85. Small-Group Discussions

Small-group discussion activities provide all students, even the quiet ones, with an opportunity to actively engage with course material. In this episode, Dr. Dakin Burdick joins us to explore a variety of small-group discussion activities that can be productively integrated into our classes. Dakin is the Director of the Institute for College Teaching at SUNY Cortland. He has been active in professional development for almost 20 years, and has served on the Board of Directors for both the Professional and Organizational Development Network in higher education (the POD network) and the New England Faculty Development Consortium, where he was a president for four years.

Show Notes

  • Burdick, Dakin (2019). Small Group Discussion Protocols
  • Joan Middendorf — Teaching Resource Center Director at Indiana University
  • Middendorf, J., & Shopkow, L. (2017). Overcoming Student Learning Bottlenecks: Decode the Critical Thinking of Your Discipline. Stylus Publishing.
  • IUPUI — Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis
  • Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (2012). Classroom Assessment Techniques. Jossey Bass Wiley.
  • 84. Barriers to Active LearningTea for Teaching podcast (with Lindsay Wheeler and Hannah Sturtevant)
  • Larry Michaelsen — Professor of Management at the University of Central Missouri, pioneer of Team-Based Learning
  • Michaelsen, L., Knight, A., & Fink, L. (2005). Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching. Stylus Publishing.
  • Team-Based Learning Collaborative
  • Elliot Aronson — Inventor of the Jigsaw classroom technique
  • Aronson, E. (1978). The Jigsaw Classroom. Sage. Chicago.
  • ZoomiOS, Android
  • Eric Mazur — Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics and Area Chair of Applied Physics at Harvard University
  • Teaching Professor Conference
  • David Pace — Professor Emeritus of History at Indiana University, Bloomington.
  • Pace, D. (2017). The Decoding the Disciplines Paradigm: Seven Steps to Increased Student Learning. Indiana University Press.
  • Pace, D. and Middendorf, J. (2004). Decoding the Disciplines: Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking. Jossey-Bass.

Transcript

John: Small-group discussion activities provide all students, even the quiet ones, with an opportunity to actively engage with course material. In this episode, we explore how a variety of small-group discussion activities can be productively integrated into our classes.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

John: Our guest today is Dr. Dakin Burdick, the Director of the Institute for College Teaching at SUNY Cortland. Dakin has been active in professional development for almost 20 years, and has served on the Board of Directors for both the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (the POD network) and the New England Faculty Development Consortium, where he was President for four years. Welcome.

Dakin: Hi. Good to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Dakin: Yes, I am drinking Sleepytime Vanilla today.

Rebecca: That sounds yummy.

John: And a great way to start the day. [LAUGHTER] And I have Ginger tea.

Rebecca: And I have something different today. I have Strawberry Grapefruit Xue Long Flavored Green tea.

John: Okay.

Dakin: Nice.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about effective ways of engaging in small-group discussions. You’ve done quite a few workshops on that. Could you tell us is about your shift to small group discussion protocols in your own classes and how you get started with using small group discussions?

Dakin: Sure. My method of instruction was lecture primarily. I started off in history and I did a lot of lectures. Some of them were good—and I’m proud of those few—but I was teaching a class at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis at Columbus and it was a U.S. history survey, first-year survey. It was once a week, three hours long, and some of the students had traveled for more than an hour to reach the class after a full day of work. Some of them came in with their dinners, and I knew that lecture class was not going to get me through that class. Nobody would survive it; not even me. [LAUGHTER] So I worked with the Teaching Resource Center Director at Indiana University, Joan Middendorf. I selected several small group discussion methods: jigsaw discussions, role playing. I modified the debate system to create a evidence-based debate protocol. I used the just-in-time teaching method from IUPUI, and the classroom assessment techniques of Angelo and Cross, which I kind of regard as my Bible. The combination of those worked really well. The students remained active throughout the class, we were often surprised to find the class was over, everybody was still energized, I still had a protocol or two to go. Everybody learned each other’s names because we did random groups, and the class as a whole was tremendously successful. I was really happy with the results and I’ve used it ever since.

John: Whole-class discussions are often used but what are the advantages of small-group discussions relative to a whole-group discussion?

Dakin: I actually advocate both of those. I advocate lecture, small-group, and whole-group discussions for different purposes. The large group for me is one where I would often find faculty having the usual suspects were the only ones talking. You had three or four students in a class of 20 to 30, no one else was talking, and the faculty member would usually come to my office and ask, “Well, how can I change this? How can I get more students involved?” and often, that’s where the diagnostics began. What I found was, first of all, they needed to have preparatory homework, the students needed to do it, it needed to be graded, and if it was graded and it’s frequent assessment in order to reduce faculty load, they had to grade this lightly, and place the effort onto the students and not onto themselves. And if they did that, usually things improved. The advantage of the small groups is that if they’ve done all that work, then the students wants to talk. If you get to a large-group conversation and you’re not talking, it’s pretty boring for the students that aren’t talking. For the faculty member, it sounds like it’s a really good conversation because they’re the center of the wagon wheel, they’re the center of the hub, and so they’re constantly talking with those three or four students, but they’re wondering what’s happening with the rest of them. And that’s a good thing to wonder about, frankly. If you use small groups, you have the advantage that more people are talking at the same time. So instead of having one person talk at a time, you can have six people in the room talking at a time, so there’s a lot more conversation taking place and hopefully, more change in learning, which is important. Students in small groups feel more free to talk, there’s less risk in a small group, they can gain confidence from that talking, and they’re more active in the classroom at the same time because there’s more people talking. It also gives them the chance to practice disciplinary skills that the faculty member has put into that assignment. So the assignment shouldn’t be about declarative knowledge or facts, it should be about how can you do something in the field? How can you emulate the skills of an expert? The other piece of this is that the small groups have been demonstrated to be effective. Students in the 1920s said they preferred this sort of discussion—at least large-group discussion at that point—and then by the 30s and 40s, there was research and social psychology showing that small groups were more effective in promoting change and student learning. And from there it went on and since the 50s and 60s, a lot of different types of protocols have been invented and developed. There’s just a lot of advantages.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about how you ensure that students come prepared to actively participate in those small group discussions?

Dakin: The main thing is grade it. The rule is that students—according to the Carnegie unit—are supposed to study for two hours outside the class for every one hour in. Well, the Study Study at Indiana University showed they weren’t doing that. They were studying one hour outside of class for every hour in, and it was usually on Sundays. That means that we kind of have to take that knowledge and make use of it. We know they’re going to do their work on Sundays. So okay, the assignments going to be due Sunday night, 11 o’clock, 11:55. But you make sure that they work harder. You don’t feel guilty about putting more work on them because more work means more practice. All of them could use more work reading, all of them could use more work writing, so that’s what I have them do. And then I make sure they turn their assignments in on Sunday night, I grade them Monday morning—which is a principle of just-in-time teaching—it’s preparatory homework, I read that, and then I modify my class based on what the students bring to it. And so I can see—first of all—their weaknesses. I can see their misconceptions. I also can see their strengths. Occasionally they have real strengths they bring to the class that would be totally invisible if I hadn’t done this work. And my example for that is I had a class where I was teaching the My Lai Massacre—about Vietnam—and I had in the class two very strong students. One was a G.I. who had fought in Vietnam, and one was a First Lieutenant who had taught the rules of land warfare at Fort Benning for three years. Both of these guys were A, smart; B, aggressive; and C, constantly fighting with each other because it was enlisted versus officer. So they dominated the class very often. And when I got back their feedback, they told me their knowledge and I hadn’t seen that knowledge before. I did not know that these were their backgrounds. So I spent an extra two to three hours reading about the rules of land warfare, came to class prepared, and instead of a class that would be a trainwreck for me, what happened is they came in and the Lieutenant said, “Everybody knows the rules of land warfare. So they’re all guilty, and they are all responsible,” and the G.I. says, “No G.I. is going to read a 100-page field manual on the rules of land warfare.” And the Lieutenant says, “Well, there is no 100-page manual on the rules of land warfare,” and I said, “Well, actually, there’s three. [LAUGHTER] There’s the 1956, 1965 and the 1973 (revised on the basis of My Lai).” Okay, so that stops that conversation. Then I turned to the GI and I say, “Okay, but every G.I. has those little plastic helmet liners, right? …with the 10 rules of land warfare on them.” “Yeah.” “Okay. So we’re agreed; they knew the rules of land warfare. Some follow them, some didn’t. Now, let’s talk about why,” and at that point, the conversation became really useful. First of all, all the other students could participate, because they now had the background, and the two people that were real experts in the room could help us kind of determine why people followed or did not follow those rules. And again, if I had not done that preparation—just two extra hours—that class would have been ruination.

Rebecca: What are the kinds of questions that you have students respond to that maybe elicited some of the information that helped you? What are the keys to asking good questions for that preparatory work?

Dakin: I think the keys to that are knowing your subject. So, everybody that is a content master—every faculty member —has their own expertise, and it’s pretty impossible for me to name the prompts that they might use effectively. But they probably know them, they’ve probably seen them in their graduate work. They know that these are the elements that made up their dissertation exams, their qualifying exams, and they’re probably pretty smart about what are those major issues in their field that need to be discussed, and to be prepared, and the students need to be prepared. The big thing is making sure that we’re talking at a high level of cognition. So in Bloom’s taxonomy, talking about analysis, talking about evaluation, those are the levels you want to get at. And those are almost impossible to get at with multiple-choice questions or tests, so that means there has to be conversation, there has to be writing. Those are elements that are important.

John: Earlier you mentioned that you use random assignments for small-group activities. Do you do change the groups on a daily basis or do you have more persistent groups?

Dakin: Occasionally, if I’m doing long-term group work, I will do some sort of pre-test, find out what the strengths and skills of the students are, and then place them mindfully into those groups, so that they construct useful groups because they’re going to be in those for half a semester. I’ll do a swap halfway through, but that’s a long time to be in a single group. For the random groups, I definitely do that and I do that on a daily basis. The students originally complain about that, but they get used to it pretty quickly and they’re ready for it. And the advantage is that they get to meet everybody in the classroom. They get to be in a group with everybody else and that builds trust and it builds community. And that allows them, by halftime through the semester, they know everybody, they’re comfortable with everybody, they trust that other people have their best intentions at heart, and then the conversation just escalates from there because everybody’s now willing to talk.

Rebecca: In our previous episode that we just released last week, we discussed some of the issues that can come up when you’re using evidence-based practices for the first time. A lot of people know or buy into the idea of small-group discussions and might just go for it without necessarily having a good plan in place, and things might go awry. Can you talk a little bit about ways to be prepared for trying something new, the kinds of things that might go wrong, and how we might adjust ourselves a bit as faculty members as we’re trying new things?

Dakin: The thing that I find usually is that people just don’t give the new techniques a chance. It’s scary. Now there was a study back in the late 90s out at Brigham Young and they asked faculty two questions. They asked them first, “What do you think are the most effective teaching methods?” and then “What do you do?” and they were diametrically opposed. [LAUGHTER] And the reason was time management, people are very busy and the stuff that’s effective takes a lot of time to do—or they think so. So I view my job as an instructional designer when I’m helping them to reduce that amount of time and make sure that they can do that. So first, make it time manageable, so that you can do the task and you can feel comfortable. Secondly, trust the system. Trust the change you’ve made. You made this change for a reason, trust it. And third, trust your students. Your students want to succeed, they want to learn. Trust that and have them help you make this successful. Tell them what it is you’re doing in the classroom, why you’re making this change, why you think this is going to help them learn better, and then also use feedback from them to get it. So I typically will use something called a stop, start, continue—What do you want me to stop doing? What do you want me to start doing? What do you want me to continue doing?—and use that student feedback to then modify the class. So it’s kind of like a mid-semester evaluation, but I feel like doing it whenever I do… it is just fine.

John: Now earlier you mentioned that whole-group discussions have a place. In what sort of sequence might you use or in what combinations would you use small-group discussions and then whole-group activities?

Dakin: My process is basically four-part. One, preparatory homework. There has to be preparatory homework and it has to be graded—lightly graded—and it should be moderately challenging. Next, they come to class, there’s a brief lecture and the lecture introduces the material, frames the questions we’re going to talk about today, maybe corrects some of the errors that were made in that preparatory homework, also celebrate successes from that preparatory homework. Once that lecture is done, maybe 10, 15 minutes, then move them into small group work. Small group work can be anywhere from one to two minutes in a lecture hall to 40, 50 minutes—and you might do a whole session on the rest of that piece, maybe a debate or some large-scale exercise—usually though, about 10 to 15 minutes in small group. Then when you hear the sounds rising, that means they’re talking about things they enjoy, which means their social life, [LAUGHTER] and so it’s time to stop them. You’ll also see sometimes that there will be a student—maybe all the A students somehow got at the same table—and they’re done three to four minutes before everybody else. Well, the point of putting them into small groups is to build energy and confidence and you don’t want your A students to be bored. So if you have a group that’s done first, you appraise how much of everybody else got through, “Can I stop this now?”—usually you can—and you bring them back to the large-group discussion. And in that large-group discussion of 10 to 15 minutes, you do debriefing and you find out what they think they know, maybe use a classroom assessment techniques from Angelo and Cross, and you evaluate and you build feedback that you can use later. And then once you’ve got that, then you move back to the lecture, and you clean up the misconceptions, you explain and reframe the next issue, and then it’s just a cycle. So it’s lecture, small-group discussion, large-group discussion, and continually like that.

Rebecca: What are some strategies that you use in small groups to make sure that everyone participates or is engaged and stays on task?

Dakin: First, make sure they’ve done the homework. Secondly, randomize so that I’ve got some good students and some poorer students in the same groups, so that we have people that can interact—also, so that people can learn about each other. To keep them on task and walk the room: first of all, be engaged with them. Listen to what they’re saying and if it’s on task, you just congratulate them and move on, if it’s off task, okay, now start working with them—and there’s going to be one group that’s off task, certainly. Other pieces are… that you might encounter a small group where there’s a number of dominant individuals. So there’s a couple of people that are really assertive, and they’re talking all the time, and they are just dominating the whole piece, and the other people aren’t getting heard. And so in that point, then you start introducing other discussion protocols that will allow more inclusivity: so things like expense account, talking stick, things where other people’s voices are valued. Another one would be Larry Michaelsen’s Team-Based Learning that also does that.

Rebecca: Can you talk through each of those, for those that aren’t familiar with each of those?

Dakin: Sure, let’s start with talking stick. Talking stick is very simple. You have an object—usually a pencil or something—and one person gets that stick, and is able to talk for one minute without being interrupted, or any comments from anybody else. And then you pass it to the next person, for one minute they get to talk, and it goes around the room that way. And then once it’s gone around once, everybody can talk at once and kind of work out what it was that they heard said, but everybody’s voice is listened to and heard during that time. That’s a rather formal way. Another less formal way is expense account, which is maybe you give them three—or however many pennies you want—three tokens. And they pass those tokens in each time they talk. So the assertive ones are going to spend their pennies very quickly. [LAUGHTER] And the less assertives are going to then have a chance to spend their pennies. And when everybody has spent their pennies, you all get your pennies back and now you can start again. But again, that’s a way to give people a chance to speak. But people can choose when they want to speak, rather than having this turn where it’s coming around. And it’s very set. Larry Michaelsen’s Team-Based Learning is much more complex. Larry started this in a lecture hall. And so he has basically an IRAT and GRAT. And the IRAT is an Individual Readiness Assessment Test and that GRAT is a Group Readiness Assessment Test. So he has them take an IRAT first, and as an individual give their answers, turn that in—that’s a grade—and then he has them do the GRAT. So as a group, they now turn in their group grade. And he also uses the scratch off cards, the if/at cards, that sort of thing. Initially, the assertive ones—again—are giving the answers. But as they discover that they don’t have the right answers all the time, then the quieter ones in the group suddenly become more important to the group because their grade is dependent on this. So they’ll start asking, “What did you get for this? You seem to get A’s all the time. Can you please help us?” And so that’s his method of doing that inclusivity.

John: And in that approach though, I believe he recommends persistent teams over the course of the semester, so that they develop that sort of team dynamic.

Dakin: Yeah, very much so.

John: Are there any other small group activities that you like to use?

Dakin: I have a lot of protocols that I’ve gathered over the years—probably got 40, 50 protocols—and the ones that I select are the ones that are low risk. So I’ve kind of classed them as low risk, medium risk, and high risk in terms of how much risk does the student feel when they’re in the classroom doing these… and I like low-risk things which are usually small group where they’re by themselves and they’re talking, and it’s not in front of the faculty member, and they are not having to answer to the whole class in front of a large group. So, some of the pieces I like are jigsaw—which comes out of Elliot Aronson’s work in the 70s—the idea that you break up an assignment into five pieces, and each of the students in a group will do one of those five pieces, and then they will talk in class and share out what they’ve learned from each of those five pieces. So it’s a great way to synthesize a lot of data that maybe you don’t want all students doing. So when I was teaching my Middle Eastern history class, each student was responsible for a different country and they had to do a lot of reading on that country. But if I had all the students do all that reading, it would have been far too much. So instead, I can have these various countries sit at a table and then have a conversation, and the student representing Israel can talk about Israel’s point of view, and the student doing Jordan can talk about Jordan’s point of view, that sort of thing. So that’s one method I love and I even do a double jigsaw. But I only do a double jigsaw maybe twice a semester and they’re at moments where there’s so much content, that there’s absolutely no way we can cover it. And the best example of that is U.S. history survey, first day, which is the dawn of time to 1492, which I think is horribly disrespectful to everybody that was in North America before 1492. So we do a double jigsaw, which is where you have a jigsaw that creates experts at each table and then those experts then are now experts in five different topics. And those people then go off to create super jigsaws. And that works well, but it takes a lot of time. The other one I love is role playing. Role playing… just because it’s my age… I grew up with role playing, but I’ve done a lot of different styles of role play. The one that I think I use the most in first-year history is Articles of Confederation. Everybody takes a representative to the Confederation and talks about what it was that person was like, and why they voted the way they did, and what were their goals. And then we skip ahead to the Constitutional Convention and we talk about who’s still there, who’s not there, why are they not there? If they’re still there, do they still have the same opinions? Are they still voting the same way? Why are the results different at the Constitutional Convention as opposed to with the Articles of Confederation? So that’s a good one. Other classics are the Oregon Trail… everybody loves the Oregon Trail. And unlike the computer game, what you learn is not many people died on the Oregon Trail. People who died most were the Native Americans who are along the trail, everybody else pretty much made where they were going, but that had to do with who those people were. The other one we did was Cuban Missile Crisis. Did the Cuban Missile Crisis and role played the various operatives in the Cuban Missile Crisis. And then next week we talked about Watergate and again looked at those same operatives and where they were now in the Watergate plumbers. So that was also useful …those kind of things. There’s lots of different ways to use that though. I’ve seen people use that with theorists. So in psychology, different theorists are represented by the students and they argue their different theories and try to figure out how these things go together. Role playing is obviously one I love.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how you set the role play up? You mentioned what some of the topics are and when you use it, but can you talk a little bit about the logistics of setting that up and how you have students prepare for that?

Dakin: And those vary a lot. When we’re doing the Articles of Confederation, I just have a list of representatives and I asked them to choose one and then we go from there. So my prep on that is zero, they are the ones responsible for that prep. On some of the others, there’s a lot of prep. With Oregon Trail I worked out, I took a K-12 game that had been done for Oregon Trail, and then I made it much more complex and they had to purchase their gear so I had a full list of gear, I had a list of where they were going to stop, how they were going to stop, and what the mortality rates were. So I basically created this whole game around it and then they played through that. With the Watergate and Cuban Missile Crisis, it was kind of halfway between there. I made cards with each of the people they would role play and on the back—like a Clue card—it tells you who this person is and what their role is and then I gave those to them. And then from there, they again generated most of the data.

John: You mentioned you have these organized by levels of risk. How would you recommend using the different levels? Would it make sense to start with low-risk activities, and then as more trust is built, build the higher ones, or would that be affected by the level of the class that you’re teaching, whether it’s introductory or more advanced?

Dakin: Yeah, it definitely depends upon the purpose of the class. I tend to teach introductory classes so I build a lot of trust, I use a lot of low-risk pieces, and I’ll move to maybe medium risk by the middle of the semester—or maybe I won’t ever use medium risk, it’ll all be low risk—because I’m trying to get them to get used to college and figure out what that’s involved in. If I am teaching a class that’s kind of a gateway or portal class that’s going to lead on and it’s supposed to cull out people, it’s supposed to find out who the best people are, then maybe it makes sense to start doing some of those high-risk pieces, but I probably wouldn’t do that until at least the third year. Build a lot of confidence, a lot of trust, and there’s a lot of learning that has to take place before that, before you get to that point. Traditionally of course, if you look at law school or medical school, they have a lot a lot of high-risk protocols, because there’s a lot at stake and people have to do well. And I remember when I started working with the med school that I read academic medicine, and one of the articles was, “We should abuse our students less.” [LAUGHTER] Not, “We shouldn’t abuse our students,” but, “We should abuse them less.” So, that kind of gave you a sense of what we were dealing with.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of the small-group techniques that you use in online environments?

Dakin: Sure. Online environments—actually, the small groups—I usually leave that up to the groups themselves. So if there are groups of students that I’m having work on particular topics, I’ll have those students organize, say, a synchronous conference where they get together on Zoom, and they talk about these things. So they get to pick whatever tool they want—I’ll recommend Zoom because it’s free and you can have up to 40 minutes free, and you can record it. It’s very simple—but they will do that work by themselves. If we’re dealing with, say, a discussion forum, what I’ll generally deal with is ways that students can interact kind of more of at a large-group level, because there’s really no need for a small group when you’re on the discussion forum. But what I do want to do is get rid of the old “post one, reply two” because after you’ve taken two or three online courses, you’re pretty bored with that protocol. And so giving them different ways to think about it and moving the jigsaw into it, moving a debate into it, moving role playing into it, those are all really useful.

Rebecca: Can you pick one of those more complex ways of using a discussion board and talk through how you set that up or organize that?

Dakin: Sure. I think the main thing I do is really—it’s not so much about the organization of the board when I’m doing it—but building student activity. I do a big sales job in terms of talking about what is the value you get from an online course. Now, if it’s just teacher to student, I think that’s a really limited amount of value because there’s a lot of good books out, you can read, you can train, you can look at YouTube, there’s all sorts of great ways to learn. But a real value from an online course for me is who is in that class with you and finding out what their strengths are and what they can bring to it, and that’s where a large part of the education comes. So I don’t use this “post one, reply two” but I do want them to make sure that they are responding weekly to their colleagues, but at a level they feel is appropriate. So don’t say something if you think it’s totally pointless. But if you have a comment and you feel it’s worthwhile, say it, because we need to hear it. That’s the largest part of this. In terms of the organization, the only pieces I’ve done in terms of organization have been very slight. So, with an assignment, you turn in your first post Wednesday, and you turn in your final post on the piece, on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. So the initial post is what your response is—out of a think-pair-share, this would be the think part—that you’re doing your initial writing. And then the second part of the week is simply the sharing part. So now you’re responding to those students. Now, if you’re in Canvas, you can do this with setting up the initial one as your due date, and the second piece as your until date, so you can do it within one assignment. Unfortunately with Blackboard, you can’t do that, you have to have two separate assignments. But that’s the only real difference.

John: What about larger classes? What techniques do you recommend there?

Dakin: In large classes, I often talk about Eric Mazur and his peer instruction, simply because I can send them to the videos he’s got on YouTube, and he’s got a lot of videos there. He’s got a lot of publications. So that’s great, I have a lot of resources I can send them to that they can start working on. But Eric’s technique is largely one that applies to an interactive lecture. It’s not really small-group work per se, it’s a way to maintain activity by the students and also makes sure that you’re getting feedback back on what they’re understanding. But since Eric uses multiple-choice questions, he’s really not getting beyond that understanding- or application-level question. So, the issue really with small-group work and large classes is really not about the size of the class, it’s about the furniture in the class. So, you can do small-group work with a very large group as long as you’ve got movable tables and chairs. So, I did this at the Teaching Professor Conference a few years ago. I had 110 people in the room and we did value line, and we did jigsaw, and we did all these different things, and it’s very easy to do as long as you’ve got the furniture that allows you to do it. The hard part about a “large” class is really it’s about the lecture hall and the furniture in it. So if you’ve got furniture that’s fixed, if you’ve got a table that’s fixed, if you’ve got chairs that are fixed, it’s hard to have more than two to three people working together at any one time because they can’t turn around—they can’t do anything else. Also, since you’re in a large lecture hall, there’s a lot of noise. So again, you don’t want to get more than three people because you won’t be able to hear the others. If in a lecture where students can turn around, then you can have a larger group of say four to six. So you have two to three in the front row, two or three in the back row, and they’re talking together in that small group. And I’ve seen small-group work in lecture halls with as many as 160 people, so I know it works. It does take some effort in terms of arranging it. Usually they don’t do random small groups every day—because that would be chaos—but they do long-term teamwork and the faculty member who did this was David Pace at Indiana University—he was very good at this, he’s the one who taught me how to do much of this—he does a pretest, he organizes the students, he puts them into these long-term teams, and then in those teams in the lecture hall, they have the seating arrangement where they’re sitting. And then when he wants to do small-group work, he’ll do his lecture, and he’ll do small-group work, then he’ll do a debrief, same sort of pattern.

Rebecca: What do you find your role is, as an instructor during small-group work? You want to put a lot of the onus on the students, but what’s your role during all of that and how does that scale up to a big class?

Dakin: My role is—as an instructor small-group work—is essentially challenging, adding to, and supporting. Making sure that they know they’re encouraged and they’re doing a great job and going around doing that sort of thing as I walk the room. A lot of the work I do is really the preparation. Making sure that those things are well thought out, that I have a lot of idea of which directions they can go, and to, after the class, make sure I’ve done my reflection: I’ve written down all the weird places they went so that I know that those are possibilities and I can be ready for those, or maybe I just work towards those. Maybe those were better ideas than the ones I came up with—which is actually one of the big advantages of small-group work because you are paying more attention to the students, the students have a bigger role in the class, and your life isn’t as boring. If I was doing the same lecture 20, 30 years later, I would be bored to tears. But as it is, since I’m using these, every semester is different because every group of students is different. So my life is constantly interesting. And it’s almost like doing improv, really, in a way. You have to be a little brave about it, you give them opportunities, but there’s a lot of trust, you trust the students are there to help you. And everything goes well, even with apathetic classes that when I’ve walked in, the class has just been dead, they don’t want to do anything. After a week or two of this, they start getting into it. And by the end of the semester, they’re the same as every other class, and it’s going very well. So it’s highly enjoyable. So I think that’s it, make the class fun, get them to trust and encourage them to do their best work.

John: And in large classes if you have TAs, you could have TAs going around and doing the same thing, just so that you get more of the room covered.

Dakin: That, or if you’ve got a tight space to deal with, you could also have a backchannel going, so people in the groups are reporting out and the TAs are looking at that backchannel through Twitter or something else and kind of getting those ideas and feeding those back to either the students or the instructor.

John: Earlier you mentioned that light grading be used. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?

Dakin: I think that’s the hardest thing for faculty to do is light grading. Faculty members really want to mark everything. If they see something wrong, they will mark it. And I must admit, myself, when I’m posting to Facebook and somebody writes something and spells it incorrectly, I have to respond. It’s annoying, but I have to do it, and it’s the same way with grading. People will try to grade everything and they will eat up their lives giving these huge responses back that the students really aren’t going to listen to. Nobody has time to make all those corrections. So the smartest guy I ever saw was Bob Ferrell, who was a professor of history. And Bob was highly published—he had 50 plus books—and he still had a line out the door of students that he talked to every day and that was highly admirable as far as I was concerned. And so I wanted to find out how he did this, and what he did is… I took a readings class with him and I handed in a paper a week, and we worked through that. And every paper, the first time he got it, he marked it up pretty heavily to show, “You need to work on your grammar and I’m watching you.” But after that, every week, it was three things. He’d mark… circle one, flip a couple pages, circle another, flip a couple pages, circle another, “There you go,” out the door, you’re done. And so for me it felt like, “Oh, I only have three things to change. This is great, I’m really close to getting that top grade.” And next week it would be another three. And next week it would be another three, and so on. So, he was doing light grading, he was giving me feedback—feedback that was useful to me—feedback that was moderately challenging. I didn’t feel at sea, I felt I could do it. Great. And so I would do it. And that’s the way I come to this. The way I implement it is, say if I’m in a freshman class, I will have the students writing say 1000 words response every week, which for a freshman class seems like a lot, but I want them to work and I want to hear their voice. I will tell them not to use any quotations, I want to hear their voice, I don’t want to hear somebody else’s. I want to hear them thinking, and if they don’t agree with the text, argue with it—that’s fine. If you don’t agree with me, argue. That’s what you should be doing. You’re trying to construct your ability to speak and write. So, when they do that, they then turn these pieces in, and I grade them but I grade them lightly, which means I’ve got now 40,000 word essays I’m supposed to be grading, that will take me about 40 minutes. I spend about a minute on each. I just kind of flip through it, I can tell if somebody’s done the reading or not, I can tell if there’s a major issue or not, and then I write down my responses but I don’t give them to the students. I just give the students grades. And when I get to the class, I’ll do a group grade. So at the beginning of the class, I will then do a couple things. One, I will celebrate some people, and I’ll talk about that in a minute, but I also make corrections. I’ll do grammatical corrections, will say “Here’s the five grammatical errors of the week,” and by about mid semester, I’m still showing some of those grammatical errors up on the board and the girl who’s done it says, “Oh my God, it’s me again!” So they get it and they’re trying to reduce them and that’s fine. The other thing is I talk about misconceptions. Say somebody has a misconception about a particular piece, I’ll say, “A couple people had a misconception about X.” Now it’s not a couple people, it’s Joe. It’s always Joe. Joe’s in the back room, Joe never does the reading, Joe’s having trouble. But Joe knows he’s not doing the reading and Joe knows he’s not getting a good grade, he doesn’t need to have his name called out in front of the class. So I say, “A couple people had this issue.” I talk about that and address it. And then the next part, the celebration. So, in order to make them feel better about what just happened, I then say “Now then, I wanted to talk about some of the great things that were done this week. So first of all, Jenny had this fantastic response, it was just so meaningful. I want to share it with you, because I think it’s really worthwhile listening to. And Bob said something that no one has ever said in this class before and so I think it’s important to address that.” And then maybe I talked about Jim, “Jim really did a very deep reading of the text, he brought up some serious issues that I did not bring up myself, and I think we need to explore those today. So that’s part of our discussion today, it will be based on what Jim has talked about.” So that’s the celebration, but every week, it’s a different three. It’s never the same three, it’s never always the A students. Over the course of semester, I find a way to celebrate each and every student in that class, including Joe. And Joe is hard. Joe’s really hard. So I’m always watching every week to see what Joe is talking about and if Joe says something good it’s like, “Yes, I can now celebrate Joe! Good. Check.” I’m celebrating. And that’s the way light grading works for me, it allows me to spend more time interacting with students, less time interacting with their work.

Rebecca: I’m sure we can all take advice on reducing grading, right? [LAUGHTER]

John: When we talk to faculty about using group discussions in class, one thing they often raise is a question of when students are teaching each other—in general with peer discussion or peer activities—there’s a concern that perhaps it may reinforce misinformation. How can you be sure that that doesn’t happen with small-group activities?

Dakin: Well, I don’t think you can be sure it doesn’t happen, but you can certainly set up a system to check for that and make sure it’s not happening or that if it’s happening, you’re correcting it. So the way to do that would be use some ungraded assessments, those classroom assessment techniques from Angelo and Cross. In the large group during the debriefing, some of those may come to light again, and you can then use lecture to correct those misconceptions once they become apparent. I agree that small-group work builds confidence, but it can really be like the blind leading the blind sometimes, especially if the students haven’t been doing the preparatory homework, and especially if the groups aren’t randomized.

John: And if you do that sort of pretesting, where you’re getting the initial feedback, you can tell what those misperceptions are, so that you can be prepared to address them during the class, which should help reduce that issue.

Dakin: Sometimes… yeah. I have to know which questions to ask, and often I don’t. So it’s that ungraded assessment where they toss back an answer that completely takes me by surprise. Oh, I am so surprised. Now I know what your misconception is. But I couldn’t have guessed at it.

Rebecca: I think that’s important to remember too, that [when] you’ve been teaching for a long time, the misperceptions that you might have come across five years ago are really different than the misperceptions that you might experience this year, because the experiences of our students change and the group of students change, and all of that influences prior knowledge and prior experience that influences how they might interpret material.

Dakin: That is so important. Over the 30 some odd years I’ve been teaching, my students have changed a lot, not only in their content knowledge and what they know and what they’ve experienced, but also how they think and how they behave. And again, that’s the strength of using small group work, because you get to see how they think and how they behave. And they’re not just sitting there in rows in front of you and you imagine that’s the same class you were teaching in 1987. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking, what’s next?

Dakin: I’m collecting all these protocols for my own use and also to help others, so it’d be great if people listening to this podcast could send me some new ideas, send me some more protocols, so I can share those out. The way to do that is to send them at teaching@cortland.edu. That’s our email address. In the meantime, we’ve got a new Institute for College Teaching down here, we finished up a faculty needs survey. We’ve got our advisory committee in place, and we’re just about to start setting up priorities for next year. So, there’s a lot happening, I just don’t know what it is yet.

John: Because you’ve just taken over that position fairly recently, right?

Dakin: Two months ago.

Rebecca: Oh, the surprises you might find, right? [LAUGHTER]

Dakin: I have been very pleasantly surprised so far. I have found a lot of really skilled and dedicated faculty, and I’ve just really been enjoying talking to them. I know I enjoy this because it’s a challenge, and I love a challenge. And they are so well-educated already. It makes me work very hard.

Rebecca: Which means you’ll never be bored, right?

Dakin: Exactly, and that that’s why it’s so important to me.

Rebecca: Well thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been really interesting, and I think will help faculty as they plan for their next teaching adventure.

John: Thank you and we will share some of the resources that you’ve provided in the show notes as well.

Dakin: Thank you. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. Thank you so much.

[MUSIC]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.

84. Barriers to Active Learning

Despite research demonstrating the efficacy of active learning approaches, observations of classroom instruction show limited use. In this episode, Lindsay Wheeler and Hannah Sturtevant join us to explore potential interventions to overcome the barriers to the adoption of effective teaching practices.

Lindsay is the Assistant Director of STEM education initiatives at the UVA Center for Teaching Excellence and an assistant professor. Lindsay’s background is in chemistry and she has a PhD in science education. Hannah’s a postdoctoral research associate at the center. Her PhD is in chemistry with an emphasis on chemical education.

Show Notes

  • Henderson, C., & Dancy, M. H. (2007). Barriers to the use of research-based instructional strategies: The influence of both individual and situational characteristics. Physical Review Special Topics-Physics Education Research, 3(2), 020102.
  • University of Virginia programs
  • Teach Better Podcast Episode 80
  • Smith, M. K., Jones, F. H., Gilbert, S. L., & Wieman, C. E. (2013). The Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS): A new instrument to characterize university STEM classroom practices. CBE Life Sciences Education, 12(4), 618–627.
  • POGIL- Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning
  • PODLive! Webinar
  • Meghan Bathgate — Postdoctoral associate at Yale University
  • Emily Walter — Assistant professor of Biology at California State University, Fresno

Transcript

Rebecca: Despite research demonstrating the efficacy of active learning approaches, observations of classroom instruction show limited use. In this episode, we explore potential interventions to overcome the barriers to the adoption of effective teaching practices.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Rebecca: Our guests today are Doctors Lindsay Wheeler and Hannah Sturtevant. Lindsay is the Assistant Director of STEM Education Initiatives at the UVA Center for Teaching Excellence and an assistant professor. Lindsay’s background is in chemistry and she has a PhD in science education. Hannah’s a postdoctoral research associate at the center. Her PhD is in chemistry with an emphasis in chemical education. Welcome, Lindsay and Hannah.

John: Welcome.

Hannah: Thank you.

Lindsay: Thank you.

John:   Our teas today are…

Hannah:  I have a lemon filled Earl Grey tea. [LAUGHTER]

Lindsay: I have my water.

Rebecca: I’m drinking English Afternoon.

John: And I have Blueberry Green tea. We’ve invited you here to discuss the study you’ve done on why STEM faculty are reluctant to try new teaching techniques. What prompted the study?

Lindsay: One of the big things that we try to focus on in our center is how we use local data to drive faculty development to help improve teaching and learning on our campus. As part of that back in 2016, 2017, we did a large-scale observation project where we observed over 200 STEM undergraduate courses. And we wanted to look for differences in the different instructional practices that our faculty were using based on whether they were engaging in our center or whether they were not. And this was sort of the beginning piece of driving everything that we’ve done since then, because we did see differences in their instructional practices between faculty who have and have not engaged in our center, but we didn’t see as much as we thought we would. And so we really wanted to further explore that and understand what things were hindering faculty from doing what they wanted, using evidence-based practices, particularly those that had gone through our Course Design Institute and had done other programs with us. And these are things that we heard anecdotally but we really wanted to better systematically measure this. That’s where Hannah comes in as a postdoctoral research associate and I’ll let her talk about what we did to further explore this idea of what the barriers were.

