68. Mobile Music instruction

There are apps for just about everything but choosing when to embrace them for instruction needs to be a careful decision. In this episode, Trevor Jorgensen joins us to discuss how the decision to use mobile apps in music instruction is affected by where students are developmentally, convenience, cost, and other factors. Trevor is an Assistant Professor of Music and the Student Learning Outcomes Assessment Coordinator at SUNY Oswego.

Show Notes

Additional Resources

Transcript

John: There are apps for just about everything but choosing when to embrace them for instruction needs to be a careful decision. In this episode we consider where students are developmentally in a discipline, convenience, cost, and other factors on the choice of supporting music instruction using mobile applications.

[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: Today our guest is Trevor Jorgensen, an Assistant Professor of Music and Student Learning Outcomes Assessment Coordinator at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Trevor.

John: Welcome.

Trevor: Hey.

John: Our teas today are:

Trevor: Pure Leaf Peach Flavor tea.

John: Iced tea.

Trevor: Iced tea. Sorry. Thank you.

John: …and Rebecca.

Rebecca: I have Chai today…

John:…and I have black raspberry green tea. We’ve invited you here to talk about how you’ve been using mobile technology in applied music instruction, specifically related to performance. Could you tell us a bit about that?

Trevor: Yeah, I think one of the most important things is to decide when to use technology where it benefits as opposed to be either a substitute for something you should learn in a different way, or whether you should implement it because it’s just convenient. Sometimes when it’s convenient, though, it takes away some of the learning behind it, and I’ll get into some of that later. So I think that’s the first thing. I have to make that decision on every app that I use, or every device that I employ. So, one of the main things that I do is decide what’s best for the student and what’s best for me. And a lot of it does substitute for other things, but in the end, it can’t. For instance, if I do a collaborative piano thing with my colleague, there’s a lot of tools that we’ll talk about today that will substitute for that collaboration. Except for, I cannot phrase with the app in the the same way that I can. We can’t make decisions on a moment’s notice, like I can with another musician. We can’t have talks… at least I shouldn’t be talking to my apps… about what the best way to do something is and then make that interpretation or change colors of stuff. But what it allows me to do is, instead of having a more rehearsals with somebody that’s really busy, it allows me to rehearse by myself. And then therefore, save some time when we’re actually in the rehearsal to talk about those musical decisions as opposed to just to try to learn notes or trying to learn one anothers parts.

John: What are some of the apps that you use with instruction or performance?

Trevor: One of my favorite ones is Amazing Slow Downer, and I use this for both jazz and classical, being a saxophonist, and also a multi-reed player…I play clarinet, oboe, and bassoon. I like to use it in every circumstance I can. And it’s really a great app because even though there’s things like YouTube where you can now click over the three little dots in the corner, and you can slow down to 25%, 50% and 75% and speed it up if you so desire. This tool is just something that I always have with me and I can always use. And I’m also more familiar with it, it allows me to do multiple things. So let me give you example if I can play musical selection here. The first two are not going to be on the music slower downer, it’s going to be on Amazon Music. But I want you to listen. These are Brahms’ Clarinet Trio. I performed this with a colleague and somebody from Symphoria recently. And one of the things you’re doing as a musician is you have to interpret the history of music, and that includes listening. So if I listened to multiple recordings of something, you know, we always ask “Why are there a thousand recordings—might be overstated—but of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?” That’s because the composer had a certain thing in mind. And then the conductor who prepares the music, and the individuals in that group have different ways of interpreting that music and every one is different. But for a lot of younger students, and sometimes myself when it’s really advanced players, I’m not exactly sure what they’re doing, either articulation wise or what they’re doing phrasing wise. And the slower downer allows me to think about what they’re doing and compare all these great artists together. So I’ll do multiple recordings on something like this Brahms’ clarinet trio in A minor and have my students listen to it. I’m going to play one of them for you, and then I’ll play another one, and then I’ll play the third one. And then the third one I’ll slow down to show you how we can listen for different articulations. You may or may not tell the difference between the three, some of them are obvious, like there’s a tempo difference between them. But as far as the phrasing and the articulation used by the cellist, and by that clarinetist, and by the pianist, is something to think about. What do I want to sound like? It’s great to imitate people, but it’s also great to make decisions between all these different things you’re, in a way, sourcing and decide what you want to do and why you’re doing those musical decisions.

Rebecca: Before we jump into listening, for our audience who maybe is not as familiar with the music terms that you’re using? Can you clarify the difference between phrasing and articulation?

Trevor: Sure. Great. So articulation is the front of the note, and thank you for your much for that. So as a saxophonist, it’s how I tongue the note, if I put an emphasis through air or through my tongue. Another word for that is “attack,” how it attacks into it. For a string player, it might be the direction—up bow or down bow—how fast they’re moving the bow. For the pianist, how they voice the chords and are there some fingers stronger than the others. A third comes out of the chord and the fifth comes out of the chord. For a chord you have multiple, you know 1-3-5s, or the seventh of the chord. And each one of those, as a pianist, when they’re putting down multiple fingers, they can decide which ones are the most important. Whether it be the melody, whether it be the bass part, whether it be the inner harmony. So, from a pianist’s point-of-view, they can listen for that, or how the touches on the piano, how much they pressurize it, or if they use pedal in this area that’s not dictated by the score exactly. So phrasing, the best way to describe it is like minute dynamics. Or just using what we normally do. We, as human beings phrase, if you like somebody you change your voice, or if you get excited like, “I have go to the bathroom,” you don’t think, “Hey, I should elevate the dynamic of my voice. I should make it sound strained, so that I show the excitement of me having to go to the bathroom.” But in music, we have to think about that. We have to think about where, based on the harmony that’s below the music, how much am I going to emphasize that note or more importantly, maybe even growth of that note, or that musical phrase. So phrasing’s how people interpret the music beyond playing the right notes in the right place, and doing the pianoforte dynamics; it’s how they’re going to go to a note and resolve a note. And not only that, they think about overall structure of a piece for phrasing and how everything fits together, if they’re amazing musicians. When we listen to amazing musicians—like the ones who found in these recordings, then what we’re going to do is interpret what they did. And then maybe in our own minds figure out why you think they did that, if that’s a choice that you like to do based on the harmony or just a different tone color they do. And that’s obviously easier to figure out when you slow down to 70% than it is when you’re listening to it at 100%. So before I play the examples, the actual artists will be in the show notes below in the description. First one is, I’m just going to name the clarinetist, Karl Leister, and this is them playing the Brahms’ Trio. And I’ll do the first 30 seconds or so, so you can hear how it sounds.

[KARL LEISTER PLAYING BRAHMS’ TRIO]

Trevor: The next example will be by the clarinetist David Shifrin, that trio that he’s in. I’ll play about the same amount of time for it.

[DAVID SHIFRIN PLAYING BRAHMS’ TRIO]

Trevor: The last one I’ll do on Amazing Slower Downer, the app. And we’ll actually play it in tempo first, since its Martin Frost as the clarinetist, playing the same piece.

[MARTIN FROST PLAYING BRAHMS’ TRIO]

Trevor: So what we’ll do now is we’ll actually slow it down to like 70% so we can actually hear a little bit better the articulations, the dynamics—as the artist gets louder, you’ll be able to hear it more individual. And we can even slow it down after that into something ridiculous like 25%, where you can actually hear the front of each note. It’s almost painstaking how slow it is, but interpreting different things, it’s interesting to see if they use a breath attack or a tongue attack, and some of them are so subtle, I’d have to listen to it 25 times without slowing it down where I can actually hear it at 25% right away. So let’s go back and do it about 70%.

[BRAHMS’ TRIO PLAYED AT 70% SPEED]

Trevor: Here’s 25%.

[BRAHMS’ TRIO PLAYED AT 25% SPEED]

Trevor: I’m just going to jump ahead a little bit so we get into the clarinetist and stuff. I’m just going to scroll ahead.

[BRAHMS’ TRIO PLAYED AT 25% SPEED]

Trevor: First of all it’s very unfair because I would never want to be heard at 25%—it’s just impossible to keep a phrase sometimes or keep a note perfectly that way—but what it does is for us is we can actually hear them the front of the note… we can hear the shape of that note even if it’s a quarter note if he—in this case it’s a he—de-crescendos or crescendos into it and we can look at the overall structure of the dynamics too. You can see if he’s actually growing on that note, if you’re taping the note as I said before… the overall picture or phrase too. I think 25% might be a little excessive, you have to find the happy medium based on the tempo of the piece. I think initially 25% for this one might have been a little painstaking at the beginning.

John: But for students, perhaps having the ability to slow it down to that level would be much more helpful than for someone with more experience?

Trevor: Right, there’s definitely that and then we’re looking into transcription later on too. There’s this great book called School for Cool: The Academic Jazz Program and the Paradox of Institutionalized Creativity by Eitan Wilf and I hope I’m pronouncing his name right. He wrote it in 2014 and he basically went to Berklee School of Music and then The New School in Manhattan. And he noticed that students were using this application even back then—and when I say back then is only five years ago, or four years ago, or three, because in the time of technology, that’s way back then—and they were actually interpreting, transcribing not only John Coltrane and getting his notes like I would have done when I was in grad school or undergrad, but also then listening to his articulation at the front of the note. So trying to make their tongue sound exactly like that slow, and then they’d be speeding it up. Also, in a real fast passage we use a fake fingering. What fake fingering is, is there’s a normal way of fingering D on saxophone which is like 123-123 fingers down and then there’s a way of playing the high D but not using the octave key so it comes out in kind of a muffled way, I could probably demonstrate it for you if you’d like.

[TREVOR PLAYS D NOTE 3 DIFFERENT WAYS]

Trevor: So you use three different fingerings for the same note, which I’d probably not do in classical, but for jazz, it adds a different color. A lot of people know certain people will play that way so that you can actually determine those notes when it’s really fast it’s hard to tell. Just that nuanced playing that you can actually interpret when you’re listening to John Coltrane, that I didn’t when I was that age of the students that he was, you know, surveying. But, slowing it down, it’s not something new. There’s another great book too, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation by Paul Berliner who was published in 1994. He talks about how the old school players would get a vinyl record and they’d put their thumb on it and slow it down to like a third of the speed and then obviously transpose. Now they would be in the wrong key and way too low, and then they just transpose it up. So this technology, or using this technology, has been available as far as transcription. But if you did put your thumb on a record, it would probably distort the sound and the way that you can figure out articulation and you couldn’t figure out phrasing.

John: And the advantage of this is that students can preserve the pitch because all these apps maintain the pitch and you can hear the attack… just more slowly.

Trevor: This one is specifically and I’m sure a lot of things you can probably do this on YouTube. Also, a lot of my students have to in order to avoid buying a $15 app like this one is—at least when I bought it it was—they’ll find other sources, which I think is great. It doesn’t matter to me what they use as long as it does the same thing. I think on YouTube, you can do the same thing where you can loop it, and there is these three seconds or 10 seconds or whatever, and just loop it and here you can loop it. You can also save the file, save the section of the piece, call it what you want, and the next time you open up the app, it’s there. And you can also share your ideas with people. You can download stuff from things you buy on iTunes or you can use Spotify and there are other ways of importing into this app that’s really beneficial too. The nice part about this app is it can be used for classical and jazz. Most people use it mainly for jazz and transcription but I use it for everything and additionally you can actually slow your own self down which is always painful and hear that you weren’t phrasing that well or that your end of notes aren’t as tapered as they could be. And once you listen to amazing players you realize that they have control over everything. I’ve slowed myself down. I always know the differences between me and like the best person in the world, although I knew already but but it’s so evident when you slow it down to 50% and you hear the attack of your note is not as clear and not as shaped as the people that are just geniuses.

John: And you can also use that with students, though, to show them what they’re doing, right?

Trevor: Exactly. I mean, it’s a very revealing tool. So as far as students are concerned, I think it’s great tool for them but also can be somewhat depressing to hear yourself. It has to be a good balance and the student has to be at the point where we’re finding things not initially at the beginning, or maybe they’re even in their freshman or sophomore year, but at the end when they’re preparing for grad school or something like that, and it depends on the student as it does with every situation… what you can push them on and what you can’t. But, it’s just a great tool for that. So I also use the Amazing Slower Downer when I have a piece that I don’t have a—we’ll talk about Smart Music later where it is an intuitive accompaniment tool that takes away the saxophone or takes away or whatever it is you’re working on—but when it’s in pieces not in there or I don’t know the piece, I’ll find a recording of it and then I’ll play along with it. And this I can adjust a little bit of pitch if I need to and more importantly speed if I needed to get slower or I decided to take the piece at the end faster. Maybe now’s the time to talk about what the disadvantage of some technology is. I’ve got colleagues that don’t like using slower downers, not just colleagues but I’ve read articles and everything else, because you don’t have to go through the work and the persistence of doing so, and you should be able to hear it in the moment in the spot. And I think there’s something to be said for that. But I look at myself as one of the things where I get discouraged. I always think about one of my favorite reads, which is a psychologist by the name of Csikszentmihalyi and he’s got the flow theory, which is a book he published in 1990, which a lot of people are aware of. And number three of his flow theory is that there has to be a balance between the challenge and skills. For me, there wasn’t, my skills were low and my patience were also maybe lower when I was younger. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I think that’s true for most starting students. And a lot of people get discouraged when they don’t see that immediate progress.

Trevor: Yeah, that’s exactly it. So for me, I was able to use the tools that helped me a lot more. I painstakingly did it when I was my students’ age that was also because of the slower downers were $400 and I didn’t have the money. Now most students have phones but they use them for social media or actually using them as phones, or texting more likely. But now you can just download an app instead of buying a $400 machine for about $15, or you can go to YouTube and use that function or other tools that come with any kind of PC nowadays. Microsoft has their recording software and you can slow it down too. Not in such a certain way, but any of those tools are great too. Anyways I’ll slow my own recordings down of me playing along with other things. But the problem is trying to figure out that balance where I should be taking it to the tempo there I just took it or slowing it down. You just have to progress and move it forward so that you take it faster, faster each time. The thing about anything is once we do it more often, it becomes easier.

John: And the more they practice with this at a slow pace, the better they’ll be able to do it in real time as well.

Trevor: Right, and their ears develop immediately, faster and faster, and then therefore they can get to that point. I commend my colleagues and all the articles that I’ve read where you know, it’s better to do it that way. But for me, it was a wall, as it is for some of my students.

Rebecca: Sometimes it’s good to recognize when you are a beginner and that sometimes you need those training wheels just to feel like you got a little success.

Trevor: Right. That success as we all know it from pedagogy is that wields more success and it gets better and better every time. Let’s go on to a different app. Some of the obvious apps are metronome apps, every student can get a free metronome. I was excited in the mid 2000s when they dropped down to $20 as opposed to like $200, or the tuner is the same way, and then balancing that out. For me it’s I could buy a $20 tuner and put one on every one of my instruments but I always have my cell phone on me that’s what I love about it. I always have a tuner, I always have a metronome and I have no excuse, nor do my students. You know it’s a free app; you already own the phone. But there are some tuners and some metronomes that are better than others and I am not an authority, I don’t know every app that’s out there because there’s thousands. The ones that I know are the ones that I like… people have introduced to me and I’ll switch apps all the time if I find one that’s better. As far as the tuner or metronome it doesn’t really matter what my student brings in… whether she brings in the one that I prefer, like Cleartune for everyday apps, or if she brings in like TonalEnergy Tuner, but I’m going to talk about that one because it’s one that I found really interesting and it has a lot of functions on it. And it’s not only a tuner but a metronome. I use Tempo app for metronome primarily when I’m practicing but I’m getting into the TonalEnergy app for inside of it has also a metronome that I’m trying to investigate. So the app has so many different features to it, and I’ll show you and then maybe both of you can also chime in on what you think they look like, but…

John: I use the Cleartune app myself.

Trevor: Yeah, I loved that app until I saw this app. To give you a total side story, this one does analysis by waveform as it does it by another analysis and note names, too. This weekend, I judged a competition for high school students to get into all-county bands. And one of the other judges in the brass room said one of the students—and I don’t know the name of the student nor the judge—but the performance was really not great at all, where he actually pulled out his TonalEnergy Tuner to figure out what note the student was on to see if he could find out where he or she was was in the piece. That being the extreme of what the app is used for… nor do you want to use it for transcription because there are transcription apps where you plug it in and it’ll transcribe it for you. For playing our transcriptions—there’s worth to all those things—as far as actual transcriptions… a tool that you should have so that it ingrains in your memory and you have those phrases for jazz specifically. So this one here you can choose from waveform, you can do spectral harmonic analysis and note analysis. As you can see right now as we’re talking, sometimes I’m talking in tune and he gives me a happy face—it could be a she—gives me a smiley face, or if I’m really badly out of tune, there’s this little question mark with the thumb and finger or very sadness as you get way out of tune. But more importantly, as I do the waveform thing, it will record what I do.

Rebecca: I was also noticing that the color was changing as well. So, there was a lot of different identifiers to the user so if you had a certain kind of disability it’s actually providing that information in multiple ways.

Trevor: Yeah, and that’s great. And then over on the side it tells you pluses and minuses, I’m 13 cents sharp or whatever, 13.6 or flat. So, I can show the pitch, I can show the wave, and I can record it. Let’s go ahead and record it. You’ll see as we’re talking the spectrum, and then if I do with the notes, it’ll show me the notes, which ones they are, and how badly out of tune they are and we’re just talking. I could play my saxophone. But it would give you the same thing.

Rebecca: Right.

Trevor: So as far as I’m concerned, if I turn this away, and I can record it, and then go back and look at it, I’ll know that if I do nothing, or how much I need to do on the D. The D that I played for you before, nd gave you three different examples is the worse out-of-tune note on saxophone. So, I probably was sharp but this will tell me every note that I need to. You can even slow it down and stuff. You can also record your student visually and with audio. The visual thing is interesting because a lot of movement in the face will affect tuning. When I came to college, I chewed a lot, I had movements in my throat and my face and my teacher would just tell me what they were. But now I can like hold the video against them, show what their movements are, and how it’s affecting tuning and it’s, you know, just another another tool to get you there beyond just recording their facial features and hearing it.

Rebecca: It’s an interesting way to note take because it’s a visual note-taking method that you’re not just having to remember the conversation that you had with your faculty member or mentor, but that you can go back to and see again, if you’re able to record it and save it for later.

Trevor: Right. Yeah, I know, it’s great. It’s a neat tool. So, I’m starting to love this tuner and this metronome as much as the others. It does a lot of specific things where if I’m just pulling out a tuner like Cleartune, as we talked about, or Tempo, that’s more my functional as opposed to how badly I’m out of tune when I’m playing this passage. And the same thing I notice whether I’m using this app, TonalEnergy Tuner, or I’m using Amazing Slower Downer, or I’m using what we’ll talk about later, Smart Music, is that when I’m playing along with the pitch, in the case of Amazing Slower Downer, I know I can hear I’m out of tune, and then I can check it against this or if I’m playing along with Smart Music and you check it against here and see where I’m out. And I play multiple instruments so I’d like to tell you I’m perfectly in tune on every instrument but sometimes I’ll be playing A clarinet and I haven’t played that for a while where I normally do B-flat clarinet and I’m like, “Oh, that’s right. This B-flat is flat on the A but sharp on the…” you know, you have to adjust and unlearn and it allows me to do that prior to getting in there with my collaborative pianist and realizing that I’m out of tune. It’s a great tool. It’s got so many more features that I’m going to start looking into but there are funny features like… not really funny… but the band director or the the judge using it to try to figure out where they were, which hopefully we won’t have to use it very often for.

Rebecca: I wonder for a beginning student who has very little experience… maybe someone who’s not in the music program, but is learning an instrument. Have you worked with students using these kinds of apps with that population of students… like total beginners?

Trevor: Prior to teaching here at SUNY Oswego, I was teaching beginning students… so, seven to eighth in junior high program and then had fifth and sixth grade students. I haven’t used it and mainly because of physicality. Until you develop your armature, until you learn how to use the air, it’s almost impossible to use this effectively because if you don’t have the proper air you can’t make those minute adjustments. That being said, to get the initial tuning for every instrument, whether you’re in fifth grade or fourth grade, you do want to make sure the violin is in tune so students will start using that, you do want to make sure that your concert B-flat’s in tune, which only means after that all the other 11 notes are out of tune, but it’s a good reference point. And then students start to use tuners that way, and amazingly some of them like apps and stuff, and they get into and they show me different things they’re using for that I never thought. But initially, I try not… until those physical things are employed properly. It’s almost futile to actually do it all the time.

John: They need the fundamentals before you can work on tweaking.

Trevor: Right, yeah, especially for you know, with piano you don’t have to worry about tuning. Guitar, that’s got frets so it’s good to know how to tune it. You know that more…

John: You’ve never seen my piano, but… [LAUGHTER]

Trevor: Yeah, but yeah, no… We’ll talk about the next thing, Smart Music, and how it’s used more, or at least, I think more band directors in the public schools use it at elementary all the way through high school, then maybe as far as band music and material is than college professors. I use it for the solo literature, like clarinet concertos and sonatas ….but in the public schools they’re using this technology we’ll get into to not only evaluate their students—how they’re doing, to keep track of their practicing—but as a preparation tool, it’s great. And it can also be not as great for certain specific things and we’ll talk about that when we get there. The next tool—and we’re kind of focusing on my phone right now—the only app that is not available on a phone, a mobile platform that way, but is only on an iPad—is the Smart Music. As I said, we’ll get into that later. The next app I like a lot and I just got an email right before this, there’s a physics professor on campus who’s named Shashi and he’s a saxophone player. And he does exceptionally well, he’s way better of a saxophone player than I am in physics by any means. [LAUGHTER] He loves it. But he gave me an update “I used iReal Pro yesterday at an open jam session. I played these tunes” and went “Great, I’m excited.” It’s great to see that it can be used by by anyone. And as I said, he’s come miles and he loves this because for a physics professor he probably jams with people and he’s been doing a lot more of that. But initially, he’s like, “Who do I get to play with?” and if you don’t play music with somebody—it’s a social thing too… or people hear it—then you kind of like “Why am I doing this?” Even myself as a professional musician, my colleagues and I will prepare harder and more for either recordings or performances coming up then we will during the summer when there’s nothing to do. That being said, we’re preparing always for the next semester, but it’s always great to have that motivation. If I never played with anybody I probably wouldn’t continue playing, especially being a saxophone. A pianist is different, a guitarist is different, perhaps. Drummer is probably different too. I can’t imagine one person only being a drummer and doing that for the rest of life without collaborating with someone.

John: Did you tell us what iReal Pro is?

Trevor: In jazz, there’s these things called real books or fake books. Now, they’re legal. Back about 20, 30 years ago you can only buy them through illegal sources, and they were the melodies of famous popular music standards and jazz compositions, with chord changes behind them. And then you would get together with musicians and you’d play. Now back in the 70s, a guy by the name of Jamey Aebersold used professional musicians who recorded them on CDs—or back then I guess vinyl—and then gave a play along book with it. So he’s got the Jamey Aebersold play along. And what this is done is taking non-live musicians and put it into an app where you can play along with. You can see the chord changes. There are no melodies because you’d have to pay money and royalties for the melodies. But there is no royalties needed for chord changes, and so of the title of the tune and then the chord changes. It comes with no actual pieces on it until you go to the forum and then you can download thousands of pieces that are already programmed in that you can play along with. So I’m just going to pick up right now blues “Straight, No Chaser” by Thelonious Monk. Although it could be any blues until you hear the head and I’m just going to play you a little bit of how it sounds and then I’ll give you a visual description later about it.

[“Straight, No Chaser” PLAYS]

As you notice, when the music goes by, or the chord changes goes by, there’s a highlighted measure so that you know where you are, which is handy for students that are learning to improvise. Later on it’s not necessary, you could just look off a real book lead sheet and play along with it. There’s many features, one I can make the transposing instrument like I’m playing saxophone in the key of B-flat instead of C. I can see the chords transposed in front of me even though it’s playing the key of C. I can do that for any instrument. There’s like a balancing… if I’m a pianist, I can take the piano out or if I’m a drummer, I can take the drummer out. I’m not sure why a drummer would want to do that. And I can control the reverb… I can change the tempo… I can change the style—this is a jazz medium up swing—I can change it to almost anything—Latin, Gypsy jazz, trio guitar, slow swing, traditional jazz—and there’s pop and Latin stuff so I can change the beat behind. I don’t do that as much unless you’re working in the Latin situation but it’s nice to have and as I said, you can also program pieces in. So we just did a concert with this great alto saxophone player by the name of Dick Oatts down in the Village Vanguard Band—that’s where he is primarily and teaches at Temple University—a world renowned musician. And he sent us his charts which are really hard and don’t follow normal progressions. They’re really kind of tricky so I actually programmed them, or one of them, into here just so I could play along with it a little bit… hear the changes a little bit better. I mean I’ll voice them out on my saxophone like normal but it’s a really handy tool to have. And speed it up too like I can’t take it to the tempo he wants it so I’m gonna slow it down and feel good about myself and they’re not really that odd but they’re more unusual chord changes. They made sense but just needed more time to practice and I just programmed in it by…you kind of scroll up and type in F major and put a seven and you can do all the different things. It’s really interesting and you can save them and if you want and you can share them on the forum so other people can look at tunes. So this is an amazing tool. I love it for that because I can speed it up and slow it down, but there are other options. I think Aebersold things are still available online unfortunately for Aebersold ‘cause you know, he’s losing royalties and stuff on that. But then on YouTube, there’s “Learn to Play Jazz” I think if you type that in and whatever tune you want to do there’s that for the people that actually have iReal Pro copies on YouTube. You can’t slow it down, you can’t transpose it. You can adjust the balance and blend and stuff but it’s there. So my students will find those things too and use them. And I’m totally fine with that. You know, financially it makes sense. One of my favorite features is…and John, you have this app you said?

John: Yeah, I do.

Trevor: So you use this app, and have you have you looked at the tablature part of the app?

John: I haven’t been using it recently. Since we started the podcast I haven’t been playing so much music.

[LAUGHTER]

Trevor: Got ya. Give me a second here. So I’m going to show you…and do you play an instrument at all?

Rebecca: No. That’s why I was asking all those music questions.

Trevor: And please continue to do so. [LAUGHTER] In the corner of the app there’s this little thing that looks like a tablature and you can choose from multiple things. One is for guitar so you can select guitar chords. You can do piano, and the piano you can do one hand or two hands. You can do ukulele, which is a new feature and more importantly for me is the chord scale library which I use all the time. So let’s go back and add the chord scale library. So if I press play and then I pause it right away it’ll give me chords down at the bottom. So for that C7 chord I can do either dominant mixolydian chord if I scroll over. Actually for this one, there’s only one, but for a lot of times when it’s a different chord like flat 5 or something like that it’ll give you multiple options of what scaless you can use over top of it. Once you talk to a pianist—they’re not really fond of this app, because it’s not exactly like you would teach jazz piano—but if you have no skills, and you want to learn from an app, it can give you some things. It’s a really nice tool for myself and all of my students too. And as I said, our physics professor on campus uses it a lot and as do you prior to doing the podcast.

John: I used to use it more before we started this podcast.

[LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Trevor, we found that students were using these tools—or when you’re using these as part of your teaching—that the students abilities have improved or that they’re playing has improved. Have you noticed a difference in the integration or?

Trevor: In some regards more about how they practice and how long they practice. But yeah, I’ve noticed an improvement. By having no one to play along with it’s difficult to improvise—you improvise in different ways—it’s a very valuable skill to be able to cut the changes… and me as a saxophone player, if I play and my colleague walks in the room they say, “Oh, you’re playing this tune” based on the solo I’m doing then I know I’m really cutting the changes. But when I don’t know a tune as well, it’s nice to have the harmonic progression so I can use my ear a little bit more than I can my mind and eventually, it’s a combination of both, I’d hope. But my students will then play along with the blues a lot more than they would if they were just doing it by themselves.

John: And much of the benefit is students can work and get up to a point where they’re ready to play with other students so that everyone can use their time more effectively when they actually do collaborate and meet at once. Rather than each person struggling just to do their own parts, they get to work out playing it together.

Trevor: Exactly, it saves so much time. In addition to that, when we think about rural areas. A lot of times you’ll be able to find a great collaborative pianist for doing your solo so it might be okay to use Smart Music—I hate to say that—or you might not have a chance to prepare so you play along with records—or you play along with, in the old days—and now you can play along with this. You know, even getting out and playing along with it at open mic night it’s just totally acceptable because it’s expensive to find musicians and especially in different places. Where in New York City I think would never see anybody using iReal Pro to play along with at a club, you know, just because…

John: …There’s a few musicians there, yeah.

Trevor: But I’ve heard of people pulling it out and it does irritate people. There is the idea that once you graduate from a jazz program—specifically, if you focus on jazz. I myself, did music education. I play jazz a lot and I also did classical clarinet, classical saxophone—but if you’re only a jazz major, or if you’re good jazz player, you’ll have like 150 to 200 tunes memorized. So you’ll call a tune, you’ll have the head, and you’ll know the chord progressions. But nowadays, a lot of the younger players are… from what I hear and what I hear from complaints from older generation people is that they’ll pull out the iReal Pro if they don’t know a tune and play along with it. And there’s pluses and minuses. Now you can actually play that tune. The minus is it’s not as ingrained as if you had to learn it and memorize it and ingrain in yourself, and that you won’t be able to interact with the high level players you’re playing with in the same way as if you did that work. So there’s, you know, again, pluses and minuses. It never should be a substitute for the ideal, but it should be a tool like you just said to get you there. Or in the cases of where there’s not a bass player to play with, at least it gives you a way to proceed until you can find one.

Rebecca: How do students respond to using these tools?

Trevor: They like them. They enjoy them. They think they’re really neat. This freshman student that came in—he was using YouTube, one of the play alongs he warmed up to it—but yet again, the disadvantage of this is all electronic and they sound electronic. So at least some of the “Learn to Play Jazz” are actually real jazz musicians. But you can alter the tempo—or you can’t—I guess you can with the 75%, 50%. I’ve never tried it, now that I think of it, on YouTube…but you know, it just it takes adjustment. You know, there’s nothing to substitute live musicians. The drummer can’t react to what phrase you just played. Nor can the keyboard voice omething different if you’re going there harmonically. But it is a tool. And yet again, a tool that’s not a substitute, but a tool that’s effective in preparing. The next tool we’ll talk about is actually on my iPad, and it’s Smart Music. Smart Music is an app which originally was on a computer and way back in the 90s when it came out it looked like the old Atari cartridges you’d buy with the machine for $2,000 and each cartridge would be like $80 or something and have one piece—Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. But nowadays it comes on an iPad and you can also get it on your computer. The computer has more features on it but obviously is not as portable as the iPad. And what it does and what it’s being used for is amazing, but also can be negative and we’ll talk about that after we talk about the positives. It has all the band music that you’ll want to play in public school and what the band director can do—including myself as a band director—is that I can say, “I want you to play Holst’s ‘First Suite,’” is which we picked here, and gives you the saxophone part but I can also push the button as you can see, and I can pick whatever instrument I’m playing. So I’m playing bassoon, it gives you the bassoon part. It has the music in front of you and then once I play along with the rest of the band without that bassoon part or that saxophone part, it has little X’s and O’s and tells me what percentage of the music I got right rhythmically and everything else. So band directors will use this to say, “I want you to record this and get it to me and then that’s your percentage on it.” Now it does have some flaws. I’ve listened to students play and myself play and it’s no way that I’m getting 60% I’m getting closer to 85 or something like that. So some advantages and it’s gotten better over the years.

Rebecca: So just to clarify, it’s like Guitar Hero video game?

Trevor: To clarify, Guitar Hero has nothing to do with guitar.

Rebecca: Right. Yeah.

Trevor: It’s more of a rhythmic pushing buttons…

John: Pattern matching, yeah.

Trevor: Pattern matching and it has something to do with the music because it’s actually, you’re hitting it rhythmically along with the song, that’s about it. But you’re right, it’s like a play along, it’s like karaoke without the part you’re on. But this karaoke, in this case, records where your notes are wrong with red and green, where you’re behind, and it tells you where you’ve missed things, and then that goes back to the band director and they can grade you accordingly. So it saves them time.

Rebecca: The visual cues are similar is really what I’m…

Trevor: Oh I see what you’re saying. Yeah, I haven’t I haven’t played a lot of Guitar Hero and I apologize. Most of my knowledge of Guitar Hero’s from South Park and we won’t talk about that. So it allows you to do all those different things and then record them. As far as soloists are concerned, that’s where I use it more. I use it more to play along with a collaborative pianist that’s not there. And it follows you. So for instance, I’m going to pick the clarinet Copland concerto that I’ve prepared for, and it’s got a piano reduction to it. It’s a very difficult piece to put together when you’re a clarinetists like me, who’s a saxophone player that also plays clarinet well. So I use it a lot of time to prepare before I meet with my collaborative pianist. And I’m going to pick an arbitrary section in the middle so you can hear the piano part. And the piano part will play and then once I play along with it—and I’m not actually going to play—it will record it, and I can play it back so I hear all my mistakes which is really nice, and also my pitch errors and stuff. And then if I am unsure of myself, I can actually set it so that it will play with the clarinet part along with me so that I can hear that part to make sure I’m rhythmically accurate with it. That comes to one of the problems with being able to play along with something that has 100% rhythmic accuracy, but you don’t. You know, our ear can pick up on things so quickly that… let me give you the example. When I was in high school, there’s this lady named Amanda and she was the first-chair alto saxophone. And Amanda would have the rhythm perfectly the first time and then me, who would after listening to her having it perfect the fifth or sixth time, so I didn’t really learn how to count properly. And by playing along with the Smart Music, where the piano is actually playing your saxophone part or clarinet part, and you’ve been listening to that. Then when it comes to actual real performances, if you play along with it all the time, then you’re relying on it so much and your rhythm goes out the window. So that’s where some technology can get in your way, specifically with rhythmic attributes, but also with other things too. But yet again, it’s a tool and if you recognize that, you know, I prepare it rhythmically with the students first, I don’t let them use Smart Music until they’re at almost the performance level. So we’re going to play a little bit of the Copland Clarinet Concerto somewhere, but 140 measures into it. I’m going to play it initially with the accompaniment but with nobody playing, and then I’m going to set it and you can hear the difference now with the clarinet part being played by a different sounding piano.

[COPLAND’S CLARINET CONCERTO PLAYS ON PIANO]

So that was just the piano alone. Now I will do it with the clarinet part being played by a secondary piano, and you’ll hear how it fits in and that’d be what I’d be playing along with if I needed the rhythmic help or I wanted to check my pitch.

[COPLAND’S CLARINET CONCERTO PLAYS ON PIANO WITH SECONDARY PIANO]

That wasn’t as obvious an example but if you knew the part you’d be able to hear there’s extra additional things added to that which should be the clarinetist. So this tool is just remarkable for that and as I said, for band directors in public school and at the university level too, it seems like an appealing thing. I just haven’t figured out a way to automate it or include it in my, you know, as part of the practicing routine for my students. And if they don’t come from it from the schools, it’s a little bit more difficult to implement. I’m not sure at the university level it’s ideal for me to implement. I’m still wrestling with that as I am with implementing any technology.

John: So how have your colleagues responded?

Trevor: One of my colleagues, Rob Auler, he uses it as much or more than I do, we always check out, “Hey man, check this app out. Do you think it works really well?” So we check out different apps and sometimes those apps apply—or in the case of Rob, a tuning app wouldn’t apply for him because, you know, somebody else tunes his piano for him—but he really loves Amazing Slower Downer. He uses the iReal Pro probably less than I do, because he could collaborate with himself in his left hand while he’s playing solo lines in his right hand. And he doesn’t use it as a tool like Smart Music because, you know, pianists are not usually playing along with other pianists, they’re the collaborators. And we’ve talked about that, too. He knows it’s not a tool that can replace a pianist. But when we work together, Rob is a consummate musician and so he learns things way faster than I do. His mother would feel the TV to see if he was practicing five hours a day when he was younger, where I was probably you know, playing out in the backyard with dirt or something. He learns things so much faster and he doesn’t want to spend time rehearsing. So for me I’ll prepare on Smart Music and I’ll prepare on these other apps and get to that point where now I don’t have to spend so much time rehearsing with him. We’ll just do it once or twice like professional musicians do and he’s always been that way. For me, it’s upped my ante and I’ve really enjoyed that. So we’ll talk about all kinds of technologies, he’s huge into it. Other colleagues, for vocal people, they prefer having a pianist collaborate with them—which makes total sense—so it’s not as prevalent and I understand that. But most of them are not against, they just don’t understand how to tie things into doing it because what they’re doing already is fine. And that’s one of my philosophies too: If something is working, and it’s not going to be any better by adding the technology, there’s no need to add it. But if it can be an efficiency, the fact that usually in history—and as I got older, I realized this—that convenience wins out. And if I look at audio recording, you know, tapes. Small tapes were horrible audio quality compared to vinyl and CD had finally came up to a very good audio quality, probably not as good as vinyl, but most people can’t hear that spectrum anyways for those people that believe it.

John: And usually it’s better the first couple times you play the vinyl. After, the needles have worn down the grooves, unless you’re reading it with a laser, the quality of vinyl degrades really quickly.

