176. Critical Thinking

“I want my students to think more critically” is a familiar statement in higher education, especially when we mix in conspiracy theories, pseudoscience and fake news. In this episode, Dr. Linda Nilson joins us to discuss practical techniques faculty can use to help students develop the skills necessary to become critical thinkers. Now Director Emeritus, Linda was the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She is the author of Infusing Critical Thinking Into Your Course: A Concrete, Practical Guide as well as many other superb books, book chapters, and articles on teaching and learning.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: “I want my students to think more critically” is a familiar statement in higher education, especially in a social media environment filled with conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and fake news. In this episode, we discuss practical techniques that faculty can use to help students develop the skills necessary to become critical thinkers.

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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.

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John: Our guest today is Dr. Linda Nielson. Now Director Emeritus, Linda was the Founding Director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She is the author of Infusing Critical Thinking into your Course: a Concrete, Practical Guide, as well as many other superb books, book chapters and articles on teaching and learning. Welcome back, Linda.

Linda: Thank you very much for having me back, John.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are: …Linda, are you drinking tea?

Linda: I certainly am. And this is Twinings Berry, multiple berries.

Rebecca: Oh, yum.

Linda: Yeah. It’s delish. And I’m so glad you’ve helped to get me back into tea. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: As everybody should be,

Linda: Yes, yes, yes. It’s a wonderful thing.

John: I had some of the Twinings mixed berries early today. But I’ve got a chocolate mint black tea, which is really good.

Linda: Ooh, chocolate.

Rebecca: Chocolate anytime of day is excellent.

Linda: Yeah, really.

Rebecca: It’s an important food group. [LAUGHTER] Just like tea. I’m drinking that palm court blend that I have recently started making pots of. It’s pretty decent.

Linda: Great.

John: We just saw a note that you have this forthcoming book on critical thinking. What motivated you to write this book, now that everyone has this universal agreement on facts and reasoning and logic…

Linda: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

John: …and we don’t have a lot of disputes on these things anymore? [LAUGHTER}

Linda: Ha hah… Ah, yes. Actually, politics had nothing to do with it, if you can believe that. Originally, I got interested in critical thinking in the 90s. I decided to give a talk on it for some conference. And I got into the literature. And I said, “Okay, as soon as I get this talk over with, I am never, ever, ever going to do anything having to do with critical thinking, again, because the literature, it’s just a siloed mess.” So anyway, I just put that away. Well, then I guess it was something like eight years ago or so, Clemson University, in its infinite wisdom, decided to select critical thinking for its QEP, its Quality Enhancement Plan. And I thought, “Oh, no, do you know what you’re doing? Do you have any idea how difficult this is going to be?” And of course, I figured, like, I’m going to be doing workshops, so I got to get back into this literature. And I realized what I had to do was synthesize it for the faculty, because why should I inflict a literature’s flaws and warts on them. So that’s what I decided to do. Well, then, as it turned out, Clemson wasn’t the only university picking critical thinking for a QEP, and so I started getting invitations to do workshops, so I got on the road, and that’s always fun to do. I was back into it, but trying to make it as practical and as easy to implement for faculty as possible. So that was my goal, is always to make the faculty member’s job easier. So, I was comfortable with that. Well, a couple of years ago, David Brightman from Stylus contacted me, asking me to write a book on critical thinking. And I thought, “Well, I’m kind of enjoying being semi-lazy and just traveling around, oh, what fun.” And then I thought, “Well, look, I don’t know about this. But let me just start outlining the book and see how it feels.” Well, it felt really good. I was amazed. [LAUGHTER] And I thought, “Okay, lazy is not so interesting to me anymore. I’m going to write this book.” Well, he was happy. I was happy. And so I immediately started writing it, and because I had these workshops to work off of… updated by reading of the literature, of course… but other than that, it was probably the easiest book I’ve ever written. And so, this is fun, this is neat, this is great. And so I finished it really very quickly. And I was glad to do it. I finished it in four months or so… four to five months, the whole….

Rebecca: Wow..

Linda: Yeah, I know. Well, I was a house afire and I had nothing better to do. [LAUGHTER] So anyway, that’s how I was inspired to do it. It was really David Brightman ‘s idea. And if he was excited about it, that kind of got me excited about it. And I knew the need was out there. I knew the need because there were still universities crazy enough to adapt critical thinking as a QEP. I had also acquired some friends in the critical thinking community by then and so “Okay, this is fine. This is great. I’m going to do this.” And so I did it. And so now it’s due out March, maybe April, because you never know about these things. So it’s really happened. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I found that a lot of faculty really believe in the idea of critical thinking, but have no idea how to define it or explain it to students.

Linda: Yes. And that’s a perfectly reasonable reaction for them to have, because of the massive literature out there. And it’s just the idea of critical thinking, it’s such an abstract, squishy, ephemeral idea. And we’re like, “What is it?” …and of course all faculty think they’re teaching it, right? But they’re not ,unless you make critical thinking, an outcome, a specific outcome that makes sense in your course. And you tell your students about it, and you call it what it is, that you’re not teaching critical thinking. It’s not going to happen by osmosis. It’s not going to happen by happy accident. Critical Thinking just doesn’t do that, it has to be a very, very conscious effort. And there’s a lot of literature to back this up.

Rebecca: So what is it? [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Oh, that’s a good follow up question. Well, I’m not going to go through the litany of definitions that you can find out there in the literature. But what I was able to glean from that literature is this: it’s interpretation, analysis, and/or evaluation, for the purpose of making some sort of decision or solving some sort of problem. And that’s it. But you could get definitions out there that go on for a couple of paragraphs, you can get definitions that seem to change color from one chapter to the next. I mean, they’re all there. And I just found it very confusing myself. But again, it was all about synthesis to me… all about synthesis, taking the best from these different silos, these different frameworks, and try to put them together into something that’s easiest, into a pocket definition: interpretation, analysis, evaluation. Now, you can put that in your pocket. And so can students.

Rebecca: I’m sold. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Alright. That’s wonderful. That’s wonderful.

John: I remember when we introduced a critical thinking Gen Ed requirement here at Oswego, that everyone agreed that that was something that was desperately needed. It’s just everybody had a different idea of what it was. [LAUGHTER] And so eventually, it became infused within the disciplines. But I still think that that discussion of what exactly it is was never really resolved. It was kind of a way of sublimating that whole discussion and debate. So is critical thinking the same across disciplines? Or is it really going to be different depending on your disciplinary context or lens?

Linda: Okay, well, when you’re talking about interpretation, analysis, evaluation, yeah, that goes across the disciplines. But that’s not of much help to faculty. And so I put it in the disciplines, or I should say, in disciplinary clusters, because let’s face it, chemistry shares a lot with biology, right? …just in terms of general approach to observation, its approach to testing, just the general scientific thinking. And the humanities, there are a lot in common. And by the way, sometimes the social sciences pretend to be humanities, when you’re talking about the theories and things like that. Now, the social sciences, I look at them as sciences. So I put them in that scientific cluster. And then they’re the arts. Well, they’re off somewhere else entirely. They’ve got all….

Rebecca: Hey! [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Ah… oh, I’m sorry. You’re in it. But the arts are in a beautiful place. And they’re far more beautiful than the other disciplines. And then there are the, what I call the Applied Sciences, they’re different still. Oh yes, they share some overlap with the sciences. But so what I do is, there’s one chapter where I talk all about critical thinking outcomes by these disciplinary clusters. And now I have a list of different outcomes for each cluster. So take your pick, add more, but it’ll sound familiar to faculty. It’s using their vocabulary, it’s addressing their concerns, the sort of things that they strive to teach, the sort of things that they want their students to be able to do. And so I like to put it in the, at least, disciplinary clusters. Now it’s still you know, yes, you have to bring it down to your particular discipline, and then your particular course. But other than that, there are all kinds of tremendous overlap. But it’s such a different context. Sometimes you’re not even using the same verbs, and you’re certainly not using the same direct objects. I can assure you of that.

Rebecca: Why do faculty think it’s so hard to teach?

Linda: Oh, well, they’ve sure got good reasons. And I have a whole chapter on 10 reasons why teaching critical thinking is so challenging, and it’s got all kinds of reasons. First, there’s the literature, okay, that’s reason zero, okay. And so, I’m sort of, in a sense, telling faculty “Don’t read the literature, just don’t worry about that, or pick one and have fun” … whatever, but that’s not going to help you a lot. And that’s what’s different about my book, that mine’s, again, practical, concrete… here’s what you do… connect the dots. But reason number one is critical thinking about certain kinds of thinking, like that definition I gave you, but also a certain kind of subject matter. And there are courses out there that don’t have that subject matter. There has to be, in this subject matter, it has to be content containing claims, statements that may or may not be complete, valid, or at least the most valid, or the most viable, and for perfectly good reasons as well. For instance, there might be other respectable competing claims, the evidence supporting a claim may be weak or ambiguous, the data may be suspect, the source may have a lack of legitimacy or conflict of interest. So anyway, there are some courses that just seem to just be teaching undisputed facts. Now, if you’re teaching disputed facts, that’s fine, then you could talk about critical thinking. But there has to be some sort of dispute, some sort of competition, something among different claims. And again, there are, unfortunately, some courses that don’t have that… now you can add them in. Another thing about teaching critical thinking… It’s difficult for people to do, for students to do and it’s unnatural for students, for learners, for people to do, because we all want our current beliefs and values and ways of thinking confirmed. That’s what we are usually going for. And then there’s the whole struggle of learning. Learning is struggle, learning is effort. And students don’t seem to accept that. It’s like we’re supposed to make learning so easy. As easy as it was in elementary and high school. Isn’t that our job? …to make learning easy and effortless? No. But in any case, they might fight that: “Well, this is hard. So you’re not a good teacher. And anyway, students also bring biases and misconceptions into the classes that interfere with critical thinking. They’re not aware of these, and so you have to make them aware of them. And students don’t necessarily like that. Critical thinking requires self regulation, or metacognition. If you’re not observing your thinking, there’s no way you can think critically, I’m sorry, you have to question yourself all the time. But you’ve got to be aware of what that thinking is to even talk about it. Here’s another one and it’s nasty. Critical thinking requires the traits of good character. So virtues like integrity and determination and morality and inner strength. And some of our students just don’t have those virtues. Now, there are ways, there really are ways, that you can teach them about good character and bad character. And just the way good character is portrayed in our media and our literature, in movies, television, whatever, it makes good character look good, makes it look more attractive. But students don’t necessarily know what even good character is. And they can’t do self-regulated learning without having some intellectual virtues, like perseverance, like wanting to pursue truth, intellectual integrity, intellectual humility, certain dispositions that are absolutely essential. Otherwise, why bother to do critical thinking? Why put yourself through this? Here’s another thing that critical thinking requires: mental health, emotional health. Now, on the level that you can start increasing students’ mental health is on the level of defense mechanisms. But if you’ve got students out there, and I bet you do, who have personality disorders, they’re narcissists, they;re sociopaths, they’re psychopaths, so they might murder you someday. Forget about them, don’t even have hope for them. They have no interest in pursuing truth at all. That’s why they don’t wind up in the psychiatrist’s office. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing’s wrong,” right? And so what’s wrong with my thinking? Nothing’s wrong with my thinking. So they’re not into this, forget about them. Critical Thinking also requires students to respond to questions. And students don’t always like to respond to questions. They don’t mind telling you what day of the week it is. But beyond that, if they’re going to have to think, they might not be eager to do this. Now, if everybody else is doing it in the class, that helps. It really does. So yeah, there are all kinds of reasons why critical thinking is very difficult to teach, but it’s not impossible, and it’s not mystical.

John: You mentioned self regulation, what are some techniques that we can use in our classes to help students become more self regulated in terms of developing critical thinking skills that let them analyze evidence more effectively and interpret arguments more effectively?

Linda: Yes, well, again, awareness is where you start. So the first thing you want to do, the first habit that you want to develop in your class is whenever you have students give a statement… I don’t mean an undisputed definition, okay, I mean something that’s addressing a claim or making a claim in some way? And you’ve got to just keep asking them: “Well, how did you arrive at that response?” Now, you’re going to sound like a broken record the first couple of weeks, and then students will realize, “Okay, I’m not going to talk unless I have an answer to that question, because I know that Professor so and so is going to ask me this question.” So they start to think about this on their own, and they’re ready to answer it, or they’ll keep their mouth shut. But it’s not so impossible to look into your head as to how you came up with a certain answer. And initially, students will have to say, like, “I don’t know,” and you know what, that’s okay. Because now you have their attention. If they don’t know that that’s a perfectly fine answer, you need to start thinking about that, you need to start observing your thinking. And that’s the first thing you get them to do. Now, in terms of like, with readings, or if you’re having them watch videos and these sorts of things, you can give them reflective assignments to accompany those readings, and for that matter accompany any other kind of assignment. But what you want them to do is you want them to reflect on perhaps their affective reactions to the reading, or what they found particularly important, or what they found particularly surprising when they do a reading and then they have to answer this question or couple of questions at the end. And again, there are no wrong answers. This is like no stress, folks, just I want at least 100 words from you, that students start looking over what they just read and thinking about it from their own viewpoint. What did they find most important? How did they react emotionally? What connections did they make to what they already knew. So it’s making them more aware of what kind of impact that reading had. And those are just the simplest things in the world with substantial assignments, writing assignments, what you want your students to do is sort of a meta assignment at the same time. And again, you can’t go wrong, folks. And all you’ve got to do as a faculty member is just to check these in, just make sure that they did it and if you want 200 words, perhaps, “Okay, describe your reasoning in solving this problem.” or ”How did you reason through this case, in debriefing this case? What questions did you ask yourself along the way? What skills did you improve in the course of doing this assignment?” There’s so many different possibilities. And so, yeah, self awareness, self awareness. And then, of course, after a test when they get a graded exam back, make them aware of how they prepared or how they didn’t prepare. And so it’s making them face the music about, “Okay, what did you expect to get on this exam? And what did you get?” Gee whiz, how do you feel about that? Now, “A” students are gonna “Oh, yeah, I thought I got an A,” or I thought I’d get a “B” but I got an “A,” and so I feel whoopee.” Okay, don’t worry about them. They’re already self regulating, they self regulate to the point of paranoia, they’re the least of your worries. [LAUGHTER] But other students need to become aware of, “Okay, so how did you study? Did you study the way I told you too, which is quizzing yourself? Or do you just reread, reread, reread, reread the way I told you not to, because that’s a waste of time? How many hours did you study? Was this enough? What are you going to do differently on the next exam to do better?” And so students have to think about a strategy, they’re meta-studying in a way. And so they’re thinking about their learning strategies. And they really need to do a lot more of that. Any kinds of like, experiential activities… there are all kinds of questions that they can ask themselves, or you can ask them to write about, “Well, what were your goals originally? And how did they change through the simulation or the game or the role playing?” And this would be true of like service learning or field work or any of these things. “How did you respond to other people involved in the interactions? And why would you respond differently next time?” So there’s a lot of self assessment going on. And this is a good place to start with self assessment. It’s a safe place to start with self assessment, because usually everybody changes their strategy from the beginning through the middle to the end. And that’s good. That’s what they’re supposed to be doing. That’s called learning. [LAUGHTER] But it makes them aware of that learning. That’s how you do it. Yeah.