Hannah: So I came into the project when Lindsay was wanting to develop this barrier survey of some kind. And so I started by going through the literature and I found a lot of work that was of a qualitative nature that people had done in various fields, looking at barriers to implementing evidence-based practices and research-based practices. A lot of different terms are used so you have to know which ones to search depending on which field… in which journal… you’re in, so I got introduced to that, which was a bit of a challenge, but was able to kind of sort out all these different areas and find work that had been done both in DBER in specific fields and then more of the faculty development field. So I pulled on all of those different sources, but I did not find any survey instrument that was of a quantitative nature that delineated all of these different barriers that had been found in the qualitative papers. I found a couple surveys that had little sections of barriers and then I found a survey that looked at institutional climate, but I didn’t find any that delineated lots and lots of barriers that I’d seen in the qualitative work. So I drew on all that qualitative work to develop a survey instrument that we then piloted, so that’s kind of where all that came from.

Lindsay: And to add into that, there are benefits for doing interviews and qualitative work, but we wanted to really be able to find a way to quickly but systematically capture these barriers. Because as I mentioned, we are really interested in using that locally driven data and there’s only so many people in our center that can be able to do that work. That was part of the driving force behind developing the survey itself.

John: Just backing up a step, Hannah mentioned DBER. For our listeners, could you define that just so there is some clarity there?

Hannah: Yes, DBER is Discipline-Based Education Research. So I am a chemical educator, I’m a DBER researcher. Biology educators, astronomy educators, those are all DBER researchers.

John: What did you find in the survey?

Hannah: That survey instrument was not just barriers, but also some related ideas, so it included a section on teaching-research identity because that was something that came out of looking at the literature and seeing that this tension between teacher-researcher identity seemed to be something that might be a part of the barriers. So we added a section on that because we’d also not found any survey instruments that delineated those in a quantitative way. So moving on to the study. We piloted with 86 and that was a subset of the 150 instructors that were observed in the study that Lindsay mentioned earlier, that was kind of a rationale for the current research. So we were able to get 86 complete datasets out of that from the 150 that we sent it to. So first of all, we had 46 Likert scale questions— different statements about barriers that faculty participants could rate on a scale of one-to-five of, “This is not at all a barrier for me,” to “This is a barrier for me all the time.” And when we looked at the results of all of those Likert questions, the top five were number one—and that’s 65 percent said this was at least a moderate barrier for them so they rated that at three-out-of five at least—was lack of time. The second was tenure and promotion guidelines. The third was fixed seats or infrastructure constraints at 61 percent of faculty mentioning that. Number four was that students don’t come prepared at 59 percent. And then five was that too much prep time in particular was required to implement these evidence-based practices, that was at 50 percent of people mentioning. And we investigated those also qualitatively and the qualitative question that we asked—the open-ended question that we asked—was simply, “What barriers are most significant to you in your own teaching and why?” That question was a bit different. So we had all 46 of those Likert scale statements that faculty rated, but this one was getting at, “Okay, so now thinking about your work, what is the most significant barrier for you?” so it was a slightly different question than what we asked to the quantitative, and it produced some very interesting results. So what these 86 respondents said is, number one, aligned with the quantitative at lack of time, but that was only 57 percent that were saying that. Second was classroom space and lack of needed technology at 22 percent. Third was the lack of institutional support, so there’s a lot wrapped up into that question. And then number four was a variety of student-related issues and student resistance and not doing what they’re needing to do at 12 percent. And then finally, the lack of TA support and classes being too large coming in at nine and eight percent. So that gave us a greater understanding of what’s the number one issue for our particular faculty, as well as the overall landscape of all of these different Likert scale barriers. So that was interesting and drove what we were doing in our research. So one of the other results that came out of this work had to do with satisfaction and dissatisfaction with evidence-based practices. We asked the faculty who responded to the survey to go through a list of evidence-based practices and say which ones that they used. And looking at one of those practices—for instance—collaborative learning, we asked them if they were satisfied or dissatisfied with that practice—or both—and that was the practice that people were most dissatisfied with. And when we looked at that, and we compared it with their barriers results, we found descriptively that those faculty had higher barriers across all of the different barrier groupings on the survey. The ones that were dissatisfied with collaborative learning had higher barriers across all the different barrier groupings and we ended up grouping those into five. They had higher barriers across the board and we had been investigating, “What does that mean?” and as we’ve been expanding the study, wanting to get more data to really understand that and look into the policy responses on why they’re dissatisfied… things like that. But what came out of that was what Lindsay referred to, was the need to support faculty, not just before they implement an evidence-based practice, but when they’re implementing it. And we found this excellent study from Henderson and Dancy back in 2007. They did a qualitative study of physics faculty looking at supporting them and what they found is for those faculty that weren’t supported, once they came across these, what they called “situation barriers,” when they were implementing a practice, that made them stop using the practice. And so we think that our results really back up what Henderson and Dancy found and the need to support faculty once they start using a practice, helping them understand what barriers are going to be when they implement that practice and then supporting them throughout the time that they’re implementing. Because otherwise, if they’re not aware of the barriers that they’re going to face, then they may stop using that practice altogether. So that was one of the tentative results that came out of this pilot study was showing us… demonstrating the need to support those faculty.

Rebecca: I was also going to say that a lot of times faculty don’t give themselves a break. The first time you do something, you’re not perfect at it, just like our students, they’re not perfect at it the first time. You have to practice and do it over and over again to get good at it. So I think reminding faculty when they’re doing something new that will also happen for them, doesn’t hurt. [LAUGHTER]

Hannah: Exactly. There was a study that came out recently, it was over five years of implementation. And the first year went horribly, and they adjusted. It wasn’t until like the third implementation that things started to go much better, student resistance started to go down, and just recognizing the first time you implement, there will be a lot of barriers… there will be a lot of problems and that’s okay… to keep going, that this is a normal thing.

Lindsay: I think that’s part of, really, the importance of this. Other people are struggling too. Helping to normalize the fact that when you try something new in the classroom, and it doesn’t go well, it’s par for the course and that other faculty are going through that as well.

Rebecca: Those are some interesting results, but not entirely surprising. I think those are some similar things that we’ve heard and seen in other research. But interesting that it’s at your specific institution from your specific faculty, and that the qualitative and quantitative pieces somewhat align. So what have you been doing with that data?

Lindsay: We have a few different programs that we are working on refining, aligning, expanding to what we’ve found systematically in these surveys with our faculty. Some of these include our Ignite program. Our Ignite program is something that we’ve been running with new faculty for the last few years. This is a program meant to support faculty as they implement a newly redesigned course. So these new faculty go through a week-long Course Design Institute with us and then they spend the next semester whenever they implement their new course, either in Fall or Spring, they meet biweekly with one of our faculty developers, and anywhere from five to 10 other new faculty in a learning community and they build on some of the things that they’ve been learning about course design and implementation. So they’re really getting that support throughout the semester. And one of the things that came out of our barriers survey was that the other work that we’ve been doing—particularly around these observations—is that the implementation is really important and that we really need to support faculty through that. We have some studies that, particularly around Ignite and new faculty, that demonstrate how important this learning community is, not just for the implementation, but the success of students. And so now we are expanding our Ignite program to all faculty, not just new faculty at our institution. We’re doing that for the first time this Fall semester. So that’s one of the programs that we have refined based on some of the data that we’ve been finding.

John: I think one of the benefits of that is if one of the barriers is departmental culture, that prevents people from trying new techniques, bringing in more senior faculty might break that down.

Lindsay: Yes, and one of the places that we’re beginning to expand to as well are learning communities, particularly for mid-career faculty. Many of our Ignite faculty are now moving into being tenured and so they are now becoming leaders in their departments and how do we foster and continue to help support them around teaching and learning?

Rebecca: Does your Ignite program come with course releases or does it come with time?

Lindsay: That’s a good question. We do not have course release at our institution, but they do receive a $1500 professional development fund, which helps support them in being able to continue to develop, they may be able to go to conferences, they do get supported in that way. Another one of our programs that we are developing and as Hannah mentioned one of the barriers are around class size and TAs. And so we have developed over the last few years a program called Spark. Spark is intended to be a program to support teaching assistants in the STEM departments. And over the last three years, we have had over 250 TAs enroll in our one-credit teaching methods course where they actually learn about different pedagogical techniques, learning theory, and they’re able to apply that every week as they are TAs in lab courses, discussion sessions, and even in co-instructor type roles. And that has been a really important piece to help support transformation in the STEM departments because our TAs are really the primary point person in many of our first- year courses and so providing them the support has been really transformative. One of the third things that we are doing in the center is around curriculum redesign. So one of the things that we found in the study that I think you alluded to was the differences between departments and the importance of the departmental culture and departmental support in helping faculty be able to utilize and implement evidence-based practices. And so we are actually working with departments to think about not just individual courses, but what is the curriculum look like for an actual major? What do we want our students to be able to know, value, and do at the end of four years—or five years—within different departments? And so we’re really working to develop this. This is something that we’re doing this year and really working to refine our programming around curriculum development and redesign.

Rebecca: One of the themes of all three programs is curriculum development. What are some things specifically that you’ve implemented or changed consistently to help with some of the issues that you’ve identified?

Lindsay: As part of the redesign process, we don’t necessarily recommend a single type of redesign or curriculum. We really strive to use evidence-based practices, whether that’s at the course level or curriculum level, to allow faculty to think about what best aligns with what they want students to be getting out of the course, or the curriculum. For example, if one of their learning objectives has to do with being able to collaborate and communicate, we might recommend some sort of collaborative learning design as implemented in their course. If they’re more interested in students engaging with the community, that might look a little different in terms of the actual design of the course. So I don’t know if that answers your question, but we don’t necessarily recommend one particular approach.

Rebecca: If faculty are resistant to evidence-based practices, and you were already introducing faculty to evidence-based practices in these programs, is there a different way that you’re presenting this information now to faculty to get them to buy in more to these practices, especially considering time concerns and student resistance and that kind of thing?

Lindsay: Interestingly enough, there are a handful of faculty that I think are resistant to the idea of active learning. The way that we’ve set up at least our Course Design Institute is in such a way that we attend to motivation first, and so we really get very little resistance to the idea of active learning or evidence-based practices. They want to do it. Some of them do do it. They either feel like they can’t do it as much as they want to or they do it and they’re not satisfied with their practice. We really don’t run up into the barrier of, “I don’t believe in active learning,” with the exception of a handful of faculty.

John: And there’s probably not much you can do with those. But I would think working with entire departments might help reduce some of the resistance because when you have that sort of collaboration with the department, it becomes part of the department culture, I would think. How has that been working?

Lindsay: We have had a cohort of faculty within a department go through our Course Design Institute and then another program that paralleled Ignite that was specifically for STEM faculty. And this department really has transformed, so this is about five years ago that they went through as a cohort. The department itself, the culture there is focused on teaching and learning, they continue to engage with our center, we have a recently started SoTL Scholars Program, so Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. We had five of the faculty from that department actually go through this together this past year. They’ve started their own reading group. We’ve been looking at data from the department and we see that student failure rates are going down in their department, particularly for underrepresented students. So working with the departments I think are really, really important and we’re seeing the fruits of that.

John: Earlier Hannah mentioned something about looking at issues of identity in terms of teachers and scholars and so forth. And I would think that perhaps the work you’re doing with SoTL might help unify that. Could you tell us a little bit more about the results you found and how you’ve been addressing those?

Hannah: What we expected to find was that there would be a correlation between teaching and research identities and that if you were high in teaching, you might be lower in research. If you were high in research, you might be lower in teaching. And what we found was that there was no correlation, that you could have both. You could be both an excellent teacher and researcher, you can be really strong in both of those identities, or you could not be. It was all over the place. And part of that is the sample size, and we have since expanded and haven’t analyzed that data yet, but we’re looking into that more.

Lindsay: And to add on to that, so the way that we looked at identity was the idea of how connected you feel with that particular profession. So if you feel connected to the teaching community versus feeling connected to the research community. And we also had a third aspect to that, which was the work identity… so how connected do they feel to the university? What we found was that faculty who had a strong work identity—meaning that they felt connected to the institution—they felt that the department was less of a barrier for implementing evidence-based practices, and they didn’t perceive that they had barriers related to supports. So things like having TAs, classroom space, and things like that.

John: Going back a little bit, you mentioned that one of the barriers that some faculty mentioned was the size of their classes. How have you helped faculty get past that?

Lindsay: We’ve actually had conflicting results around that. So faculty perceived class size as being a barrier to implementing evidence-based practices. But when we look at the actual observations of those faculty teaching, we see that faculty who have engaged in our center use more evidence-based practices, even when controlling for class size. And so what we need to further investigate is how our center plays a role in reducing barriers for faculty. The sample size that we have with our survey results is much smaller, and we can’t really disaggregate. There is something interesting that has to do with class size, and we’re not exactly sure what it is. Whether it’s a perceived barrier or an actual barrier, we’re not quite sure. But I might guess it’s a perceived barrier because we do see more active learning even when classes are large. So faculty are able to do these things, but sometimes they may not think they can.

Rebecca: Or they might not know what practices work at a large scale, because there’s different ways to implement… and so the more we expose them…

Hannah: Exactly. Yeah, because they’re trying to use approaches that require a studio. You can’t do that with a 500-student lecture. So obviously, that particular evidence-based practice is not going to be useful in that case. You can bring in some of these perhaps smaller practices but that are still powerful to get students actively working and collaborating with one another. Think-pair-shares, things like that, that you can still do and then there’s all sorts of work—great work—that’s going on now talking about what you can do with large classes.

Lindsay: And those are the things that we talk about in our Course Design Institute. How do you design your course, knowing that you have particular limitations because of things like class size? Or maybe it’s a required entry-level course, or maybe it’s an upper-level course, or a graduate course. All of those things are really important in thinking about the design.

Rebecca: Or the chairs don’t move.

Lindsay: But we do talk with them about how to deal with that. So in the lecture hall that the seats are fixed and you want to do group work, we have recommended to faculty—if they have space—leave every third row empty, and that way you can actually access students and students can turn backwards to work with people behind that. So we definitely try to help them think about ways to go beyond what they think are perceived barriers.

Rebecca: How to hack your classroom 101.

Lindsay: How to hack your classroom, I like it.

John: And actually, let me put a plug in for one of the Teach Better podcast episodes, which came out in April on the importance of classroom design. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes. The research they were citing finds that active learning helps, but classroom design helps even controlling for the use of active learning. So some of that flexibility is useful. This has been implemented in STEM fields—I think many of those topics that you found would work in other disciplines. Has the teaching center more broadly started to roll out some of these techniques throughout the institution?

Lindsay: I’m going to answer this from a much more broad perspective, thinking about what we’re doing in terms of our programming and supporting faculty. And I think Hannah can talk about the more specific piece around what we’re doing to better gather data around faculty barriers beyond our STEM faculty. So one of the biggest things that I think I mentioned at the beginning that we really are striving to do is use our own local data in addition to the literature to really drive what we do. For us, this goes beyond just doing a needs assessment. This is really doing research around teaching and learning at our institution. One of the pieces of evidence that we found around our prior work is the ways that students engage with each other in class, and how the instructor sets up that group work in class is really important to student success. And so what we are now doing this past year, we are collecting data to better understand not just faculty perceptions of how they design group work, how they assign students to groups, what do they do to assess group work, but we’re also looking at the student perspective. We are actually following students that are working in groups over time, having them reflect on their practice, share audio files and share working documents, to better understand what’s going on in group work. All of that data now we’re using to develop a advanced collaborative institute for faculty that’s going to use not just the literature that’s already published around group work, but also locally derived data that’s both STEM and non-STEM faculty in classrooms. And it’s been interesting because we think about our disciplines being very distinct in terms of  “Oh well,  STEM classrooms are very special, and they need to do these particular things.” As we’ve interviewed faculty, the reasons why they use group work—regardless of their discipline—is very similar. They want students to develop professional skills. I think it’s really important to gather that data to understand this perspective so that when we develop these programs and supports for faculty, we can actually talk about what the faculty are saying and how we use that to improve. So that’s just one example of how we’re broadening this idea of data-driven faculty professional development.

Rebecca: How are you gathering that data about group work?

Lindsay: In our center, I am 50 percent research and assessment and so a lot of my work is around being able to assess our programs, but also be able to gather the data to drive programming. As we said in the beginning, my PhD is in science education. So this is my formal training, being able to do this type of work. So I actually have a group of three graduate students—as well as Hannah and another postdoc—that helps support the research and assessment and center. So for example, as part of that group work study, I had one graduate student who over the course of two weeks, interviewed 19 faculty and over 1000 minutes of interviews that had to be transcribed. I really have a committed group of graduate students and postdocs that help support this work, because they’re really interested in helping make the improvements as well. I don’t think if this was something that was very abstract and not related to helping improve instruction that we would have such buy-in from the people that are helping support this work. So we’re doing interviews with faculty, students are submitting reflections, audio files and documents. So those are the data sources we have right now. We also have syllabi and course documents that the faculty have developed that articulate how they are setting up these group work or group projects.

John: That’s a great resource, I think, for all teaching centers because most of us don’t do that, and it’s nice to see this sort of research. We often talk to faculty about the importance of doing SoTL research, how the classes are working, but teaching centers don’t always do quite as much assessment of how their programs work, and how things are working on their own campuses in this way. So it’s a nice example, I think.

Hannah: Right, and I can talk to the real specific research that we’re trying to do to expand from STEM into non-STEM fields to kind of get more of that research across the university going. So the survey that I developed that has the barriers, that has the identity, that has some qualitative background questions to try to understand where their beliefs come from, all of that. I have been working with STEM faculty and non-STEM faculty now, to expand into the humanities, the arts, the social sciences. And what we’ve been doing is working with humanities faculty at the Center and then I had a focus group this week with several scholars in those areas to talk about the language that we use in the survey. So what I quickly found when we were trying to expand the survey across the university, is that the language that you use is really important. Now STEM faculty, they are fine with the use of the term evidence-based practices. And discipline-based faculty and researchers, we want to see the evidence. We want to know if something works, we want to know that there was a rigorous study that backs up that particular practice, and once we see that, we’re ready to kind of go for it. But when you try to expand that wording into the humanities, that’s not so much a crucial thing for them, they’re wanting to see that things work. The type of research that they do is very different and when we use the term evidence-based practices, the way that they think about that is very different from STEM faculty. So we had to change the wording, we’re modifying the survey, how the questions are asked, the types of words that we use, the assumptions that we’re making. So that’s been my job the past few weeks and will continue because it’s been proven it can be quite challenging to make sure that we’re not alienating a lot of the people that are taking the survey to the point where they see certain words and are like, “This doesn’t apply to me, I don’t want to take the survey anymore.” So that’s been the challenge with this, expanding this from STEM, is the language can be a barrier to people taking the survey and then we don’t get the data that we need. I’ve been working to figure out, “How do we talk about this in a way that we can compare across all of these groups, but still get useful data and not alienate groups within those different departments.”

Rebecca: I think sharing a summary of that information would actually be useful for a lot of centers and researchers too because teaching and learning centers probably also suffer from their advertisements and stuff, perhaps alienating groups of people and not realizing it for the same reason, potentially.

Hannah: Definitely, definitely. And one of the humanities faculty members here at the center and I have been talking about that and may be coming out with a paper once we gather more data on this, on the language that we use. What is useful and what is not useful by discipline?

John: That’s something I wouldn’t have thought of, because we use a lot of evidence-based practices here all the time.

Hannah: Yeah, I didn’t think of it either, and so I was in for quite the shock when I started talking with humanities faculty.

Lindsay: And I think another thing to add in terms of how we’re broadening this work, one of the places that I’ve begun to explore is how do we set up infrastructure at our institution so that we can actually systematically gather data, connect data sources, and then help faculty use that individually to improve instruction. It doesn’t do anybody any good if we gather evidence or research—we do research on our own—and then we don’t do anything with it. And so, we’re developing as I mentioned, our SoTL Scholars program so we can help faculty learn how to do this research on their own. So we are developing a set of tools that we can use to, for example, go out and observe faculty teaching in their classrooms and then from that data, create some sort of visualization that can be used in a consultation. We have a consultation program—many institutions in our centers have consultation programs—but what we really want to begin to do is gather that data in a way that we can begin to represent it on some sort of timeline, where the faculty can see, “Okay, the first 15 minutes of class we did lecture, I asked a few questions here and there, students didn’t answer those questions,” or, “I answered them myself or I moved on too quickly,” and so really honing in on some of those small details that can really help them make tweaks and improvements to their own instruction. So we’re really working at that infrastructural-level now to think about how do we create these tools and set up databases so that we can gather data and share that with faculty.

Rebecca: A follow up question to the qualitative research that you did at the very beginning… What kind of observations you were making for that qualitative research and what you were focused on? What you were looking for specifically…

Lindsay: Good questions. So the original observation study that we did a few years ago, we ended up using COPUS, the Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM. If you’re not familiar with that, COPUS measures the presence or absence of various different types of student and instructor behaviors over two-minute time increments. I was able to train 35 undergrads on how to use COPUS reliably and we were able to gather… for each individual course we observed twice. And we were able to then calculate the percent of time the instructor spent lecturing, or spent doing quicker questions, group work, administrative tasks. And we were recently co-authors on a science publication where the COPUS data were then transformed into profiles and so we were able to then categorize these different classes as primarily lecture—which was greater than 80-percent lecture using COPUS—interactive lecture—which was lecture but it had some clicker questions or some other group work interspersed throughout— and then the third set of categories was around student-centered instruction, so it could be POGIL type classes—so Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning type classes—or primarily group work, working on worksheets, doing problem solving, or a variety of different group activities. And so of those, we had 239 classes that we observed. Of those, we were able to classify those classes into those three categories—lecture, interactive lecture, and student-centered—and then we took those classes and organized them based on the intervention that the faculty have gone through. So whether they’ve engaged in our Course Design Institute, whether they’ve done our Ignite program, and we actually had a fair amount of faculty that we observed that have never engaged in our center at all. And so that’s where we were beginning to see differences… that our Ignite faculty, we saw much more student-centered instruction than faculty who had never engaged our center. We also gathered grade data on those classes. Do you want to know about that?

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: Sure.

Lindsay: This is actually a paper that’s currently in review, but the grade data was the thing that was really interesting to me. What we ended up doing is we calculated a DFW rate. That’s D, F, and withdrawal. So basically, failure rate for students in those classes that we observed, those 239 classes. We also were able to calculate failure rates for underrepresented minority students. So those were black, African-American students, and Hispanic students combined together compared to white students in the class. And even when we gathered observations of 239 courses, when you started to look at the courses taught by faculty at the different types of interventions—so that was Ignite, Course Design Institute—and then when you broke it down even further by, “Let’s look at those courses taught by Ignite faculty that did active learning, or lecture, or interactive lecture,” the numbers got very small very quickly. But one of the most interesting pieces that we found descriptively was, when you looked at just courses that were categorized as having student-centered instruction—so active learning, group work, those types of things—the faculty that have gone through things like our Ignite program, and another program called Nucleus—which is similar for STEM faculty—the failure rates between white students and underrepresented students were nonexistent. When you looked at student-centered courses where the instructors had not gone through our Course Design Institute or gone through any of our communities, the failure rates for underrepresented minority students were four times that of white students. Now this is descriptive, this is not anything that’s inferential, but that was one of the driving forces for me that made me realize that we need to look more at group work and what was going on in group work because it’s suggested that when you implement group work or student-centered instruction in your courses and you’re not supported in doing so, you are doing a disservice to your students, and that seems to differentially impact underrepresented students more so than white students. And that was really disturbing to me that we saw those differences on average. This was not the max, this was a mean value. And so that was so important for us to further explore, and we would not have known not had we not done such a large-scale study, and had we not used our own data.

Rebecca: That’s really interesting.

Lindsay: Thank you.

John: You’re making a big difference there, clearly.

Lindsay: We are, and it’s so exciting.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think sometimes we don’t always realize those other kinds of impacts. Or that there could be a difference in the kind of impact that one makes. So I think that’s a really interesting initial discovery to explore, so I’m really interested to see what else you find out.

Lindsay: So we wouldn’t have been able to make those findings had we not been able to connect to institutional data, and so that’s another reason why this developing infrastructure is so, so important, that we’re not going to be able to find meaning if we’re not connecting all of the pieces.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that is really interesting is that you’ve been able to do such robust research at your own institution and have the support to do that. Even how you structured that and how you’ve gathered that would be of interest to many other centers, I think. Sometimes the details of how you arrange that and organize it and how one thing led to another can help other organizations do something similar.

Lindsay: Thank you. I will put a plug in. So in terms of helping other centers be able to do this type of systematic research assessment work, we had a PODLive! webinar on Friday, April 26. If you’re a POD member, you should be able to access this through their website to see what we talked about and what questions we ask ourselves as we go through the process of thinking through measuring impact.

Rebecca: Great. We will make sure we link to that in the show notes and let people know how to access that.

John: We always end with the question, what are you doing next? You’ve already described some things, but we’ll still ask anyway.

Lindsay: So if you can’t tell already, I’m really passionate about data… using data to help drive what we do to improve teaching and learning. And so the two sort of big things that are next for me are really trying to build the infrastructure so that we can liberate data and be able to use data meaningfully, respectfully, and purposefully to help improve instruction. And also being able to help empower our faculty to be able to do research on teaching and learning in their classrooms… so trying to expand our SoTL Scholars Program, and developing further supports in that area. So that’s what’s next for me.

Hannah: And for me, I am working on a couple projects related to the barriers work. So we talked earlier about the humanities expansion, so developing a survey instrument that can be given across departments. So I’m continuing to work on that, work on the language that we’re using, making it relevant to them. And then we’ve got a national study that we’re trying to work on. So we have implemented the pilot—which is what we talked about today, the results of that—and then we implemented a second one also at UVA, but much larger. And then we’re wanting to now expand this and do a national study because the real beauty of this instrument is that it’s not just for us at UVA, it is meant to be a tool for any university, any department to be able to use. And one of the findings that came out of our study was that the barriers are different by department. The barriers, the use of evidence-based practices differs by department… it’s not just the university being different from another university. It’s the department being different from another department at a different university. And so this tool allows any department, any university, to give this to their faculty and see contextually, what are the barriers for these faculty? Now you look across the board, time is usually the highest barrier, but what comes after that differs by department. If there’s particular issues with one department, one university with the teaching-research balance at a given university, all of that’s going to be different. And so the beauty of this instrument is let’s look at a variety of types of universities, types of departments, let’s try to understand what is useful, what are supports, what are barriers across different institutions, across different departments. Try to look for where are there trends and where are there not trends. Where is it just entirely dependent on a given context and where do we see maybe some trends in tenure-track faculty versus non-tenure-track faculty, general faculty, things like that. So we’re really hoping to dig into a much larger sample in the coming year and investigate this further, and I will say that there are a couple of other researchers who are also working on this. So this is an up-and-coming area of research that you’ve got Megan Bathgate at Yale, you’ve got Emily Walter at Cal State Fresno, they’re both doing studies along this idea of barriers and supports for faculty using evidence-based practices. So, I just wanted to put a plug in that we’re not the only researchers doing this. There’s a lot of great work that’s going on and I think this is an up-and-coming area to really help support moving higher education forward and transforming higher education, ultimately, by understanding how can we help our faculty implement more of these practices that we know are going to support our students better?

Rebecca: Great, sounds like a lot of exciting things coming down the road for us to take in soon.

Hannah: Definitely.

Lindsay: Yes.

John: Thank you for joining us. This was a really interesting discussion, and I think many of us will reflect on it in our teaching centers.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much.

Lindsay: Well, thank you, appreciate it.

[MUSIC]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.

83. ACUE

Faculty are often excited after attending professional development workshops and plan to implement new techniques, but often don’t follow through. In this episode Dr. Penny MacCormack joins us to talk about one program that provides scaffolding and structure to help faculty improve their teaching using evidence-based practices.

Penny is the Chief Academic Officer of the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE). Before joining ACUE, Penny had served as the Chief Academic Officer for the New Jersey State Department of Education and as an adjunct professor at Southern Connecticut State University, and Montclair State University. She began her career in education as a science teacher.

Show Notes

Transcript

Rebecca: Faculty are often excited after attending professional development workshops and plan to implement new techniques, but often don’t follow through. In this episode we talk about one program that provides scaffolding and structure to help faculty improve their teaching using evidence-based practices.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

John: Our guest today is Dr. Penny MacCormack, the Chief Academic Officer of the Association of College and University Educators, or ACUE. Before joining ACUE, Penny had served as the Chief Academic Officer for the New Jersey State Department of Education and as an adjunct professor at Southern Connecticut State University, and Montclair State University. She began her career in education as a science teacher. Welcome, Penny.

Penny: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Penny: Green tea.

John: I have Bing Cherry Black tea.

Rebecca: And I have Lady Grey.

John: We’ve invited you here to join us to discuss ACUE’s effective practice framework and the associated professional development program. How did this program come about?

Penny: So I think, like many ideas, initially with a conversation among leaders in higher education, some very respected leaders, talking about some of the challenges and changes happening in higher ed. An increasingly diverse student body, certainly more attention being paid to retention and graduation rates, and increasing contingent faculty, as well as the public starting to question the quality and the value of a degree in higher ed. And as we looked at the student success agenda, with many strategies that made good sense, really paying attention to maybe more nuanced financial supports, guided pathways with better advisement, data analytics, instructional supports, et cetera. We felt that there was a missing element and we felt like that element was more foundational than just one of the strategies that folks should be thinking of. For example, guided pathways or advisement make really good sense to us…that a student would have a clear path to a meaningful degree. But what we thought attention needed to be paid to was the quality of instruction in those courses along the pathway, and then across an entire institution, the quality of teaching. And we were very aware of the fact that faculty—including contingent faculty—are experts in their discipline, in their subject area, and they’re experts in the research processes. But most have little—sometimes no—training in evidence-based teaching practices in teaching. So we felt like that missing foundation needed to be addressed and set about to develop a comprehensive…we wanted something that would give folks a foundational base of the evidence-based teaching practices we know to be effective in the college classroom. So we wanted to be comprehensive, we wanted it to be research based, we wanted it to be high quality, and we wanted to be scalable. Recognizing that while it’s important for small groups of instructors to become better teachers, the reality is, all of our students, and all of our faculty deserve to be interacting with the evidence-based teaching practices we know actually improve engagement and deepen learning. So we set about to do that.

Rebecca: It’s a pretty big undertaking. It sounds like you probably had a lot of people involved in that process. Can you talk a little bit about how did the design of the program happen and who was involved?

Penny: So you’ll notice here one of the things I said was comprehensive, that we wanted faculty to gain a foundation in evidence-based practices. And so we needed to identify, what are the core set of knowledge and skills you need to be effective in the college classroom? And to be very honest, we had hoped perhaps that already existed somewhere. [LAUGHTER] But lo and behold, that was not the case. And so we reached out to scholars in teaching and learning across the country and worked with them, did a deep dive into the literature, and worked through an iterative process to identify that core set of knowledge and skills. And once we had that, we also worked with the American Council on Education, to endorse our courses and our framework. And they brought to bear their own set of experts across the country in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning to review the framework. And then eventually, ACE endorsed the framework and so we feel pretty confident at this point through the processes we used and ACE used to say that our framework and effective practice does outline the core set of knowledge and skills you need to be effective in the college classroom. So in that case, the folks who really informed that work are the experts in the scholarship of teaching and learning across the country, folks like Linda Nilson, Tom Angelo, Elizabeth Barkley, Saundra McGuire, really making sure again, to involve those folks that teaching centers across the country know really have done the majority of scholarship in that area.

Rebecca: Of course, once you came up with the framework and that comprehensive knowledge, you had to figure out how to deliver it. Can you talk a little bit about how that decision was made?

Penny: Absolutely. You point out something that is quite important. It’s one thing to develop a list, right? “Here’s the core set of knowledge and skills.” It’s yet another thing to do that those other three describers, right? Research based—that was kind of easy, because the list was research based—but high quality. And for me, when I’m talking with folks, high quality really means that faculty will love it. Because if faculty are not going to be engaged in this course and engaged enough to actually change the practices that they’re using in the classroom, then we’re not going to realize that student level impact that is our mission. So in order to design the course now—to your point, got to do that part—we did a couple of things. So one, we paid a lot of attention to the research on how people learn, how does the brain work, and specifically, how do adults learn. The course needed to be scalable. It needed to be offered online, so a lot of attention to online practices. But then we did something really important. And that was to talk to faculty focus groups across the country and do a couple of things. One, put some materials in front of them. Some questions, some video, some text, and ask them to critique, which they did happily, because faculty are quite good at critiquing. [LAUGHTER] The second thing we did was we asked them, “What would you need to consider changing the practices you use in the classroom?” And so they were crystal clear. One, they wanted to see those evidence-based practices in action, in authentic classrooms, by their peers…peers teaching…people that they could see would be instructors in the classroom. Two, they wanted to hear from those instructors why they were using those practices. Icing on the cake would be to hear from students as well, how those practices were working for them. Three, they wanted to hear from researchers. They wanted to hear from the folks who demonstrated that these practices are effective in the classroom. Makes sense, they’re higher ed folks, they want to hear from the folks that did the research. And four, they wanted opportunities to learn, discuss with their colleagues as they were learning, to learn with and from their colleagues. And so just as we paid attention to the research on how people learn, how adults learn, online practices, we paid really careful attention to what faculty asked for, and we delivered it. We made sure that those four things that I heard over and over and over again—from faculty across the country—we delivered on. We listened to them.

John: Maybe it would help if you sketch out the process of a typical module, because it incorporates all those things. And we’re new to ACUE, but our faculty so far have really been enjoying it and they really appreciate the design of the program. But it might help for our listeners who aren’t as familiar to know how a typical module is structured.

Penny: I’m happy to discuss the learning design because we spend a lot of time and a lot of attention to it. Each module includes 12 components. I can divide those 12 components into four groups of three. So the first three components are really designed to pique somebody’s interest and to activate prior knowledge. So we show an introduction video, where that includes clips from our classroom demonstration, kind of like how 60 Minutes gets you interested in the rest of the show, we’re showing little clips to get folks interested in the topic. We outline very clearly the learning objectives and the rationale for the module, so we connect the practices that they’re going to learn to the research that demonstrates it does impact students, and then we offer a group of questions to activate that prior knowledge because what we know about that is if you activate prior knowledge, you’re more ready for new knowledge. So that’s the first three components. The second three are designed to build that foundational knowledge. We decided to show before tell first. And so we have a classroom demonstration video, where you see faculty utilizing the evidence-based practices being recommended in that module. You hear from those faculty why they’re using those practices and you hear from students about how those practices are impacting their learning. Next component, you hear from the researchers about the research behind that component. We actually utilize speed drawing there, so that it’s not just a talking head, but there’s a little bit more interaction going on and then finally, we offer resources to faculty so that when they implement any one of the practices that they’ve just seen in that classroom demo, they have all the resources they would need to implement. The next three components are about deepening learning, and allowing for that collaboration to happen with their colleagues. And so the first component is some text. We wanted faculty to read a little bit deeper about the practices and the way we do that is to address some of the common misconceptions, common challenges that faculty might think of, and we address those with the research. And so a common challenge or a common misconception will include a couple of paragraphs from the research about why that’s a challenge and how to overcome it or why that misconception exists in the information that kind of helps you see it differently. We follow that by two sections of what we call observe and analyze. Up to this point in any module, faculty would be able to do all of those components on their own online when it’s most convenient for them. With the observe and analyze, oftentimes faculty will schedule a particular day that they’re all going to engage in watching these videos, and the videos are of what I call developing practice. So you’ll remember that faculty would have seen effective practice, they would have heard from the researchers, but now we show them developing practice—somebody doing some things well and some things that could be adjusted some—and that is the conversation that faculty have. So they watch this video, and then they engage in an online conversation—some of our partners will sometimes bring folks together face to face—but they engage in a rich conversation about what that person is doing well, and what they might adjust or tweak.

John: We should note that no actual students were harmed during these demonstration component videos.

Penny: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, during the demonstration videos where we were doing developing practice, students knew what we were doing, and it’s completely scripted. So I think what was interesting about students is they understood when a practice was really effective, because remember, it’s developing. So it’s not like a train wreck, it’s some things being done well, and some things that could be tweaked. And when you think about it, the faculty watching the video are in the same shoes as the person trying it for the first time. So they’re watching somebody try something for the first time making some mistakes but doing some things that are quite good. And they’re able, they have that opportunity, before they’re asked to implement one of those practices in their classroom so it’s a really rich learning opportunity that they get to do with their cohort to collaborate with their colleagues. The last set of components, faculty are asked to practice and reflect and then we do a closing video. So we indicate to faculty, “Here are the learning objectives for the module and here are the practices.” And there’s always between five to 10 practices offered in every single module. And we say to faculty, “Choose one,” and that’s important. In adult learning you don’t want to say, “This is the one thing you have to do and you have to do it now,” because faculty are teaching different classes, have different students that they’re working with, we want to give them a choice. So they choose one of those practices and they implement it in their classroom. And then what we require is they reflect on that experience in writing. And that written reflection is submitted to us to be scored. We do present to faculty a rubric for how we’re going to score that reflection. So those requirements are up front, we try to practice what we preach, as far as teaching and learning goes. Faculty submit the reflection, we have national readers that score it using the rubric, and if a faculty’s reflection isn’t quite up to our meets category, we get it back to them with specific feedback and they can resubmit. Now we finish every module with a closing summary—again, practicing what we preach, good teaching and learning—close with a summary of the learning objectives and some more commentary from the researchers.

John: A lot of our faculty have commented how they appreciate the fact that the course itself uses all the practices that are implemented—as you mentioned—and they really enjoy the skeletal outlines, they like the ability to go in and critique these demonstrations. And one of the things that we as working with our teaching center appreciate is that we’ve done workshops on many of these topics and some people have attended them two or three years in a row without actually implementing them. And what we really appreciate is the fact that now people have to get past that barrier of actually trying it in the classroom. And a lot of people who have been coming to our gatherings have said they did this for the course and now they’re doing it in every class. So it’s already making some big changes in people’s teaching practice. So it’s been working really well.

