried to show this in 2003 with the television show for children called Liberty’s Kids. The show follows a group of teenagers from the start of the war as they happen to get involved in the major events. For now, Grace writes a short blog post for every other 20 min episode that summarizes the show, expands on a topic, and provides her thoughts.

My goals for Grace:

  • learn the major events and people What did George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Paine do?
  • practice connecting ideas What cultural similarities exist between the colonists and Americans today?
  • learn about the reliability of sources How reliable is a government funded, kids show as a source for the war?

As always I try to get her to discover concepts on her own. Luckily, our first discussion led to a major point that I wanted to hit. She asked why they started the series with The Boston Tea Party when she remembered that the Boston Massacre was a major event that happened recently before. I claimed ignorance and asked her what she thought. After a couple minutes of pressing her she said that it might be because it is a kids show and they don’t want to show too much violence.

Grace often says very intelligent things such as this but I’m always having trouble getting her to write about her thoughts. She does not seem to be able to differentiate between her brilliant and average thoughts and she is far from understanding that interesting writing has a component that is thought provoking. However, we are making progress. She has given up making excuses and has made it a habit to edit her writing with the tools of cutting out redundant words and phrases which is one of the learning goals I made in August.

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Lesson Plan: Graphing Tension vs. Time Of A Story

Applying mathematical concepts to abstract literary ideas will reinforce the students knowledge of both. If the student is familiar with stories, it will be natural to consider the curve as a whole and see how the tension varies over time. They should notice that the peaks are the high points in tension where really exciting things happen. Considering the function as a whole will be useful in algebra and beyond. This exercise also leads the student toward the idea of slope. The jagged points in the graph represent a period of time where the action/tension changed dramatically.

First, tell the student about the literary idea of tension. The point of highest tension is called the climax of the story. Have the student pick a mutually understood story and ask him to plot the tension at various points in the story. Provide the first few examples. Let the student flip through the book and choose different events to plot. It is necessary to discuss how the time axis is divided – by chapters, time? This will get the student to think about how the tension depends on a point in time. Have the student pick a book of his own and graph the plot and explain it to you. Discuss the differences between the curves.

The two books that we chose were both fantasy and had similar curves. I proposed the question of how a story in a different genre might look which led into a discussion of archetypes. I then encouraged her to make her work into a slideshow to show the progression of the story. We wrapped up the exercise by writing a reflection. She wrote an essay on how to replicate her work. I strongly recommend having the student write at least an operational definition.

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