John: It sounds like there’s quite a bit of overlap between improving students’ critical thinking skills and improving students’ metacognition,

Linda: Absolutely.

John: Is it effectively the same type of strategy used in both cases? Or is it essentially the same process In both cases?

Linda: What’s different about it is with critical thinking, you’re dealing with real disciplinary content. And you’re not necessarily doing that with metacognition. Yes, self awareness is definitely a part of critical thinking. But that’s not all. I mean, you’re actually trying to come to some sort of conclusion or solve some sort of problem, maybe even decide to take some sort of action. You’re examining claims, you’re examining data, you’re examining sources, you’re examining a lot of different things along the way that you’re not necessarily doing in metacognition, but metacognition, it precedes critical thinking. I mean, if you’re not aware of how you’re thinking, how in the world, are you going to come up with a well reasoned approach to a problem? So there’s a lot more. You’re using metacognition, to extend reasoning into something that is disciplinary based.

Rebecca: I’m so glad we’re having this conversation today. Because I’m working on a new class where practicing thinking moving into higher-level classes is the goal of the class. And so I was working on a lot of reflection assignments. So I was just doing a little editing while we were chatting. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Oh. alright, See, I’m glad this is useful, and that’s the whole thing. I want that book to be useful. And that’s what makes it, I think, different from the other books out there and critical thinking, because most of them are in a particular silo, they’re coming from a particular silo, they’re may be extending that silo in some way. And I was looking for common ground across multiple silos, and then maybe not all of them, but multiple silos, I tell you one thing that they all have in common, they all say that critical thinking involves metacognition or self regulation.

John: And I remember reading a really good book on creating self-regulated learning.

Linda: Oh yeah, that one, yeah.

John: That might be something we’d recommend to faculty.

Linda: Yes.

John: We’ll include that in the show notes as well.

Linda: Okay, good. Yes, indeed, I’m glad I wrote that book beforehand. I really am. [LAUGHTER]

John: And it ties in nicely with a lot of your discussion in the book. In this new book, you’re also addressing how specifications grading could be used. And I know there’s a really nice book on that as well.

Linda: Oh yeah, yeah.I remember that one.

John: You mentioned that when you grade things, that it doesn’t necessarily require a lot of work for the faculty member. Could you just talk a little bit about how specifications grading could be used to evaluate these types of activities?

Linda: Sure, absolutely. First of all, all assignments, not courses, all assignments are graded pass/fail, and for that matter tests, but you don’t pass either a test or an assignment at a C level, you raise your expectations to a B level. But guess what, you’ve got to know what components in that essay or that paper or whatever that design that you want to see to achieve a B level. Now, if you already have rubrics, fine, you can start looking at the top level of the rubric and maybe take a few from the next one down. But those are the things that have to be in the piece of work for it to pass. And by the way, you explain this to students. Now the stakes suddenly become higher for students. So guess what? They read the directions? Isn’t it wonderful? They do, they want to pass. Now, initially, they don’t believe that they could possibly fail at anything because of partial credit. Well, guess what, there is no partial credit here. But they won’t believe it till they fail something. So you always want to give them some get out of jail free cards, so they can maybe fail a couple of times, and then redo the assignment the correct way, because they realize, “Oh, he or she is really serious about this. Oh, goodness. Okay.” So yeah, they really start reading the directions and doing what you asked them to do. And you know what? If they’re worried that they’re not doing it, they visit you, they call you, they email you, they actually ask for clarification, because this means something. And we’ve been lowering the stakes and lowering the stakes and lowering the stakes for years now, because we don’t want to cause them any stress. Well, you know what? We’re going to have to cause some stress. Learning is stressful, sorry. It’s just the way life is. So anyway, when you know what you want to see there, and this is where the thinking is… this thinking it might be before the course starts. So once the course starts, you’re on easy street, because all you have to do is look for those elements in the piece of work that the student hands in. Something missing? You mark which element is missing. If you want to make other comments, hey, far be it for me to tell you not to write comments. But you don’t have to, you don’t have to, and relatively short assignments. You don’t have to, unless you want to. I mean, if you’ve got a student, they had all the elements in that, you want to draw a happy face, knock yourself out. [LAUGHTER]

John: Or at least for the artists, among us. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Exactly. Now, if you want to go specs grading… because we’re talking about specs, we’re talking about specifications, like in a computer program, essentially… but you really have to look in the mirror and say, “What do I want my students to be able to demonstrate that they can do in this assignment, or on this test, or in this particular essay?” And that can be hard, because we’ve never had to be so specific, but this is what students love about specs grading. We get specific, we tell them what we want, they know what our expectations are, and they haven’t known, this might be the first time they’ve ever really known, what we wanted, because we have to be specific. And if we left out a specs that we wish we’d put in, well, better luck next semester, right? Just remember to put those in. But you can’t change those once you give students your list of specs. And then there’s bundling. With specs grading, you can also bundle assignments and tests together for various grades where students decide, “Oh, you know, you have to do so much work for an A, and it looks very difficult. I’m not going to go for an A. How about if I go for a B and that way this isn’t that important of a course to me. It’s alright.” And they might decide to go for a C. And you know what? what should you care? This is their decision, and if they’re going to be happy with a C, you can respect that. And otherwise, we look at C students like, well they were lazy and didn’t care and this and that. No, no, no. Students choose it for themselves. Fine. No problem. We don’t look down on our C students, as we unfortunately will kind of do sometimes. Anyway, but that specs grading. We’re on critical thinking and critical thinking, if you have the specs for something written, or a presentation for that matter, but if you know what you want students to show that they can do in terms of critical thinking, this is an easy way to grade, it really is. All the work is upfront.

Rebecca: Yep. It’s very time consuming upfront with what I’m doing right now. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: And it’s stressful. It’s stressful for us, because we “Oh, should I give this five points or six points?” Forget it. Don’t worry about that. And you know, students will go to you and argue for a half a point, they don’t mess with that with specs grading at all. They don’t do that. So it saves you a lot of wear and tear. And it’s better for your relationship with your students.

John: In large classes, how can you help students develop critical thinking skills if you don’t want to read lots of written work?

Linda: Ah, okay. Well, this is the beauty of groups. There are two methods that are particularly important in teaching critical thinking, there’s discussion, and that includes, by the way, debate…. debate’s really good, but discussion, debate. And you might have to do that in terms of just teaching in small groups. And that’s okay. Because the whole idea is that students are getting different points of view on a claim or a statement or something like that and then they have to defend it. But that’s all something that you can have students do in groups, those sorts of activities. Another thing that’s very important are some kinds of problems to solve. And I don’t mean the cookbook types. I’m talking about complex problems, fuzzy problems, if you will. And again, usually we have students work in groups for that, anyway. So that’s how you can teach it in large classes. It’s lovely if you have a small class, and everybody can hear everybody else’s statements and discussions and things like that. But if you don’t have that luxury, you can still teach critical thinking in large classes. And again, this is where spec grading can really, really shine. Because your grading time is cut to a fraction, an absolute fraction. Let me say one other thing. I talked about methods, but really the key to teaching critical thinking is questions, the questions that you ask your students, whether it be in class, or whether it be a writing assignment, or a paper or for a design or presentations, whatever it is, the key is questions. And each silo, each framework offers certain questions, that here you should have your students do this or answer these questions. So what I did was I put all of those together, synthesized them into a list of 45 critical thinking questions. Take your pick. Now, of course, you can look at your outcomes, and they make excellent assignments and questions and things like that. But these are general questions that make students think critically. And of course, you always follow up with “Well, gee, how did you come to that response? How did you arrive at that?” So anyway, there are certain questions that guarantee students are doing critical thinking and you have to adapt it to your particular class, but a lot of them, they go across the disciplines. And this is where you can see some of the similarities, like asking about the source of a claim, for instance, can you trust this source?”

Rebecca: How do we help students that come in with biases, preconceptions and things?

Linda: Oh, yes, absolutely.

Rebecca: …resisting facts. How do we start to overcome that?

Linda: Well, I think what you need to do is you start your course… you might have to start your course anyway… with selling critical thinking to your students. Because first of all, critical thinking is a skill that employers want. And I start my book with that, just so much evidence of that, say analytical thinking and that’s the same sort of thing. But there’s also beyond employment, there’s a quality of life. Now, if your students do not want to be suckers and fools, and if they don’t learn to think critically, that’s exactly what they’re going to be, suckers and fools. For instance, it takes critical thinking to avoid scams and shams. And if you google “scams,” you get billions of hits. It’s horrifying. Questioning and other things like they don’t know how to make sense out of popularized research studies. Well, a critical thinker knows enough to check those things. Advertising, that’s another place where you have to be very discriminating. And you have to critically think about “Well, what did that mean that such and such is twice as effective? Twice as effective as what? And what does ‘twice as effective’ mean?” There’s propaganda, fake news, disinformation, demagoguery, doublespeak, all this stuff to cover up the truth. And what students don’t know… a lot of people just don’t know… is there are fact-checking sites out there, there are quite a few of them. I talked about eight of them in my book, and how to get there and where it’s from, who puts this together. But it’s a good idea, I would say to give students an early exercise. And it could be, if you’re teaching chemistry, make it chemistry, if you’re teaching political science, make it political science, politics, to give them some fact-checking assignments. And if you’re worried about the politics, like all of these sites will call both sides of the political debate down on their lies or their distortion. So they’re fair that way. And so, if you want to get students to question their own politics, it’s great if you can get some good examples of things that they can go research where there’re lies on both sides, and that shows them that. But then they start realizing, “Oh, my god, there are lies. Oh, goodness, I’ve been believing all this.” There is Politifact.com. There is FactCheck. There is FlackCheck. There is OpenSecrets, Media Bias / Fact Check. There’s apnews.com/apfactcheck. There’s Snopes. There’s Truthorfiction.com. I mean, there’re all these sites. There’s so many of them, and that’s just the few that I talked about, because they tend to be better known. And they’re put out by like AP or something or Annenberg Foundation. And so that will teach them how much is garbage out there. Again, from both sides. Both sides in the political debate are full of garbage. But you also have debates going on in biology or in medicine. Remember, I’m sure you do, when they were saying, “Oh, coffee is terribly bad for you.” And then three years later, “Oh, it’s very good for you.” So it really hits all fields. Some of my very favorite ones is doublespeak. And I don’t know if students are aware of doublespeak like “servicing the target.” That’s military talk for bombing, to service a target. Yeah. “Neutralize” that means to kill. “Downsizing” means firing employees, “misconduct,” white-collar crimes committed by politicians, business leaders, military professionals, the police, that’s misconduct versus crime. “Detainee” is a prisoner of war. I mean, I could go on and on and on. And I do in my book.

John: You mentioned how important critical thinking skills are to employers. What does the evidence show about how effective colleges are in terms of helping students improve their critical thinking skills?

Linda: we’re not so hot, but it’s just put it that way. According to Academically Adrift, we improve the critical thinking skills of about one third of our students. Now, I don’t think that’s anything to celebrate myself. But I mean, at least we do that. But, these are often the students who came in with some critical thinking skills to begin with. The ones who need the help the most to critically think are not getting that help. They’re just not getting it. And so we’ve got to go out of our way to reach them. Again, most faculty think they’re teaching critical thinking when they’re not because they’re not consciously doing it. So there’s a sense in which we haven’t even scratched the surface of what we can teach in terms of critical thinking. And again, with all the different definitions out there, and all the different silos, I don’t blame faculty at all.

John: We can hope that your book will help reach more faculty and help us be more effective in this task.

Linda: Let me add one other thing that you can sell students on. Critical thinkers, and there’s research on this, tend to experience fewer difficulties in life than others do, whether they be health difficulties, financial, personal, legal, they just lead less troublesome lives. So if you kind of want to be happy, it’s a good idea to think critically, because it’ll keep you out of difficulty.

Rebecca: A good selling point, a good selling point.

Linda: Yes, it is a good selling point. [LAUGHTER] It is. And that’s just it. You might have to sell students on it. And you’re going to have to explain what critical thinking is to students, but they can take that pocket definition. It’s not negative thinking. It’s not just criticizing things. It’s nothing like that at all. And it’s not leftist, that’s not it at all. But they need that clarification because they’re coming in with misconceptions about what critical thinking is. And what the words sound like. Maybe it’s not a really good name for it, but that’s what we’ve been calling it. So we’re stuck with it.