Trevor: It does. And then MP3’s everybody thought, “Oh that won’t stick,” you know, everybody kept to analog, and really, the quality doesn’t sound nearly as good. But most people are listening through cheap headsets and on phones and using it for different background thing. Most people are not audiophiles and most musicians are and they think that technology is not going to last. So unless there’s a technology that other than convenience as a musician that I think benefits my students, I don’t really buy into it too much. A lot of people have embraced it and for different reasons. I think everybody owns a tuner on their phone. Everybody has a metronome on their phone. My colleague Juan La Manna uses the digital recordings and visual recordings of Zooms and stuff like that for his conducting students to record them and give them feedback on it and he uses it to record himself on concerts and a lot of technology being used, but not the Smart Music so much outside of wind players, I think. And it’s also ingrained in the band world. Jazz musicians have always used technology as far as like play along recordings with Jamey Aebersold and later on so it’s only a natural progression to use something like iReal Pro, I think. But you know, most of my faculty enjoy technology when it’s beneficial if it doesn’t help them out, there’s no need to learn it.

Rebecca: So I always wrap up our podcast by asking, what’s next?

Trevor: One of the things I’ve held off on and my colleague Rob Auler has not is reading off of tablets for music instead of bringing paper along with them. So for him it made a lot more sense, because he can use the AirTurn Duo Bluetooth pedal, and he doesn’t have to rely on anyone to turn his page. It’ll take them a little time to practice it. You can actually write and notate things in there if you’re in the middle of rehearsal, you know, we want more piano here, or we listen to the cello or whatever. But for me as a single line instrument, it didn’t make that much more sense other than the convenience of it, which we’ve talked about, which is to not have a lot of music in your backpack. But then a few things have changed over the course of the last few weeks that made me think I need to do it for my students and myself. They should know this technology. So I went to a rock gig—I hadn’t played a rock gig for 20 years at a wedding one of my friends asked me to do—The bread, the money was pretty good so I decided to do it for the first time in a while. And most of the people were playing on that, I had this like four inch binder that the guy gave me. He wouldn’t give me his iPad, and I played there and then I did a soloist with the Syracuse Symphoria and I was there just watching the orchestra play in one of the pieces and the harpist… and harpists are one of the people that are not known for…you know, they play an antiquated instrument…. It’s a gorgeous instrument… But she was using an iPad. Ironically she was reading a hard copy book while she was waiting for her turn to play in different pieces [LAUGHTER] so I thought that was ironic but she was using an iPad and I thought, “Oh, maybe I should do this.” And also the advent of the iPad Pro, where it’s large enough. You know I tried it when Vornhagen came here when I was doing some pieces, and I wrote it and sketched it and put it on the iPad, it just wasn’t conducive to reading with low light. And then Rob mentioned something to me that I thought would be the ultimate reason why to get one. He goes, “Wouldn’t it be nice if everybody played off the score?” By that I mean piano score that has a cello and the clarinet part there and we could all take a look to see vertically what’s going on as opposed to what we normally play off, the cellist has a single line as do I. Obviously the problem behind that would…we have to like learn how to read music differently. Instead of going from one line to the other, I’d have to skip them things, but I’m a conductor so that’s not a problem. But it would actually save a lot of time in rehearsal if we got off, or more importantly, if we want to phrase something together or we’re talking about something like, “What happens there?” I’d have to go over and look over Rob’s shoulder. So that to me, outside of the convenience of it, and that I probably should get back into the 21st century and actually get playing off them so our students know how to do it. I think it’s something that my next step is going to be starting to do that. And yet again, you can edit it. You can draw on it. You can put in repeats. It just seems so much more logical to do. I put in for grant for this and at the end, they’re evaluating it and they asked me specifically, “What would you do if you didn’t get this?” and I said, “Probably use paper” other than than what Rob just mentioned to me right after that session where it’d be great to read off the score ourselves. The advantage of it is more mobility and portability. These fake books are two and a half to three inches thick and there’s three or four of them and he has them all on his iPad and I have to slug them around with me, so I have nothing against paper.

John: But it’s a whole lot easier carrying around an iPad where you can have tens of thousands of scores with you.

Trevor: It is. And a battery pack too. That’s the other thing, if you don’t have a way to charge it and stuff like that, but that nowadays that doesn’t seem like it’s a concern at all.

John: And iPads generally got 10 or 12 hours at least of battery life.

Trevor: Right.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us, Trevor. It’s been really interesting to hear you talk about your practice with mobile technology. And I know for me as a visual artist, it was making me think about the kinds of tools that we use as a visual artist and kind of translating the kinds of activities that you’re thinking about with students to different kinds of activities that I could do with my students and also thinking about how to use those to kind of push students just a little bit further.

Trevor: Nice. That’s great.

John: Thank you.

Trevor: 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 Bandla, and Jacob Alverson.

67. Iterative OER Development

Imagine course materials that are always up to date and evolve continually to become better at supporting student learning. In this, Dr. Steven Greenlaw joins us to discuss how some publishers of open educational resources are trying to set up sustainable practices to achieve these goals. Steve is a Professor of Economics at the University of Mary Washington and the author of the OpenStax Economics textbooks. He has also developed the materials for Lumen Learning’s Waymaker Introductory Economics texts.

Show Notes

Additional Resources

Transcript

John: Imagine course materials that are always up to date and evolve continually to become better at supporting student learning. In this episode, we discuss how some publishers of open educational resources are trying to set up sustainable practices to achieve these goals.

[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 Steven Greenlaw, a Professor of Economics at the University of Mary Washington and the author of the OpenStax OER Economics textbooks. He has also developed the materials for Lumen Learning’s Waymaker Introductory Economics texts. Welcome, Steve.

Steve: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today teas are:

Steve: I’m drinking coffee. Thank you.

John: …and I have Enchanted Forest Fruits black tea from Epcot which I picked up while I was out there for the OLC conference where I last saw you, Steve.

Rebecca: You’ll never guess what I’m drinking.

John: English afternoon?

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s my favorite.

Steve: Well, honestly, I switched to tea in the afternoon.

Rebecca: See…

Steve: But in the mornings, I tend to drink coffee.

Rebecca: Yeah, you and many other people.

John: What prompted your interest in using and developing OER materials?

Steve: I have to say the developing came first. For a long time, I’ve experimented with textbooks going back into the 1980s, which at least John can remember. And I came to the conclusion that that it didn’t really seem to matter what principles book you used. Students needed a book, particularly for the analytical parts of the course: the models and things like that. But whichever book I used, they seem to learn just as well. And more recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that intro textbooks are commodities, that where companies are going to make their money is in the aftermarket products. But we’re not there yet. At least, the majority of the textbook industry is not there yet. So I had that and I didn’t really pay much attention in the 2000s about what textbook I was using, because I didn’t really think it mattered. But I did notice how high textbook prices were going and it was around that point that I became aware of and interested in OER. Again, this is dating myself, but when I was in college during the mid-1970s, I remember a teacher in my intermediate macro class—John, that’s for you—saying he would never assign texts for a course that collectively cost more than $10. [LAUGHTER] And so that’s sort of my base year. So, I sort of had this in the back of my head, I basically tried to choose around the least expensive textbook that I thought would work. And then out of the blue, OpenStax contacted me and said they had funding to create a principles of micro-macro text, and would I be interested in helping them out. I actually jumped at the opportunity, it sounded like a lot of fun. At that point I had already published one textbook commercially for an upper level course and I knew something about the commercial publishing process. I knew that I didn’t really want to go through that again, but I did want to get my ideas out there. One of the things about commercial publishing is they ask you, “What are all the innovative things you want to do?” and then once they have you on contract, they say, “Oh, but you have to do it like everybody else’s.” So that was the start. A year after the OpenStax book got published, I got contacted by Lumen Learning who said essentially the same thing. They said, “We’re building this digital platform, and we wondered if you would like to be the principals subject matter expert.” That’s the term of art that I become a SME.

John: So could you tell us a little bit about Lumen Learning’s project and the Waymaker version of this?

Steve: Sure.

John: What does it add?

Steve: It adds a lot. So, just to be clear, I wrote the OpenStax principles book. And we can talk about that process later if you want to, especially about peer review and things like that. And then I wrote the Lumen Learning Waymaker version, which was essentially an improved version. When we did the OpenStax principles book, we did it in an incredibly short period of time, I think it was nine months. So, when I did Waymaker for the first time, it allowed me to flesh out some of the things that weren’t ideal in the OpenStax book. And then OpenStax came back to me maybe three years ago and said, “We have funding for a new edition. Would you like to do that?” so I wrote a second formal edition for the OpenStax principles book. And then right after that, I did the same thing for Lumen. So, in my mind, I’ve gone through four versions of this now. And it’s not done and that’s part of the beauty of OER… at least the OER business. So to get back to your question, the OpenStax principles book is a textbook, it’s available in print and a variety of online options. My particular favorite is the phone app. So if I’m in class and a student asked me a question about something, I could literally look it up on my phone. Waymaker is a very different animal. It’s digital courseware so it’s a more immersive, interactive experience for students. And it’s not available in print. For example, how would you show a video or do a simulation in a print textbook? You can’t. The most you could do was provide a URL or something and have the student go out to that. In Waymaker, it’s all in one. So Waymaker, aside from text, it includes video, it includes animations, it includes simulations. Just to give you a specific example, instead of students looking at a graph of supply and demand, they actually get to climb in and take it for a test drive. Students really liked that. Many students seem to get it in a way that’s just looking at a two-dimensional graph, or reading text it is much harder for them.

John: I saw you present on this at the OLC conference…

Steve: Yep.

John: …And you demonstrate this. What software did you use to create those interactive graphs?

Steve: Those little interactives are H5C… maybe… it’s called? [It is H5P]

John: Okay.

Steve: It’s a European company, and it’s open source, and it’s really easy to do. I can say that even though I didn’t create the interactives. That’s the joy of working with a company… they actually have people to do the stuff that you don’t know how to do… unlike my earlier career, when I was the programmer, I was the graphic designer and all of those other things. Talking a little more about Waymaker, it’s more than a source of course content. It’s designed to teach students to study more deeply and more effectively. I don’t know about your students, but my students don’t seem to have learned how to study well. They’re very good at the game of school, but they’re not so good at learning. And I don’t mean that as a criticism. It’s just sort of a fact. They think study means read, highlight, read again, highlight again. When we know a lot from cognitive science now, that learning comes from working with the material. As I like to say, “the best way for students to learn economics is to do economics.” So Waymaker emphasizes mastery learning and personalized tutoring. The tutoring comes both from the software and also from the instructor. It’s designed to give students actionable feedback so that they can make their own decisions about how to allocate their study time. This is a really different way of learning, so I’m going to say it again a little bit differently. Assessment is integral to the learning process, it’s not just or even primarily about the grades. Rather, the assessment is designed to make students interact more deeply with the content and interact in a more intelligent meta-cognitive way. I can go into more detail about what it looks like from the students perspective, if you want.

John: Sure. Could you talk a little bit more about that? It’s a great approach. I tried to do that myself, but it’s always an add-on. Having it integrated is a nice feature, and one of the reasons why I’m planning to adopt your package in the fall.

Steve: This is really different for students, but also for the instructor. I’ve been working on this product for three years. When it finally came out in beta, I thought I knew what was going on, and I was really surprised at how little I knew about how it actually worked. Waymaker is organized into modules, which are analogous to chapters in the text. Students begin each module with the “show what you know,” which is basically a formative assessment. The purpose of that is to identify what content they already know. So, it gives them feedback on how they can efficiently use their study time. So, if there’s stuff that they absolutely already know, they don’t need to read about it again, they can just go into the stuff that they don’t know.

John: And even if they don’t, it activates prior knowledge. And it helps them make connections so that they can learn more effectively…

Steve: …Yes.

John: So there’s a lot of benefits, even for the areas they don’t know.

Steve: Yes. And I’m actually adding a little exercise for my first day of class next week, where I put my students in small groups. Some of whom who’ve had the first semester, and some of them who have not. And I’m going to give them a basically a problem to work with, knowing that some of them won’t really know what to do with it. But I want the groups to start working together. But anyway, I digress. So, as students progress through the content, there are a series of learning activities. The original one is called a “self-check.” It’s basically a short formative quiz. The purpose of the quizzes is not summative assessment. But as I said before, it’s to help students think more about their learning. Think about the idea of a Socratic tutor. The tutor doesn’t ask questions to assess the students’ knowledge, but rather to help them work through the content, help them really understand it. So what happens in Waymaker is: the student reads a page a text, or watches a video, or plays a simulation. And then they’re posed a very short quiz, like one or two questions. If they pass the quiz, the “gate” opens and they move to the next section. If they don’t pass the quiz—and on a one-question quiz, either you get it or you don’t—Waymaker suggests that they review the content before attempting the quiz again. They can take those quizzes as many times as they want to. So they can really build some expertise. There are other sorts of learning activities, but I want to focus on the quizzes today. At the end of the modules, students take a module quiz—essentially a chapter test—which is summative. Again, if they fail to achieve mastery—and the default mastery level is 80%, so it’s pretty high level. As an instructor, you can change that to whatever you want. But I like 80%. So if they don’t achieve 80%, they’re encouraged to study again and they’re given information about what areas to study. And then they can take the module quiz one more time. They’re only allowed to take the module quizzes twice. Now, here’s where it starts to get really interesting from the teacher’s point-of-view. The instructor receives reports from the module quizzes whenever a student fails. So for me, the first really good thing about Waymaker was that I don’t have to go to some website and look at some spreadsheet and see which students are struggling. Rather, anytime a student fails, I get pinged from the software. So it says, “so and so…” Well it’s a little boilerplate language… but basically it says they worked through the module, and they scored a 46 on the module quiz. You might want to reach out to them at that point. So the software is flexible. So you can get these things in real time, you can get them once a day, you can get them once a week, if you want to. I get them once a day. That seems reasonably quick for me. If the students taken the quiz at three in the morning, I’m not up anyway, so it hardly matters. It’s not like I’m going to give them that fast feedback. But what happens is I get that information, and then I get to decide, “What am I going to do about it?” If someone gets a 76 on their first attempt, I generally figure, “Okay, they’re gonna figure this out.” And so I don’t worry about it. If someone gets a 46, then I immediately want to reach out to them and say, “Hey, I see that you’re struggling with this. You know you can take it again. Go back and review the material. And if you’re not sure that you understand it, let me know and I will work with you on this. Because the goal here is mastery. It’s not anything else. Anyway, Waymaker helps me, the instructor, make better, more efficient use of my time. In any given week, Waymaker allows me to know two important things. It allows me to reach out only to those students that need my help. And it lets me know what topics the class is struggling with, so that I can tailor my in-class time to the material where the students need help and not spend it on material where they already know this stuff. Basically, it gives me a better feel for the effectiveness of my teaching and student learning. And that’s really, really important I think as a teacher. I’m embarrassed to think of my early years and teaching, when if I got all the way through the 50 minutes, I counted that as a successful day.

[LAUGHTER]

John: I think many of us started like that.

Rebecca: It ties really nicely to your blog post series that you’ve just recently published. The first one being the critical importance of instructional design…

Steve:Yup…

Rebecca: …where you talk a lot about the instructor’s role is designing the experiences, rather than delivering content. Can you talk a little bit more about how Waymaker helps you do that as an instructor?

Steve: There’s a “just-in-time teaching” element to this. I have a course outline, I know what I’m supposed to be doing on a week-to-week basis. But what happens on any given day depends on the stuff that came before it. I’m absolutely not wedded to the calendar. If the students haven’t figured out what we did on Monday, I’m going to start by spending a little more time on that. But also because of the feedback that I’m getting from Waymaker, there are times when I spend 90% of the class on 10% of the material. Because that’s what I know students are having trouble with. I know that if it’s something analytical, probably what I’m going to want to do is instead of talking to them about it—I mean, certainly I’m going to talk to them about it—I put together some group activities. I do a lot of group activities, small groups, generally two to three people. And then I essentially turn the classroom into a lab experience for that day. They seem to enjoy it more, they seem to get more out of it than me just lecturing over the content. After all the content is in the book. I don’t need to just repeat that stuff. So I guess that’s my short answer to your question.

Rebecca: Can you give an example of the kinds of activities that you’re doing with your students?

Steve: Oh, sure. Supply and demand is the first real model that the students work with. And so one of my learning goals is that they ought to be able to take a scenario… something happens… use supply and demand to analyze the effect on the market for x, gasoline or something like that. Typically what happens is, hopefully they will have read the material in Waymaker. Typically, I spend a day talking about “here’s how you would do it” and then generally what’s going to happen is, I spend a day where I have a couple of problems, like three is all that we’re going to have time to do. And I say, “Get in groups of two or three.” Basically, I count the number of students that showed up that day, because my classes are pretty small. And if it’s divisible by three, I put them in groups of three, if it’s divisible by two, I put them in groups of two. And then I say, “Okay, here’s a problem,” I show them the problem. And I say, “Take 10-minutes to work through this, draw the graphs.” And then they know that I’m going to call some of the groups up to present the results to everyone else. So there’s a little bit of competition. It’s not very stressful. It’s a little stressful for people that don’t like to speak in class, but you’re not there by yourself. You’re there with your group, so it works better that way. So I do a couple of those problems until I’m convinced that most people know what they’re doing. So that would be an example.

John: You also mentioned—when I saw you present at the Online Learning Consortium—how you use some of that feedback to improve the text in your current edition. Could you talk a little bit about that process of revision and creation of the text?

Steve: Sure. While I can’t take all the credit. From the beginning of Waymaker, at least from when I began to get involved… once I realized how integral the assessment process was to Waymaker, I pressed Lumen to make sure that the assessment questions were good. One of the things that I’ve noticed over the years is, test banks seem to be the lowest priority of textbook publishers. Because after all, they’re selling the text but they’re giving away the test bank. So what I want, I guess what we all want, is that the questions in the test bank that Waymaker uses, are discriminating correctly. And that’s harder than you might imagine. To their credit, Lumens put a tremendous amount of effort into this. And more generally, into the design the courseware. This has resulted in a process of continuous improvement. Now, continuous improvement is not a term that excites most faculty. I think that’s a fair statement John? [LAUGHTER]

John: Yes.

Steve: But what it really means is that, Lumen has an ongoing process for improving OER, making it more effective every single semester. And they’ve done this, and we’re now in your five and a half. So how does it work? I have a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is, after every semester Lumen downloads the data from every student who’s given them permission at every school using Waymaker across the country. And then they analyze the data. The analysis identifies where the students are having problems. At that point, we go in and either revise the content to make it clearer, or add some learning activities. Or else we revise the assessments to better capture student learning. We do this a little bit in a panicky way over the winter break, because we only have a month. But we do it intensely every summer. Here’s the longer answer. Over time, we’ve gotten better at doing this more efficiently. Lumen has developed something called “RISE Analysis.” RISE is an acronym. I don’t remember what the letters mean. [LAUGHTER] But basically it asked the question, “Which course materials would benefit the most from improvement?” Or to put it differently, “Which changes would have the greatest impact on learning?” So what we’ve done—and this is all programmed now. So Lumen has dozens of Waymaker courses, not just an economics. Though, I like to think that some of the most interesting stuff is started in the econ Waymaker platform. I’m not just making that up, it’s actually true. [LAUGHTER] So, instead of just doing the aggregate sweep on the data, we particularly look at student learning outcomes. And everything in Waymaker is driven by the student learning outcomes. This is out of order, but let me just throw this in for a minute. The way that Waymaker started is they brought together—I want to say 50 principles instructors from everything from community colleges up to R1s. And we spent four days together. And we asked the question, “What do you have to have in your principles courses?’ And so from that we created a list of primary learning outcomes. And then we drilled down and we now have secondary and tertiary outcomes. So the assessment questions in the test banks are coded down to the third level. So everything is really granular, if you want to think about it in those terms. What we look at is not just which student learning outcomes are students struggling with. But rather, which student learning outcomes where students are doing relatively poorly, are they putting a lot of time and effort into. Because that’s where we’re going to get the biggest bang for the buck in terms of fixing things. So what we do is we look at three things. We look at, “Are the questions badly worded?” We’re mostly done with that at this point. “Are the questions testing what they’re supposed to be testing?” There are some psychometric tests that allow you to do that. And then finally, what we do is—after we’ve exhausted all those—we look at the content and we create new content, or different types of learning activities, and we integrate those into the course. So, the interactives that you saw at OLC John, they were the big new innovation from last summer. So we do this, and then we teach the courses again, and then we start the cycle all over again. So, the process just goes on. It’s not continuous, as in every day, but it’s continuous, as in regular. I’ve used the courseware since the first year, and the courseware has gotten noticeably better. Fewer students are failing to achieve mastery on the module quizzes. And fewer of them are crashing and burning. More of them are in the 60 to 70% range when they fail. But what’s really cool is Lumen has shown no sign that they’re ready to quit, that they’re done with this. As long as they’re willing to do this, I think I’m willing to do this.

Rebecca: I like the iterative process.

Steve: Yeah.

Rebecca: That’s something that, as a designer, I’m very comfortable with… that I do all the time, especially designing online. But one of the things that’s really interesting about this model is that, as the author of the textbook, you don’t just have this finished thing. It’s an ongoing…

Steve: …It is.

Rebecca: … thing. So that’s a really different model of authorship.

Steve: Yes, it is. I think it’s fair to say that we make small changes all the time. And then every summer, we make larger changes. And that’s pretty interesting. Because as a user—as you pointed out—I can see that this is helping.

Rebecca: Yeah, that’s really exciting.

Steve: Right now, the hardest part is getting students to trust the process. Because it’s a very different model of learning. And so one of the things that I’m going to do this semester is, build in opportunities for me to remind them that this is a different process, and that they need to trust the process. One of the things that I did last year, which seemed to help with that was I started using exam wrappers after the midterm exams. And ask them to think about how they were studying, and what they would do differently, and what I could do to help them. It’s real easy to see in 30 seconds, I can tell if they’re taking it seriously or not. And if they’re taking it seriously, I learn a whole lot from what they say. So, anyway, just another little wrinkle.

Rebecca: So we’ve talked a lot about the students and the different learning process for students. You talked a little bit about the different processes being the expert, or the writer of the book. And you also mentioned earlier about the peer-review process for an OER being a bit different. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Steve: Sure, and that’s really important. First of all, people have a wrong idea about how OER is produced. The OER that I have experience with is working with OER publishers. It’s not the loan faculty member working in their spare time in their basement, or something like that. Both the OpenStax and the Lumen experience for me, have been very much a team effort. There have been a lot of people involved. So this is really important because one of the concerns about OER textbooks is their presumed lack of quality. There was an article in The Chronicle about that, today in fact. I have to tell you that the peer-review process that I went through with OpenStax was extensive. The way we did this is, OpenStax purchased a manuscript from Tim Taylor—a prominent economist—as the basis for the first edition. They sent copies of the manuscript out to about two-dozen reviewers all over the country, asking them to identify strengths and weaknesses. Based on those review comments, I rewrote each chapter. Each chapter was then sent out to half a dozen new reviewers. And again, the reviewers were from a range of schools, from community colleges through research universities. I took that feedback and I revised each chapter again before it went through the editorial review and production process. I have to say, this was much more detailed and extensive then when I worked with a commercial publisher. The review process for Lumen was similar, there was a lot of peer review involved. And as I said before, I’ve now written two formal editions of both texts. We’ve gotten lots of feedback from users. I’m pretty happy with that.

Rebecca: Do you find that the difference between OER and a commercial publisher is that you keep getting this feedback from users? And that you’re able to revise based on the use of other faculty, rather than working in a silo?

Steve: If I’d written the principles book for a commercial publisher, I would be better able to answer that. I got no formal feedback on my commercial book. I got a lot of comments from people at conferences and things like that. But we have gotten tons of feedback on the OER books, and that is interesting. You can’t satisfy everybody. Somebody says, “This chapter is too long.” Somebody says the same chapter is too short. But, in general, the feedback has been really, really helpful. And we’ve tried to incorporate it as soon as possible. And with these digital text, it’s really easy to do. I can literally go in and edit if I have five-minutes on the fly. And then it’s out there.

John: While with regular publishers, there’s usually a three-year cycle on intro textbooks.

Steve: Yes. And that’s the other thing that—now I’m not a typical user, but I know that if I want to make a change, it’s going to be done by the next semester. The same thing is generally true of other people who give us feedback. Though, they don’t necessarily know that. W e take that feedback very seriously. And there is no three-year review process. So that’s wonderful.

Rebecca: I love the user-centered design process, like that’s clearly what’s being used.

Steve: Yep, we try.

John: And that iterative process is what we should all be doing with our courses, all the time…

Steve: …Yes.

John: …But the fact that you’re doing it makes it easier for instructors who perhaps, don’t have to do as much of that.

Steve: Yeah. But again, let me just say one thing; Waymaker is not my course, Waymaker is my text. So there’s whole levels to my course that go beyond Waymaker. That’s just one element of it. Not that I’m disagreeing with what you said.

John: I’ve seen you present at conferences on teaching principles, for decades now. And I know you’re constantly changing how you’re teaching your courses and trying new things there. And you’ve been doing a lot of great work for quite a while.

Steve: Thank you.

John: Going back a little bit though, to the question of mastery quizzing. When students take the quizzes at the end of a block, you said there’s one or two questions. When they do it a second time, do they get the same question or different questions?

Steve: No. We are adding questions fairly regularly, and so the test banks are getting larger. From the beginning, I think we started with 2000 questions. But again, that’s across the whole book. The questions are randomly chosen, so the odds are that students would get different questions at the self-check level, at the section level. There’s a different test bank for the self checks than there is for the module quizzes. But there are similar questions. In fact, we wrote two at a time basically when we did that.

John: This is a question more generally about Waymaker. Does it do any type of interleaved practice, where later in the course, does it call back earlier sections? Or is it just based on the current module?

Steve: No, it’s just based on the current module. But my more nuanced response to that is, economics is sort of cumulative. But I have thought about that, we just haven’t thought of a way to build it in yet.

John: In my classes, I’ve been adding that the last couple years where I just randomly pull in questions and the module quizzes from earlier modules. Maybe 10 to 15%, building up to about 20% at the end, just to help do a little bit more spaced practice as well.

Steve: I think I know how you could do that pretty easily. Because instructors have access to the test bank that their students are using, so that you can edit your own questions. But what that also means is that you could move questions from earlier into the course to later in the course. So I think there’s a way to do that.

John: Excellent.

Steve: So John, we learned all this in our graduate training, right?

John: [LAUGHTER] You know, it’s getting a little bit better. Some people are learning these things. We have someone in my department who actually came out of Kentucky where he had a lot of training and teaching and learning. But it’s still pretty uncommon.

Steve: Yep.

John: You mentioned two ways in which, OER materials are developed. Some by primary developers, such as the OpenStax and Lumen. And others, with people working in their basements…

Steve: …Yes.

John: …or working in a dark room somewhere. Which is how I often do a lot of my work. Is that process sustainable? And what role do for-profit publishers such as Lumen play in providing these services, or in continuing the development of OER materials?

Steve: There are a couple questions here. One is, is the development process for published OER materials, or OER materials created by publishers. Is that sustainable? And then the second one is, is the individual scholar model sustainable? And those are very different questions. The individual scholar model, I don’t know if sustainable is the right word. I have a colleague who did this, she did it all on her own. I’m so impressed. She didn’t have any support from the school other than a small summer grant. And she did it without any sort of extrinsic motivators. I think that over time, at least at schools like yours and mine, faculty are going to get credit in tenure and promotion, for creating OER, especially open textbooks. I think that’s really important. I think that people will eventually be able to get sabbatical leaves to create these materials. And I think that’s really important to keep that side of the OER creation process going. As far as revision, I don’t know enough about that to really answer that. But I’m curious. I may have to go talk to my colleague Katie now. As far as the publishers go, and I don’t mean the traditional publishers, every publisher has a plan for how they’re going to do this. Some work better than others. I know something about OpenStax and I know a lot about Lumen, about what their sustainability plan is. OpenStax have develop partnerships with a variety of ancillary publishers like Sapling Learning or Knewton. These people provide aftermarket functionality for the OpenStax books, and in return, they get kickbacks from these ancillary publishers. And by kickbacks, I don’t mean anything pejorative about that. I just mean that they contribute financially. I don’t know any more about how sustainable that model is. I know that that’s what OpenStax has been using. Lumen from the beginning, has been a commercial publisher. It took me two years to figure out how a commercial publisher could make money giving their content away. Maybe others haven’t thought about that, but I sure did. So, the short answer is, Lumen gives the content away, but charges a very modest amount, $25, for the intelligent backend. All the feedback that goes both to the students, and the instructors. Today, you personally, either of you, could go and get a copy of the Lumen Principles and Micro book, or the Principles of Macro book, and it’s yours forever, you can do with it what you want. But if you want to take the full Waymaker course, they charge $25. The idea is, that amount of money is both affordable to students, but also enough to maintain revisions and corrections, and keep the servers running and all of those things. So that’s the answer to that question. And I will say that every semester, I try to be completely transparent, and say, “If you don’t want to pay the $25, you can get all the content for free. But here’s what you lose.” In five years, I’ve never had a student who didn’t pay the $25, because they thought it was like beer money for the weekend, or something. Compared to spending 300 bucks on a traditional text that was nothing to them.

John: What are some of the barriers that you see to faculty adopting OER? You mentioned that people may have this perception of lower quality…

Steve: …Yes .

John: …but there’s quite a bit of evidence that the quality is not weaker in any way. And I think you had done some studies on that a while back, didn’t you?

STEVE. Yes. The number one problem I think is misinformation. The majority of faculty today don’t know what’s available in their discipline. Many of my colleagues have told me, “Yeah, OER sounds like a great idea, but there’s nothing available in my field.” Now, that’s flat out wrong. For your listeners, there is OER available for nearly every Gen-Ed course taught today. So that’s number one, is lack of knowledge of what’s available. Number two is, as you mentioned before, the belief that OER is inferior, that there’s no peer review. And that’s just not true. There’s a couple things here. One is that OER publishers don’t have a sales force, and so it’s going to take longer to get the word out. There’s been a lot of progress over the last few years. But at my school, we’re only in the second-year of our formal OER initiative. So we’ll see how it goes. The other thing that I think gets in the way of adoption of OER is path dependence, and the unwillingness of many faculty to change their textbooks because of the fixed costs involved. “I’m going to have to go through my lecture notes and make sure that I’m using all the same terms as the textbook does,” and that sort of thing. I don’t know the answer to that question. I know that some schools have used financial incentives, fairly modest financial incentives, to get faculty to try to make the switch. As far as my own assessment goes, every summer, I do statistical analysis of the effectiveness of the texts that I’m using. I looked at both the OpenStax Principles book, and also most recently, the Waymaker package. What I’ve looked at is, textbook alone, textbook with ancillary website, digital courseware, and because I used to teach a writing intensive version of the principles courses, I also looked at writing intensive. And what I found is pretty predictable, at least from somebody who has done this for a while. What I found is that there is no significant difference between student learning using OER, with commercial textbooks. I found that using either courseware or an ancillary website improves student learning outcomes, regardless of what the text is that you’re using. And I’ve also found that writing intensive courses seem to work better than non-writing intensive courses, because the students are getting into it in more detail. Over the last two years, I’ve been doing a randomized control trial, where I can really drill down and see what’s going on. And what I found is that using the full Waymaker package seems to have a statistically significant positive impact on student learning. So I’m going to rerun the analysis using last semester data, which I haven’t had a chance to get yet, but I’m anxious to see how that goes too. I believe this stuff works. And so I think sooner or later, more and more publishers—the commercial publishers too—are going to move towards digital courseware type products.

John: I think most of them have started to at least.

Steve: Yes, but it’s like turning the Titanic. Their base is so large that it’s going to take a while before even all of those people get on-board with this.

John: One thing I was wondering is whether you see more collaboration or competition in OER textbooks?

Steve: Initially, there was more collaboration in the early years. And the reason why is because anybody who was doing OER, was increasing the interest in users for everybody’s OER. Now, I think we’re going to see more competition between the users. Especially as more publishers are going to adaptive and personalized learning type courseware. I think that’s a way that publishers are going to be able to say, “Well, yeah, we’re doing that. But we’re doing better in our own particular way.” So I think there’s going to be a fair amount of product differentiation. And it will be harder for faculty, it’s going to take more work to dig in and see exactly what’s going on. I would love to see more published assessment of efficacy on the part of the commercial publishers. They’re only now starting to do that, and the studies that they publish are heavily controlled by them. So it’s not clear that they’re telling us about all of their things, just the ones that work. But at least it’s a start.

John: One of the things I see in most of those studies is comment to the effect that, “Students who use our adaptive learning platform have letter grades on average, one letter grade higher or point eight points higher.”

Steve: Yes, that’s right.

John: And there’s no evidence that they’ve done any control for the students who chose to use it versus those who didn’t.

Steve: That’s right.

John: But it would be nice if we could see more research on that.

Steve: And I think we will. At least I’m hopeful.

John: Earlier you told us a little bit about how your course is structured with some “just-in-time teaching,” and some activities there where you have students work on problems. Could you tell us a little bit more about how you structure your course so that it’s not duplicating the textbook?

Steve: The first thing that I would say is that, my intro course looks like almost anyone else’s Principles of Micro or Macro course. If you look at the course outline, it has all the normal topics in it. A very slight difference is, instead of assigning students chapters to read and problem sets to do, students have modules with content and learning activities to complete. There is some difference between my face-to-face sections and my online sections, because I teach both. My face-to-face sections are pretty much the way I described them to you earlier. My general approach is to do Socratic lecturing with a lot of in-class activities, like the supply and demand problems that I mentioned. I also like to have formal in-class discussions on interesting questions that don’t have a right answer. In the macro class, I spend a day talking about what is money. And I spend the day talking about what is government. And those are things that aren’t done in the same way and the same degree with a textbook, whether it’s Waymaker or something else. My online course is roughly similar. But what I do is I add group and individual activities to the online course to mimic what I do in class. I also have a weekly Google Hangout, a synchronous Google Hangout, where I can give students guidance about what I think they should be doing. And I can give little mini lectures on things that I know students have trouble with. But it also gives them a chance to ask me individual questions in a real time basis, one on one. Not a lot of students come to those Hangouts. I usually have between five and ten, and my classes are about 35. But more than 90% of the students watch the recordings. Google Hangouts are automatically recorded and archived in YouTube. So the students seem to like that a lot.

John: You mentioned that a number of people at Mary Washington have switched over, what proportion, would you say, of the faculty at Mary Washington has moved to using OER?

Steve: Single digits, a handful, probably less than ten at this point. But this semester, I have two new people. So I’m excited about that. And we haven’t yet given them any money or anything to do this. I’ve just been talking to people. I was invited to the College of Business’s summer retreat, and I gave a little talk about OER. And I got two people who expressed an interest in following up. One of whom has already done it. So I think we’re getting there. We just have to be patient.

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

Steve: What’s next for me is I’m continuing to iterate to improve Waymaker. I’m going to continue doing my own statistical analysis. So I get access to the aggregate analysis that Lumen does, but I also have my own analysis. So I can tailor that to my particular students. I also want to do something this semester that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but have never done it. And that is to write a new non-traditional chapter for the micro book, which is relatively easy to do. It’s just really a question of me sitting down and doing it. So I know it’s doable, but I do want to actually make my version of Waymaker different from the standard version. In part, because it’ll better match the way I teach. But also because I want to see that it’s relatively easy to do so that I can talk about that to faculty.

John: Very good.

Steve: I’m going to the CTREE conference this summer to talk about Waymaker. And this is the first time we’ve actually reached out to a disciplinary conference. So I think that’ll be fun.

John: You know, I always want to go to the CTREE conference, but I teach at Duke in the summer and it runs right into that. So I haven’t been able to go. And we should note that the CTREE conference is a Conference on Teaching and Research and Economic Education.

Steve: I love to talk about this stuff, because I believe it.

Rebecca: Yeah, it was really interesting.

John: Thank you.

Steve: Oh, you’re very welcome. Thanks for the opportunity.

[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 Kelly Knight, Kim Fischer, and Jacob Alverson.

[MUSIC]

66. Just-in-Time Textbook

What would you do if you are scheduled to teach a class of 75 students and discover that several very expensive textbooks would be required to address the full range of course topics?  In this episode, Dr. Jessica Kruger rejoins us to discuss how she responded to this challenge by working with her students to  create their own textbook. 

Jessica is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior at the University at Buffalo.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: What would you do if you are scheduled to teach a class of 75 students and discover that several very expensive textbooks would be required to address the full range of course topics? In this episode, we talk with someone who responded to this challenge by having her students write their own textbook as they progressed through the course.

[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 Jessica Kruger, a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Community health and health behavior at the University at Buffalo. Welcome back, Jessica.

Jessica: Thank you. Happy to be back.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

Jessica: Not today, but maybe a little bit later to relax, thinking about all of this stuff I need to do before the start of the semester. [LAUGHTER]

John: …and I am drinking Rose Garden Black Tea that you brought back from…

Rebecca: …Epcot. So I’m drinking the same thing. We’re having a tea trial this afternoon.

John: It’s one of the blends that they only sell at the Twining store in Epcot I believe…

Rebecca: …Yeah, and it’s a nice counterbalance to the lovely weather we have outside.

John: We have invited you here to discuss the open pedagogy project that you ran last semester in a class with 75 students. Once again, scaling things to a higher level than people normally do it. Could you tell us a little bit about that class?

Jessica: This class is a 300 level public health course. It’s titled Methods and Mechanisms in Public Health. It covers three main topics, so we start out with environmental health and then we move into information about health theories and health behavior theories and then we end with disparities. And so with this class, there was not one single book that would encapsulate all the topics. Instead of having the students buy three or more different books, I started to think, well, what else could I do?