Rebecca: I think another real strength is the external reviewers is really important so that as teaching and learning center staff, we can support our colleagues and not feel like there’s some sort of punitive relationship where we’re judging.

Penny: Yeah, we are a learning organization and so actually when we first piloted a smaller number of the modules, we had the facilitators—our course facilitators, often folks from an institution’s teaching and learning center—scoring their reflections, and they were crystal clear with us that that didn’t feel right. And so we took that on, so that they could really be the coaches that we want them to be with the cohorts.

Rebecca: I think that works really well and I think that really encourages faculty to follow through and to do them and to actually take the actions in the classroom. So I think we really benefited from that particular feature.

Penny: Yeah. I know our mission has been to realize student outcomes— better retention, graduation rates, better learning— through quality instruction. And so in order to impact students, we knew faculty had to go beyond learning these evidence-based practices, but actually using them and so the requirement to complete a module became the implementing of one of the practices. And then what we know to be true in professional development is reflection is such a strong way to not only implement but actually to continue thinking about what went well, what didn’t go well, what might I refine, et cetera. That’s really putting you on the trajectory to becoming a better and better instructor.

Rebecca: I think one of the other interesting advantages of this particular online course is that a lot of our faculty may never have taken an online course but may be asked to teach online courses, so having the experience of a well designed online course is an important experience, especially as faculty move more and more into teaching online and having an idea of how to implement some of these practices, not just in face-to-face situations, but also in online or hybrid situations.

John: And we should also note that in each module, the options that people have could be either for a face-to-face class, or there’s a set of options for people who are teaching online, so it facilitates both types of instruction directly for people with different teaching schedules.

Penny: And we have actually even brought that to a more sophisticated level. So we will be offering our course in online essentials coming up in the next few months, where if we had a cohort of online instructors, they would be doing an observe and analyze about online instruction versus face-to-face so that they would really have that full experience of, “How do I do this core set of skills needed to be an effective instructor online?” So we’ve gone beyond just offering the online resources, to making sure we offer some real high quality learning experiences for them.

Rebecca: That’s great.

John: You mentioned the goal of improving instruction and improving all these outcomes. I know that there’s been some research that has been done at some campuses in terms of what sort of impact this has had. Could you tell us a little bit about what’s been found in terms of the effectiveness of this program in improving student outcomes?

Penny: Absolutely. We’re really, really proud of the work that we’ve done with regards to efficacy. And I think it’s important to recognize that when we partner with any institution, we partner to assist and support implementation. So when you partner with ACUE, we don’t say, “You can click on here and get to our courses, and good luck!” [LAUGHTER] When we partner, every institution has an academic director who will work with the campus lead—oftentimes the teaching and learning center folks as well—to design the course sequence and cadence and make sure that it makes sense for that particular group of faculty. And then in addition to assisting with implementation, we actually study efficacy. And we are very proud of multiple studies now demonstrating student impact. But I always like to indicate that the first set of data that we collected was around faculty, because as I was mentioning before, if faculty aren’t engaged with the course, faculty aren’t learning, and faculty aren’t changing their practices, then you have no hopes of seeing student impact. And we’re particularly proud of what we have with regards to faculty data across over 2,000 faculty members. Ninety-seven percent on average report that the course is relevant. On average, faculty report learning 55 new practices and learning more about 71. And then on average, faculty report implementing 28 new practices as they engage with the 25 modules and a plan to implement 28 more. So we’ve got that faculty data that says to us, “Hey, you know what, you’ll likely have student impact data,” because again, all of the practices in the course are evidence based, they’re already research based. And we’re, again, really proud to share some of the findings we have at Delta State, we have a study where we were able to show an increase in A’s, B’s and C’s, and a decrease in DFW’s. At Miami Dade College, we were able to show an all of these results are statistically significant. In fact, I invite anyone to go on our website, look at the impact page, if they’re particularly interested in the statistical analyses. At Miami Dade, we saw increased student engagement, comparing faculty to themselves before and after they engaged in the course as well as to a matched cohort. We saw an increase in grades. At Texas Women’s University we saw an elimination of course completion gap, a rracial course completion gap. And at Broward, we actually gave students surveys where they indicated that they had engaged regularly in evidence-based teaching practices. And we’ve got a number of studies currently going on so we have been able to show and realize the student level impact that you might expect as faculty start to regularly use evidence-based teaching practices. It’s really, pretty quite amazing.

John: How many schools have participated in this program?

Penny: So currently, we are partnering with over 100 colleges and universities across 37 states. And again, as we partner with any university, we work with them to design the course offering for that particular set of faculty at that particular institution.

John: We appreciated the fact that since we started in late January that the structure was able to accommodate teaching schedules of our faculty, so that people were doing things that were relevant at that portion of the year.

Penny: Yeah, I am particularly proud of the fact that this is not just some lockstep set of courses we ask you to follow, but rather thoughtfully sequenced, dependent on when faculty are starting to engage in the course, and we sequence in a way so that faculty pretty early on—as they implement in their classrooms—start to have some positive feedback from students because that itself is pretty motivating.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think one thing to point out is that we often think about when you teach someone how to teach, you start with the syllabus or you start at the beginning, and we started in the middle, because we were in the middle of the semester, and it made perfect sense for our faculty. I think that it was really effective and I think that the faculty really appreciated that they were able to do stuff right away and not plan things for a semester out.

Penny: Yeah, what we found essentially is as much as I love to think about learning outcomes, and aligning my assessments and aligning my activities, that’s not what everybody enjoys doing. And it’s best to put that towards the end of a sequence. So that faculty really can utilize practices that connect with their students, motivate their students, really embrace the diversity in their classroom, and have those kinds of interactions and then get to, “Okay, so how do I structure this? How do I write a learning outcome that really helps students learn more? How do I make sure my assessments are aligned,” et cetera. That’s work that’s best after they’ve had some of those other experiences.

John: And after the toolkits have been developed, so they have activities they can plug into those learning objectives.

Penny: I do think that when an institution feels like, “Gosh, we need to do something about courses,” they’ll often go to course design as their strategy and leave out the how the course is taught all together and just think the redesign is going to do it, but it really is the combination.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?

John: For either you or ACUE?

Penny: For both me and ACUE—I’m happy to say—as I described before, we’re a learning organization. So we are constantly listening to our partners, seeing what’s happening in higher ed where we think we might be able to have some positive impact. But one of the key areas—no surprise—is continuing education. So, we’re helping faculty have this strong foundation, but we know it takes a lifetime to become an effective instructor. And so we want to support faculty in continuing to build on that strong foundation. As well as looking at what are some other areas in higher education where we might be able to offer some courses and some learning that would assist with, again, realizing student success.

John: We’ve really enjoyed talking to you and we’re really enjoying the program here.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much for joining us today.

Penny: I’m so happy that folks are enjoying the program. When we hear from faculty and we hear the kinds of appreciation and even as they talk about how their students are more engaged or learning at deeper levels, there’s simply nothing better than that, and so we’re excited to be working with you folks and with folks across the country.

[MUSIC]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.

82. Geeky Pedagogy

When they were students, most faculty members were not the “average student.” They generally enjoyed learning and were willing to spend long hours independently studying topics that others may not care much about. In this episode, Dr. Jessamyn Neuhaus joins us to examine how geeks and nerds can successfully teach our more “normal” students.

Jessamyn is a professor in the history department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is the recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She’s also the author of Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers, which is scheduled for release in September 2019.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: When they were students, most faculty members were not the “average student.” They generally enjoyed learning and were willing to spend long hours independently studying topics that others may not care much about. In this episode, we examine how geeks and nerds can successfully teach our more “normal” students.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Jessamyn Neuhaus. Jessamyn is a professor in the history department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is the recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She’s also the author of Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers, which is scheduled for release in September 2019. Welcome, Jessamyn.

Jessamyn: Thank you. Nice to be here.

John: Welcome. Our teas today are…

Jessamyn: I am drinking Lemon Zinger in my book nerd mug. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That sounds perfect.

John: You’ll have to bring that to book signings too. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m drinking Rose Garden today.

John: I’m drinking Twinings Enchanted Forest Fruits Black tea, which I picked up in Epcot last year.

Rebecca: Yeah, my Rose Garden’s from there too.

John: I was there for the OLC conference and you were there actually for a vacation.

Rebecca: Yep. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: Enchanted garden sounds super nerdy. [LAUGHTER]

John: It is, and it tastes very good, too. We’ve invited you here to talk about your new book. What inspired you to write this?

Jessamyn: For as long as I could remember, I’ve loved to read and write and think. I’ve always been an introvert, I need a lot of solitude in order to function. I’ve always done well academically. My son, on the other hand, he’s an off-the-charts extrovert and a different student—let’s call it that, different—watching him grow up and go through the education system made me realize how differently he and I experienced school. And like I say in the acknowledgments section of my book, living with him and with his father—my significant other—is a master class in the difference between nerds and normals. [LAUGHTER] They are the normals, I’m the nerd. This was a big part of the inspiration for the book. Nobody was saying what I think is pretty self-evident: that people who earn advanced degrees—by and large—are pretty nerdy, which is as it should be—we’re the experts. Introverts are also disproportionately represented in academia, we take pretty easily to those long hours of isolated study that’s required to earn an advanced degree. Another inspiration was I really wanted to inspire teaching self-efficacy and helping faculty become effective teachers. And I use that word really, really deliberately—I understand why SoTL folks and professional developers use terms like best teachers, excellent teachers, even good teachers—but I think those terms really feed into some disempowering myths about teaching, myths like “good teachers are born, not made,” or myths like “only the most astounding super teachers affect student learning.” And those highly idealized impossible standards, I think, can really undermine teaching self-efficacy… feed into doubts and insecurities… So that was another inspiration. And similarly, throughout the book, I use us and we, when I’m talking about teaching, trying to create a sense of shared undertaking. Like we do in our classes when we talk about our class, our learning, our discussion, trying to help students become aware of their own responsibilities for their learning. And similarly, a lot of SoTL authors who I know want to invite readers to join the Teaching Commons, inadvertently undermining this goal by handing down these rigid dictates from above. “You should do this,” “Don’t forget to do that,” “You do this… that…” as if the person writing is not also in the teaching trenches trying to learn and relearn how to be an effective teacher. And I guess along with that, I also really wanted to bridge the major gulf between SoTL converts and faculty who are new to—or even resistant to— professional development. I see so much conversation about college teaching that is really divided along these two extreme positions. On one side: pro-student SoTL experts, they’re practically perfect, they never get frustrated by students… [LAUGHTER]… they’re 100% compassionate, and they’re totally on board with professional development. And on the other extreme, faculty who are totally burnt out, or completely cynical, and they’re always sniping at each other like, “You should be more compassionate to students.” “No, students are always terrible.” [LAUGHTER] And I want something in the middle saying “We can learn how to be effective teachers, we can be compassionate, we can be understanding, but also, sometimes students are irritating. It’s frustrating.” And I think finally, the most important inspiration for me was, I saw a need for a teaching book that strongly and repeatedly acknowledges the importance of our individual teaching context. And what works for one instructor just plain might not work for another. I mean, even what works for you in one class may not work in another class. And this isn’t like a brand new concept—it’s widely acknowledged—but I don’t think it’s acknowledged consistently enough. I think, especially for new instructors, I think you can read a lot of SoTL that seems to be suggesting, “If you just do this, you’ll be an effective teacher,” and that’s not nuanced enough.

Rebecca: I know that I was really excited to hear about your book, because it includes words like introvert and geeky in the title [LAUGHTER] and I identify that way. And I know that the first chapter in your book is on identity. Can you talk a little bit about why it’s important to think about identity and why that’s not often included in professional development?

Jessamyn: Sure. I’m so glad you asked that question, and the short answer to why I included it is because embodied identity is an important reality in human interactions. And I’m not sure why it’s not more fully acknowledged in professional development. It does seem like a lot of advice about teaching and scholarship on teaching and learning seems to imagine that we’re teaching in some sort of enchanted bubble that’s floating above the dreary workaday world, this wondrous place of true equality. There’s no racism or sexism and students and teachers are purely intellectual beings, and we gather—totally free of our biases—just to learn together every morning [LAUGHTER] the sky is full rainbows, and we skip down lollipop lane to another glorious day of tenure, but…

Rebecca: Right after we walk by the unicorns, right? [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: That’s right, yeah. When we enter the classroom, we don’t close the door, and presto change-o, there’s no race and ethnicity and gender expression, and speaking voice and physical abilities, sexual identity, they don’t exist. We bring all those assumptions, and stereotypes, and biases, and unconscious biases with us. But a lot of otherwise excellent scholarship on teaching and learning just does not fully acknowledge this. There’s a widespread assumption about what a professor looks like, and it’s a white guy, probably wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches, and he’s lecturing so brilliantly in front of these mesmerized students that they learn without effort. And to be clear, I’m not suggesting that white guys don’t have to work hard to be effective teachers—they do—and I’m also not suggesting anyone who’s not a white guy can’t teach effectively—of course that’s not true—but any teaching advice is not going to apply in exactly the same way in every classroom and embodied identity is one—it’s only one—but it is one important aspect of our individual and unique teaching context. So, just to give an example, it’s pretty clear from the scholarship that effective teachers build rapport and demonstrate immediacy with students. But what I have to do to achieve that as a white gender-normative woman is different than what my white gender-normative male colleague would have to do. And it’s different from what all faculty of color have to do, especially because their expertise is not assumed in the same way. It will be challenged in a different way than many white faculty members. To take an even more specific example, I’ve seen teaching advice that talks about how professors need to be friendly and approachable, and that that would include smiling to students. But, you know that saying you should smile more means something different to women than it does to men, and we will hear it differently. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t smile with students, but it means we have to utilize that scholarship in a different way. I think in every aspect of our world, white male privilege is often the default center of SoTL, and I would add maybe tenure too—this kind of default privileging—and I think we just have to start more regularly acknowledging that effective teaching and learning is shaped by embodied identity just like everything else we do as human beings. And one last point on this, it was very, very important to me that I not reinforce gendered and racialized stereotypes about geeks and nerds. Historically, those terms have been gendered male and raced as white. That’s changing, and you can see it in some contemporary popular representations. You can see it in people’s lived experiences. Those stereotypes aren’t gone—they still have an impact on people’s lives—and in fact, geek gatekeeping where white male geeks say, “You can’t play this, you can’t do that,” is still a factor, especially in fan cultures and gaming communities, it’s still a problem. But there’s so many of us nerds and geeks who fully embrace and celebrate Spock’s view of the universe, [LAUGHTER] as a place of infinite diversity in infinite combinations.

John: You also in that first chapter include a section called “Learning is Hard” and that’s probably a useful thing for faculty to remember because many of us have either found it to be easy along the way or it was so long ago that we were at that position that we’ve forgotten how difficult it is to learn new things. Could you address that just a little bit?

Jessamyn: That section draws on all the great science out there about the brain and learning. And you’re absolutely right. It’s especially important for us nerdy experts because we know our topic so well—our brains are so skilled and practiced at it— that’s the expert blind spot that gets in our way. It’s something that we do so automatically, it’s hard to remember what it’s like for a new learner. It’s hard to remember how long it takes to learn. It’s hard to remember how emotional learning can be, especially when—like I was saying with my son—we’ve had really different academic experiences than most people. Even our most brilliant students at our most elite institutions, most of them don’t take to academia the way we did. Most people want to be done with school. We said, “No, I like school so much, I’m going to stay in school forever.” So the science of learning is an important way for us to keep reminding ourselves that learning is hard and we have to do it over and over… and that does apply to us too. One of my main points in this book is that learning how to be an effective teacher never stops. We are always learning and relearning because students change, we change, curriculum changes, we’re always having to relearn. And yet faculty will often throw up their hands at the first obstacle they get to and say, “I’m not a good teacher.” I’ve lectured my students, I don’t know how many times on,“You got to have a growth mindset. Don’t tell yourself you’re bad at something.” But then when I was trying to teach myself how to do Twitter, after two weeks I was like, “Oh, I’m terrible at this. Everybody else is so good. I just can’t do it.” It’s really hard to learn, and it’s easy to forget in our subjects because we’re so skilled at them.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by geeky pedagogy in general?

Jessamyn: Sure. So this is the first college teaching guide addressed to geeks, introverts, and nerds, which is pretty amazing because, damn. Like, look around you, pal. [LAUGHTER] I mean, academia is jam packed with us but it’s more than a gimmick. So at the heart of my argument is that geeks, introverts, and nerds as a group—and I’m generalizing, this isn’t every single person—but as a group, we face certain obstacles to effective teaching and learning. Obstacles like effective communication, building rapport, productive professional and social interaction. We’re highly successful academically and most of us who have not taught much before somehow believe that that’s going to magically translate into helping other people be successful academically, but it doesn’t, it’s not necessarily. That being said though, geeks, introverts, and nerds as a group bring important and necessary skills to learning and relearning how to teach effectively. We’re passionate about our subjects and we can draw on that passion to create what I call a geek culture of sharing pedagogy. So that is creating classrooms and instruction that invites everyone into the study of whatever crazy, arcane, esoteric topic we love with all our dorky hearts. Instead of acting as a geek gatekeeper… keep people out, prove how smart we are… geek culture of sharing says, “Come in! This cool thing we are learning about… I can’t wait to share with you.”

John: You have a chapter in your book on preparing for class, could you tell us some of the things you focus on in there?

Jessamyn: Okay, so my first recommendation for preparation is you’re going to read Geeky Pedagogy from cover to cover. [LAUGHTER] You’re going to follow me on Twitter @geekypedagogy. You’re going to visit my website, geekypedagogy.com, going live July 1st. But seriously, the first thing I would emphasize—my top recommendation for preparation—the thing I most want to share with my tribe of nerdy eggheads—is to think about teaching effectively as an intellectual activity. We have to use our big fat brains for effective teaching. All those geeky study skills we have, we have to apply it to teaching preparation. So, we have to do some research on pedagogical content knowledge, how to teach your subject. We have to think carefully about our syllabi, and prepare them in a timely way—do not procrastinate. That’s my one nag, [LAUGHTER] don’t procrastinate—we have to think through our experts’ blind spots, we have to read up on the science of the brain, how people learn, and we have to take into account that over and over again in our individual and unique teaching context, we’re going to be learning and relearning about effective teaching. Now in the book, it’s a narrative guide. So I don’t offer extensive checklists or step-by-step… do this do that, and then, “Tada! You’re an effective teacher.” Those can be helpful at times, I think maybe especially if it’s your very first class if you’re really, really nervous, but I want faculty drawing on—a lot of this may be specific advice I have in the book—but I want faculty to feel empowered to research their own specific teaching context to become what Stephen Brookfield called experts on our own teaching. Keep figuring out what worked, what didn’t work, reflect on it, repeat.

John: One of the things you mentioned is preparing for confrontation and conflict. What advice do you give faculty? or what types of confrontation and conflict do you address?

Jessamyn: We were just talking about the emotional aspects of teaching and learning. Teaching and learning include a lot of extreme emotions. I’m not the first. Stephen Brookfield, Maryellen Weimer both mentioned that teaching is a roller coaster, there’s a lot of ups and downs. Same is true for learning, there’s a lot of ups and downs. For different kinds of assessment and creating there can be conflict. Student incivility, which is a very polite term for things that sometimes are pretty egregious, it can happen. And this is all—it’s a tiny part of teaching—but it happens and it sucks up a disproportionate amount of our time and energy. Another example might be plagiarism. One issue I talked about is academic entitlement, a new and growing issue. The most important thing—and this is across all teaching contexts, even taking into account what Roxanna Harlow called disparate teaching reality—so even taking those into account, preparation is the one thing that can help mitigate any kind of conflict. Clearly conveying and communicating—not easy for introverts and nerds—but clearly conveying your expectations, being as transparent as possible, that’s the number one thing, preparing for those. And then the other thing I guess in that section, the most important point is that understanding as introverts… and not every introvert and nerd is socially awkward…. I am. I’m definitely socially awkward, smarty pants, that’s my persona. [LAUGHTER] Understanding that, for me, high-levels of emotion are hard to handle. And it’s definitely not easy for anybody in any workplace to deal with conflict and anger and strong emotion. But I think it can be especially daunting for introverts, for people who aren’t extra socially skilled. It’s hard to be right there in the face of extreme student emotion. Preparing for it with some scripts in your mind, not like endlessly rehearsing, “I’m going to say this to so-and-so,” but just having a kind of standard for plagiarism, this is kind of my standard script. For someone upset about their grade, this is some steps I do. Being as mindful and as present as possible in that moment tends to help as well, which is actually a strength for introverts is listening. So the research seems to be suggesting that the best way to defuse any kind of student conflict is for students to feel like they’ve been listened to, and that seems to matter more than what you actually do to resolve the situation. So there was one study that showed, for example, students might view the offer to do makeup work for something as either a positive or a negative resolution, fully depending on if they felt like the professor had been listening to their concerns. That’s great news for introverts and nerds, because it means it has everything to do with our communication skills, which we can do.

Rebecca: You mentioned reflective practice a little bit ago, can you talk a little bit about some techniques or ways that we can build that into our practice and then actually use the time that we reflect effectively?

Jessamyn: Right. Well, I’m glad you mentioned, those are two very different things, and neither one of them is easy but the second one is definitely harder. So applying the knowledge you’ve gained from reflection to your actual classroom practice is a lot harder. The number one thing to do and not do is don’t limit your pedagogical reflection to student evaluations. Too often, that’s the only feedback, and the only reflection faculty do about their teaching, and it’s insufficient. It can tell us some important things, but it’s not adequate on its own. I have some specific suggestions in the book. Things as simple as keeping ongoing notes throughout the term on your syllabus about things that are working or not working well. But I would say generally, I really want to encourage people to find reflective practices that engage you as part of your actual work of teaching and make sense for you. I was really aware that for some of us, mindfulness practices, yoga, we’re onboard. And then for some of us, even anything slightly new agey is not going to work at all. So my main recommendation is find reflective practices that help you reflect on what’s working, what’s not working, and then apply to your practice. An important part of that is thinking about reflection as something we do as individuals, but also part of a community of practice. We have to talk to other people about teaching. And sorry, introverts, you can’t do it just on your own. Academia doesn’t encourage it at all, you’re often going against the grain to try to talk about teaching, especially if you want to talk about our teaching mistakes—which are the most important way we learn just like our students—it’s the most important way we learn. But there’s so few opportunities, we have to really go out of our way to make those opportunities happen. And the one last plug I put in is for adding a gratitude practice to pedagogical reflection. And here I’m drawing on Kerry Howells’ book. It’s called Gratitude and Education: A Radical View. I want to emphasize this is not just positive thinking, it doesn’t mean ignoring the toxic aspects of your workplace—not that academia has any toxic aspects whatsoever, right? [LAUGHTER] Or injustice, or inequality, or anything going wrong—that’s not what gratitude practice means. It does mean being fully aware of and paying attention to every aspect of your teaching context. And Howells argues that our teaching context in her gift paradigm of education… as opposed to the consumerization model. In the gift paradigm, our teaching context always includes gifts, things we get no strings attached from students, from colleagues, and staff. I know people listening might be thinking, “Gifts? Give me a break. Like, I get jack squat every day from my frustrating students.” But I would counter with—pardon me while I super nerd out the wise words of Thorin Oakenshield from the Hobbit—he said, “There is nothing like looking if you want to find something, you certainly usually find something if you look, but it’s not always quite this something you were after.” So gratitude practice by opening up our view of our teaching context, we will find a gift.

John: Early in the book, you start off with, “Learning is hard,” and at the end, you conclude with, “Teaching is hard.” Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Jessamyn: Sure. So the last chapter is the shortest one. It’s called “Practice.” It’s the best news and the worst news you’re ever going to hear about teaching, is that you can get better with practice. So that’s great news, because it means we’re always learning how to do it better. It’s bad news because nothing can replace it. Fellow bookworms, there’s nothing you can read that will replace it. And if you don’t have employment security—like most of us teaching college, the majority of us teaching college are doing so on a contingent basis—if you don’t have employment security, that’s hard news. And it’s a vicious irony, that teaching effectively is so key to our employment and yet, the thing that will help us the most—being able to do it over and over—is dependent on our employment status. That very last section in chapter five is just an acknowledgement that when you’re working hard to be an effective teacher, it’s tiring, it can be daunting. There’s some real highs and lows. And to guard against burnout—to be aware of what you can and can’t do, and to really—I circle back and say again—fight that super teacher myth. Get that damn Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, “Captain, my captain.” Get out of my head, get out of my students’ head. That’s not how teaching goes. Every once in a while you have a magical moment, but there’s a lot of grinding hard work. Most of us become effective teachers the same way our students learn how to do something, which is just slogging away at it day after ever loving day. That’s how you get better. That’s how you become effective. And it’s hard.

Rebecca: Earlier you talked about inviting students into our geeky spaces. Can you talk a little bit about how you invite students into your geeky spaces?

Jessamyn: Well, I’ll never forget the time—I described this in chapter five—I just stumbled on it. I made a joke in passing about my own geekiness about an article we were reading and I got this big student laugh. So student laughs, always good. But later, reflecting on it, I realized what made that so pedagogically effective. So first, there’s a lot of debate and discussion about what exactly a nerd is, what exactly a geek is, but the one thing we all agree on is they’re super smart. So when I said, “I’m a big nerd,” to my students, it was joking and yet it was also reinforcing my expertise and my knowledge. I know a lot about this, I am a big nerd. It also, I think one thing I talked about in the book is the importance of enthusiasm and that’s a difficult term for someone like me who’s pretty reserved—in many ways, an introvert—I’m not going to be a cheerleader. I’m not extra warm and fuzzy, I’m pretty intellectual. But I am passionate and I love the things I’m teaching, and when I position myself as the big geek in the room who can’t get enough of this topic, it helps me convey that enthusiasm to students. One of the studies that I cite in the book says a massive survey of students who said they perceived a teacher as authentic when the teacher was happy that class begins. That’s a tough one for introverts because part of me is always going to be back alone in my office doing my research or my scholarship, whatever gets me going as a scholar. But by embracing my nerdy love for my subject, I’m able to convey to students, “I am happy when class begins.”

Rebecca: Before we started recording, you were talking about zombies in your class. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: Yeah.

Rebecca: Could you talk a little bit about some of the things you’d like to nerd out on?

Jessamyn: Sure.

John: Or about that class in general.

Jessamyn: I would say—let’s see—I’m going to put it in the teaching context. So the thing that I most love about teaching my subjects is getting students to rethink something they thought they knew about popular culture. And everybody arrives in my classes, knowing a lot about popular culture in many ways. They know how to watch a movie, they know how to play a video game. And so getting them to rethink those things is what is most rewarding to me as a teacher, I sort of joke about it but sometimes when students will say, “Professor Neuhaus, you ruined such and such for me,” like some movie or some TV show like, “Now I can’t stop thinking about it.” That’s so rewarding for me as a professor. Being able to have students apply some pretty abstract cultural studies work to their real lives, that’s what makes me happiest as a professor. Every once in a while a student will say, “That documentary we saw, it was so interesting, I forced my roommate to watch it,” or, “We looked it up online, I wanted my dad to see it.” That’s like a microphone drop for a professor. I figure if they’re talking about it for no reason except they were interested outside of class, then I’ve definitely done my job. For me personally nerding out, a big chunk of it has been on the history of gender and prescriptive gender norms, prescriptive literature. So my first book was about cookbooks and gender, my second book was about advertising and housework. And I’ve written articles about sex-manuals, classroom films, instructional films, high-school instructional films, and I could talk about those things for hours and hours.

Rebecca: Will that be geeky pedagogy as well, right?

Jessamyn: Yes, that’s right. [LAUGHTER]

John: What strategies do you recommend for faculty trying to improve their teaching and where can they find assistance?

Jessamyn: You got to nerd out about teaching and learning. We already know how to nerd out about our topics, ask anyone teaching a college class “Tell me about this subject” and watch their little faces light up, hear their voice get animated, no matter how arcane or obscure. Donald Glover said “Strange, specific stuff; That’s what makes a nerd a nerd.” And that’s what makes academics, academics. And I’ll just use as an example, my good friend and colleague—he’s a historian of industrialization, Jeff Hornibrook, at SUNY Plattsburgh—he spent almost 20 years studying a single coal mine in China. A hole. A hole in the ground. But as he explains in his book, A Great Undertaking, this hole can tell you so many interesting things. That’s an academic nerd for you. We can apply that same focus and ability to studying, teaching, and learning. And just like we’re always learning about our topic, we’re always going to keep learning about teaching. So resources for that definitely SoTL—scholarship on teaching and learning—keeping in mind anything you read you have to apply in your specific, unique, individual context. I also think, probably the most immediately effective resource is your campus teaching and learning center. I’ve yet to speak to a single person who’s ever had anything negative to say about their experiences at a teaching and learning center. If you have access to one, if there’s one on your campus, it’s the very first step you should do for any kind of support and for resources. I’ve also learned a ton about teaching from teaching conferences, which I think are a totally different world than academic conferences. Academic conferences, you’re supposedly there to share knowledge but really it’s about proving you’re smarter than other smart people, in my humble opinion. Teaching conferences, I really do see people trying to share knowledge, and like in the book I say is like, “The mothership come home,” you’re surrounded by other nerdy people who want to learn about teaching. And I’m also going to put—going to say—academic Twitter. I’m going to say that. I only joined Twitter for recently. Thanks, marketing team West Virginia University Press, [LAUGHTER] they really said, “You should think about doing this,” and I did, hoping to get the word out about my book. But, just very surprisingly, I found that it has significantly expanded my pedagogical community of practice. Of course, it has significant limitations. 280 characters, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for citations as citations nerd like me. But it does provide a key component of reflection and improvement for teaching practice, which is talking to other people about teaching. And especially for me—as an introvert—I’ve always been terrible at networking. And I teach at a very small, very rural, and isolated university, and Twitter has really expanded my ability to hear what other people are doing in the classroom. And also, it really does, in many ways, work to de-center privilege in discussions about teaching and learning. It really is a platform for voices from across different employment status, teaching contacts, identity, and so on.

John: One of the barriers I think that a lot of people have with academic Twitter is when they first sign up for it, it doesn’t seem to offer much benefit until they start following enough group of people. So it takes time to develop that personal learning network there to make it more useful. And it’s worth taking the time to do that, but it doesn’t have that immediate feedback that many other types of social networks perhaps may.

Rebecca: But you can take your time to compose your interactions and not be caught on the spot. So in that way, it’s really wonderful. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: Yeah, it is. It’s kind of a boon for introverts.

Rebecca: What are some ways that your book differs from other books on teaching and learning?

Jessamyn: Well, it’s fun to read. [LAUGHTER] That already sets it apart. I would call it SoTL with a side of snark. So in other words, it’s real scholarship. I mean, it’s so packed with citations, I had to cut out a bunch and I’m going to have to make that available as supplemental bibliographies online. So it’s real research, there’s all kinds of scholarly resources in there. But I’m allergic to jargon, and pomposity, and I really like to make people laugh so the book is highly readable. It’s multidisciplinary. I’m a multidisciplinary scholar so it was easy for me to move beyond the rigid dictates of studying history—that’s my discipline—and it takes into mind the real variety of faculty who are looking to become effective teachers with all kinds of different individual teaching contexts, employment status, embodied identity. It’s highly readable in a narrative style and it’s written by someone who who doesn’t take herself unduly seriously, and someone who can acknowledge the roller coaster of teaching and learning.

Rebecca: I’m really looking forward to checking out when it comes out in September, right?

Jessamyn: Yes, September 1st.

John: And we will include links to everything we’ve referred to here in the show notes.

Jessamyn: Great, thank you.

John: We always end our podcast with the question. What are you doing next?

Jessamyn: I guess you mean after I’m done with my worldwide speaking tour…

John: Right.

Rebecca: Clearly.

Jessamyn: ….when Geeky Pedagogy becomes an international bestseller. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: So it’ll be years from now.

Jessamyn: Yeah, years from now. After I convince all intellectuals everywhere to nerd out about teaching and learning. What I’d like to next focus on is de-centering privilege in SoTL. I’m not sure what form this will take yet. I’m considering maybe like an edited collection. I’m thinking specifically of practical pedagogical strategies for underrepresented and marginalized faculty. There are a lot of excellent books and articles, anthologies, scholarship, and reflection about disparate teaching realities—that’s Roxanna Harlow’s term—but what’s needed now, I think, is building on that for some practical suggestions and guidance for increasing pedagogical content knowledge when you don’t look like a professor.

Rebecca: I look forward to seeing what form that takes, it sounds really interesting.

Jessamyn: I’ll be back to talk about it on Tea for Teaching.

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well, thank you very much.We’re both very much looking forward to your book and hearing more about it.

Jessamyn: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Rebecca: Yeah, we appreciate the time you spent with us today.

Jessamyn: Thank you.

[Music]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson. Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.

81. Intentional Tech

Some faculty try to use each new educational technology tool they find. Others are reluctant to try any new tools. In this episode, Dr. Derek Bruff joins us to examine how to productively choose educational technology that will support and enhance student learning.

Derek is the director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a principal senior lecturer at Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics. He’s the author of Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments. His new book Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching will be available from West Virginia University Press in November 2019. Derek is also a host of the Leading Lines podcast.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Some faculty try to use each new educational technology tool they find. Others are reluctant to try any new tools. In this episode, we examine how to productively choose educational technology that will support and enhance student learning.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Derek Bruff. Derek is the Director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a principal senior lecturer at Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics. He’s the author of Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments. His new book Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching will be available from West Virginia University Press in November 2019. Derek is also a host of the Leading Lines podcast. Welcome, Derek.

Derek: Hi, I’m happy to be here.

John: We’re happy to have you here. Our teas today are…

Rebecca: Do you have anything that you’re drinking Derek?

Derek: So I do, I have some coffee here. [LAUGHTER] I’m not a tea drinker. But there’s a bit of a story. I’m drinking a coffee called Kaldi’s Dog from a local coffee vendor called Bongo Java. And a couple years ago—I work here at the teaching center—we had been serving Folgers coffee in our coffee machine in the break room for several years. And some of us claimed that it was terrible and others of us claimed that people can’t actually tell the difference between coffee brands. And so we actually had a taste test at one of our staff meetings, a blind taste test. [LAUGHTER] From Folgers and several other kind s of fancy coffees and I have to say, I was justified actually. It was very clear that that some coffees were more alike than others. And this was actually the winner, Kaldi’s Dog… the winner of our taste test.

John: So there was no p-hacking or anything going on there? [LAUGHTER]

Derek: No. No.

Rebecca: The nice thing about our tea selection is that we just make hot water and then you can have any of the many varieties that we have in our office.

Derek: That’s true. That’s true.

Rebecca: So speaking of which, what do you have John?

John: Ginger Peach Black tea.

Rebecca: And I have Gold Monkey still.

John: Okay. Mine is nearly empty. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about your new book. Could you tell us a little bit about the new book and what prompted you to write that?

Derek: Sure. So my work at Vanderbilt involves working with a lot of faculty around their teaching—much like your work—helping them kind of think through the choices they have as teachers, what kind of objectives they have as teachers, and what are some teaching strategies, activities, tools that they could use to try to kind of reach those objectives with their students. It’s a really great job, I get to work with faculty all across the campus, lots of different disciplines. And, in recent years, it’s taken me to other universities as well—and colleges—to kind of talk to faculty there. And so my area of expertise and kind of specialty is around educational technology. And I kind of feel like a lot of faculty come at technology in their teaching from kind of three different areas. Some faculty are told by their administrators that they need to use more technology. And they’re not always sure why. [LAUGHTER] Like what’s it good for? Why do I need this? How can it be helpful? And then kind of at the other end of the spectrum, we have all these faculty who are easily distracted by shiny objects and they see a new technology, and they’re like, “Oh, Pokemon Go, how can I use this in my teaching,” right? [LAUGHTER] And they’re great, these folks are great to work with, they’re all great to work with. But there are also a lot of faculty kind of in the middle who just want to teach well, right? They want to connect with their students, they want their students to succeed, and they want some sensible tools to help them get there. For all three faculty, sometimes they struggle with figuring out how to match technology with learning goals and teaching principles. They know kind of what they want to accomplish, but they’re not sure how to select or use the technology that helps them get there. And so the example I often give in my talks is, I’ll say that my favorite teaching technology is actually wheels on chairs. [LAUGHTER] When I walk into a classroom, right, I have stuff I want to do with my students, I have learning experiences I’ve constructed for them, and I want the furniture in the room to be flexible enough to support what we need to do. Maybe it’s small group activities today, maybe we circle up and have a whole class discussion, maybe we use a debate. I want the technology in the room to support my teaching choices. And so it’s pedagogy first, but then we find tools that help us accomplish those pedagogies. As I’ve talked with faculty at Vanderbilt and elsewhere, I see a lot of patterns in how they use technology and what I’ve done is I’ve tried to distill these patterns down into seven teaching principles, because it’s a book and you have to have seven principles, right? That’s the rule.[LAUGHTER] So seven teaching principles that kind of give you a reason for using technology. And so the intent is to guide faculty to say, “Oh, here’s why I would use technology,” and then each chapter explores one of those principles and has lots of examples of actual teaching practice from faculty in a variety of disciplines. What does it look like in English to use technology to accomplish this goal? What does it look like in biology? What does it look like in communication studies? That kind of thing. I love telling stories and one of the reasons I’m excited to be a part of the Teaching in Higher Education series of West Virginia University Press, it’s edited by Jim Lang—who is a fantastic writer—and he takes this kind of storytelling first-person personal approach to his writing and I was really excited to be a part of this series, because that’s how I like to write too.

John: And you start your book with a chapter on a time for telling, speaking of narratives. Could you tell us a little bit about what the focus of that is?