Rebecca: It also seems like faculty make a lot of assumptions about students knowing how to analyze or how to interpret and what the question focus that you’ve indicated we should pay attention to, is really getting at that by asking the questions to get them to do the activity that we want them to do, when they might not know what that word actually means. Because it’s not been modeled.

Linda: Exactly, we should stop and model and then say, “You know, this is an analysis question that I’m asking you or that I just asked you.” We need to label things, so students get to understand what these cognitive operations are. And unfortunately, we make assumptions and studentsmight say, “Oh, analysis, that something a shrink does.” No, no, no, no, no, no. Interpretation. “Well, that’s something that people who read novels do.” No, we are all doing it all the time. So even chemists do interpretation. You interpret the data, and you can come up with different things.

Rebecca: And a lot of students get stuck right on describe, they don’t go much past that, and they don’t know that that’s what they’re doing

Linda: …or summarize. Yeah.

Rebecca: I’ve had conversations with students about those kinds of words before and it was really productive.

Linda: Yeah, yeah. because nobody’s really told them what these words mean.

John: It seems that higher ed is not doing quite as well as we’dlike in terms of increasing students critical thinking skills. Should this be an important focus for higher ed?

Linda: First of all, the buck stops with us. Otherwise, they go out into the world. And they could be adrift in general, without our teaching them critical thinking. They’re not likely to learn this in K through 12. I’m sorry. Oh, yes, they will in prep schools, but we don’t worry about those kids. So we have to keep people who are in power, and people with money honest, and the only people who really have ever wound up doing that are fairly well educated people. That’s why higher education is so important. And unfortunately, over the years… certainly, from when I was in college to now… the whole reason people go to college, and what they want out of college has changed. Now they want a job. Well, I hate to use this phrase. Back in my day, we wanted to develop a sound, sophisticated philosophy of life. Now that fits right in with critical thinking, critical thinking was very much a part of it. But now, that’s kind of like out the window. Well, to keep a job, you need to become a critical thinker. This is what employers need. This is what the world needs. And we can’t do good production without it. But even more important than that, we talk about freedom, for this society, any society, our freedom lies in our awareness of our patterns of human cognition, how they can be exploited, these patterns. And just, in general, our awareness of this worldwide pandemic of dishonesty in the pursuit of money and power, and it’s almost considered okay, because it’s all around us, we see it. Well guess what? It’s not okay unless we say it’s okay. So if we want to preserve freedom, we absolutely need this awareness. And it’s not like we’re doing something that hasn’t been done before. Because really, this awareness and this watchdog-type thinking really gave rise to a lot of successful movements, the environmental protection movement, the conservation movement, sustainability, recycling, stronger vehicle safety standards, and that’s just to name a few. And they all came out of critical thinking and awareness of where our weaknesses as human beings are. We all have a mind… well, almost all of us have a mind… and we need to know how it works so we can protect ourselves from all the advertising and scams and shams of demagoguery… which by the way, appeals to emotions… to all these different trips that individual institutions, organizations, corporations are trying to lay on us. And they are, because, hey, its profitable to lay the sawdust if we buy into it, we can’t afford to. We should not.

John: We always end with the question: What’s next?

Linda: Ah, yes. What’s next? Well, first of all, I hope getting back to travel.

Rebecca: Me too.

JON: Me too.

Linda: Yeah, exactly, exactly. Doing workshops and keynotes instead of this virtual nonsense where you’re talking into a screen. To see an audience tells me everything about what I need to do next in the workshop or in the keynote. But aside from that, I’m just finishing up another book: Online Teaching at its Best, the second edition. And in the second edition I talk about the kinds of teaching we’ve been doing lately, like remote teaching, hyflex teaching, Well, hybrid, we’ve been doing, but talking about it in another way. And in addition to the fully online learning that we talked about… Ludie Goodson and I talked about in the first edition… but the second edition has a lot more about what we’ve been doing lately because it’s possible universities and colleges might decide to keep some of this remote stuff. Hyflex is very much a disaster when you’re dealing with this pandemic and masks and all that. But, anyway, universities might say, “Hey, you know, it’s cheaper to do remote, we don’t have to build any more buildings, students can learn at home, hey, students might like that.” But again, they might not. But I’m afraid they’re going to do this with conferences, and it just makes me want to cry. Let’s do virtual conferences. We don’t have to pay hotel bills. And people don’t have to worry about getting travel funding. But in any case, it worries me that we’re going to get too accustomed to and accepting of, this virtual communication, which we all know, deep inside of our hearts, that’s not as good as human face-to-face contact. So anyway, but that’s next, that book will be coming out, I think, in the summer. And right now Ludie and I have the manuscript in but we’re still doing some pre-production stuff having to do with author queries, proofs, all that nonsense that makes you wish you didn’t write the book. [LAUGHTER] Writing is the fun part. This isn’t. But I’ll do it. I promise.

John: More information on effective online teaching, I think, is especially important these days. And I think we’re gonna see a lot more people doing it even when the pandemic is over, now that people have learned that it can work.

Linda: Yeah, it can work. But we just started doing these things, not knowing how to make it work. And learning has suffered, grades have suffered, and rigor has suffered. So far, no real good has come out of the switch. It can, it can, and that’s what the second edition will hopefully begin to do.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us again, and having such a rich conversation.

Linda: Well, thank you for this opportunity. This has been great. Thank you.

John: And our faculty very much appreciates all the work you did with ACUE as well, because they keep bringing up some of the things they learned watching some of your videos in that course.

Linda: Oh, good. I’m glad to hear that. Well, thank you ever so much for this chance to talk about a book that isn’t even out yet but that I’m truly in love with.

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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.

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175. Embracing Change

Faculty who had to shift to teaching online for the first time due to the pandemic were forced to confront their habits and typical ways of teaching in order to adapt to and support students in a new modality. In this episode,  Colin and Jonikka Charlton join us to discuss ways in which faculty and departments have embraced and resisted change during this transition. Colin is the chair of the Department of Writing and Language Studies at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Jonikka is the Associate Provost for Student Success and Dean of University College, also at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Faculty who had to shift to teaching online for the first time due to the pandemic were forced to confront their habits and typical ways of teaching in order to adapt to and support students in a new modality. In this episode, we discuss ways in which faculty and departments have embraced and resisted change during this transition.

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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.

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John: Our guests today are Colin and Jonikka Charlton. Colin is the chair of the Department of Writing and Language Studies at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Jonikka is the Associate Provost for Student Success and Dean of University College, also at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley. Welcome.

Jonikka: Thank you.

Colin: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Colin: I’m actually drinking blackberry sage, made by a company I don’t remember because I’m freezing, ‘cause It’s like 50 here. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That sounds really warm. I’ll go with that.

Jonikka: I’m just a water drinker. Colin’s the tea drinker in the family.

John: I am drinking a chocolate mint oolong tea.

Rebecca: Well, that sounds good.

John: It is. It was a gift from my son.

Rebecca: I was gonna say, I think that’s a new one for the podcast, John.

John: I think it is.

Colin: That’s pretty cool.

Rebecca: I have a new one today, too. I have a Palm Court blend from Harney and Sons.

John: Ok. We’ve invited you here to discuss some of the challenges associated with teaching writing during a pandemic. But first, could you tell us a little bit about how your institution has handled and adjusted instruction during the pandemic?

Jonikka: Yeah, I guess I’ll start from kind of a wider institutional perspective. I was honestly really surprised and really proud of the institution, because when we switched to online really rapidly in the spring, we kind of stayed there. And so there wasn’t a lot of pressure internally, or even externally, for us to have a lot of students on campus. And in the valley, the households are generally pretty large. So there are extended families, large families, living in the same household. And so the threat, I think, was a little bit higher, potentially, than in some other areas. And people having barbecues and family get togethers all of the time, it’s really, really important. So in the spring, we were completely online, we started having to distinguish between asynchronous modality and synchronous modality. And then we pretty much kept that for the fall semester, there were probably maybe 8,10 percent, a mix of hybrid courses and face to face. And then now in the spring, I was just looking before we got on here, and it’s about a third asynchronous, a third synchronous, and about 18% is face to face and the rest are hybrid. And we’re really starting, even those hybrid, are starting online. And hopefully, if we get as many people as possible vaccinated, then we maybe can move toward the end of the semester, a little bit more people onto campus. But that’s kind of the way we have. We did a huge investment in online faculty development over the summer. And so the fall was when we got to really test and see how that worked and get some feedback from students, which I’m sure we’ll talk about a little bit today.

Colin: I can speak from the developmental, and, I guess, the program level. So we did tons of training, as Jonikka said. I think the bulk of the response at the very beginning, whenever that was, I feel like it was a year ago, but it’s actually just a few months. So the bulk of it was invested in technology, both in terms of trying to figure out how to help students get access when they were sitting in Burger King parking lots trying to get Wi Fi at the very beginning, but that disappeared so quickly. So it’s like having whiplash from rapid response kind of triage stuff, like, something happens, Spectrum gives everybody free Wi Fi. We don’t have enough bandwidth to have more than so many Zoom meetings or recordings, and then we get an extension and now we have unlimited hours or something like that. It’s like being part of a really gigantic cable company, they keep giving you more stuff to try to make sure everything keeps working, [LAUGHTER] except the cable company actually works in your favor in this case. So there’s a lot of technology stuff, a lot of blueprinting for online classes. For faculty support, there emerged a need for psychological and wellness and self-care support. But that really wasn’t as much at the front of what was happening. But you can tell that people were starting to need it because there was a lot of discomfort and just unfamiliarity. And a lot of people doing things they knew they had to do, but they didn’t know how to do them with the technology side of it. And then from the program side, department side, at least in our department, we backed away from a lot of that and tried to offer something as an alternative to talk about concepts, because a lot of the work was in the logistics of getting things built and getting classes built, making sure people understood that you have to tell students how to navigate your courses, because that was a new thing for a lot of faculty, right? And at the same time, I’m trying to basically, not reinvent the wheel, but trying to get people in the department to have a talk about what engagement is and what teaching is, which I know probably sounds weird as a thing to do. But we had to have that discussion in a very small, private, disturbing, communication, like difficult conversations kind of moment. I guess it was conceptual training that was going on or retraining. And then there was also institutional support, that, I think probably allowed us to do the other because I don’t think if we had had the technology part stripped away from us or we had to be responsible for ourselves, I don’t think we would have found the space to do the wellness stuff and the conceptual training. I don’t know how widespread that was. I know every department handled it a different way. But we’re a big department. And we handle so many freshmen that we just had to do it for the writing program and for the language programs and all of those things, which went from zero asynchronous to literally 100% asynchronous writing classes over the course of the summer. That was a big lift.

John: That’s a pretty dramatic shift from going from zero to 100%. How did the faculty adjust? How did they come out of those difficult conversations?

Colin: At the Dean’s level, at least for our college, we were told we could let the faculty decide what they wanted to do in terms of their own level of comfort and preparedness, right? And so you had a few people who wanted to know just how protected were they’re going to make the classrooms because they couldn’t teach with a mask on and they couldn’t teach online. And so they felt like they had to have a situation where they were going to be with their students, and even getting some of those faculty to understand that they could only meet with half their students once a week and the other half. because of the room size constraints, like those conversations had to happen. So those faculty were incredibly stressed. And so faculty were making their own decisions. And I was trying to coordinate all of that, so that at least made sense, so that there would be as little damage done. Plus, I live with Jonakka, and she says things like “You don’t have any synchronous classes for writing. Are you stupid?” like, “What have you done?” [LAUGHTER] And she reminds me that I must have made a mistake somewhere, but that’s what faculty chose to do. But when you talk to the faculty who chose to do that, who I couldn’t believe some of the faculty that asked to do that, it was because they thought they were doing the students a favor, because it would allow the students to arrange the rest of their schedule. We get through summer, we survive the fall, we have already made the schedule for the spring. And then about half of those teachers said, “You know what, you were right. I want to do synchronous, but is that going to hurt the students?” And so those faculty had even more adjustments to make, I think, because they tried the asynchronous for the right reasons, but they lost more students than they were used to. They had difficulty with assignment completion, and all the things you have difficulties with every time you do a new class, but just kind of multiplied. But we have 97 people in the classroom in our department, that includes all the TAs, all the part-timers, everyone. So 43 of those are first-year writing teachers. And they were incredibly happy that 10 people blueprinted the courses for online asynchronous and just went with it. So that’s also something that you don’t often see. In a big program, you see a lot of people doing a lot of different things and asking if they can stretch the syllabus a little bit this direction. And nobody wanted to do that. Everybody was so worn out and tired. They were just like, “This syllabus is great, and when it doesn’t work in three weeks, I’m gonna blame you guys and feel just fine about all of it.” [LAUGHTER] So what does that mean? I guess there were new stressors they didn’t expect. And there were collaborative moments that they also didn’t expect. So they leaned into the stuff that you would expect them to be resistant to because of necessity, but they also then had better discussions, I think, about the purpose of teaching writing online, how you talk to students when you don’t see them in real time, that kind of stuff. I don’t think those conversations would have happened. So yeah, every time they would get comfortable, then it would be a new issue that came up about why are students disappearing and that kind of thing,

Rebecca: …a pandemic… time to get uncomfortable with being uncomfortable. [LAUGHTER] Right?

Jonikka: Yes.

Colin: Right. Learn to unlearn or learn to learn on a daily basis or…

Rebecca: …learn that you’re also a learner.

Jonikka: Exactly.

Colin: Exactly, and that it’s okay. I think that was the hardest part for our folks is, I set up teams and made people leaders that had never been leaders before for technology support to try to lift the burden away from the people you were expect to always go to because I knew what was going to happen. And that worked out great. But then they would also get lost in all the permutations of “Well, if you do it this way… if you do it this way.” So they burned through their need to explain how they do things in their class really, really quickly. Because you know how teachers do that thing there, unless I’m being unfair. It’s like, “Oh, let me give you three examples from my class about how great things go, or how terrible things go” …or whatever. They burned through all those anecdotes. And then they were left with the whole thing, like maybe the assignment really sucks and that’s why the students aren’t turning it in. Or maybe I was really boring on Monday and they just had to live with that. And that’s hard. [LAUGHTER] Is that not true, Jonikka?