John: The natural thing is to have them write their own book…

Jessica: Of course, why not?! I think the cost of textbooks are continuing to rise, and especially with this sort of course that specialized with these three different areas. I don’t think I would ever find a publisher that would make something quite like that. So why not write your own?

Rebecca: How did you pick the topics that were included and how did you get going on this project?

Jessica: So I actually heard about open pedagogy and writing a textbook with your students at the CIT conference that happened last year, and I was really inspired by Robin de Rosa and what she had done. And so immediately after hearing from her, I thought, “I bet I could do this.” At that time, I don’t know if I was deranged because it was the end of the semester, or maybe it was a stroke of brilliance. Probably a mix of the two. But I thought, let’s figure this out let’s see how to do this. And so, as I was looking over the syllabus and the topics, I started flipping through their textbooks, I started looking at other resources that were available and began to put the topics together and I broke it down by the weeks of the syllabus. So my students were actually writing the textbook before they learned the content. Which for them, was very scary and for me, a little bit scary too. But the great part is they actually had to go out they had to find resources, they had to put it together. And as I was building this, I created Google documents and made skeleton outlines for the chapters and that’s how they kind of got started.

John: So you created the skeletal outlines and then they fleshed it out?

Jessica: Yes, literally. The outlines were a title of the chapter, some objectives, and headings, different headings of sections. I attach some information in each Google Doc, some resources that were out by the CDC or other peer reviewed sources that I thought could be helpful. And of course, I invited them to come meet with me, especially if they have no clue what I was talking about with this topic.

John: …And within each week, did you have a subset of students work on it? Or did you divide it up among all the students? How did you arrange that?

Jessica: So in this class, my very small class of 75, which is actually my smallest class this past semester, I broke them up into groups of four to five students. They didn’t get to choose their groups, but they did get to choose their topics. As they went through and looked at it, we broke it down and said, “Okay, this group decide what is your top picks,” and they could choose. And they knew the order of the chapters, so if they wanted to get it done out of the way, they could do it at the beginning of the semester or wait till the end. And so each group worked together to make a contract, divide up the work and choose how they’re going to execute this.

Rebecca: So what worked well about that method and what didn’t work well about that method?

Jessica: Oh, students love group work. We all know that they love group work, right? If I could figure out the secret to making it go smoothly all the time, I guess I would probably be a millionaire. But nevertheless, I think there was some strategies that did work well. And the fact was, I had the maker group contract. Barbara Oakley actually has a article called “How to work with a couch potato,” and in that article it talks about how to deal with someone who’s not pulling their weight and how to create a group contract that’s actually useful. And so the students worked together with their group and talked about how they’re going to evaluate each other. I didn’t set a peer evaluation, they did, and they also broke up what they’re going to do. So as they’re creating this chapter they would all right in a different colored text. So one student was green, one student was orange, and so they can see visually what each person did. And my caveat was, if someone drops the ball, they drop the ball, you don’t have to make up their work, as long as it’s stated in the group contract, that is fine. If they don’t do the summary they don’t do this summary, your chapter doesn’t have a summary. That’s okay.

John: How did that work? Did everything get completed?

Jessica: Actually, we only had one chapter I believe that doesn’t have a summary and most everyone did their part. There’s always some squabbles back and forth. There were some groups who did really good strategizing and had someone go back through and create one voice for it, other groups didn’t. But overall it worked out quite well breaking it up that way, but also giving them that out, realizing that they didn’t have to make up something that someone else didn’t do.

Rebecca: So how did you handle chapters that weren’t fully complete and you needed the other students to read those chapters?

Jessica: I had a wonderful TA last semester, and the chapters would be due about a week before they needed to be put on to UBLearns. She would alert me to anything that was going on or anything that should be changed and I would look over the chapters. And then I would bring in some other content or modify it. But overall they actually did a really great job of putting this together and finding sources…

John: …you mentioned UBLearns…

Jessica: …UBLearns is actually our Blackboard learning management system. So they would offer it in Google Docs, and then I would take that and create it so that they could comment on it, but not actually edit it. And this allowed them to get feedback from their peers, which we plan to preserve the feedback for the next time is classes taught, so this book is a living continuing iteration.

Rebecca: So as the students were reading the chapters as assigned reading, is that when they were providing the comments and the feedback?

Jessica:Yes, they would go through and we had some very astute grammar students that would go and pick commas, and also asked for more explanation, which was excellent. I could actually use that in my teaching to talk further about areas where I could tell that students needed more help.

John: Did the original writers go back and fill in some of the gaps at that point?

Jessica: Sometimes they did, but for the most part, we left it as is. We used version one and the plan is for the students who take this class next to take those comments, continue adding, continue changing, and revamp the book. So there’ll be multiple versions for each semester that it’s taught.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how you handled copyright and giving credit where credit is due for each of these chapters and how you might handle that in future iterations?

Jessica: Overall the class work together to figure out their creative commons license, and what they chose was a CC BY-NC-SA. Which means, people must attribute and give credit, it’s non-commercial and it’s share alike. We talked about this as a group, we learned about copyright and they all actually signed a contract as if they were publishers, as they are. We discussed how to attribute content, some chapters did it one way some chapters did it another way. So you’ll see in tech citations in some areas and and others you’ll see, “this was modified from the CDC website at this location.” And so some of it was actually openly sourced information that was reused. Now, this is their first time writing a textbook, so can I stand behind that everything is completely cited perfectly? Absolutely not. But they did a good faith effort to make sure that their information was cited properly.

John: …and there is a little note at the bottom of each page listing sources and saying that, to the best of our knowledge, this is not subject to copyright. If you find anything that appears to violate it, please notify us. So there is a procedure for addressing that stated on each page, I believe?

Jessica: Correct.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how the groups decided to evaluate each other?

Jessica: Yeah, I think group evaluation and teamwork is such a challenge. I myself, despised group work as a student, and as a faculty member sometimes I’m like, “Ah, I know they need to work with others, but…” But really having them create their own contracts and having them evaluate each other on their own terms, so some groups decided that “we will do everything perfect and we will come to every meeting.” No, that’s not a group contract. That’s not something that you can actually achieve. But what you can achieve is open communication, and so most of the groups actually used GroupMe or other tech tools to stay in contact, they would set up meetings sometimes before after class. They would also work on the Google Doc in tandem, you can actually see when someone else is working on a Google doc and point out different sources to each other and discuss how they’re going to put it together. And so that allowed them to evaluate each other and most students gave each other pretty high marks in peer review. And I don’t know if that’s because they all like each other and they’ve all been in multiple classes together, or if it’s actually how they feel that this came together. But overall, it happened, it got done and so I do think they work together pretty well. Some groups obviously better than others depending on their strategy, but having them create the contract I think is the important aspect that I found

John: And you were able to monitor that by seeing the colors of the contributions?

Jessica: Yes. So I had them color code their contributions and if they didn’t color code because someone was an editor or whatnot, they would note that so they knew what each person was doing. And then before I would send it out to the class, I would take out all those colors and do some type editing. But overall, each of them were contributing and most of the students in the class are juniors and seniors, so they’re upper level students.

Rebecca: Did you have students evaluate each other at the end of their contribution, or at the end of the semester?

Jessica: It was at the end of their contribution, and it’s fascinating because I asked them during that process, not only to evaluate themselves, but to evaluate this project. And it’s fascinating because as I’m going through it, I’m looking at it and asking them, “Do you think other classes should do something like this?” And about 50% said no, at that time. I was like, “Oh my goodness. Is this going to fail? What’s happening? Why do they despise this so much.?” But, at the end when we did an overall evaluation, it was actually overwhelmingly positive, it was all positive about the whole project. So it just goes to show you that as you’re in the thick of something, you may see it as challenging, overwhelming, but in the end, when you see that final product, when you see that 19th chapter for 200 page book that you’ve created with your fellow students, that’s powerful.

Rebecca: You ended up getting your book printed and copies distributed to each of your contributing students. How did you pull that off during the semester you were writing it?

Jessica: Very carefully. I worked very closely with my TA and I spent countless hours editing and making sure pagination was correct. I think in the end I probably put in a whole work week just getting that together and working with the university printing service. I sent it in, it was excellent. I’ve never printed a book before not knowing how to do anything like that, and thankfully our university had some funding to allow me to print books for all of the students. And to see their faces when they got that book, was just outstanding. I actually created a celebration and so I invited the Director of the program, the Dean, the Chairs, and even people from OER Services at SUNY. And the students walked into a cake and people clapping for them, and then I reveal the printed book.

Rebecca: So you had to have had the book finished multiple weeks before the end of the semester to make that happen?

Jessica: Well, I was hoping to have it finished sooner. But you know, life happens, and so they actually got it on the day of their final and their first question is after it’s revealed is, “Do we still have to take a final?” In fact, they did, but it turned out alright. So it was the day of their final which was a week after the end of the semester. But it all turned out fine, everyone was happy, and they got to eat cake.

John: What proportion of their grade was based on this collaborative work?

Jessica: It was actually about 10% of their grade… [LAUGHTER]

John: [LAUGHTER]… low stakes assignment, relatively, for writing a book.

Jessica: It was very low stakes, which, as you choke on your tea, I couldn’t believe that they would do it for 10% of their grade. But in fact, when you take all of these small pieces of writing and put them together, it actually wasn’t a huge whole. When you have 75 people writing a little bit at a time, they got into it when they had to do it but when they were done, they were done. So it was actually just a small percentage of what they had to do. I like to use non-traditional teaching techniques and experiential learning, and so this class also took a field trip and did a lot of other exciting teaching techniques. So this book was something that was a small percentage of their grade.

John: [LAUGHTER] That’s impressive.

Rebecca: How much time do you think each student actually spent on the writing that they contributed?

Jessica: I would speculate a few hours. They were writing in chapters and I didn’t give them page limits, which was interesting because most groups wrote about six pages on average. But then you had some groups write more and they were allowed to put pictures and videos and diagrams because some of these are models. So some of the chapters were far longer and some students are more lengthy writers, some are more succinct. And so it just depended on the group and what topic it was.

Rebecca: Did they also have to present their chapter?

Jessica: They don’t have to present their chapter but they did have to read the chapters. The whole test was based on the book and the presentations that I gave during class on the content.

Rebecca: What advice do you have for other people who might want to take on such an adventure?

Jessica: [LAUGHTER] Ah man… [LAUGHTER] I think you should do what sparks your interest and you should really follow your passion and if this is what you want to do, proceed with caution, but dive in. That seems to be my approach to a lot of these quote unquote weird pedagogical techniques that I like to use. But this was really a joy. It was a lot of work so much work, not only to set it up and get it ready, and then convince students to do it for only 10% of their grade. If you would have seen their faces but, I said, “Hey, guys, guess what? We’re going to write a textbook.” They all looked at me like I was insane. And so did my colleagues. [LAUGHTER]

John: [LAUGHTER] That was gonna be another question. Has anyone there considered following up with this and doing something similar on their own?

Jessica: I have not had anyone take me up on that. I’ve had a few people asked me, “Do you think others should do this?” And my answer is usually, “You should think about it.” It’s a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding the students get so much out of it. For my evaluations, the students not only said that this helps them learn the content better than a traditional textbook, because it was written by other students, but it also helped build their confidence. They were writing a book, and now they can put that on their vitae, and all the students were so excited because they’re going to take it home to their parents and show them what they’ve done in class. They also talked about just that it was new and novel and how that makes them excited about it. But it depends how much time you have, how patient you are, and what the topic area really is.

Rebecca: When you go to do a revision next time you teach the class, do you expect your time costs to be the same, or do you expect it to be a bit different now that you have a structure?

Jessica: I think now that I have a process and understand how much time it’s going to take versus saying, “This will be fine. It’ll work out well,” I think it will take a little bit less time. But I think with that you also have to get students buy-in, because it’s not completely new, it’s something else is someone has created. And sometimes that’s more challenging to add to it, to modify it to make it better. But I think it’s a good exercise in teaching students the importance of revision and adding to something and building it.

John: Did any students object to having the work being posted publicly, or were they all happy with that?

Jessica: They were actually really excited. When we first were doing that hey said, “So where is this going to go?” I said, “Well, it’s going to be public. Everyone’s going to be able to read this.” And they looked at me, and at that time I don’t think they really understood what open source was, completely being on a website in the Lumen platform, being able to see this content. But once it was printed in a book, they said, “Well, where does it go next? Are we going to print more of these is in the library?” I said, “Well you just wait.” And then I was able to send them the URL, thanks to the SUNY OER Services who put it together, so that the students can now show it to their friends and post it digitally and share it.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] What kind of kool-aid did you hand out the day you’re talking about this assignment? [LAUGHTER]

Jessica: [LAUGHTER] Well, I should mention that all of these students were actually students that I’ve had previously and I think having that level of trust and understanding that, “you never know what’s going to happen and Dr cougars class, just be ready to roll with it.” I don’t think I could have done that with students that I haven’t had for multiple semesters. So that trust and rapport was really important and saying, “You can do this, I believe in you. Let’s do this together.” I think without that, this would have been more challenging and students would have said, “Who cares about that 10%, I’m out.” But in this case, they understood and they followed along and they were happy to do it. It was something of a challenge. I think some of the comments in which students told me about this, were just amazing. One of the students said that they generally felt this was a great experience and a wonderful opportunity and that experiences like going on field trips and writing a textbook was exciting, and made me feel like a kid again in elementary school. It makes me more motivated and looking forward to learning experiences. So I think having novel experiences and having something that’s new but also exciting and exhilarating and gosh, a little challenging, is good for the students.

John: …and they’re actually creating something themselves, which by itself should be a little bit more motivating than passively consuming a textbook that someone else created.

Jessica: Exactly.

Rebecca: I think the report that you mentioned earlier is important too. I think that’s an interesting component to this particular project that some people might not realize how important that that can be. But having that little bit of trust to go on a bigger adventure, then maybe they’d be willing to otherwise, I think is key, but something that we all can be thinking about.

Jessica: Oh yeah, I think it’s so important to make connections with your students and people do it in many different ways. I’m usually known as being (taryn?? 22:00), that shameful word in academia. But in fact, I think it’s so important and that’s how I can get so much buy-in from students and get them to join me in these learning adventures that we tend to go on.

John: We do have a note to ask you again, to come back at some point and talk about the field trip, things that you do with these large groups of students as well. But I think maybe we should leave that for a future podcast, if you’re willing?

Jessica: Excellent. Sounds great. I love being on the show.

Rebecca: I don’t know if I dare ask our final question. But we always wrap up by asking what’s next? [LAUGHTER]

Jessica: [LAUGHTER] What’s next? Well, this semester I vowed to focus and more self care and I’m actually teaching a new course called Stress and Population Health. And so with that course, I’m trying to take my own advice, which is sometimes the most difficult, and only doing a few crazy activities during the semester. So my students will go on more field trips, they will do some experiential learning, but they’re also going to be focusing on stress within the college campus, and performing some stress reduction tabling around public health and also learning a little bit more about meditation and how overall in the US we’re a little bit too stressed. So with that, I think “what’s next” is we should all take a little bit more care for ourselves, to be around for students and to give a little bit more. So, that’s where I’m putting “what’s next.”

John: That sounds like a good strategy and perhaps chance to relax a little bit and I believe that when I hear about it later, at the end of the semester. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] You have to remember that it has to be in comparison to, you know, someone’s lack of stress is really dependent upon how much stress they generally pile upon themselves.

Jessica: [LAUGHTER] Exactly. So, I’m only doing half of what I typically do in my crazy teaching. But still, I think it’ll be fun, exciting, and I’m looking forward to another great adventure and semester.

John: …and you’re also doing a COIL course at some point, aren’t you?

Jessica: I have currently already done one COIL course and I have actually just created a another COIL connection in Jamaica and have plans to create additional COIL connections so that we can actually compare components of health cross culturally and cross nationally.

Rebecca: Sounds really cool.

John: …and we should note for listeners outside of New York that COIL courses are Cooperative Online International Learning courses where classes pair up with classes from other countries.

Rebecca:Thank you so much for joining us again, Jessica and sharing with us how you rolled this project out and giving us all a little bit of inspiration and a little motivation to do some of this work ourselves.

John: Yes, thank you. I’m still amazed by the 10% but I looked through much of the work that your students have done, and it’s a really impressive work.

Jessica: Thank you. They’re very impressive students. I’m honored to have work with such amazing people. It couldn’t have been done without them believing in themselves and believing in what we were doing was important.

[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 Fischer and Jacob Alverson.

[MUSIC]

65. Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice has consistently been shown to be important in developing long-term recall. Many students, however, resist the use of this practice. In this episode, Dr. Michelle Miller joins us to discuss methods of overcoming this resistance and examine how retrieval practice may be productively used to increase student learning.

Michelle is the director of the First-Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Her academic background is in cognitive psychology and her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. She co-created the First-Year Learning Initiative at Northern Arizona University and is active in course redesign, serving as a redesign scholar for the National Center for Academic Transformation. She’s the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general-interest publications.

Show Notes

  • Miller, M. (2014). Minds Online: Teaching Effectively With Technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Roediger III, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249-255.
  • Roediger III, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(3), 181-210.
  • Roediger III, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(3), 181-210.
  • Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L. (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science, 319(5865), 966-968.
  • Karpicke, J. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science, 1199327.
  • Kahoot
  • Bray, Niki (2018). 43 to 0: How One University Instructor Eliminated Failure Using Gamified Learning. Blog post
  • Retrievalpractice.org
  • Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Pennebaker, J. W., Gosling, S. D., & Ferrell, J. D. (2013). Daily online testing in large classes: Boosting college performance while reducing achievement gaps. PloS one, 8(11), e79774.
  • Pauk, W. (1984). The new SQ4R.
  • Thomas, E. L., & Robinson, H. A. (1972). Improving reading in every class. (a discussion of PQ4R)

Transcript

John: Retrieval practice has consistently been shown to be important in developing long-term recall. Many students, however, resist the use of this practice. In this episode, we discuss methods of overcoming this resistance and examine how retrieval practice may be productively used to increase 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.

John: Today we’re welcoming back Dr. Michelle Miller. Michelle is the director of the First-Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology. Her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. She co-created the First-Year Learning Initiative at Northern Arizona University and is active in course redesign, serving as a redesign scholar for the National Center for Academic Transformation. She’s the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general-interest publications. Welcome back. Michelle.

Michelle: Thank you so much. It’s so great to be here today.

Rebecca: We’re so happy to have you again. Today’s teas are:

Michelle: Well, I’m drinking Coco Loco, which is a blend from a local tea shop here in Flagstaff, Arizona. Steep Leaf Tea. And Coco Loco is a lot like what it sounds like. It’s chocolate and banana. So tea snobs may scoff at my choice, but it’s wonderful.

John: IIt sounds good.

Rebecca: And I think I saw a nice silver teapot that was poured into a green and blue tea mug.

Michelle: Yup.

Rebecca: A nice tall one.

Michelle: That’s what I need.

John: And I’m drinking ginger, peach green tea.

Rebecca: I went with a Christmas tea today. So Michelle, we invited you here today to talk a little bit about retrieval practice. Can you first start with defining that for us and letting us know what it is?

Michelle: Right. So retrieval practice is essentially the act of pulling something out of memory. So that is, in memory research, what we would term retrieval. So something is stored in memory and we want to pull it out so we can actively use that information, have it in our conscious minds and so forth. And so we go through this usually very fast process called retrieval. So retrieval practice is specifically the act of doing it, and we contextualize that with learning. So, when I’m trying to learn something or I’m the process of learning something, to say, “Oh, what was that fact I remembered, or what can I say about this?” When we do that, it produces something that we can call the testing effect. So this is kind of the clearest example… not the only… but the clearest example of retrieval practice in action during learning is when we sit down to take a quiz, take a test or something like that. So all the excitement that’s happened around retrieval practice in higher education, and really in the rest of education today, is around this finding, which has been replicated many, many times: that tests are, as one person put it, not neutral events in learning. When we take a test on something, that has a very powerful effect on our ability to remember it in the future. So, really simplified down to its core, tests help us remember in the future; when we take a test it strengthens our memory. So that’s what retrieval practice is and it can, as we’ll maybe talk about today, take many, many forms in learning settings. And I did want to clarify too, this is something that I definitely don’t want to take any kind of credit for discovering this. This has been around and has been known about for a long, long time. Some of the big names who are associated with this: Jeffrey Karpicke, Robert Bjork. Roddy Roediger, there are quite a few really heavy hitting cognitive scientists and cognitive psychologists who have established this. But there are many, many of us who are out there trying to disseminate this to other teachers around the world so that we can all tap into the power of this. And I have done a little bit of work in this area with my colleague here at Northern Arizona University, Laurie Dixon, who’s another psychologist… and we teamed up some time ago to look at a very practical implementation of retrieval practice in an Introduction to Psychology course that we conducted some years ago and this is a course, you can imagine, where just trying to get students to perform even a little bit better is a big project. So we examined how even something kind of basic… it was very high tech at the time… but just basic web quizzes that came packaged with the textbook. We said, “Well, if we actually assigned students to do these as part of the course, and if they went through and treated these as opportunities to learn, not just assessments in and of themselves, would that have any systematic impact on course performance?” And we found that in fact, there was a significant improvement associated with that. So that’s kind of the landscape of what retrieval practice is, and why we’ve been so interested in discussing this in the psychology of teaching and learning.

John: In fact, I saw you present on that about 11 or 12 years ago in Orlando at one of the NCAT conferences and it convinced me to completely revise how I was giving my classes and it’s made a big difference and resulted in some significant improvements in student learning. Given that we know so much about retrieval practice. Why are faculty resistant to doing this?

Michelle: Wow, that’s a great question, and that is one that I have been really facing a lot these days in my own practice, talking to other faculty members, and disseminating this through some different activities I do in this area. It is easy for those of us who work in this area, cognitive psychologists in particular, but a lot of us who like you heard about this a long time ago. We’ve seen the power of it. We forget that to other faculty, this can be a very off-putting concept. And so it’s really great for us to think about why that is. And I always think that’s really good for me to kind of go back to that and say “Yeah, not everybody is sold on this idea. And there are good reasons for that.” So like with a lot of things that we talk about in teaching and learning, I think that these really break down into two neat categories: there’s the philosophical issues that people have with it, and then there’s more practical and logistical issues with it. So kind of tackling those one at a time. Philosophically, when people say, “Yeah, I understand about the research but this just goes against something that I believe as a teacher or how I want my classes to be. Here are some ways that that can play out. First off is this idea, that I’ve heard in one form or another quite a few times, and that is this notion of superficial learning. So “Okay, sure, there’s a study that showed that maybe people retain something a little bit better. But surely that’s not this deep learning, whatever that is.” That’s a concept that we all want. So do tests and exams… just testing… create just a superficial form of learning? And while, of course, I understand that, and I absolutely applaud faculty for really thinking deeply about that issue, and caring about it. I Here’s the thing… we got to define that. We social scientists, that’s what we do… we have to kind of break things down and say, “Okay, what does deep learning mean?” and I don’t know that anybody has kind of definitively done that. But when I look at that, I say, “Well, this is not just one research study that showed a little improvement in a lab test. There’s quite a few studies that do use realistic types of materials. It’s not all just contrived laboratory studies. Furthermore, there’s also studies that show that when students engage in more quizzing and testing on material that they actually are able to transfer that learning better. And that is a very, very big deal in teaching and learning as a lot of us know is not just getting students to be able to solve a problem in one context or work a concept in one context, but can they do it in the next circumstance? And that very difficult process is aided by quizzing… and to me, what could be deeper learning than learning that transfers? So that’s part of it. Some of it is perceptions around multiple choice quizzes and tests. There’s an assumption too that if we’re talking about quizzing we must be talking about multiple choice questions… and first off, sometimes in larger classes, those are the final assessments… in that Introduction to Psychology course that we studied years back, that’s what the assessments were… so, having students practice in that format I don’t think that we should necessarily dismiss that. And as we can talk about in a little bit, there’s lots of ways to induce retrieval practice that actually don’t involve multiple choice questions. So, there’s a bit of that as well. And something that I’ve talked about with some faculty recently, too, is this baggage around K through 12. And maybe that’s something that’s resonant with you all.

John: Yeah, that’s given the testing effect a somewhat bad name, because high-stakes testing is being used in a lot of what’s going on with K to 12. But that I don’t think is what retrieval practice as you’re suggesting is all about.

Michelle: Right, and I have to be cautious here. I really like how you laid that issue out in K through 12, that there is a reputation problem… and that has happened because of the high-stakes standardized testing policy in the United States. And I got to be careful because I don’t want to represent myself as an expert in K through 12 or in K through 12 education policy. But I don’t think you have to be an expert in that to know that there’s been a lot of same pretty well justified public pushback against over-testing in K through 12. And yeah, I think that we absolutely do have to be aware of that. Students come to us in higher education… that’s a system that many of them have been through and our faculty are very aware and very cognizant of that too. So, nobody’s a blank slate here, not our students, not our fellow faculty. We have assumptions and ideas and experiences about testing that happen. I think those can be addressed. But, yeah, that is definitely another very big barrier. We got to differentiate between high-stakes standardized testing for the reasons it’s done in K through 12, and low-stakes testing and quizzing for learning as proponents of retrieval practice would have it.

Rebecca: Some of the pushback I’ve heard from faculty fall into two categories related to this as well. One is that they assume that retrieval practice is best implemented in 100, 200 level introductory classes instead of upper level 300, 400, graduate-level classes. And then the other area is that paper and pencil tests don’t make sense and all disciplines. And so they assume that a test has to be in a paper/pencil format, which could be online testing, or it could be multiple choice or it could be essay questions. But I think that, from being someone in the arts, like there’s other ways to test beyond that, but we don’t think of those as tests.

Michelle: Right. That’s another great lens through which to look at this issue; that we do need to broaden the definition to draw more attention to this and to make it a more appealing concept. But yes, how can we make it broadly appeal across lots of disparate disciplines? Not only does it not have to be a multiple choice type of exam, maybe it’s not a pencil and paper exam at all. And we as faculty have to think about what makes sense there. You make a good point about the levels concept. I think, these days most of us have heard of, “Well, there’s one particular Bloom’s taxonomy…” which is a wonderful framework for getting us thinking about being systematic about what we’re asking students to do with the information that we’re bringing to a course and trying to do things like align the teaching we do with the assessments that we have. That’s wonderful. However, I think it does ingrain in us that idea that “Well, just knowing things is sort of at the bottom… You sort of get that out of the way, and then we go on to the good stuff.” And from a cognitive perspective, these relationships are much more fluid and much more interdependent, so that yes, absolutely, the higher thinking that is what we want. That is what we should want. Or if we’re in highly applied disciplines (if we’re in the arts, for example), we need students to be able to do things with that information. But they have to have that. So I think it challenges us to think of new ways with that concept as well.

John: One of the barriers I think some people have is they don’t like to grade tests and so forth. But one of the things you mentioned in your book is that the testing effects been known for a long time, but it was really difficult to implement in terms of low-stakes testing, particularly when you’re teaching at a larger scale. But, as you’ve done yourself, and as you suggest in your book, computer technology makes it easy to automate some of this… certainly more easily for multiple choice and free response and similar things. But it makes it a whole lot easier for both students to have multiple attempts at learning something using some type of mastery quizzing and it makes it a whole lot easier for faculty who don’t have to spend all their time grading.

Michelle: Right and that’s absolutely where the practical stuff comes in. So, we’ve worked through some the philosophical objections, that: “No, this does not turn your classroom into some terrible assembly-line concept of learning. It’s not going to create a bad relationship with your students. It’s not going to simply carry on a legacy of bad policy as people perceive it. It’s not going to do those things.” And then, we do get to: “Alright, but what is this going to do to my life as a faculty member?” …and this is important stuff. Those who know me know I’m a big fan of James Lang’s work in his books. One of his more recent books is called Small Teaching and there’s a lot of different takes on it in that book, but it really hits home with respect to “We do have to think about not everybody’s in a position to, nor should we even try sometimes, to just take everything down to the foundation and rebuild.” That we do really need to think about “Do I want to do this, if it’s going to create 800 more questions for me to grade?” Is this a sort of a situation where, “Well, I don’t want multiple choice, so I’m going to have to give these open-ended questions. I’m gonna have to give feedback and I have 200 students, what will happen? If I am going to go with multiple choice questions… well, how am I going to do this? to have to write all of this?” And yes, it’s one of the most powerful outcomes of the educational technology revolution that makes it workable, and scalable in a sense, even with large classes to do these types of things and to bring them in. So, that is definitely a message that I hope faculty think about if they’re on the borderline of wanting to bring in more retrieval practice into their classes.

Rebecca: I’m in a discipline where the multiple-choice questions are using things digitally doesn’t always work for testing and practicing some of these basic things, and there’s not a good way to automatically grade it. But one of the strategies that I’ve used is actually some self grading, which has actually worked pretty well. I just check and I have them write notes about anything that they got wrong. So, it demonstrates that they’ve tried to understand when we go over it, and I give credit based on how thorough those notes are, rather than whether or not they got the question right or wrong. And that’s made a difference in my classes. And had I not come up with that solution, I think I would have abandoned it because it would have been too much work. But it it actually is working pretty well.

John: When we had a reading group on Small Teaching last year, one of the things that was widely adopted by faculty was a very simple form of retrieval practice where they had students at the start of each class reflect back on what they had done in the previous class. And most of them have continued to do that in subsequent classes as well.

Rebecca: One of the other barriers that faculty might raise is the idea that students don’t take low-stakes things seriously, or that they don’t put the same kind of time into it that they might for something that’s high stakes. Can you talk a little bit about how we might help students find value in retrieval practice and subsequently also with the faculty then?

Michelle: Right, so that, ”Well, we can put it out there, but will they do it?” I’ve kind of crossed this philosophical and practical barrier for myself of giving some credit for pretty much anything that I am hoping that students will do. I put the work in to set it up and I do believe as a teacher that there’s reason to believe that will help their performance, that I need to work it into the syllabus somewhere. I don’t think it detracts from learning, necessarily, to say, “Yeah, there’s some points associated with this.” And especially with our students who, for many of us, are going in a million directions at once. They’re juggling jobs, multiple classes, sometimes their own families. So having an incentive in the form of points—having some kind of a payoff—I think, helps them make that decision that this is at least worth the time to do. I think the other thing that we probably can all do more of, and that I’ve done more over the years, is framing and honestly marketing this to students… communicating with them about why. And when students disengage from an activity like this, when they say, “Ah, why do I have to sit down and do this thing? This is just another test. Oh, no.” …really conveying the excitement and the goodwill that we have in setting those things up can go a very, very long way. Of course, a student, if they just look at it inside and they have no context for why this was put into place, they’re going to have them say, “Well, maybe I won’t do that.” But when we can market to students, we can say “There is a lot of research that shows that this is a very, very good use of your time. And hey, you’ve probably taken a lot of tests in your life that were really about measuring or sorting you and figuring out what you know and what you could do. This is a very different kind of test.” So that can go along way and get the C students nodding: “Alright, I get it. I get why she put this assessment right here.” I think a lot of us have hit on the practical strategy too, that the little Easter eggs or goodies that we plant in the form of questions that get re-used on the higher stakes assessment. So most of us will have tests for measurement at some point in our courses. And yes, students really do pick up on it when you use one, two or more of those items that were in, say, the gamified quiz that you ran in class or the reading quiz that they did beforehand. They can see those and say, “Oh, wow, I got feedback on that. I got an opportunity to practice…” and if it draws in a few more students who see it as almost a legitimate form of cheating, honestly…. like a fun and sanctioned form of getting an advance sneak peek at the exam, then great! Then that maybe is an opportunity for them to come in and see that. So there is that. Actually taking it seriously ourselves, not just in the form of saying, “Well, here’s the points I’m going to give you for this,” but spending class time on it. That’s a big bridge for a lot of us to cross, right? Because we as teachers tend to be very focused on “Oh my gosh, class is for covering material. We use all these sort of distance metaphors to talk about what we want to do with our class time. But if I say, “You know what, guys, I believe in this, and I believe in it enough to where we’re going to spend the entire class period before the final exam….” I did that twice last week myself, when running exams. Or we’re going to spend five or 10 minutes of the beginning of every class period doing this, as one project recently published about doing. If you show yourself doing that, and offer them that, I think that also goes a long way towards it. And I guess to just say, well, taking it seriously… here again, what does that look like? What does that mean to different people? And we can kind of a little tongue-in-cheek say, “Well, why do we have to take it so seriously?” Sometimes games and learning can happen when it is presented in a more fun context. So not everything has to be deadly serious or spending hours and hours and hours of stressful time on. There are occasions when a light-hearted approach can be perfectly good and can still get us involved in that really critical activity of retrieval

Rebecca: I can share an example of doing that in my classes. We’ve done design challenges and sometimes we challenge other classes that are happening at the same time. That reinforces some of the basic principles that we think that students should be doing and reminds them of it… and they might work in a team…and then we have a competition. And it’s fun and what have you. And students like those, it breaks up the day, it makes it more fun. And then I’ve also done things where I give class time to do little design challenges in class that might be individual and then they can level up to working with a partner to finish solving a problem or something… and students value that. They recognize that next time they’re trying to do a project on their own,that it’s easier because they’ve had that practice or that opportunity for the retrieval practice. And my students have actually ended up asking for more of those opportunities.

Michelle: Great.

John: Could you go back just a little bit and tell us what you did in those couple of classes last week before your final. We’re recording this, by the way, in early December during finals periods in both of our campuses, but we’ll be releasing it a few weeks later… to put that in context.

Michelle: Oh, okay. Well, I’d love to. …and I’ve been talking about retrieval practice as you pointed out for years, and I still discover new ways to infuse this into courses. And the context for this is my cognitive psychology undergraduate course. It’s a 200 level. So it’s a lower-division course. And it’s about 60 or 70 students. And as you can imagine, it is a bit of a tough sell. For many of the students it’s their first encounter with this side of psychology. It’s not as intuitive as some other areas of psychology. So there’s a lot to learn and a lot of motivation to be done. One of the ways we bring this and in this course is using a technology called Kahoot, that’s spelled K-A-H-O-O-T,, and it’s really very intuitive and functions very smoothly… relatively free of bugs. That’s good stuff. It’s a program for doing gamified quizzes of various kinds. What I did, and at different points in the semester, and then really amped up in the last week of the semester is running these gamified quizzes. And this is something, by the way, that I hit on and got the idea to try based on a colleague named Niki Bray, who’s from Tennessee, and has actually done some really systematic work in reformulating some of her courses around in class quizzing in just really ingenious way. So I saw some of her presentation and I said I’ve got to try this for myself. I went with multiple choice questions. Kahoot does have some parameters… questions do have to be short…very, very short. And to some people that may be off-putting, but you can put together quite a few of these. And so we would put this up on the projector and students have the option of dialing with either their laptop or their smartphone and weighing in on each question. The neat thing about it is it has an algorithm for giving points based on your speed as well as your accuracy and it’s got a little leaderboard so you can actually have a little in-class competition. Now some people who use this do require all students to do it and they actually issue points for performance. Now, I presented it very much as a practice activity… and made it very, very clear because of my philosophy, I’m not going to assume that all students have devices or have smartphones or laptops or that they want to do that. But I said, “Look, remember we’re talking about retrieval practice, guys. So the real meat and potatoes of this is not buzzing it on your phone. That’s fun. But the real benefit of this activity is what you’re doing sitting there in your seat. And you could be doing this with a piece of paper if you want.” And that is what a few students opt to do. They try to answer the questions, they know what they need to go back and review and so on. And it’s nice because it spits out at the end, a whole report that tells me right away… Okay, which questions do we need to revisit? Which ones did students have the hardest time with and so on. That’s one of the things that I just brought in. And yeah, it was a big deal. I sacrifice a chapter of “coverage” so that we would have more time at the end of the semester. But to me, I would rather have students going into the final knowing that they’ve had this retrieval practice and they have a better chance of performing really well. Earning a good grade on this material I care about than honestly cramming in a little bit more mileage in terms of the quantity.

Rebecca: Sounds like fun.

Michelle: You know what, it does really bring a fun factor. There’s been a lot of different variations on in-class polling, and I will admit to this, I actually purchased and am the proud owner of a physical buzz-in quiz device, complete with a whole spaghetti nest of wires and an incredibly abrasive, buzzer sound, and everything. So previous to this, my educational technology did include… I think I could have up to eight intrepid volunteers who would play a quiz game and then I would have to appoint a points keeper and all this… and props are always a lot of fun. So when I say I believe in bringing in retrieval practice, I really do walk that walk. But I will say doing it by a smartphone does allow for more participation, and I don’t have to worry as much about the minutiae of scorekeeping and stuff like that.

John: I played with Kahoot a little bit at my classes at Duke and students have loved it.

Rebecca: We’ve talked a little bit about framing things so that students take the practice seriously. What do we do about the students who just push back, it’s like “This is too much work. This is a lot of extra time…” or that sort of argument.