Derek: This is a little counterintuitive, sometimes for faculty, but it’s really one of the most useful principles I found when working with faculty around designing especially—I mean, to some degree, it works at all scales—but it’s really helpful in kind of a lesson-plan scale, like one day in the classroom. And so I think sometimes there’s this impulse that faculty have to explain the thing, and then have the students do something with it, right? Here’s what it is, here’s the background, here’s the context, here’s the theory, and then let’s have the students do something with that. But the example I give actually comes from my daughter’s preschool. This was 10 years ago now, her preschool had science day and they asked the parents to come in and do sciencey things. And so I was the dad who brought the Mentos and Diet Coke. [LAUGHTER] So, you’ve seen this, right? You take a Diet Coke two-liter and you put some Mentos breath mints in there and then half a second later, you get this huge geyser of Diet Coke. It’s rather dramatic. Mine only got maybe seven-feet tall, but I’ve seen them much higher on YouTube. [LAUGHTER] And so I do this kind of fun thing in front of the five-year olds. And then they ask me “Why did it explode?” And so one could lecture—maybe not to five-year-olds—but you might lecture to a bunch of chemistry students for fifteen minutes on the physics and chemistry behind this and then do the demonstration. Or you could start with the demonstration and have students conjecture. Why is this working? Why does this explode, right? Bless her heart, my daughter asked, “Why is it Diet Coke?” I was like, “That’s a good question.” Why is it diet and not regular Coke? So this is the idea behind time for telling—this is a term from the literature Schwartz and Bransford wrote about this back in the 90s—that if we can create these times for telling with our students where they’re ready to learn and they’re interested in learning, then they’re going to get a lot more out of it, they’ll learn more deeply. We can use technology to do this. One of the stories that I share in the book is a grad student in English at Purdue University, Alisha Karabinus, and she’s teaching a first-year writing composition course and she has her students play this text-based online game. It’s all text, and you’re typing in commands and telling your character where to go. You kind of wake up in this apartment and you’re not sure what’s happening and you have to navigate and walk through the apartment. And there’s this kind of sequence where you need to take a shower and so you walk into the bathroom and you try to take a shower and the game’s like, “You still have your clothes on, you have to take the clothes off.” And then they’re like, “You probably don’t want to walk into the shower with your clothes in your arms.” And so you’d have to put the clothes down and you have to take her watch off, right? Like there’s all these kind of step-by-step things. I’m of a certain age where I played games like this back in the 80s…

John: The old adventure games, yes.

Derek: Right. And so there’s a kind of, you know, interface here that you have to master and you have to learn. It needs to be very explicit about what you’re doing. So she has her students play this game outside of class and then they come in and they debrief the experience. And it’s really lovely because they get so frustrated with the interface, then she makes this nice, clever little pivot where she says, “Well, when you’re writing, when you’re trying to express yourself, you’ve got all these ideas in your head. If you’re not explicit with your reader, they’re not going to know what you’re actually saying.” And so she uses that to talk about transitions and topic sentences and things like this. And so I think it’s a really lovely example of using a little bit of technology that was not at all designed for teaching to give students an experience that then prepares them to learn this lesson about how they communicate and how they write.

Rebecca: Do you have any advice on how to find some of those key little demonstrations or technology pieces that could lead into particular ideas?

Derek: Yeah, I’ve got some more examples in my book. I mean, part of it is that I think—especially for the time for telling—there’s this kind of experiential piece that’s pretty great…

Rebecca: Yeah.

Derek: A lot of faculty will show a video clip. This is one way to kind of do it. The Office is very commonly used to introduce various topics in different courses. I have several examples in the book of games, either video games or board games, and so I think there’s some real value in this experiential piece. And so, there’s no silver bullet. I think a lot of this involves being open to taking something outside your area and bringing it in. In this case, part of it was the interface. It wasn’t the content of the game that was interesting, it was the interface of the game that really helped. And so those are things to look for. Is it the content? Is it the interface? Those are helpful. I also talk about what tools are designed for teaching that can help create this time for telling. And so my first book was all about teaching with classroom response systems—which used to be called clickers—and now in most places students bring their own devices and answer on their phones. But the idea is that you can pose a question to all of your students and they all answer and then you can show the distribution of answers up on the big screen. And if you’ve asked a question that really taps into some type of misconception that students have, and they get the question wrong, the technology is important here, because you want everyone to answer so they all have that experience of grappling with the question. So you need a way to hold all the students accountable for answering in a way to collect all their answers. So you need some tech for that. And then by displaying the distribution of answers and the wrong answers on the board, you let everyone know, “Hey, this is a hard question, right?” It’s not like everyone got this right? You’re split across these two different answers. I share an example in my book of a colleague here at Vanderbilt in the law school, Ed Cheng, and he’d ask a series of questions of his students about Carl and his rhinoceros. So this was a situation that was perhaps prone to disaster when Carl keeps a pet rhinoceros and so he plays out these different scenarios of things going wrong. And then he basically asked these multiple choice questions about who can sue whom for what. And so the first two questions are actually really straightforward, right? The rhinoceros escapes and runs into a car or something, and Carl should have known that was going to happen. And there’s clear cut answers to the first couple of these clicker questions that my colleague asks. But then the third one, it’s a little bit different. And the students, when they respond to the scenario about Carl and his escaped rhinoceros, they’re actually split across three different answer choices. Ed has this great move in class where he’s like, “Well, you’re kind of all right. There are parts of law that are really clear cut and there’s a clear answer, and we just talked about a couple of questions that fell under that category, but we’ve moved into this area where there’s actually not a clear answer and a good lawyer could argue any of these.” It’s critical for his law students to know when they’ve moved into that part of law because that’s when they have to really do the hard work and marshal the resources and make the arguments and work with evidence. And so he’s using this short technology exercise to create this moment where they’re like, “Oh, right, I need to really pay attention here.” It’s that time for telling moment that I think is really lovely and having the bar graph on the screen that has the three-way tie is really important to creating that moment.

Rebecca: I think those are really good examples that I think will help faculty get started.

John: Actually, we did talk about one in an earlier podcast where we had Doug McKee on and he was talking about using this technique in his econometrics class, where you give students a problem that’s just a little bit above what they’ve been working on and it forces them to recognize the need to develop new tools, and then they’re primed to be receptive to a solution if they don’t quite make it all the way there themselves.

Derek: Absolutely. And again, this is a little bit counterintuitive. I think some faculty are hesitant to give their students a problem they know they can’t finish, or they can’t solve, or they haven’t been fully prepared for. But by having that experience, starting class with this hard problem that they can’t quite finish and getting stuck and recognizing the limits in their mental models or their need for additional resources, then they’re ready for the second half of class when the faculty member’s like, “Oh, here’s the resource, here’s the concept, here’s the tool.” And again, very non-intuitive and one of the things I think that’s important about my book is that my focus is on using technology to accomplish these things. But all of these teaching principles are true regardless. You don’t have to use technology to create a time for telling, but it is an interesting and useful way to think about certain types of technology and how you might bring them into your classroom.

Rebecca: I think that’s an important point to hit. The technology is supposed to follow the pedagogy like what you said earlier.

Derek: Yeah.

Rebecca: So remembering that you need to make good teaching choices first, and then finding ways to support.

Derek: Yeah, and sometimes tech is not the answer, right? Or low-tech is a better choice, right? So I have a chapter on knowledge organizations and so this is the idea that when we all organize the information in our head in various ways and so you can kind of imagine in your head like this concept map of ideas and examples and facts, and there are connections between all of them and novices in a domain, right? When our students walk into our class, their knowledge organizations are not as robust, they don’t have as many nodes, they don’t have as many connections, and connections are not as meaningful, and part of our work as instructors is to help them develop more robust knowledge organizations. Well, if we just leave them to their own devices, they’ll do okay, but we can actually help them learn and see the big picture in our course, if we can give them activities that help them develop, construct, represent, and visualize their own knowledge organizations. And so I teach a first-year writing seminar at Vanderbilt—and I talk a little bit about my own teaching in the book, because I think it’s important that I’m using these tools myself and trying to figure out how they work—my first-year writing seminar is on cryptography. Codes and ciphers. And we talk about privacy and surveillance and the role of encryption in today’s society. As part of this, I teach a novel, even though I’m in the math department. [LAUGHTER] It’s not something I was trained to do in grad school, to teach a novel, but I do work a teaching center so I’ve picked up some ideas. But there’s this book called Little Brother by the author Cory Doctorow and it kind of imagines a terrorist incident that happens in San Francisco and then the kind of surveillance and security apparatus that comes after that and the lead character is this teenage hacker who’s kind of fighting against this. And so what I have my students do is they read the book, I have them blog about it in the course blog—so that is a digital technology that they use—but when they come to class, I ask them to get into small groups, I give each group a couple of large Post-it Notes—so these are the kind of five-inch by seven-inch brightly colored Post-it Notes—and some markers. And I say, “Your job in the group is to find two arguments in the book in favor of surveillance and two arguments in the book in favor of privacy.” And so they have to kind of page through the book, they’re looking for arguments made by specific characters in favor of one of those two things. And so the privacy arguments go on Post-it Notes of one color and surveillance arguments go on Post-it Notes of another color. And so then, once they’ve done that piece, the second phase is they in turn go up to the chalkboard and they put their Post-it Notes on the board one at a time, and they have to do two things here. One is they have to put practical arguments towards one end of the board. Like, “If we monitored everyone’s subway movements, are we actually going to catch bad guys?” Like that’s a practical argument. And then have to put principled arguments at the other end of the board. So one of the characters says that, “Hey, it’s about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in that order. If you’re not alive, you can’t be happy, so we got to keep you safe.” That’s a principled argument. And so the students have to put their their Post-it Notes along this axis and then they also have to use the chalk to connect their argument to something already on the board. Because basically, there’s this really complex debate space around safety, and security, and privacy, and surveillance, and I want my students to know how complex that is and to start to see the relationships between some of those arguments and ideas. “This argument is a counter to that argument, or this argument is a support to that argument.” So by the end of class, they’ve constructed this debate map on the chalkboard out of Post-it Notes. And they have, I think, a much better sense of the complexity of this debate. They’ll do more with this. They’ll write about this topic throughout the semester. And so that debate map, that knowledge organization that they’ve constructed collaboratively, can then inform the arguments they make as they take positions within that debate later. And in this case—as I said—this is pretty low-tech, it’s Post-it Notes and chalkboards. I actually tried it once using some software, but having students build this map in a collaborative digital space at the same time was just too chaotic and so I needed to kind of slow the process down, and the Post-it Notes were really great for that. And so this is something I’ve used several times in my course and I think it’s a really great way to help students see how the ideas in an argument space are connected.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve liked about using Post-it Notes in some of the kinds of things that I do in my classrooms is that it is easy to change your mind too. You can easily pick it up and move it and it doesn’t seem as intimidating as trying to navigate software to make a decision or something. It somehow lowers a whole bunch of barriers and then it’s a little more flexible and fluid.

Derek: Yeah, absolutely.

John: And you’ve got them thinking about it among multiple dimensions and also making connections, which really, I would think would help them develop a lot of scaffolding there and a lot of connections that they wouldn’t necessarily do with their own reading. So it’s forcing them to develop better close reading skills and analytical skills, and so forth. It’s a wonderful exercise.

One of the principles of learning is that it helps for students to have lots of feedback opportunities and lots of practice, and I see you have a chapter on that. Could you tell us just a little bit about what you focus on there or some of the points that are made in that chapter?

Derek: Sure. So I actually start the chapter of the story about how I learned how to ski a couple of years ago, because learning to ski as an adult is a challenging process, as I found. [LAUGHTER] It involves much falling down. And every time you fall down when you’re learning how to ski, your body is getting a little bit of feedback about what works and what didn’t. And so in a very kind of physical motor skills way, to learn to ski, you have to practice skiing. You fail a lot, your body gets feedback, and then hopefully over time you get better at manipulating your limbs and controlling your muscles so you’re going kind of where you want to go. And so our students need this too, this is actually so key to learning is that we have to practice with the stuff that we’re learning, we have to do stuff with it and we have to get feedback on that practice. It’s a key part of learning. In the chapter, I use this as an opportunity to talk about the so-called flipped classroom because I think there’s a traditional model in some of our disciplines where students get an introduction to information during class. And then after class, they go and do something with it. They do the practice, they have a problem set, right? And the problem is that the practice and feedback part, it’s really important and also really hard. And so to have students do that when they’re left to their own devices, is a lost opportunity actually. And so the flipped classroom model says, “Let’s take some of that activity. Instead of doing it later on your own, let’s do it together collaboratively during class.” And so in the chapter I talk about some ways that some faculty have used technology creatively to help students practice the skills of their discipline during class. I mentioned the classroom response systems as certainly an option for this. I think sometimes when I talked to faculty around technology in the classroom, there’s sometimes an assumption that you’re talking about AV tech. We have a projector, we have some speakers… and that’s great, we need that, that’s helpful. But all my examples involves students using the technology because I think that’s really important. One of my favorites, actually is Kathryn Tomasek from Wheaton College. She’s a historian, and she wanted her students to practice doing the kind of close reading that historians do. When they get a primary-source document, a lot of that reading they do is looking at it line by line, word by word, figuring out who is that person? What is that term? What does it mean? Looking at the very building blocks of this primary-source document, because especially if you’re separated in time by one hundred or two hundred years, you got to do a lot of this close reading to kind of make sense of what it is. And so she had her students work with… she started with historical documents in her library’s special collections and asked her students to do what’s called a TEI. It’s a text-encoding initiative, it’s a way of marking up the text—kind of like HTML a little bit if you know web development—where you’re actually kind of tagging things in the text and labeling them as to what they are. So this is a date, this is a noun, this is a person, this is a location, or in her case, this is a theme that comes out in the sentence. And so her students, they would do this together in class. Like she’d take a piece of it and walk them through it collaboratively on the big screen and then have them take their own pieces and do this markup. And the neat part is the students were actually contributing to a larger digital history project because their markup would be kind of incorporated in this bigger database and shared online. And the work that they did with the primary source documents would then inform the writing and the argumentation that they do later in the semester. But in this case, she wanted to target a very particular skill that’s kind of close reading in history and she found a technology that digital historians use actually pretty regularly to create these opportunities for practice during class to help our students do this kind of work. I share another example of Richard Flagan from Caltech and he was doing chemical engineering. Very different course. But he used little mini projectors to kind of turn his lecture hall into an active learning classroom so his students could work in groups and do some coding—they were doing MATLAB coding in this case—and he found that when he introduced the coding in class and had them work on it after class, they would get hung up on these really small errors around grammar and syntax in the code. So he shifted that work into class to do group works in class and so then he’s able to kind of circulate among them, see what they’re doing on their little projector screens, and intervene and ask questions and help them. And so again, it’s kind of targeting these very particular skills that students need practice with that will inform often bigger projects later in the semester, but creating some time and space in class through technology to give them a chance to practice those skills and get feedback either from each other or from the instructor.

Rebecca: A lot of those examples I think are opportunities for faculty to also see where misconceptions are happening because it’s happening in class soyou can address them one-on-one, but you can also address those bigger themes that bubble up as well as a bigger group rather than having the same conversation 20 plus times.

Derek: Absolutely. Yeah,you may walk over and talk to one student or a small group or you may see a pattern across the students and then kind of take a moment to kind of gather everyone’s attention and try to kind of walk them through together as a whole class.

John: Doing some just in time teaching type of techniques, which is much more efficient use of class time.

Rebecca: That seems really tied to the knowledge organization that you were talking about as well because I think those same kinds of things happen when you’re doing those sorts of activities in class too, right? Like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that you thought this was connected to that,” right? And you can help negotiate that. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Yeah, and these teaching principles overlap, right? So when I had my students do that debate map activity in class, we were doing practice and feedback. We were taking class time, it was just that this kind of analysis level where they were making connections across topics as opposed to Kathryn’s example of the close reading. That wasn’t necessarily a big picture kind of practice and feedback, it was a very skill focused practice and feedback.

Rebecca: I also really like that these are examples that don’t necessarily make feedback more work for faculty. It’s embedded in the practice in the classroom and it’s just when they need it. And it makes more sense because they’re getting it while they’re doing something so they’re probably more apt to listen to said feedback rather than getting it on an assignment that you hand back and they put it in the garbage or something.

Derek: There’s this book by Walvoord and Anderson called Effective Grading that you may be familiar with and I remember the first time I read about what they called light grading. L-i-g-h-t grading. I thought, “Oh, this makes so much sense. I don’t have to grade everything the students do very rigorously, I could give them a grade on the effort or I could give them a zero, one, or two if the work that they’ve invested in that little piece then shows up later.” So if I have them write a blog post before class to get ready for class, I don’t have to grade that very intensely because we’re going to talk about that material in class and that’s where they get the feedback. I may need the grade it enough to motivate them to do it, but I don’t have to give them detailed feedback at that stage, it will happen during class discussion. And I think that’s kind of freeing for instructors to know I don’t have to grade the heck out of everything. I can kind of design a sequence where students get the feedback they need apart from the grade itself.

Rebecca: I think faculty always appreciate those opportunities. [LAUGHTER]

John: And in the podcast that’ll be coming out a week before this, we talked briefly about specifications grading, which is a variation on the same theme.

Derek: Oh sure.

John: One of your chapters is entitled “Thin Slices of Learning.” Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Derek: I am so glad you asked. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, so this may be my my favorite chapter in the book just because I think the creativity that faculty brought to their use of technology in some of the examples I share, it’s just really amazing. And I also get to quote, one of my mentors a couple of times. Randy Bass is, as I like to say, the Vice Provost of Awesomeness at Georgetown University. [LAUGHTER] That’s not his actual title, but he gets to do some really amazing things there. He’s also really active in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning world and I think he’s just a really deep thinker about how learning works and so there’s a couple of things that he talks about that I’ve heard him talk about before. He was doing some video projects with his students in an American Studies class a while back and he would look at their finished products—these short videos that they put together as a class assignment—and he realized that he wasn’t seen all of their learning. That—as he said it—there’s a lot of learning that’s left on the cutting room floor. And actually, in the book I talk about how my daughter wrote—she created a short film a couple years ago just because she wanted to—and she filmed, I think three hours of footage for a two-minute film. And so to decide what footage to use, what footage not to use, which angle, which take, even kind of which characters she wanted to include in the final product, there was a ton of decisions that went into those final two minutes. But if you just look at the two minutes, you may not know what those decisions are.Ttechnology, though, can be really good at making visible student learning, and in particular, thin slices of student learning. The kind of choices and sense making that they’re doing in the middle of learning, or creating, or designing, or producing something, and the more we can learn about how our students learn, the more we can kind of get those thin slices of learning in front of us. We can be responsive, we can be helpful, we can guide, and we can direct. And so the examples in this chapter about using technology to make visible (or sometimes audible) kinds of learning that students might not kind of share with us naturally. My all time favorite example of teaching with Twitter is from Margaret Rubega. She is a biology professor at the University of Connecticut. She’s also I think, Connecticut’s State Ornithologist, and she teaches a course on ornithology. So it’s a course on birds and so she has—wait for it—she has her students tweet about tweeters. [LAUGHTER] She’s so articulate about it, like students come to this class—and it’s a fairly large class, I don’t know, 40, 50 students—and they’ve seen really cool birds on National Geographic or YouTube and they think of birds as doing really amazing things in the Amazon and in Africa and far away. And she wants her students to know that birds in rural Connecticut also do really interesting things. Their ecology, their behavior, their biology is all very interesting. And so what she has them do as they’re learning about birds in the course is several times a semester they’re asked to tweet about their observations of birds as they go about their lives. So they’re on their way to work, they’re on the way to school, they see a bird, they see it do something or behave in a way that connects with what they’re learning in class. And she asked them to tweet about it. They have to kind of include their observation and where they are, and they have to connect to the course material, and they’ve got now 280 characters to do that on Twitter. Sometimes they get photos of birds that they see, which Twitter is really good at handling that. The thing I like about it is that it’s leveraging the field observation device that they carry around with them in their pockets—also known as their smartphone—or their regular phone, whatever it is. When they’re in the moment when they see that bird doing something, they’re able to kind of capture that and then share that back with her and with the entire class actually. One of my favorite tweets is a student who was walking by a golf course and he noticed the bird song sounded different in different parts of the golf course and in his tweet he conjectured that the golf course itself was dividing bird territory. [LAUGHTER] I was like, “That’s genius,” right? I don’t know if he’s right, but he’s really paying attention. And what Margaret’s doing is she’s helping her students practice transfer, taking what they learned in the classroom and apply it to real-world situations outside of the classroom and that’s one of the hardest things about learning, is how to transfer learning to new context. And she’s giving her students explicit practice in this, but then also making visible that practice by having this class hashtag on Twitter, #birdclass. And if you go search on Twitter for bird class you’ll see some of the tweets from her students because they’re sharing their observations with her, with each other. I just think it’s a really beautiful use of a very particular technology for a very particular reason. I love the bird class example.

Rebecca: That’s really fun.

John: Yeah, that’s a great example.

Rebecca: I couldn’t help but think that if my two-year-old could tweet, she’d be really into it right now. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Does she have a lot of observations about life that she tries to share?

Rebecca: A lot about birds lately. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: But you think about all the learning that students do when they’re not with us that may be really important. I have another example from Mark Sample at Davidson College, where he had his students live tweet the film they were watching in his sci-fi class. They watched it on their own time in their own rooms or whatever, but it was Blade Runner and they would live tweet their observations about the film. And it’s one thing if we have our students read something or watch something and then write a response paper and bring that to class and then we discuss it, right? That’s great. But he was getting kind of a next level down. They are kind of immediate in the moment reactions to what they were seeing in the film and kind of surfacing that and making that visible. And this is a great use of technology. There’s other ways to do this but technology can be really good at this kind of thin slices of learning piece and that’s one of the connections I want folks to make in the book is that, if you think about it, “Hey, Twitter seems really useful. What can we do with Twitter and our teaching?” Well, there’s a lot of things you can do. But one of those is to surface thin slices of student learning. And that provides some focus for thinking about how you might use Twitter in your class for a very particular purpose.

Rebecca: Sounds really fun.

John: It does, and you can see this in other areas of biology or botany. I think Michelle Miller was on a while back and she talked about a class where students went out in the field to identify plants and tweet back photos and so forth.

Derek: Yeah, and I shared this with a grad student here in civil engineering and she has her students tweet about structural things they see in the built environment that connect to the material that they’re learning. I’ve ran into teacher educators who have their students—while respecting some privacy—but they’ll tweet about what they see in the field when they’re in classrooms and they’re observing teachers in action. They’ll tweet those observations and so yeah, I think there’s a lot of different uses for this kind of application.

Rebecca: This also moves a little bit into the idea of learning communities, because this is a community practice using a hashtag where you’re kind of seeing things outside, but you also have a whole chapter on just learning communities.

Derek: Yeah, and I mentioned the bird class, because there’s a lot of things going on with the bird class piece. And part of it is that yes, by making the students tweets visible to the other students, you have this other dynamic going on which is that the students are starting to learn from and with each other. And students can learn a lot from their professors certainly—and we have a lot of expertise and authority that we that we use in the classroom—but if you think about the places where you learn naturally when you’re picking up a new hobby, or you’ve got some interest of yours that you want to pursue, you’re often connecting with other people who do that too. So like, I have a friend who just went to a quilting conference in Nashville because she loves to quilt and she’s going to connect with other quilters. And that’s how she learns how to quilt, it’s this kind of peer-to-peer learning that she does. And so we can leverage that in the classroom. It’s always a little authentic. Students in a statistics class aren’t going to just get super passionate about statistics and learn from each other necessarily, they’re going to bring their own levels of intrinsic motivation to this. But if you think about all of the different perspectives and experiences that you have in the room with your students, they have a lot to bring and they can actually learn a lot from each other and you can learn a lot from your students. But you’ve got to create some mechanisms for that, it’s not necessarily going to happen naturally. And so bird class is a great example because as the students, I mean, they’re all in Connecticut, right? But other than that, they’re going to different places, they’re seeing different parts of town, then they go to different locations for spring break, and see different birds, and so they’re all bringing their kind of different perspective on this. And by making that visible, they can start to learn from each other. In my chapter I talk about, I use a social bookmarking tool called Diigo, which allows basically students to share links with each other. And so we create a group for a class and I give them these assignments, in my cryptography class especially. So, find an example of cryptography in the news or find an example of military cryptography or let’s find out something about the National Security Agency. And so what’s really cool is—especially for a course like this—students bring a lot of different interests into this topic. And so I’ll have students who have kind of like a literature interest—I had a Sherlock Holmes buff in the class once and so she was always finding really interesting examples of cryptography in literature to share—I had students who were always interested in kind of cybersecurity and computer science and so they’re bringing in kind of modern news and technology. I had one student—bless her heart—she loved Russia, she found a way to find a Russian connection to everything that she did. And so it was really great, right, because she found all these examples of cryptography, especially kind of Cold War espionage stuff that we wouldn’t have seen if she didn’t have this passion for Russia and then found resources and shared them with the class. And so by having students share these resources, in a shared space and then talk talking about them in class, I can really leverage the fact that we’ve got a number of individuals in this room that have different experiences and perspectives and if we can make advantage of that, we can actually all learn more deeply.

Rebecca: I’ve used Slack in my web design classes to do troubleshooting and technical help but I use the same Slack channel across semesters. And so what I found is that people who have graduated who are out in the field will sometimes randomly pop in and answer questions, and it’s really cool, but I remind the students that I’m not the only one that can answer questions. They can help each other out. But sometimes—you never know—some other lurker might pop in and help out. And they have some sort of vested interest, you know, because they were also in that class at one time.

Derek: Absolutely, and that’s one of the advantages. One thing that can happen when you shift away from a course management system, course management systems are good for a lot of things but they’re not good for semester to semester continuity. They kind of put courses in little boxes by semester and the students can’t get out of those boxes. And so once you move to Slack or social bookmarking—like my Diigo group, we’ve been doing it for like seven years. We’ve got hundreds of resources collected by students over time. Course blogs are really good for that too—and so that’s really exciting when you can use some technology to make some student work public and persistent in a way that invites future or past students to participate. It’s still a learning community, it’s just expanding beyond the time and space of this one particular course offering

John: One of the issues with learning management systems is—as Robin DeRosa and other people have called it—is that the assignments often take on the nature of a disposable assignment, that they’ve done the work and then at the end of the semester, they even lose access to it unless they keep it outside. And there’s a lot of advantages to having a sort of persistent work that you’re describing there.

Rebecca: It seems like you’re moving right into another chapter of Derek’s book on “Authentic Audiences.”

Derek: I mean this is the other thing—and again, the book is not a critique of course management systems—but I will say course management systems also make it hard for student work to escape, to be seen by anyone not in the course, and often that’s appropriate. When students are first learning a topic or a discipline, they need a private space to practice, and screw up, and say dumb things, and get feedback, and get better. And that’s true for the assignments, right? Sometimes we have students turn in an assignment to us and we’re the only one who looks at it because they’re still learning the skill set and they need some good practice on that. But when we have students construct work or produce work for authentic audiences outside of the course, that can be hugely motivating for students. Hugely motivating. I’ll quote Randy Bass again, he’s got this white paper where he coins this term social pedagogies. These are pedagogies where we’re asking students to construct their knowledge by representing that knowledge for an authentic audience other than the instructor, and it could just be each other. That can be really powerful as well. But when students see that the work that they’re doing is not disposable, it’s not going to be gone. Students often do write a paper and there’s only one human being on the planet who ever looks at it, but if you can build toward some assignments where students are writing or constructing or producing for an external audience or an authentic audience, there’s a lot of motivational benefits to this for students and they start to take their work very seriously and invest in it in ways that they don’t sometimes in the disposable assignments. One of my favorite examples, Jonathan Rattner teaches cinema and media arts here at Vanderbilt and he had connected with a colleague of his from grad school who was teaching a writing course, Bridget Draxler, she was at another institution. Jonathan was teaching students how to create short experimental films and they needed an audience to share that work with. Bridget was teaching her students to critique media and she wanted her students to find media to critique where they could interact with the creator, and so they just set up a course blog for the two of them, these two courses. It wasn’t public to the world but Jonathan’s students were creating media for her students and her students were critiquing it and then they would have this conversation. And this idea of connecting your course, with just one other course—somewhere else on your campus or maybe at another institution where you have colleagues working—all of a sudden, you have this really authentic audience for the work. And in this case, this was really intentional too, this wasn’t just a random pairing “We want to share stuff with someone,” but there was this kind of synthesis that worked well across the two courses. But that’s a fairly easy way to create some authentic audiences for your students. I also talked about Tim Foster who used to teach Spanish here—he’s out at one of the University of Texas schools now—and he had his students write for Wikipedia. This is actually becoming increasingly common in higher education where you have students write for Wikipedia. There’s certain standards that you have to follow and it’s kind of hard to get content to stick on Wikipedia because of that. He was actually teaching an introduction to Portuguese course—so this was first semester Portuguese language learners—and what they realized was that the Portuguese language page for Nashville on Wikipedia was very skimpy. And what his students didn’t know at first is that Portuguese Wikipedia is not just a translation of English Wikipedia. Portuguese speakers create their own Wikipedia. And so the national page was kind of skimpy. So as a class project, he had his students create content for the Portuguese language Wikipedia page for the city where we are. And so it was great as a language production task for them because they could focus on writing two or three sentences, first semester language learners, but they knew that actual people are going to look at this so they took it very seriously. Some of them went above and beyond. I think this is just a really powerful pedagogy. And again, you don’t have to use technology but this is something technology is actually good at, is connecting people across time and space. Having students use some technology to create something for an authentic audience can be really powerful.

Rebecca: I think you have one last chapter that we didn’t quite get to yet and that’s…

John: “Multimodal Assignments.”

Rebecca: Which, you know, technology is also really good at that whole multimodal thing, right? [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Sure. I was so close to calling this chapter “Beyond the Five-Page Paper.” [LAUGHTER] Because again, the five-page paper has its place where students write a thing, and it’s just text, and they give it to the professor, and they get feedback. Again, there’s a lot of practice and feedback that happens in activities like that. But there’s a lot of research that says, not so much that learning styles exist. The research actually doesn’t support this idea that I need to match my teaching modality to my students learning preference. So the matching hypothesis would say that I have some visual learners and some verbal learners and some kinesthetic learners and so I should do visual stuff with the visual learners and verbal stuff with the verbal learners and kinesthetic stuff with the kinesthetic learners. There’s no research that supports that actually. So there’s kind of this learning styles myth that I like to debunk when I can but where the research does support is multimodal learning. Now, we all learn better when we encounter stuff in multiple ways. And so I think this is the reason the learning styles feels so compelling to a lot of instructors, is that if they’re doing that, if they’re thinking about their lesson plan and saying, “Oh, I got to have some visual stuff, I got to have some verbal stuff, I got to have some activities.” It’s not that they match those with individual students, it’s that all students are benefiting from those three different modalities happening in the same classroom. This chapter is all about multimodal assignments, ways to tap into this dual coding that our brains do where we take in information in verbal ways and in visual ways and kind of put that together and it’s stronger. We’ve done a lot of work at Vanderbilt. We call it students as producers. This is kind of a course design and assignment design approach that we work a lot with here through our course design institute and elsewhere. It’s helping faculty move away from some of those traditional text-only assignments and moving to more open-ended assignments, more multimodal projects, student projects that have authentic audiences. And so actually, this chapter is kind of all Vanderbilt examples which sounds a little self-serving, but I just happen to know a lot of faculty here who are experimenting a lot in this area. I share an example for my own classroom about infographics in a stats class where I’m asking students to represent quantitative information visually. There’s an English grad student here, Kylie Korsnack, who has her students take a paper they wrote, and revise it in a different medium. So it starts off as a traditional paper but they have to revise it as a Prezi or a concept map or choose your own adventure novel, or one student did a Pinterest pin board. And so by kind of re-seeing their work, moving into this other sort of medium, the students are often able to see their work in new ways and realize, “Oh, that’s what my argument really was,” or, “Oh, my transitions are terrible. Now I know how things have to be connected.” And so there’s a lot of value in having students move into different media than straight text as a way to help them make sense of things. I’ve been experimenting a lot with podcasting. So I got this idea from Gilbert Gonzales, a colleague of mine here in health policy, who had his students create podcast episodes instead of research papers. And he really wanted them to be fluent with the language of healthcare policy. HMOs and PPOs and all this kind of stuff. And so an audio assignment made a lot of sense, actually, for the students. And he founded it with a lot more fun to listen to a few podcasts than grade a few papers [LAUGHTER]. And podcasting is a low bar, right? Not to say that what we’re doing isn’t super challenging here, but you can, you know, create a pretty decent podcast with your phone, right? It’s not going to be super high quality, but you can record and you can edit using some free software and so I now have my students do a podcast assignment in my cryptography course. And with about 25 minutes of in classroom technical training, they’re able to produce some interesting things and then we can focus on “How do you tell a story through audio?” Or in my class, how do you explain this kind of technical mathematical stuff that they’re studying through audio only without pictures? And so, again, all of these are about kind of moving to different modalities and shifting between modalities to help students see and understand the material in different ways. And if you keep doing that, they’ll start to kind of triangulate and, and make a lot more sense out of it.

John: I would think it would force them to think about it a bit more deeply to make connections that they might not otherwise. Just seeing things from a different perspective seems to have a lot of value in it.

Derek: Yeah. I would also add that when you move to a non-traditional assignment—this is something that I realized kind of late in writing the book—is that we asked you to do a podcast they walk in and they don’t know how to do podcasts. So Gilbert and I were like, “Okay, so we have to listen to some podcasts together and critique them, and then maybe come up with a rubric together, and they need to outline it and maybe even turning the script and get it approved.” We have this whole scaffolding process around preparing students to do this type of work. Well, some of our students come in and they don’t know how to write a five-page paper either. We assume they do, we assume they’re good at it, that they’ve learned that in high school or something. But for some of these traditional assignments, we have students who really struggle and so one of the things that non-traditional assignments do for faculty is help them realize, “Oh, I really have to get in the head of my students and figure out what’s the scaffolding they need.” And we really should be applying that to more traditional assignments as well, because a lot of our students struggle because we don’t have them submit a proposal, or get feedback on a rough draft, or practice how to find a credible source. These are all things that we that it’s easy to assume our students can do, but they can’t always actually do that. And so moving to a non-traditional assignment often then helps faculty move back to more traditional assignments with a new lens with greater intentionality.

Rebecca: So we have to wait until November to get this book? [LAUGHTER]

John: Yeah, I know I saw when you posted this on Twitter, I said “I’d like this now.” [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Well thank you, yes. The book production process is a long timeline as I’ve found.

John: Yeah.

Rebecca: It’s a good tease though, right? [LAUGHTER] So you were also just talking about how you’ve been experimenting with podcasts and you’ve been the host of Leading Lines since 2016. How did you get interested in doing all this podcasting stuff in the first place?

Derek: Part of it was that—at the time—I had a 45 minute commute to work so I was listening to a lot of podcasts and appreciating podcasts and wishing I had more podcasts like Tea for Teaching that talk about teaching, learning, and higher education. And so that was part of it. I think, also, I was involved in a pretty big online course project that involved a ton of video work. And I saw how powerful that was, but how much work it was to put together really high-quality video and I thought, “What if we had a podcast on educational technology?” There’s folks that I run into here on campus and elsewhere who are doing really cool things and I would just love to kind of give them a bigger audience for the innovative teaching that they’re doing, and producing a podcast seems way more tractable than producing a YouTube series. [LAUGHTER] So I mentioned this at a meeting here, we were having this meeting on campus with some other folks who deal with educational technology. One of our Associate Provosts, John Sloop, for digital learning, he’s like, “I would love to do a podcast.” We kind of both had been thinking about this idea for a while and so we combined forces. And so it’s the Center for Teaching, it’s our libraries, it’s our Institute for Digital Learning. We created Leading Lines, we’ve been doing it for a few years now, each episode is an interview with a faculty, staff, or grad student who’s kind of doing something interesting in the educational technology space. We call it Leading Lines because it has this kind of connotation of looking into the future. So leading lines in a photograph, are those kind of straight lines that draw your eye into the frame. And so we’re not really trying to predict the future—because I think that’s a fool’s errand—but I’d rather kind of shape it and influence it and so we’re looking for folks who are doing things that are kind of one or two steps down the road with technology. And it’s been really great, I mean several of the examples in my book are drawn from interviews I did for Leading Lines. It just gives me this occasion to talk to interesting people who are doing interesting things.

Rebecca: Now you know our secret. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Right.

John: We’ve gotten this opportunity to talk to all these people doing some wonderful research that we wouldn’t be able to be in contact with so many of them otherwise.

Derek: Yeah, absolutely. I’m always referencing these people that I’ve met and the work that they’re doing and my other work here, connecting faculty, and it’s been a lot of fun. And it’s been fun to work here. So we have about six of us who do interviews for Leading Lines and so we have a little bigger team then you guys have and they go in different directions. Sometimes I’m like, “That’s really not an interesting topic,” and then they do an interview and it’s an interesting topic. And so it’s been really fun to kind of work with my colleagues here and having this collaborative project across multiple units at Vanderbilt, that’s been pretty great too.

Rebecca: Cool.

John: On one of the recent episodes, you had a discussion of the VandyVox project. And in particular you had a podcast from there. Could you tell us what this project is and how that came about?