Jonikka: I was just reminded, it’s really interesting to me that the writing program has a lot of really great teachers. It’s a very robust culture of teaching in that department at the institution. And so what I saw both there and across the institution was faculty who had their identity as being really great teachers who are able to engage students and their students come back and they do well. And so you saw a lot of those faculty whose students just disappeared, and then they were like, this has never happened to me before or not since I first started teaching. And so I think there’s that component of it, that it took us probably four or five or six months to get to that place when people realize I had a whole semester of this and I’m not having the same success I had before and I think we have to have conversations and find places for faculty to have those conversations and to know that it’s okay. It doesn’t mean that they were a fraud all along, or they didn’t do a good job and that sort of thing. So what you said reminded me of that.

Rebecca: It really is a different space.

Jonikka: Yes,.

Colin: Yes. And I don’t know how many of the teachers that were really stressed were stressed because of access. Because honestly, if you’re teaching face to face, and you have students that aren’t showing up, you have the same problems trying to contact them. I think we all have a sense that because we’re seeing people regularly, that we’re somehow seeing them more often, which is totally false. And so I had so many emails from faculty about how do I get in touch with students who won’t respond to me? And I’m like, I know what they were saying. But it’s a silly question, right? It’s like, “everybody who’s not here today, raise your hand” kind of question. You can’t get in touch with them, because they’re not paying attention to you. And you can’t make them pay attention to you if they’re not paying attention to you. But that reality was just heartbreaking for some of them. And we’re talking about people that are really just stressing over like having a 14% drop rate, because they’re used to having a 3% drop rate, or if like a DFW rate is like 3%. But our enrollment was up. What was it up, J?

Jonikka: it was like 18%, it was huge. We had a huge influx of new students in the fall, largest breaking enrollment and all of that. And so we also had the pressure of really huge classes. So that just exacerbated the whole thing, I think. We had lots of students who didn’t go to Austin, or they didn’t go to Rice, or wherever they stayed. A lot of that was that too.

Colin: And nobody wants to hear me say, and I’m the last person that wants to say it, but nobody wants to hear your department chair say, “Look, when you have a 16% increase in enrollment, you’re going to lose some people, because there have to be a high percentage of those people coming in who are somehow not college ready, or who are experimenting or who are at risk, and we have no way to help them or support them, because we don’t know why they’re here. Because this is unprecedented.” And so that doesn’t help.

John: Most studies have found that freshmen are much more vulnerable when they’re in online classes, the drop-fail-withdrawal rate for freshmen and even sophomore students is a lot higher than it is for upper-level students. Add to that a pandemic. And then you mentioned a lot of additional students coming whose plans were not going in the direction they originally anticipated, which just adds to all the stress. But having a drop-fail-withdrawal rate in that range is pretty low, actually.

Jonikka: Yes, it absolutely is. And he’s talking about like some really great faculty in his department. That’s not the case across the institution. And I remember back in April, May, as we’re having these conversations about modality moving into the fall… it’s great… and I’m supportive of the idea. And it’s kind of amazing, actually, that as an institution, we said faculty choose your own modality. A lot of institutions didn’t do that. But I was trying to be the consistent voice that was saying, “But could we at least make some more strategic decisions around classes that freshmen are going to take, because your sophomores, juniors, and seniors and your grad students, they’re going to be able to adapt in ways that our freshmen are not. It’s one thing for a first-year student to come in and have one class out of five or six on their schedule that’s online. But we’re in a situation where literally their entire schedule was online, none of the courses were organized in the same way, even though they may all be using Blackboard it just looks different, the whole classes operate differently.” And so I was really worried about that. And I was right to worry about that. Because as we moved into the fall, our first-year persistence rate from fall to spring is down about six and a half percent from where it normally is. And everyone’s really concerned about that. And of course, attention is also starting to shift to this year’s seniors and what that first-year experience is going to be like next year. We did a survey and I’m sure at some point, we’ll talk about the survey. But even the students who did well said this was not for me. Yes, my grades look okay, but I don’t feel like I learned what I needed to, so I’m going to stop out in the spring. And like, “I’ll catch you on the other end in the fall, when hopefully things are okay and we’re back in an environment in which I feel like I can learn.” And so that’s been really startling, I think, to some on campus. We’re trying to figure out what we have control over and what we don’t have control over and how you can shift an entire institution’s worth of faculty. We could not have moved and said everybody’s going to be teaching at a really high level. And I think too, the pandemic and what’s happened has just kind of uncovered some things about teaching and what was going on in classrooms that I promise you is going on in face-to-face classrooms. But now it’s been uncovered and people are concerned about it and more heightened awareness, I think, around it. But, that’s one of the opportunities too. I think it’s enabled us to say “Hey, let’s shine a light on and have those conversations about what teaching and learning really is about and how do we engage students?” And I was really happy when I heard a few engineering faculty say, “You know what, when we go back face to face, we didn’t know what we had, we didn’t know the opportunity that we were kind of squandering before in our face-to-face classes. Now they’re talking about flipping their classroom.” And I’m like, okay, that’s 20 years ago, or whatever. [LAUGHTER] But now you’re in that place where you see why that would be helpful to you, and what you could do differently when you go back face to face. That’s exciting to me. I haven’t been in the classroom in a while, but my first love and my first identification is as a teacher, and asking those things about learning and teaching and why we’re doing what we’re doing. I think it’s great that more people are doing that.

Rebecca: I think the same kinds of themes have come up in a lot of conversations that we’ve had over the last few weeks with guests about what’s happening between the fall and the spring and students timing out and faculty changing what modality they’re teaching in, and also just reflection upon what they might want to do in the future, too. So it’s kind of these interesting themes that are happening that may have not have happened otherwise, for sure. I know, Colin, you mentioned faculty choosing to be more synchronous, perhaps in the spring, can you talk about some other things that were learned from the fall that are going to improve the experience for everybody in the spring?

Colin: I think it’s across our department. And I think there’s a lot more people across the university, too that realize that there’s no such thing as a neutral delivery method anymore. And I think people like me and Jonakka knew that, because our training in teaching actually made us teach in different ties, even if we weren’t comfortable with them. The more people, I think, understand something that when I ran the writing program, however, many years ago, that was probably nine years, I remember telling people, your students who will turn in their assignments if you teach them how to do the whole course in the first week, and then just repeat over and over again. And a few people would do that, but very few people would do it because they do what teachers tend to do when they’re content focused, which is they say, “I can’t get through that many chapters of a biology book, if I take a week out to teach them how my class works,” or “I can’t have them read as many articles as I want them to read, because I’m taking this time out to basically train them metacognitively on how to actually take a Colin class.” Right? People complaining about that, they left my department and were replaced by strange little clones that wanted to say, “Hey, is there any way we can extend the first two weeks and just do an introduction about what online learning is?” And they got all these ideas and even like, I remember, we opened Blackboard a week early in the fall, but not at this spring. Our people were contacting their students and talking about how the course was set up. So I think there’s awareness. I don’t know how deep the awareness is. But there is an awareness with at least our people who teach 4000 freshmen a year that you’re not designing your class for yourself and your students, you’re designing your class for the students who go to four or five other classes, because they will drop you quicker than other people if they don’t feel like they have an anchor in your class. And sometimes that’s understanding how to navigate, sometimes that’s having a personal connection with a teacher, sometimes it’s knowing your peers’ names, whatever that engagement factor is, if they have it in your class, they will stick with your class, which means in a writing class, there’s more of a chance we’ll stick with their other classes, because we’re usually the ones that get dropped, I think. Either us or math, unless, J, you have different statistics. I think anecdotally, when we talk to students who haven’t been coming to class, and we find out they’re not doing well, they will usually stop coming to the writing class, because they feel like there’s no way to make it up. So I think there’s a sense across the writing instructors now that it’s not okay to build designs that work for 75% of the people. And then there’s this 10%, that will average out in the middle. And then there’s 10% that just don’t see how to get over the hump because they never have a success, or they never see an end product. And so they just cut that class. More like an algebra approach, you don’t understand the first three chapters of algebra and you feel like you’ll never be able to catch up because you have to know those things in order to move to the next. Actually, it’s a very forward thinking kind of threshold concept type of student that I’m imagining, because they really don’t feel like they can get enough under their belt to move forward. So I think we learned,as teachers, we’ve learned a little bit about that. I really hope that all the students that we worked with in the writing program, I hope that a large percentage of them took to heart what we said about having real conversations with their teachers and other students, there was a lot of conversations in our “Designing your life course” and in other courses where I saw students were constantly talking about setting up peer networks, or in our roundup and kickoff activities and that kind of stuff. They were constantly talking about the need to do that. But they had no idea how to do it online in online classes. They knew how to do it online. So as soon as people like me said, “I don’t care how you set up your community use WhatsApp, use whatever,” then it all went crazy. So there’s also I think, an understanding that students can organize themselves better than we can, or at least we should try to negotiate a way to organize ourselves that’s okay with the teacher and it’s okay with the students. Because nobody wants me teaching a Twitter assignment, because I don’t understand it. Like I don’t know how it works. But you also have to let students organize themselves in the peer network so that it will survive. And not just with team-building things because you don’t know how to run Zoom. And so you just force everybody into a breakout room because you somehow think that somehow is the same as having them work together in groups in classrooms. So I think we’ve learned quite a bit about design strategies, or at least design thinking, even if nobody’s going to call it that, but me. Maybe there’s a few other people at the university that will call it that.

John: You mentioned spending some time at the beginning of class, focusing on metacognition and helping students learn how to learn more effectively, is that something that’s widely done in the institution? Or is that something that’s becoming more widely done in the institution?

Jonikka: I would say it’s becoming more widely done. It’s very much at the heart of our first year writing program: metacognition, reflection, the whole thing. It’s just very built into the DNA there. And then we have a first-year experience course, that was kind of built on some similar kinds of principles. But I think some of the feedback from our student survey was that students felt their courses were completely disorganized. And they didn’t know when anything was due, they didn’t know when they were supposed to be working on something, or how to find what it was they were supposed to be working on. In some sense, that’s one of the easier things for a faculty member to address. Because it could be like a beginning of the semester video explaining how your course is organized or whatever. In terms of sticky teaching problems, that’s not terribly sticky, you can see a path forward to figuring it out and to helping students with that. My hope is that we can help those faculty transfer their understanding of that situation to their understanding of how to teach a project for a course, or when they make a big assignment. If it’s a writing assignment, or any other kind of assignment, that they recognize that the same metacognitive moves would be helpful for students. So I think that that would be an exciting thing to see happen. I don’t think we’ve had enough conversations yet about the feedback from students, both what we heard through our survey, but also what faculty may have heard through their course evaluations, or just their own experiences. I went to faculty senate before the break, and I had a number of faculty, and they were really good teaching faculty, talking about how they had gone through the blueprinting process and they had been asked to do all these assignments and stuff for every single learning objective and things like that. And they realized that they had gone too far, that they had overwhelmed the students. So now they were gonna back off after that. So they’re engaging in some metacognition themselves, which is good, and I think the more that we can encourage that in faculty, and then help them make the connection between what they’re learning and how they’re applying what they’re learning to the next iteration of the course, to what their students go through. I know I spend a lot of time having those conversations with my own faculty in my college. And now I’ll often say to them, I’ll try to find a gentle way of saying it, but like, I’ll say, “Would you think that’s okay from your students?” And how would you go about doing that with your own students and think about that for yourself. That’s my hope.

Colin: We also had a very small pilot for students as learners and teachers that at least that Alyssa Cavazos ran out of our Center for Teaching Excellence. And it was only five teachers, I believe, It may have been six, and I was one of them. But the other four teachers were from history, philosophy, I think it was physics, may have been just math, I cannot remember the other one. But they have never had a student observe them officially in a class. And we all spent an entire semester with a student partner, basically doing metacognitive work. And it did a number on me, and I know how to do that work. I respect student voices and I want them with me. And so it was really fun for me. It changed the other four people’s lives. And so there’s at least four other people in four other colleges, because we spaced them out around the university, who worked with a upper-level student about their classes and redesigning it and thinking about student reactions on a daily basis. And I hope we can scale that up somehow in a way that isn’t completely uncomfortable, but a little uncomfortable. Because the good parts are the uncomfortable parts. The good parts were where the students asked like, “How do we tell the teachers what we really think?” And the teachers were like, “How do I tell the student that I don’t really care what they think?” …like, those things happened at the beginning. And once they got over them, the conversations that happened as designers as co-designers were fantastic and amazing. And it was with people that are resistant, they wanted to be in the project. But they were not. They did not go into it thinking they were completely open to what a non- major student would say about their teaching as an observer that had been trained to observe. I hope that projects like that continue and thrive. And people don’t just let it go because things go back to normal and they don’t have something driving them to think about how to make their classes work better. It’s probably up to people like me and Jonikka to make sure they keep asking these questions and don’t just let them drop, right?

Jonikka: Well, we’ve been asking, the Interim Provost here and I, have been asking on a regular basis, like what will next fall look like? What will we basically have learned that informs what next fall looks like? And I don’t think most faculty were ready, at least before the break to have those conversations. Everyone is completely exhausted, students are exhausted, faculty, staff, everyone was just exhausted. And I think it’s gonna be a long while before we ever restore ourselves to some sense of space and ability to look at and reflect on the things that have happened in a way that enables us to move forward in a more substantial way.

Rebecca: One of the things that has come up in conversations I’ve had with arts faculty and writing faculty, here anyways, is the processing of what’s happening in a pandemic. That sometimes happens through writing or making in some way, or also the want to escape from what’s happening in writing or making. [LAUGHTER]

Jonikka: Yeah.