Michelle: I think that that’s another piece of that barrier to more faculty adopting this, not just the work involved, but realistically, student opinions. Student evaluations matter a lot to faculty life. And of course, we all want to have that wonderfully rewarding semester, not the semester where we feel like we’re at odds with our students. So I do think a little piece of this is we do anticipate sometimes worse and more pushback than what actually happens in the end. So I think we have a fair amount of sort of a dread factor when we go into something new like this. But that said, when students have an issue with more quizzing or more testing, here’s how those come out. I think, first of all, we do have to sometimes separate out the technology aspects of it from the quizzing or testing, per se. So, as John mentioned, this is one of the amazing things that educational technology does. But the flip side of that is, if you’ve ever used technology for education, in any shape or form, you know that it breaks down. And when it breaks down at a big class, that’s a headache for everybody, it’s a misery. So if you’re trying it, and things are not working out, you just got to figure out “Okay, how much of this is the assignment, the activity per se, and how much of it is that wonky quizzing thing that I got from the publisher and it fell apart, or students hanging up when they’re trying to dial in with the poll and fine tuning those. I mean, when I first used kahoot, I decided it would be a lovely idea to put four chapters worth of material into a 40-question quiz. And when you get used to as you know, that they took a long time, I mean, 12 questions can keep you going for a very long time, especially if you’re discussing… and some students got kicked out part way through and then they weren’t on the leaderboard and I could have set the whole thing aside. But really, that was more I needed to get the technology working. So that’s a big piece of it. I think that sometimes it is a perception issue with the timing. Now, those of us who are just all over this as a teaching technique, we like to do reading quizzes before we talk about that material in class. So chapter three is up on the syllabus and your chapter three reading quizzes due on Sunday night before we do that…, and that can provoke a fair amount of confusion and honestly griping with students. They say, “Why did I get tested on this when we didn’t do it… we didn’t cover it in class yet?” And what do you know, that’s another framing and communications issue. Once we know that that is why we’re doing that you get so much less on that side of things. But here too we do also ourselves have to follow along with what we say. If we say you’re doing this reading quiz so that we’re establishing a foundation. we don’t have to teach everything in the class itself. We could spend the time applying. Well, guess what, then you do have to do that. So if I assign you to do the reading quiz on chapter three, and then on that Monday morning I go, “Okay, we’re going to go over chapter three starting at the top. And I’m going to show you all the PowerPoints for all these things that you already read.” Well, yes, then student morale and student support will fall apart at that point.

Rebecca: Those are very good reminders.

John: Yeah, I’ve pretty much adopted this approach all through my class beginning when I first saw you present it. So I have students do the reading in advance, I have them take reading quizzes with repeated attempts allowed on those. And then in class, I have them working on clicker questions, and I and the TAs go around and help them when they get stuck on problems. But there is an adjustment and students, especially when I first started doing it, would generally say, “But you’re not teaching me” …and you do have to sell students on this a bit. One source of resistance is that when students take quizzes, they often get negative feedback. When they read something and they read it over again, it looks more and more familiar. They’ve got that whole fluency illusion thing going and they become comfortable with it, and they feel that they’re learning it… or similarly, if they hear someone give a really clear presentation on a topic, it feels comfortable. They feel like they’re learning it until they get some type of summative assessment where they get negative feedback, and then they feel the test was somehow tricky. But it’s a bit harder to convince them that actually working through retrieval practice, watching videos at their own time and pace, reading material as needed, and then spending class time working through those problems is as effective. I’m getting better at it. But it’s been a long time trying to convince students and I did take a bit of a hit in my evaluations, especially the first few times.

Rebecca: Do you mean learning’s not easy?

John: Students would like learning to be easy.

Michelle: You know, it’s funny, I think almost in a way… see what you think about this idea. But it’s almost a mirror image of our illusions as teachers, right? That I gave a wonderful clear lecture and I assigned wonderful readings and I saw students highlighting them. Therefore, students must have assimilated this knowledge and it must be in there. So I think it challenges our students but it also challenges us as well. It can be quite an eye-opening experience to running something like a Kahoot. And that brilliant point that I gave this great example for…. what do you know…. 7% of the students actually nailed it. And so we can all use a reality check… teachers and the students. And you mentioned re-reading, that’s another one where I’ve had some pretty intensive conversations with other faculty, I’ll kind of say, “Oh, well, and there’s this great research that shows that students tend to re-read when they’re studying and we know that from a memory standpoint, that is really, really ineffective.” And faculty will say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.I want my students to be re-reading.” Of course, now when they say re-reading, they may be picturing deeply interrogating a text… annotating it… looking at it from a different perspective. And absolutely, that’s a wonderful part of scholarship. But that isn’t what we’re talking about. We’re talking about students re-reading as a study form and mistaking highlighting for deep interrogation. So, just like with the rest of knowledge bases versus higher-order skills. This is another words “both and” it cannot be “either or.” Yes, we want students re-reading in the right ways, but students or teachers cannot mistake that for learning sometimes.

Rebecca: So, let’s say you’ve just convinced all of our listeners that we need to be doing this, how do we bake it into our course designs?

Michelle: Well, I think that, really getting creative with this, and as I talked to faculty when I visit other schools or talk to faculty of my own institution, I just see all of these new ideas all the time about how to do this. Once you do get that critical epiphany of alright, a test doesn’t have to look like a test on the surface… it does not have to be the ritual of “Okay, you’ve got a number 2 pencil that’s breaking and I’m standing over you while you have a panic attack for an hour.” That’s not what it is—that it’s about the retrieval. Once you get that, all kinds of creativity opens up. So I’ve also started sometimes on the very first day with the syllabus quiz. So, especially if you have a smaller class, we all struggle with that “I spent all week writing the syllabus and it’s incredibly important, and then I’m getting questions about stuff that’s on it all the way through the semester.” So, really on the first day, what I do is I take a very light-hearted approach and I divide the students up into teams, just physical teams. Everybody’s got a copy of the syllabus, sometimes I fake them out and I say, “Okay, we’re going to go over the syllabus point by point…” and I say, “No, you can read the syllabus. We’re actually going to do this other thing which research shows will actually help you remember it.” So the task here is that each team formulates a set of questions… you can make just a few. like three… so a little bit of teamwork. So formulate three good questions off the syllabus. And you’d be amazed, they come up with questions that even I can’t answer sometimes without having to cheat. So they talk about it. And then of course, you go around the room in some arrangement and each team gets to ask the other team their questions, and if you really want you could keep score and everybody loves bragging rights for being the team that stumped the other teams and won the most points. So, it can literally start right then. With that idea that I don’t read stuff to you in this class, this is about you. And I’m also not piling a huge amount of work on myself either apart from being the moderator and the MC and having written the thing in the first place. I don’t have to write questions. They’re writing the questions and they’re answering them too. So those are some of the ways that we can do that. I think especially in our larger classes we do want to think about things like peer grading or peer review of open-ended question responses. We do want to take advantage of things like publishers’ test banks to set those up as reading quizzes. And you’d mentioned earlier about “Well, what about this not being suitable for upper-division classes?” I had an upper-division class that just wrap this semester where we had reading quizzes as well. It may have been an upper-division course but it also serve that purpose of “Hey, you take a basic quiz over the chapter on Sunday and that really sets the stage for us to have a more substantive discussion.” All of those things. are ways that we can do this. I think open-ended reflection as well… so tests that look nothing like a test but are still retrieval practice. You’d mentioned about reflecting on what you learned last class period. So this sometimes goes by the name “brain dump.” And I did a bit of this last semester as well. So, this by the way, I do want to credit the great website retrievalpractice.org. So retrieval practice is actually that high profile it has its own website. It’s an absolute treasure trove of ideas. So, with the brain dump the way that I did it, or similar to what it sounds like you did, every now and again we start off class with you writing down everything you remember from last time on a piece of paper. I had students then turn to their neighbor and compare notes and see what they came up with. And I didn’t grade those. This was not a heap of grading for me. But in the end what they did turn into me for accountability and a few points was a very short reflection, just on an index card. So, “What surprised you?” and I review those and they’re very eye-opening but again I’m not there to police or micromanage what they put on their cards. So, that’s retrieval practice too. There’s lots of different flavors that we can bring in.

John: I do something similar with asking students to reflect on the reading in each module we work through. But because I teach a fairly large class, I didn’t want to have to deal with all the index cards. So I just have them fill up a simple Google form. And then I can skim through it and assign grades much more easily than shuffling paper. But it’s the same basic idea and it’s worked quite well.

Michelle: Absolutely.

Rebecca: Do you have any other examples of the kinds of little tests that faculty can run that don’t look like tests?

Michelle: Right? So tests that don’t look like tests. Well, here’s another that was probably a little bit more practical for a small class, and this is how I ran this. It, like the brain-dump exercise the way I ran it, was also very cyclical and very student generated. So we started out each class at the beginning of each week with students generating a set of quiz questions based out of the assigned reading. So we didn’t actually, in this particular example, have pre-quizzes or something like that. But students came in knowing that they can bring their book if they wanted. But they would need to sit down and write for me three questions, whether short-answer or multiple choice. Then I can flip through those and I would really quickly put those together for a quiz that went out the subsequent day. So, we’re alternating between generating questions and then returning to those questions. And then I would have pass out. I told them treat this like a realistic test. Actually try to retrieve everything, but, you know, when times up, you’re going to get to go back to it. And then they would grade it themselves. So I didn’t actually do the grading either. And that is really great for spurring discussion. And “Oh, my gosh, I thought I knew the difference between reliability and validity, but now that I tried to answer it, I realized that I didn’t.” And then you can throw it back out to the student who now has bragging rights for having had their question selected and say, “Hey, what did you mean? What was the right answer? And why did you put that down there?” And at the end of the day, they kept that quiz too. So it was really very much in their own hands to do. So there’s that. Other creative ideas that I’ve run across over the last couple of semesters… There’s a great project out there, run by Bruce Kirchhoff at University of North Carolina at Greensboro. So I got the wonderful pleasure of talking to that group last year. And he and some colleagues working in the area of botany actually put together a freestanding, custom built mobile app that students could take with them that presented different kinds of quizzes over the sorts of things that botany students really need to know like the back of their hands like how to identify different plants and how to discriminate among different examples and they found some empirical evidence that this actually raised performance up quite a bit. I’ve heard too of another Professor put together some surveys in Qualtrics, the surveying software took advantage of its ability to actually text message people and send them the questions. So this was an opt in sort of activity and it’s one that they didn’t just have it run 24-7 because it was a little intrusive, but what it did is it sent students questions that they could answer at different intervals throughout the day, which also takes advantage of another principle from applied memory research which is spacing. So students are getting these unpredictable questions, they have the option to answer them, and they could be happening even when they’re not in class. So those are some other ways. Some of them look like tests, some of them don’t. But those are creative ways to get students engaged in that practice.

Rebecca: As a faculty member, we often advise students and mentor students who might be struggling in other classes, ones that we don’t have control over. Are there ways that we can help those students use this methodology to do well in those classes where it might not be embedded?

Michelle: Right. And that’s so great that you bring that in as well because ultimately that is what we need as teachers and that maybe circles back to yet one other piece of objection that I’ve seen… actually this time in a published article from a few years back that said, well are we doing too much for students? Are we scaffolding them too much so they’re going to grow really dependent on these kinds of aids like reading quizzes, and reading questions. But if we also have in our mind very intentionally, that what we want students to have at the end of the day is also something they can walk away with, I think that we do have to be very mindful of like, “Okay, let’s not create the impression that just because retrieval practice is so important that you have to sit there and wait for me to put together this specific kind of reading quiz for you.” So I think here, the really powerful message is once again that one students take this to heart… once they’ve not just been told this, that “Oh well, you should quiz yourself as a study strategy,” but they’ve seen that I believe in it to the point where I’m going to put time, energy, and work into it as part of my class. And maybe they’ve even seen the results… they’ve now had their own little before and after experience of what happens when I do this… that they can be more likely to take this forward. So having more faculty across the curriculum endorse this is a powerful idea that “Hey, this is how your mind works. This is how your brain works. Your brain doesn’t just soak up stuff that’s in front of it. You soak up stuff that you have to answer questions about.” That I think is going to be a powerful message. And there’s actually another article out there that I just absolutely love it was done by a psychologist named Pennebaker and some colleagues at University of Texas at Austin some time ago. They replaced high-stakes assessments in their Introduction to Psychology course with these mobile in-class quizzes that were done every day. And one of the things that they report in this article is not just that students did better in that class, but that certain subgroups of students actually showed improvement, specifically closing of achievement gaps, really, in classes that they took after the psychology course. And these were classes that we’re not even in psychology. So you think about that for a minute. How does that happen? Now, nobody knows exactly for sure, because this was kind of an unexpected finding in the study was my impression, but a real possibility is that when students have sat in this class and every single day they have seen the power of taking a quiz… of spacing out their learning… and attacking it in a very active learning approach… Once they’ve seen that happen, they’re more likely to go home and say, “You know what? I can do this in my biology course too. I don’t have to sit there with the teacher’s quiz. But, if I attack it in the same way I might get the same results.” So I think with those things, we can have students walking away with that enduring practice that we want them to have. And it is funny too, because it brings up one of the, I’ll just say it was a really heartwarming teacher moment that I had this last semester when I did bring in these Kahoot quizzes. In the run up to the first exam, I had done my fancy little in-class quiz and was kind of patting myself on the back of what a great leader I was. So I came in to, I think it was the class right before this exam, and I come plowing into the classroom and it’s dead quiet. And there is a student at the front of the classroom. He has commandeered the podium and the computer and what has he done? He’s accessed the Kahoots, which I gave them the links. You know, they’re out there for all the students to see. And he is running them and the rest of the students in the class are taking them just as seriously as when I was administering them. So they’re running through the questions again, giving it another shot. I didn’t tell them to do this at all. It was one of these moments where I just backed out and closed the door after me. And I came back in when they were finished. And so I think those are the kind of moments that we can set ourselves up for when we really do bring this into our classes and we get behind it and a really authentic way.

Rebecca: I think one thing Michelle, in the way that I asked the question, I had also asked it from the perspective of a student hadn’t had the experience of doing a retrieval practice in a class. So, if you’re working with a student, maybe outside of class or as an advisor, are there things that we could do to help those students adopt those practices, even if they haven’t seen it modeled for them?

Michelle: So how do you help students when they haven’t had some of these experiences on their own? And I think this is a part of a bigger package of goals that I think a lot of us should have in supporting our students to really put students in the driver’s seat. To say, “Yeah, you don’t have to wait for a certain style of teaching or certain subject material in order to succeed with it.” I see that isn’t really part of a larger package of growth mindset honestly. So what can students do to make themselves the masters of this? Now, I think that there are some old standard, very traditional, approaches that are worthwhile. And when you look at those approaches, sometimes retrieval practice is at the core. So it may not be a matter of trying to get a very unfamiliar set of terminology or anything for students before, but really getting them to look at some of these approaches in a new way. So things like you’ve ever heard the term SSQ4R or PQ4R, there’s a couple of those that have acronyms and the things they have in common are that they tell students when you sit down to study or read a text or prepare for a test, here’s what you do. You don’t just start reading from the top with no goal in mind other than “Oh, I want to get a good grade later.” What you do is first of all, you set yourself up with questions. Which is, after all, a lot like retrieval practice. Start with a question, say, “What do I want to answer? Can I answer that now?” And if not, why not? To read your text or go through your material very intentionally around this questions, and then there’s always this piece of recite or review. That’s what one of those Rs stand for in some of those traditional systems. And that means closing the book. That means closing the book and saying, “Okay, I’ve sat here with this material for this amount of time. What can I actually say about it at this point?” So, sometimes directing students back into some of those and saying, you need to adopt these strategies, which are completely teacher-independent, they’re fairly discipline-independent as well. That can be good. If you’re doing them for the right reasons and with the right approach in mind, that’s very good. Encouraging students to take advantage of the publishers’ companion sites… Now this is a little bit more of an uphill climb. That is where we run into “Well, if there’s no points for it, Why should I do it?” But encouraging students to say “Look, you already paid for this textbook. To be crass about it, you paid all this money, did you know there’s a website over here and if you interact with those materials in this particular way that’s really, really likely to pay off for you?” So, besides just ensuring that our students have what I consider to be these basic foundational pieces of knowledge about the mind and brain: that we remember through testing, we remember through retrieval and an active engagement. All students should have that, but those are some specific things that we can counsel students to use across all their studies that really should pay off.

John: Do you have any other suggestions for those faculty that are thinking about expanding their use of retrieval practice?

Michelle: You know, just to really encourage and support faculty who are starting this journey, as it sounds like that you all have, to really re-examine how we can bring in this incredibly powerful principle, and to really reassure each other that “Yeah, this is not about really just piling so much more work on yourself.” We can sometimes even just re-examine the assessments and assignments that are already in the course and so that’s kind of one last piece of practice that I think that a lot of us can really stand to bring in. And that was a big thing for me as well to say, “Well, if I’m going to administer these tests… we administer tests, we administer midterms anyway… what else can we do to increase their value as learning experiences… as learning events. So here’s another where I’ve brought in various forms of test discussion activities. Instead of standing in front of the class with that deadly the day-after-the-test class period where I say, “Let’s go over it” to realize, you know what? That probably will not work that well. But one of the amazing things that we have learned from the research on retrieval practice is that it’s not just in the moment in the taking of the test, where this advantage to memory happens. It actually creates a sort of a receptive window for learning and for review when we’ve just taken a test on something. So if you’ve got a midterm in your class already, well, hey, why not carve out the time after that test is up to say give it back to the students… like I photocopy the exams before I’ve graded them. They have no feedback on them whatsoever. And I hand them back to students as a group discussion exercise. I say “Alright, here’s a blank copy of the exam, your group can fill out this blank copy together, just knowing what you know, revisiting all those questions, having those good discussions about what you understood and what you didn’t. And I offer a little bit of extra credit for really good performance on that. And there’s other ways to work that out so it actually takes off as a small group exercise in class. But regardless of the specifics of how you make something like that work, the spirit of it is the same. That when you sat down to do this, to try to drag all this information out of memory, that is not an end unto itself. It should be part of a bigger picture of learning in the class. And it’s sort of an untapped vein of potential we have as teachers and that our students have as well and that we can access it regardless of what the discipline is or how the class is setup.

John: …and students see it’s very relevant. I started doing something very similar in my econometrics class last year following a suggestion from Doug McKee who had been doing that in his class. And it worked remarkably well… and turned what was normally a pretty unproductive class period where we’d go over the test… and the people who did well with just be really happy and pretty much ignore any discussion, and the people who did badly were just sitting there unhappy and not really being very receptive. But when they sit there, and they’re explaining it to each other, it seemed like a really ripe time for them to learn the material much more deeply.

Rebecca: I remember the first time that you implemented that. You sent me a text message with a photograph of his students taking a test and it looked very active. [LAUGHTER}

John: …and they were having fun.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: One of the nice things that came out as I was wandering around listening to their conversations, and I was hearing people say, “Oh, yeah, now I see where that came from.” Or someone would say, “Well, when did we learn this?” And then someone else would say, “Well, remember when we worked on these problems?” …and it just helped them make connections… and the power of peer instruction is so remarkable. I’m going to do it in as many of my classes I can.

Michelle: That’s perfect. That’s what we want as teachers, and that’s what our students benefit from.

Rebecca: So as you know, we always wrap up our podcast by asking what’s next?

Michelle: Oh, wow. So I am looking forward to kind of rebooting a course that I have not taught in some time. My senior capstone course in technology, mind, and brain. And that is a fun one. But it’s one that is going to take a lot of revision, since it is technology and things change so rapidly, as we all know. So that is going to be a big part of next semester. I also have a crop of research projects in various angles on teaching, learning and educational technology that I’m really excited to be moving forward in the next calendar year. One of those… really foremost among them is a project on virtual reality for learning. We have an incredibly creative and dynamic team looking at virtual reality here at Northern Arizona University. They put together an amazing series of interactive exercises that are part of the organic chemistry course here and teach some of the challenging concepts in that extraordinarily challenging gateway course. And so we now have a whole set of data from students who went through and did this at varying points during the semester. We got their feedback, we’ve got all different kinds of psychometric measures that we gathered from them at the time as well. So, I cannot wait to be tackling that and looking at all kinds of angles on how this part of technology is impacting student learning in this course.

Rebecca: Sounds like some exciting adventures.

John: That sounds like a wonderful research project. …looking forward to seeing what you find.

Rebecca: It was a real pleasure to talk to you again, Michelle. Thanks for spending some time with us.

John: It’s wonderful talking to you. Thank you.

Michelle: Oh, likewise, always a pleasure to talk to your listeners.

[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.

64. How Humans Learn

Small children are innately curious about the world around them. This curiosity, though, is often stifled in traditional educational pathways. Dr. Josh Eyler joins us in this episode to discuss how research on how humans learn can help us build a more productive learning environment for all our students. Josh is the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Rice University.

Show Notes

  • Eyler, J. R. (2018). How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching. West Virginia University Press.
  • Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Harvard University Press.
  • Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
  • Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Peters, R. A. (1978). Effects of anxiety, curiosity, and perceived instructor threat on student verbal behavior in the college classroom. Journal of Educational Psychology, 70(3), 388.
  • Bandura, A. (1965). Influence of models’ reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses. Journal of personality and social psychology, 1(6), 589.
  • Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63(3), 575.
  • Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1963). Vicarious reinforcement and imitative learning. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(6), 601.
  • Bandura, A. (1969). Social-learning theory of identificatory processes. Handbook of socialization theory and research, 213, 262.
  • Vygotsky, L. (1987). Zone of proximal development. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes, 5291, 157.
  • Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Institutional Impediments to Effective Training”. Learning, remembering, believing: Enhancing human performance.
  • Bjork, R.A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe & A. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing (pp. 185-205). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Reacting to the Past – This site describes the Reacting to the Past methodology.
  • Yue, C. L., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2013). Reducing verbal redundancy in multimedia learning: An undesired desirable difficulty?. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), 266.
  • Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A. N., & Kuhl, P. K. (1999). The scientist in the crib: Minds, brains, and how children learn. William Morrow & Co.
  • Eagleman, D., & Brandt, A. (2017). The Runaway Species: How human creativity remakes the world. Catapult.

Transcript

John: Small children are innately curious about the world around them. This curiosity, though, is often stifled in traditional educational pathways. In this episode, we examine how research on how humans learn can help us build a more productive learning environment for all our 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.

John: Today our guest is Josh Eyler, the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Rice University. Welcome, Josh.

Josh: Thanks for having me.

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

Josh: [LAUGHTER] I’m not drinking tea. I’m afraid I’m more of a coffee person. But I have water today.

Rebecca: We still have to stay hydrated. So waters good.

John: I’m drinking bing cherry tea.

Rebecca: I’m drinking Christmas tea mixed with Prince of Wales tea because I just kind of re-upped with a different tea bag.

Rebecca: On campus, we have a reading group that we have in the fall. So a lot of our faculty have read Minds Online, Make it Stick and Small Teaching. And I was hoping you could address how your book is a bit different in approach to those. I know that you know those authors and have worked with some of them. So can you talk a little bit about how How Humans Learn, which is your new book that just came out is a bit different?

Josh: Sure. Well, I think I’ll start with a similarity. And I think that the one similarity that connects all of them is that we all try to weave in practical suggestions for the classroom as well, taking the research and heading in that direction with it. I do think the one of the things that separates my book from the others is that I look at science very broadly. So the great thing about Make it Stick is that it engages cognitive psychology, the testing effect, desirable difficulties, ways to remember and to encode things in memory more deeply. And I think that’s very important and fascinating. But my book goes in a different direction to look at the evolutionary history of learning, developmental psychology, other biological views on learning. So it takes a different track on science and I think with Small Teaching and Minds Online, they also touch on cognitive science as well, which I do too. But I’m very interested in placing our students into a much larger conversation about the development of learning over time.

John: And you mentioned that your daughter played a role in influencing your decision to write this and investigate this. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Josh: I did. Sure. So right around the time that I began moving into the world of teaching and learning centers, and was doing a lot of research and wondering about why certain teaching practices work, and others don’t. I also became a dad and got to experience the wonder of seeing my daughter explore the world for the first time, a baby trying to figure out and explore. …this curiosity in the flesh… and everything is driven by curiosity. And it just really started to make me wonder about these fundamental ways of experiencing the world and learning about the world. And really, two big questions emerged. Number one, it was pretty clear that some of these were consistent over time, this natural curiosity about the world… we continue to have that and continue to learn from it. The other thing was this what happens to some of these learning strategies that are so prominent when we’re at our youngest ages and It’s clear are so important for learning about the world. How do those shift? Where do they go? How can we utilize them and tap back into them as college instructors. So she was a really important part of this book.

Rebecca: It’s funny that the first thing that I commented to John, after having read some of your book was “Man, this is so fascinating,” because I also have a small child. [LAUGHTER]

John: …and I had two. It was a few decades ago, but I remember seeing the things that you talk about there.

Josh: Right.

John: You mentioned though, this evolutionary perspective, and you use the term Evo Devo to capture that which I think you made a reference to a bad alt-rock band. Can you tell us a little bit about what Evo Devo represents?

Josh: Sure. Evo Devo isn’t my term; it’s one that I, to my great delight, discovered as I was looking at the research on this. And so as a preface to this, in the humanities and exploring fields that I never engaged in before. And so it took me five years to write this book, because I was teaching myself how to read these papers, the methods, etc. It was really important to me that what I said would be credible with scientists. They didn’t have to believe me or agree with me, but they had to find it credible. And so part of the research then led me into this, I don’t want to say is brand new, because it’s been around for a few decades, but in terms of scientific sub disciplines, is pretty new, evolutionary developmental biology. And the practitioners of this call it Evo Devo, for short. And it just struck me as the name of a bad band that you might have heard of in the 90s. But at the core of that research is the study of how developmental processes evolved over time. And so if we think about young children again, why do they do what they do? What evolutionary advantage did it have? What kind of adaptation? Which parts of the brain develop first? And why is that important for understanding cognition? …things like that. So they tackle big questions both in humans and in other animal species. But yeah, it was the name that really kind of jumped out at me.

Rebecca: One of the things I really love about your book is the interdisciplinary nature of it. And that you are tackling all these scientific principles, but really putting it into plain language that faculty from any discipline (and other people who are not faculty) can easily understand. So I immediately got sucked into the language that you were using, because I understand it, I could put it into practice. And so I think other faculty will really enjoy that as well.

Josh: Oh, thank you. I appreciate that. I really was trying hard to take what I saw as really important concepts and make them accessible to all.

John: So you take a number of broad themes and you investigate that and talk about ways in which faculty can use these principles to help improve learning, and the first one you start with is curiosity, which is certainly apparent in small children. Could you talk a little bit about the role of curiosity in learning?

Josh: Definitely, I start with this one for two reasons. The first is that as individual learners, it becomes clear that curiosity is a prime driver for the way we learn new things the way we experience the world. The other reason, though, is that when you begin to look in these various corners of scientific research, it’s also clear that curiosity has been explored in great detail in many different disciplines. And so it’s one of those that I think is a great example of why I wanted to write the book in the first place. Lots of fields are talking about it. And if we just kind of brought those conversations together, we might be able to utilize that information. So curiosity was a fundamental element in the evolution of some of our cognitive processes. It defines us as a species, that we are a curious species, if nothing else; that the way we approach the world and try to figure out the world is driven by needing to know something and seeking out the answer. And then as we see that play out in our own lives, we’ve already talked about children but some of the most famous developmental psychologists (Piaget and others, actually), began a long time ago, studying curiosity by looking at children’s questions like the kinds of questions that they asked. And early on, they were particularly interested in how many questions they asked. So you can see large catalogues of quantitative data on the number of questions kids ask. But more recently, people have really been looking at the kinds of questions and what that might say about different developmental stages. And so what I took from all this, I took several things, but I think the most important thing for college teachers is that the question itself is the unit of curiosity. To what degree can we utilize questions and inquiry to tap back into this natural curiosity that has faded over time as students have learned what they needed to do in educational systems in order to succeed. …and sad to say that curiosity is in some ways a prime casualty of those educational systems… and so, how can we tap back into questions become a really important way for us to do that.

John: In terms of questions, you suggest that when we give students questions to address, that we try to use open-ended questions to allow students perhaps more direction in that. Could you talk about that just a little bit?

Josh: Sure. And open ended questions that can really fascinate them and engage them as well… some of which might come from them. But the distinction I made primarily is between open-ended versus closed-ended questions in designing discussions and closed-ended questions… questions to which there is one distinct answer can shut down discussions pretty quickly. They’re okay for warming up discussions. I think they do have some value. If we really want to get to a place where we’re using questions and discussion to help students collectively generate knowledge, they have to be questions that are open enough to prioritize multiple interpretations or multiple approaches, and in some cases, they can be questions to which we don’t know the answer… that we’re all just sort of exploring possibilities together. And so one of the things I recommend both in the book and in my work with faculty here at Rice, look into questions that you generally ask or have designed for a discussion and see if there are ways to take some of those close-ended questions and push them into more open-ended questions. Not “What is the name of this thing?” but “Why is this thing so important for our understanding?” …approaches like that.

John: You also discussed in this chapter, the trade off between novelty and anxiety. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Josh: Sure. And there’s some researchers who have built their career looking at this curve, the novelty-anxiety curve. Some novelty, because of our curiosity, is very important. But when we get the curve up to the point where it becomes so new and unfamiliar that it kicks in some anxiety, the learning process begins to shut down… so you start to move back down on the other side of that curve. So anxiety has been shown in a variety of learning settings to shut down the cognitive processes. It’s at an emotional level and the psychological level that if we’re anxious or fearful, we can’t really focus on the subject at hand. It’s adding a cognitive load that just becomes insurmountable in terms of learning. There’s the study that I cite in that chapter from 1978. I still think it’s really fascinating. I’d love to see people try to replicate it. A researcher named Ruth Peters was looking at evidence of curiosity in classes where students had rated their instructors based on how intimidating they found those instructors and even those students who had rated themselves as being relatively high on the curiosity scale, asked fewer questions and engaged in fewer incidence of curiosity in those situations where they were intimidated or felt that the instructor was intimidating. Now an important caveat that I don’t, I think, do as well as I could have done in the book in making is that the issue of intimidation and how students feel about faculty members can differ greatly depending on who the students are and who the instructors are, and how that dynamic plays out could be very gendered. And there are lots of dynamics, I think, that complicate the notion of intimidation that I didn’t dive into that chapter. But they’re very important, I think, to think about. On the whole, though, the point remains, and there’s a lot of consensus on it I would say, that anxiety shuts down curiosity.

John: And one of the points you used to emphasize that is a recommendation to not be scary.

Josh: Right.

John: …which is not a bad suggestion for faculty. Because I think sometimes we can be and making sure that students see us as more open to them could be useful.

Rebecca: …or even as human.

John: …even as humans… [LAUGHTER] … that we could appear human to them. They don’t always see it that way. But it would be nice to encourage that more personal connection.

Rebecca: One of the other topics that you tackle as a theme in your book is tied to failure and risk taking, and I often think about curiosity and failure and risk taking together as someone from the arts. So I often see curiosity feeds risk taking. And if you don’t have failures, you don’t continue to learn and get excited about what you’re doing.

Josh: Right.

Rebecca: But I also know that students often (and all of us often), if we fail, can feel really bad about that and then not continue to propel forward. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between curiosity and…

John: …the fear of failure.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Josh: Yes, definitely. And I completely agree with you that there’s a link there between those two, because curiosity often takes us into places where we don’t know the answers. This is how great research happens, right? We want to know the answer to a question. So we pursue it but there’s a lot of failure along the way. And so it has the potential to open great doors, but those kinds of intellectual risks that follow curiosity, we haven’t necessarily developed educational systems that value taking those intellectual risks. In fact, as researchers and scholars and artists know, there’s so much trial and error along the way, but we’ve set up the opposite system for our students where they have these high stakes assessments, they get one shot. And that is the kind of environment that will cultivate a fear of any kind of failure or mistake. And so the linkage then, in order to try and help them take those intellectual risks, is to build opportunities in our courses for students to be able to utilize that natural learning process: to make mistakes, to learn from them to get feedback, and to move on. So there’s a variety of ways that we can do it, but it runs counter to traditional modes of teaching and course design.

Rebecca: If we think about being in an institutional structure that imposes certain kinds of systems on us like grades that can cause anxiety, and maybe shut some of this down, what can we do within that system to still foster risk taking?

Josh: Right. That’s in some ways the hardest question to answer and it’s the hardest thing to wrestle with if you’re suggesting to faculty that we can, within our own courses, create opportunities for students to do that. So I have two answers. And the first is that one thing that we can do that will pay students dividends down the line is to help them divest learning from grades. This is the absolute foundation for our work in this area. And one way to do that is to have more assignments with lower stakes. So if you have five assignments each worth 20% of the final grade, breaking that up a little bit more and including smaller assignments in there. The other is to have assignments where you give feedback, but no grades. And this takes some conditioning over time. But eventually students can begin to see learning as an opportunity for feedback, not evaluation. The other thing that I would say that I recommend in the book… The people who are experimenting with alternative grading models, I think, are leading the charge on this question. And so things like contract grading or specifications grading, portfolio grading. There are even some well known folks are experimenting with student self grading, self assessment, peer assessment. And so those are models that shift the value and the meaning of what is a grade. And those systems a grade is not necessarily an evaluation, but it is a culmination of feedback, a culmination of learning over time. The emphasis becomes, in those systems, much more on feedback and development and on evaluation of selected attempts at a task.

John: You also emphasize the roles we have as social creatures in the chapter on sociality and in particular, one of the things you talked about there is imitative learning. Could you talk a little bit about that and how that can be implemented in the classroom?

Josh: Sure, yes. The book began with curiosity because that’s individually how I think we’re driven to learn but sociality, I think it’s one of the most important topics that we can think about with education. We are deeply social beings at heart. And in fact, humans are among the most social creatures in the world. And so that greatly influenced how we developed over time and how we’ve learned. And so a lot of the evolutionary biologists who study, for example, language point back to our imitative gestures. They either preceded language or they co evolved with language. There’s a lot of disagreement about that. But there are fundamental aspects of the way we communicate with people and ultimately teach and learn from each other. And so, the extension of that to our work as teachers? It can be as basic as the gestures that we make and how we communicate the importance of a particular topics. I’m making gestures right now… maybe you can’t see… but that underscores… to hit the emphasis to underscore the importance or to communicate to the students in ways other than verbally, and I was blown away by some of the fascinating research on gestures to prove how important they are to learning. There was one study, for example, of foreign language learning where students were watching videos of a speaker speaking and fully making the normal gestures that you would have in teaching. And then other students were watching videos with no gestures, the speaker was taught to eliminate all gestures as much as possible. And on the assessments afterwards, the students in the gesture condition scored far better than those in the non gesture. So that’s a fundamental level, but there is a social psychologist in the mid 20th century, Albert Bandura, who talks about modeling. And so imitative learning can really connect in an essential way to our modeling for students. They imitate us, even sometimes our manners of speech, but really what I’m most interested in is the way we engage with them. They will often use that as a model for engaging with each other… the way we engage with our subject matter… relative enthusiasm or lack thereof,… they will use us as models for that. And so imitative learning, I’m not going to say that necessarily enhances the content to a large degree, but it does influence the learning processes that are underneath the mastery of the content.

Rebecca: How does sociality relate to group learning and group work that we might do in our classes? So it’s peer instruction, but also other collaborative work that we might do.

Josh: This is a topic that I think is really important to many who teach in college and so it’s one that I wanted to spend some time covering and if we are going to utilize our social natures to maximize learning, we have to design collaborative assignments that, out of necessity, students must work together in order to generate the knowledge in order to fulfill the goals of that assignment. Too often, and I am guilty of this myself, group assignments are designed in such a way that students can “divide and conquer.” And so they say “I’ll take this part, you take this part and you take that part and we’ll come together right before the presentation and we’ll debrief each other.” Certainly they can learn some things individually from that if they’re well designed; that is not making use of our social natures to enhance learning, that is just creating an avenue where they’re talking to each other and making a plan for presentation. The assignments where they have to actually work together to develop the new knowledge, to construct it, those are the kinds of assignments that are taking advantage of our social natures to really enhance it.

Rebecca: Why is it then that students, even in a situation where it might be that they need to collaborate to come up with that new knowledge or information, there’s still this tendency to try to figure out how to divide and conquer even if it doesn’t match up? [LAUGHTER}

Josh: Right.

Rebecca: How do we help students understand the differences in those different scenarios or even how we help faculty understand the differences that happens in committee work and stuff as well?

Josh: Right. Yes, it does. Well, I think some of that is that they’re simply trying to employ strategies that have worked for them in the past. And so even if the assignment isn’t designed for divide and conquer, they’ll try it because that’s what they’ve done in the past. There’s also some reticence often to working together initially. So faculty need to communicate the value of the nature of the assignment as a group assignment: What will you gain from working with each other? I do think there are some examples here in my home campus, and many campuses across the country, have faculty who do a lot of work up front on the team and group dynamics in order to make those assignments and activities more productive. And so bring experts on team dynamics into the classroom to talk to groups and to maximize the way they’ll work together… assessment systems where people are evaluating themselves and each other… warm-up activities or shorter, very small activities over time to help students in the group learn to trust each other before we give them the big assignment… trying to clear some of those social hurdles in order to really use those social elements for their gain.

Rebecca: I think that’s an important piece there… that we put them in groups, or they even put themselves into groups and we just assume that like, “Oh, now they’re a happy little group.” [LAUGHTER] But unless they get to know each other and develop that trust that you just emphasize, really, things can fall flat really quickly.

Josh: Right.