Derek: So I had this idea actually just last summer. We were running a course design institute here at the teaching center and we had several faculty who are really interested in doing podcast projects because I think I had shared Gilbert Gonzales’s Health Policy Radio podcasts with them. And several faculty started thinking, “Oh I could really use this in my teaching,” and I thought, “This is great, but if we have Vanderbilt undergrads, especially, who are producing really interesting audio for class assignments all over campus, wouldn’t it be fun to curate that to have a podcast of podcasts?” So then I reached out to my colleagues at Vanderbilt student media and they’re like, “Yeah, that sounds great. We love to help students make media and share media with the world.” And so they were able to do all the heavy lifting on the technology piece, all I had to do was reach out to some faculty members and ask them to recommend some student produced audio for this and so this spring we launched VandyVox. It’s the best of student produced audio from all over campus. It’s a bit of a fudge, right? Like if some student has a Sports Radio Podcast, we’re not covering that. But if there’s an academic component to it, if it’s curricular or co-curricular, we’re happy to feature it on the podcast. And so it kind of serves two purposes. One is to kind of shine a spotlight on some student work, show this great stuff that our students are doing to provide some inspiration maybe for faculty and students to have students engaged in this kind of work. In the show notes for each episode, we have some background information about what the assignment was, or how the faculty members worked with students around this. So there’s a faculty development piece to it as well. But it’s been really fun to see what students are doing all over campus. You know, I highlighted some Health Policy Radio piece, we had a student from an anthropology course on health care politics. She created a 10 minute speculative fiction audio story…

Rebecca: Oh, cool.

Derek: …dramatized it as her project where she kind of imagined what would happen in the future with gene editing and baby selection. It’s just a really great sci fi kind of look at the course topic. Well researched, right? Like she turned in an annotated bibliography with all this so it’s all kind of backed up by the latest research. We had law students who were doing podcast episodes on immigration and refugee law talking to some immigrants and refugees. For that audio. We have Robbie Spivey in our Women’s and Gender Studies class teaches a course called Women Who Kill [LAUGHTER]—which is a great name for a course—and so she had her students do kind of true-crime podcasts about women who kill and how we make sense of that as a society. And then our last episode of season one, which came out recently, featured some work by Anna Butrico, who was a senior here last year, an English major. She did her senior honors thesis on podcasting and kind of connected it to ancient Greek rhetorical forms, which is really great. But her senior thesis had audio pieces to it. It’s hard to do a senior thesis on podcasting without creating a podcast and so we featured the audio introduction to her senior thesis, which I was really excited because Anna actually did a lot of work with podcasting while she was at Vanderbilt and her technical skills and her composition and storytelling skills are really strong. So it’s been really fun to kind of see something of a critical mass here at Vanderbilt around student podcasts and to be able to kind of highlight that a little bit. And I’m really excited, we’ve got some good stuff lined up for season two this fall as I’m kind of reaching out to more faculty and students about the the audio work that they’re doing. And again, part of it is getting started with a podcast is not hard. Doing it really well is still very hard, but the bar for entry is pretty low actually. And so if you want to have your students kind of move into a different modality—and again, you need to kind of be intentional about why you’re doing it and how it connects to your course goals—but podcasts offer a really great option for that. And I’ve just seening more and more faculty start to embrace this as a kind of creative output for students.

John: Going back a little bit, you mentioned that video project or the the video intensive project, I’m assuming those are the two MOOCs you have on teaching in STEM courses. I participated in the first one when it first came out.

Derek: Oh, that’s great.

John: It was a lot of fun, it was really useful. I didn’t do the second one. I think we both recommend those to a lot of faculty and encourage more people to take those. I believe they’re still running on Coursera?

Derek: Oh, yeah, we’re running one every semester. They’re not on Coursera anymore, they’re on edX. But you can always go to stemteachingcourse.org and you can find out information about those courses.

Rebecca: So you’ve already talked about the podcast that you’re working on and your book, the editing process and such that takes a long time, so you’ve got a lot of things in the cooker but we always wrap up by asking, what’s next?

Derek: Short run, we’re running a couple of course design institutes in the first of May and so that will occupy the next several weeks as kind of prep for that and those are always fun because I get to work with faculty. It’s on the theme of students as producers so we’ll be working with faculty around these creative nontraditional assignments. That’s always pretty exciting. There’s also—this is just an idea right now—but I keep running into faculty who are teaching with games or having their students design games, board games especially, as course assignments. I mentioned this text-based game that Alisha Karabinus uses and so I just keep finding examples of games and simulations that have a learning goal or learning purpose and so I’m hoping maybe this fall to put together a little one day symposium on campus on games for learning, games for social change, that kind of thing. I think that’d be a fun space to explore. And the other thing that I’m seeing—and I talked a little bit about this in the book—is this move towards active learning classrooms. I mentioned I like to walk into a classroom and see wheels on the chairs, because we can move them around and make them do what we want. The affordances that our classrooms have really matter for the choices we make as teachers. And so classrooms that are designed to facilitate small group work, student collaboration, active learning, this is a strong trend in higher education. I’m really kind of shocked how even from like three years ago, where I was having to tell people about this idea for the first time, now and here on our campus, our campus planners have decided this is a standard classroom configuration going forward. And so I see a lot of campuses moving towards active learning classrooms. Again, digital and analog technologies that support learning and so I want faculty to use them in intentional ways. And so I think we’re going to be doing a lot more with active learning classrooms here on campus, probably starting a learning community on that in the fall and I’m excited to dig into that work too.

Rebecca: Sounds like a lot of exciting things going on.

Derek: I try to stay busy. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s going to be hard to keep up with all of them.

John: Well, we appreciate that and we’re looking forward to the book coming out.

Derek: Awesome.

Rebecca: Well thanks so much for joining us. It’s been really exciting and I know we all have a countdown now.

Derek: Thanks so much for having me on. This has been a really fun conversation. I’m happy to get the chance to share a little bit.

[MUSIC]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.

80. Self-Regulated Learning

Most students arrive at college with serious misconceptions about effective learning strategies. In this episode, Dr. Linda Nilson joins us to examine what we as faculty can do to help students develop their metacognitive skills and become self-regulated learners.

Dr. Nilson is the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She is the author of many superb books, book chapters, and articles on teaching and learning. In this episode we focus on discussing one of her books: Creating Self-regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-awareness and Learning Skills.

Show Notes

  • Linda Nilson—Director Emeritus of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation (OTEI) at Clemson University
  • Nilson, L. (2013). Creating Self-regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-awareness and Learning Skills. Stylus Publishing, LLC..
  • Nilson, L. (2014). Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Professional and Organizational Development (POD)—Network in Higher Education Conference
  • Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1121.

Transcript

This transcript has been edited to improve readability.

Rebecca: Most students arrive at college with serious misconceptions about effective learning strategies. In this episode, we examine what we as faculty can do to help students develop their metacognitive skills and become self-regulated learners.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

John: Today our guest is Dr. Linda Nilson, the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. Dr. Nilson is the author of many superb books, book chapters, and articles on teaching and learning. Welcome.

Linda: I’m very honored to be here. Thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

John: Are you drinking any tea?

Linda: Yes, I am drinking tea. I am drinking Lemon Lift.

Rebecca: Oh that sounds like a great way to start the day.

Linda: It is. It’s a very good way. Well, I also started it with coffee, but… [LAUGHTER]

John: And I’m drinking Ginger Peach Black tea.

Rebecca: And I have my Golden Monkey tea today.

John: We’ve invited you here today to talk about your book, Creating Self-regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-Awareness and Learning Skills. Could you define what it means to be a self-regulated learner?

Linda: Yes. Self-regulated learning is the conscious planning, monitoring, and evaluation of one’s learning for the purpose of maximizing it. That’s a very fancy way of putting it. It’s that voice in your head that asks you questions about your learning as you’re involved in some sort of learning task, questions like, “Okay, I’m going to do a reading now, what strategy works best for me?” Now you just might brush over that because you’ve done readings of this type a dozen times, a hundred times, whatever, but you’ve asked yourself that question along the way. “What’s my best strategy? What kind of a task is this? And monitoring: are my strategies working for me? Am I getting it? Can I paraphrase the last couple of paragraphs that I just read?” It’s a reading thing, but it works also in lecture. And then at the end, you evaluate yourself. “Well, let’s see. I had a goal, being able to recite five main points from this chapter, let’s see if I can do it,” without looking at the chapter of course. [LAUGHTER] So you evaluate your abilities, you evaluate your strategies. That’s really what it’s all about and it involves a great deal of talking to yourself.

Rebecca: So how did you get interested in talking to yourself? [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Well, I heard voices. [LAUGHTER] Well, how did I get interested in this topic? Actually, it was an accounting professor at Clemson that got me interested in it. This is 2007, right, this is a long time ago. And so she said to me, “What about giving a workshop on self-regulated learning?” In my head I said, “Huh? What’s that?” I’d never heard of it. And so I decided to go find out about it and it took me a few years to really get a workshop together on it and I decided, “Gosh, this is wonderful. This is learning how to learn. This is familiar to me,” because I’ve been talking to myself for years. [LAUGHTER] So I thought, “Okay, I’m not crazy. This is a learning strategy, a major learning strategy, one that you can use throughout your life.” And so I gave the workshop, I started giving workshops, like at the POD Network Conference—which is made up by people like me who go to this conference every year—and then I decided—well, I didn’t decide—a book publisher came up to me and said, “Please write a book on this, I will publish it.” Since I was in love with the topic anyway, I decided to do it. And so I did and delved into it deeply.

John: As you’ve described it, it sounds like part of this deals with improving student metacognition, but you note that it goes a bit further. Could you talk about the additional aspects of it?

Linda: Metacognition is the cognitive part of self-regulated learning, which is a major part of it. However, there are a couple of other elements to it that I don’t know that you could say are really focused on cognition. There is the emotional element to it, which involves getting yourself to be motivated and interested in the topic. Remembering, reviewing what your professor told you about the relevance of this topic, and thinking about it yourself. We can motivate ourselves, we can reframe a task for ourselves, and we can certainly reframe what is going on in terms of a learning experience. That’s a major, major part of it. The emotional part of the end is: “If you didn’t reach your goal, what do you do about it?” Do you give up, walk away, and say, “Well, I wasn’t born to do engineering,” or whatever the topic is. No, what you should say is, “Let’s try another strategy. Let’s look into possible strategies.” As instructors, we need to familiarize students with various strategies because they come to us—I like the phrase—“as feral children” in terms of the life of the mind and what they know about learning. We don’t have cognitive psychologists—unfortunately—teaching first grade or fifth grade, and so we need to equip them with how their mind works. There is one other element, a physical element, and that involves planning, monitoring, and evaluating your physical setting, where do you study best. If doing a reading or writing assignment, is it in a coffee shop, or do you have to essentially be in a soundproof booth where you don’t have any stimulation? How much coffee should you have? Or tea? [LAUGHTER] What kind of an environment should you set up for yourself—perhaps putting your digital distractions in another room. How should you schedule your breaks? Other things that you might want to consider is the amount of sleep that you have had because that can be a very important element of learning and writing. Some people study better to mild background noises as long as they are familiar music they’ve never heard before. You’ve got to try out these different things and find out your best setting.

John: In your book you describe how you became a self-regulated learner. Could you relay that story?

Linda: Yes, it was based on fear and terror. [LAUGHTER] As a child, I went to a private Catholic girls school—great education, but not in the sweetest of ways. From about fifth grade on, we had what was called recitation every single day in English and history classes. The nuns would ask a question and would randomly call out students’ names—we were in small classes so it wasn’t an absurd thing—and we had to get up and we’d better have the answer to the question. Now, not all the kids did, but I needed to be Little Miss Perfect because I wanted to get into college. Somehow I thought that the answers that I gave in fifth and sixth and seventh and eighth grade would or would not get me into college. So I learned to quiz myself while I was reading chapters or essays. Constantly quizzing myself. And another thing we had to do, usually later in the day, was called “exercise period.” We had 35 minutes to write an answer to an essay question that was generally related to the readings. And we couldn’t look at our books. It was out of desperation that I was trying different strategies so I could perform very well every day, and I was really quite successful. So when I was reading about self-regulated learning, I said, “My God, I was doing this as a child.” That’s why it sounded so familiar to me.

John: But that’s not the experience I think that the students we have entering our colleges have.

Linda: You are so right. You are so right. And we don’t do this to children anymore, okay? There is a good side to it—there really is—because you do buckle under and get very serious about your homework, very serious about your studies, or you look like an idiot the next day. Anyway, the sport I’m trying to think of is that sport where you get the ice or any kind of ice particles out of the way.…

Rebecca: Curling?

Linda: Curling! Curling, yes, we are curling teachers and curling parents. We try to clear the way for our students. We don’t want to put them in stressful situations. We don’t want to ask Johnny to read if Johnny might not be able to read—and I mean, get up and read well—and the problem with this is that students are denied the opportunity for achievement. And there is no achievement without the possibility of failure, there just isn’t. So students have no idea what fear and terror in school might be. There’s bullying and all that, but I mean from the learning experience. So no, they don’t have any kind of the experiences that I had.

Rebecca: How do we start coaching students then to become self-regulated learners if they’re coming out of this really different environment that’s much more supportive and doesn’t allow for failure seemingly?

Linda: They start failing in college. We’re still sort of, you know, curling them a little bit, but they are really facing a much greater challenge. They get insecure really quickly because they’ve been told how special they are and how smart they are, and then they begin to question that, because they’re not doing as well as they were in high school, where you could get an A relatively easily. Now, “Oh my, it can be really hard,” and then they start getting C’s, and then you have their attention. That’s a way that you can tell them that, “There are ways that you can get A’s, you did not learn how to study, here is a way to learn.” Does it involves a sort of effort? Sure, but it’s really just talking to yourself and deciding what strategies would be best for you, testing out strategies, seeing how they work, and you will be more successful. And there have been studies of students—like in developmental courses—that show that the students who are struggling the most tend to know the least about self-regulated learning strategies and start to do better if they use these strategies.Of course we’ve got to get them to use the strategies, we’ve got to explain these strategies. It can be life changing for them in the most positive way.

John: I think part of the issue is that faculty generally haven’t been taught these strategies themselves. They somehow found ways to be successful, so they become self-regulated learners, but faculty are the exceptions. They’re not the typical student, and they’ve never really been trained to teach students how to become more effective learners, in part because they never learned that directly themselves quite often. What can faculty do to be more effective in this way?

Linda: Well first of all, faculty have to realize that they’re the weird ones, and everybody else is normal. [LAUGHTER] So we have to stop projecting our learning abilities, our strategies, our interests in the life of the mind onto everybody else. We have to not only sell our material, but we have to equip students to learn our material. We don’t want to do that. We say, “They should know by now.” Well, guess what? They don’t. So what are you going to do about it? You’ve got to start from where they are. Teaching students learning strategies takes a couple of sentences every class. Now, if you really want to get into self-regulated learning activities and assignments with them, that might take a few minutes per class period, but you don’t have to do it every class period, and a lot of self-regulated learning activities can be homework, in which case they take no class time at all. This is so easy to do. This is why I think faculty have really been attracted to my book and why I’m asked to speak on it so often, because there are so many little things you can do that don’t take away from the content at all—rather, they reinforce the content—that make this huge difference in the performance of most students. You can’t always bring everybody along with you. There are some people—some students—who’d just as soon shoot themselves in their foot, but most do not. They find these activities so easy to do. They don’t take a lot of time and they get to know themselves and start doing better, so students don’t complain about this.

Rebecca: Can you describe what a couple of those activities might be?

Linda: Sure, absolutely. Well, let’s consider the different parts of the course and I’ll just give you just a few, some of my personal favorites. For starting a course for instance—starting and you can also end it with these sorts of activities—but one of them is a goal setting activity. You can assign this as homework, you can have students do it in class with students write on “How I earned an A in this course.” Now, you would be surprised and students will be surprised—C students and B students will be surprised—that they know what it takes to earn an A in a course, and they will come up with, “Well, I’ve got to come to class every day, don’t I? And in class I can’t fiddle around with my mobile device, and I have to start a paper sort of early and I have to keep up with the readings.” For many people, writing this down is goal setting for them. They think, “Well, you know, maybe I could do this, maybe this isn’t so absurd.” If you make a discussion out of it afterwards, the A students will say, “Yeah, I do these things, it’s not unrealistic.” And then the C and B and F students will say, “Well, let’s give it a whirl.” Then at the end of the course, you give them another little essay assignment, “How I earned an A in this course—or not.” [LAUGHTER] True confessions time, right? And so students assess how well they met their goals. Goal setting is definitely a part of self-regulated learning, the planning and then self-evaluation at the end. Another thing that you can do is you can give your students essay questions. If you give an essay final—or have any essays on it at all—you can give them the essays on the final to take the first day. This will not take much class time at all, because students will know very little, or they’ll try to BS an answer. So they will try but they can be really quite wrong. Now at the end, for the final, they correct their answers, and then rewrite these answers given the knowledge that they have gained throughout the course. This can be really interesting for faculty—for not just faculty… well, it can be interesting for them, too—because they can see exactly what they learned. So it is a measure of learning. Faculty will never get that comment on the student evaluations saying, “Well, I didn’t learn anything in this course.” Never again, that’s gone. So anyway, those are a couple of things that you can do. Little assignments you can make on the readings. Little reflection exercises like, “What did you think was the most important point in this reading? What surprised you the most? What connections can you make between what you read and your prior knowledge, what you already know? Or to your life? Or your emotional reactions to it, if the material is amenable to that?” So those are little reflections you can give on the readings. Another exercise, a self-testing exercise, is called “read, recall, review.” This is the best way to do reading. Forget about rereading, that’s what students really do… It’s really a waste of time. What students should do is to read a portion of the chapter or the whole chapter, put their notes away, close the book, and then recall as much as they can and write it down. Then they should go back and look in the chapter for what they forgot and what they might have gummed up. And they know that, “I didn’t really get that point.” And so they go back and look at it, and then they recall again. Read, recall, review. Studies that have been done on this showing it is so much more effective than rereading. It really doesn’t take that long, and then you actually have the material in your head, even in your long-term memory. You get retrieval practice, you get deliberate practice, so there’s nothing as good as testing yourself except—well, the nicest thing we can do for students is to test them. In lectures—I should say mini-lectures—it’s a good idea to have students do this. You stop, let’s say, every 15 minutes or so and have students do the same thing. Write down everything that they can recall, and then work with their neighbor to fill in the blanks—their own blanks—and ask any questions they have. First they ask their neighbor their questions, and then they ask you. This doesn’t take very long at all, maybe five minutes, but then you know that the students got it and can remember it. Again, most effective… studies done on this, too. So this makes students aware of their learning or their lack of learning. You can give students what are called active learning checks. You give your mini-lecture, and then you stop—and by the way, you can warn students you’re going to do this so they’re listening—and ask them, “Okay, what are the three major points in my last mini-lecture that I talked about in the last 15 minutes?” Then they write those things down—and it could be two things or four things depending—and turn them in. They don’t really have to turn them in, but you know, you might want to see them yourself. Then you reveal the three most important points, and they monitor and evaluate their learning skills. Now, students are motivated to want to learn how to listen to you, so they want to improve. According to a study that was done, they improve really quickly. The first time, 45 percent of students got all three points correct. By the third time, 75 percent of the students got these correct. Remarkable progress, really remarkable. Then there are meta-assignments. In a problem solving field like chemistry or math, we are denying students learning opportunities when all we do is mark the wrong answers as wrong or incomplete and then drop the subject. Students should be able to correct their mistakes to get half the points back, let’s say. In other words, they’re going to learn how to solve that problem if it’s the last thing they do. [LAUGHTER] Again, you give them some sort of an incentive, then they learn. There have been studies on this technique as well. It’s extremely effective. And students can learn not just from you, but in peer groups. Peers can help each other very effectively. There is a wrapper—they’re called “wrappers”—for an exam, a reflection that students do after they get their exams back where they answer questions like, “How did your expected grade compare with your actual grade? How do you feel about that?” So they have to look at the exam and your feedback. “How many hours did you study? Was that enough? What did you do while studying? Might you want to change your strategies? Why did you lose points? Were there any patterns that you see here? How are you going to study more effectively for the next exam?” This has been life changing for students because they’ve never thought about this before. They’ve never really looked at their exams, their mistakes. They drop them too, right? They don’t want to see what they did wrong. Yet these are the best learning opportunities possible, and they will remember them. We remember our mistakes, we learn from our mistakes, and it’s sad that we don’t stop and use those errors. These are just a small sample of self-regulated learning activities. I can give you many more. [LAUGHTER]

John: And there are many in the book, which we strongly recommend to people.

Linda: Yes, yes, yeah…

Rebecca: A lot of what you’re talking about seems tied to growth mindset as well.

Linda: Exactly, and this creates, this generates the growth mindset because students learn that they can learn, they can do better. Otherwise they feel like their learning is like the weather. “Maybe it’ll rain on me, and maybe not. [LAUGHTER] There’s really nothing I can do about it. Because it’s all about you, professor, you are responsible for my learning, just like the fates are responsible for the weather. [LAUGHTER] And if I’m not learning, you’re not a good instructor, or you’re pitching the material over my head, or your teaching strategies are wrong.” And so everybody else gets blamed, and then they start to realize, “Oh, I can do this.” Now, this isn’t the best news for them in the world because then they have to start taking responsibility for their learning. And that can be, for some students, a hard pill to swallow. For other students it will be very empowering, and what we want to encourage in students is that sense of empowerment.

John: And that’s especially important, I think, in freshman-level classes, because students generally don’t come in with that type of mindset. They’ve often been able to blame it on the teacher and do things over and over again until they get the grade they want or get the extensions and so forth with a focus on self-esteem in many classrooms.

Linda: Oh, yeah, self-esteem without achievement.

John: But it’s an adjustment. So if they come in with a fixed mindset, and they’re confronted with failure, it’s pretty easy to give up. So we need to encourage students, I think, to see failure as a learning opportunity as you’ve mentioned. As instructors, I think we have to somehow convince them of that, because they don’t come in naturally picking it up, but the techniques you’ve mentioned are very good for that.

Linda: You know, our whole society makes them feel they’re not responsible for their learning. Look at what happens in K-12. Students have to take standardized tests and if they don’t do well, who gets blamed and who suffers? The teacher and the school, and that’s nuts. In the final analysis, we teach ourselves. We are responsible for our own learning. Good teaching can make a big difference because we can be motivated or unmotivated by teaching. We can acquire learning strategies through teaching. So it’s not that students are just left adrift on their own, we do have to help them. We do have to put them in learning experiences where learning becomes attractive for them, or you can’t help but learn, right? But they’ve got to pick up that learning and run with it themselves.

Rebecca: So you mentioned the idea of encouraging students to see learning and the self-regulation as empowering. What about those students who are a little resistant to that because it’s surprising to them that they’re not getting it and they’re failing and that it’s going to be more work? What are some things that we can do to encourage those students to see things a little differently?

Linda: Yes, first of all, if they’re failing and they subconsciously want to—it happens, it really does —[LAUGHTER] there is not a whole lot you can do about it. They might need some counseling and they might need to get some help from professionals like psychologists. But again, it can be difficult for students to realize that the ball is in their court because it’s a whole different gestalt for them. The only cure for that is success—a little bit of success—where they start doing a little better, let’s say, on the quiz on the readings or they start being able to solve more problems. That’s really the only cure. And we are assuming that they want to be successful. Again, if they prefer failure, then they are responsible for their own failure.

Rebecca: Right, they’re the ones that are normal and we are not, right? [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Exactly.

Rebecca: Maybe that should be the refrain of this interview, right?

Linda: Yes. They are the normal ones and we are strange. And we always have been strange. We were the strange kids in school, too. [LAUGHTER]

John: In your book you mentioned the Dunning-Kruger effect as being a barrier to some students, that the students who don’t understand things as well often overestimate their understanding. How can we overcome that?

Linda: Self-regulated learning helps when we give them activities and assignments where they do self-evaluation, because the only way to learn self-evaluation is through practice, practice with feedback. And that feedback doesn’t even have to come from you; it can come from peers or a computer program. We don’t give students a lot of practice in self-evaluation, and they certainly haven’t had much of it in K-12l. But the nice thing is that when we have students look back to see if they met their goals, or to evaluate their study strategies, or to assess their mistakes and the reasons for their mistakes, it makes all the difference in the world. After low-stakes practice, you can introduce higher stakes self-evaluation assignments and see more savvy self-evaluations.

John: What recommendations do you have for faculty who’d like to start building more self-regulation? Are there small steps that faculty could take to get started on this path?

Linda: Absolutely. There’s a sense in which most of the assignments, most of the activities, are little things. Here’s a little thing you can start off the course with, I was talking about essay questions, but you can just have students do a little reflection the first day and then again on the last day about the subject matter, as in, “What do you think chemistry is? Why is it a science?” You can find out a lot about students’ misconceptions just by looking at these reflections. And then of course, they’ve hopefully corrected a lot of misconceptions by the end. This could take like all of five minutes the first day. There’s so many little things. Here are some ideas for experiential learning. It’s so easy for students not to make a connection between a simulation, an interesting role play, a service-learning experience, or field work to the course. So it’s important that whenever you do an experiential assignment or activity, students reflect on what they are learning—for a simulation, to look back and explain what their goals were, to evaluate how well they met their goals, to assess their strategies, to explain how their strategies changed and their responses to other players. It’s very important that students become conscious of what’s going on in their heads. Only by becoming conscious can they remember the strategies? [LAUGHTER] And then they can write them down and articulate them. You can have students do short papers associated with papers and projects where they record, while they are doing it, the process they are following. If you’ve given them a process to follow, they even have a skeletal outline of what they should be doing. This is a place also for self-evaluation. If you have students do a revision, oftentimes you give them feedback on what they should revise, and they may or may not read your advice. So you can have them paraphrase your feedback back to them and write out their goals for the revision. What are they going to do? What are their strategies for revision? These are just little things. Students start to realize the value of this. And again, this is an assignment where you can’t screw up. It’s not a test, it’s just a reflection of what’s going on in your head. Students like to learn about themselves. And this is like the reading reflections. This is no stress. How do you mess this up? It takes less stress to just write an honest answer than it is to make one up that sounds credible. [LAUGHTER] I want to make faculty aware that the activities don’t have to be graded at all. The assignments don’t really have to be graded. You “grade” them pass-fail. Students pass just by completing the assignment. Let’s say, you had them answering three questions, three reflections. Did they answer three reflections? Is it vaguely on the chapter? Okay it’s not about football, it’s something about what’s in the chapter. [LAUGHTER] And did they meet the length requirement? It’s always a good idea to give length requirements on these reflections because for students, length means depth. So if you ask them to write a minimum of 150 words, you know, they’ll tend to do that. Those who don’t fail.You don’t count every word that students write. You eyeball the reflection. Essentially you are “grading” pass-fail at a glance. It doesn’t take much time. Plus, it gets students to do the readings in the easiest way and most productive way for them. It’s all about them, and it’s not about us. We just have to hold them accountable in some very quick way. Even the longer assignments that you might associate with a paper or project can be graded pass-fail. You have to make them worth some points if you’re still on a point system. But there are alternatives, that’s what specifications grading is all about. You don’t have to use points. In any case, you do have to at least eyeball the reflections and give some value in your course however you are grading. That communicates to students that this is important to you, that you put value on this meta-assignment or assignment wrapper, as you might call it. The same thing with the post-exam wrapper, these reflections on this exam. You make students do it because it’s worth 10 points if they simply complete it and hand it in—even though it’s for them—and they will realize right away that there is some value to this. Again, for some students, it will be life changing in the most positive way. And they will start to realize the way that they’ve been preparing for or taking exams may not be the best. They will realize what they tend to do when they’re taking an exam, such as to misread the question, or to be careless, or to not budget their time, or to not really thoroughly study all the material. Cramming is not very effective. You don’t have to spend time grading these exercises or giving any feedback at all. They can give themselves their own feedback. If they did it and they get the 10 points, okay, that’s plenty of feedback for them. They did it. You regard it as their meeting the requirements of the assignment.

John: And this is a topic you cover in another book on specifications grading, which is also another book we’d like to recommend. We’ll include a link to both of those on the show notes.

Linda: The title of the book is Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students—it’s been found to be motivating—and Saving Faculty Time, saving you time. If there’s one thing we don’t have, it’s time. Time is really more precious to us than money. Otherwise, we’d be working in some venture capital firm or something. [LAUGHTER] But time is really quite a precious thing for us. So, in terms of these sort of assignments, for self-regulated learning assignments, they’re all what we’d call “specs graded.” You set out the specs, they’re very simple, and you just grade them pass-fail.

Rebecca: I think pointing out how it doesn’t have to be complicated for faculty is important because I think we all want students to learn. We all want them to be self-regulated learners.

John: We all want to give students feedback, but we don’t want to make it impossible for us to keep up with our work.

Rebecca: Yeah. Or feedback that’s going to get ignored anyways.

John: Right.

Linda: You’re worried about students reading the feedback, and our feedback is valuable. We’ve given it, we’ve taken the time, and so you make them paraphrase it back to you. And this could be a learning experience for us because we might be “misread.” Students might not understand something that we’ve said. Awkward—that’s my favorite one—a sentence structure is awkward. What does that mean? That student didn’t set out to write an awkward sentence. That in itself will not help them because they don’t know what you’re talking about, and this is most unfortunate. But again, it’s a learning experience for us and we can learn to express ourselves somewhat differently. Too often, students get back a paper from us and look at the grade, read the paragraph at the end of the paper, and put it in their “circular file.” They dump it. They don’t read that feedback, so how are they going to get better? So paraphrasing our feedback back to us can be a very valuable exercise for them. And you can let them gain back some points for it. I just think that faculty should look at themselves as responsible for helping our students learn. They don’t come to us with those skills. We can be the finest instructor in the world, have the most interesting classes, hold their attention, and motivate them, but if they don’t know how to process that material in their own minds, it’s all for naught. Now, maybe, hopefully, seniors have learned to learn their material along the line. And by the way, there can be different learning strategies for different subject matter. There are different self-regulated learning activities and assignments for problem solving mathematically-based fields, and different ones for the social sciences and humanities. There can different kinds of assignments, different kinds of readings, actually different kinds of lectures. So we have to respect that. But we have to become conscious of study strategies, learning strategies, our strategies, and other strategies that are out there. But self-regulated learning strategies, to my mind, they’re the shortest distance between two points. Shortest distance between ignorance and learning because it’s all going on in your head, and it’s so powerful. The value of it to students becomes evident rather quickly.

Rebecca: And it’s a skill that can help through a whole lifetime, not just while they’re in college and I think helping students realize that is also really valuable.

Linda: Like no other generation before, these younger generations are going to have to learn to learn on their own. They’re going to have to keep up with their field, whatever their field is, and they might have to—will very likely have to—pivot into another field because their first field might run its course. They’re going to have to learn on their own. They aren’t going to have employers holding their hand. Not at all. They’re probably going to have to learn online, where you really are responsible for your own processing, more so than you might feel let’s say in a face-to-face class, and for your own motivating as well. There needs to be more motivation than simple fear that you will go hungry and won’t be able to get a job. [LAUGHTER] Yes, students are going to really have to learn how to learn. If they consider that a bitter pill, that’s too bad. This is reality, this is life, and most of them have not learned that life is hard. Many of them are wondering where their next meal is coming from, but a lot of students have not. Students need to learn along the line that life is not easy, that nobody does curling on their path. And they will face challenges, but if they have the strategies for facing these challenges, no problem. They needn’t be paralyzed. They needn’t freeze.

John: You foster some really good advice and I think our listeners will appreciate this and it’s really powerful.

Rebecca: Yeah, I agree. We’re all wondering, what’s next for you?

Linda: I’m actually Director Emeritus. I’m actually retired from Clemson University. But you know how academics are, [LAUGHTER] they don’t disappear, they just sort of like fade away. So I’m trying to ease into retirement because it’s not an easy thing to do? Not when you love what you’ve been doing. But I have sworn off writing books. That’s progress! [LAUGHTER] I’ve written some articles and chapters in other people’s books, so that’s fine. And I’m still traveling to give keynotes and faculty workshops. That’s hard to give up because it’s interesting to go somewhere else, somewhere new.” And I still give webinars and podcasts. But eventually I won’t be doing that anymore. Ultimately I want to work with animals. I do love animals but I’m still busy doing this and still loving doing this, but also loving just as much not having to do bureaucratic tasks for the university [LAUGHTER] and not having to stay up until two in the morning doing my email. When I’m traveling, not have to worry about, what’s going on back at the office. So I’m not complaining about retirement. I really like where I’m at right now, but I know that I will eventually fade into the sunset. That’s okay because then I’ll reinvent myself.

Rebecca: Sounds like some self-regulation was going on there, I’m pretty sure. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Yes, I’m trying, I’m trying to retire but not too quickly.

John: Well, we’re glad you haven’t, fully yet.

Rebecca: This was really great. Thank you so much for spending some time with us today.

Linda: Well thank you for this opportunity. I hope that I have helped some faculty members out there to help them help their students to achieve more, because again, we all do want our students to learn. We’re all in love with our material, it’s worth learning, and we just have to help our students do that. So thank you ever so much, and thank all of you listeners for listening.

Rebecca: Thank you so much.

[Music]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.

79. Self-Learning vs. Online Instruction

Research shows that online classes are most effective when there is substantial interaction among the students and between the students and the instructor. In this episode, Dr. Spiros Protopsaltis and Dr. Sandy Baum join us to discuss the possible adverse effects of proposed changes in federal regulations that may reduce the extent of this interaction.

Dr. Protopsaltis is an Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Education Policy and Evaluation at George Mason University, and he was a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Higher Education and Student Financial Aid at the U.S. Education Department during the Obama administration. Dr. Baum is a Fellow in the Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute, and a professor emeritus of economics at Skidmore College.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Research shows that online classes are most effective when there is substantial interaction among the students and between the students and the instructor. In this episode, we discuss the possible adverse effects of proposed changes in federal regulations that may reduce the extent of this interaction.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

John: Our guests today are Dr. Spiros Protopsaltis and Dr. Sandy Baum. Dr. Protopsaltis is an Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Education Policy and Evaluation at George Mason University, and he was a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Higher Education and Student Financial Aid at the U.S. Education Department during the Obama administration. Dr. Baum is a Fellow in the Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute, and a professor emeritus of economics at Skidmore College. Welcome.

Spiros: Thank you for having me.

Sandy: Glad to be here.

John: We’re glad to have you here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Spiros: Coffee for me.

Sandy: Water for me.

[LAUGHTER]

John: I’m drinking Ginger Peach Black tea.

Rebecca: And I have English Afternoon.

John: One of your usuals.

Rebecca: Yeah. We invited you here today to discuss your January 2019 paper on online education entitled “Does Online Education Live Up to Its Promise? A Look at Evidence and Implications for Federal Policy.” In this paper, you raise some significant concerns about the outcomes of online education. What prompted your interest in this topic?

Spiros: The conversation in higher education around the role of technology in tackling a lot of the major challenges in the sector has been going on for a long time. In recent years, we’ve seen the conversation focus on MOOCs, most recently on competency-based education, but before all that, the big focus was on online education. And there was a big debate in Washington that unfolded over a decade or so about whether online education should gain access to federal student aid, which it did in 2006. When I was working in the Senate for Senator Harkin, who was chairman of the Health Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, we conducted very thorough and brought investigation of the for-profit college sector in light of increasing concerns regarding student debt, student outcomes, and overall predatory practices in the sector. And as we were doing that investigation, one thing that jumped out at me is that a lot of these actors—a lot of these schools that we were investigating—had a huge online presence and had experienced exponential growth in just a very short period of time. Obviously, that was the period of the Great Recession. So, as we know, enrollment in higher education is counter-cyclical to the economy, so part of it was explained by that. But this huge explosion in online education was something that I wanted to investigate a little bit more in depth. At the same time, there were these increasing conversations happening around online education and regulation. And a lot of folks were saying whether we should deregulate online education, whether there’s possibility for more innovation in the space, et cetera et cetera. So I partnered with Sandy to write this paper because it was an opportunity to do exactly that: to look back and see, what does the evidence tell us? Did online education live up to its promise as it’s advocates had stated when they successfully had the law changed in 2006 and gained access to federal student aid? What exactly is this potential and has it been realized? So it was a combination of many years working on higher education issues and constantly listening to the same argument of advocates on the innovation side of the equation, saying that technology holds the key for transforming higher education, and tackling it’s big challenges. And that if we deregulate higher education, and if we remove “barriers to innovation,” we’re going to unleash this huge potential of technology and we’re going to be able to reduce costs, get more students in college, and improve student outcomes. This was a great opportunity for us to take the time and to do a deep dive and to see what exactly is the evidence in this area?

Sandy: One of the things that is really notable about the conversation about increasing access to higher education and reducing the price of higher education in recent years is that the discussion so rarely talks about quality and about what students learn. So the idea sort of seems to be if we can get more students to spend less time getting more credentials, we’ll be in good shape, and that’s clearly not enough. So we really wanted to look at, if students do engage in this different method of learning, will they learn? Will they succeed? What does it mean for them?

John: What’s been happening to the share of students in online education?

Spiros: I’ll talk a little bit on the enrollment trends and then I’m going to pass it on to Sandy, who specifically focused on a lot of the review of the research literature on outcomes. We had seen an explosive growth in online education, almost one-in-three college students, over 6 million students, take any online courses. Half of these students—three million students—are enrolled in exclusively online programs, what we would call fully online programs, while the other three million take at least one, but not all of their courses online. So one-third of students today are involved in online education, one-sixth of students are enrolled in exclusively fully online education. Now, when you look at for-profit colleges, and just so we get a sense of the concentration—or rather the disproportionate share in the sector—for-profit colleges enroll six percent of all students, thirteen percent of students taking at least a course online, but a full one-quarter of fully online students. Eighty percent of students at four-year for-profit colleges take courses online. That’s more than two and a half times the rate at public institutions and triple the rate at private nonprofit higher education institutions. Today, seventy percent of four-year for-profit college students are fully online. So in other words, when you look at the entire four-year for-profit college sector, seven out of ten of their students never have in-person contact with peers or instructors. They are fully online. That is seven times the rate at public institutions, and a three and a half times the rate at nonprofit institutions. So big picture, online education enrollment is booming, it has experienced an explosive growth, and it has been disproportionately significant in the for-profit college, and how it coincided with a change in the law, I think you can reasonably say that, yes, there is a relationship there for sure, and that was a significant driver of the enrollment growth. But I would like Sandy to weigh in on these points as well, because she’s focused on that.