Rebecca: And that complex dance that’s happening and different people need some different things. Can you talk a little bit about how faculty in your departments tried to balance some of those needs, concerns, wants?

Colin: We had one faculty member who started a journal writing, like, initiative right at the beginning of everything. And it wasn’t because of this. He had wanted to start it and he was going to retire. And he just wanted to give it one last stab to see if he could recruit some people. The students that joined that I know and the faculty said that it was incredibly insightful, and they wanted to talk about their writing, and they wanted to journal and talk about what was going on. So that was really great for him as a faculty member. I know that there had to be a shift for… I know that this may be a weird way to answer the question, but it felt like there was a shift from faculty always pointing students towards more…. I guess what you’d call more scholarly resources, like a path that… I use that word with air quotes around it, but you need to learn more and so you go off and you look and reread more. And I remember, we were having a meeting and I was like, “Why? It’s a literacy narrative.” And you’re freaking out, because your students are doing a literacy narrative. And the high school students just got sent home, and their teachers aren’t making them turn their cameras on and they’re not talking to them. And then in the college version of the class, your students are able to do the types of work in the field that you would normally have them do, because we’ve got a pretty crazy experiential component to our first-year writing courses. And I was like, “Dude, they live with their families, just have them do interviews. Stop trying to reinvent the wheel and just own the space that you’re around.” And I remember somebody else saying, “Yeah, it’s like, when my students don’t want to turn their cameras, I say, well describe the perfect space, it’s at least a reason to get you to be creative and think outside of the box,” or whatever. And so students started drawing their own ideal spaces for their Zoom things when they left their cameras off. So there, I think there was a lot of shifting and deconstructing of the boundaries between what you see as your life and what you see as the real world and what you see as school. Not everybody’s comfortable with that stuff, either. But I think people had to find their own outlet or their own break to a certain extent. I give my students my cell phone, and then I labeled them by the course and the semester so I can remember them. But I had tons of students texting me in the middle of doing things in class because things weren’t working, or somebody didn’t show up, or whatever, or they needed me to come into a group. When I told people I was doing that, the people that were having trouble managing people in multiple rooms that were kind of privatized, they’re like, “Oh, my God, that makes so much sense. I’ll just have them go on R emind and tell me when things go crazy, or tell me when it hits the fan or whatever.” And so all these people that think they know technology and how to communicate really well, they didn’t really know how to communicate really well in the new classroom environment. So I think they had to find a way to do that. So your personal chats with your teacher, those went crazy for a while, I think mine are still too crazy. People having jam bands, you know, after class, or I think we had a few departmental after hours cocktail parties or something. We had all kinds of weird ways of socializing with some of the groups. Not a ton, though. I think, from what at least the writing program teachers told me was what they really missed the most were the unexpected, spontaneous conversations they have with students and faculty, which you can’t replicate by having Zoom meetings where everybody learns the song and plays together. Like you can’t force the hallway conversation, which is why I always go in and like Zoom bomb Jonikka whenever she’s in an important meeting. She’s right across the hallway, and those people don’t laugh enough. But I’m the only guy at the university doing that, [LAUGHTER] like stand up comedy to try to break the fourth wall with people, because there’s so much investment in just getting through meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting. So I’m sure there’s more clowns at our university than just me. But there’s a small cohort of clowns and Jonikka knows all of them.

John: You mentioned some of the problems with engagement or with students making connections with other students. What techniques have people tried or will be trying this spring to help improve the development of more community in either asynchronous or remote synchronous instruction?

Colin: I think there’s a move in our program to have a version of teamwork or the idea that students develop an ability to do teamwork, or work together to finish a project and have different responsibilities. It’s a complicated definition. But I think people are moving away from longer collaborative projects, and they’re moving towards more, do the work in class in a small group, get something accomplished, present on it, and then rotate out. And then having students form their own communities for projects outside of it as support groups. So there’s more small team work in class that actually has a product attached to it. So I’ll give you an example. There’s a difference between having students get into a group to deconstruct a reading and then piece together an interpretation of a reading, made from five different groups working with different passages from the text. That’s a very different exercise in a face-to-face class than what they’re doing when they have students create a message from scratch, using some kind of social media outlet, using a pandemic context and trying to create a flyer that would get people’s attention to do some activity. And then to have that whole thing go from prototyping and ideation all the way to design and testing. That’s not something that I think the teachers knew how to do, or wanted to do to start with. So engagement wise, it probably would make a lot of teachers that I know mad to say it, but they really do need to feel like they’re entertained, because they’re enjoying what they’re doing. Not necessarily entertainment just for fun sake, it’s that there’s a felt sense that they need to enjoy what they’re doing, if that’s you being a clown, and they actually will engage with you and learn something, and they just use you as the magnet, that’s cool. But if it’s doing small projects that have a finish line to them and during the class, then that’s fine too. Or if it’s having your students teach the class, which is what I was doing, having different groups teach every week, so that it’s not just me that’s responsible for distributing knowledge, it’s more people doing knowledge. Jonikka too, would tell me this probably isn’t as widespread as I feel like it should be. But there’s a need, I think, for students to be the knowledge makers. And I think that there’s more evidence from what I’m seeing in my department that people let students talk through their ideas as they were developing and that that made students more engaged. It’s completely counterintuitive to a lot of our faculty, because they think that what they really want to see is what happens when the students finally get it. And I keep telling them over and over again, “No, you want to see the process, you want to be with them while they get it, you don’t really care that they get it because at that point, you have to move on to a new idea.” But I think they’re having to flip their own ideas about those “aha” moments, because the moments don’t really work anymore. The moments are just like, “Oh, I got it,” but then that person’s muted, and they’re off on their own direction. And so I think there’s a lot of us working with students to set them up in pairs or small groups, and then kind of coaching them on how to be with one another. That sounded really weird, but coaching them how to be with one another and work together. So that when they’re off on their own, they will have that as a habit to come back to when they don’t have you. And I’m sure that’s what we do in face-to-face classes as well. But it’s really, really different in an online, especially in a Zoom, environment. But in an asynchronous environment, I always said that being online was two and a half times as much work. But the amount of matchmaking of ideas that I had to do online through discussion lists that basically quote one person and pull them over and have them engage with another person in a conversation. That was my entire life at teaching for that last semester. It was just trying to manage a conversation and create a community of people who were basically posting and responding and then leaving… this, “here’s what I think. I’m out of here.” So I don’t think we’ve figured out the perfect strategies for any of that other than you have to listen to your students. And when they’re engaged, you have to immediately ask them, even if it’s very uncomfortable in class, “Why did you say that?” or “Why did you feel like that was really cool?” Like, “How did you come up with that?” like, there was a whole lot of asking students to expose how they came up with ideas and why they connected things that I did, that I always do a couple of times in a class in a meeting, but not as much as I needed to do it here. So it was really more like “That’s a great response”or whatever. “Talk us through how you came up with that.” So a whole lot more of asking students to teach the rest of everybody what they just did, which I guess is kind of engaging by example. It’s a kind of having the students be models instead of always expecting texts or pieces of writing or reading to be the models for the students when they leave your classroom. It’s a hell of a lot more work. I’m pretty sure that this is the way Jonnika and I always taught because I’m very comfortable with it. But teaching people to do it when you’ve been doing it for so long, is incredibly hard. And then telling them that it involves a whole lot of trust on your part for students, and then finding out that that’s not actually something that people have a lot of… that’s kind of hard too to cope with. There’s not as much trust as there needed to be or assumed trust that you can ask students to pick up the baton, or whatever the metaphor is, and take the lead on explaining an idea, I thought that was a whole lot more prevalent than it was. And so there’s a whole lot more of that that has to happen. A whole lot more of trusting of students, a lot more work in the first-year experience to try to get people to help students become leaders before they’re sophomores. I think there’s a lot of work to be done there, that can be really fun. Why are you smiling, J?,

Jonikka: I was just about to say, I’m going to be the Debbie Downer here. I don’t think we do this really well. I just think across the board, we’re not doing a good job at creating community, and making those connections for students. And like I said before, I really think it’s not new to the online environment so much, I don’t know that we were necessarily really great before. And I do think more people were able to do it in person than are able to do it online. And I do think that the technology is causing us some trouble. So down here in the valley, certainly not all students have access to Wi Fi, many of them are driving up to the Burger King parking lot, or driving up to our parking lot, or whatever. So even when faculty are making the choice to be in a synchronous environment, they’re not necessarily doing anything engaging in that environment. Actually, our son was in some synchronous classes last semester, and he would talk about how the teacher would call on the students to respond to something or answer a question or something. And then the student would have to unmute themselves and say, hold on a second, I’m with the customer, or whatever, because they were at work. And they were just listening to class. And so they at least did unmute and respond. But it’s very hard to imagine how you create a community out of that when you’re not able to take advantage of the moments when you’re in real time with one another. And lots of feedback from our survey about the black screens in Zoom, and how awful it felt to everybody and a lot of empathy on the students’ part for the faculty member. Like I cannot imagine what it must be like to try to teach to a screen full of black screens. So it was uncomfortable for them, uncomfortable for the faculty member. And so I think we need to do a lot better job of lifting up those faculty who have found those strategies that are working for them and to recognize when it’s people like Colin or some of the people who… really a lot of that engagement comes from charisma on the part of the faculty, you can’t replicate that with everyone. So what are those strategies that people are using? I’ve heard some people, it’s a different app that they’re using, or something like that. But the kind of things are available to everybody that are in Blackboard and things like that, you saw all these people move to using discussion boards, and now everybody hates discussion boards. Because it’s the same rote practice, write a couple, read a couple. respond to them, there are memes about it now. So students are making fun of it, and rightfully so. It can be difficult, and then you put the faculty member in the position of “Okay, now I either have to read them and treat them with the respect that they deserve or I just take it as you put in your time and you did your task and we’re done.” I don’t have any particular examples that I can share with you, which is terrible, and more probably a sign of me just not talking with enough faculty members. But I just worry that it’s not enough yet. And even as we move into post pandemic, there’s going to be more of a mix of online and different modalities. And so it’s not like the conversation stops now. I think it’s just maybe we’ll have a little more peace of mind to have those conversations as we move forward. But that engagement piece is absolutely critical. And I’m certain it’s why a lot of our persistence rates, fall to spring, are down and things like that. I don’t know how long students will have patience for it, I guess is what I’m saying.

Colin: I have one practical strategy that I remember. See, you were a Debbie Downer…

Jonikka: There you go.

Colin: …but I remember the positives, so…

Jonikka: OK..

Colin: That’s why we’re married. I think teachers need to see the time in class, they need to completely redesign how they imagine that… I think ours is an hour and 15 minutes for a normal class… and never unimagine the potential for when they go back to different modalities. And it’s not just synchronous meetings, or asynchronous meetings, or asynchronous work with occasional voluntary meetings and that kind of thing is that the work that happens in class should probably be social and it should be structured and designed around community instead of being designed around: “This is a list of outcomes that have to be done before the end of this class.” More like these are lists of prompts of things that we’re going to try to address. Because the thing that I think made a lot of difference with some of our faculties… I coached them on how to do a green room… and maybe everybody was doing this and I just was too busy to notice that it was a trend or something… but not to have time before class and not to worry about seeing people in the hallways because they weren’t there. They weren’t any hallways and not to join your class early. But to literally have 10 minutes of a green room time at the beginning of a class meeting where everybody is mingling and talking and checking in with each other. And then to have 10 minutes at the end of class where you basically do the same thing, and people head off or they don’t head off. And what you saw when you started doing that in your classes, or what we saw, was that the students were showing up because of that time, and they needed that time, and they needed a different kind of entry into the class. And we had to coach them, it wasn’t an easy thing, it wasn’t a normal thing, because it’s not like being on your friend’s chat room or something. It’s still weird and awkward, and someone who forces everybody to do icebreakers and games, unless that’s just their thing, that’s going to be also awkward, but to have the time to talk to each other as human beings, and it not be like creepy, was incredibly important, I think, to have built into the class, as a normal part of being in the class because there were no breaks. Students were just going from class to class work to work. I had students get pulled over in cars, while they were in my class, doing presentations, like all kinds of crazy stuff happened. But in my classes, at least, they knew each other’s names, and they knew how to contact each other within the first few days, because we were doing those meetings. Now, they all told their friends that Colin’s classes are easy, because he doesn’t teach the whole time. But yeah, I was teaching, it was an experiment in social engagement, or whatever. But it, of course, changed what I could do during class time. But I think it was important for me to build that in. And I don’t think I will ever remove it again from my other delivery and modalities. The discussion boards are a joke, unless they’re an extension of an actual discussion. So if you’re not teaching your students how to have the actual discussion, then discussion boards are just going to be habitual writing behavior, and nothing new is going to come out of them. And so I think you have to learn how to be with your students that way. It’s probably not something a lot of people would be comfortable with, but I think it’s an actual practical strategy. You have to bookend your classes with at least the opportunity for engagement, where it’s low risk, but high impact talking with your students. Not in a conference, just talking with people.

Rebecca: I think that’s one of the key things that’s missing in online learning for students is just their general social community. So maybe we weren’t doing that in a physical classroom previously, but they had their actual social circles happening, they were able to connect with other students, and that existed for them. But when everyone’s in online classes, that part of the college experience is very difficult to facilitate. So that then became an academic part of college as opposed to just the social piece, I had the same kind of experience in my class, when there was that social time or whatever, they bonded a lot, and it helped a lot.