John: But there’s other types of assignments where you can do that such as you mentioned in your book: the Reacting to the Past methodology and many forms or peer instruction where that sort of collaborative work is inherent in the process. When they’re not presenting something they can divide, but when they all have to debate something or present something from different perspectives, it naturally brings them together. So I think you do provide some suggestions on ways to do it, but it doesn’t work with all projects. If they’re writing a paper or presentation, you have to cultivate that. And it may not always work.

Rebecca: …especially if it’s something long term. There’s a difference between peer instruction and class that might happen over a short moment or two versus something that might take weeks.

Josh: Yes, definitely.

John: You also have a chapter on emotion. Could you talk a little bit about how emotion influences learning?

Josh: Yes, in some ways, this is the heart of the book from the start… thinking about our interactions with students at this level. For a long time, psychologists believed that emotion and cognition were entirely separate. And then they thought that they were connected, but one was dominant. But now biologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, they have really shown us that emotion and thinking are completely interlinked. I described them as dance partners in the book and really, that’s what they are. When everything’s going well, the two are working hand in hand, the primed emotions enhance the learning and the learning imbues the emotion with different levels. So, when everything’s working really well, they go hand in hand. And that can look at the span of what we’re talking about, the spectrum of utilizing emotion in our teaching is very broad. And so it can be everything from being enthusiastic about what we’re teaching to using humor, helping students see the joy of the subject matter; it can be that. But it can be also finding the emotion at the heart of the content that we’re teaching. So I’ve used an example a lot of two biology classes both teaching about cancer; one is teaching it entirely about the cellular level and another’s doing that but also showing videos of survivors and talking about the disease at the human level. That kind of scenario primes the students’ emotions which helps them in turn remember that material more effectively… develop better conceptual understanding: “Oh, here’s the long term resonance of this disease and there’s the human impact of this.” And so finding the emotional aspect of our content… And then simply, I think if I had to get one message out about that chapter, and maybe even about the book. is students will learn more if they think we care about them as learners. And that doesn’t mean that we have to tear down professional boundaries that might be important, but it does mean that students have to see us as being actively involved with their learning, as actually caring about their success in the classroom. And if that were the only thing that we did, we’d be making a lot of headway.

John: You mentioned just learning their names could be effective in helping to show that.

Josh: Yes, in fact, often I say that probably the easiest thing we could do to initially show students that we’re invested in them. And often people say rightly that teaching huge classes, it’s really hard to remember names, things like that. …an easy suggestion about that (and I got this from my friend Bethany Usher, George Mason University), hand everyone a table tent… a name card… at the beginning of the semester… have them write their names on it. So even if you can’t memorize all 200 names in your class, you can refer to people by name, which accomplishes in many ways, the same purpose.

Rebecca: Sneaky… It sounds very sneaky. [LAUGHTER]

John: It’s not a bad idea. Actually, when I teach small classes at Duke in the summer, I do that for the first couple of days until I get to know their names. In the class of three to four hundred, it may be a little tougher, at least to get them to come back and do it. I can imagine my students swapping the names just to mess with me a bit. Mybw… I’m not so sure. [LAUGHTER]

Josh: Bethany uses it… and others do for attendance purposes as well. So everyone has to put their name card back on the table when they leave and the date on the inside that they were there. So it’s a way to take attendance too.

John: You also talk about the importance of authenticity, of creating assignments and tasks that are authentic for the students. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Josh: Yeah, and authentic and authenticity have a wide range of meanings in higher ed these days. But what I was particularly looking at is the research on what folks have called cognitive authenticity or situated cognition, and that’s the degree to which our brains pick up on a learning environment as either being artificial or real – authentic. So the degree to which we can help students to engage in work that mirrors the work of scholars in the discipline or has relevance to their lives or application to their careers or application to the world writ large, we’re moving closer to authenticity and the kinds of learning environments that the brain responds to really well. It’s a ruthlessly pragmatic organ that will quickly turn this attention elsewhere if it doesn’t think what is happening is necessary for it. So I talked a lot about undergraduate research or projects or even shorter projects that we do in the classroom where students are doing what actual historians or sociologists or artists or biologists really do. The difference between memorizing the names of a hundreds insects and going out in the field and combining that information with finding them. I think that’s an authentic activity, an authentic learning environment.

John: In your book you Bjork and Bjork’s “desirable difficulties,” which suggest that students learn the most when they’re faced with this feasible challenge… where if something’s really easy, they get bored; If something’s too difficult, you have anxiety and things that interfere with learning.

Josh: Right.

John: One of the problems that people have in implementing that, is the range of backgrounds and skills of students. Can you suggest any ways of trying to reach that zone for all students when students come in with very different prior knowledge and skills.

Josh: Yes, that’s a really great question. It get really happy when I talk about Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development… maybe others don’t, but I think it’s fascinating and deeply important and it ties to desirable difficulties, I think. Simply because what Vygotsky was saying was that each of us for… pick a topic… but for any type of each of us has a zone in which we can learn as individuals, but eventually we will hit a point… the end of that when we need what he called a “knowledgeable other” to help us develop mastery beyond that… and so that’s going to differ depending on topic and depending on individual… and as faculty, if we were in our best position… if we know our students well enough to understand where each of them are within those zones… The “desirable difficulty” by the Bjork’s… things like spaced practice or interleaving… which means don’t study in blocks… study a little bit of topic “A” a little bit of topic “B,” a little bit of topic “C” et cetera… then go back. It’s really hard, but in it’s being hard, the brain encodes ot more effectively… and that matches up well with the zone of proximal development because it is a way for us to design activities where: number one we can see a little bit better where students individually are; number two. though. it helps push past those ending points or the sticking points that students can encounter when they hit the wall with a particular topic.

Rebecca: After writing this book, and spending five years deep into all this material, what have you found most useful as a teacher?

Josh: This has been such an amazing process for me. I’ve learned so much. The chapter on failure, though, has been the most eye opening for me. I’ve certainly redesigned discussions based on curiosity. And I tried to build more stories into my teaching to draw on those emotional social connections. But partly because we’re not taught in graduate school to privilege failure and errors and mistakes… and it’s not necessarily a fundamental element of any pedagogical training that we get even as faculty… I found that research to be extremely important for me as a teacher. And so it has changed the way I designed courses, I have more assignments and more opportunities to just give them feedback in order to manage the load that that brings with it. I have more face-to-face conversations, quicker sessions to give targeted feedback. I have activities like reading responses where all they have to do is complete the set number that I have for them. If you do 12 reading responses over the course of the semester you get the “A” for this activity… really to engage them in the thinking process in ways that will contribute to their work, but without the necessity: “I have to get it right.” I can just think and explore some ideas. In my undergraduate courses. I’ve switched entirely to portfolio grading for all of them. It does take time I have found to help students see that this isn’t a trick or you’re not trying to pull the carpet out from underneath them. But it has really transformed the way I work with students. More of them come see me in office hours because there are no grades. So they just want to talk about the feedback that I’m giving and ways to revise and improve. And I would say that the grad courses that I teach… we team-teach those courses on pedagogy… and those are all contract grading. And so we want the emphasis to be on mentorship for them as new teachers and not evaluation. So that chapter has really made the most difference to me as an individual teacher.

Rebecca: Can you elaborate a little bit more on what it means to portfolio grade.

Josh: Sure.

Rebecca: I think people have a general idea of what that means in like a writing class, something that might not have a clear idea of what it might mean in a different kind of course.

Josh: Right. Sure. And actually, I know that there are very specific models of portfolio grading too… some of which come out of writing studies. I take a very broad look at… actually my wife, teachers art as well… and so I borrow some of the notion of a portfolio from what artists do and how they grade student work over time. And so my own definition of portfolio grading is a developmental approach where all assignments are turned in but only given feedback on… multiple opportunities for revision… and the only thing that gets a grade is the final submission of all the revised work. Even quizzes and exams, you can think about in a portfolio model as adapting and revising answers over time within certain constraints, and then giving a grade on the final product that also includes a reflective introduction. How did I learn over time? How did I improve over time? What areas do I still have left to explore?

Rebecca: Thanks. That’s helpful. I have a question about when you’re writing the book, as someone who’s not a scientist and you’re digging into all this science stuff, it seems interesting that you’re writing about learning where you were probably also actively engaging in all of these things. I’m wondering if that writing process influenced and that experience influenced how you wrote this book?

Josh: It did. Yes. I think part of the process was being in uncomfortable territory, novel territory for myself. In many ways. I was in the same situation as an introductory student in a lot of these disciplines and certainly having patience with myself. As I was writing what I was doing my work with faculty and then with students was understanding (because I was going through it myself) a little bit better how someone from a different discipline might be hearing and responding to another disciplinary approach with an unfamiliarity… not a resistance to… but an unfamiliarity that we need to kind of break down and have a common language for. And so that was a part of it. The other thing, though, was being in that position, kind of like a student myself, I reached out to colleagues here at Rice. So when I had questions about evolutionary biology, I would call up my friend Scott Solomon and say: “Here’s what I’m thinking, am I on the right track?” And he would say: “Well, not really. But why don’t you look at this and this…” and eventually, through those interactions with him, I can get to something that I thought that folks would find credible and that process also helps you to see that students, especially those who are new to a subject, there’s the vulnerability and having to say, “Am I right about this? Do I know what I’m talking about.” And I think that’s worth taking very seriously. And I haven’t been in that role for a very long time. And so it was really helpful, I think, to be in that situation again for my own teaching, and to be able to talk about that with faculty. It was fun to write it. One of the reasons I wanted to move into working at a teaching and learning center was the opportunity to work with faculty from all disciplines. And this really helped me in that role, and that I was learning the contours of a lot of different disciplines. And I learned different kinds of questions to ask and different kind of perspective.

Rebecca: Cool.

John: Yeah, we enjoy that for much too.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: Are there any aspects of your book that some readers might find controversial? The argument that I make in the book that as adults, we still learn in the same ways that we did when we were children. And I wouldn’t say that that probably will be one the biggest points of argument or discussion over time. Certainly not everyone agrees with that. But what I simply mean by that is that our processes for learning really don’t change that much from the time when we’re very little as we grow older. Our brains certainly mature. We have different life experiences that we’re bringing. Our ability to regulate our emotions is not the same as the three year old that’s very, very different.

John: Usually.

Josh: …at least hopefully. [LAUGHTER] But, the way we learn remains relatively the same. And I draw on the work of a fabulous psychologist named Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist, and she’s done a lot of papers on this. But she wrote a pretty popular book with two others, Andrew Meltzoff and someone else (his name is escaping me). And that book’s called The Scientist in the Crib. They make the case very clearly. They say something almost to the effect that scientists can develop the knowledge that they can and experiment the way they can, because they’re utilizing processes and structures that were designed for children. So we are still learning in the same way that we did when we were very young. We’re just approaching it a little bit differently and we’ve matured along the way. So I really hope we can use that information in our work in the classroom to say, “There are things about learning that we know will work and have always worked because this is who we are.” And so if we can use that, if we can build pedagogies that tap into those things that we know that never change about learning, then we will always be serving our students well.

Rebecca: I think that’s a good point.

John: It makes sense. We evolved to learn in a certain way. We take things in from our senses, we encode it, and we’re still using the same processes ultimately.

Josh: Yes, I agree.

John: We always end the podcast with the question, “What are you doing next?”

Josh: I recently gave a talk called “Teaching as a Creative Endeavor.” So kind of the other side of the coin… the creativity that goes into teaching… teaching as an art and some of the things that actually can’t be measured, but that we hope we might be achieving. And so I think that I’ll probably continue down that road… a bigger project on the creative art of teaching… what that means… and the research on creativity and how that can apply. I’m not sure if it’ll be a book yet, but I’m definitely really interested in that aspect of teaching as well.

Rebecca: Yeah, that’s something that faculty here have expressed some interest in, as well… of creativity and what that looks like. So I thank you might have an audience

Josh: Well, that would be great.

John: In our past reading groups,that is one of the questions that came up the most: “How can we encourage the development of creativity?” And I don’t think there’s a lot out there on it that we’ve seen at least

Josh: No, I don’t think that there is. I think that there are faculty in the arts who are thinking a lot about it. A number of books, not related to education, but that have come out in the last 10 years on what is creativity. And in fact, one of my colleagues here, Tony Brandt wrote a book with David Eagleman on creativity and the creative brain and humans as the creative species. So I think there’s a lot of room to really use that information to think about our work as teachers.

Rebecca: Excellent. Look forward to finding out what you end up doing with that information and how you explore it.

Josh: Thank you.

John: Well, thank you for joining us. This was a fascinating conversation and I really loved your book.

Josh: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Both those kind of comments and also the opportunity to talk with you today.

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for taking time.

[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.

63. Building a Campus Culture of Accessibility

Colleges and universities, as well as individual faculty members, are legally required to meet federal accessibility requirements for all digital content that is posted online or used as learning materials within face-to-face, hybrid, or online classrooms. Most faculty, however, have received little or no training in how to create accessible materials. In this episode, Sean Moriarty, the Chief Technology Officer at SUNY-Oswego, joins us to discuss how our institution is working toward assisting faculty in creating materials that are accessible for all of our learners.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Colleges and universities, as well as individual faculty members, are legally required to meet federal accessibility requirements for all digital content that is posted online or used as learning materials within face-to-face, hybrid, or online classrooms. Most faculty, however, have received little or no training in how to create accessible materials. In this episode, we examine how one college is working toward assisting faculty in creating materials that are accessible for all of our 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.

John: Today our guest is Sean Moriarty, the Chief Technology Officer at SUNY Oswego and Chair of the SUNY Council of Chief Information Officers. Sean is the author of the recently published Educause Review article, “Building a Culture of Accessibility in Higher Education.” Welcome, Sean.

Sean: Thank you, John and Rebecca.

Rebecca: Welcome.

Sean: It’s great to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Sean: Well I’m having my Tim Horton’s coffee. I usually have my tea after dinner, so it’s too early for my tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I’m drinking Christmas tea with cinnamon.

Rebecca: I have my lucky English afternoon tea.

[LAUGHTER]

John: It’s not just for afternoons.

Rebecca: No, it’s all day long.

John: And it never has been, I guess.

Rebecca: Yeah. Before we jump into our conversation, first, can you define what accessibility is?

Sean: Well, accessibility is the idea that every user of the content has a similar experience. They’re not gonna be able to have exactly the same experience… So if you think of people who might have blindness, the content that they access on a website or in a document should be able to give them the same knowledge and understanding in terms of they would hear the content or have it read to them so that they would gain the same knowledge and understanding of what’s there. The disabilities that we have vary from people to people and you also have different issues in the way that content is provided; people who are blind can’t experience a picture in the same way, so there’s an expectation that you would explain what’s inside of an image so that they can understand what other people are seeing.

John: Accessibility issues have been around for a long time, but it seems that campuses are starting to pay more attention to this. What has prompted this increase in attention to issues of accessibility.

Sean: It’s an issue that has really raised in prominence over the last 15 to 20 years and has become a large issue for us here in New York state over the last couple years. So I’m originally from Canada, and I would say that accessibility and digital resources has been an issue there easily for 10 to 15 years and we spent a lot of time at the last institution I worked at, which was the University of Windsor, in terms of making our website accessible and meeting the accessibility laws and guidelines that the Canadian government has put in, and a lot of resources and time were put into that. When I moved to the United States, and particularly here at SUNY Oswego… that would have been five and a half years ago… I think it was less of an issue and people didn’t necessarily realize the need for accessibility and the effect that it had on others. The reason that it’s really come to more prominence is that some individuals have gone and worked towards making everyone aware of the law. So there are a couple of laws in the United States, and one would be the American Disabilities Act, and the second a law that really came into effect over the last couple years, has to do with digital resources and the requirements for them to be accessible for people. Now, one individual in particular has gone and put complaints against universities that their websites weren’t accessible and it really kicked off an awareness in terms of how people wanted to do it. At SUNY Oswego and throughout the state of New York—actually all the SUNY schools had complaints brought against them two years ago—it was really largely around the websites that were inaccessible and most of the SUNY schools got together and we looked at ways to go and comply. Now many of us were really not that far away from being a hundred percent compliant on the website. To go and to remediate most of the website isn’t that difficult when you start talking about items such as the HTML. It gets a lot more complex once you start looking at documents and PDF documents… and no one, I would say, is really a hundred percent compliant. Understanding the complexity of the issue once you start working on it, you really start to see how the issue—if you just try to go in to remediate it and fix it it becomes next to impossible, really. The only way to go and work and to become compliant and to really design the experience you want for the end user is to go and get in front of it to do it. Well, that’s one part of it is the legal issue, but part of it also is a social justice issue. I think when you want to go and start to think about how you want to design your website and make it attractive to all end-users you have to understand that there are people that need these accommodations and have different needs and you have to go and design your website to go and to make it accessible to them, and I think when you start to go and think of it from the social justice issue rather than meeting the requirements it just changes your whole way of thinking in terms of why you want to do it, how you want to do it and how you can get more people to buy in.

John: And when we’re talking about accessibility it goes far beyond just a website; there’s also EdTech tools and there’s also teaching materials and resources. Could you talk a little bit about those issues in higher ed and what we’re trying to do to deal with those?

Sean: A lot of the focus does go on websites, and particularly at the very beginning, I would say, in terms of when we go and try to meet accessibility from a digital point of view from an IT department, but there are a number of other items—we have digital content on PCs throughout the campus and run all kinds of applications and mobile applications. There’s an expectation that those will be accessible by all users as well. So one of the issues is that we have applications that are running on mobile devices… PCs… and our goal would be to have those accessible for all end-users as well. Really to go in, to manage that we have to look at how we procure those items and ensure and work with the people who want those applications that they’re going to be accessible… and ensure that the vendors that we’re dealing with are making it a priority to go and to make their applications accessible… and I think particularly there’s a couple of in-state systems that have done quite a bit of work and that would be the California State System… the Washington State System have done quite a bit of work in terms of going and making accessibility of applications a priority, and I think with the SUNY system joining in we can have quite a bit of power with the amount that we purchase and accessibility can even raise to a higher awareness with the vendors and we can push it forward from there. The other area where it really becomes an issue is inside the classroom; we’re delivering far more electronic resources to students than we have in the past and I think that’s partly because the experience is a more online and there are online classes that are delivered totally digitally or with an instructor helping, but accessibility becomes a larger part as we work there. But also as we deliver content to students through the computer as opposed to handing pieces of paper to them we have to go and think accessibility upfront. As we go and expand our markets… as we become more aware of students that have accessibility issues—we are having more students who come to school and have these requirements and it is going and adding a lot more requirements to go in to help those students succeed.

John: One of the nice things, though, about a move to digital materials is the content is already in digital format which makes it easier to convert as long as provisions are made for that; the old text-based systems were a lot harder—you had to have people either read materials to people or other types of content back in the earlier days. It creates opportunities as well as some challenges.

Rebecca: I mean the web, in general, was designed in a way from the beginning to be accessible to all; it has that power and capability as long as it’s used correctly. So one of the things that I know that we’re working on with this campus is helping people understand how to use all of these platforms more effectively to make the content accessible, because if you design things with accessibility in mind from the beginning it’s a lot easier, it’s a lot more effective and it’s a lot more powerful than trying to fix everything afterwards, which we’ve certainly experienced here; it’s a lot more expensive and time-consuming.

Sean: Yes, for sure. I think we have also tried to look at using the right medium for delivering the message. So, I would give examples on the website, particularly where people might go and make flyers and they’d create a PDF document that they go in and stick on bulletin boards around the campus and then just go and stick that same PDF onto the web which immediately isn’t accessible unless they have done it (properly). The proper way to go and to use the medium of the web is to go and create a website or a web page that would go and deliver that content. It’s more effective for people when they go and do it… that extra little step… and don’t take the shortcuts and it also helps them to go in to market their materials in the right way.

John: Economists often make the same argument; it’s called a putty-clay analogy that when you’re designing technology it’s like putty; you can shape it in many different ways, but once you bake that clay and turn it into ceramics you can no longer alter it as easily—it’s much more costly and you often have to start over, but it’s very malleable at the start when you’re designing things, like making curb cuts, where it’s fairly expensive, but now when new curbs are built they’re automatically including those curb cuts and that’s really not any more costly to build than the old system was but it was much more costly to go back and rebuild things and to start over, which was the argument you were making, I think.

Rebecca: I think curb cuts is a great topic too—it goes back to what Sean was mentioning earlier in the difference between checking a box to say that I’m compliant versus really thinking about what it means to have a curb cut. There’s an example that I often use when I give presentations on accessibility that’s a curb cut to nowhere, it’s a curb cut to some grass that doesn’t go anywhere. It’s compliant because there is one, but it’s not usable. So, I think that’s the key thing that you have to think about when you’re dealing with accessibility issues, that it’s not just ticking boxes off but you’re really thinking about the real people who it’s meant to impact.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that’s really exciting too is that not only does it help people with disabilities get the content and have an equitable experience but it also means that people that are using different kinds of devices or might be in noisy situations or other kinds of circumstances also have a better experience overall. From a design point of view, when it’s accessible the user experiences has just improved for everybody.

John: Before I got an iPad Pro with a higher volume level, when I was watching videos while flying I often would turn captions on because it was sometimes easier to read the captions than to hear over the noise of the jet and that applies certainly to students watching multimedia content in quiet places where they can’t play audio out loud or students in noisy environments who might not be able to hear the audio.

Rebecca: Or non-traditional students who might be around their kids or whatever and might need to control things like that.

Sean: Yeah, there’s many examples of technology that was brought in to help people with accessibility that become really mainstream that help everyone’s life.

It brings up the conversation or the thought that having the tools to do what you need to do and then actually using those tools appropriately and in the best way… and I would say that in many ways with accessibility at this point, some of the tools that are required still aren’t there to make things easy. We’re still working on having those tools and I think as we move forward that we’ll go and we’ll develop the tools and make it easy, but I think that’s really the stage of maturity that we’re at right now.

Rebecca: Going back to what you’re saying about the tools that we need don’t really exist yet to some extent. Using the tools that we do have to do the things that we can do, still makes a big impact. So, even using Microsoft Word to make assignment sheets and things but using the styles that are built in so that you’re identifying what’s a heading, what’s a subheading, et cetera, makes a huge impact and that takes care of a large percentage of the material, but then there’s that smaller percentage of a more complicated content and multimedia that’s a little more difficult to deal with… especially when there’s interaction as well as motion and some of these other things… but there’s still a lot that we can do with what we do have.

Sean: Yes, why then I think it goes back too to a skills issue and then part of it being knowledge and skills. So, people are used to using Microsoft Word for 20-plus years the way that they use it… and they’ve found their own shortcuts to just meet their own needs… But to go and to deliver and use a tool at the highest effectiveness you really need to have this additional knowledge and understanding of having templates that you can use and marking images that need to have a tag with them too. So we do have the tools but we also need to give people the skills and knowledge to understand how to use them effectively for this.

John: On past episodes we talked about how faculty coming through grad school generally don’t receive much training in how to teach, although that’s been changing a bit. But virtually no graduate students, I would suspect, has received much training in graduate school on creating accessible documents, so there’s a lot of inertia to overcome.

Rebecca: Not even in fields that deal with accessibility as part of their background—they might not even have that experience either. So, like computer science, design, et cetera… that’s something that’s just starting to bubble into curricula now.

John: One of the things, Sean, you and Rebecca have both been working on is developing an accessibility fellows program here at Oswego. Could you talk a little bit about that program… what it is and what’s the purpose of it?

Sean: Rebecca and I were talking about this earlier… and looking at it from an institutional point of view, I think if we want to go and to create this culture of accessibility, you’re really gonna have to go and put resources towards it and make it a priority… and I think here at Oswego we’ve tried to do that in a number of ways, and one would be to bring on an intern that Rebecca had trained and had excellent skills and we could go and work to remediate courses, for one item… and then to build a culture of accessibility here… and the only way I think to go and to build a culture is to go and to build it from bottom up… and show people it’s important by putting resources towards it… making time available for people to go and to work on it. So, the accessibility fellowship that we’re starting this year does that… and it does it in one way in terms of giving Rebecca some time to go and to provide the leadership that she does in terms of accessibility and it fits in with the work that she’s doing and the priorities that she has… and it also set some time aside for faculty to go and to work on accessibility and for them to become advocates for going and spreading the word as we move forward… and I think by going and putting the resources in, it’ll make a difference at the beginning, but the real difference will be four or five, six years down the road when we have a number of people and the person sitting next to you says to you, “Oh, you could make that more accessible if you did this…” and it just becomes part of the culture that everybody’s working on it. Rather than just Rebecca going and starting we got to make the triangle much larger.

John: The fellows are receiving a course release to free up time so that they can work on these activities.

Sean: Right, and with the expectation that they’ll have training… they’ll understand what it means to create accessible courses. They’re going to create accessible courses. They’ll have an opportunity to travel and go to a conference with accessible related material, become advocates for it as well…

John: We’ll also ask them to give some workshops for their colleagues. People are much more likely to show up for a workshop when it’s someone from their own department or area so by doing this across the campus we’re hoping that this will start spreading a bit more rapidly.

Rebecca: It’s important to note that there’s a wide variety of fellows from different disciplines. We have people from Business… we’ve got people from Science… people from English… people from Political Science… people from Education… people from… Sean: Comm studies…

Rebecca: Comm studies. Did I get them all? Oh… no… and Health, Promotion and Wellness.

Sean: So we were hoping to have four originally and we have seven. So, I think we’re very happy that people were interested and wanted to go and spread the word… and I think also as Rebecca says with the wide number of fellows that we have, we’ll be able to go and do some work… So particularly, like in the sciences there’s a lot of questions around accessibility and how do you go and create the accessible content? I think the person that we have will be able to go and to start some of the work and help it go in to build a knowledge base and be able to pass it on to others as we move forward.

Rebecca: I think that’s really key because there’s definitely some holes in the knowledge of the team that’s been working on these things as soon as it starts getting more specialized.

John: That person in the sciences is Casey Raymond, who is on our podcast on the first and third episodes.

Sean: Yes.

Rebecca: Uh hmm. Sean, one of the things that we’ve talked a lot about is building it from the ground up versus retrofitting or remediating. Can you talk a little bit about the difference in the workload and resources needed…

Sean: Right.

Rebecca: …for those two different approaches?

Sean: I would say one item that we’ve seen really over the last couple years, particularly as we’ve started to work on it, is the amount of time that we’ve had to go and spend remediating courses… and we do put a lot of focus in terms of online classes and we’ve just seen a tremendous growth in the amount of classes that need to be remediated. We have processes inside (Banner) and we’ve written applications inside Banner and create reports to go in and to identify students who are taking classes that are online that are going to go and be remediated. Where we might have been doing a couple or a few courses a semester before… the number has grown five hundred to a thousand percent more than it was before and that really required us to go in to create a position for an individual to go and to work and basically try to stay a couple weeks ahead of the course material for all the students that we’re dealing with… or at least all the courses that we’re dealing with for these students… and actually I would say with the growth and with the students that we have coming in this solution is not scalable. We’re not going to be able to hire enough people to go and to do it… and I’d say within a couple years if we keep doing it, we just won’t be able to keep up. It’s getting to that point. We have an accessibility committee on campus that would consist of people from the President’s office, our Diversity and Inclusion Officer, our communications, our web people, student disabilities, Rebecca, from the academic point of view… our web developer and Extended Learning, who do a lot of the online classes, and we spend a lot of time in those meetings. First of all, they start with the remediation that has to be done and when we have discussions around it, we realize it feels like the hole that we’re digging around accessibility just keeps getting larger and larger… and at this point our goal would be to stop the rate of the hole getting as large as it is. At some point maybe we can even it off and then get to the point where we can start filling it in, but I think the only way we’re gonna go and fill it in is over many, many years and when we redo classes they’ll be designed with accessible format as we move forward – going back and remediating all the work, it’s just not doable.

Rebecca: One of the things that I think you’re highlighting, Sean, is the difference between accommodation and accessibility. Accessibility is much more proactive where we’re actually going in ahead of time, making sure that when we’re designing content, it’s set up so that it’s accessible no matter what device you’re using it’s gonna work; whereas accommodation is… you register through the office of disabilities or whatever you have on your campus and you get a specific accommodation letter… the accommodation letter is given to the faculty member and then you’re given those accommodations and that office might provide the resources to convert a text or whatever might need to be done. This is much more front-loaded, but it helps more students and it also helps students who don’t want to identify as being disabled, especially if they have a hidden disability that they’d prefer to keep private. One thing that’s also different is that students who might have hidden disabilities or disabilities in general have always had the burden of getting the materials or asking and having to take all of the extra steps. In this case it’s the content generators with (the responsibility for) accessibility, so that’s a key difference between the two.

John: You noted that some students might choose not to report learning disabilities, but we should also note that some students might have undiagnosed learning disabilities. Those students can also benefit from the creation of accessible materials.

In order for our campus and other campuses to become fully accessible, it’s going to require the teamwork of quite a few people. Could you talk a little about how that process has been going here?

Sean: We’ve done a good job here at Oswego and we have a really good mix of people that are really interested in this topic and want to move it forward… so I think of our web developer, Rick Buck and how he’s gone and redesigned our website (although it was very compliant to begin with, let me say)… but he’s gone and put in the extra features that go and work to going to keep us compliant and he’s also spent considerable time with his team to educate our content editors who go in… and in any university you would have a very diverse group of people who would develop content in their specific department or area to keep the information relevant… but they need to understand their responsibilities inside of it… so going and training them and giving the knowledge and the tools. So, from the web point of view, I think we’ve done a lot, but also we’re lucky to have a mix of people here in the academic area who want to go and and do this. So, for example, with Rebecca and with the work that she does, first of all in the class and in the area of accessibility… we’re really lucky to go and to be able to tap into that and to put the resources necessary to move the whole project forward… and I would say that goes right up to the President here at the university and the Provost and them making it a priority and ensuring that we put resources towards this to move the project forward.

Rebecca: I would also add that without Sean really being the advocate for the entire process, I don’t think a lot of the things that we have in place would happen. He was the convener of the committee and some of these other things that really got the ball rolling… and it got rolling quickly. [LAUGHTER]

Sean: Why I do think it really helps being proactive and going and looking at it from a systemic point of view and going and trying to change the system and starting at the bottom; otherwise you just spin your wheels all the time and the hole gets deeper and deeper.

Rebecca: That leads us to: What next, Sean?

Sean: Well, I think we’ve covered a lot of the things that are coming up for us. You earlier referenced that I’m the Chair of the SUNY Council of CIOs. So, inside the SUNY system we’ve done a lot of work and tried to work with the CIOs to share knowledge in terms of what we’re doing, whether it be on our website and with applications that we’re purchasing and implementing. A couple of the other schools are doing even more. So the University of Buffalo is actually doing quite a bit and they’ve implemented a new procurement process that will go and put better, I would say, guardrails around how we go and purchase application software and I would imagine a lot of the schools will adopt what they’re doing… and the SUNY Provost is about to come out with a accessibility statement or policy and inside that statement and policy will be the need to have someone responsible for accessibility at each school, and how a school is going to need to have a plan in order to do it… and I would say that we’re among the leaders in terms of doing that. We’ll have a plan in terms of how we want to go and move it forward… and really the next part of it is I would say at this point is to go in and implement and let it grow and let the people do their work and share the knowledge that our fellows will have over the next period of time and then look where we want to go for that—we’ll need to go back and assess how we did this year and then I would say just guide ourselves through those waters and decide how we want to go and grow the program and share it with others.

John: Thank you. It’s always a pleasure talking to you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for joining us, Sean.

Sean: Thank you for having me.

[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 Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.

62. 2018 Reflections

We’ve had over a year of inspiring guests and great information on the Tea for Teaching podcast. We thought it would be fun to spend our time today discussing the tools and techniques that we’ve put into practice.

Show Notes

Tea for Teaching podcast episodes referred to in this podcast:

Other citations:

  • Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Harvard University Press.
  • Sue, D. W. (2016). Race talk and the conspiracy of silence: Understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc..

Transcript

Rebecca: We’ve had over a year of inspiring guests and great information on the Tea for Teaching podcast. We thought it would be fun to spend our time today discussing the tools and techniques that we’ve put into practice.

[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: Today’s guests are John and Rebecca.

John: And today’s teas are…

Rebecca: Christmas Tea.

John: And I am having Christmas Tea.

Rebecca: Really?

John: I am.

Rebecca: We didn’t plan that. Well it’s the end of your reflections—guess it’s in the season. So, John, what are some of the things that you’ve tried that made a big impact on your class this year?

John: One thing that was really influential was the metacognitive cafe low-stakes online discussion forum that Judie Littlejohn developed and developed and presented in our second episode. This discussion forum allows students to collaboratively work together to improve their metacognition and to become more effective in learning. The student response has been so positive in the online classes where Judie and I have both introduced it that I’m going to try to introduce it into my large introductory face-t-face introductory classes. It’s going to be a little more challenging trying to come up with a scalable way of doing that that would work with classes of 3 to 4 hundred students, but I think the benefits make it worth the attempt.

Rebecca: That episode inspired me a little bit too and although I don’t have that specific set up in our capstone class, we started asking students about the workspaces that are most effective for them and in design there’s a lot of open-space studios and then those that might have more private space, and so we’ve been talking a lot about that and so things that they might intuit to be more comfortable or more productive environment for them or making them be far more reflective and precise about… and so that same practice of being intentional and thinking through that has been really effective and useful.

John: Another thing that had a large impact on me was Jeffrey Riman’s discussion in episode 10 on VoiceThread. Up until then I had been playing with VoiceThread every few years, occasionally giving workshops to demonstrate it to faculty but he convinced me to actually try it and I used it last spring and it worked very well in my online labor economics class. I was very pleased with how it worked. I actually used this in the metacognitive cafe discussions in my online labor economics class, but I used a text based discussion for the weekly content discussions. One of the interesting things is that after hearing all of the students’ voices in the metacognitive cafe discussions, when I was reading their other discussions, I could hear their voices and it created a little bit more sense of presence and connection, and the students responded the same way… that getting to hear each other’s voices made them feel a little bit more connected and gave them more of a sense of community.

Rebecca: I can imagine that it might also help students hear the inflection and the intention of some of the words and written content a little more clearly so they know that maybe a student had a good intention about what they said rather than assuming a bad intention just based on hearing a student’s participation throughout the semester.

John: As we’ve noted in a reading group—I think it was something that Michelle Miller talked about in Minds Online—everyone is much more likely to misinterpret meanings in text or to read negative connotations into things even when they’re not meant. What are some of the other episodes that influenced you?

Rebecca: I go back to Writing Better Writing Assignments, episode 31 with Allison Rank and Heather Pool as a reminder when I start writing new assignments. They are so intentional about making sure that you’re phrasing questions effectively and efficiently and you’re really asking students what you actually want them to deliver and I think that serves as a good reminder and I feel like every time I start making a new assignment I go back to some of those ideas. I don’t always necessarily listen to the episode again but I certainly skim through that transcript again.

John: I do the same thing sometimes. Either the transcript or sometimes the resources when there’s something I need to look up.

Rebecca: Their paper is really great too, so I’ve referred back to that a number of times as well. One of the other episodes that I found myself going back to a lot in the throes of this particular semester was episode 46, Creative Risk-Taking with Wendy Watson. In my department, historically we’ve had a lot of creative play between our classes and sometimes creative competitions and things and for some reason we have a lot going on with new renovations and stuff on our campus that have been keeping us extra busy and I think we had to cut something and we had started to cut the play and we’re all just feeling really dragged down and tired and what-have-you. So we brought some play back. So this semester my students invented a food truck for the campus and we created a website around it, created a menu so it was really creative and fun, and then some other classes created commercials and other resources and things to extend the brand and so the students all had a great time and it was really kind of funny because when we handed stuff off to the class that did little mini commercials they didn’t realize it wasn’t real. [LAUGHTER] They were like, “this will be really awesome.” They were really looking forward to it, but…

John: We were hoping for taco trucks on every corner and it didn’t turn out that way.

Rebecca: Yeah, actually it’s Space Buds; it’s a potato truck coming soon. [LAUGHTER]

John: Like the ice cream of the future, yes. [LAUGHTER] Which is now here; that’s no longer the ice cream of the future.

Rebecca: Yeah, but I think that’s a good reminder that learning can be fun and sometimes when you bring in these fun, creative opportunities for students to explore the class material everybody has more fun, including the faculty member and I think it just lightens the mood and makes everyone move forward faster.

John: That’s a nice reminder for all of us.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: And also her discussion of just the importance of being willing to take risks in the classroom and not just go through routines and go through the motions the same way every semester was really refreshing.

Rebecca: Yeah, it can be really scary to take on a new project. When I decided that I’m just gonna change my project and it’s gonna be this after having engaged in that particular episode it’s like, “I don’t know how this is gonna go, fingers crossed…” but it worked out great.

John: One other thing that’s been affecting my class this semester was the podcast with Marela Fiacco, episode 34 on Flex Courses. In most of my classes I’ve been recording the sessions and posting them for students and if I knew a student was going to be out of town I would also livestream the class, but based on what she was doing with her class I just told my students that I’m live streaming each of my large classes and I’ve been amazed at the number of people who have been just joining in from wherever they happen to be. I’ve had up to 10 to 12 percent of the class and sometimes it’s because they’re not feeling well—we had a number of people out sick for a while—and while they’re lying in bed half dead or whatever they can still join in with the class… they can pose questions that pop up on the screen for a very few seconds… and they can also participate in all the clicker questions if they have the remote app… and that’s been working pretty well; it’s provided access for students who are away… who are out of town visiting family and traveling… and it’s just become routine where some people just enjoy it—they’d rather be by themselves. Some of the students who were sitting in the back have found that they can find a much quieter environment than some of the environments in the classroom— while we try to keep the noise level in the class down at times, some people are intimidated by having 300 to 400 students around them actively discussing things during some of the peer-to-peer things and they feel more comfortable in a quieter environment and they can do it that way.