Sandy: So just a couple of clarifications about this enrollment growth. One is that although the growth has been much more rapid in the for-profit sector than in other sectors, and the share of for-profit students enrolled online is higher—much higher than the share in other sectors—large public state universities are seeing big efforts in the online space. I mean, you could interpret this as trying to provide opportunities for different groups of students, or as looking for a revenue source. So the revenue is also an issue for these public institutions. And there are a number of private nonprofit large institutions—just a very small number—that enroll thousands and thousands of online students. Another issue that is really important to understand is that much of the research that we looked at focuses on courses that are taught fully online. So there’s a distinction between your whole program being online and never seeing a human being, and just taking one course online. But there’s also a distinction between taking a course that is fully online and of course, that is what we call a hybrid course, that adds technology to some classroom experiences. And the evidence is that these hybrid methods are actually quite good for students and that the outcomes are at least as good as they are in traditional classroom courses. It’s the fully online coursework that we’re talking about, and about which there is a lot of evidence of questionable outcomes.

John: Earlier you noted that one of the arguments for increased use of online instruction is to lower costs and increase access. Have costs been lowered, either to students or to institutions by expanding online programs?

Sandy: By and large, no. There is some evidence that at institutions that do a lot of online education there may be some lower tuition prices, but the fact is that tuition is frequently higher. So it may be possible in the future for online coursework to save money. We don’t want to say that we know that that can’t be the case—because it’s logical that it could be the case—but right now, it hasn’t happened, and some of that has to do with individual institutions reinventing the wheel of course, and big investment overall in online education could in the future solve this problem. But today, no, it’s not cheaper.

Spiros: One point I wanted to add to what Sandy said is that it’s also an issue of incentives here. We obviously have University of Maryland, University College that has been one of the big players in the space for a long time and Arizona State University has always been a player, they’re announcing even more of an expansion. And as Sandy mentioned, one of the reasons is revenue. In other words, a lot of institutions see online education as a way to get more revenue. Then the question is, even if they become successful in reducing the costs of production—which as Sandy correctly pointed out, raises significant issues around quality—what would be the incentive to pass on the savings to students? So in other words, in many ways online education—even if it has the potential to reduce costs of production—the big question remains, is that going to translate into reducing the costs of attendance for students? And I’m not sure that the incentives are there for that to happen. And one of the things that we have seen is that not only do they charge the same tuition as they do for their regular programs, so if the university let’s say has a Bachelor’s in psychology, which is a brick-and-mortar program and then it offers a Bachelor’s in psychology online, and we see that they charge the same tuition, then they add on top of that a variety of technology fee s, and other things just for online, which ends up making it more expensive. And so there was one conclusion that we reached on the paper is that no, online education has not realized its potential of reducing costs in higher education today.

Rebecca: I’d like to focus a little bit on the quality issue that you’ve raised multiple times now. There’s a wide variety of courses that are online, you mentioned, certainly recording a video and putting it online and allowing many people to see it is very different than interactions that you might have with students. Can you talk a little bit about the differences in quality and what some of your findings were in that area?

Sandy: Well unfortunately, a lot of the studies that compare outcomes among students in fully online versus other courses don’t actually go into much detail about how those courses were taught, so the careful studies of this are rather limited. What is clear from all of the evidence is that interaction, personal interaction, makes a difference. That when you look at students who have no interaction with their classmates or with instructors, they are less likely to get good grades, they are less likely to complete their courses, and they voice this concern. In particular, it is vulnerable groups of students who suffer from this lack of interaction. So you see that students who are well prepared, who already know how to study, who are motivated, know how to learn, have good GPAs going into the courses, are most likely to do just as well in a fully online course as they would in a classroom course. But it’s those with weaker preparation, it’s students with low GPAs, it’s black and Hispanic students, students from low-income backgrounds. These students do very poorly in these courses, so that the socioeconomic gap in outcomes is greater in online courses than it is in classroom courses. This is a huge problem because people actually are hoping that online courses will make it easier for adult students, students with other responsibilities, work responsibilities, children, that for them—where the travel to a physical location is more difficult—this online learning could be the saving grace and that they would learn more from this. And those are the very students who are struggling most from it. And there is just a lot of evidence that the problem is learning—and we know this from the psychological literature as well— learning is a social process. I mean, we can all read something, but it’s not just a matter of pouring information into people’s heads, it’s learning to solve problems, it’s engaging in discussions, and for people who don’t have a lot of experience with that, the interaction is particularly important and the fully online learning environment is particularly risky.

Rebecca: You’re kind of emphasizing the idea that having an expert in the field to help guide the way students are learning how to think in the discipline is particularly important?

Spiros: Yeah, substantive expertise is key. The instructor has to be a subject matter expert, and has to interact with students. That is the essence of education. The educational process is intrinsically an interactive process. When if you go and look up in Oxford the definition of education, it’s gonna say, it’s between a teacher and a student interacting. I mean, you can’t have an education without the interaction. What is happening though now is that we’re seeing a glorification of self-learning. We’re seeing a glorification where you have students interacting with software programs, students interacting with technology, and that might be fine, but that’s not education. That’s self-learning. And the big distinction in the federal law between correspondence education—which is self-learning—and distance education is that in distance education—online education—students have to interact with an instructor on a regular basis and in a substantive manner. That regular and substantive interaction is legally, statutorily (in law), a regular education. And what was surprising to us is that in looking at the evidence we uncovered a large number of studies making that exact point. How from a pedagogical perspective, interaction between students and instructors is absolutely critical. And we found evidence that that is what increases student learning, that is what increases student satisfaction, that is what improve student outcomes. We reviewed those studies and the verdict was in, you got to have strong interaction. And so the current efforts by this administration to water down those requirements is very concerning because it’s going to blur the lines between self-learning and education. And interestingly, our paper coincided with a beginning of the negotiated rulemaking process at the Department of Education on a host of issues, including this one, under the general guise of promoting innovation and flexibility in higher education.

John: Actually, I think at least one of the studies that found this was a study of online instruction at the State University of New York by Peter Shea who found that classes that had more active instructor engagement and more interaction were more successful. But adaptive learning, on the other hand, has been shown to be effective in face-to-face classes, and I believe online as well. But I don’t think the ideas are mutually incompatible – that having students work individually with computer mediated instruction can be useful as long as they’re also interacting actively with the instructor and the class community and getting feedback on their work. So I don’t think we have to rule out adaptive learning tools to say that having active instructor engagement in the class is really important to learning.

Sandy: Adaptive learning is a whole other thing from what we’re talking about. And so we’re not saying that technology can’t help—of course, technology can help—and adaptive learning can be terrific. It’s not cheap, but it can be terrific. We’re not saying that there are no good fully online courses, either. I mean, that’s not the question. It’s about how most of this is done, and how it’s done, if it’s not carefully designed adaptive learning, and if it doesn’t involve personal interaction with subject matter experts.

Rebecca: In addition to the personal interaction, were there other things that you discovered would be really useful to help those populations that are particularly at risk that you mentioned earlier?

Spiros: I’m gonna ask Sandy to weigh in as well. But I can tell you that what we know from the literature about student outcomes in higher education in general, beyond what we examine in online education, is that academically underprepared and at-risk populations—including students from lower-income families, first-generation students, and the students with remedial needs, I mean, what we would call in general at-risk populations in higher education—they need significant academic and student support services to help them succeed. That requires a significant investment from the institution. It requires a purposeful and meaningful strategy that specifically is designed to address the unique needs of these populations. Of course, it’s difficult to cover all of the research and the literature in my comment, but we know that it takes a whole lot to support these students and to ensure their success. Everybody talks about the CUNY ASAP program, which has become the new poster child of what it takes to have tremendous success with these populations. That’s a very expensive program. It’s a great program, but it’s also a very expensive program. It again confirms what we know, which is: we know what needs to be done, but you have to have the investments and you have to have a purposeful strategy. But Sandy, I would like for you to weigh in on this as well.

Sandy: Yeah, I think it’s really important to understand that all of that evidence suggests that for at-risk students, for students with weak academic backgrounds, and with many factors that could interfere with their academic success, these students need really strong support systems, it’s not just about money. And it’s not just about time, it’s about the need for support systems. So it is certainly true that for many of these students, if they can take some courses online, this could actually help them to graduate because you can take more courses online, because you can do them in the evening and on flexible schedules. And even if you fail a lot of them still, you might end up accumulating more courses. But taking some courses online is not the same thing as thinking that you can just sit at home with your computer and get your whole education and succeed that way. Because being part of a community, part of an intellectual community, part of an academic support community, and part of a social support community is what these students need. Understanding that should make it possible for us to develop systems that take advantage of the things that online learning can contribute without assuming that it’s going to be the silver bullet, and that it can replace the important components of traditional learning. I think that’s one of the problems we always have is somebody sees something that adds an important component to the education system where they say, “Okay, let’s junk everything else and just do that. And that our evidence clearly suggests is not going to be a good strategy.

John: How do employers view online education relative to face-to-face education?

Sandy: There are surveys of employers, of faculty members, of academic administrators, of the public, uniformly they say that the perception is that online education does not produce the same outcomes as in-person education. Now, perceptions are not always a reflection of reality, but particularly for employers you would expect that perceptions would pretty quickly catch up to reality because those perceptions are, to a great extent, based on the performance of people they hire.

Rebecca: So you shared a lot of things that I think faculty or administrators who are developing online courses should certainly be thinking about. We’ve also talked a little bit about some of the legal issues that we might want to be concerned with. Are there things that faculty and institutions should be doing to make sure that quality is ensured, and that as institutions of higher education, and the value of education is held moving forward?

Spiros: Every industry needs to listen to its customers. Higher education needs to listen to students. And students surveys consistently emphasize the desire for greater interaction with their instructors and their peers, and so that is something that higher education needs to be responsive to. So even if they dismiss our paper, they dismissed what I think, what Sandy thinks, let’s just boil it down to the basics which is they need to listen to the students that they serve. I don’t like talking about students as customers or consumers. But just for the purposes of this conversation, they should listen to the consumers of their services, and so they definitely need to put a focus on that. They definitely need to understand that we have to ask if students need additional services. And they need to listen to their faculty. And we’ve seen many examples for faculty involvement in online programming hasn’t been that strong. Institutions are in a hurry to set up programs for revenue purposes and others, and they do not take the thoughtful approach that includes feedback and input from the faculty. So I think faculty involvement is critical. At the end of the day, faculty are the experts, faculty know pedagogy, faculty are the ones who work and teach the students, so I think that that’s another advice that that I would have. And again, I would be making the point that quality matters. It’s not just about just building the platform and going out there and offering online, you have to pay attention to making sure that it’s a quality education.

John: Speaking of Quality Matters, there is a Quality Matters rubric out there that’s used in many institutions to evaluate online education. And SUNY—along with the Online Learning Consortium—has also developed the OSCQR rubric. Will those types of things perhaps help ensure a higher quality of online instruction?

Spiros: Frankly, I’m not familiar with either of them. I’m not a traditional academic, I came out after eight years in government. So to be honest with you, I’m not particularly familiar with those. I don’t know if Sandy is, but I would say that all tools that are geared towards ensuring quality definitely are welcome into contributing that effort.

Sandy: So, what we do know is that the people who have worked on quality for online education agree that an important component of quality is making sure that there is substantive interaction. So these efforts seem to all be headed in a similar direction, which is, let’s make sure that we think about how students learn and that we incorporate that knowledge into how we design our courses. The problem that they’re going to run into is that it’s more expensive to do that. So it’s really important for the people who are focused on quality, who have evidence about quality, who care about quality, to stand up to the people on campus who are just saying, “Well, the goal here was to make more money, so let’s make it cheaper.” So yes, I mean, all of these efforts are really moving in the right direction and certainly compiling evidence is the best way to make sure that we improve outcomes at the same time that we broaden opportunities and promote innovation.

Rebecca: So you’ve mentioned that, on campuses, people who are emphasizing the quality are all moving in the right direction. But you also mentioned earlier that the legislation is moving in the other direction. So can you talk a little bit about that disconnect, and maybe some of the actions that we could try to take to, to help align those?

Sandy: Let me just say that—and Spiros is more of an expert on the details of the legislation—but there’s a clear movement under the current administration to reduce regulation, regardless, and there are obviously regulations in higher education and elsewhere, that are counterproductive that raise costs without improving outcomes, that burden providers and so on. And so looking at regulations is certainly worth doing and I think past administrations have done the same thing. But in this case, there is just a wholesale effort to remove the regulations that have been developed in order to protect students… to protect consumers. And so we just need to look at that and say, “Let’s look each time there was a proposal to reduce regulation and ask why that regulation was imposed, if there’s any evidence that it’s helping, and what the results of removing it would likely be,” and in higher education, it’s really frightening to watch and see how everything that in any way interferes, particularly with the providers of for-profit education, is assumed to be a bad thing. And we need innovation, we need to allow things to change and develop. We need new ideas. But we have a big history of the changes in the federal financial aid system, opening up to for-profit providers, leading to generating a huge growth in this sector that obviously included—well, it includes some quality institutions included—lots of organizations that were not interested in really educating students. So that could easily happen again, if we just say, “Oh, you have a good idea, you say it works. Go ahead, do it. We’ll pay for it.” That’s so obviously going to lead to big problems.

Spiros: Yeah, everything Sandy said was correct. And the one point I would make is people use the word innovation and I think it’s important to remember there’s good innovation and there’s bad innovation. Not all innovation is a good thing. Innovation means doing things differently, you can do things differently and have a better outcome and you can do things differently and have a worse outcome. So I think a lot of these changes that are being advanced by the administration, and here’s the disturbing part: Oftentimes, with the support of the higher education institutions, and the higher education sector overall—and I don’t know of any industry that loves regulation, higher education is no exception.—and it’s under this framing of “if we get rid of all these laws and all these regulations, et cetera, we’re going to have innovation.” And if we’ve learned anything from history—if we study history of regulation in higher education—is that every time we do that, there was a huge period of a lot of fraud, waste, and abuse, because the incentive structure in higher education promotes those behaviors. And we need to understand that when we change our regulation, we’re not just changing it for the good schools out there, we’re changing it for all the schools. So when you lower these barriers, when you remove these barriers—all of whom, by the way, are there for a reason—and the good actors might continue acting in a responsible manner, but there are a lot of bad actors who have an incentive to take advantage of that removal of the “barrier.” So when we’re talking about one hundred fifty billion dollars a year—that’s according to the College Board, when you throw all the aid in and Sandy’s the author of that report so she knows that well—but when we’re talking about one hundred fifty billion a year with tax expenditures and everything, that’s a pretty significant investment we need to safeguard and we need to understand that all of these changes actually have significant implications, most importantly for students, but also for taxpayers. So the stakes are high, essentially, is what I’m trying to say and we need to look behind the curtain of innovation and behind the veil of flexibility, and see exactly what are these changes meant to do and who is going to benefit from them. So just to give a specific example, a year and a half ago the OIG—the Office of the Inspector General—in the Department of Education did an audit of Western Governors University and found that they hadn’t really complied with regular and substantive interaction. And WGU is what I would call—based on the outcomes it has—decent student outcomes, affordable school, nonprofit, and does not have a track record of any sort of abuses of predatory behavior or anything like that. So it’s a pretty solid school that has a very strong reputation among policymakers. So everybody jumped to the defense of WGU saying, “Oh, no, no, no, you know, let’s be careful here, let’s not penalize them, because maybe they were not in compliance, let’s change the law to make sure that the law complies with WGU, rather than WGU complying with the law.” The point here is though, that while WGU might have been the specific example, changing the law is not only going to help WGU, it’s going to impact everybody. So while WGU might benefit, a lot of bad actors are also going to benefit from such changes. And the results from such a change with bad actors is probably not going to be something that we’re proud of or that we should be proud of. And so in politics and in policy it’s important to look not only at who is the obvious beneficiary of something but also who is the potential beneficiary behind the scenes, and we talk about that in the paper towards the end.

John: What recommendations would you have for faculty teaching online classes or developing new courses or programs in creating high quality online programs?

Sandy: Many faculty members who have a bias against online learning have found when they engage in it that actually it goes very well and their students learn, but those same people are very likely to say that they put more work into the online course then they did into their regular courses. So I would say that faculty should be open to the opportunity but they should not expect it to be just the easy way out, they should be prepared to learn how to teach well in this environment, to be prepared to put their resources and their time into getting to know the students, and into helping the students learn. And it’s quite likely to be a big investment at first, a bigger investment than just continuing your courses. Now we know that faculty members don’t all do a good job in the classroom either. So the idea is not that every classroom course is better than every online course. But faculty members need to understand that this is a big investment and they need to learn how to do it. They need to accept support from people who have experience at doing it well. And they have to urge their institutions to have the goal of doing this right, putting resources into it, integrating—again—personal interaction with the technology, and making sure that the primary goal is not just to save the institution money, but to really create positive learning experiences for students and I think if faculty and the administration share those goals, that there is potential for this to go a lot better. But the there’s a real risk of everybody just looking for an easy way out. I think many people agree on what is important, but they don’t know quite how to do it. And so learning how to do it… doing a lot of studying, examining the successful efforts. And then again, putting the students first is the best advice for people who are developing this kind of learning opportunity.

Spiros: I would only add, as well, for faculty to pay attention to what’s happening right now in negotiated rulemaking, that these changes that are being considered are going to have an impact on education, on faculty. And there are a lot of folks in higher education, who really want to downgrade the role of faculty in the educational process and want to minimize this importance of interaction between students and faculty, and would rather have students interacting with software and calling that an education. So I know that AAUP and others are paying attention to this, but I think it’s important for all faculty to be following these conversations because they have wide ranging implications that really, really impact our daily lives and how we engage in this practice,

Sandy: I think we really want people to understand that what we’re talking about is learning, education, and quality. We’re not talking about sort of making a blanket condemnation, either of technology and online learning or of the for-profit sector, but we are saying that these problems are very evident there and that we have to work this out, acknowledging where they are concentrated.

Spiros: The one thing I would I would say is this. From a policy perspective—from like the thirty-thousand foot level—the argument is that higher education has not been serving non-traditional populations well and that technology has the potential to provide access to opportunity for a lot of these populations. Based on what we found, and the bad outcomes that online education has been producing for these exact populations, I am very, very worried that if we don’t fix the issues identified in the paper, we are moving in a situation where instead of engines of mobility and equality, we are making online education engines of inequality. And instead of helping and addressing the huge achievement gaps and attainment gaps in this country, we’re actually going to be making them even more severe and augmenting them. So from a very big sort of high level, the concern here is that if online education is the tool that folks believe can help close the achievement gaps, is actually increasing those achievement gaps, then it’s urgent that we fix these issues. Otherwise, we are really making things worse instead of better.

Sandy: Yeah, I think that is really our most important point. And if the institutions that have ample resources put those resources into doing a really good job of adaptive learning and hybrid learning and so on, then the gap is going to grow even greater… that students who have had the preparation and the resources to enroll in institutions that do this well will have even better opportunities whereas students who are at risk and are going to the under-resourced institutions that are struggling to really provide the support that they need are going to end up pushed online into courses that are not carefully constructed in programs that don’t serve them well. And the socioeconomic gaps in educational outcomes and attainment are going to grow and that’s what we really want to avoid.

Rebecca: I think that the research that you shared should be really compelling to any faculty whether or not they teach online, to push their institutions to do the right thing to push their colleagues to do the right thing… to push their representatives do the right thing in the regulatory sphere.

John: We’ve already seen decades of worsening economic inequality and reduced intergenerational mobility and your arguments suggest that that’s just going to get worse if online education, which is a growing share of education, continues to widen the performance gap between first-generation and continuing-generation college students.

Sandy: That’s right.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking, what next?

Spiros: What next? I mean, you know, as with everything, once you you write a paper on something, you do research on something, and it’s not like you switch off the light. We continue being engaged. We recently published a notepad with Sandy in the Chronicle of Higher Education and we summarize a lot of the arguments that we have in the paper. We’re participating in podcasts like yours and events and panels, and we continue to write about the issue and following closely what’s happening in D.C. on this. So I think we’re just continuing to spread and share what we learned in the paper with others, and hopefully, it’s going to have an impact.

Sandy: You know our main interest, I mean online education is one component and one symptom of the issues that we’re interested in. So thinking about access and success in higher education and increasing opportunities is the key. And certainly we expect our research to continue in that direction, but understanding the relationships. I mean, I think that there are a lot of cases where people think that a solution is a progressive solution that will really increase opportunities and it turns out not to be. And how can people understand the difference between something that sounds like it increases opportunity and something that really does increase opportunities is very difficult and very important.

Rebecca: I look forward to following your research. That’s a really interesting and important topic. So thank you so much for joining us and sharing your work with us.

John: Yes, thank you.

Sandy: Thank you.

Spiros: Thank you.

[Music]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.

78. Helicopter Parenting

Over time and across locations, increased income inequality raises the stakes of pursuing a college degree, resulting in increased parental intervention in their child’s education. In this episode, Dr. Matthias Doepke and Dr. Fabrizio Zilibotti, the authors of Love, Money and Parenting join us to explore the implications of these evolving parenting styles for our educational system.

Matthias is a professor of Economics at Northwestern University and Fabrizio is the Tuntex Professor of International Development Economics at Yale University.

Show Notes

  • Dr. Matthias Doepke –  Professor of Economics at Northwestern University
  • Dr. Fabrizio Zilibotti– Tuntex Professor of International Development Economics at Yale University.
  • Doepke, M., & Zilibotti, F. (2019). Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids. Princeton University Press.
  • World Values Survey – A global  survey of society values and norms.
  • James Heckman – Nobel Memorial Prize winning Economist at the University of Chicago
    • Elango, S., García, J. L., Heckman, J. J., & Hojman, A. (2015). Early childhood education. In Economics of Means-Tested Transfer Programs in the United States, Volume 2 (pp. 235-297). University of Chicago Press.
    • Heckman, J. J., Stixrud, J., & Urzua, S. (2006). The effects of cognitive and noncognitive abilities on labor market outcomes and social behavior. Journal of Labor economics, 24(3), 411-482.
    • Doyle, O., Harmon, C. P., Heckman, J. J., & Tremblay, R. E. (2009). Investing in early human development: timing and economic efficiency. Economics & Human Biology, 7(1), 1-6.
    • Heckman, J. J. (2011). The economics of inequality: The value of early childhood education. American Educator, 35(1), 31.
    • Heckman, J. J. (2012). Invest in early childhood development: Reduce deficits, strengthen the economy. The Heckman Equation, 7, 1-2.
    • Heckman, J., Grunewald, R., & Reynolds, A. (2006). The Dollars and Cents of Investing Early: Cost-Benefit Analysis in Early Care and Education. Zero to Three, 26(6), 10-17.
    • García, J. L., Heckman, J. J., Leaf, D. E., & Prados, M. J. (2016). The life-cycle benefits of an influential early childhood program (No. w22993). National Bureau of Economic Research.
    • Heckman, J. J. (2006). Skill formation and the economics of investing in disadvantaged children. Science, 312(5782), 1900-1902.
    • Doyle, O., Harmon, C., Heckman, J. J., Logue, C., & Moon, S. (2013). Measuring investment in human capital formation: An experimental analysis of early life outcomes (No. w19316). National Bureau of Economic Research.

John: Over time and across locations, increased income inequality raises the stakes of pursuing a college degree, resulting in increased parental intervention in their child’s education. In this episode, we explore the implications of these evolving parenting styles for our educational system.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guests today are Dr. Matthias Doepke and Dr. Fabrizio Zilibotti, the authors of Love, Money and Parenting. Matthias is a professor of Economics at Northwestern University and Fabrizio is the Tuntex Professor of International Development Economics at Yale University. Welcome.

John: Welcome.

Matthias: Thank you.

Fabrizio: Thank you for having us.

John: We’re really pleased to have you here. Our teas today are…are either of you drinking tea?

Matthias: Not right now.

Fabrizio: Not really. No.

[LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m drinking English Afternoon.

Fabrizio: Very good.

John: And I’m drinking Cranberry Blood Orange, it’s a black tea.

We’ve invited you here to discuss Love, Money, and Parenting. In this book you use economics to explain differences across countries and across time in how we raise our children. How did this book come about?

Fabrizio: Well, this book comes from our research. For many years, we have been interested in understanding what’s going on inside the family’s interaction in society, the cultural processes as determinants of economic development. But this is also a book that comes from our personal experience as parents. We have been moving around many countries. Our professions, for instance, led me first to London where I took my PhD. Then from there I was here in Spain. I moved to Sweden, I stayed for eight years, back to the UK in between, and then in Switzerland. My daughter was actually born in Sweden and has lived herself in many countries and eventually I have moved to the United States while my daughter stay in Switzerland. So, both as a parent and as a person, I have been in contact with many parenting cultures.

John: And Matthias?

Matthias: From my perspective also, it was a large part of the motivation was the contrast between my own childhood and what it was like as a parent. I grew up in the 1970s in a very relaxed time for parenting where we had a few hours of school, we would go to lunch, and then the afternoon and evenings you could do pretty much whatever we wanted. It’s a very freedom-oriented, independent childhood, which I greatly enjoyed. And so I expected that my own parenting many years later will be very similar to that, the truth ended up to be completely different. So we are now much more involved parents than my own parents had been. And so a lot of the motivation from the personal side comes from reflecting what the reasons why the parenting we do now—in the society we live in today—turned out to be so different from what we were used to as children.

Fabrizio: If I can add something to that—Matthias has emphasized the contrast between our own childhood and our own parenting—there is also a lot of contrast between parenting culture in different countries and every time I’ve moved…a big culture shock. We live in a world that, especially in moving around in industrialized countries, you would expect the difference not to be so large and yet when my daughter was born in Sweden, I was shocked by the way children and parents interact in Sweden, how generally relaxed liberal Swedish parents are. Then I moved to Switzerland. The culture there is somewhat more formal. Children have to respect some stricter rules and the school is also like that but then when I moved back to the UK with my daughter for some time and then later I moved to the US, I realized that the pressure on children is much stronger in these countries than in Sweden or in Switzerland, where I lived.

Rebecca: As you had children as you were moving into these different spaces, did you find that your parenting style shifted as you shifted cultures?

Fabrizio: Yeah, to some extent it has. I mean, it’s hard not to adopt somehow because to some extent, the way other parents behave and expect you to behave affects you as a parent. At the same time, of course, I was bringing with me my own cultural way of thinking so sometimes that led to some little cultural clash. I remember when I decided that it was a good idea for my daughter to start school at six, which is unusually early for Sweden where kids start at seven. I had some discussion with the teachers and the offices, because they weren’t so sure this would be a good idea. I guess part of the reason why somehow I compromised with the local culture and I also kept my own perspective is because I’ve never been sure in which country I would eventually live and my daughter would eventually live. So I kept behaving perhaps more like an international parent than as a parent that lives and grow children in a particular place. And somehow what we argued in the book is that people—we as parents—adjust the way we do parenting to the type of society we expect our children to live in. So I was in Sweden, but I was never thinking perhaps I would stay for good there,

Matthias: And so moving on just from school, another example of the ways in which parenting has got more intensive is that now there’s a lot more supervision for children. In the United States, it’s now rare to see children just walk on their own to school. And in my own parenting, we really do adjust to this when we move back and forth between the U.S. and Europe. So when I’m in at home in Evanston, we don’t really let our kids go out on their own to the playground or to go to friends. And to some extent that’s a reaction to the environment, because nobody else is doing it. If I were to send my kids to the street, and we’re the only ones there, there’s not much for them to do. And because nobody else is doing it—and because I think by law, you’re not supposed to leave kids alone at all until age 14—it would be maybe even risky to do that. Maybe the police would pick them up if they’re called by somebody. But then maybe go to my parents house in Germany in the summer, it’s a different culture. There’s lots of kids on the streets and so we just tell the eight-year-old, “Just go out and do whatever you want and just come back when you’re done playing with your friends,” and so there’s also this quite direct feedback from what other parents do, to what other kids do, to what your own constraints are. That’s one of the examples of how the environment affects what parents do. But of course, we think that this economic dimension—which affects education first and foremost—is the most important one.

John: In terms of economics, you use economic analysis throughout the book, or at least a general economic approach to analyzing these issues. Maybe you could talk a little bit about what you assume motivates parents in terms of their incentives and also the constraints that are faced? You’ve already mentioned the constraints a little bit here.

Fabrizio: Yeah, as economists we tend to view choice as the result of there being some objectives and some constraints. So we think that parenting also obeys this general law. When people think of economics, they tend to think of decision involving financial aspects. But actually, this is not what we think is the most salient aspect of parenting decisions. So when it comes to objectives in particular, we think that the parents love their children and they want them to be happy human beings—as happy and successful as possible in the type of society where they live. So, we don’t think that only economic factors matter, but we do think that economic factors to some extent influence choice, and more so in societies where economic inequality is more pronounced. So if you’re out, for instance, in a society where where you study, how successful you are in education matters, but not tremendously so—which could be a description of the time in which we were born—well then parents would tend to be more relaxed and maybe emphasize more having interaction with other children, relaxed socialization, playing soccer, and coming home dirty as I was doing when I was a child. When instead that economic dimension becomes more salient, then we see the parents become more worried about it because something that the children do when they are young may have important effects when they grow up. So if society is very unequal and where you end up is largely a function of success you have in an educational career, then they become more obsessed. Now constraints are also very important. Some constraints are of course of financial nature so if schools are expensive, parents have to figure out if they can afford it or if they have to save or if they have to borrow in order to be able to send their children to school. But there’s also other constraints. Maybe some type of cognitive constraints so parents themselves having an education may imply that they are better at handling some situations, they have more social skills to which they can influence their children’s way of thinking, and the entire structure of the family matters. So if there is only one person in the family that works, there is a shortage of time to spend with children. If there is good institutional support like I had in Sweden, in the form of high-quality daycare, that makes it easier somehow for a family to handle, especially for families that don’t receive help from outside or from families where there is only one person earning or just one person in the family like a single-parent situation. This is all the set of constraints. And the set of objectives is love and concern for the children. How much weight is put on economic consideration largely depends on the environment where a family growsl children.

Rebecca: In your book, you talk about three different parenting styles. Can you talk a little bit about each of those styles and what kind of environments they tend to evolve in?

Matthias: So the three parenting styles we discuss, these styles have come from developmental psychology…so some archetypes that been discovered in a different field that we examine from the economic perspective. And so the three styles are the permissive parenting style where you give kids a little freedom, there’s the authoritarian parenting style where you prescribe particular choices and expect obedience from the children, and there’s the authoritative style, where you also try to influence the kids in a certain direction, but with a different method…just more based on persuasion and arguments as opposed to just expecting obedience. And so the first decision here is the one between permissive parenting where you give freedom to the kids and the two other styles which are more interventionist. And we argue that to understand why you would intervene in the first place, that there has to be some kind of disagreement. There has to be some initial disagreement about what the kids should do between the parent and the child. And of course, every parent knows that there’s tons of different areas of disagreement from using the iPad, doing the dishes, and lots of other things. But what we argue in the book is that perhaps the most important one is one that has to do with patience and valuing the future versus the present. So I think most parents would wish on the margin that their kids would think a little bit more about long-run consequences about the value of starting to know the value of not getting into trouble, whereas the kids on the margin perhaps think a bit more about enjoying the present, just having fun right now. So there’s this tension between “should I spend time investing in the future—preparing myself?”—or just enjoy this moment? And we think this tension is really there for most parents, for most children, most of the time. But what really varies is the extent to which, from the parents’ perspective, preparing for the future really is important. How high the stakes are in this decision between being more interventionist and being more relaxed. This is where economic inequality comes in because if you think—for example—of this whole dimension of, say, working hard for school, if inequality is relatively low and your future standing in society does not depend hugely on being the very best student in math in your class, well then the parents can afford to relax a little bit more. Of course there’s an upside to that too. It’s always a trade off because being interventionist might have some long-run benefits. There’s also costs, partly in terms of being less relaxed and maybe a little less fun right now, but there might also be other costs such as independence, being able to be free, also giving more room for kids to discover their own passions and really finding out what they’re excited about. So there’s this tension between intervening to prepare the kids for the future and letting go and inequality drives that basic choice. So this kind of tells us why permissive or why interventionists, and then other trade offs determine in which particular way you may want to intervene.

John: So for people who grew up in the 50s and 60s when income inequality was lower in most advanced economies, there was less pressure on kids to be successful and so forth, so parents generally adopted a less interventionist approach. And you also mentioned the same sort of thing across countries now when you compare, for example, Sweden and Switzerland.

Fabrizio: Right.

Matthias: That’s right.

Fabrizio: The level of economic inequality, but also the level of government-mandated redistribution is highly correlated with the adoption of different parenting styles. If we put a country on a line where we measure them by an increasing extent of inequality, we would have at the bottom of this line Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and also other central European countries like the Netherlands and Germany. Switzerland would be pretty much there in the in the medium to low inequality. And on the opposite extreme, we would have countries like the United States or the United Kingdom, and even more so, China, where the extent of the income inequality is high and in the case of the U.S., also the extent of our distribution is more limited. Now, when we measure—and we do this by looking at various data and various service—we try to classify parents according to their parenting style. The regularity that we find is that in countries with low inequality, parents tend to be systematically more permissive, and in countries with high inequality, parents tend to be systematically more authoritative to some extent also more authoritarian. So this is the type of pattern that we emphasize across countries and when we look somehow into this black box of the various archetypes and we see what values parents emphasize. Well, for instance, the World Values Survey is a data set that is based on a questionnaire that are posed to parents and parents are asked what values they regard as important in child rearing, and they can select out of a list of ten up to five of them. Well, the most preferred values for Scandinavian parents are independence and imagination. When you go to the United States, hard work is a much more common answer and when you go to China, as many as 90% of people think that hard work is a cardinal value in child rearing. And it’s not only Scandinavia versus U.S. and China, it looks like it’s true across the entire spectrum of countries. A bunch of countries that are in the in the middle in terms of inequality would be Italy, France, Spain, Canada, would also be in the middle of this scale. We were quite surprised because as economists when we look at differences across countries, these patterns are there when you look at some variety of factors, but they are rarely so strong as we have found in this case. Another thing that I want to add is that it’s not only true when you compare the country with another country in the same year. Because this survey has been repeated over time, we can also see how the attitudes of people—and of parents in particular—change over time as a function of the level of income inequality. And what you find is extremely interesting: that the speed at which different trends develop depends on the change in income inequality. So if a country starts from a given level of inequality and inequality grows very fast, then we see that the share of parents who are permissive actually declines faster than another country where the process of increase of income inequality has been slower. I emphasize the aspect of growing income inequality because almost in any country in the world in the period you look at, there has been increasing income inequality, but the speed of this change has been different across countries. So in the United States, the change has been much faster than say in the Netherlands or in Sweden. One could suspect that, “Well, Scandinavians are different from Americans in many other aspects and that may be why the society is organized around different principles,” but when you look at the changes within each country, it’s very hard to make this objection because cultural traits—the way more broadly we think about them—they don’t change that fast. So we think that economic change really must be really an important factor. Of course, we don’t argue that it is the only factor but we think is an important factor in the transformation of the way people do parenting.

John: When you build this case, it seems so obvious, and I had never thought of this before. And I first saw an article about your book, and I read your book and some of your papers, and you make a really compelling case for this in the book and you provide a lot of data on this and I’m really impressed. Your book provides a really nice explanation of the rise of both tiger moms and helicopter parents and I think that’s something that a lot of faculty have seen in their students. What are the implications of having this changing mix of students in terms of teaching?…in terms of how we approach teaching students?

Matthias: It’s a very interesting question because it has to do a bit with this trade off between what we call the authoritative and the authoritarian style because the authoritative style, we use one where you work a lot with trying to explain to kids the reason for why we want them to do something, the reason for why studying is a good idea, why you should care about the future, why you should apply yourself and be conscientious. Now, why would people use this approach of being authoritative as opposed to just being authoritarian like in the old days and just tell them, “Do this and don’t ask questions?” Well, we think it has exactly to do with the fact that higher education has become more important, because for the authoritarian style to work — for you to be able to say “Do this, don’t even ask why. Just follow my instructions,” two things have to be true. First of all, you have to be in the right—you have to know what’s the right thing to do for the kid—and you have to have some kind of control, you have to be there to exert that pressure. And sometimes with kids, that’s the right approach and it all makes sense. If I think of if my five year old trying to run on the street…. I can grab him and tell him, “Don’t do this” because I know what the right thing is to do and I have the control to immediately impose this decision on him without going through a long argument why it’s a good idea for you not to be run over by a car. [LAUGHTER] And nowadays, the bigger conflict is about other stuff, about getting education and kind of getting ahead in life and for that college education becomes more and more important.

John: You mentioned the shift from more authoritarian parents in earlier generations going back for centuries to more authoritative parents, where you’re more likely to invest more time in teaching students and spending more time with them and I think some of that has been mirrored in how college teaching has been changing. If we go back to when I started teaching—sometime last century—it was really common for the instructor just to stand on the stage and lecture, and now we do much more with active learning, and we also spend much more time with our students, I think—or at least in general there’s been a shift to much more time-intensive instruction—and also much more focus on explaining why we do things the way we do. I think that mirrors the change that we’ve been seeing in terms of parenting as well, because students now expect to know why they’re doing something in ways that wasn’t true when I was a student.