Colin: Yeah, I remember one student telling me, are we ever gonna stop changing group? And I was like, “Dude, all you have to do is say it. We’ll stop changing groups… keep the same group for two weeks. Two class meetings later, “Could you please get me out of this group, I cannot stay working with these people anymore.” [LAUGHTER] And I was like, “So I don’t know. What is the silver bullet?” They’re like, “Just go back to what you were doing before. I thought I wanted the same people. But my God, I do not want the same people.” But that whole class had a conversation about that and had a big joke about it, like who’s not going to be put in which group and they’re just like, “He’s gonna have to randomize everything, because if we start talking about who we like, and don’t like, [LAUGHTER] it’s gonna get really awkward really quick.” But you can have that conversation when the group has developed that sense of community. If it’s just me assigning names to stuff, then you’re not really having a conversation about why you’re doing it.

Rebecca: And each group is a bit different. I had students that asked for two different persistent groups that they just rotated between.

Colin: Yeah, now, that’s metacognition.

Rebecca: Ok. We can do that. I’m not sure how that’s gonna work. [LAUGHTER] But we can try that. And by the end, I think they thought, “Well, okay, that was an interesting experiment. Maybe we don’t want to do that again in the future, but you know…”

Colin: That’s great. I’ve got my aAclub, and I’ve got my B club, but I really can’t handle you guys today, so I’ll go with the B club.

Rebecca: Well, they had the project team, and then they had a different circle or whatever.

Colin: That’s great.

Rebecca: I could make it happen, so I did.

John: How have students on your campus responded to all the changes they’ve seen in instruction resulting from COVID.

Jonikka: I think one of the really interesting things that came out of our survey, which I’m curious to hear if any of you heard anything on your campuses, is that students consistently said they had more work to do in the fall than they had ever had to do before. And so every time I get a chance, I try to engage somebody in a conversation about this, because I think there are so many different complex things going on. I think, in many cases, students literally were doing more things than they did before. And part of that was a consequence of the online environment. So rather than having a discussion in class, they were having to write responses to the same kinds of questions that faculty might ask in class or something like that. So I think there’s actually more of that going on. And I think that faculty, through a lot of professional development things that we did were introduced to all these gadgets and tools and things, and then they started using them. And so they weren’t necessarily doing similar kinds of things in the face-to-face environment. Students when they’re going to class face to face… I think there was a lot of activity and a lot of work that was going on in class that they didn’t classify as work. It didn’t feel like work. But now because they’re having to do it while they’re at home or someplace else, now it’s homework or whatever. I read a little tidbit in The Chronicle at one point in the fall, it was kind of a national phenomenon that other people were reporting the same kind of thing. But I’m just really curious if we ended up having any deeper conversations about this, because I think it’s really easy for faculty to say, “Well, no I’m not” and for faculty to say, “Well, yes, you are.” but to have the conversations about what that lived experience really is like, and to be able to negotiate. Some of those faculty here did who said, “Yeah, I really did go too far. So now I have to rethink what is the most important things,” and maybe I’m hoping it leads to some like projects that are scaffolded, rather than 1000 little things that they asked students do, that are disconnected.

Colin: …or they’ll be a revolutionary cry for passive learning again, from students?

Jonikka: Well, we did hear a lot of that, we did hear some of that, like, just give me a few tests. And that’s it. I was like, “Oh, no, that’s not good, either.” [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve been hearing a lot of the same thing. And I think the surveys done in the SUNY system are affirming that as well, that students do feel like they’re doing more work. And partly, I think it’s because in the past, when there was a lot more passive learning, faculty would give students readings to do and then assume that they had read them. And now as more people have moved to a flipped learning environment, they’re giving them what they used to give as a lecture, except now they’re adding some questions and some quizzes to it. Where now students are graded on having done it. So now they actually have to do the readings…

Jonikka: Right.

John: …in ways that might not always have happened in the past. I think some of it is faculty, were often assuming that students were doing all this work, because that’s what the faculty had done when they were students, forgetting that they were not a random sample of the student population. So I think there’s a little bit of recalibration, perhaps, that needs to take place. {LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah, I think too the class time that you’re mentioning too Jonikka was definitely something that I experienced, I teach in a studio program. So our class time, if we’re in synchronous time, we’re in class for six hours a week. And then students are used to having homework. So workload in general, these students are used to work, they’re used to doing a lot, but I didn’t have so much complaints about too much work. But I think it’s too much independent work, because I was teaching, partly synchronous and partly asynchronous. And I am in the spring teaching synchronously and setting a time in class to do the same kinds of exercises and things that I would have done if we were face to face because I just needed scheduled time to do the activities and some of that guidance. And they were really asking for that. We started off with meeting only once a week at the beginning of the week, which they liked. And then they kept asking for a little more and a little more and a little more. And next thing, you know, I was pretty much teaching synchronously. [LAUGHTER] You know, not completely, but it got pretty close by the end of the semester, because it was helping them to have some structured time because they weren’t managing their own time. Although I would say this is going to take this amount of time, you’re used to being in class for six hours, we’re only in class for two, you have that four hours, that’s still class time, that’s not even homework time. So it feels like it’s a lot, especially if they’re not used to it.

Colin: There’s probably a whole book to be written about timely motivation too, because listening to what you were saying, part of the issue I noticed was that students who are usually coming to face-to-face classes, they will plan to freak out because they haven’t done what they needed to do. And they will come to you either at the beginning of class or during group time, or at the end of class. That doesn’t work in Zoom. I remember having conversations during the end of the semester about when you go next semester, talk to your teachers the minute you think there might be something wrong, so that you can figure out how you’re going to talk to them. Because I think you all need to learn how to talk to people more quickly. Because you’re waiting, and thinking there’s going to be a moment and then you look up and there’s nobody around you. Nobody in your family understands what you’re going through with those classes, your friends are freaking out and don’t want to show weakness, or they’re already messed up or upset or passed you. And so there’s no timely motivation. It’s just it happens to happen. But it doesn’t happen to happen online learning, at least it doesn’t in my experience. And so I don’t know that we can build those things in. But I think you could make a whole career out of trying to figure out how to recognize when you need to be timely and motivated for a student and not be really creepy about it. Like “Oh, tell me what’s going on.”

Rebecca: And we all know that those moments aren’t happening because we would have those moments with colleagues and they don’t happen in meetings now either.

Colin: Yeah. Okay, everybody take a beat. We need to talk about what’s going on with Jonikka. [LAUGHTER] That’s only gonna happen in my meetings.

John: And there’s a lot of stressors caused by the pandemic and I think that’s a part of it. People are feeling overwhelmed. It’s harder to stay focused. There’s so many things going on in the world that are very distracting and concerning to everybody.

Jonikka: Yes.

Colin: I’m distracted by the distractions.

Rebecca: We always end by asking what’s next? …which always seems really big as we’ve had these episodes during the pandemic, but what’s next?

Colin: I need season nine of the British baking show to come out very very soon…

Jonikka: That’s true.

Colin: …for my own wellness and sanity. [LAUGHTER]

Jonikka: I think for us, one of the big things that’s next is that we’re taking advantage of some of the CARES dollars and things like that, that are coming in to support faculty professional development on a scale that I have never seen before. So we’re trying to do something, this kind of series that is going to be focused on faculty teaching first-year students. And so really taking a different approach than we’ve ever taken before. And really focusing, I think, in some ways more on the affective pieces, like, “Who are these students? What has their experience been?” Well, honestly, that’s just good faculty development, but we’ve not really done it in those kinds of ways necessarily before. What are their experiences? How do they learn? And bringing students into that conversation too like, “What did it feel like to be part of classes that operated in these kinds of ways?” And so really getting to the heart of where we started this really just about the teaching and learning piece, and what does it mean? And what shared values and shared understandings of what it means for students to be actively learning in a class. And what does that look like different? Why is it so special and important for first-year students. So that’s what we spent at least the last 24 hours, feverishly,trting to figure out what we can do for that, and how we can build those student observers and feedback givers into that process as well. And try to get at least 60% of the faculty who teach the majority of their workload with freshmen to do that. So again, that’s something that Colln and I probably have wanted to do for 20 years. We could have done it any of those years. But it means something different in this context now, where we’ve got our next freshmen class is going to have had an entire year and a half of their four years of high school be almost nothing. I mean, we’ve got one 21 year old and one almost 16 year old. And so we’re kind of seeing it firsthand what’s going on with these students and what it means for them to learn and be in school. And so we’re gonna have to reckon with that as faculty. And so I think now’s a good time to have those kind of real fundamental conversations.

Colin: Even though I ramble a lot and talk all the time and, as Jonikka told me today in another conversation, for somebody who loves to talk about all the intricacies of things, there are things in my life that I absolutely refuse to talk about. I’m not the most comfortable social person in the world, especially when it comes to difficult conversations that affect things like equity and diversity and how people’s identity are tied to the teaching. And I can make a joke, and I can point out something insightful, and then kind of run away while everybody’s laughing. But I think this last year has taught me, kind of along the lines of Jonikka with the affective stuff and thinking about students that way, is that I’m going to have to be a actual active sponsor of difficult conversations, and try to get other people to do that with me, because a lot of the things that have been happening in different groups I belong to, it really is all about sponsorship, it really is like all of the conversations are about listening to people and trying to have a conversation when people need to have it instead of figuring out how to put it off until a time when you can deal with it. And at least this last year has taught me that you can’t put any of those things off, because in 24 hours, somebody could lose it, or somebody could solve the problem and move on to the next bit. And so I literally was thinking I better remember to tell you guys to have a good weekend when we’re done. And then and then Rebecca was talking, I was like, dude, I think it’s Tuesday. It’s Tuesday talk time Colin, it’s not Friday yet. [LAUGHTER] So I don’t have any sense of time anymore. But I think that might be a good thing. I wasn’t joking about the timeliness thing. I think Jonikka and me and other people that are in positions where we’re responsible for trainings, I think we have to make sure that part of those trainings, deals with people’s need to have conversations they really don’t want to have. So if there’s a conversation about merit, and how we’re going to figure out merit one year, maybe we should have a conversation about why you deserve a raise, and what’s good teaching, instead of worrying about counting things. And if we’re going to talk about shoving something to do with equity into a training session, why aren’t we talking about having it as part of every session? And what would that change? And who needs to deliver it? And so I think there’s a lot of challenging conversations about student perspective, about equity and diversity, and about what good teaching is, or not even that, I think it’s about what do we really want to see happen in a classroom that is successful? And what does that mean for the teacher and it’s okay for it to be something different for the teacher than for the student. That’s actually why it’s interesting, because they’re both getting different things out of it. But I don’t think we have the language for learning from each other. I don’t think we’re that advanced in having a language about how that happens between teachers and students. I know that there are experts that have affective terminological screens and they understand how to deal with the way the brain works. I don’t think people that are good at teaching and people that are good at psychoanalyzing have really figured out how to mesh the thing so that it works for everybody in a way that you can have that conversation. So when I say we need to train our students how to talk to their teachers, I actually mean that. I don’t mean we need to train them how to write an email that doesn’t offend their teachers, because it’s grammatically correct. I mean, literally, I wish I would have figured this out five years ago and taught Ian, our 21 year old, how to start a conversation with one of his college teachers, and how to think about how to start it differently with one than the other. Somebody should have taught him that in a writing class, probably one of my teachers, but I should have taught him that too. As soon as I realized that he needed to have that conversation with somebody else instead of with me. So I think there’s a whole lot of react to the student in front of you and just fix it right there. And not as much training in the listening part and the having the difficult conversation. And having a moment where you can trust each other, I think we’ve got a whole hell of a lot of work to do in that area. So that’ll be fun for the next 15 years of our life… be an affective czar of an institution. There’s not enough going on, right?

John: And the pandemic and the shift online has exposed so much inequities that our students are dealing with. And that’s particularly true for first-generation students. And that’s something I think that all colleges are now being forced to face in a way that they had chosen to ignore for a very long time.

Rebecca: So yes, many difficult conversations in the future [LAUGHTER]. Good call. Colin. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. This was really interesting, and I think has a lot of important things to think about, not just into the spring, but into the fall and many future semesters.

Jonikka: Thank you.

Colin: Thank you guys for talking with us and listening to us.

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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.

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174. HyFlex in Practice

 Many campuses saw the HyFlex modality as a panacea that could resolve the many challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this episode, Kevin Gannon joins us to discuss his campus’ experiments with HyFlex during the Fall 2020 semester.

Show Notes

  • Gannon, K. M. (2020). Radical hope: A teaching manifesto. Journal of Public Relations Education, 6(2), 193-199.
  • Beatty, B. (2014). Hybrid courses with flexible participation: The HyFlex course design. In Practical applications and experiences in K-20 blended learning environments (pp. 153-177). IGI Global.
  • Beatty, B. J. (2010). Hybrid courses with flexible participation-the hyflex design. Unpublished manuscript. Retrieved from http://itec. sfsu. edu/hyflex/hyflex_course_design_theory_2, 2.
  • Gannon, Kevin, (2020). “Our Hyflex Experiment: What’s Worked and What Hasn’t.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. October 26.

Transcript

John: Many campuses saw the HyFlex modality as a panacea that could resolve the many challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this episode, we discuss one campus’ experiments with HyFlex during the Fall 2020 semester.

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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.

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Kevin Gannon. Kevin is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of History at Grandview University. He is also the author of Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto, which is available from West Virginia University Press. Welcome back, Kevin.

Kevin: Thanks. It’s great to be here again with y’all.

John: It’s good to talk to you again. Our teas today are:

Kevin: I am actually just drinking water today, I am on a goal to stay a little more hydrated. I was sick over the break, so I’ve just got a big old cup of water.

Rebecca: I had a nice pot of golden monkey prepared, but I drank it all. So now I’m drinking [LAUGHTER] Scottish breakfast tea.

John: I’m drinking ginger peach green tea. I had four or five different types of tea today, and I’ve moved to a lower caffeine green tea so I can maybe sleep tonight. We’ve invited you here to follow up with our discussion earlier about the plans for the fall. You were planning to use the hyflex modality there, and we wanted to just check back and see how things went, what worked and what perhaps didn’t work as well as everyone had hoped. I think most people know what a hyflex course is now, but maybe just a quick statement of what hyflex is might be helpful.