Rebecca: That’s great. I think sometimes we expect that when we provide that kind of access that all of a sudden students aren’t going to get what they need or they’re gonna slack off or not take advantage but you can see that they’re there… they’re present… they’re participating, so that’s exciting.

John: Another thing that really influenced me quite a bit last spring was episode 12 with Doug McKee where he was talking about active learning. Two of the things he was doing I implemented right away, particularly the two-stage exam. I implemented it that semester—I talked about it first with the students to see if they were interested; they were and it just worked beautifully. We talked about that in an earlier episode too, and another thing I introduced was the student poster session that he discussed using in place of the end-of-term student presentations where students get up with their PowerPoint displays and those who are not presenting are sitting there anxiously worried about their presentation and most students were just not that actively engaged. When they got to create posters and post them around the room and have some of their friends and some other faculty from the department, and actually even the Dean came in and viewed them, they were so much more excited and instead of presenting for 8 to 10 minutes for each student they got to stand up there for the whole class period and explain it to all their colleagues and because I broke it up a little bit so that half of the students could go and visit the posters created by the other students for a period of time and then the other half could visit the others, they weren’t just standing by their posters and we had other people come in and talk about it and visit with him and they found it much more interesting and they were much more actively engaged in the presentations and much more enthused about it than they were otherwise, and several of them said that they wish all their presentations were done in that way.

Rebecca: I think that was a theme that came up in a number of episodes this idea of presenting your material out to a bigger audience than just the class. I wonder if some of the success is not just because it was this particular format with their students but because you were also inviting others in and it raised the stakes a little bit which might have just professionalized the whole experience. You mentioned the two stage exams—so I know we talked extensively about that on another episode, but it’s still really interesting to me too. I haven’t quite figured out how to implement it in the kinds of things that I teach but it’s still tumbling around in my mind; I like that idea and I do some things that are like that where I have students solve a problem on their own and then they come together and try to solve it together and in general that methodology seems to work just really well.

John: Peer instruction in general…

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: …works really well, which is when we talked about that more extensively.. What are some of the themes from our past podcasts that have influence your practice as a teacher the most?

Rebecca: I think this year seems to be my focus on diversity and inclusion and it’s for a few reasons: one is all of our accessibility initiatives that I’m highly involved with on campus, but also our reading group this year is on Race Talk by Derald Wing Sue… so I’m completely immersed in that particular subject… so I seem to be latching on to anything that’s about that and trying to digest that… and I also teach accessibility and things in my classes so I’m constantly thinking through how to teach empathy, how to get students to think about different experiences that are very different from their own and how to communicate that and how to get students to engage in that practice, so the episodes that really focused on diversity and inclusion include episode 41. Instructional Communication with Jennifer Knapp, one of our colleagues here on campus; episode 50. Diversity and Inclusion with Rodman King, who is our Diversity and Inclusion Officer on our campus; episode 49. Closing the Gap with Angela Bauer; and episode 58. Role Play with Jill Peterfeso, and the combination of those episodes runs the gamut of thinking through your interpersonal communications with students and in between students to how to present information to students to thinking about how to include students who traditionally may have been excluded from the discipline or from the community and then also thinking about historical context with the roleplay and how there’s a lot of ways that you can use roleplay to explore a wide variety of ideas in a safer space because it’s in a performative space rather than “reality” and that allows for some discussions and things to unfold in a way that it wouldn’t otherwise.

John: Jen Knapp’s discussion of the importance of creating a comfortable learning environment, which came through in the other episodes as well, really struck me in reducing the barriers between instructor and students and that’s particularly important in a large class because it’s really easy for there to be this big divide where it’s you and them and being more informal and more relaxed in the classroom can break down some of those barriers that are even more common or more difficult to break down when you’re in a large class setting than in a smaller group, I think.

Rebecca: Quantity alone can be intimidating.

John: It can be, but if you can break that down a little bit it helps, and just walking around, which I’ve always been doing, but I’m doing even more now… and that’s been helpful in getting to know some of the students a little bit more and making them more comfortable so they’re more likely to come by outside of class as well.

Rebecca: I’ve been a lot more aware of the way that I phrase things… the way that I address particular issues… being more positive in how we might address bigger patterns of struggle in the class… framing it in a way that’s much more positive promotes a growth mindset; these are things that I’ve been focusing on more and I know that I plan over winter break to revisit these particular episodes to pull out more of those details and to refresh my memory on some of those things so that when I go into the spring I can be a lot more on point on some of those things that I really care deeply about.

John: For many years now I’ve been interested in trying to build a growth mindset in students since reading Carol Dweck’s work, but Angela Bauer’s results with that in terms of how weekly growth mindset messaging in their introductory classes made a significant difference in narrowing the performance gap. I’ve been trying to do more growth mindset messaging in my own classes—more consciously doing it; I had been doing it a little bit but I’m trying to do it much more regularly whenever I send emails out to students, or whenever we’re talking about some of the more challenging things, I remind them that most students find this material challenging and that they get better at it by doing it. In economics I face a lot of students, and I know you do too, who claim they just are not math people and they just can’t understand graphs and it’s tough getting past that but reminding them that that’s a struggle for very many students and that it won’t be a struggle if they just continue to work and become more comfortable with it.

Rebecca: That raises a lot of the issues and things that came out in Marcia Burrell’s episode as well when we’re thinking about math people and this gatekeeping that happens. So it’s interesting that that particular episode ties really nicely with Angela Bauer’s work in really breaking down these barriers and helping people have access, which I think is really powerful and important work to be doing. I know that I’m catching myself saying things in a way that’s like, “Oh, why did I just do that” and undoing some things that I’m so used to doing that’s so embedded in how we work—come to find out I’m a much more of a negative person than I thought I was. [LAUGHTER] …and really.. It’s really a struggle. How about some of the themes that you’ve pulled out?

John: Some of the things that I think I’ve been most interested in and have been trying to work on the most is those episodes dealing with evidence-based teaching methods, especially because of the scale of the classes I teach; I’d like to do that as efficiently and as effectively as possible. Bill Goffe was one of the first people to discuss that very extensively and since he was coming from a background in economics it was very directly relevant to what I do and Bill and I have worked together for quite a few years here and it was nice to talk to him about some of the things he’s been doing and how he’s been evolving as a teacher. I’ve learned a lot from Bill over the years and it’s been… it’s been very productive and that episode was really useful. Episode 37 with Michelle Miller was very interesting in terms of where she sees the future of education going and where she sees some interesting possibilities for growth. Michelle Miller has been a major influence on me for quite a while from the first time I saw her present on low-stakes testing a number of years ago.

Rebecca: …and on our community in general because she’s been here as a guest speaker and we’ve done book clubs and things around her work.

John: …and she ran workshops here on two occasions and it’s been very, very productive. One of the things that influenced me this year was Dom Casadonte’s episode 42 on the flipped classroom… and I had been doing a mostly flipped classroom for quite a few years now, but I was still including a little bit more short lectures in it—five, ten minute lectures and he suggested that if you’re going to do it you should do it all the way because one of the problems is students in a flipped classroom environment will claim that you’re not teaching them and if you do a little bit of teaching them they come to expect that and then they feel cheated out of the rest so I’ve been much more explicit. I’ve always tried to prep students and to frame it in terms of the use of evidence-based practices but I’ve restructured my class a little bit to make it more obvious what we’re doing and I remind students more regularly that the basic stuff they need to learn on their own and it’s set up where they do some reading, they take some quizzes on it and then they reflect back on it and they give me a report on what things that they’re still struggling with and then we focus our class time on that. So the lecturing has been cut out except for the times when they’re stuck on something and then I’ll give short lectures to go over the things that they’re really puzzled by, but it’s much more focused and much more of the time is spent working on problem solving in the classroom.

Rebecca: It’s amazing how reminding students can be such a powerful tool for any of these evidence-based practices because if we’ve talked extensively about how it doesn’t always feel good to learn… it’s tricky… you feel challenged and so it doesn’t always feel good to learn—but reminding students why we’re doing things I certainly have also found helps a lot; it helps immensely; students buy in much more quickly when they realize why you’re doing something and when they can see that you’re customizing the content for them, even though you probably can guess often what you might need to spend time on, they feel like it’s customized and I think that means a lot to them too, probably.

John: In fact, most of the material I have I do prepare in advance, but I ask them to submit their list of concerns every day at noon and then I leave for class at 2:00 so I don’t have much time to customize it, but as you said, they feel that it’s very personalized because I refer back to the comments that they’ve been making and saying 60 percent of you said you’re struggling with this, let’s focus on some problems with this, which I’ve always known students struggle with and I’ve always been focusing on that but making it more obvious that I’m responding to their needs, I think, gives them a bit more buy-in, generally.

Rebecca: Definitely. I think some of the other themes that really have bubbled up for me is the revisiting of Open; we had a big series more recently about Open Pedagogy, Open resources; we started a long time ago in episode 8 with Kris Munger on Creating an Open textbook, but then episode 52, 55, 56 and 57 all focused on concepts of “Open.” So, I’m really excited about Open again. I forgot and it was actually Robin DeRosa that reminded me that I had been doing Open for so long and that it’s the culture of the field that I’m in to be open, so open-source software and things is something that I’ve been heavily engaged with since I’ve been a professional in the field but I kind of forgot that that’s what it was all about; I just needed that like little reminder and that little kick to get back into that mindset. So I’m really excited about focusing on that and making that more explicit in what I do and the reasons why I do it.

John: Robin DeRosa’s visit was very inspiring to many of us here when she both talked on campus and joined us in episode 55 and I’m planning to finally release my textbook as an open textbook for this spring, which is more OER than Open Pedagogy, but she also convinced me to try having students work on an open pedagogy project in the capstone course that I’ve been doing and so I’m working on putting together plans for that for the spring. I do hope that that works out, but I’m really excited about it.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m excited about Open not just in the classroom but also as a scholar and having more open scholarship and publishing and open access journals and things like that as well. I also have to say that episode 57 with Fiona Coll was really exciting about Scalar. I haven’t had a chance to really experiment but my mind was blown by the possibility and I was really excited about the power of that particular platform—I’m not sure how it might be integrated into what I do quite yet but it’s something that I’m excited to experiment with. Are there any other themes that bubbled up for you?

John: The scholarship of teaching and learning was a theme that came up in quite a few of them where we were talking about research, but in particular two of the episodes: episode 26 with David Eubanks and episode 54 on the scholarship of teaching and learning with Regan Gurung were both really inspiring as well in terms of ways that perhaps we could do a little bit more research in our classrooms about what works.

Rebecca: I’m also really excited to do more scholarship in this area and build it into and integrate it more closely into my teaching in general so that it becomes just an overlapped area and everything’s more integrated. I’ve been slowly working in my personal research, my creative work, the service that I do on campus and my teaching have all been thematically related but I’m working really hard to integrate them more closely so that I can do more publishing on some of the ways that this influences my teaching and learning. Related to the scholarship of teaching and learning and actually Open is the idea of engaged scholarship where the work that you’re doing is really integrated into the community; you’re really working with the community, so I was really excited by episode 51 with Khuram Hussain and the ideas of having conversations with community… community really having a mutual relationship with the campus, and working on projects together…maybe outside of a semester framework. I’ve been doing a lot of community projects historically and I found some of the same struggles and some of the concerns he raised were things that I had certainly experienced in the work that I had done previously, so I think he offered some new ideas and some old ideas that I was familiar with as well that I needed some reminders of ways to approach some problems and do some creative projects. So I’m excited to start building on that work as well.

John: I thought that was a fascinating discussion and a so much more productive way of doing community based learning.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think he raised the issue of charitable work versus engaged work and I totally buy into that model already, but I like that he provided some really clear ways of being more engaged as a scholar in the communities that we work in.

John: It seems like a much better experience for the students, for the community, and for college community relations.

Rebecca: Definitely.

John: One other episode that really influenced me was episode 30 with Charles Dziuban on adaptive learning; it influenced me so much that I proposed a SUNY wide task group on adaptive learning and we have now people from quite a few campuses are exploring this and looking at a variety of adaptive learning platforms and we’re also going to be preparing a report for all of SUNY, at least in a preliminary form by the end of the spring 2019 semester.

Rebecca: That’s a pretty exciting endeavor and a big one, too. Interesting how some of these episodes have sparked really big changes, big work that we’re doing—not just ourselves but collaborating with our colleagues on some interesting projects.

John: One of the challenges I faced is that virtually every episode has suggested some things that I’d like to try and it’s a challenge to try to keep from trying to do them all at once.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think we struggled at coming up with a list of some of the things that inspired us the most but that’s because everything inspired us and so… [LAUGHTER] It was a challenge to come up with that particular list, but I think that we have some themes that we’re working on as a campus and individually and we’re in a really interesting and enjoyable position to get to talk to all these wonderful colleagues about the work that they’re doing and to learn from our colleagues. So at the end of the year it’s always good to be thankful for things and I’m certainly thankful for that opportunity to talk to all of the great guests that we’ve had and to learn so much in this past year.

John: And we’d like to thank all of our listeners for joining with us, and if you have any suggestions for topics that you’d like to hear discussed on a future episode, please let us know, and we’re happy to try to add them.

Rebecca: Happy New Year, everyone.

John: Happy New Years. [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 Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.

61. A Motivational Syllabus

Do you wish your students knew what was on the syllabus? In this episode, Dr. Christine Harrington joins us to explore how we can design a syllabus that helps us improve our course design, motivates students, and  provides a cognitive map of the course that students will find useful. Christine is a Professor of History and Social Science at Middlesex College, and is the author of Designing a Motivational Syllabus (and several other books related to teaching, learning, and student success). Christine has been the Executive Director of the Student Success Center at the NJ County of Community Colleges.

Show Notes

  • Harrington, C., & Thomas, M. (2018).  Designing a motivational syllabus:  Creating a learning path for student engagement.  Sterling, VA:  Stylus Publishing.
  • Bain, K. (n.d.). The promising syllabus.  The Center for Teaching Excellence at New York University. Retrieved from: http://www.bestteachersinstitute.org/promisingsyllabus.pdf
  • Listeners to this podcast can purchase Designing a Motivational Syllabus at a 20% discount by visiting the Stylus Publishing order page and using the offer code: DAMS20. This offer applies to the paperback, hardcover, and ebook versions and is valid through 6/30/2019.
  • www.scholarlyteaching.org  – Christine’s website.

Transcript

John: Do you wish your students knew what was on the syllabus? In this episode we’ll explore how we can design a syllabus that helps us improve our course design, motivates students, and provides a cognitive map of the course that students will find useful.

[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. Christine Harrington, a Professor of History and Social Science at Middlesex County College, and the author of Designing a Motivational Syllabus—and several other books related to teaching, learning, and student success. Christine has been the Executive Director of the Student Success Center at the New Jersey Council of Community Colleges.

John: Welcome, Christine.

Christine: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

Christine: I am not drinking tea; I’m not a tea drinker, I just do water and I will do iced tea once in a while, but not at the moment.

[LAUGHTER]

John: I’m drinking Tea Forte black currant tea.

Rebecca: And I have Prince of Wales today—mixing it up, you know?

John: We invited you here to talk a bit about your book, Designing a Motivational Syllabus, released just this past May, and the syllabus of many faculty tends to read sort of like a legal document and it often tends to be a bit off-putting and some people just provide a list of topics. You have a much different approach and it seems really productive. Could you tell us a little bit about that approach?

Christine: Sure, I’d love to. Thanks so much, John. I really believe that the syllabus is an underutilized resource. As we’re beginning our semester as faculty we always are required to put together a syllabus that explains to students what the expectations of the course are. But as you mentioned, many faculty treat it as a list of do’s and don’ts, making sure that we’re communicating what the classroom rules and expectations are and maybe the course topics, but it often kind of starts and stops there. So, I really think that it’s an opportunity for us to invite students to our course and Ken Bain is actually someone who’s written a lot about this as well, you know, inviting them to the feast. I think that’s what we want to do: we want to give them the excitement and passion that we feel as faculty and get them really excited about the course too. So one of the areas I saw as a gap or missing in the literature was the motivational angle of the syllabus. In addition to providing some really good resources and providing a course map to students, I think we can motivate our students through communicating our passion, telling them a little bit more about what to expect in the course in a more conversational style… by the words that we use… by the images that we include on the syllabus… and then also providing them really helpful information so that they view this as a course that they’re excited about and they will feel supported in.

John: We actually had Ken Bain here about 12 years ago, I believe it was, and he gave an all-day workshop on building a syllabus and I attended that and it was wonderful; much of your book reminds me of that, but you also go quite a bit further and provide a lot more suggestions in detail, so I like your approach. Could you tell us a little bit more about how the syllabus serves as an entry point to course design or redesign?

Christine: Sure. I think that for many of us the idea of redesigning or designing a course for the first time even is quite daunting and overwhelming to really think about how to engage our students and achieve all of our course learning outcomes. So, I’ve used the syllabus as a vehicle for that, as an entry point that I find that faculty find it a little easier if you’re working with a more concrete practical document to help them understand course design. Now, I have been accused by some of my colleagues of doing the old switch and bait, you know, I did a syllabus workshop that really was a course design workshop and they’re like, “Wait a minute, I think that you tricked me here,” and I said, “No, I didn’t, I thought you were talking about the syllabus, and if you’re going to talk about and think about what kinds of assignments and assessments you’re going to use—this is course design.” So you need to have a larger conversation. So, I said it’s an easier way for faculty to begin the dialogue and really take a good deep look at, well, what is it that I’m asking students to do and how does this fit into the overall course as well as the overall program that the course fits within… so, seeing the larger picture in terms of the course and program learning outcomes and revisiting the assignments and assessments and perhaps moving away from some of the “always have done this” kinds of assignments… you know, traditional exa…, paper… presentation… that almost all of us have in our course in one way or another. It doesn’t mean you have to abandon ship, but it is a great opportunity to step back and say, “Wait a minute, are these the assessment tools that are really going to help support student learning and help ensure that they’re going to achieve the learning outcomes that we set forth in the syllabus?” and then the syllabus really becomes the map for students. So it is the document that communicates the design of your course. As you are crafting your syllabus, you’re really thinking about: “What is it that I’m asking students to do? Why am I asking them to do that? and what kinds of supports am I going to put in to place so that they can accomplish those tasks successfully?” So, I really believe that it is a course design tool and that if you do it well, a well-designed syllabus really will show students exactly how they get from point A to B and the kinds of supports that are available to, you know, really enhance their learning journey along the way.

Rebecca: [If] faculty were to use the syllabus as a way to redesign, where in this syllabus should they start?

Christine: Well, that is not an easy question. You know, I think it depends on—I tell faculty they have two choices when they’re thinking about redesigning their syllabus: you can take the big approach, which is the course design approach, which is going to be looking at your course learning outcomes and then looking at what kinds of assessments or assignments are aligned to those learning outcomes… and then what I usually do for this big approach is ask them to think about what are the key summative assessments that you’re looking for and then work backwards from there using the backwards design process and determine what kind of formative assessments they need to use… and then as you start to craft the way your course is going to be developed, I say take your course outline your schedule of what you’re going to do—week 1, week 2, week 3 and start to plug in those summative assessments and then start to plug in the formative assessments that you’ve identified… and then that will help you determine what needs to happen in week 1, 2 or 3 to help them be successful on those tasks. So, it’s really kind of using that backwards design. I like to say it starts with the learning outcomes, it shifts over to the assessments that you’re going to use and then it starts to move into the course outline, you know, or sequence of topics that would be really important. But I said to you there’s kind of two ways that faculty can begin to, you know, redesign their syllabus. This is the big way and the way that I would really love faculty to do it, but if someone’s saying to me “The semester’s starting next week, that’s just too monumental of a task…” You cannot engage in this process in a day or two. It takes a significant chunk of time for you to really re-evaluate what it is that you’re trying to accomplish. So there’s also a lot of takeaways in this book about how you could do things literally in five minutes or less that would enhance the motivation and engage students in learning. For example, I did a workshop on my campus where we had a syllabus redesign summer camp and at the beginning of the semester we had faculty submit their current syllabi and at the end we had them submit their final syllabi… and the transformation just from a visual perspective alone was really incredible. So, if you didn’t even look deeply at the design piece… for instance, having a nice photo to draw students in (that’s related to your course content)… there was a biology faculty member who put this amazing, great engaging skeleton on the front page… and that really was much more effective than having her first syllabi, which had all rules and regulations…you know: “do this, don’t do that…” and a welcome statement and a picture of yourself… really just some of those kinds of elements really can make a difference. There’s some research studies out there that support adding a few additional words like “please come and talk to me” makes it much more likely that a student will come and talk to you, and it communicates that you want them to come and talk to you. There are some very easy fixes; changing it from formal language such as “the professor will” and “the student will” to “I am going to” and “you will do this…” Just using that more personal language can really help. So those fixes are literally… you could do it in five minutes or less if you want to make a couple of minor changes to increase motivation, but the overall course design is obviously a much bigger process, I’m not going to pretend it’s not.

Rebecca: I think it’s always a good reminder that you can always do small things before you can jump into a big thing and that the big thing is, you know, valuable. We were laughing at the beginning of what you were talking about a minute ago because I did the same exact thing here where I did a syllabus workshop that was a complete course redesigned workshop.

John: …and I suggested we rename it in the future as a course redesign or course design or redesign, but maybe leaving it as a syllabus workshop might work.

Christine: Yeah, I think you’ll get more people to participate. It’s less scary. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s sneaky.

John: It is. It’s a sneaky way of getting in.

Christine: …and it also really allows faculty to walk away with something very practical… tangible… that they actually have done as evidence of participating in that workshop, and that’s great for administrators to see as well.

Rebecca: That’s a good point. So you talked a little bit about the syllabus as a tool for faculty to help think about organizing their class and redesigning it, making sure that students are going to learn what we’re hoping that they’re gonna learn. Can you talk a little bit about how the syllabus is a tool for students?

Christine: Sure. I think it’s really critical for students to not just take this document and put it aside but to recognize the value that it has… and I will tell you that students who see a more in-depth, comprehensive syllabi have a much more positive perception of the faculty member and also of the student experience of being in that class. From the student perspective, it’s motivational for them to know that they have a faculty member that cares enough to put together this really comprehensive package. Having a long syllabus that does not have any visual tools in it and is overwhelming… whether it’s legalese… that is something that students are not going to use much. But when you create a syllabus that’s motivational and engaging and visually effective, students will use that document and they really will appreciate it. Now, they do need reminders about how to use that. I think that it is a document that all of us quite frankly emphasize in the first day or first week of the semester and then often don’t revisit except for to say “in the syllabus…” which may or may not help a student if they’re having trouble navigating it. So, I’m a very big fan of making sure that we make it a document that is student friendly. If it is a longer document, including a table of contents, so that they know they don’t need to read all of this. Maybe the last half of the syllabus is the rubric section with specifics on the assignment… that they just need to know it’s there when the time comes for them to look at it. So I will often encourage students to view the syllabus very much like their textbook. You don’t need to read the entire textbook during the first week of class, but you certainly need to know what’s in the textbook so you’re not just focused on chapter one. You need to acclimate yourself to all of the information that’s in the text and what kinds of topics and resources are included. Well, the same goes for the syllabus… so really helping them use it as a resource and not feeling like they need to read it and memorize it, but instead use it as a tool to help them be successful.

John: One of the things you suggest is doing a screencast with the syllabus perhaps to make sure that students do look at it and to make it a bit more welcoming. Could you talk to us a little bit about that?

Christine: The screencast, I think, is a very valuable strategy, especially in the online class, but it can also be helpful in an in-person class. We all know that sometimes students are adding and dropping in the beginning of the semester and might miss an important conversation, and this really allows you to communicate about the syllabus to students. In addition, I will tell you that I have had students… I tend to have a fairly lengthy syllabi, as you can imagine, based on my textbook, I like to include a lot of resources… and I have had students say to me, when I got the syllabus via email from you, I really was overwhelmed and I was ready to run away from this class; I thought it was going to be a lot of work because it was a long syllabus, and once you explained it and we started to see the resources in it, I discovered that’s not the case at all. So I think that having that personal touch and the the nonverbals that you can really communicate through a screencast with a web video as well as the audio really does help students understand the value of the syllabus and we have so many great online tools now, like screencast-o-matic, that are free… things like that… that you can really easily do that in a short period of time to do an introduction, and students can refer back to that as they need to throughout the semester.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the kinds of things you would recommend faculty highlight or introduce about the syllabus on the first day? You mentioned identifying some of the resources and things in it. But, as you know, there’s a lot of faculty that call the first couple class days syllabus days and some of them actually read the syllabus to the students. What would you recommend?

Christine: Well, I certainly would not recommend reading the syllabus to the students. [LAUGHTER] That is not engaging. I think that the part of the syllabus that doesn’t get as much attention as it should is the “Why are we together?” The syllabus communicates: the purpose of the class, the goals of the class, and “What are the takeaways that they’re going to get as a result of being in this class?” Students, what they’re going to immediately want to know is about the grade, right? They go directly to the page that has information on the grade and the assignments that they need to do. But if they go there first, they’re missing the big picture. So, I think that we as faculty have a wonderful opportunity, whether it’s through a screencast or live in a regular classroom setting, to emphasize the learning outcomes of the course in a user-friendly way… not necessarily reading the learning outcomes, but to passionately explain why this course matters so much and the value of the course and the skills, and not just the knowledge that they’re going to get, but really the experience and the confidence that they’re going to get as a result of being in this course. So I really find that to be the most important piece to emphasize, and then helping them see the direct correlation and connection between what it is that they’re going to achieve and those learning experiences. So whether they’re assignments or assessments… the why behind all of those… so they don’t just view it as a big long checklist of “this is what I have to do because it’s a college course,” but they understand that that’s the roadmap that’s going to help them accomplish all those tasks. So, for instance, if I can give you one example, quizzing is something that not every faculty member does, sometimes it’s more of a more high-stakes midterm/final kind of situation… but faculty who really want to provide that opportunity for students to have formative assessments along the way would also include quizzing… and when you do that what happens is is that you’re helping students learn those skills along the way and help them self-regulate whether or not they’re on task to achieve the learning outcomes. But students may view them as busy work or that you don’t believe they’re going to read without being held accountable. By explaining the why in the rationale and bringing some of the research in on the testing effect and explaining to them that the reason for me doing this is because the research shows that if you test yourself you are much more likely to learn that content and it will stick with you throughout much longer periods of time. So providing the why, I think, is probably the most important part that I would bring their attention to and I think that we don’t do that enough as faculty.

John: Just as a plug for a future podcast, Michelle Miller will be a guest in a few weeks where she’ll be talking about the testing effect and retrieval practice.

Christine: Terrific.

John: But that is an issue. Students see testing as something negative; it’s not something they find quite as enjoyable… so providing that rationale is really useful and students don’t always buy it but the more you can convince them and the more evidence you can provide, I think the more likely it is that they’ll see the benefits.

Rebecca: Yeah, John and I have talked about this before that when I started doing that in my design classes, which is a place where testing is not as common, I had students actually asking for more, which I found to be very bizarre initially. You don’t generally have students asking for more tests or quizzes, but when they started realizing how it was helping keep them on track they actually found them really valuable.

John: In helping them assess their learning and to help improve their own metacognition of what they know and what they don’t know, it can be really useful.

Rebecca: One of the things that you have in your syllabus is a teaching statement. Can you talk a little bit about why you include that and why you recommend including that? Because that’s not something you commonly see in a syllabus.

Christine: Absolutely, in fact, there are a couple elements that I think are essential if you want to use the syllabus as a motivational tool, and I see the teaching statement as being one of the key elements; it’s an opportunity for you to start to build a relationship with your students, and it gives you a chance to share some background about who you are and why you’re passionate about the subject and what they can expect to happen during class. As we all know, the professor-student rapport is probably one of the most important predictors of success. Students who have professors who they believe care about them and are interested and engaged are much more likely to be successful than students who have faculty who are much not engaged and maybe not as connected to them. So, I believe that we could use the syllabus to begin developing that relationship, because we often send this out prior to even meeting a student for the very first time, and it also might be something that is shared on some kind of management system within the university or college setting for students to decide which classes to take. So it can invite them to why they should be taking your class –it’s really a wonderful way for you to share a little bit about yourself and your professional background expertise and passion.

John: You also suggest in your book that the syllabus can serve as a communication tool and it also makes it easier to be transparent in terms of how you grade and letting students know this, and that can increase equity, or at least a perception of equity. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Christine: Sure, I think it’s really critical that we are being as explicit and as transparent as we can be. There are going to be some students who can more easily connect those dots than others and when we make the dots connected for them we’re equaling the playing field to ensure that all of our students know what it is that they need to do in order to get to the finish line and how the different tasks relate to one another. So the more you can communicate and ensure that some of the students who may not naturally see those connections can see those connections, I think that really does improve learning and the academic experience for all students.

Rebecca: You mentioned earlier about referencing the syllabus and having students use the syllabus as a tool throughout the semester; you also mentioned early on that faculty have a tendency to say “it’s on the syllabus” without really providing much more guidance than that. Can you talk a little bit about ways that you recommend using the syllabus at farther points in the semester to help support students and continue to motivate students beyond just the beginning of the class?

Christine: Sure. I think that is critical. You know, many of us do activities on the very first day of class. I’m hoping that many of us are not reading the syllabus anymore and we’re starting to get more engaging strategies at the start of the semester. I know folks do a syllabus quiz and things of that nature. I actually think that having a group quiz format,, something that’s more interactive, is great. I do jigsaw classroom exercises at the beginning of the semester on the syllabus. They’re diving into that resource and understanding it and reporting back and teaching their classmates about the different section that they were assigned to. I think setting the stage at the beginning of the semester is really important, but we can’t stop there; we need to then follow through and revisit the syllabus throughout the semester. So what I typically do is I will often ask students to, at the beginning of class, (I always ask them to have their syllabus with them)… and I might give them a few minutes and I do this activity called dusting off the cobwebs… where they have to recall what we talked about last class and maybe from the readings and then we can look forward. So after we clean up our house in terms of where we were then what’s coming next, so what are we talking about today? How does this link up with the concept that we talked about last class, and then what what’s coming up in terms of what’s due? So instead of me putting on the board or on a PowerPoint slide, “Next week, don’t forget you have to submit the first part of your project” or whatever it might be. I’m having students give those daily reminders. So you can literally spend five minutes or less in a class, and maybe once a week; it doesn’t have to be necessarily every class… but maybe Monday’s will be your dusting day and looking forward opportunity. So I think that’s really helpful. The other time where I spend a little bit more time on it is when there is a big project that’s coming up. So at this point of the semester I will often have students work in either a partner group or a small group and in that situation I’m asking them to look at pages 12 to 14 that outline the details related to assignment 1 and the rubric of how you’ll get assessed on assignment 1. I want you to review that. I want you to put that in your own words… tell your classmate about what it is… and then you have an opportunity to ask me any questions about it. So, I’m basically training them to engage in that process. Again, this doesn’t need to eat up a tremendous amount of class time; it can be a few minutes. But by doing that you end up often getting better products to grade which makes your life much happier when it’s time for all the papers to be handed in because even though you put it in the syllabus, it doesn’t mean that they’ve looked in the syllabus… or they knew where to look… or maybe something didn’t make sense to them and they were not comfortable asking without the opportunity given to them in that very explicit way. So, I find that that really as a very helpful process. I also like to do an activity kind of mid-semester looking at the learning outcomes… so, going back to saying “Okay, so here’s what we said we were going to be able to learn and be able to do at the end of the semester. We’re about halfway done. I want you to look at the learning outcomes and do a self assessment. Where are you at on a scale of one to five? What do you need to do in order to get to the level five at the end of the semester? …and some of that’s going to happen obviously in classes or through the assignments. But, what else can you do to ensure that you’ll achieve all of those learning outcomes?” So, I like to use it in a self-regulatory way as well.

John: One of the things related to that is you suggest the use of an assignment grade tracking form. I’ve always kept my gradebook in Blackboard so students can see where they are but students don’t always seem to pay much attention to that. Having them create their own assignment grade tracking might be useful. Could you talk a little bit about what the form is and why you recommend that?

Christine: Sure. I do think that with our current technologies {Blackboard, Canvas, thinks of that nature), the LMS systems really do have a pretty robust gradebook feature where students can easily track their progress. Because in order for them to self-regulate they need to know whether or not they need some external data to see if they’re on track or not. To me, as long as they’re engaged in that checking and self-regulatory behavior, I don’t think it matters whether it’s definitely in the syllabus or in Canvas or Blackboard. But unfortunately, not every faculty member is using the gradebook to its full capacity, so sometimes students are left wondering about their grade and I want them to feel in charge of knowing how to do it. I also think that they have a hard time sometimes seeing the weighting of assignments so that they might view a smaller assignment as being equal to that of a larger one and not recognizing the significance that can have on your grade. In the absence of some of the technology tools… and there are great apps for this too so if your student has a faculty member that is not using an LMS gradebook, they can go ahead and download an app… and I think that’s a great way to track it as well. But just including something like that on the syllabus helps them see the breakdown on the weighting of the different grades so they can see how that final grade is determined.. Because I think you’re right. In the LMS’s I see that students are often looking only at the current calculated grade rather than looking at all of the pieces of how that grade came to be. So anything we can do to help them better understand the grading process and how those elements go into the final grade, I think, is useful.

Rebecca: In your book and also in the example syllabi that you’ve provided (both on your website and also in your book) you talk a little bit about your assignment sheets with rubrics and things completely spelled out… so not something that’s more generalized but something incredibly specific. Can you talk a little bit about the choice to do that and the advantages of doing something like that?

Christine: Sure. So I think that we all provide students with details about our assignments; it’s about where does that happen. For some of us, we think that that should happen outside of the syllabus in the LMS in a different place… under assignments or some other tab rather than being in the syllabus itself. I think it’s really helpful for students to have a complete package in the syllabus. Now, just because I think that doesn’t mean that it’s true, right? Actually I did a really neat study with a colleague of mine Crystal Quillen at Middlesex County College where we examined the student perception of syllabi length and we shared different syllabi. There was a 6-page a 9-page and a 15-page syllabus and they were randomly assigned to different groups. What we discovered was that students who were reviewing a medium or long (which was 9 or 15 page) syllabus actually found that syllabus to be more positive. So they had a more positive perception of the faculty member in terms of being motivated and things of that nature. In addition, we asked the specific question of the students “Would you rather have all of the details about your assignment in one place in the syllabus or is that not what you want? Would you rather just know ‘I have to write a paper’ and then have those details about the paper be provided at the point that you need them and in a different place within your learning management system?” …and 66% of the students said we want it all in one place. I think one of the challenges that our students have is that every faculty member sets up their LMS page a little differently… and I know colleges really work hard to try to have some consistency across the different course shells that exist… but students really do struggle with trying to find that information. If we can guarantee to students that all of the essential information you need about your assignments and your learning path are in the syllabus, then I think that makes a lot of sense. I really think it’s important for faculty and students to understand that it’s almost like an addendum to the syllabus, but it is in that document. So that they don’t need to get overwhelmed by it on day one but they know that it’s a resource… very much, like I had said before, like the textbook is.

Rebecca: I think that’s an interesting point right, a lot of our students are in five classes and if there’s five different ways of doing things and it’s organized five different ways with five different evaluation systems it can get a little overwhelming after a while. It’s a lot to keep track of. We often complain that students don’t keep track of things, but we certainly don’t help it.

John: We’d like to reduce the cognitive load.

Christine: Yeah, that’s for sure. Unfortunately, it’s the case and sometimes we need to get ourselves back in from the student lens to see what does life look like from their perspective. …and if I could just say one other thing about the “It’s in the syllabus” comment… I mean, believe me, I pour my heart and soul into creating my syllabus. My husband often laughs at me because he’s like “Haven’t you taught this course before? You look like you haven’t taught this before…” because I’m spending hours and hours and hours and I just had it last semester but I know it could be so much better. I’m trying to find ways to communicate it better. So, I know that the information is in the syllabus because I put it there. I spent many hours doing that. But if I give if a student is active enough and engaged enough to ask me a question about an assignment or the course and I just say “It’s in the syllabus” my syllabus is a long document. I do need to navigate them to which part of the syllabus it’s in, because my syllabus is probably a little different than other syllabi that they have looked at. So, I feel like it’s so easy and frustrating for us when the students may not have looked carefully before asking us. So that’s a skill we need to help them learn. But maybe they did look and they didn’t find it as quickly as they would like to. Let’s be honest. You and I also are not going to spend an enormous amount of time looking at a website if we can’t find what we’re looking for right away. We’re going to ask someone. So, we want to make it as easy to navigate as possible, and having consistency I think across different courses does help… not that you need to have a rigid standardized syllabus that looks exactly the same in every course. I think you need to have a little bit of room for the flavor and the personality of the course to show.

Rebecca: Those are things that we just forget about. We forget that it can be really overwhelming to look at documents. Yet we all complain about the same thing when someone else makes a document that we have to look at and we can’t find something. So, it’s good to double-check ourselves. So, I appreciate the reminder.

Christine: Absolutely.