MATHIAS: That’s right. And if you did the authoritative things successfully by the time the kids hit college, they should understand why they’re there, what they’re trying to learn, and they should have that self motivation, which makes it a very different process from having kids that don’t want to be there where you just have to—against their will—feed them some information. So that thinking would suggest that having authoritative parenting so more kids could really understand why they’re doing this thing would actually make it easier to teach them, would make it more fun, would make it—in a way—more successful. Which goes really against this notion that you often read in newspapers that helicopter parenting creates the opposite. Because there’s also this fear that helicopter parenting creates these kids that don’t really know how to take care of themselves, that have lost their independence, and therefore are lost once they’re get into college. If you look at the data of course, those cases do exist. I’m sure there’s some parents who really do over-parent—if you want to use the term—and where the kids do have some trouble adjusting to adulthood once college comes along. But on average I don’t really think that’s true because kids really do pretty well in college, and especially the ones that come from the backgrounds for helicopter parenting or more authoritative parenting is very common, they’re very likely to complete college. When you look at differences in educational success across social groups, a lot of the difference really comes from being able to complete college as opposed to the decision to enroll in the first place. And so it’s really about these skills that you’ve acquired during childhood to apply yourself to work on your own behalf to pull through this demanding program that you’ve placed yourself in, which makes a big difference for success. And so authoritative parenting, if done right, should actually help get to that.

Fabrizio: If I may add something on this…By having changed countries so often I have seen probably more of the cross-country variation and I don’t know how teaching was done twenty years ago—I wasn’t there—but I can say something. In Sweden, there is this very strong element of independence. This is a very cardinal value in parenting. And when you see undergraduate students, you notice that they are somehow more adult in a sense. They have their own personality and it was very pleasant to interact with them in a sense. It is because they would ask questions based on some genuine motivation. It was much harder to induce them to do a lot of work. [LAUGHTER] So requests of doing this by the following week would often be ignored, but not in that confrontational way. You know. It’s kind of: “It’s too much, and then we don’t do.” So if I compare with the students I have at Yale—who are awesome students as you can expect—they have also the same genuinel desire to learn, and at the same time, I would never hear students tell me, “No this is too much, you are too demanding,” it will just not come to their mind that it would probably be something they would never want to say in front of a teacher or other students. On the less positive side, there is this obsession for grades, students spend a lot of time to talk about that. So there is a lot of interaction and you have to explain—which of course, I’m happy always to do—again, when I was in Sweden or in other countries, this was not the case. I rarely remember having a discussion with students about the way that the grades they took, and it’s because they didn’t think it was overall so important. And that’s again, part of the society that is very competitive in which students, I think they have a genuine desire to learn, but they also think this is where it’s very important that what type of signal it provides for the future.

John: I’ve also seen this a bit in my classes with international students. Korean students, for example, appear to be used to a more authoritarian type of instruction where it’s generally lecture based, and they tend to be very uncomfortable in questioning the teacher or challenging concepts. They come from a background where that’s perhaps less common. I think your model explains quite a bit here. In terms of the shift from a more authoritarian to a more authoritative parent, might this be tied to the whole demographic transition and the changing fertility across countries in terms of parental investments in children?

Matthias: So we generally think that the most important reason for more prevalent authoritative parenting—the decline of authoritarian parenting—is that the key decisions children are expected to make now take place relatively late. Think back to 200 years ago, kids would be living with their parents, there would be no school, and so kids would be under the control of their parents all the time, and they would probably also adopt the same occupation their parent was. Most children of farmers would also be in agriculture so the parents would really know what they have to know. So you would be in an environment where the parents know what the kids need to know, they can teach them directly, and they have the control, that makes being authoritarian very easy. So what has changed is that now most important decisions for kids take place outside of the home in school, later in university. So in a way kind of functioning on your own, having the right values on your own is more important. And in addition, there’s also this fact, there’s more occupational mobility, so children are relatively unlikely to do exactly the same thing as their parents were doing and that makes it valuable to have more independence and more ability to acquire knowledge on your own without being fed directly by your parents. So these are broad economic trends that are relatively independent of population. But what you’re mentioning is the population growth, I think, also plays into that because the other important factor is that the authoritative style—so the more argumentative style—is much more time intensive. It’s just much quicker to just tell the kid, “Don’t do this, don’t touch this, don’t go there,” as opposed to really explaining every time the reason for every particular decision. And so if you think about the change in family size that people used to have four, five, six kids in the family, you just wouldn’t have had the time. It would have been impossible to teach each and every kid in great detail the reasons behind every decision. Even in my own family we have three kids—which is really small by historical standards—but we certainly in a way are more authoritarian with the last child, with the third child, because we just don’t have enough time. We don’t have the same time to explain each and every step to the third one who’s competing for time with the older ones, as opposed to the first child who you can really take the time to explain everything in great detail. You would think there’s a broader economic trend, but it’s really reinforced by the decline in family size, which now means that the time that parents have available for each and every child has gone up by a lot, and so there’s more explanation based or argumentative approach of the authoritative parenting style. It’s really much more feasible than it used to be.

Rebecca: What’s the relationship of changing gender roles? So more women in the workforce in relationship to parenting styles?

Fabrizio: Our general scheme is that parents want to prepare children for the world in which they are expected to grow as adults. So we think that gender role is very influenced by these principles. So in a society where women are heavily discriminated in the labor market, that tends to create in parents the incentive to prepare women for a different type of life than in a society like the one in which we live where this is hopefully more and more gender neutral. So we think that today because the opportunity of education for instance (actually, girls take more education than boys on average. Well that fosters a motive to parents to grow boys and girls according to the same principles, but in the earlier days where the measure of success for a woman was mostly through the marriage market and through the opportunities of moving up the social ladder by marrying someone richer, well then it was a completely different situation in which different type of values that were emphasized. So somehow we think that there is an interdependence between some type of cultural prejudice in the way labor markets and institutions function, and the way parents grow their children. Even parents who may not be heavily prejudiced about gender roles in the past may have emphasized more of a different type of upbringing because that’s the way in which the society would reward them. Now of course, this is an average pattern. There are always some exceptions, parents (probably mothers) who could actually push their girls against this type of prejudice and fight. We think that there is this type of, we could call it the multiplier effect. If you have some type of institution that distorts the behavior of some people, then parenting would tend to emphasize its importance.

Matthias: And so we look at some surveys both in the United States and international data where people were asked about particular gender-based attitudes, for example, this view. You might ask people, “Do you think that the men and women have different work and they shouldn’t do each other’s? And there’s separate spheres that’s appropriate for women and men to keep.” And people who agree with those values that there’s really a strict separation between genders, they’re also much more likely to apply strict separation how they raise boys and how they raise girls, and have different parenting styles to both. Often they’re more authoritarian with the girls, trying to put them into a particular gender role. So you see very clearly a mapping from people’s views of what the role is like and whether it’s appropriate for men and women to be separate into the kind of education or the kind of parenting that they apply to their own children. Interestingly, once you take account these attitudes about gender, it doesn’t actually matter whether you’re looking at the mother or the father. So mothers who have these views are just as likely to be emphasizing different gender roles as fathers are. So it’s not really about the gender of the parents; it’s about their views about gender roles. And in the data of course, these things have changed a lot, we think to a large extent because of technological change, because nowadays, in an economy where it’s easy to run the household with very little time, we have appliances, we have also ready-made food restaurants and grocery stores, so it isn’t really necessary from an economic perspective anymore to have a strict separation of gender roles. This has over time also become reflected in parenting, which now is really much more gender equal than it used to be.

Rebecca: We talked a lot about different value systems that influence the parenting style. Do those same value systems impact the values that the children ultimately adopt?

Matthias: It’s an interesting relationship because we do think that broad technological changes have a lot to do with how these changes come about in the first place, but there’s also very clear evidence that these other immediate changes, there’s some persistence in the values that children are exposed to as children and the values that are taken to their own adulthood. So we do think technology is important, but culture and technology and economic change ultimately interact in interesting ways. Just to give one example of this, there is a study done by another economist who looks at gender attitudes based on how you were raised as a child yourself. And so the study finds that if you look at men today whose mothers were working when they were children…so go back thirty, forty years when the current adults were little and see if their moms were working, which would have been in the 50s and 60s, would have been a relatively small fraction of mothers back then. So if you look at those boys and men today, you find they will be much more likely to be married to a woman who’s in the labor force also. There seems to be some kind of transmission of values that if your own mom was working, that you find the setup of having two working parents just the normal thing, you’re much more likely to end up in that kind of family yourself. Now, this is not that you’re subject to different technology, it’s really just that you had a certain experience as a child that formed your own expectations and that goes then to express your own life choices later on.

Fabrizio: Our work is also related to Nobel Laureate James Heckman from University of Chicago. Heckman has this view—that tested also in a number of empirical studies—that there is a process of skill formation that takes different stages and it’s like our mind and our set of values is very malleable at an early stage. So when children are small, they are very much subject to the influence of parents and of other peers, then this malleability decreases with age. There is still some influence that parents and the environment—perhaps even more so the environment—have on teenagers, and then somehow the set of cognitive and non-cognitive skills becomes more or less fixed when a person reaches 16, 17 years. And that’s a way which we think—and actually we are doing currently research in this direction—that’s the way in which we think the process how these values stick with children. So some of the choices parents have made may turn out exposed to be the wrong ones because it’s not so easy to forecast entirely what will happen in the future, but this will be part of the personality and the set of skills that children have.

John: Now, with income inequality growing and with the returns to education being relatively high, that persistence from generation to generation can make income inequality worse in terms of educational investment. One of the things you talk about in your book is how investment in education is tending to magnify the gaps in income. Could you talk perhaps a little bit about that?

Fabrizio: Let me start with one remark. What we emphasize is that the nature of parenting itself can actually create additional barriers for the poor. So somehow in a society which parents are more relaxed and somehow they are more withdrawn, then children will be subject to the effect of the environment, to the effect of schools, but back in the 1960s, 1970s, segregation across different neighborhoods was much less strong. So children were exposed to more similar types of environment, even children coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Nowadays on the one hand we have more segregation at the residential level. So educated people tend to live in neighborhoods where there are other educated people, tend to marry among themselves, and in addition, parents put a lot of emphasis in trying to guide their children. As the result, the barriers for the most advantaged becomes bigger because this type of intensive parenting requires time, it requires financial resources, it requires soft skills that they may be in short supply. So there are barriers that are part of the educational process because acquiring high-quality education is, of course, expensive—that’s a traditional argument for why segregation across neighborhoods… also the fact that schools are locally funded create barriers—but there is also an additional hurdle that is imposed, which is by the changing nature of parenting. It’s somehow in a race in which the disadvantaged groups tend to be more and more disadvantaged because the demand for parents grow and it’s very hard for people who don’t have the resources to keep up.

Matthias: So the big question is, does an increase in inequality increase inequality in parenting also or does it lower inequality in parenting? What we find in the data is that the increase in inequality makes everybody try harder. So we certainly do see across the entire population that, for example, the time that parents devote to parenting, doing things like doing homework with the kids, it goes up for everybody. There’s a sense in which all different groups are subject to this general change. The question is for whom is this impact larger? You might argue that it could in fact, be reducing inequality, if for example, if the rich and well educated households felt very secure that even if they don’t try very hard their kids will do well— as a tend to in the data— and it would be then the maybe less educated or somewhat poorer households who try harder to catch up with them. And what we’ll see in the data is the opposite, that as inequality has gone up, increases in the parenting effort has been actually the strongest for the ones who start with high advantages to begin with. So if you look at time use, you see that the more educated households have increased their time devoted to parenting more than the average households. You see with spending even more clearly that the spending on parenting tasks, including spending on extracurricular activities, on private school, on tutoring, those have gone up a little bit for everybody, but much faster for the richer households. So the data is very clear that the increase in inequality has increased inequality in parenting also, I think to a large extent for the reasons Fabrizio mentions. And that rising inequality has made constraints more binding for those who have less to begin with. And this is where the concern for the evolution of inequality comes into play. Because if inequality in parenting goes up, it means for the next generation, the difference will be even larger. So if you look at parenting 45 years from now when today’s kids are going to be the parents, the differences in starting positions for that generation will be amplified compared to what we have today. So this really creates this risk of a spiral where high inequality breeds more inequality in parenting and more inequality of parenting breeds more inequality in starting conditions down the road.

John: If we’d like to see a society where everyone had more equal opportunity to rise in the income distribution, what could we do to provide more equal opportunities for all children in society in terms of changing the structure of education and so on?

Matthias: So there’s really a lot of different angles you could start but I think there’s two that are the most important ones. The first angle is the one of early childhood education because we have learned from other research—Fabrizio already mentioned Nobel Laureate Jim Heckman and his co-authors who have done a lot of work on this—we’ve looked at this research that the first three years of life are really a crucial time of skill formation. A lot of the skills that will help you later on are formed. It’s not so much cognitive skills, it’s not that you’re supposed to learn to read and write and do arithmetic from zero to four but it’s more noncognitive skills such as patience, conscientiousness, perseverance in a task, trying to trust your own ability to do things, so basic abilities which are really very useful for your education career later on. And right now, we have a huge inequality in this because some households invest tremendously in those first few years, or pay for expensive private preschools to provide those skills versus others just don’t have the same possibility. As to providing more equal and perhaps free access to high quality early education I think would be the most important single thing you could do to lower inequality. And by the way, we talked a lot about international evidence. We do see that countries that have lower inequality in parenting and then income inequality overall, such as Scandinavia or such as Netherlands, Belgium, France that do have this infrastructure. So that’s really the place to start. I think the other end of education—what happens when you finish with school—is also important. So I think one of the challenges for the United States right now is that college has become more and more the only option for success. We don’t really have a clearly defined path to success that doesn’t go through college right now. And there used to be other ways of doing this, there used to be more vocational training, for example, in high school. Other countries such as the German speaking countries have apprenticeship systems where kids can do a combined program of learning a more practical skill at a business and also getting some schooling from a state-run school to have a broader skill set at the beginning of their career without going through this one bottleneck of college, which right now has become really the one thing that everybody worries about. So improving education at the beginning and the end of the schooling career, those we think are the most promising approaches. Of course, there’s other directions you can take too, but those would be good ones to start.

Fabrizio: Actually, if I can emphasize something that Mathias has already hinted at, I think the provision of free daycare would make a huge effect. And people don’t understand this, but it would not be so expensive. Free daycare means—of course, this has to be paid out of tax money—but people can work more hours when there is daycare and that’s somehow one the miracles of Scandinavian society, and that creates tax revenue so people are going to pay for a large part of the service. So it’s not so expensive as many times that American voters perceive it. It’s feasible, it’s reasonable, and it’s also possible to provide a high quality service that satisfies and serves a very large constituency of society. So when we were in Sweden—my daughter was in preschool—we found that the quality of the service extremely good. Then we moved to London where this is provided on a private basis, and so we had to spend a lot of money, but we searched for something that was referenced to us as the absolute top quality place—or one of those—and we did not find that the quality of the service was higher. And one of the things that is important that happens in daycare—actually I presented the book yesterday here in Norway, and that was the subject of a lengthy discussion—as people are telling me, “Well, all these activities that you talk about that parents do with their small children bringing them here in a public place or another, well, to a large extent are provided in our daycare centers.” And so parents at that point, they do not feel the responsibility for that because they know they are provided. Now, this sometimes sounds a little suspicious to Americans, “Why should people not have the possibility to choose?” Of course, they can always complement that with activities of their own choice, but somehow it’s also a very strong mechanism of equalizing opportunities. Because if it turns out that instead of doing it in the public daycare, I do things in some type of private club, well that private club will only be accessible to certain people and not to other people. And so, this is a way in which if opportunities are strongly equalized, and again, not at a very high financial costs for society overall. Other types of interventions at a later age are also useful, but they are comparatively speaking more expensive. So I think that this would be something where it would be very important to open a debate in American society and understanding that this can be done without having a huge blow on the tax-cost for taxpayers.

Rebecca: It seems like it can be a really valuable opportunity to help develop a growth mindset in kids because it would happen really early on, which would give them an advantage because they wouldn’t see themselves as having a fixed limitation on skill sets or possibilities. They might troubleshoot better, they might be more imaginative in solutions, and things like that. I could see a lot of power in doing that, especially as someone who has a toddler in daycare right now. [LAUGHTER] So as a parent of a small child, I’m always wondering, where’s the trend of parenting going? Where should I be at? What should I be doing?

Fabrizio: Well in this book—some parents may find this disappointing, but I hope not too much—we don’t try to teach parents to do good parenting, but we’re trying to understand how parents behave. I think along the way, one can also learn some lessons and in many cases, we ourselves behave in a certain way because that’s the common norm and we don’t think much about. We think that economic factors first affect those norms, but perhaps, there are ways in which we can slightly deviate from the norms. And in terms of recommendation, I would say there is an element of rationality in these trends, perhaps there is also an element of fancy, and I think that probably the same results sometimes can be achieved with being intensive parents, but avoiding the excesses of stress that in the end sometimes may end up into disappointments. I heard a story of someone I don’t know personally (but it was relayed to me that someone was reading the book) of a child who did extremely well in high school and at some point after getting admission in some of the top universities, he decided to drop out from one of those places and to move to a less ambitious one because he felt so stressed after so many years of intensity in high school that in the end, this was too much. So I think that somehow taking a break every now and then is a good idea. Now, where is more generally parenting heading for the future? It’s a question that we also address in the book. We see the trend to growing inequality, it’s actually continuing, and there are also some new tendencies that we observed in the last 10 or 15 years that should perhaps be taken into account. So a lot of jobs that used to be relatively good jobs are disappearing, we expect the speed of automation for instance to increase. So somehow people perhaps should think about that, and it may not be so important which school one takes, but rather which major is chosen. Sometimes people just, like in the recent days, the debate was about parents who are cheating to entering some of the top universities [LAUGHTER] and this was something that is closely related also to what we discussed, because it shows how crazy this can get and the parents who are really willing to pay all their money and also to indulge in illegal activities. But somehow we think that the direction of technical change could be guessed better. And even the empirical evidence shows that majoring in some subject more math oriented in a good college may actually lead to a higher income than majoring in some other subjects for which the demand will be lower in a higher rated college. So I think that this is going to be important because we see many jobs that are disappearing and so there is a lot of concentration on demands in some sectors. The people who will be able to control and direct the process of further automation and generation of new technologies, I think, will have an edge. I really hope that we’ll continue to be also a culture of humanistic knowledge. Originally I started as a student majoring in history—so I have it very much in my heart—but I think that the number of jobs produced in that area will continue to shrink. So perhaps it would be better to have a few and very good historians rather than a large number of people who major in history, but then they have to take jobs that have nothing to do with what they learn through their formal education. So we think that there is a scope for looking at and maybe many times when we look at what society we live today, and we just project these towards the future, but the society which our children are going to grow is not the same in which we live today.

Matthias: So a lightly more daring thought in the same direction. When you think of the technology of, the history of technological change, you can think of what has happened in the last 30 years or so as really the replacement of manual skills, of just strength, by automation. That has really increased a lot, the return to cognitive skills such as math skills, which are now in very high demand. And so to predict the future, you have to take a stand on what skills are going to be replaced by the next wave of technological advances and which are still going to be there. Just one possibility I want to mention is that technological change may also increase or replace at least some of the more cognitive skills. We see now that some jobs in the legal profession are now being replaced by artificial intelligence or even some jobs that used to be relatively well protected—or considered well protected—are now under threat. And so from this perspective, I want to put the spotlight on the third main area of skills, which is social skills: being able to work with other people, to relate to others, to build relationships, and that’s a skill that already has gone up quite a lot over time in how important it is for expanding wages. And from my perspective, at least, I think it might be one of the skills that is the best protected from automation, at least in the short-term. So one could also make the argument that there is for safety, some argument to be made to maybe try to teach your kid not to be too hyper-competitive and just be focused on being the best in class, but also to develop those social skills of working in groups, working with others, and being social. That’s certainly something that’s nice to have in general, but I think there’s also at least some reasons to think that the economy will keep rewarding those skills over some of the others.

Fabrizio: If I can bring in a concrete example of this again, a cross-country comparison. While my daughter was in high school in Switzerland, where math skills are very heavily emphasized. So she was working very hard toward math—and I’m in Norway at this moment, I’m visiting University of Olso—so I have friends I was asking, “What are your children doing?” Actually they have the same age as my daughter, and he says, “Well, you know, you will laugh. They they have to come home and to bake some cakes.”

I said, “What are you talking about? Are you talking about school?” he said “No no no, this is considered a task to be done in school.” And at first I thought, “Okay, this is again another little piece of evidence that ignores the school children. Rather than learning they have fun,” [LAUGHTER] but it was explained to me that it’s not so easy because people have to run this project that they don’t have to quarrel along the way. And somehow this is viewed as something very formative and this is very much ingrained in Scandinavian society. People are somehow told to cooperate and I think that in in other societies the ability to cooperate is, you know, competition somehow can harm the ability to cooperate. To be clear, I’m not saying competition is all bad. To the opposite I think that sometimes I feel that Scandinavians are too averse to competition and I think that the desire to improve oneself is an important drive in the process of economic growth, but there may be excess on that.

Rebecca: I think that that gives us a lot of thought as educators to think about where our curriculum might go, what we want to emphasize as teachers, and then also just understanding our students better by understanding who their parents are. It’s been really interesting.

John: And with artificial intelligence, it’s very difficult to predict what types of jobs and what types of skills will be replaced. So perhaps one thing we should focus on is preparing students for a lifetime of learning.

Matthias: That’s right.

Rebecca: We always wrap up by asking, what next?

Matthias: So Fabrizio already hinted at this—that we are working on a new project along the same lines, which really has to do with the direct environment in the sense of the peers or the neighborhoods in which kids grow up in. My oldest child is 11 years old so about to turn into a teenager and I’m already now wrestling with the reality that once they become teenagers, kids really are much less dependent on their parents. It’s known from a lot of research that in early years, kids really do like their parents a lot, they do listen to them, but at some point that stops and that from teenage years on, the peer group is much more important than the direct influence of the parent. But of course, it doesn’t mean the parenting stops, but it means that parenting now works a different way. That for the older kids, really the key choices that parents have to make is choices that form what the environment is for the peer groups. I think parents think a lot about, for example, which neighborhood to move into based on how good the school is but also about what the other families are there. Are there other families? Are there other kids? Are they going to share values that are going to be a good environment for my kid to interact? There’s actually a lot of data on this. We have empirical studies that gather a lot of detailed information on what parents do. For example, do they allow the kids to only play with certain kids to try to form who their friends are allowed to be? Do they make a choice on which particular class or which particular school to go and do they give more independence to the kids to make their own choices here? And we have all this information in these same data sets on who these peers are. Are they in trouble? What are their grades? Are they going to be productive companions for these kids? We see a lot of interactions—very interesting interactions there—between what the peer group is like and how the parents interact. So I think for understanding how parenting evolves from the early years to the teenage years, really understanding how parents work to shape the peer group and influence these other influences on the children, this is a key challenge for the economics of parenting which we are trying to explore next.

John: Well we’re looking forward to seeing more of this research.

Rebecca: Yeah thank you so much for joining us today.

John: Thank you.

Matthias: Thanks for having us.

Fabrizio: It’s been a pleasure.

[MUSIC]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.

77. First-Generation Students

The process of transitioning from high school to college can be quite challenging, especially for first-generation college students. In this episode, Dr. Lisa Nunn joins us to explore a variety of techniques that we can use to help first-year and first-year students successfully navigate this critical period in their educational journey.

Lisa is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of San Diego, and the author of 33 Simple Strategies for Faculty: A Week-By-Week Resource for Teaching First-Year and First-Generation Students.

Show Notes

  • Dr. Lisa Nunn – Lisa Nunn’s website.
  • Nunn, Lisa. (2018). 3 Simple Strategies for Faculty: A Week-By-Week Resource for Teaching First-Year and First-Generation Students. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press
  • Dr. Nunn’s forthcoming coming book – College Belonging: How First-Year and First-Generation Students Navigate Campus Life

John: The process of transitioning from high school to college can be quite challenging, especially for first-generation college students. In this episode, we explore a variety of techniques that we can use to help students successfully navigate this critical period in their educational journey.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

John: Our guest today is Dr. Lisa Nunn, an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of San Diego, and the author of 33 Simple Strategies for Faculty: A Week-By-Week Resource for Teaching First-Year and First-Generation Students. Welcome, Lisa.

Lisa: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Rebecca: We’re grateful to have you. Today’s teas are:

Lisa: I’m drinking Orange Spice.

Rebecca: Yum.

John: I’m drinking Ginger Peach Black tea,

Rebecca: I’m really boring and drinking Afternoon tea again. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your book, 33 Simple Strategies for Faculty. Could you tell us a bit about the research project that you engaged in that inspired this book?

Lisa: Yes, the bigger project that this book came out of is actually a project on sense of belonging among college students. So, I interviewed students in their very first semester at the end of their first year and at the end of their second year at two different universities, trying to get a sense of how students do or don’t develop a sense of belonging on campus. And what happened was, as I was interviewing students…particularly in their very first semester…I was asking them a lot of questions about academic belonging, also questions about social belonging, but the stuff that came forward for this book was mostly on academic belonging. So I would ask them, “What’s your favorite class? And what’s that professor doing that’s working for you?” and “What’s your least favorite class? And what’s that professor doing that’s not working for you?” just to get them to talk about their experiences of whether or not they felt like they belonged academically in college, or in their particular classes. And I just found myself keeping side notes. So a student would say something great that their professor did, and I would think, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to do that in my class,” and I take a little note. And then on the flip side too, students would talk about something they found particularly frustrating and I would think, “Oh, I do that,” and it never occurred to me that you could receive it that way. I’m never going to do that again. So I had this kind of running list of do’s and don’ts and I started to share them with other faculty on my own campus and it slowly developed into this idea of every single week, we could be doing just one or two targeted things that might really make a big difference at that moment in their transition to college.

John: In general, I think it’s probably a good strategy to talk to our students more and get that type of feedback. So I’m glad you did this, and I enjoyed reading the book.

Lisa: Thank you.

John: A good deal of focus in the book is actually focused on the student voices so that when you talk about a strategy, you give some examples of students. That’s a little different than most books on teaching and learning. Could you talk a little bit about why you adopted that strategy?

Lisa: It’s partly from the way that these strategies came out of a different research project. Not entirely different, I guess. But it’s a qualitative study where student voices are the data. So to show my evidence for why I was recommending this strategy or that strategy, it just made sense to include the data itself from students. But also I really wanted to give faculty a little glimpse into what it feels like to be going through the things that first-year students are going through, and particularly first-gen students just to hear, in their own words, what the world looks like and feels like for them in the classroom.

Rebecca: I think sometimes as faculty, you might have been in that position at one point in time, but perhaps it was a while ago, right?

Lisa: It was a while ago and many of us were not first-gen students. And I really think even in my own teaching, even though I might have first-year students and I know they’re in their very first semester, in my mind I think, “Oh, but they just figure it all out by the time they’re sophomores and juniors and seniors, they’ve got it all worked out,” and you forget how painful and how critical some of these ups and downs and transitional moments are in that first semester.

John: And the ones that survived to the time they get to be juniors and seniors are ones who have figured it all out, but there’s a lot of people who get lost along the way.

Lisa: Exactly right.

John: You focus both, as you noted, on first-generation and first-year students. In what ways are their interests and needs similar and different from those of other students?

Lisa: The transition to college is a real challenge for most students. And first-gen students tend to have particular challenges, but all students are getting the hang of it. Like we just said, by the time they’re in their second year, or their third year, they’ve figured out some habits that work for them, but they’re just learning those habits in that first semester. So it’s a particularly important time to pay attention to students and their brand new experiences, and they’re just figuring out what they need as well. As for first-gen students, the definition of first-gen is that you don’t have parents who have these college experiences that they can just pass on wisdom or offer unsolicited advice when you’re having a struggle of some kind. And it’s helpful for faculty and everyone on campus to just keep in mind that reaching out or offering unsolicited advice is exactly what students need and not everyone’s getting that from their family life.

Rebecca: Why is the focus on first-generation students important to closing performance gaps that result from differences in the quality of primary and secondary background education?

Lisa: So first-generation students are likely to be from low-income backgrounds…not all of them, certainly…but this is the way economics works in the United States. If you have a college degree, you have stronger earning power. So if your parents have college degrees, you’re less likely to be in a low-income neighborhood and low-income neighborhoods tend to have mediocre at best K through 12 public education. So if you went to your neighborhood school, you were just much less likely to have been prepared for college as well as your college classmates who went to some, you know, very excellent public schools or even private schools. So first-gen students and low-income…in general…students tend to come in the college doors plenty smart to handle the work and very eager and motivated to be successful, but they just may not have had that high-quality content in their physics class or their English composition class. And it’s about content and it’s also about study skills. They may not have been practicing the same kind of learning and studying and homework habits that have been really instilled in students in higher quality, more academically rigorous schools.

John: What types of strategies can instructors use to help students who haven’t been exposed to these more effective study strategies, or who have weaker backgrounds in certain areas?

Lisa: There are several. And again, many of these are the kinds of comments that students in interviews told me that their favorite professors were doing and that I realized many of them that I don’t do, and one is to offer a study guide. I used to think that giving a study guide for the midterms and final to my students meant that I was doing their thinking for them, because I try very hard on my syllabus to have weekly headings that summarize the issue at hand and on my lecture slides I have definitions of key concepts. Key concepts are in the headings of the lecture slides, I mean, I’ve really tried to sign post it. And I just didn’t realize that a lot of first-gen students don’t have the habit…they have never developed this skill…have never had to, based on the kind of high-school experiences they had…develop the skill of sifting through mountains of information and figuring out what is the most important stuff to really focus on for an exam. So, not offering a study guide only exacerbated this difference between students in my class who had excellent K through 12 educations and those who didn’t have such an excellent K through 12 education, because they already knew how to do this. And it’s a skill that you cultivate. And so I have now committed to helping cultivate that skill. I offer a study guide for the first midterm and then we work together to learn how to create such a study guide as the future midterms move on and by the final, they’re on their own. Okay, so that’s one, study guides. Also, one of my favorite strategies from this book is the mini-midterm. It’s often a week six, week seven, maybe even week eight of the semester before they get real feedback on their work after the first midterm has been given and it takes a little while for us to grade the midterms and give them back. And it’s only then, this very late moment in the semester, when students realize that they got a D or an F or maybe even a C can be heartbreaking. And they just are learning or discovering, in that moment, that their study habits aren’t quite up to snuff. And if we give them a teeny tiny, right, mine is two questions, but it’s a two-question version of the real midterm and I give it at the end of week two or the beginning of week three and I grade it as fast as I can so that they can figure out: first what my test style is like, what my grading expectations are, and also whether or not they are taking the right notes in class or thinking about the concepts in the right way to do well. So I very explicitly have this conversation about why we have the mini-midterm and that has been a game changer for my classes. And then other ways to address some other strategies in the book…about addressing this difference in levels of preparation is students tell me that they really appreciate it when their professor, like calculus professor, says, “Calculus is hard. I know it’s hard. Hang in there,” right? “This stuff is hard.” And they really feel disheartened when we say things like, “Yeah, I know this is review for most of you from your AP chemistry class,” or whatever it is. So, changing our habits of speech just a little bit can help just motivate and validate students who are feeling a little unsure or a little unhappy with how competent they feel academically in the first weeks. I also recommend that we explain our pedagogic rationales for the things that we require or prohibit in our classes. And also just to tell students right out of the gate, what is the best way to study for your class, because every professor is different. For example, I don’t want students to give me a word-for-word definition in the blue-book exam answer…the word-for-word definition that they learned from the book or learned from my lecture slides. I want them to say it in their own words so I can see if they really mastered the content rather than memorize a definition. But different classes and different professors want different things. Sometimes it is a word-for-word definition. So anyway, just to let them know exactly what we’re looking for, and why.

John: So don’t let the test be a surprise or something where students will say, “This isn’t what I was expecting,” so that students can prepare appropriately to meet the learning objectives that you set.

Lisa: Exactly. One of the students in my study called it the “Guess what’s in the professor’s head” game. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I found that trying to make things a little more explicit does change the classroom atmosphere in general. Students are much more open to letting the faculty know where they’re struggling or each other know where they’re struggling if you set those expectations up front and say things like, “Hey, maybe it’s been a long time since you’ve actually learned something new, like totally new, and learning something new is really hard.”

Lisa: That’s exactly right.

John: And that strategy you suggested of letting students know that this is going to be difficult and it’s going to be work and you’re going to have to work through those things and that everyone has to when they’re learning it, also perhaps might help build a growth mindset and I think a number of your strategies may address that growth mindset concept. Could you talk a little bit about some ways in which we can help students develop that mindset…that they can achieve?

Lisa: Yeah, absolutely. I think that the growth mindset is a helpful way to think about things, especially helping students understand that just because it’s an intro class doesn’t mean it’s easy. You’re learning a whole new discipline, a whole new way of thinking about the world, perhaps, and it might be an intro class but it’s a little bit like learning how to play guitar or learning how to dribble a soccer ball. And it takes a lot of practice and a lot of mistakes and kind of falling flat in order to get the hang of this brand new thing, and students often have this misconception that just because it’s a 100-level class and “introduction” is in the title that it’s somehow going to be easy for them, and then they’re frustrated and confused when it’s not so easy. So just having that in our minds and in the way that we communicate what’s going on in the class can help. But also, you know, thinking about failure as this phrase “failing forward,” growing and learning based on our failures rather than seeing failure as evidence that we aren’t cut out for this kind of work. And some of that, again, I think is just faculty holding that idea in our head so that when we’re just communicating in everyday ways with students that comes out, this idea that, “Yeah, a mistake is great, that tells you where you need to focus some energy for next time.” In the book I have some explicit strategies. Late in the semester I suggest sharing a failure CV, which is kind of a fun activity. I wrote one myself. It was a little embarrassing actually, to write it myself and to put it in the book about my own life and my own failures. I tried to focus on my undergraduate days, but there are also some good ones online. Students in these interviews with me tell me how successful we seem and how smart and how accomplished and it’s wonderful for them when we admit that we have failed along the way a million times. It feels very reassuring. So a failure CV, also I recommend helping students use this tool “fifteen questions to find your life purpose.” And faculty also, I call them stories of woe, sharing some academic story of woe. Some terrible mistake or bad grade or missed assignment that happened to you as an undergraduate just to let students know that it happens to all of us, and we just pick ourselves up and move forward.

Rebecca: I was just sharing some of those stories this morning. [LAUGHTER] Some of my students, who were putting too much pressure on themselves and expecting to kind of have results immediately when it was something brand new that we were just starting, expecting that somehow they were going to catch on immediately. It certainly was, I think, reassuring for the students to hear that, “You know, I also had those moments.” [LAUGHTER]

Lisa: Exactly right. And some of us even fail the class that ended up being a foundational class for the future discipline we pursued much later on. It just happens.

Rebecca: One of the other things that happens a lot for first year students is transitioning to a new place, being away from family, or just not being in a situation where maybe more structure is employed for them, and they have to make their own structure, their own study time, their own rules about eating and taking care of themselves. Can you talk a little bit about ways that faculty can help guide and support students in those ways?

Lisa: In the book, I recommend just taking a few minutes of class time…it doesn’t have to be class time, of course — and just sharing, for example, sharing what stress management activities you do in your own life. More than one first-year student told me that they didn’t have any. They had zero stress-management techniques in their repertoires of life. And they were just realizing that they needed to learn how to take time for themselves, they needed to learn how to figure out when they need some time away from people, or when they need to be around certain I don’t know, people or activities to re-energize. They’re just figuring this out. Just spending five minutes telling what you do when you need to relieve stress, or what you do to keep sane week-by-week. I also always share with them — like meditation, for example, is something I always think about doing and I never do it, so it’s kind of an aspirational stress-management technique for me, but what I actually do is go for a walk. That’s my go to. I kind of let them know that sometimes we imagine ourselves to be these much more balanced humans than we are and that’s okay, too. Stress management and just reminding them even in just small ways, small sentences, small moments that when we get overwhelmed, we cope in sometimes very unhealthy ways. Too much alcohol, too much other kinds of substances, self-sabotage, where we postpone doing something that intimidates us until it gets to the point where there’s no way that we have enough time to really do it successfully. And these are things that all of us deal with in life that are especially acute for college students with all these new routines, and new deadlines, and new expectations.

Rebecca: I feel like some students who are at the senior level, just getting ready to transition into being a professional have that same scary moment that’s happening as well, and asking those same questions or reminding them about those same strategies can be useful at that moment in time too.

Lisa: Yeah, that’s a great point.

John: One of the things you mentioned in talking to students you discovered that quite a few students had issues where they initially created a network of friends, but then sometimes that didn’t work out so well, and you suggest that one useful thing you can do in the classroom is to help students build a wider social network. Could you talk a little bit about that, and some of the strategies you recommend to help students develop a wider network?