Kevin: Sure. So hyflex stands for hybrid flexible. And as it was developed as a modality by Brian Beatty and some of his colleagues at San Francisco State University in graduate ed tech program, they envision classes where students would basically have three pathways to attend, defined broadly: one could attend in person, one could attend the class synchronously but via a video conferencing service online, or one could attend that is engaged with the class asynchronously and online. And the flex part of it is that students have the choice of which of these three modalities that they will use and the expectation and reality is that they will shift back and forth between those three, maybe landing on one that they adopt consistently or maybe staying in a sort of state of variation or flux throughout the term.

John: Why was this so popular with so many campuses this fall?

Kevin: I think for a few reasons. One, we all knew that, in-person traditional college experience was not going to be a thing. Despite the best efforts of a few institutions to put in place a magical thinking strategy [LAUGHTER] and assume that it was. But we also had varying degrees of what in-person might look like in mind. The California State Systems said we’re going to be fully online, period, and they made that decision very early. Other institutions like mine knew, as in our case as a small liberal arts college, that a lot of our students really wanted and needed that in-person experience. But we also knew we couldn’t do that normally and still be safe. Hyflex offered a way to sort of do both, and in our case, have students attend in person, but at a reduced number in socially distant classrooms, for example. But, I think the other big reason that it was so appealing was the flexibility it had for both students, and then faculty and staff. So for students who could not travel back to campus, for example, they might be in several time zones away. So is there a way for them to attend online asynchronously? And then also for us. What if we had to go fully online again. Hyflex, as you build classes that have an online modality already, and I think the thinking was that what we did in March was more emergency remote teaching than it was actual online teaching and learning. We were probably not going to be able to get away with that again, and our students will hold us to a higher standard. And so I think what hyflex offered a lot of institutions… I know this is true for Grandview, my institution… was that it would have us preparing for that eventuality well ahead of time, so if we did need to go full remote, it wouldn’t be the sort of abrupt lurching around off of some cyber cliff that it would be a much smoother transition.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how it worked at Grandview University and whether or not this modality ended up actually being helpful to both faculty and students?

Kevin: Yeah, so I think it worked well-ish. [LAUGHTER] And what I mean by that is it did give us the flexibility we needed. And that did a lot to help for folks. We did not have a large outbreak of COVID on my campus, which I feel very fortunate to say. Our dorms were occupied, for example, but the students who did have to go to quarantine were able to still maintain their presence in classes in ways that they would not have been able to without hyflex. We also had some students who did choose to do all remote learning this semester… that they, because of a prior condition or something else, did not want to come to campus. And that included both international students but also students here in the Des Moines area who attended either synchronously or asynchronously online. So it did give us that flexibility. It did give us that online component. We learned a lot of things. We knew, I think, intellectually going into the session. That’s when it was gonna take a lot of kind of bandwidth and energy to be able to manage everything that goes into, actually run a hyflex class session. Having students on Zoom at the same time as students in a classroom, how are you going to foster and sustain a discussion? What happens when the tech doesn’t work? Or the screenshare doesn’t work? What about the asynchronous people? Are they just somewhere out there? So all of those things we knew, they would be hard, but actually experiencing it was really, really hard. And I know just from my own… I taught two courses, one of them fully online, asynchronous that was born that way, but a new student seminar in the hyflex model. And I’m good with technology, I think, and it was really hard for me to do. It took a lot of focus and energy. And my colleagues would always say, “You know, we were just exhausted after class sessions.” We also learned that the same was true for students, in many ways, [LAUGHTER] that it did require a lot more for them to attend class. But, on the other side of that coin, there were also students who elected to do the online asynchronous option, who in retrospect, that might not have been the choice they were best served by. Now, the reasons they did it were absolutely compelling and understandable. We had student athletes living on campus, for example, but remaining in isolation, so they could play their sport without testing positive. So they attended all their classes either synchronously or asynchronously online. What we found out was that without more guardrails around that, and without more learning how to be an online learner… stuff that we should have put in front of students… we did some but we didn’t do enough… the students who made that decision were the ones who struggled the most. And then we also learned that there are some classes in which this mode of teaching and learning is very well suited, and then there are some classes where it didn’t work very well at all. And in this, I’m thinking of mostly the classic upper-level humanities type seminars that are almost completely reliant on student discussion where instructors and students both really had trouble doing a seminar type thing where everybody’s sort of collectively in and immersed in the same text and conversation with people in these different spaces, and tried to move back and forth between. It was just, for lack of a better term, it was just weird, and clunky. And so we had faculty who moved into doing them all synchronously online, because at least people were in the same figurative space, so to speak. And that actually worked a lot better for some of those classes that were running into roadblocks. So we did have to shift on the fly a little bit. So I would say that successful for what we needed it to be over the fall. But there were some definite roadblocks that folks ran into, there were technology hiccups, as well, of course, and we were really tired after it was done. But we learned a lot to inform our spring practice. And in conversations I’ve had with peers and colleagues, I think the way it went for us didn’t vary too much from the way that it went in a lot of places.

John: That’s very similar to our experience here. We encouraged preparation for hyflex. I was pretty careful to try to not call it hyflex, because we knew that wouldn’t really be that much flexibility. But preparing for any eventuality gave faculty a little bit of comfort in knowing that no matter what happened, they’re going to be able to provide their classes in whatever formats happened to be possible. I chose synchronous online for my courses, and Rebecca chose the same. One of the reasons I did it was just because I didn’t think I could effectively manage a classroom with students in it at the same time, especially a classroom of masked and distanced students while I was wearing a mask and trying to also engage with students online. The way I saw it is, hyflex works really well, when you have classrooms that are set up for it with good sound systems, when people are mobile, when it’s easier to have communications going back and forth. And our classrooms here just are not generally set up for that. And the challenges of doing that in the current environment just seemed a little bit much to me. I probably wouldn’t have done it anyway, because of my age and other health concerns. But what were some of the specific challenges you faced while trying to engage with students face to face while also maintaining engagement with the online students?

Kevin: I think you bring up a lot of really important points. We committed to this hyflex thing with the intent of putting the flex in hyflex, so to speak. We really wanted students to have the choice of flexibility, even though we do that would be a lot more on the back end. For us. That made a big difference in terms of faculty workload and bandwidth. It’s really hard to build a hyflex course in a couple of months over the summer, because you’re basically doing three different courses that you’re braiding together. And yes, there’s overlap, but as anybody who’s taught online before knows, it’s a different animal trying to build an online course. So not only did we learn the added layers of complexity, building a hyflex course, but again, trying to experience that bandwidth of managing all of these other things that I wrote in one point that I felt like what are those circus performers who spins the plates and the cups and all of the saucers with all this sticks, and I let so many of them drop. I think the hardest part for me and for my students… students say they wanted that in person college experience. Well, what they wanted was to be in the dorms, to be in college, so to speak. Once they figured out that in person meant you’re having a small seminar class, but it’s held in a lecture hall that seats 110, and your all sitting way away from one another you’re masked up and yelling at each other, and half of y’all are coming in on Zoom. That’s not the face-to-face experience. That’s just weird, and kind of sucky. And so what we discovered, what I discovered and most of my colleagues is that our in-person attendance dropped off precipitously by about the end of the second week. And I would go past classrooms… my teaching Center is located at our main classroom building in a high traffic area. And I felt so bad for some of my colleagues, because we wanted to have as many of our first-year classes be fully in person, to have students have that… So there would be these classes scheduled in these large rooms, and so I was right across the hall from one of these large rooms, and one of my colleagues is in there teaching introductory algebra. And every time I walked by, it just felt like there were fewer and fewer students in there. And then one day, about three weeks into the semester, I walked in and there was nobody but him in a room that had been outfitted to seat fifty. So, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie, Real Genius, where there’s the lecture hall, and there the professor’s lecturing on the board, and students are in there taking notes, and it’s this montage of scenes. And every so often, there’s fewer students and more tape recorders on the desk and then there’s a scene where it’s just the professor and all the desks have tape recorders on them. to have the final cue is there’s a reel-to-reel tape recorder playing the professor’s voice. With things that are like that, I felt like that’s where we were by about the middle of October. So students very quickly readjusted what they thought they wanted to do. And that made it even harder for us as instructors to sort of recalibrate there. So, again, there’s something different about experiencing something, even if you know it’s coming intellectually. And I think that was the thing that I struggled with most personally, but my colleagues did too, is we pride ourselves on being a small high-touch institution and the things that we do that we think make us good, we were really hampered in doing those. And so it’s frustrating. You know what you need to be doing? You know you can’t do it. You certainly know you aren’t doing it. And it’s just a tough situation, and I think our frustration was evident to students too on some cases. And then of course, they get frustrated by the same sorts of things. So there were no great options, just the least-worst option. And that’s still better than the worst-worst option. But that’s kind of where we were by the end of the fall, I think.

John: That sounded very much like the experience that faculty here were reporting, that people who were teaching face-to-face or some type of a hybrid environment or a hyflex-like environment kept seeing the number of students in the classroom dwindle until they’d often be the only one in this big lecture hall by the end of the term. You mentioned that some classes such as upper-level humanities classes weren’t really very well suited for this type of instruction, what classes worked relatively better.

Kevin: So, from what I understand, some of my colleagues in the STEM fields actually were able to really build and conduct really effective hyflex classes. Our intro to bio courses, our intro to chemistry and organic chemistry. And these were departments where faculty were already doing a lot of really interesting things and innovative things pedagogically, anyway. So they really, I think, kind of took up the challenge and jury rigged the tech when they needed it. My colleagues in her genetics class was recording using a lecture capture tool. She was trying to find a digital whiteboard to use for all the diagrams and nomenclature because it’s easier just to draw it by hand, and none of the, were really working or picking up right when you were trying to do it through Zoom. So she just tilted her webcam on her office desk down to show a piece of paper where she was writing, and did a split screen. So sometimes those are the solutions that we find. And I think the faculty who approached it as this really interesting set of problems to solve, sometimes creatively, and building upon things that they were already doing had, I think, an easier time making hyflex work. And I think the course material and the course objectives and pedagogical style also fit into that where you had some parts of the class where it was exposition, but then we can do think-pair-share… that’s a little more easy to do, even if you’ve got students in person and on Zoom. So things like that. You know, we have people who are really successful with that. I have colleagues in athletic training, and in particular, they have a graduate program that’s almost fully online anyway. So they adapted some hyflex elements into that and actually thought improved the student experience in what had previously been seen as an exclusively online program. So I think there were faculty out there who really found it, at least most of hyflex, were able to adopt it into ways that work organically with how they approach their courses anyway. And that’s not to say you can’t do it in a humanities seminar course, I absolutely think you can. But I also think experience and time are vital parts of that equation. And those are two things that we just didn’t have available to us.

Rebecca: And given all those challenges that you faced, and hindsight’s 20-20, what does the spring look like for you? You mentioned earlier that you’re already in classes now. So how was the approach different for the spring and how’s it looking so far?

Kevin: Well, the main change that we made institutionally for the spring was with the online asynchronous option. ‘Cause we sort of knew right away in the fall that that was going to be a problem. We do early alerts. We’re pretty high touch when it comes, especially tor first-year student success. And so the third week of the semester, we do early alerts. And my wife is our Registrar in Institutional Research Associates, so I get to hear some of the numbers, and the number of low early-alert grades and the number of low midterm grades reported in week six was something like 270% of our previous semester high. And we also had a significant amount of students who were getting multiple low grades, not just in one class or the other, but that it was endemic across their schedule. And that really correlated pretty strongly to students, especially first-year or new transfer students who had chosen the online asynchronous options of attendance. So this semester, that has a lot more guardrails around it. Students could attend class all semester, asynchronously online, but they have to come to an understanding with their instructor. They have to talk to their instructor, the instructor has to talk to them talk, about how that’s going to look, what they’re going to commit to doing it, what the things are going to need to really be. And it’s not just going to be a student who’s like, “I don’t want to come from the dorm.” So the online asynchronous is really being kind of de-emphasized except for cases. Now for a student who has a temporary absence, who travels with an athletic team, or who does have to go into quarantine because of contact tracing, that option is available to them on a temporary basis. But in terms of doing the class that way, we are trying to steer students away from that option and it nvolve much more. It’s basically an instructor approval mechanism, is what it comes down to. But what it does is it really gets students into the conversation about what are the most effective choices about how I could learn and how I might be most successful, not how I want to learn, but how I’m better at learning. The other thing that we learned is that we didn’t think enough about if online learning is different for students too. And being a successful online learner requires some skills and some competencies that students might not necessarily have had the chance to build, especially in high school coming straight into college. The first year is hard enough without all that layered on top. I wish we had done more. We did some… about here are some things you can do to be a successful online learner, here’s what hyflex looks like, here are the resources we can out in front of you, here are some tutorials, but we needed to do more. And I don’t even think we do knew much more we needed to do until we realized that, especially for many of our first-year students, when high schools what remote in March, for a lot of them, that was it, they just stopped. So these are students who we said “Oh, well, they’ll have some experience online learning from what happened in the spring.” [LAUGHTER] And for about 95% of them that was not the case. So we really were reckoning with completely novice online learners. So the decision- making process about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to attend and what’s going to work, that didn’t go so well for a lot of our students.

John: Under normal circumstances, when students select online courses, when they have many more options to drop, fail, and withdrawal rate is much higher, especially for, as you said, first-year students and students who are not as well established in the college environment. But in these circumstances where people had less choice about whether they were online or not, the problem becomes a little bit more severe. Were all students equally affected, or were some groups of students more adversely affected by some of the challenges they faced this fall.