Rebecca: One of the things that needs to be in a syllabus to some extent is the policies… there’s college policies that might have a particularly language that you have to include, but then also maybe what some of your own policies are as an instructor. How do you suggest including those in a motivational, inspiring, and supportive way? Because sometimes they don’t feel very inspiring or supportive.

Christine: That’s a great question. In fact, I have noticed that probably one of the biggest demotivators of a syllabus is the policy section… and many times faculty add more and more policies based on negative experiences that they’ve had. So something happens in a classroom setting and they’re like “I need a policy on that, so I’m going to add another policy about that…” and it starts to become this really big long laundry list. And clearly we have to have policies… I’m not saying we shouldn’t but I think the way in which we communicate our policies really do matter. When we have a list of “don’t do this: don’t cheat, don’t plagiarize…” all these kinds of rules and regulations… we’re kind of communicating to students that we think you’re going to do this, so I’m going to set you straight right now… rather than using more positive language. Instead we could communicate the same policy… I like to use the academic integrity one. So instead of saying “don’t plagiarize” instead… if you have a policy about academic integrity and the importance of why that matters so much and how everyone is expected to uphold academic integrity and engage in honest actions… That I think sets a very different beginning to that policy. The other piece is that we sometimes create policies that promote, I think, more achievement gaps… and actually gets back to that question you asked me earlier about equity, because many of our policies do not promote equity. I’ll take a late work policy, for instance… and I recognize the fact that we all need to be timely with our tasks. I mean in the world of work people are going to expect you to complete tasks on time and I recognize that that’s a very important skill. However, I also know that we are all human beings with a life on the side, you know, so that life happens sometimes that may prevent us from being on time with a task. I know I personally have not always been on time. I’m a very timely person, but there have been times when I have missed a deadline and haven’t been exactly where I needed to be at the time I should have been there. It’s not a pattern, but it does happen. So I think we need to have policies that are building in some of the flexibility that communicates to students that we respect them… we recognize that they have a life outside of school or at least outside of our class… sometimes our policies don’t even seem to recognize that they have other classes… like our class is the only one. So, students complain about that quite a bit… thinking that you’re looking at this only from your angle and not recognizing that this is one of many classes that I’m taking. When you think about policies such as that, it’s important to communicate it in a way that isn’t taxing on your time so that you’re taking late work every minute of every day… but is respectful. So, a very simple way to do that is “Here’s the policy. I expect you to be on time with tasks, especially if you’re doing a group task and your classmates are dependent on you.” I tend to be a little bit more rigid with my policies when it’s a group related task versus an individual task. But I also know that life happens and if you are in a situation where you’re not able to meet a deadline, please come and talk to me.” Because, if you put in a policy that says no late work is accepted… everything must be handed in on time. Well, certainly you won’t have to deal with any late work… that helps you with your time management, but it really is inequitable because the student who comes from a culture where it’s fine to challenge authority might come to you and say “My grandmother passed away last week. I have this really horrific thing happened in my life…” and, many of us… I know I myself… I had at some point a no makeup policy. It wasn’t a real policy… if you came to me and it was a good reason then I gave you an extension. But I only did that if you came to me. I did have no makeup policy on the syllabus. So, the problem with that is that there are certain groups of individuals that are not going to challenge authority and take your word at face value. So now you’ve put them at a distinct disadvantage in the class. So I think it’s important for our policy to do a couple of things: one is first of all they should be accurate… so I did not really have a no makeup policy… I had a “makeup if you have a good reason.” So, it wasn’t accurate. So now my policy is much more reflective of my current practices. I expect you to be on time but if something happens, communicate with me and we will see what we can do. It’s not promising them the world but it’s certainly promising them at least the conversation… and second in addition to having it be clearly communicated, it really needs to be equitable so that everyone gets an opportunity and it’s not a case-by-case situation where if they’re more willing to challenge authority they’re going to be more likely to get a positive outcome.

Rebecca: One of the things that you mentioned earlier is shifting the language in the syllabus to something that’s more personal from something that feels more like legalese or something. In those circumstances where an institution might impose a particular policy that’s written in a particular way that doesn’t match the voice of the rest of the document, how do you suggest dealing with that in a syllabus, when it might be required of you?

Christine: I think this is one of the big challenges that faculty face, is when there’s required elements that are not very motivational in nature. So first of all I would say try to start a conversation on your campus about revising that language, not necessarily the policy… that’s what the policy is going to be… but can we introduce it in a different way? So, I would say if you can do that that would be ideal because then that would be benefiting all of the students in all of the classes across your entire campus if they’re required. So I think that’s probably the point of intervention that I would encourage you to take and you could go back and refer to some of the ideas in the text or talking with colleagues about other ways to better word some of that policy language. If you’re not able to switch the language, or you want a quicker fix while that conversation is happening, I think it’s appropriate (and again you need to find out on your campus if it is) to maybe have an introductory statement: “The next section of the syllabus is going to be the institutional policies that every faculty member needs to include.” So, not saying they’re badly worded, but you’re saying that they’re different… like you can definitely see that I need to include these and I certainly wouldn’t have them (unless you’re required to) on the first page or two. Let the more positive motivational pieces be front and center and then have the policies be later on in the syllabus. So almost like you have a cover page or some kind of introduction before getting into the more typical policy language, I guess, if you need to include it I think can be helpful.

Rebecca: I’ve done things where, for example around intellectual integrity, there’s a campus statement (and I label it as such) and then my policy which kind of interprets that and puts it into context and is in my language… so the same idea that you have about introductory or it’s you’re kind of separating the two and making it clear like whose is whose.

Christine: mm-hmm

Rebecca: …and I think that sometimes has helped students too… but I’ve always found that to be jarring.

Christine: Yes. I would agree I think that definitely is, and I like your approach really of summarizing it because sometimes those policies that we get handed down are very lengthy and students probably aren’t going to read them. So, even if you gave the one- or two-sentence summary of what that meant…translation is… you know this is what you need to do… Be honest. you know, engage in honest action. It really matters. We all want a good reputation and we all want to learn. So in order to do that, these are the kinds of strategies that you need to engage in… and going to the integrity topic again, I think so many times students are unintentionally plagiarizing… not always necessarily doing it on purpose. So maybe helping them understand how they can better learn how to cite sources appropriately or how to paraphrase more effectively… So, pointing them to resources that are going to help them with all the tasks.

John: In your book, in addition to providing a lot of great resources about the syllabus and a lot of great recommendations and the evidence behind them you also provide quite a few some very nice sample syllabi at the end of the book and it’s a great resource and your publisher has very gracefully provided us with a discount code to any of our listeners which is DAMS20 and you can do that by going to the Stylus Publishing website. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes.

Christine: John, if you don’t mind I’d like to also share my website which is just www.scholarlyteaching.org. If you go to that website you will see several other teaching and learning resources,including several sample syllabi… and the syllabi that we used in the research study that I mentioned earlier on the length of the syllabus are provided there as well.

Rebecca: There’s also really good videos… a syllabi checklist… There’s some really great resources on the website. So definitely I recommend checking that out…

John: …and also information about your other books.

Christine: Yes, thanks for that John… appreciate it.

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

Christine: Well it’s interesting that you asked that. I am looking at options right now but I am very much interested in staying connected to the teaching and learning space and how we can improve what we do in the classroom. I’m spending some time thinking about moving it up to a higher level and engaging administration in some of the conversations that we’re having about teaching and learning and putting the teaching and learning centers kind of front and center really in conversations about student learning and engagement on campuses. So, for instance I work in the community college system as you know. There’s a national movement called Guided Pathways and this national movement is all about improving the success outcomes of students and it happens to a variety of ways. They talk about making sure our programs are clear, so that they’re defined and students know how to get from point A to point B. They talk about helping students choose a pathway and stay on a pathway, and they also talk about ensuring learning… but, having been a part of this national conversation, the “insuring learning” really is very much an afterthought, I think, unfortunately. I feel like we’re dancing around the classroom. So I’d like to take some of this work that I’ve been doing and work that’s been very directly helpful to the faculty and try to shift it to being helpful to the community college leadership as well as leadership at the four-year universities as well… to emphasize the importance of good and effective teaching practices. So we’ll see where that takes me. I’m not really sure how that’s going to transpire, but I did just present on that topic at the POD conference. I’m putting teaching and learning centers right in front and center in the Guided Pathways movement, getting them at the table of these conversations. So, I’m very interested in further pursuing that at this point.

Rebecca: That sounds like that could be really valuable to a lot of the faculty because translating that information to the administration is always really useful in finding support and all working together to have these really stronger outcomes for students.

Christine: Absolutely.

John: Well, thank you. This has been a fascinating conversation and this is a book I’m going to recommend to all of our faculty.

Rebecca: Yeah, so glad you were able to join us.

Christine: Well, thank you. I really appreciate the invitation and I hope that everyone listening is able to design motivational syllabi and if that happens our students are the ones who will benefit at the end of the day. So thank all of you for listening and for supporting students in their learning journey.

[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 Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.

60. Inclusive Teaching

Are your class conversations dominated by a small number of voices? In this episode, Dr. Danica Savonick joins us to discuss a variety of class activities that support an inclusive learning environment and promote equity in participation while increasing student learning. Danica is an Assistant Professor of Multi-Ethnic Literature at SUNY Cortland, and a recipient of the K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders award, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in Women’s Studies, and a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship.

Show Notes

Studies of bias in the classroom:

Transcript

John: Are your class conversations dominated by a small number of voices? In this episode, we explore a variety of class activities that support an inclusive learning environment and promote equity in participation while increasing 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.

Rebecca: Today our guest is Danica Savonick, an Assistant Professor of Multi-Ethnic Literature at SUNY Cortland. Danica is the recipient of the K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders award, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in Women’s Studies and a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship. Welcome, Danica.

John: Welcome.

Danica: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

John: Our tea’s today are…

Danica: I’m drinking a coconut lime seltzer.

Rebecca: That sounds pretty good.

Danica: It is.

Rebecca: It’s a good alternative to tea, I suppose.

Danica: I think I’m pretending that I’m on a tropical island or something.

Rebecca: Yeah, the weather around here would make me want to do that, so perhaps it’s the same there.

Danica: How far away are we from from each other? I’m here in Cortland, you’re…

John: About an hour and 45 minutes, I think, by car.

Danica: Okay.

Rebecca: Very rainy today.

Danica: Yeah, and I hear we have some snow coming up in the next 24 hours or so, so should be interesting.

Rebecca: I have the Prince of Wales tea.

John: …and I have a holiday tea from Twinings that I picked up in the tropics in Orlando at the Online Learning Consortium a few weeks back.

Danica: Sounds yummy.

John: It is good.

You’ve written quite a bit on creating a supportive environment for discussing issues of race, class, gender and sexuality. Let’s first talk a little bit about the context in which you address these issues. What courses do you normally teach?

Danica: I generally teach American literature courses. Sometimes those are general education courses, sometimes they are within the English major. I’ve also taught a number of writing classes that are a little bit more interdisciplinary in nature, and regardless of whichever course I’m teaching I like to give them a theme or put my own little twist on them. For instance, if I’m teaching a writing course, this semester the topic is the purpose of education and so we’re drawing from a wide different disciplines… people who’ve been writing about different learning methods and then when I teach English courses, some of the topics I like to do are the arts of dissent and we’ll look at the theme of dissent in American literature. This semester I’m currently teaching Intro to Multicultural Literature, which has been super fun and then next semester I’ll be teaching a graduate course on feminist world-making, which I’m really excited about.

Rebecca: Well that sounds really exciting.

John: What are some of the challenges you face in discussing some of these issues in your classroom and trying to have productive conversations?

Danica: Well, some of the problems that I’ve noticed are consistent regardless of what classroom or what school I’ve been teaching in, but some of them vary according to the student population. But one of the most common problems that I see is just a lack of student participation, or if there is participation it’ll be the same two or three students who dominate the conversation… and actually just this weekend when I was home for the holidays I was talking to my family about this—my aunt is auditing a course at SUNY Purchase—and she was saying that the same one or two students speak every single class period and she’s curious about what the other students have to say and what they’re thinking… and even my grandmother who was at Brooklyn College in the 1950s… she said she remembers feeling too scared to talk in most of her classes… and so it was only one or two of the… I guess… the brightest and most vocal students who would talk in the classes. And then, of course, as I started teaching I started to notice this as well and I think it’s every new instructor’s nightmare probably that “What if nobody talks? What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do with all that silence?” And so, I guess the main problems I’ve been trying to address are not having the same one or two students dominate the conversation but having really every voice be heard in the classroom… and the more I’ve thought about it and the more I’ve come to study classroom dynamics the more I’ve realized it’s not entirely the fault of the students in those situations, and actually quite often it is the shared responsibility of both the professor and the students to create a kind of environment where everyone feels like their voice matters and that they have something that they can say… that they won’t get shot down by the professor… that they’re not intimidated by their peers and whatnot. So a lot of my work has been trying to increase participation in classrooms and also because my focus is often on race and class and gender and sexuality in literature, we have to figure out how to have productive conversations around those really difficult issues. And for a lot of students, it’s their first time talking about these issues and so we’ve had to establish ways that we feel comfortable talking about those important questions and issues.

Rebecca: I was actually just gonna follow up to what you were saying… really curious about the emphasis on the first time students have talked about some of these things, and I think that that’s really important. We’ve been having a reading group on our campus with a book called Race Talk and that’s something that we’ve mentioned pretty frequently: that a lot of these students have never been in a context to have a conversation about race… a lot of the faculty have never been in a situation to have a good conversation about race… So, when it’s someone’s first time, how do you help that be productive and feel safe? Because you have to be vulnerable to be in those situations.

Danica: Definitely. One of the most effective things that I think I’ve done is tell students that we’re inevitably going to mess up in these conversations because our educations have not provided us with the language and the grammar and the vocabulary for talking about conditions of structural inequality… and so I make that the baseline or the premise. We know we’re gonna say the wrong thing and we are likely going to accidentally offend someone and so as a class what we do is establish protocols or ways that we want to collectively address how to handle those situations and we come up with a set of community guidelines and principles and ideas that we agree upon for how to behave when we realize that, “Oh no, I could have said that better. I wish I hadn’t said that…” or if one student feels offended by something and so I think that has really helped, especially for students who are having these conversations for the first time; they know that it’s okay to say the wrong thing and we have an established procedure in place for how to deal with those moments.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how you set those guidelines up and how students participate in that process?

Danica: Yeah, definitely. This is one of my favorite things to do every semester is have students co-author a set of community guidelines in order to foster inclusive discussions of difference. Because I want every student to understand that their voice matters and I know one of the reactions that you can get is students can start feeling alienated if they say the wrong thing. They can disengage. They can start thinking that I don’t have a place in this conversation. …and so one of the ways that we create that environment is we’ll co-author this set of community guidelines. Rather than having students write them from scratch… I think that can be really difficult… so, instead what I’ll do—it takes about I would say half of a class period to maybe half an hour, could be 40 minutes, it depends on the size of the class—I’ll print out some really basic guidelines, four or five things that I think might work well in the class as principles that we might want to agree to abide by. So things like we won’t make assumptions about anyone in the class’s race, gender, ethnicity, things like that, and we read over them as a class. I usually project them at the front of the class and they also have them in front of them on a piece of paper and we’ll read through them as a class. They can ask questions… they can ask me to define a word they don’t understand, and then I give them about ten minutes to read through them quietly on their own with pen and paper and cross off and edit and add and remove anything that they don’t like about the guidelines… to add additional guidelines… to change the wording of certain guidelines… and then rather than calling on students individually and having to put them on the spot, I have them work in pairs of two to go over some of the amendments and edits and adjustments that they would like to make and then after five minutes or so we go around the class and each pair presents one or two amendments that they would like to make and so it really ranges from adding different adjectives and verbs to adding whole new amendments or saying that they didn’t like one of the ones that I put up, which is totally fine with me. The idea behind not having to ask them to do it from scratch is just that they have something to work with—it’s not that I’m wedded to those particular principles, I just wanted to give them some kind of language and some kind of grammar for how they might formulate the different community guidelines.

Rebecca: It seems like the pair scenario would help to mitigate any issues that might arise from a dominant group dominating the rules.

Danica: Yeah.

Rebecca: That was gonna be my question but then I realized as you were talking that that might actually be how you solve some of that issue.

Danica: Yeah, and it’s pretty egalitarian. We go around the room and each group says something, even if it’s by the time we get to the end sometimes the groups are like, “Well, everyone already said what we were gonna say, so we just wanted to agree that we really liked the amendment that this other group made.” And so that way each pair gets two or three minutes to add something, to say something, and then we move on, and so it’s not like one pair gets to really dominate. The other thing I forgot to mention is students go home, they have at least one or two evenings to think about the guidelines that we came up with. They have access to them. They can open them up at home and it’s not until the beginning of the following class that we ratify them, and often when we come back together at the beginning of the next class they’ll have thought of one or two things that they want to adjust and once we make the final edits and adjustments then we as a class decide that we agree to abide by them.

John: Another nice thing about doing it in pairs is when people are speaking it’s a little safer because they’re representing their group; they don’t have to take a stand and it makes it a little more comfortable perhaps for those who might have been reticent.

Danica: Exactly.

Rebecca: I like that you have the ability to review over a couple of days as well because that also gives students who don’t want to speak up the opportunity to email you or communicate with you separately too, right?

Danica: Yeah, definitely.

John: How well have the guidelines worked? Have students responded well? Do you get more buy-in to the guidelines since they created them?

Danica: Yes, absolutely. I was really surprised the first time I did this. I was like, “This is one of those wacky pedagogical experiments; I might fall flat on my face, they might think that I’m an alien from another planet.” But, they were so enthusiastic and I’ve actually had students from former classes say “That was one of the most meaningful things that we did that semester. I think about that a lot. I wish more teachers did that…” and so I’ve gotten really positive feedback on it and it’s also fun. It’s always one of the best conversations that we have throughout the semester. And you know it turns out that they have a lot to say about the issue. Actually, I often do this assignment when we’re teaching a work of literature called Citizen by author Claudia Rankine, which talks a lot about microaggressions… and students have witnessed and they’ve experienced these microaggressions in the classroom and so they’re eager to have a chance to participate in crafting a classroom that isn’t going to have these kinds of uncomfortable and awkward moments. I also should say that when we do this I share with students beforehand several of the studies that have been done recently on classroom participation and who feels most empowered to speak in the classroom. So, there’s been a lot of studies done on gender and the experiences of students of color and what a lot of these studies have found is that those voices that are most empowered to speak in mainstream media and culture are also the students who feel empowered to take up time in the classroom. And so I share this with students before we begin the community guidelines activity and they’re always really interested. I have the sense that some of them have witnessed or experienced or might have some sense that these things go on, but to actually see the research and to see the findings and to see these massive studies that have been done, they’re just interested in it, and especially because my classes are about race and class and gender and structural inequality, I think it’s fascinating for them to see the way that what we often think of as huge systemic issues can come to influence who speaks and who participates in the classroom as well.

Rebecca: Maybe we could share those citations in our show notes?

Danica: Certainly.

Danica: You’ve used something called Commons in a Box. Could you tell us a little bit about what that is for people who are not familiar with that?

Danica: Sure, it’s a free open-source learning and writing platform. It came out of the CUNY Graduate Center. It’s a combination of WordPress and BuddyPress, and so it’s this easy to install package that allows you to create digital learning spaces, and so different universities have taken it up to do different things. Often I’ll see institutions using it as a space for their professors to host course websites. They might want to have some kind of blog that features student writing. They could use it for digital humanities projects… and it’s free and it’s open source and so all you really need is server space. As often as possible, I’ve tried to host my courses on either Commons in a Box, or currently I’m using an installation of wordpress.org as an alternative to using Blackboard or Canvas and I could talk a little bit about why if you’re interested.

John: Yeah, could you tell us a little bit about what the advantages of this is compared to say one of the common course management systems?

Danica: Sure. I see the primary benefit of these platforms as they help students to develop transferable skills that are going to aid them in the world beyond the classroom, and so I’ll talk a little bit about what I mean by that. WordPress is one of the most common platforms on which the websites in the world are built .The latest statistic that I saw was something like 30% of the world’s websites are built on the WordPress content management system, and so I like to organize my courses on WordPress so that I can familiarize students with how websites are put together… how you can build them… how they think… how they organize information… and so what I try to do throughout the semester is scaffold students’ interaction with the platform. At the beginning it’s pretty user friendly: they create an account, they are able to log in to our site and then gradually they start going into the backend (which WordPress calls the dashboard) and they start creating their own content. So, they get to experience the process of going back and forth between the backend and then the front-end and seeing what that process is like and how information is organized on the WordPress platform. So, they start creating blogs and then what I like to do towards the end of the semester is deconstruct our class website and take it apart and break it and redesign it with students so that they can see, first of all, how easy it is to build a website. A lot of my students are new to this. They’re not necessarily computer science majors. They haven’t taken computer science courses, and so they’ve interacted with a lot of websites but they haven’t really gone in and thought about how they might build their own and so I show them how our course website is built and we redesign it we do all kinds of things and then often for students’ final projects they will have the option of designing a website related to something that we have done in the course and they often choose that option. They like it… they like getting to experiment with WordPress. For most of them it’s their first taste of the platform and several of them have said that they’ve gone on to learn more about WordPress because they’ve become really interested in it and I see this as a really great opportunity for students first to think a little bit more critically about how the internet works and how these pages that we’re constantly interacting with… how they’re constructed… and also to develop a transferable skill that could become a really valuable part of their resume and the skills that they will bring to the work world. Being able to build websites on WordPress is huge and so I find that starting that process early can be really helpful. It also creates an opportunity for us to have conversations like why is our course built on WordPress when all of your other courses are on Blackboard and we get to talk a little bit about what Blackboard is and the different ways that content management systems, especially in higher education, work to structure certain kinds of relationships of teaching and learning.

John: Does the institution host WordPress, or are you hosting your own instance of it?

Danica: Ideally, the university will host it. When I was at CUNY they have a really strong culture around open educational resources and free writing platforms and there’s a big community around that. It might exist at my new institution—I have to do a little bit more work to find it. As far as I know there’s a lot of people that are using Blackboard at my institution. Ideally… best-case scenario… the university would provide server space and then you could have an installation of WordPress or Commons in a Box, but currently I’m using Reclaim Hosting and Domain of One’s Own in order to have a classroom commons installation that I’m using across the three different classes I’m teaching.

John: Do you use the open aspect of that? Is the students’ work public or are you keeping it closed to the classroom, or is that something decided on a case-by-case or class-by-class basis?

Danica: Yeah, that’s a great point, thanks for bringing that up. It varies. Parts of the class web sites are public, parts of it are private… and another benefit of working in a quasi-public, quasi-private space is that it allows us to have conversations about what information students are putting on the Internet and what they want visible. What do they want to become part of their professional digital identity? What do they want to show up in search results versus what do they not want to show up in search results? So, we have a lot of these conversations early on in the semester when they’re establishing their accounts. We talk about the risks and the repercussions versus the benefits of using their real name to do the blogging that they’ll be doing on the site, and then for their final projects… often, but not always, I would encourage them to use their real name because they put a lot of time and effort there carefully revising these projects and they are deliberately constructing them with the idea that they’re going to be writing for a public audience. But, of course, in this climate of anti-immigration that we’re living in, you have to be super careful about what you’re encouraging students to put their name on and so I always have conversations around that. There’s always an option never to use your real name. You can always use a pseudonym for the blogging and for the final projects. You can always submit solely to me instead of publishing to a public audience, because I understand there are severe risks and in some cases they will outweigh the benefits of creating something publicly.

John: And we should note that you have an article in the describing your work here and we’ll include a link to that in the show notes as well.

Rebecca: You mentioned student blogging. Can you talk a little bit about how the student blogging is used in your classes and how that augments student learning and how that might facilitate some of these conversations that might be tricky to have?

Danica: Sure. I love student blogging—I don’t know how I would teach these courses without it. My courses are structured around the blog—it’s one of their major assignments, and so for every single class two or three students are assigned to blog about the assigned reading—I think the requirement is something like 800 words or so—and that they have to do a small close reading… so an analysis of the excerpt of whatever literary text we’re reading and it has to end with two discussion questions, and for every student who isn’t blogging. So, the majority of the class they have to leave a comment on those blogs before our class period starts, and so the blogs are due at noon the day before class and then students have from noon until our class period to leave their comments and then the way the course is structured the same day that those three students are blogging… so they’re each writing a blog… they are also facilitating a class discussion… a ten-minute activity… or it can be a presentation… it can just be more of a conversation. They have ten minutes at the beginning of the next class to do whatever they want, and I encourage them to make it the best lesson plan that they have ever seen or the way that they want their ideal course to be structured, and so I encourage them to try things like think-pair-share or to do interactive activities and it’s really exciting to see, first of all, the things that students choose to blog about, because with the readings that we’re discussing there’s so much that you could talk about. I have certain things I want to talk about but those might not necessarily align with what students are interested in within the text, and so having these open-ended blogs allows students to identify what it is they’re most interested in; it allows them to get feedback on their writing from their peers prior to our class session. One way that I’ve come to think about the blog… that I talk to students about it… is as a rough draft for a paper. They’re putting out a thesis… they’re putting out an interpretation… they’re providing some evidence from the text to support it… and then they have this tremendous opportunity to get feedback from all of their peers… and so in the comments the other students will be like, “I really like this point…” “I have another example that can help you support your point…” They might raise objections; they might raise counter points: “Well, have you thought of this other thing?” And so it’s a really great way for them to increase the quality of their writing and their ideas by getting feedback from their peers. Actually, this happened just in our previous class, a student was using a term “devaluing” to talk about sexuality in one of the books that we were reading and a lot of his fellow classmates were saying that word wasn’t working the way that he thought that it was working. So, in his facilitation he kind of talked through the feedback that he got and as a class we came up with a better word that would more precisely name the kind of relationship that he saw developing in the literary text, and so with the class facilitations it provides students with an opportunity to practice their public speaking and to practice standing up in front of a classroom. A lot of the students say that they’re really nervous at first, but that they’re glad in the end that they did it and they always get through it and we always manage… and so this kind of pairing of the blog with the in-class facilitation really teaches students that they are active knowledge producers and that they have something to contribute to the class and that their voice matters. They know that they’re not allowed to just disappear and sink into the background—they’re actually the ones up there in front of the class leading the lesson and it’s interesting to see actually the ways that it increases their performance once they’re back in the chair of the student, because they know what it feels like to be up at the front and so they’ll put out a question and they then get to experience what it’s like to have no one raise their hand and so they become much better as students and much more engaged once they return to their seats and resume that more traditional role of being a student. I never know what students are gonna do for their facilitation. They don’t have to run it by beforehand, so it’s always exciting. I don’t know what they’re gonna do in class today and it’s really made my role as an educator different and I’ve had to learn to listen really carefully to the things that students are saying when they’re up there presenting and my job becomes connecting what they’re saying to the main ideas and the main skills and the main topics of the class. So, for instance, if a student is giving a presentation I might interject and say that’s a thesis statement,… what you just said… you just made a thesis statement and then they start to recognize learning how to make an argument, how to make a thesis statement is one of the skills of the course, but it takes a long time or they’re not quite sure what I mean by that, but when they’re talking they’ll just do it naturally and so my job becomes pointing out to them that they are already doing the things that we’re learning about and just helping them recognize better the ways that their facilitations are connecting to the themes and the skills of the course.

Rebecca: I wanted to circle back to the leaving comments for other students—so they do the close reading, they post about that and then students comment on it. When they’re commenting, how do you help students learn what a good comment is?

Danica: Yeah, that actually becomes a topic of discussion early on in the semester. They’re given a few guidelines: it should be, I don’t know, a hundred and fifty words or so; it needs to make a contribution to the post; it can’t just be “I liked your post” or “I didn’t like your post,” and then what I’ve tried this semester is we implemented—kind of halfway through the semester—this rule that each comment needs to provide a quote from the text so that the commenter is either supporting providing further evidence that will support the author of the blog’s claim, or providing a counter example. One of my students last class, he said “Conversation makes the best interpretation” and I really loved that because they’re starting to learn through the commenting the ways that all academic writing is a conversation among various viewpoints and that when they’re writing a scholarly paper… when they’re writing a research essay… they are inserting their voices into larger conversations; they’re in dialogue with people. It’s not like you write a paper in a vacuum; it’s actually a synthesis of all these different viewpoints and ideas and so I see the commenting as kind of a rehearsal for class discussion. So when we show up in class, say, for instance, students aren’t being particularly talkative, I can say, well, you said this in your comment, and so I know that they’ve already engaged with the ideas and it allows often our class conversation to reach a higher level because they already know what several of their peers’ interpretations of the text are; they’ve already thought about them; they’ve already thought about the pros and the cons and how we might need to complicate some of these analyses; and so it just takes our class discussions to the next step.

John: Do you do anything to ensure that everyone responds to a certain number of posts to make sure that you don’t see everyone replying just to one other post to make sure you get some balance there? Do you have a mechanism for doing that?

Danica: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, for every class students have to comment on at least one post; they’re welcome to comment on more than one, but the requirement is one comment prior to class. I don’t have a mechanism for ensuring that. The class is 25 students, if we have three bloggers, one blog might get ten comments and the others might get four or five, and one way to kind of address that in the classes is encouraging students to think about their blogs, think about the title of the blog, think about the content of the blog, think about how they’re competing for the attention of their peers. I encourage them to say, “Okay, your peers have three blogs to choose from, how are you gonna get them to read yours?” It’s a way of getting them to think a little bit about audience and what is the function of a title. What is the work that a title can do? …and from that introductory paragraph how can they give their reader a sense of what their blogs gonna be about? How can they convince their reader that there’s gonna be a good payoff that their blog is worth reading? And so it’s interesting to see the different ways that they try to attract the attention of their peers. Because they do want those comments and I find they get excited about the different feedback—they’re not required to respond to the comments, but they do often… which, yeah, it’s always exciting to witness. I try to linger, I lurk a little bit on the blogs and I’m often not interjecting in the conversations, but just kind of reading through them and that’s actually the other benefit is that it ends up serving as a mode of formative assessment because I can see what they have understood from the readings and what might be missing… what might be the things that I need to address in the time that I have—what’s not quite getting through to them, either in terms of aspects of the reading that they overlooked or in terms of the skills. So, if I tell them that your blog needs to have a main point; it needs to have a thesis, and I’m seeing that they’re not quite doing that I can then adjust my lesson plans so that that becomes the focus of the next class and I can use their blogs, their own words as an example to say, “Okay, how could we give this blog a stronger thesis?” …and so it’s quite common that we’ll end up editing or revising some of the blog posts. They get projected up on the screen and students, because we’ve created a culture that they’re constantly giving feedback on each other’s ideas, students feel a lot less embarrassed or they understand that we’re all trying to become better writers and so they’re okay with it if I project their blog post and we talk through “What are some of the pros? What are some of the cons? How could we strengthen this?”

John: And it’s a much more authentic learning experience having them focus on audience and trying to build a strong thesis statement.

Rebecca: It seems like the blog post assignment really primes students well for the final projects that you had mentioned earlier that have a public audience because they’re already practicing writing for a specific audience and it’s another writing for a more general audience, I would assume. Can you talk us through that a little bit?

Danica: The final projects for my class often vary, but they’re usually collaborative… they’re usually digital… they’re usually public… they’re usually some kind of creative student-driven element. It’s usually students identifying the topic and then running with it, whether that’s a research blog or whether that’s currently my students in Intro to Multicultural Literature are co-authoring a glossary of key terms for literary studies—I have never done this before. It is a total experiment—I don’t know if they know that this is my first time doing this, so it’ll be interesting. I don’t know if they’ll hear in this podcast, but whatever, it’s fine. So I’ve done different versions of these collaborative public final projects. They vary sometimes based on the content of the course, students’ level of preparation, what are the aims and objectives of the different courses. It’s a little bit different for a basic writing composition course versus a more advanced literature course… and so one of the format’s I’ve done is have students co-author scholarly articles that they would submit to an actual journal, and so I did this in one of my freshman writing classes. We spent the entire semester talking about contemporary issues in education… so related to technology in the classroom… active learning versus lecturing… conditions of educational equality in segregated schools… and about halfway through the semester they were put into groups and they had to identify a research question. They did an annotated bibliography, they developed a whole research project, and then they made it into an article, a short article that they submitted to the scholarly academic peer-reviewed journal Hybrid Pedagogy to see if they could get it published or not, and I had been in contact with the journal’s editors since the summer before the class, so they knew this was coming. It would not have been possible if I hadn’t been working with them because they knew there was gonna be a really quick turnaround time where the students needed to know if they got revise and resubmit, if they got rejected, or if they got accepted… and I knew that this was a wildly fanciful or an unrealistic expectation to ask students to get a scholarly journal article published—these are basic writing students at Queens College—a lot of them are first-generation students… they work jobs… they are English language learners… and so in addition to reviewing of the conventions of English grammar and how to write a paragraph… how to write an academic paper… all things that were new or needed to be reviewed… they were also trying to get their writing published in a major publication… and so what ended up happening with that is that several students got revise and resubmit. But by the time they did it was the end of the semester and finals were happening and so I tailored the assignment a little bit towards the end. I tweaked it, because all semester I’d been telling them “these blogs are important, these things that you’re writing your research, everything, all of this matters because people are actually going to be reading this and you want them to take it seriously and you want them to listen to you. You don’t want to lose their attention halfway through.” … and so we needed to come up with a way that they would still get published even if they chose not to endure the editorial feedback loop of revise and resubmit, or the accept with minor revisions, and so what we had them do is they took the feedback that they got from the editors and several of the groups chose to post to HASTAC.org, which is a tremendous resource. It is an academic scholarly network of 15,000 plus members of scholars and students and academics and artists and activists and so there’s a special group within HASTAC that showcases and features and highlights the writing of undergraduates. So many of my students ended up submitting their final blogs there, but one group did continue—they kept revising their submission and going through the queries that they were getting from the editors and then the copy editors and just all of these stages of the writing process that were very new to them. This is a required writing course… no one showed up at that course eager to do all these drafts and revision and the skills that we teach in a basic writing course… but they continued in that editorial feedback loop for about a year after our class ended and then in August of 2017 their article was published in Hybrid Pedagogy, which was very exciting and so that is now something that they can put on their resumes and I was just so impressed with them for sticking through it because we know everything that goes into writing a journal article but for them they didn’t even know at the beginning of semester what a peer-reviewed journal article was… and so it was like a huge learning process. So, that’s one of the formats of these collaborative public final projects: submitting something to an established publication, which required a lot of willingness on the part of the journal editors to work within a really quick timeframe and the managing editor Skyped into my class several times and talked to students about the journal, helped them with their submissions, they got to pitch their ideas to him, it was great. Some of the other formats I’ve used that have also been good—I’ve had students write explicitly for HASTAC and that’s an opportunity for them to tailor their writing for a very specific community. So that’s something that we did this semester in the writing class that I’m teaching. We read so much about HASTAC… we read about its history. There was an article in Inside Higher Ed calling it the ethical social network and talking about their commitment to protecting their users’ data; we learned about who is a member of HASTAC, who are the different people who are reading it; how does the website organize information—by topic, by tags, by categories and so they were reading and analyzing the site itself before they even started writing their research blogs. So it was a similar process where they identified a research question and they authored blogs that were specifically going to be then tailored for the HASTAC audience, and so one of the big aims of that assignment was this skill of kairos and figuring out how to tailor your writing for a specific community of readers and figuring out what are the conventions? what are the affordances of this specific writing space? and how can I best get my point across to this very specific audience? So, that was useful in helping us have conversations about audience awareness and tone and how you make an argument; how do you convince someone that your point is right without alienating them. So that’s one example of having students write for HASTAC. …and the nice thing about HASTAC is that it comes with a built-in user community. You have sixteen thousand people who are visiting the site and reading things. The other kind of format for these public projects is what we’re doing now with the keywords. Students are co-authoring these individual keywords, they’ve identified specific words that have emerged that they’re interested in throughout all the readings that we’ve done this semester and through our discussions and through the blogs and the final product for that will be something that is hosted on our course WordPress site… so it’ll be a page or an offshoot—I’m hoping to write some kind of table of contents that will link to each of the student’s posts—hopefully there will be media, and so this will be something that they can then share. They can decide that they want to make it part of their professional identity, part of their portfolio, or they can decide not to—it’s really up to them. …and so one of the things that I’m constantly thinking about in developing these assignments is like how to actually connect students to audiences of readers and people who could actually benefit from a keyword entry on memoir or on ghosts… that’s another keyword, apparently we talk a lot about ghosts in my class… and this is coming out of the research that I’ve done on activist pedagogy and really thinking about the role of the teachers connecting students to audiences and people that could potentially benefit from the writing that they’ve been doing. So, thinking about these projects as both a benefit to the students in the class and also to larger publics and communities.

Rebecca: How have students responded to this sort of work? You know, you mentioned that, you know, some of the classes are required courses—students are not necessarily marching in excited to do these sorts of things… so it sounds like you’ve hooked them a little bit. What is their final response to these?