Lisa: I recommend an explicit interview assignment — and of course, people can modify this in ways that makes sense for their own classes — but it’s around late October, early November, I discovered that first-year students, it’s not that everyone feels unsatisfied with the friendships they’ve made, but they’re all…or most of them at least…seem to be hungry for more. And what they say to me is that they feel like they would like to reach out and make some new friends but everyone seems already kind of cliqued off into their social groups, they themselves feel cliqued off, and they don’t know how to break through those barriers. And I was really surprised to discover how common this was among students and none of them seem to indicate that they knew that other people were feeling the same way. I give examples of this in the book that people can just print out and use. So I ask them to interview one person in class, and then outside of class, they have to interview at least one more person and I recommend up to five people. And I tell them explicitly, this activity is designed…yeah, you’re going to practice you know, thinking and having conversations about a sociological issue that’s important…but it’s designed on purpose right now because we know that first-year students are feeling a little hungry for more friendships. And so choose someone that you’ve kind of had your eye on as a friend and invite them to do this interview with you and maybe you’ll end up in a study group together, or maybe you’ll be able to have dinner together that night, or I don’t know what, but maybe a friendship will bloom. So, it’s very explicit in that way, in the way that I present it. And other professors that my students told me about in interviews talk about the way that the professor strategically organizes study groups among students in the class. If you’re an early-morning study person, go to the back corner of the room, if you’re a late-night study person, go to this front corner of the room, mix and mingle, exchange phone numbers, and, you know, kind of coordinating for students this ability to network in a way that they might be too shy to do on their own.

Rebecca: Or might just not have a way to facilitate on their own. I can imagine, how would you know necessarily who is an early-morning person but if you are one, that’s who you want to meet, those are the people who have the same kind of time schedules, so that seems really strategic and such an easy thing to do.

Lisa: Exactly. When that student told me about that the first time in the interview, I thought, “Oh, right. That’s about five minutes of class on the first day,” or whenever. Easy… and it really solves a problem for students.

Rebecca: It’s funny how sometimes these things can be just so easy but so easily overlooked.

Lisa: Yeah, exactly.

John: And those types of connections can help improve colleges’ retention rates and so forth because when students have more connections with other people on campus, other students, they’re much more likely to want to be successful and to want to continue. So it can help increase the odds of students staying in longer, I would think.

Lisa: That’s exactly the goal, right? I think about all of this is connected to belonging. How do we let all the members of our community know that they belong here, they’re valued here, we want them here, and their success matters to us?

Rebecca: One of the topics that are related to that academic belonging that you mentioned at the beginning of our interview that I think about a lot is how to connect first-year students to potential mentors, and how to get them connected to role models or people besides just their peer group because they don’t necessarily have an adult on campus that they look up to or can go to for things. How do you help facilitate students finding those connections?

Lisa: Some campuses like my own have structures for first-year students. I teach a class that is entirely comprised of first-year students and I am their academic advisor until they declare a major. So some institutions have tried to structure this…even that, there are students who don’t quite gravitate toward that advisor relationship and the strategies that I recommend in the book are very interpersonal. One of the strategies is just: this week, pick five students to reach out to, maybe it’s to send a short email, or maybe it’s to approach them before or after class, and just say hi and make it clear that you know who they are and they’re on your radar. I also recommend when you talk about your office hours…or first of all to talk about your office hours and to tell students what they might expect in there…but to also personally invite students when you’re chatting with them or if you have a moment before class, just kind of wander the aisles of the desk and say hi to people and make it a habit to just invite students to come and see you in office hours to talk more about something, or to get to know each other better. All of this is connected to not just being available, but being perceived as available to students. One of my favorite strategies in the book is to not seem busy. And this is really hard, because we are very busy. But students told me in these interviews that especially before and after class, this is kind of a testing ground for some students. They want to approach and ask a question, or just even say, “Hello,” or thank you for the class and they try it out to get a sense of how you might be and can they be brave enough to come to your office hours. And when we are frantically putting our things together or, if you happen to have four minutes before class starts, trying to get that one last thing read or marked up, the sense that we are too busy for them is a message that they take home. That they take very seriously. If you can just linger and just not be doing anything and just seem calm and available to be approached with a question…even just for those three-minutes, right before class starts, it makes a big difference for students feeling like they can approach us. And I also recommend holding one of your office hours just before or just after your first-year class so that you can tell students, “I’m right here, walk with me to my office if you want that office hour right now at the end of class. Let’s continue this conversation.” We all hold office hours. We all know that students can email us, but to be perceived as available is one more dimension.

John: One issue for first-year students is that, in the past when they were in high school, they often do not see going to someone’s office as being a very positive thing. So, creating that welcoming environment could be really useful. And I know this is one I struggle with because often when students stop by, I’m going to a meeting or I’m in the middle of a meeting, but making yourself open is really useful and I try to do that by saying, “I have to leave right now, but if you stop back, I’ll be here between two and five or two and six,” or something similar, and that often works in them coming back. But it is a concern I think that many of us have that we do get stuck in a lot of meetings. I had seven hours of meetings yesterday, for example, and I had a lot of students who wanted to see me about projects and I tried to accommodate them. In some cases I’ll share my phone number and tell them they can call me later if they have other questions, but it can be challenging.

Lisa: It is challenging. I remember feeling so flattered in graduate school, the first time a professor was racing off to some other meeting and had to cut our conversation short and he said, “Can we walk and talk?” and I was like, “What does that mean?” he’s like, “I need to walk over to this meeting that’s 10 minutes away. Can you walk with me?” and I was so flattered that he was willing to continue the conversation. Our campus is much smaller, it doesn’t really take 10 minutes to walk anywhere, but I try to remember that with students and just, “I have to go, but why don’t you keep asking me? Keep asking me this question, walk with me.”

Rebecca: Or “I need to eat lunch, but you’re welcome to come sit with me.” [LAUGHTER]

John: Yes.

Lisa: Yeah.

John: You suggest that it’s really helpful to be open with students and to encourage the students to come in and talk to you, but also, it’s important to maintain boundaries. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Lisa: This is something I think a lot of us learn the hard way…I know that I did…but I am completely convinced that setting boundaries is beneficial for our students as well as ourselves. So in my institution we have to hold five hours of office hours a week. That is enough time. Now certainly I’ll make appointments if someone’s schedule is crazy, but that is just enough time. I don’t need to be available at any whimsical moment that students might need me in a panic. But also emotionally, I want my students to know that I care about them, I care deeply about their wellbeing, and for me, the way to show that most effectively…of course if they’re sharing a personal trouble, to listen compassionately…but the best I can do is guide them toward the resources that might actually offer some resolution to their struggles. And I used to take on my student’s problems as my own and carry that emotional burden around and what it did was exhaust me and it made me unhelpful to other students, or even to those same students in the end, because I was depleted and it made me unhelpful to my own family and my own friends and my own self. I was just depleted. So setting healthy boundaries with the amount of emotional care that you can or are willing to give is good. You’re not short changing anyone, you’re modeling healthy behavior. You’re also practicing self-care. You know, I am not qualified to be a mental health counselor. I don’t want the job, I don’t have the credentials for it, and it doesn’t serve anyone for me to play that role at all. I can just dial the phone and help students get their own appointment with someone who can do that.

Rebecca: I think those are always good reminders.

John: I think we all fall into that at first, especially. One of the issues that many first-generation students have is that their faculty may come from very different backgrounds, their fellow students may, and they may be in a discipline where they’re underrepresented. What are some of the things you recommend to help students get past that stereotype threat?

Lisa: One is to simply add images of scholars and researchers that you’re talking about, or reading about in your class. Just add images to your lecture slides. Students may not be able to recognize from the name of the author, what this person’s background might be or whether or not it’s a person who looks like me, for example, and it’s really helpful. So I’m in sociology and this is relatively easy for me. My syllabus is full of scholars of color and women scholars and people who present their gender in nontraditional ways, and so an image is a really powerful tool to just show off the diversity in our field. And I don’t linger on the slide, I just put up the image, I say, “Here she is, we’re reading a chapter today from her first book,” and then we just move along. And I realize that some disciplines don’t have that luxury. You might be teaching a class where almost everyone is white or almost everyone is male on your syllabus. But I hope that this suggestion even helps people who teach such classes to think of creative ways to include more current scholars of color or women into their classroom, even if you’re not reading a whole week’s worth of content on someone, you might be able to present on five minutes on exciting new work in the field. And the idea is that, especially on my campus, students of color might look around the room and or look around campus and feel like it’s a world of white faces. But that’s not true entirely for academics and presenting images in this way is a very powerful message that scholars of color and women and non-gender conforming folks have a routine everyday place in the academic world. Here they are. Even if, when you look around this classroom, it may not seem that way. So that’s one. And the other strategies that I think that speak to issues like stereotype threat are again these small gestures that faculty can make to reach out to students. Just these five people that you might send a quick email to, and just share your favorite TED Talk or a great podcast that you just listened to or whatever it is, just this idea that, “You’re on my mind, I’m thinking of you.” Even if I just got your name off my roster. It doesn’t have to be some person that you actually have already established a connection with. But to really validate that student’s presence in your class, in your department, on your campus that they matter, that we see them.

Rebecca: Those are really great suggestions and again, things that are just super easy to implement, that aren’t time consuming. They just take a little time and thought, and if we have those five hours of office hours where students aren’t actually showing up, you probably have time to do it. [LAUGHTER]

Lisa: That’s the idea.

John: You’re working on another book called College Belonging: How First-Year and First-Generation Students Navigate Campus Life. What will be some of the differences in this new book?

Lisa: The current book is just a targeted…particularly for faculty…set of ideas and strategies to implement in our interactions with students. So the College Belonging book isn’t targeted that way at all but it is about this same general issue of sense of belonging for our students. As you mentioned earlier, John, sense of belonging is associated with all kinds of positive outcomes for students: better persistence rates, better graduation rates, better overall wellbeing, and the College Belonging book is more about articulating some of the issues and dynamics around developing a sense of belonging. First, this idea that students experience academic belonging separately from social belonging, even though they’re interrelated and overlap a bit, the scholarship on belonging really tends to focus on social belonging and there’s a lot less out there on what academic belonging is and how students navigate through it. And also thinking about the institutional structures at each of the two campuses in my study that really foster and promote maybe social belonging over academic belonging or vice versa. Yeah, it’s a bigger study about belonging and what the institutional features are and the particular obstacles or kind of wide-open straightforward pathways that students experience their real differences for first-gen students compared to continuing generation students, so exploring all of those differences.

Rebecca: Wow, that sounds really exciting.

Lisa: I think it is.

Rebecca: Yeah. Sounds super interesting.

John: It does.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next? So that’s… it’s coming, but what’s next?

Lisa: This bigger book, it’s not written yet. So what’s coming is the next book on the larger dynamics of sense of belonging at college, and where this book 33 Simple Strategies is targeted for faculty interactions with students, the College Belonging book will have recommendations for institutions.

Rebecca: That’s great.

Lisa: I have no idea what’s going to be next next after that, so that’s good as I can get you. [LAUGHTER]

John: Writing a book is plenty.

Lisa: Thank you, it feels like it.

Rebecca: Yeah, and that’s not going to take any time or anything, so. [LAUGHTER]

Lisa: You know, I’m just going to whip that out this weekend.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: We’ll check back next week to see.

Rebecca: Get an update.

Lisa: I’ll send you a draft.

[LAUGHTER]

John: Thank you for joining us. This was really interesting.

Rebecca: Yeah, I can’t wait to see your next book and also to try some of the things that were in the book we just talked about today.

Lisa: Thank you so much. I’m glad that these ideas are useful.

Rebecca: Well, thank you. This was really great.

[Music]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.

76. Courses with travel

International travel can be intimidating, but it provides invaluable learning opportunities. In this episode, Jeffery Schneider and Casey Raymond join us to discuss their course in which students travel with them to study the science of fermentation in a global city.

Jeffery Schneider and Casey Raymond are associate professors in the chemistry department at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Show Notes

Show Notes

Rebecca: International travel can be intimidating, but it provides invaluable learning opportunities. In this episode, we’ll examine a course in which students travel with faculty members to study the science of fermentation in a global city.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

John: Today our guests are Jeffery Schneider and Casey Raymond, associate professors in the chemistry department at the State University of New York at Oswego. Welcome, Jeff, and welcome back, Casey.

Jeff: Thank you.

Casey: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

Jeff: I’ve got no tea, they wouldn’t let me bring in anything more stronger than that.

Casey: I’ve got Earl Grey.

John: And I’m drinking Ginger Peach Green tea.

Rebecca: I have my standard issue English Afternoon.

Casey: It is afternoon.

Jeff: Pip, pip, cheerio.

John: We invited here to talk about your course Fermentation Science in a Global Society. Can you tell us a little bit about the course and how you got away with… uh… how it started?

Jeff: So back in 2005, I think, I was a member of the International Education Advisory Board and we had a big board meeting and they were talking about a way to get more quarter courses and get students interested and I was being kind of a smartass at the time, and I said…

Rebecca: You? [LAUGHTER]

Jeff: Right?

John: At the time.

Jeff: Right? And I said, “Oh, I could teach a course on scotch” and the D ean at the time—I won’t name any names in case she’s listening—but she said, “Oh, that’d be great, because then I can help you guys, I could teach about some of the history,” and everybody at the table is like “Ha ha ha ha ha,” and nobody took it seriously. And I was kind of mad that nobody took it seriously. And so then I went over to Casey and I said, “You know, I just had this talk, and I thought we could do a thing on scotch,” and Casey says, “Well I don’t really know too much about scotch, but I bet we could do something on Belgian beer,” and being easy as I am, I said, “Oh, okay.” [LAUGHTER] And so we proposed the course and, you know, they said, “Okay,” and so we did. They gave us money to go explore and so we ended up taking a little exploratory trip to Belgium in the middle of January.

Casey: In 2006.

Jeff: 2006, yeah.

Rebecca: That sounds really awful.

Jeff: You know, it wasn’t actually that bad. [LAUGHTER]

Casey: I think she was being sarcastic. [LAUGHTER] It was really an opportunity to spin a hobby—I’ve been home brewing about eight years at that point and had started getting Jeff interested in home brewing—to spin the hobby into a class. And so we did that exploration trip in January to work out a few details and then that May took fourteen students to Belgium for, I guess it worked out, nine days at that point in May.

John: And how many times have you done this?

Jeff: Since 2006 we’ve only…

Casey: Only not done three years.

JEF: …not done three years, I think. It was because we couldn’t get enough students. It was really strange for whatever reason, there was one point—I hate to say it—but I think it was around that time when terrorism was kind of a big thing and parents were a little reluctant to send their kids and so we did see a dip then, but then all of a sudden, it’s like, “I guess everything’s okay.” We’ve only never done it three times but we’ve tried every year since.

Casey: And I think in one case, we were proposing to go back to the Czech Republic, we had done one trip there. And I think that wasn’t just maybe not as a high-interest location for some students as others. But we’ve done Belgium, we’ve done Scotland—which is where we’re going back to this year—we’ve done a trip to Munich, Germany, and we’ve done a trip to Amsterdam and the surrounding areas in the Netherlands.

Rebecca: So SUNY Oswego has a number of quarter courses, which you mentioned that this is one of. Why does this particular format work so well for a class like this?

Casey: So the format is: it ’s seven weeks of instruction on campus and then travel over spring break or in the case of the second half of spring semester, travel in May after graduation, and it really gives the students a chance to have a study abroad experience without committing to a whole semester. And in some majors, it’s hard to commit a semester without falling a whole year behind. And there’s also students that are hesitant to go that far for a whole semester. And we have always said that, “Yeah, we’re interested in this. We know students are interested,” and it’s more about giving those students the opportunity to experience something abroad than the actual content that we’re covering.

Jeff: And we’ve always taken quite a few students and a lot of them have never been out of the country before and a lot of them have never been outside of New York State before, and so it’s a good opportunity for them because it really is a different clientele between the quarter course students and the whole semester students. It’s the kids that haven’t traveled before, they’re a little afraid, they don’t know if it’s for them, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to learn a language. Do I have to learn a language?” and so it just gives them an opportunity. But then we’ve had kids after that, we’ve kind of given them the travel bug and they just go off and travel and I know one student in particular now she’s actually living in France.

Rebecca: That’s been my experience too, teaching the quarter classes with travel. I think that’s who those classes are really designed for. What have you found the balance of course content is in terms of helping students learn to travel, the subject matter you’re covering, and then also the country you’re traveling to? Because you’ve gone to different places.

Jeff: In our course we tried to have science just about every course period. You got to teach them about money, you got to teach them about what they’re going to expect, you got to teach them what not to do because that’s always important. And if it’s a place where English is not the native language, then we got to teach them a little bit of language as well. And if you take them to someplace like Scotland, where English is the native language, you still have to teach them a little bit as well, because you can’t understand a word they say.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the science that you cover?

Casey: So one of the things that we try to focus on is how broad fermentation is and how long we’ve been doing it and it was only relatively recently that we really understood what was happening in fermentation in making bread, in making beer, in making wine, in making cheese.

Jeff: When Casey says “we” he means it as “we” as a society.

Rebecca: Not you? You’re not making cheese in your basement? [LAUGHTER]

John: Not for centuries.

Jeff: Not right now, but we have.

Casey: Not right now. We have made cheese and that’s one of the things as well that we do with students in terms of getting them a sense of the science outside the classroom. We usually do a demonstration day where in the past we’ve had a couple people maybe brewing beer, we’ve done a session where we’ve actually gone through the cheese- making process so they can kind of see how that works. The very first time we did it, it was an absolute disaster.

Jeff: It was terrible.

Casey: But we’ve learned.

Rebecca: You’re going to tell us about that then, right?

Casey: The simple fact of the matter is, we squeezed too much of the liquid out of it and it became a hard rock. [LAUGHTER]

Jeff: But I tell you what, we took that cheese to Belgium with us and we did a day trip to Amsterdam and we all sat down—there was construction outside of Centennial at the time—but we sat down outside the little barrier and everybody…

Casey: …tried…

Jeff: got that cheese down. [LAUGHTER]

Casey: It was bad. But we’ve learned. It really is to give them a sense of appreciation of the science behind it all, not to make them experts, so that when we’re visiting breweries, or cheese production, or distilleries, they have a sense of the science behind it. We’re not trying to make them experts in it and so that’s really the balance. And we’ve had everywhere from first- year students to graduating seniors and art, english, history majors, chemistry, biochemistry, so we just kind of have to take each class as a group and figure out what the balance is.

Rebecca: Do you tend to have many science students as part of your student body?

Jeff: We have, but that also fluctuates. There will be some years when a chemistry major says, “Oh, hey, so and so, do you want to take this course? I’m taking it…” and then all of a sudden you’ve got a mass of chemistry majors or science majors taking the course. Other times you get maybe one or two, so it’s varied.

John: How many hours does a class meet if it’s a quarter course?

Casey: Most of the quarter courses on our campus meet one hour a week and then have the rest of the content delivered when they’re abroad. Our course, we meet two hours a week just to be sure we get the science covered as well as the travel… the location information… covered. And so we meet two hours a week on campus, and then we go abroad for in general eight to ten days.

Rebecca: You hinted a little bit at some of the kinds of places that you visit when you travel. Can you talk a little bit more about what your in-country experience is like?

Casey: It is pretty varied, and it certainly depends a little bit on where we go. Besides visiting things specific to fermentation, we try and also visit things that are historical or cultural. Many times, but not always, we will be in a couple different destinations, cities, instead of just staying in one location the whole time. And all of the transportation that we do, we try to do on local buses and trains. We very rarely have a charter service. Part of the reasoning for that is one it’s easy and two it gets the students a little more experience of what Europe’s like.

Jeff: And it also keeps the cost down.

Casey: Yup.

John: How do you prepare students for the trip in terms of preparing them for the culture and the experiences in advance?

Casey: I think part of it is getting them a few common phrases, if it’s a foreign language, getting them a sense of what the customs are, but likewise, letting them know that it’s not that different. Sometimes it’s a case of, “I need to pack absolutely everything.”

Jeff: Right, they think that we’re going to a third-world country and so we have to remind them: “You know, Belgium is a first-world country. The Netherlands is a first-world country. You can buy toothpaste, it’s okay. You don’t have to pack it. Or if you forget it, it’s not the end of the world.”

Casey: And sometimes it’s a fun experience to have to go, “Okay, what am I trying to find?”

Jeff: Of course, if a student gets sick, and they have to go to a pharmacy, that’s also an interesting time.

Casey: Which we have had occur.

Jeff: Our inaugural experience, we had a young lady terribly sick and she went to a pharmacy. She got some cough medicine and we said, “That’s great,” until Casey read the bottle and it said it was loaded with codeine. [LAUGHTER] And so she was taking it easy after we said, “Hey, don’t chug that.” [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: The benefit of having a scientist with you on a trip. [LAUGHTER]

Casey: Yeah.

Jeff: Well, yeah.

Casey: Partly. But I also know in many European countries, the pharmacists have a lot more leeway. You still have to talk to them to get ibuprofen or aspirin, but they also have the ability to sell you hydrocodone cough syrup, if that’s what they think you need. So things like that in terms of preparing students.

Jeff: You know, how to deal with money, right? That’s always the hard part. We’ve had kids lose their debit card, we’ve had kids bring traveler’s checks, and over the years we’ve built up a list of no’s and we just tell them, “Bring your debit card, that’s all you need.” Make sure though that it’s current because the one kid’s was not current and that’s why his card was eaten by the machine. And so then, of course, that was on a weekend and so we had to loan him a little cash. I don’t remember if it was me or Casey, but one of us floated him some cash. So we also have to be a bank while we’re over there. [LAUGHTER] My son went on that first trip with us, and everybody started calling me the international bank of dad.

John: What were some of the best experiences you had during the travel component?

Jeff: Personally I love traveling so I think all of the experiences are good. A kid will say something funny or whatever and everybody has a good time because even the kid who said it realizes, “Yeah, I guess that doesn’t make sense, does it?” I think it’s just fun being with the kids. There have been some probably not so great times, but…

Casey: …only a couple.

Jeff: …but only a couple.

Casey: Only a couple of situations where we’ve traveled that have been, let’s say, taxing and not ideal.

Rebecca: Like? [LAUGHTER]

Jeff: I can think of one in particular.

Casey: Basically, students thinking they knew what they were doing and deciding they were going to go off on their own and got themselves stuck in a different city overnight. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Oops.

Casey: Because they basically decided to do things on their own without consulting with anybody that actually knew what was going on. And it happened to be a day that was a holiday in Europe.

Jeff: And they just left us a note. And finally somebody came and knocked on my door late and said, “Uhh so-and-so and so-and-so and s o-and-so are nowhere to be found.” I said, “Oh boy,” “But they left us this note.” I said, “Oh, what does the note say?” And it said, “Went off to discover mother Europe,” and they ended up not returning til the next morning.

John: You brought most of them back to Oswego, right?

Jeff: We’ve never lost a student. We’ve wanted to. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Actively tried.

John: They’ve always found their way back.

Jeff: But we’ve never lost a student. We’ve never had to send anybody home early.

Casey: No.

Jeff: Although it certainly, we may have…

Casey: That incident was close.

Jeff: That was close. And we probably wanted to, but honestly—and hopefully no future students are listening—honestly, we didn’t want to deal with the hassle.

Rebecca: It’s too much work, right?

Jeff: It’s a lot of work.

John: Yeah.

Casey: It’s a case, though, that by and large, it’s gone really well.

Jeff: Yeah I’d say overall, we’ve done well. I think the students always give us glowing reports back as well. They have a great time and they learn a lot. And I think sometimes they don’t realize it until after they’ve come back that they’ve actually learned a lot.

Casey: We make them keep a journal. We have six, seven, eight specific assignments we want them to write about, but we really stress, “Use it as a log,” so that you can look back on it and remember. And that’s, I think, where they really start to realize how much they’ve learned if they take it serious and write everything. In terms of losing students—and trying to lose students—one of the challenges we sometimes have is getting the students to go off on their own. They want to stay right with us all the time and as part of their experience they need to, in small groups—not alone, but small groups—go do your own thing.

Jeff: Yeah, some of them like to be glued to you at the hip and it’s because as I said before, not everybody has traveled. They’re afraid, it’s a new place, the language might be different, they just don’t know. And you really see a difference between whether or not you’re taking a freshman versus whether or not you’re taking a senior.

Rebecca: What have been some of the challenges and opportunities of co-developing and co-teaching this class?

Casey: One of the situations we encountered is we developed this and even the very, very first year we did it, there were people on campus that were incredibly uncomfortable of us teaching this class. They were very concerned that we were teaching a class all about drinking and that’s not the case at all. And Josh in International Ed…

Jeff: This is not a “how-to” course in how to drink.

Casey: No, and we’ve heard it several times that in many respects because it’s a course that involves alcohol and it’s all about appreciating alcohol and understanding it, we have less problems with drunkenness than some of the other study abroad classes that don’t really address it. But that very first year or two that we did teach the class there was a lot of skepticism and concern by several people on campus about what we were actually doing.

Jeff: Well, and even if somebody would mention the fact, “Oh, you teach the beer course, hahaha,” right, and they kind of give you this kind of snide look like, “You’re a joke” kind of thing. Say what you will, but we know what we do and we do it well and kids get an understanding of fermentation and all the processes that go into it and an appreciation.

John: And it is applied chemistry.

Casey: It is.

Jeff: It is applied chemistry, applied biology, it’s applied science. One of the things that people have to keep perspective of is that alcohol is a multibillion dollar industry, right? …a multibillion dollar global industry. And people don’t appreciate that.

Casey: Sometimes it’s juggling who’s scheduling what because we do almost all of our own planning and organization for the study abroad component.

Jeff: I would agree. Just even this latest trip, Casey and I are both trying to plan hotel accommodations and it’s like, “Hold it. Did you talk to someone?” “No, wait, I thought you were,” “Oh? No I didn’t.” So that’s probably one of the challenges. Opportunity, I don’t know, we get to work together.

Casey: Yeah. And it provides…

Jeff: Doing something we like.

Casey: Yeah. It provides a little extra coverage in those times when it’s like, “Oh, I can’t quite get to class tonight. Can you cover?” and it gives us that balance as well. It gives us a little more balance when we’re abroad. Kind of keeping track of students especially in the trip’s locations where we’re moving destinations and hopping between trains.

Jeff: Right. One of us will be in the front, one of us will be in the back, Casey will do a count, I’ll do a count, hopefully they’re the same. [LAUGHTER] So it does make it a little easier.

Casey: Thinking about trains, challenging instances. When we went to Munich, we took the train from the airport to the city.

Jeff: Yeah, we did.

Casey: Two of the students didn’t realize we were serious when we said, “When the doors open at the next stop, get off,” because the doors closed before they got off. We were able to signal to try and get turned around.

Jeff: If this was visual, you could see me waving like they did, because as they’re going they’re just “Ugh.”

Casey: Now what? [LAUGHTER] And it happened to be two students that year that didn’t have a cell phone that would work in-country. So that’s something that’s changed a lot since we first taught courses, the wireless and cell phone and technology. But you know, 40 minutes later, they’d find their way back to that.

Jeff: They had the presence of mind to get off at the next stop, cross the tracks, get back on, and come back to where we were. We didn’t move, we waited, and not having cell phones when we went to Belgium—must have been 2011—we took my daughter with us. I took all of my kids when they were 16-years-old, with my daughters. And it just happened that it was always to Belgium. Well this time we took a day trip to Amsterdam and…

Casey: No, we stayed in Amsterdam.

Jeff: Oh we did. That’s right we did.

Casey: We landed in Amsterdam to stay there.

Jeff: And we’re wandering around and…

Casey: Introducing them to the city that first day.

Jeff: And all of a sudden…

Casey: We sent everybody to ATMs to get money because we just got in the country.

Jeff: And it’s like, “Hold it. Where’s my daughter?” She was only 16. I said to my wife, “Where is she?” so we’re going one direction and I think somebody told me where they had seen her and we went that way and turns out, Casey and his wife and my daughter are going a different way looking for us and I was just…

Casey: You had like, two students with you and I had the other 10 with me.

Jeff: …round and round and round. And yeah, so cell phones would have been helpful. But I mean, you think about it even seven, eight years ago, cell phone technology is vastly different. So that can be a challenge sometimes. And the lesson I took away with that is don’t take my own kids with me. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: The lesson of the 40 minute wait is nobody else wants to be that kid next time, so it’s like, lesson learned the first 40 minutes we’re here.

Casey: And it’s something we tell classes now. We’re serious when we say get off the train, get off the train.

Rebecca: This is why you don’t take too much luggage with you. [LAUGHTER]

Jeff: We do tell them to pack light. I will admit that as I’ve gotten older I tend to check a bag rather than carry it on but Casey will get there, he just doesn’t know it yet.

John: What would a typical day be like while you’re in-country?

Casey: Usually see everybody at breakfast, it’s kind of a standard.

Jeff: We tell them, we want to see, we don’t care if you eat—even though breakfast is probably included—but we got to see you at 9 o’clock or whatever it is.

Casey: And then usually we’ll have half of the day planned… programmed… scheduled. There’s cases where it’s a whole-day situation but usually we’ll have half-day things planned so we’ll do that and then they’ll have a chunk of open time to explore things that they’re particularly interested in. We certainly make recommendations and suggestions. But we found it’s really valuable to have the free-time for them to do things they want and do their own exploring.

Rebecca: But I bet the free time is really good for you.

Casey: It is. [LAUGHTER]

Jeff: Maybe…

Casey: It is. And it also gives us the flexibility to adjust our schedule in some cases. If we’ve had something planned outdoors and it’s a really cruddy day and we know the next day is going to be better, we’ve been known to flip things around to make it work. The very first year, our flight was six hours late leaving New York City which then affected things we were going to do that first day in the country. And we just started flip flopping things and we made it all work, but it was a lesson immediately: Build in that flexibility.

Rebecca: I can imagine that by students taking this class if they weren’t interested in science or didn’t know that much about it, that when you see how it’s applied and have a practical application that maybe they didn’t experience in high school that they might actually develop an interest in an area that they didn’t know they had an interest in.

Casey: I’ve spoken with people, some parents but others and they asked what I teach, and I say chemistry. “Oh, my student will never have you for class,” or, “I would have never had you for chemistry,” I said, “Well, you might take the fermentation science course.”

Jeff: “What?”

Casey: Wuh…. huh… what? And it’s really about—I said many times—it’s sort of enticing students into a course based on the topic. I usually actually say, “Sucker them into a course,” because they think it’s going to be about something, but it really is: give them that basic science that appreciation, but really give them a chance to experience something different, something very eye opening.

Jeff: And we’ve had kids actually go on and work in the industry, and being brewers and distillers.

Casey: Yeah.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking, what’s next?

Jeff: What’s next? Well I know come spring break, Casey’s taking a bunch of kids to Paris.

Casey: It’s an honors course, related to food science.

Jeff: And I’ll be taking a dozen kids to Dublin for spring break. That course is not about drinking.

Casey: You talk about challenges. This year has been a different challenge because Jeff’s planning Dublin, I’ve been planning France for spring break, and then we’re planning Scotland in May. And so I’m trying to keep things straight.

Jeff: It was hectic. It was hectic.

Rebecca: I made that mistake. The first year I took students abroad I planned another U.S. travel class in the same year, so like Q3 was a travel and then Q4 was. I hear you, I learned my lesson. [LAUGHTER]

Jeff: Well, no, the lesson is you just have to keep practicing.

Rebecca: O, oh, oh yeah.

Casey: Thankfully Jeff’s done Dublin several times.

Jeff: I’ve done Dublin several times now and I basically plan it as soon as I get back after spring break. This year I’ll have the next year planned already or pretty close.

Casey: And we’ve been to Scotland so most of that was set. At least, we knew what we wanted to do, it’s just a matter of finalizing things. And we’ll do the same thing, end of May we’ll come back and we’ll start strategizing, “Okay, what’s the location for May ‘20?”

Jeff: I mean even before that, we’ve already talked a little bit about the location for May ‘20.

Rebecca: Which is going to be?

Jeff: Well, we haven’t decided yet.

Casey: It may be the Netherlands, it may be Munich.

Jeff: I love Amsterdam and I love Munich as well.

Casey: I haven’t put on his radar that we could go to Cologne.

Jeff: Well, we could go to Cologne… ah…Decisions.

John: And what is your class in Ireland?

Jeff: The class in Ireland, that’s GLS 100. It’s a Global Cities course and so there’s always some question as to, you know, is Dublin really a global city? Because there’s some kind of fancy-pancy definition of what a global city is and I’m not quite sure if Dublin actually fits but I think it’s a global enough city. It’s cosmopolitan, it’s got a lot of political problems, especially now with Brexit coming up. It’s a fun course. We talk about culture of Ireland and Dublin and the history and we spend a lot of time on the 1916 revolution and things like that and so kids get a lot of information. I only meet one night a week, like most global courses, and then we’ll be gone for all of spring break. In fact, we’re going to leave the Friday before spring break, and we’ll be coming back midnight or one Monday morning.

John: Well, thank you. This has been fascinating.

Jeff: Thank you.

Casey: You’re welcome.

John: It sounds like an interesting class.

Rebecca: Thank you.

Jeff: Thank you.

John: We’ve recorded this podcast a couple weeks early, which is somewhat new to us because we’re often recording these within a week of their release. But as we were completing editing on the podcast, we got an email from Casey who noted that perhaps some things can go wrong on trips that they had not yet experienced. So Casey, would you like to tell us a little bit about what happened?

Casey: Yeah, John. I led the spring break class to France, as I indicated at the end in the last podcast. And I recalled you asking about challenging or difficult situations that occur. And in our case, it reminded me that I probably needed to do this little addendum. Specifically, we were scheduled to leave Syracuse Friday afternoon and we had all 13 students at the airport on time. We actually even boarded the plane Friday afternoon, and the pilot came on and made an announcement that during his walkthrough, he noticed a small leak. He wasn’t sure what it was, they were bringing mechanics over to look at it. A couple minutes later, he comes back on and says, “They’re not sure, we need to de-plane so they can figure it out.” And so everybody’s off, everybody gets in line to the ticket counter for fear of missing connections and rebooking and lo and behold, they weren’t sure what the problem was. When they finally did find the leaking part, they didn’t have a replacement, and it wouldn’t come in until maybe six o’clock Friday night, in which case we would have missed our international flights. And so I contacted our travel agent, she couldn’t really do anything because it was all airport control. I ended up working with a supervisor, just by chance, he pulled me out of line to try and rebook 15 of us on a single ticket. And so as he was working with corporate trying to map this out and come up with a plan, we ended up needing to split our group to come up with options because there just weren’t seats available leading into spring break, dealing with some weather issues that were happening, and the fact that the 737 Max grounding had limited some of the airlines—not ours—but there just weren’t seats available. And so I agreed to split the group, my wife would go with one part, I would go with another part and we came back with our new itinerary, instead of a direct flight from Washington D.C. to Paris, the first group of us was going to fly from Washington D.C. to Chicago, to Frankfurt, and then to Paris. The second group was going to fly from Washington D.C. to Zurich to Paris. So we get in a couple hours apart… day late… which would affect our train travel to Lyons because our first four days was going to be there. And so it’s like, “Well, it’s the best we can do, that’s what we’ll do.” And so we stayed in a hotel Friday night as a group, got to the airport Saturday morning, and by about 9:30…10 a.m. Saturday morning, they had completely canceled our flight because they still didn’t have the right repair part and they couldn’t bus us to Washington D.C. So the next thing we knew they were going to bus us to New York City so we could have a direct flight from JFK, but they couldn’t find busing to get us to JFK. And so then they rerouted us on a Sunday night like from Washington D.C. to Paris, with the promise they would get us to Washington D.C. Saturday night. So now we’ve spent all of Friday afternoon sitting in the airport. Now we’re going to spend all day Saturday sitting in the airport. And some of the students got together with parents that were local, some of the students hopped an Uber and ran to the mall to kill some time. But we finally got out of Syracuse on the fixed plane. Saturday night about 8:30 got to Washington D.C. about 10pm, got into a hotel there—the airline put us up—and then Sunday morning, students studied, did various things, but we all got to the airport Sunday afternoon, and finally got on our flight to Paris. So we arrived in Paris Monday morning instead of Saturday morning. by Saturday afternoon, when I knew we’re going to miss two days and that the things we had planned on Monday were not going to be possible, we just weren’t going to make it, and that was a key reason for going to Lyons, I all of a sudden was in the mode of, I need to completely reconfigure the whole front end of my class. And so I started working with International Ed and the person on the ground in Paris. We have to try and get two additional nights of lodging in Paris, just cancel the whole Lyons part of it, try and recruit rail ticket expenses, cancel the hotel there—which did cost us two nights of lodging, but not all four—and then try and figure out what am I going to do in Paris with this group food related in the two days now that I have? So it really wasn’t until Wednesday afternoon that I finally started to feel comfortable and relaxed on this trip just because of all the upheaval. The crew at the Syracuse airport that was trying to help us… the person there… was outstanding. He was doing everything he possibly could to help the class. The students were really pretty good. They understood that was not a lot we could do other than keep pushing along. Some were concerned, some were upset, there were certainly frustration and disappointment for all of us, especially as we had to cancel things we were planning to do. But it was a situation that you hope you never really encounter. But it’s a case of, you really have to be ready for almost anything. And as Jeff and I indicated before, you’ve got to be ready to be flexible. And this was really an extreme case of it because all of a sudden, I’m rescheduling basically half of our overseas experience completely on the fly and largely with an internet connection through a cell phone.

John: Flexibility is important. There are a lot of moving parts there. And if one of them stops moving, it affects all the others.

Casey: Yeah.

John: Overall, how did it work?

Casey: Overall, it worked out really as best as it could under those situations. Once we got into France, everything went fine on the ground there. It actually worked out amazingly well that the extra two hotel nights were in the same hotel we originally going to be in. And I discovered at least one activity in Paris as a substitute… a cheese tasting that worked out outstandingly for the students and it was a great experience. So in the grand scheme of things, I think it all worked. We’re disappointed to have missed a few things that we had originally planned, but I think the students still benefited from what happened and the stress that I experienced didn’t really negatively impact the class.

John: Great. Well, thank you for the update.

Casey: You’re welcome.

John: And we look forward to hearing more stories about more pleasant travel experiences in the future.

Casey: Me too.

[Music]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.