Danica: In general it’s been really positive. The jury’s still out for the semester. We’re gonna do course evaluations I think next week, so I’ll learn more. But in the past, I do a lot of framing around what we’re doing in part because I was always a very willful student and I did not like being told what to do. But if I understood why I was being told to do that thing then I would get really into it and really excited and so with these student-centered assignments and activities I’m always super explicit: this is why we’re doing this; these are what I see as the benefits of this; this is why we’re authoring a set of Community Guidelines; this is why you’re doing a presentation; you’re doing a presentation because public speaking is one of the most valuable skills that employers look for and so when I’m writing your recommendation letters I want to be able to tell them what a great public speaker you are and that’s why I’m asking you to stand in front of the classroom and facilitate this. Also, I should mention this semester and at SUNY Cortland a lot of the students are going on to become teachers and so it’s important to have these experiences at the front of the classroom. I think that being explicit really helps students, and the other thing I’ll say is that I often am explicit about how frustrating student-centered learning can be, and we talked about how it can feel difficult and how sometimes we just wish that the teacher would give us the answers rather than making us figure it out ourselves or making us work in small groups and so I try to create spaces for students to express those kind of emotions and reactions to things. I also try really hard in designing these student-centered assignments… to design… to create the conditions where for instance, we’re doing a collaborative writing project… I try to give them an assignment that actually requires multiple minds and that if they had tried to do that exact same assignment on their own the final product would not be as good as if they were doing it as a group. So I put a lot of thought into kind of carefully constructing these in a way that they will be oriented to succeed in them. Recently I wrote a blog on collaborative close reading, which is a really, really difficult skill to teach—it takes years, you know, for most of us to learn how to do close reading, but I’ve tried to create this assignment that had students work on it in groups, and so rather than having to notice all of a million different things that are going on in a passage of literature, they had a bunch of different minds put to the task and they were all looking at the same paragraph for 20 minutes and dissecting it and they were all contributing their different insights and so rather than having to go at it alone they were able to learn from the different perspectives that the other students brought to the text, and so I think just being really explicit about why behind everything has helped to ensure that the reactions have generally been positive.

John: How have other faculty responded? Have other people started working on building more productive conversations? Have other people in your department started working more on open pedagogy projects?

Danica: Well, I would hesitate to say anything explicitly about my department because I’m so brand-new. It’s my first semester in the department. But one thing that’s been super exciting for me has been to see people… especially with this recent blog that I wrote on collaborative close reading… it went viral on academic Twitter and people have been reporting back, because that’s one of the things that I asked them to do is let me know how it works… let me know if, you know, you have any suggestions for how to make it better… and almost every day I’m getting tweets from people at universities across the country saying, “I tried collaborative close reading and this is what my students did…” and they’ll post pictures of the passages that their students highlighted and so that makes me feel like I’m part of a community that is bigger than my own institution. So, when I’m running these, of course I hope that they will be helpful to my colleagues, but I’m also… I really feel like I’m part of a bigger academic community and part of that is because I post these blogs to HASTAC, and so it really is, people are a community of 16,000, however many users, but then it can get tweeted out. So, even if you don’t have a HASTAC account you can still read the blogs and there’s so many ideas about scholarship being really isolating, but things like that… and getting to talk to people and discuss pedagogy with people at different institutions makes it feel a lot less isolating. But in terms of your question about reactions of colleagues, I have been super lucky both at CUNY and now at SUNY in terms of support for the kinds of things that I’m interested in doing. These are schools with very strong commitments to education, where people are already interested in and talking about student-centered methods and curious and wanting to learn more. The other day I have my students write found poems—which is the genre of poetry where you take some kind of existing document—often it’s a bureaucratic document—and you make it into a poem by cutting it up and whiting it out and mangling it and turning it into poetry and my students created these awesome, awesome found poems; they were beautiful. So, we spent a day in class, I gave them whiteout… I gave them scissors… I gave them tape… They started as banal documents; they made them into stunning poems. They would bring in their tuition bills or song lyrics with offensive stereotypes in them—one of them brought in the transcript from the Brett Kavanaugh hearing and they took these documents and as a way of thinking about language and power they made them into these gorgeous found poems and so I went to the chair of my department and I said, ”Hey, you know, my students created these poems and I would love to have someplace to display them ‘cause I think they’re really awesome” …and not only did she give me permission to tear down what was on the bulletin board, she helped me do it. We tore down these old flyers that had been up there for decades and we put my students’ found poems on and so now we have this beautiful display in our hallway of student work and several of my colleagues have reported seeing students stop and read the poems and take pictures of it and so they’re excited to see their work has become part of this gallery. In general I’ve just been really lucky and fortunate to work with colleagues who are similarly invested in helping students. I did think of a few ideas for people who might not be so fortunate on ways that they could start doing student centered things. The first would be, and I’ve already mentioned this, creating a free profile on HASTAC.org because there are so many people out there doing really creative and exciting things in their classrooms… and connecting their classrooms to larger movements for social justice… and thinking about how do you engage students in really important discussions about contemporary social issues… and so HASTAC has been a phenomenal place for me to connect with other people who are doing that kind of work. I try to start small, and so something like think-pair-share is so easy… it’s taking an index card, giving students 90 seconds to respond to some kind of open-ended prompt, then they turn to the student sitting next to them, they share their responses and then we go around the classroom and I transcribe each group’s answer to the question on the board… and so their ideas become the material that I then get to teach the course through, and we crowdsource responses to some question related to whatever the topic of discussion is that day and something like that is so easy, it’s so simple—we have gone through… I would say we’re in the thousands of index cards in terms of my courses this semester. Because the students like it and they recognize that that changes the classroom dynamic. They recognize that suddenly it’s not just one or two students dominating the conversations. So, when they get up to the front of the class and they get to facilitate something I would say, I don’t know, 65, 70 percent of them choose to do think-pair-share because they recognize that it really lowers the barriers of anxiety about participating in class—everyone has 90 seconds to scribble something on their index card and it’s only an index card,— it’s tiny—there’s not any kind of pressure to write something beautiful and then that becomes just such an easy way to really transform the dynamics of the classroom… low cost… low time investment… and even when I’m thinking at the bigger scale of assignments and rethinking the research paper so that it’s not just being submitted to the professor, but it’s for a public audience, I try not to overhaul everything at once. So it’s like each semester I’ll try one new assignment. Not throwing everything away and starting from scratch each time, because it takes a lot of energy to do these things. And so thinking about how we can make small changes and experiments but not overwhelm ourselves or our students… and the other thing that I would suggest if somebody finds themself in a situation where they want to start trying these things but might not have the kinds of tremendous support that I’ve been lucky to have is… there’s just so much research out there on the effectiveness of student-centered pedagogy. We’ve read a lot of it in my course this semester on writing and education. We read a lot of the studies that have shown how positive of an impact it can have on students to discover ideas for themselves and to work in small groups and solve problems and arrive at answers rather than sitting and listening to a lecture. Just kind of having some of those studies in my back pocket—I’ve always felt that if I was called upon… you know, “Why did you do that? I can’t believe you let the students help assess each other’s papers.” I would have some things that I can cite, that I could go back to to say “Well, actually, it’s been shown that asking students to metacognitively reflect on the implications of their writing is a great strategy.” So that kind of thing has been really helpful for me in terms of thinking about relationships to colleagues and different reactions to this kind of pedagogy.

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

Danica: Well, at the small scale, I guess, we have this digital glossary of keywords that will be coming out from my multicultural literature students… going to learn all about ghosts and power and assimilation and why these words are important for how we think about and analyze literature… so really excited to see what they do with that… and then I guess at the bigger scale I’m working on a book on the activist pedagogy of teacher poets from the 1960s and 1970s, and I’m hoping that some of that work will help us really understand the ways that a lot of contemporary student-centered practices… things that we’ve talked about today… a lot of them emerged in the 60s and 70s and especially in relation to the critiques of power emerging from the social movements of that era from the women’s movement and the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War… and so I’ve been thinking a lot about how those critiques of power necessitated new relationships of teaching and learning and this was especially happening in the work of poets who I’m interested in and so that book is also considering the ways that interactions with students shaped American literature in ways that we rarely consider and also the tremendous role that poets and authors and especially feminist poets have played in creating a lot of the contemporary student-centered pedagogy that we know today to be so effective.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.

Danica: Yeah, it’s really fun to work on.

John: In some of your posts you’ve listed a large variety of techniques that people can try and we’ll include links to those in the show notes as well. Thank you, this has been a fascinating discussion and we look forward to hearing more about what you’re doing.

Danica: Thank you so much for having me, this has been really fun.

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for joining us. [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 Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.

59. Gatekeeping in Math Ed

Teachers at all levels often play an important role in influencing the educational and career paths of our students. In this episode, Dr. Marcia Burrell joins us to discuss how math teachers play a critical role as gatekeepers who may either welcome students to or provide a barrier to student success in all STEM fields. Marcia is the Chair of the Curriculum and Instruction Department at SUNY Oswego.

Show Notes

  • National Council of Teachers of Math (NCTM)
  • Budapest Semesters in Math Education
  • Polya, G. (1973). How to solve it: A new aspect of mathematical method. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • The Polya Approach Used at the University of Idaho
  • Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Institutional Impediments to Effective Training”. Learning, remembering, believing: Enhancing human performance.
  • Bain, K. (2011). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press.
  • Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
  • Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Harvard University Press.
  • Miller, L. & Spiegel, A. (Hosts). (2015, January 23).Invisibilia: How to become Batman pt. 1 [Radio broadcast episode].
  • National Research Council, & Mathematics Learning Study Committee. (2001). Adding it up: Helping children learn mathematics. National Academies Press.
  • Brandsford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press.

Other resources:

  • Larson, M. (2016). The Need to Make Homework Comprehensible. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
  • Stinson, D.W (2004). Mathematics as gate-keeper: Three theoretical perspectives that aim toward empowering all children with a Key to the Gate, The Mathematics Educator14 (1), 8–18.
  • Burrell, Marcia (2016) Gatekeeping in Mathematics TEDx talk at OCC. January 29, 2016.

Transcript

John: Teachers at all levels often play an important role in influencing the educational and career paths of our students. In this episode, we examine how math teachers play a critical role as gatekeepers who may either welcome students to or provide a barrier to student success in all STEM fields.

[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. Marcia Burrell, the Chair of the Curriculum and Instruction Department at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Marcia.

Marcia: Thank you.

Rebecca: Welcome. Today our teas are…

Marcia: Earl Grey with caffeine.

Rebecca: Extra caffeine. [LAUGHTER]

John: Mine is just a pure peppermint tea today.

Rebecca: And I have a jasmine green tea.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk a little bit about the work you’ve done on math instructors as gatekeepers. What does it mean to be a gatekeeper?

Marcia: Well, I like to use the word gatekeeping because sometimes gatekeeping has to do with an open gate, where you can just slide right through, or someone gives you the key, or they’ve given you the secret password, or it’s a barrier, where if you don’t really know what the hidden curriculum is about passing through the gate then you could stay there and be turned away. And in mathematics a lot of times people are afraid of math or they’ve been socialized to think they cannot do math and it’s really a gate that’s been created either by themselves through socialization or it’s been created by a math person or by someone like a parent who said, “oh, don’t worry, I wasn’t good at math either.” So, when I think about gatekeeping and mathematics it’s really about barriers that are created by us or barriers that are created by others, or for people who are really successful in mathematics, they have an opportunity to open the gate; there are certain things that they can do that will make people pass through the gate more easily.

Rebecca: I think our students can empathize with the idea of gatekeeping when it comes to mathematics—you hear them talking about these stories of certain situations where the barriers have been in place for them, or sometimes that’s faculty. For example, I’ve heard many times in creative fields where the creative faculty might say, “yeah, we know you’re not great at math but you have to take math,” or I had a situation when I was a kid in middle school—I remember distinctly middle school teachers saying “the women in this class aren’t going to do as well” and then I remember the few of us banding together and then we got really good grades on this final exam that we were told that we wouldn’t do well in. I think that those narratives are certainly there and it’s interesting to think about it not only from the person coming to the gate but also from the gatekeeper perspective, which leads me to the question of, what are some things that gatekeepers do that keep people out?

Marcia: I’m gonna focus on math people mostly, where sometimes they say things like maybe in a beginning level math course, “Why didn’t you know that? You should’ve learned that before. I don’t understand why you can’t do fractions.” So, there’s vocabulary built into a lot of us where we send out messages which get people to realize, “Oh, there’s something wrong with me; I should know how to do this.” So, they start imposing those same messages on themselves. The other thing that I think is important is in mathematics there’s always been a stratification about who can do math or who should do math and who can be successful in math. Often, as you just said, women have stories about fighting to get into a advanced math class because they didn’t do very well on some class but they were willing to work hard. So, certain populations are harmed because they’re socialized that way that when women have trouble in mathematics we say, “Oh, we should make it easier; you should do a group of courses that are not gonna lead you to calculus in high school,” but sometimes when men struggle we go, “Oh, struggles perfectly fine.” In the U.S., teachers make it easier for students to learn; they give them answers, they work out all the details. When I say give answers, I mean they work out all of the problems so that it’s really just rote, as opposed to in other countries, struggle is actually honored—hard work and struggle is part of the mathematics learning process, where in the U.S. sometimes we don’t allow people to struggle. If you got a B in Algebra I, well, you don’t really need to take Algebra II because the minimum requirement in New York state is Algebra I, and the fact is struggle is a part of the learning process. Historically, we’ve always stratified who is successful in math or who can take math and the level of courses that people can take. Plato 2,300 years ago believed that everybody needed arithmetic, but the advanced math was relegated to philosopher guardians, and in the 1920s the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics argued to have mathematics part of the curriculum, and between 1890 and the 1940s there was a growth in public schools and the perception was that sometimes they weren’t sure that students had the intellectual capability of doing some of the mathematics that NCTM thought was important. But remember in the 1950s the business world and industry said, “What are you guys doing in schools? The people that you’re putting out there can’t do mathematics.” Well, that was mathematics for a purpose and then Sputnik happened and all of a sudden math became this subject that we wanted to make sure people had. But think about how many English classes do people take—one or two in high school, but in high school students often take four or five math courses. I’m not saying they’re not important, but it really forces us to think about mathematics as an elite subject when gatekeeping from my perspective is it’s not about an elite subject, it’s everyone can do math; people are born mathematical and everyone should have an opportunity to do the subject and not fail at it, but struggle and make movements towards whatever learning they need to do.

John: So a lot of this sounds like our society is creating or emphasizing or encouraging the development of fixed mindsets in math where many messages coming through (as you both have mentioned) in early childhood discourage people from thinking that they’re able to do math and only the elite can get through. Is that common in other cultures?

Marcia: I mentioned earlier that in other cultures hard work and struggle are honored and I witnessed in Budapest, when I was visiting there as part of my sabbatical, that students were asked to go up to the board and struggle through a problem, even if they had no idea. And we do a lot less of that because either you know the answer or you don’t; that doesn’t really work that way—it is an iterative process. I used to work on problems and maybe get a little frustrated, put it away and the next day I’d look at it and I go, “Oh, now I get it.” It’s really about process. The NCTM standards talk about process and product, and if you want people to learn mathematics then you really have to emphasize process, working in teams, giving people a chance to try things and fail but also collaborate with others to ensure that maybe there are multiple ways of approaching a problem, but if you’re not allowing students to talk with one another and work it through, then sometimes they think there’s only one way to do it and it really doesn’t improve their mathematical abilities. Mathematicians are about process—there are certain skills that mathematicians use. Good mathematicians persevere through problem-solving. They check their answers using different methods, they plan how to solve a problem versus jumping into a solution, and they justify the answers and communicate with others. Good mathematicians don’t just know the answer; it’s a process, and there’s even collaboration between mathematicians, but when we teach it on the K-12 level, we say, “This is what you need to learn and you need to learn it in a specified amount of time,” and so a lot of times students are turned off by the way we teach mathematics. Opening the gate is really about helping teachers rethink how they actually teach mathematics. We have a lot of data about how to successfully teach math, and it’s about problem-solving, reasoning, communication, connections and representations, but if you’re just gonna stand at the board and write the answer to a problem, that doesn’t help people really connect to how you came to that problem. So, gatekeeping is about getting teachers to rethink how they’re teaching mathematics and what they think is important. Process and products are important, but process is actually more important.

Rebecca: You mentioned mathematics as a collaborative process, but in my experience in K-12 I don’t think I ever worked with another person once.

Marcia: It’s funny you mention that. Again, the stratification stuff is huge. I attended a program called Budapest Semesters in Math Education and it’s geared for Americans, Canadians to come to this program. They’re interested in both juniors and seniors to come and learn about the problem-solving approach to mathematics. These are students who are mostly math majors, but they could be math ed majors, and they are sent to these schools where they’ve selected the top students in mathematics to use a problem-solving approach and what happens is they give them a problem with no background and they ask them to work out these problems. They can use their textbooks, they can use calculators, but the fact is our students—Americans and Canadians—get to witness students almost trying anything to work out these high-level mathematics problems—sometimes they’re theoretical, sometimes they’re applied. But what the students say who are in this particular program—and I got to be in these classes with them—was, “Why can’t we have all students use some of these processes?” And the processes are really just the things we already know that good mathematicians are supposed to do, sort of George Pólya, you know: analyze the problem, look at all the facts, try something, test your answer. But you actually get to witness that. So, when you asked me “None of the classes I ever went to that were collaborative and problem-based and working in teams,” well we seem to have an idea that only the gifted and talented or special programs will allow kids who already show aptitude to do mathematics in that particular way, and the fact is I visited a school in Budapest where this teacher who’s been working with the gifted and talented students got permission from the parents to try this problem-solving approach for a ninth grade through 12th grade. They had to get sign-offs by parents, because of course, in our system, if kids don’t know certain things by the end of certain grades then their opportunities—another gate—for getting into the university and going through the career path are cut off. So, these parents had to sign off that they were going to risk that what she was gonna to do over the next four years was gonna be helpful to their students and that they wouldn’t be harmed by doing this problem-solving approach. I witnessed several math classes where this teacher had been working as part of her dissertation to have students go through this problem-solving approach—it’s not just Pólya; there are other… Pósa there’s a Pósa method—I met this gentleman who, he was in his 80s and he invented the Pósa method and he’s one of the top mathematicians in his age… in his day, but he devoted his life to teaching problem-solving to kindergarten through grade 12. But the point that I’m making is, I witness students who had been through this process, and they were explaining problems to their peers on the board in ways that I haven’t seen good math teachers explain. But they built these kids up from start to finish to be confident about what they knew, to work in groups, not be afraid to make mistakes, and I think that we can do more of allowing students to learn not just at their own pace, but learn what mathematicians do—the process of engaging with one another if we weren’t so afraid of the whole accountability—what do kids know at the end of 12th grade? What do they know at the end of 11th grade? It’s recursive. Some things they learned in ninth grade in Algebra I will come back in Algebra II and when they’re college students they’re gonna pull the algebra and geometry together, if we allow it, as opposed to looking at these areas as completely separate things. One of the things about gatekeeping is that teachers have to think about students as already being competent; they’ve got to provide students with scaffolding so that students that are in different places have an opportunity to demonstrate what they know. I also think that we have to have high expectations, but we have to let students understand that they can extend the learning if they take some risks; that’s what good mathematicians do, and then we have to exhibit in depth knowledge as well as subject matter knowledge. So there are certain things that gatekeepers—math teachers—can do, but they’ve got to trust that students can learn, and we’ve got to keep the expectations high, but also scaffold for them so that they’re successful.

Rebecca: …a lot of evidence-based practices.

John: Yes, I was just going to say a lot of what you’re talking about, there’s a tremendous amount of research supporting that, not just in math instruction but across the board. In terms of providing students with challenging problems—you have the desirable difficulties of Bjork and Bjork, for example, and in terms of learning from mistakes, that shows up in all of the research on teaching and learning and it’s something that Ken Bain talked about when he summarized some of this research in What the Best College Teachers Do, and it’s also shown up in several of the books we’ve used in our reading groups, Make It Stick and Minds Online, for example: that retrieval practice, low stakes testing, where students can make mistakes and learn from mistakes, is effective in all types of instruction. So, these are really good practices that seem to be mostly neglected in math instruction.

Rebecca: I was expecting John to also mention something about growth mindset. [LAUGHTER]

John: I think I already did a while back, but treating math as something you’re either good at or not good at by teachers and by families and by our culture discourages the development of a growth mindset, and that’s really important. This year I’ve completely flipped my large microeconomics class and one of the things I had them do is before each class I asked them to do some readings and then I asked them to work through some problems in the readings; I have students submit a short Google form, where I ask them just two questions before each class. The first question is: “What have they learned from this reading assignment before that day’s class?” And also, “What are they still struggling with or what don’t they fully understand?” And half to two-thirds of them before each and every class list, “I have trouble interpreting graphs;” “I have trouble understanding graphs;” or that “I have trouble computing these things,” and that’s all basic math, and of course they have trouble doing it when it’s the first time they see it, but they see it as a barrier— “I’m just not good at it,” and every day in class I’ve been trying to encourage them to say, “Well, you may not do it now, but you can get better at this;” “You haven’t yet mastered this;” “You’re not yet good at this, but the more you do it the easier it gets,” and we’re not always seeing that happen, and we see that in lots of areas.

Marcia: Yeah, I think that students are more willing to say “I’m not good at math; I don’t have any experience with math,” but they would never say, “I can’t read; I’m not good at reading.” They might say it, but it’s socially acceptable to say “I’m not good at mathematics,” and the fact is when you look at a group of kindergarteners and they’re in a classroom, they’re all learning for the first time how to add and subtract and they slowly… I’m sorry, through some of their elementary school teachers who often are afraid of mathematics, and they say little things, “Oh, don’t worry about that, it’s okay to not be able to do that, we’ll work on that later on,” but they say it in a way that sometimes gives students permission to say, “Oh, I don’t have to learn that—I’m a girl, I’m a student of color, I don’t have to learn that because the teacher said she doesn’t know it either,” and so one of the concerns that I have for how we train childhood educators is we force them through, at least on our campus, these two math classes where they go kicking and screaming, but the fact is we almost need to reprogram them to think about the things that they can do mathematically and then build curriculum around them. It’s not always about the fact that the way you learn is the same way that all the kids that you’re teaching learn; it’s more about how do you change your perceptions about mathematics. There’s something on NPR, and I’ll have to find the reference a little bit later on, where this young man who was blind learned how to ride a bike, was sent to school, and people couldn’t even really understand why he was able to do all of these things as a blind person—well, his mother decided to treat him like he was a sighted person and it’s a Batman series, where the fact is, if you convince someone that they can do something and you believe it, then all of the things that you do to work on their perceptions about their capacity will come through. But first the teacher has to believe it and then they have to do all of these things to scaffold it. The fact is that, and again, I’ll have to find the researcher, but he did this study where he told all of his researchers that these mice were smart mice… these mice were everyday the same mice… what happened is the researchers came in and they treated those mice like they were smart—they handled them differently, they had them run through whatever people do in psychology with mice, and then he came back later on and said “All of these mice have exactly the same capabilities.” Well, that works in exactly the same way in the math classroom; students come, and if we believe that they’re capable and we come off and treat them with respect about what they have learned and how to build on that, then we’re gonna see better progress in their learning. I have to come back to the gate because the teacher has a lot of power to make the gate accessible or make the gate a barrier, and the barrier is really just the messages that the teacher says to the students and to herself about success in mathematics, and we lose entire generations of people when the gate is closed to them mainly because of perception.

Rebecca: So much discussion of gates it should be important to note that in front of Marcia is this picture of so many different kinds of gates in our conversation. Can you talk a little bit about the gates that you have in front of you?

Marcia: Yeah, I decided to Google different kinds of gates and when you think about the Brandenburg Gate or you think about gates like this one —remind me what this is called; this is in Cincinnati—the arch; this is really a gate, but this shows an opening to something, so when you think about gatekeeping in mathematics, I want us to think about people being gatekeepers for accessibility. So when you look at those pictures you think of when you’re going through the turnstile to pay with an EZ Pass. That is a barrier. If you don’t have money, you don’t have an EZ Pass, you’re not getting through, but if you look at the door to no return like in Benin it’s an opening to the next world just like certain pictures of gates just have you think differently about openings and closings.

Rebecca: There’s some like the dog pen where there is no way in or out; it looks like that one’s just closed forever.

Marcia: Yeah, which one is it? This one or this one? Right, I mean this has a gate, but often people are closed inside of thinking that they can’t do math and they can’t be successful. The job of a teacher would be to help them jump over that particular gate or find a different way to think about opening that particular gate. If you’re a dog and you’re inside of a pen, I think you’re just gonna need somebody to lift you up over that gate, and I think about that with teachers that what they have to do with each individual student is completely different, but their responsibility is to help them understand that they’re all mathematicians and they all have capacity for success in mathematics.

Rebecca: You’ve talked a little bit about how gatekeepers can open the gate or provide the leg up over the wall, or whatever it is, right, that’s there. Can you talk a little bit more about how to be inclusive and how faculty and teachers can really support this environment that would allow for problem-solving and allowing students to fail and try again and to iterate and eventually succeed?

Marcia: I’ve thought a lot about elementary school students and middle school students, where you’ve probably heard about the Montessori Method. The Montessori Method, you work with individuals to build from what their interests are and it turns out that students without a lot of direct instruction can complete whatever the curriculum is for that grade level by mapping to their interests, their strengths, and projects that they do where they’re learning the mathematics in ways that might be considered non-traditional. In the Montessori Method, they’re not just looking at memorizing times tables; they’re looking at multiplication as repeated addition, they’re looking at visualizations instead of just looking at a text. And the fact is that sometimes, I think, that if we allowed students to individualize their learning, especially in middle school and high school, that there’d be more progress than forcing students through the curriculum where each week they’re expected to learn something but they’re not learning it, they’re sort of just being dragged through the mud. And I have a lot of respect for my peers who are math teachers. I was a math teacher where I felt like I know what that kid needs, I need to take time to help that kid through what they need, but I didn’t have the courage to stop what I was doing and figure out how to individualize or make them work in small groups. I was a successful K-12 teacher, but I feel like I started to figure out what was needed when I made the decision to leave. So, part of my job as a math educator is to help our candidates who are gonna be teachers in schools to have the courage to do what they know is right: think about their love of mathematics and give kids problems that are theoretical and have them try it; give them applied problems, give them things where they have to use visualizations and not just know the procedures, but also understand the concept.

John: And also perhaps to use peer instruction, as you talked about, where students explaining things to each other reinforces learning for each student.

Marcia: Yeah, and sometimes the things that we expect of what we call the gifted and talented are exactly the things that other students can do but we’re afraid to take a risk, and I met earlier this afternoon with one of our adjuncts that’s teaching math methods to our graduate students and she said her job is to teach her candidates how to be good teachers, and sometimes that means forgoing what they think they wanted accomplished on that day and building something fun that’s gonna get students to see that math has many openings, not just following things through rote or through memorization. So, I had a really nice conversation with her because she does work in the school systems, but she’s teaching a course for us and she uses constructivist approaches. I have many peers that are still engaged in this math war that it has to be rote, it has to be step-by-step. In the constructivist approach, you care more about the process that students engage in and there’s a program that I listen to on Sunday morning it’s on NPR where it’s a puzzle and the puzzle is usually related to a vocabulary puzzle as opposed to a math puzzle, but the type of thinking that you have to engage to solve those puzzles really is mathematical thinking, so I love those puzzles, but they’re all couched in word puzzles… but it’s really mathematical thinking… and so I think the teachers need to use more of those word puzzles to bring people in so that they understand that they’re engaged in mathematical thinking—it’s just not called mathematical thinking. One of the other things that I wanted to mention before I run out of time is we are heavily tracking students into particular tracks. Sometimes you’re in the track where you’re just going to do Algebra I, and sometimes you’re in the track where you’re gonna get to do Algebra I and Algebra II, and maybe you’ll get to do Geometry, but some of the best learning occurs when there’s heterogeneous grouping and there’s less tracking. This gate stuff, these gatekeeping, really reinforces tracking, which when students come to SUNY Oswego and they’re in a remedial class and don’t know why they’re in the remedial class, because they may have been tracked in a particular way and cut off many, many job opportunities or majors because they were tracked in a particular way, and that is gatekeeping that occurs in fourth grade. And again our responsibility for our childhood educators is to get kids to think more broadly about what mathematics is; it’s not just arithmetic, it’s not just geometry, it’s not just theoretical problems; there are many types of problems that childhood people could engage students in that wouldn’t shut the door to possibilities 10 or 12 years later when students find out that they were tracked in a way that makes it so that they could never do graphic design or they could never do engineering or something else that they didn’t really understand was possible because somebody closed the gate early on.

John: …and that’s really important because most of the growth in income inequality is due to differences in educational attainment and the returns to education. And the returns to education in the STEM fields is far above the returns in other areas as well. So, keeping people out of those areas means that the people with those areas end up doing really well, but the people without those skills end up in jobs that are perhaps overcrowded with lower job prospects, lower prospects of growth and it helps reduce social mobility and economic mobility. It’s a serious problem in our society; it’s the worst we’ve ever seen it in the U.S.

Marcia: Yeah, I can’t connect it completely to perceptions, but a long time ago I taught a remedial math course at Clinton Community College and I had a student in that class and she was a smart person—I think everyone is smart—but I walked through how to study math, how to approach it: you are capable, work hard, keep asking questions, and about 10 years later I got a postcard from her—this flabbergasted me; she was in a remedial class and she had entered a PhD program in mathematics and she said it was just about the fact that somebody finally showed her how to study math—it was read the textbook, try the problems, come to class, listen maybe to the lecture, don’t be afraid to make mistakes; when you’re tired take a break. There are certain things We know that people can be successful in mathematics but we keep thinking that it’s this magic wand thing; it’s not a magic wand thing. We actually know —there’s research from Adding it Up —where we know exactly how people learn math well. The stuff research from Bransford, which how to study mathematics, how to learn mathematics, it’s written in black and white from large-scale studies, but then we return to the rote memorization, follow these steps and that’s not the beauty of mathematics at all.

Rebecca: One of the things that I think is really interesting about what you’re saying is that societally we might think, “Oh, fourth grade teacher… not really gonna have a big impact,” but you’re really talking about this fourth grade teacher is not a gatekeeper of the little gate around the garden; this is like the gate to the universe.

Marcia: Absolutely, and most of our math candidates who are not math concentrates—they’ve got to take these two four-credit math courses—will say, “I just need to get through this class; I hate math.” If you hate math it comes through loud and clear in your teaching; it’s really difficult to mask that. I taught a math for diverse learners course that the School of Education and Arts and Sciences Math Department and Curriculum and Instruction collaborated on and it was a math for diverse learner, so some of the things that I’ve been talking about here was in a full graduate course, and students would say, “Well, I never really thought about that; I thought everybody was gonna learn math the same way I learned math”—you’re a math person, I shouldn’t even say that. You’re a math person—you came through the system and you were successful in the current system, but if you want to build the next generation you’ve got to think about some of these other factors—you’re gonna be in a system, and as we’ve talked about systems, you are part of the system and you do have power to make changes to it, even if it’s perceptions, even if it’s just giving students the perception that you care about their learning and that they can succeed, and so this is really important to me. There are three principles: teachers must engage student misconceptions, understanding requires factual knowledge and conceptual understanding, and a metacognitive approach enables students self-monitoring. If I think about gatekeeping, if teachers kept those three principles in mind, they’re not mine—it’s in the research. This is sort of revolutionary because we don’t want to restrict people to thinking that only certain people can do mathematics, but if math teachers, whether they’re childhood or adolescence, or university teachers think about what good mathematicians do, they’ll follow these three principles and it might move us forward. I know it’s a big deal because the successful people want to keep what they have to themselves, but I think we miss out on the potential of entire generations if we don’t give them access to opening the gate through mathematics. When the Common Core came out teachers had the perception that they had to give these problems to students and parents would call and complain—“I can’t even do these problems; these aren’t the problems that I did when I was a kid”—well, the fact is we weren’t supposed to be sending these problems home; we were supposed to be doing those problems in class, and so a lot of the Common Core mathematics was supposed to be using manipulatives and getting kids to talk about how they think through the arithmetic problem. They were sending home problems and parents were complaining they were spending two or three hours to work through these problems, and there was an article put out—it was an NCTM—where they said what is your problem? No, don’t send these problems home for kids to fight with their parents, ‘cause that’s just gonna reinforce, “Oh, I couldn’t do math either;” it was supposed to be completely done in the classroom in collaborative groups, but we’re still not interested in teaching in that way. So, we sent home the homework—well, you could have been sending home memorize these timetables just as we did 20 years ago or 30 years ago, so finally NCTM put something out to help math teachers in the K-12 area not to send home these problems that would take parents two to three hours, but to rethink the organization of their classrooms where students could work on problems and have fun with mathematics, and the fact is that there are reforms that mathematicians fight about; there are a whole host of mathematicians that said Common Core was bad; Common Core is not bad, the way it was implemented was bad, so now we’ve done some backtracking to think about the fact that when you carry, when you’re subtracting or you’re adding, why do we do that? And the Common Core got students to make sense out of place value and make sense out of what it means when we carry this is about the tens place or the hundreds place and whenever you have new curriculum, Common Core or what was the curriculum in the ‘50s, I can’t remember… the new math… there’s always new math, it’s just an approach to make it more inclusive, but sometimes the way we roll things out makes it difficult, at least for the next generation of teachers, so I’m pro-reform movements, but we have to take the time and the energy to implement it in a way that’s actually gonna be useful—we just keep going back to the way we taught math a hundred years ago.

Rebecca: It sounds like what happened was faculty who knew how to do things a particular way get handed something that’s different but not a way of demonstrating or doing the different, right, like…

John: …without the professional development needed to allow them to implement it effectively.

Marcia: Correct. That’s correct.

Rebecca: The method doesn’t match the material.

Marcia: Exactly. At the same time they were putting out that students have to take a main assessment in fourth grade and eighth grade, but those assessments didn’t really align to this new Common Core curriculum, and so lots of things have changed over the last, I’d say seven to ten years, and we’re sort of coming out of that. When students come to the university level we still expect them to know mathematics. Do you remember twenty-five years ago they changed the math curriculum to be Math A and B, Course I, II, and III? New York state was the only state that was really thinking more globally about, “Wow, it doesn’t always have to be about algebra—it could be about statistics, it can be about more applied,” but the fact is universities didn’t change and we were still expecting students to know this narrow curriculum but it did broaden what people thought about mathematics, but it didn’t really help a lot of those students because then they were closed out of particular career areas because they might have been in a school that embraced applied math or embraced business math or something that might not connect to what they would do at the university level.

John: You’ve also been involved with Project Smart here at Oswego. Could you you tell us a little bit about that and how it relates to math instruction.

Marcia: Project Smart was a thirty-year project where teachers came to SUNY Oswego for summers to do professional development, math, science, technology. There are some teachers retiring over the last couple of years that came to Project Smart right from the beginning. We brought people in like Damian Schofield in the early days to learn about human-computer interaction. We brought people in from music and from art to help teachers integrate other things into their teaching, so they used to come for three weeks, then they came for two weeks, then they came for one week, then we built it into the department where faculty got released time to go into schools and work with teachers from the bottom up to think about how to improve teaching in their classroom. Project Smart really honored the work that teachers did because we would say, “What do you want to improve in your classroom? Are there particular things that you know students are struggling with?” This past year, funding for Project Smart ended, but the institution is still supporting individual faculty to go into schools and work with teachers to build classrooms that connect with the learners that they have in front of them. It’s more connected to what’s called a professional development school, where at the university we have the latest about how to teach, whether it’s math or English or social studies or modern language, and then we go into schools where they’re dealing with kids every single day and we try to help them figure out how to improve as a teacher; we meet them where they are; we build from there, so Project Smart is over—I’m not gonna say it’s dead, but we have a different system to work on professional development schools but just in a different way.

John: So you’re still doing the same thing even though it’s not under that official title?

Marcia: Correct. Correct.

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

Marcia: Oh my goodness, thank you for asking what next. After returning from my sabbatical, where I had the opportunity to be part of Budapest Semesters in Math Education where I got to see classrooms where students were using Pólya’s problem-solving approach in addition to something called the Pósa method, I worked with Josh McKeown, who’s from international education to reduce the cost of the Budapest program, so we’re working to recruit math students, both childhood and adolescence teacher candidates, as well as straight math candidates to consider going to Budapest over a winter course for one or two weeks over winter session or during spring break. What would they experience if they went to a short course? They would visit classrooms using the Pósa method, they would sit in on some of the math courses at BSME, where teachers are actually showing how to use a problem-solving approach in mathematics, where sometimes our students say “You talk about problem solving, you talk about the constructive approach, but no one is doing it so we don’t really know what it is.” The next step is to work with international ed to get a group of students to do the BSME program.

Rebecca: That’s really incredible.

Marcia: I’m excited about it too and I hope to also re-institute my math for diverse learners course because through that course I reinforce that I believe students should have access to high-quality, engaging math instruction. I believe all students should have mathematically rich curriculum. I believe all students should have high expectations and strong support, and we’re all gatekeepers— we are change agents and we control the gate. I think it’s ambitious because many people don’t agree with me saying that mathematics needs to be more inclusive, but that’s what I’ve been working for my entire career and I hope to continue that way.

Rebecca: Your work is incredible and we’re really excited that you’re doing that work.

Marcia: Thank you.

Rebecca: I know as someone who’s in a field that you don’t always associate with math—I believe in math and so I hope we can all help support your initiative.

John: It’s a major social justice issue.

Marcia: It’s a huge social justice issue because, again, what happens is often students of color, students that come from poor families may or may not have had the best math instruction. I mean, it’s a big cycle, and when they come here we should be able to help not just convince them, but this is a public institution. We should be able to provide access for them to reach whatever goals they hope to. We should be able to take students where they are and help them achieve whatever their focus is, whether it’s math related or not.

John: Well, thank you.

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 Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.