Kevin: Oh, I think clearly the results of hyflex mirror the larger inequities that we all sort of intellectually knew were there. But again, experiencing that in such an, I think ,visceral way… My own institution, we serve a lot of students from groups that have not been traditionally well served by higher education in the United States. Access to internet and technology was a significant issue even more so at my institution than I would have expected, and I’ve been here 18 years or so. You don’t know what’s happening in some of these students lives. But, of course, with people losing their jobs and all these other things, it becomes even more tenuous. We have an emergency grant program, we had CARES Act money, we invested a lot in technology, not just for faculty in classrooms, but for students as well. But even then, again, that’s half the story, because now I have something to access, but if I don’t have the high-speed internet bandwidth with which to access it, then there’s a problem as well. And then layered on top and all around that is, of course, which students have had in school districts or school buildings that were resourced enough to provide that sort of familiarity and ease with the technology or to get students thinking about metacognitively how they are learners, think about what it means to learn. Basically, what hyflex showed us, and I think what the pivot to online has showed us in higher education is that we could no longer ignore the inequities, the very profound inequities that exist. And a lot of us say that, right? Like we’ve been saying this for a while, but basically what that pivot to online learning did in March and what hyflex is continuing to exacerbate in many ways is we are basically rewarding the students who already have cultural capital, and real capital, but cultural capital in particular, who are able to manage that transition to: A) college learning but, B) college learning at a time of COVID much better than students who have not been in places that have equipped them to do that. And that is through no fault of the students or their ability. It is the structural problems that we face. And what COVID has done has laid those completely bare, and we continue to ignore them at our peril.

John: One nice thing, though, is that I think more faculty are aware of that, because it was pretty easy to ignore those things when all the students have some type of a computing device, (or nearly all) on campus, they certainly have computer labs, high-speed Wi Fi, they have meal plans, and so forth that provide support, but all those things disappeared for those students who were attending remotely and any faculty member who taught any number of students would have seen students encountering some really significant challenges during the past 10 months or so.

Kevin: Yeah, absolutely. And access does not mean the same thing as ready availability, and that was a lesson that we learned as well, because as you point out, so many of our students, their high speed internet access is in a computer lab that also closed down in mid March, or in the library, or a public library, which here in Des Moines, all those closed as well. We had students sitting in the parking lot of McDonald’s using the WiFi on their smartphone or tablet in a car uploading work to Blackboard, for example. So yeah, this is not going away. We may be seeing it more evident than we have before. But, if we’re going to have any sort of conversation at higher ed about what hyflex does and what this online learning is going to do to shape the way we do teaching and learning going forward, which is a conversation we absolutely should be having… But if this isn’t part of it, that we’re not having the right conversation.

Rebecca: As a design faculty member, we have a lot of students that need software, expensive software…

Kevin: Yeah.

Rebecca: …often and expensive computers to run said software. We had a lot of really hard conversations about “What software do we really need to use? Do we need to use software? How are we going to get students computers? Because having just the internet access wasn’t even the beginning of our problem. [LAUGHTER].

Kevin: Right.

Rebecca: …to even enter into the field. What can you do? So one of the things that I’ve been thinking about… I’m teaching a new class in this spring, that’s an introductory class on theories of motion and interaction. But I’m actually working on a lot of things that don’t require any software so that the students can be included, because I am teaching online synchronously, and we were trying to figure out what classes could we teach in that modality and which ones really need to have access to our labs, so they have access to equipment, so that students can attend at least some of our classes in the modality that they need to. So the inequities just became so, so, so, prevalent, and so obvious to all of us that we had really hard discussions, and knowing that I’m teaching this class, and I know that there are some students that just can’t take it.

Kevin: Yeah, your breaking out software is so essential. Our students in communications and new media, our students in our graphic design program, students who are using Minitab or SPSS… Our IT department… I want them all canonized into sainthood, because what they did was they set up what they called a virtual software lab, so students could telnet into machines, which is obviously not the ideal solution, but it was a solution. That was one of those things, again, we’ll be talking about like we knew that might be a thing, but then experiencing it being a thing at the scale and scope with which we experienced that, really stretched us and we weren’t able to beat those needs. So again, yeah, as you talk about, even if we’re talking about using OER, or low-cost stuff that normally we say, “Oh, this is very accessible.” Well, if you could get in the door, but if you don’t have a door, that’s a problem. And so here we are. I think that’s one of the most important things we need to be working on.

John: One of the things you mentioned is how faculty are in general, exhausted. Faculty workload has gone up quite a bit since March of last year. Are there any things that faculty can do to help keep that workload under control so that we’re not all as exhausted at the end of the spring semester as we were at the end of the fall semester?

Kevin: Well, I don’t know. [LAUGHTER] It’s just we are being asked to do so much more, abd there’s no two ways about it. Not to get oversharing or anything, but over Christmas break before the Christmas holiday, I had to go to the emergency room with an attack of colitis. Certainly stress and being burnt out didn’t help anything. There’s now 15 pounds less of me than there was before,and I wanted to lose weight, but that was certainly not the way I want to do it. I think the end-of-the-semester crash was a really big part of that. And there are things that we could do, but we can’t do them alone. So when I see faculty who are navigating this at least modestly successfully, are faculty who have found their people and are able to have these networks where they could collaborate with one another, share ideas and help each other with the kind of tips and tricks stuff. I also think that we as faculty, this is a really good opportunity for us to be very intentional about focusing in on what it is we do in terms of assessments and is much time the best way for us to do those kind of assessments and is that time the best way we could be spending it. The other thing I think that we could also be doing is we don’t have to learn every new tool. I know the temptation, and I am the worst at this. I am such a dork when it comes to technology, I want all the devices, I want to learn all the things. I want all the cool tricks and toys and apps. But that’s so much bandwidth that I could be using on something else. You don’t need a whole suite of digital tools to teach online or hybrid effectively. You could use two or three Google Docs and a learning management system and your cell phone, then you could do a really great dynamic hyflex course. So being very mindful about how we’re allocating our energy and also being okay with the fact that sometimes we’re not okay, there’s still a global pandemic going on. The republic teeters, and I wish I was being hyperbolic when I say that, but I’m a historian who’s traced race and racism in US history. I’m writing a chapter right now for a project on the election of 1860 and the secession crisis. It’s been a weird week, you know? And I got to be okay with that. I have not been able to do the things that I wanted to do. Last week’s plan went up in smoke, but I can’t kill myself about that. And so just communicating effectively with students, being present with students and one another in an honest, authentic way, and realizing that we’re all trying to navigate this together. I know, that sounds very hippie and Kumbaya-ish, but if we’re not honest and authentic about this, we’re gonna kill ourselves. And it’s like a cliche says, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” Our students deserve better, we deserve better, there are ways to be better, but we have to be willing to be very intentionally reflective, and adaptive about where we are.

John: One thing we should note is that we’re recording this in mid January, right after an insurrection tried to take over the government a few days ago. We’ll be releasing this a little bit later. And who knows what might have happened between now and then. We’re hoping that the world has returned to something closer to the instability that we’ve been observing in recent years, and we don’t see a further acceleration of crises. But it’s been challenging. I know, when the attack on the capital took place, I was trying to do some preparation for some workshops, and for some classes, and I spent the whole time doomscrolling, going through and watching CNN, reading news reports, checking the Times, the Washington Post, and it’s been a scary time.

Kevin: It has been.

Rebecca: it really makes me want to ask the question about radical hope.

Kevin: Yeah.

Rebecca: But I don’t know if I should. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Well, so I was doing a workshop for another university that morning and again the next day. So it’s like, “Okay, hey, you know, we’re teetering on the brink of total civil and political collapse, but let’s take three hours and talk about hyflex learning…” like it just felt like this out of body experience. And so I centered that right in front, I put a picture up of it, and I said, “Look, here’s where we’re at, and we’re in the space and we’re doing faculty development stuff, but we’re gonna have to be doing this in the ways that work for us right now.” And so, engage with this, however, works best for you, though I can tell you, I’m not bringing my full self to this right now. Because this is just kind of where we are. And so I think part of acting from a place of hope is to be unflinchingly honest about where you are in the present. And so one of the things that perversely I draw hope from is you have to work harder than you would have ever had to work before to hide from the realities that we now have to confront. And have we finally lanced the boil? …to use a really gross metaphor. Have we finally gotten to a place where we’ve done that. I think there are signs that that may be the case. So that gives me hope, because the fewer places you have to hide from the work that needs to be done, the better and more sustained that work will end up being. So if we’re at that kind of place, it may seem perverse, and maybe even Pollyannaish, but I do think that that is occasion for hope. And I do think that being in places like higher education, this affirms are important and what we need to fight for, because higher education has failed in many ways and that’s why we are where we are in a lot of ways. We have work to do at our own communities. So we can’t hide from that anymore. Or if you could, I guess, but it would evolve way more mental contortions that I think is humanly possible. So is that a hinge moment? Is it that kind of inflection point? I think it might be. And so that adds urgency to what we’re doing. It affirms the work that some of us have been doing. It opens up opportunities to break more into that work. It also reminds us to communicate the larger importance of that work to external audiences. And those are all things that ultimately make the work go better and go further. So that’s kind of where I think we are, at this point, at least, when we’re not doomscrolling eternally. [LAUGHTER] But there’s places for that, again, unflinching honesty. And it’s okay to kind of sit with that for a little bit, but we can’t sit there forever in despair. So when folks are ready, you know, Rebecca Solnit says “hope is the axe with which you break down the door in an emergency.” If you can’t pick up the axe right now, that’s okay. Other people have got it. They’ll hold it for you. And when you’re ready, come and help us with it. And then we’ll break down that door and move into a better future. And that’s where I hope we are as a community.

Rebecca: The emphasis on that brutal honesty about no matter where we’re at in the moment, I think, for me actually, brought a lot of hope in the fall because it helped me connect really well with all my students, despite being apart, I didn’t actually feel like I had any less connection to my students than I would in person. And it almost seems blasphemous to say that out loud.

Kevin: Yeah, I think so, and there’s that weird feeling like, wait a minute, we’re actually more authentic in this weird hybrid online space that maybe we would have been if things were “normal.” And I’d also say this, so I had substance in the past, and I’ve been in recovery for well over a decade. But this is one of those moments where you reach that point of clarity like, okay, things could get worse from here. But you don’t want them to get worse from where we’re at right now. So what are you going to do. And so, having experienced that in my own personal journey, and recovered and walked away from that, if we could do that, as a society, island say, “We could continue this, there’s no bottom to a hole, you can keep digging.” But when you decide to stop digging, and do something else, and maybe that takes a shock, maybe that takes what the therapists call hitting your bottom. So your bottom is where you decide it is. There’s always a lower bottom. But as a society, we could go lower. But if we collectively decide that that’s as low as we want to go, and we want to climb back out, we could do that. And some of the things I’m seeing just within higher ed, but also in the broader public are making me think and hope and I think, not in a Pollyanna way that we are starting to climb out. Even if it seems counterintuitive to think that way so few days after what’s happened.

John: Yeah, I see a lot of signs of that with people who had been supporting much of what we had been seeing that was so traumatic, backing away and saying, “No, this is just one step too far. We’re cutting off any funding to your party or anyone who encouraged any of these activities.” And that’s a sign of progress.

Kevin: Yeah, if you’d have told me some of these companies would stop donating to Republicans, 10 days ago, I would have looked at you like you had three heads. Sometimes historical change happens when we don’t realize it’s happening until a year later, we look back and say, “Wow, point B where we’re at now is so radically different than point A.” And I wonder if that will be our experience, that we will look to the before times here, and then a year down the road, when we look back at where we are now and realize that the tectonic plates did indeed shift. And they shifted the way that we might not have felt every shift every day. But we’re at a much different place for the long run than we were before. And I think that there’s a pretty realistic shot of us having that kind of realization, a little bit down the road. And that keeps me hopeful. And that keeps me energized to do the work that we’re trying to do in times like this, and to have our students in community with us in times like this, while we’re trying to do this work, it takes a lot from everybody. So is it worth it? And I would say absolutely, yes, and our students, they’re doing this because they want to learn, because they want to succeed. And that takes a lot of effort, and a lot of bandwidth and resources from them. And we should honor that choice as well.

Rebecca: Every time I think about that idea, though, there’s always the few that couldn’t make that choice. I feel like just in the way that we’re having this conversation honoring those who couldn’t make that choice because they wanted to but can’t. I think it’s also important to because there’s definitely a number of potential students that are having to wait.

Kevin: Yes, I like the saying goes, when we’re sitting at the table, it’s important not just to look at who’s at the table with us, but who couldn’t be at the table with us. And I think as we talk about coming out of COVID, what is the future of higher education? What is the future of student learning? What is the future of teaching and learning? What is the future of hyflex? We have to be very mindful, of who hasn’t been in those conversations, because they couldn’t be, because we need to be paying attention to that too. Otherwise, our work is incomplete. Absolutely.

John: While we’re thinking about the future more optimistically, what are some of the gains that we might take away from what we’ve learned since March of 2020, in terms of how we offer our courses, and we deliver education, perhaps more effectively,

Kevin: I do think the flex part of hylex is an important thing to take with us. This openness to thinking about how students attend class, and I’m using the word attend in a very sort of elastic way. Because you could say, look, the traditional way we do face-to-face instruction hasn’t changed for the better part of a century, in terms of the physical setting and the constraints and the affordances that it has. So maybe we’re at a point where we don’t so much talk about attendance, as we talked about engagement. How are students engaging and being in community with us in this class. Maybe a lot of it is synchronous, but maybe some of it isn’t. That maybe some of it is face to face, but maybe some of it is online. And so I think these are conversations that are: A) worth having, B) that are ongoing, and C) gonna be with us, and I think changed the way that we do this teaching and learning thing, not wholesale, but in places. I think there are programs who are going to say. you know what? …hyflex works really well for us, or for these particular classes that are classes where we need to offer more seats or more access, hyflex is a way for us to scale out these offerings, even if we can’t hire 40 faculty members. What I’m afraid of is that hyflex becomes another way that faculty labor gets devalued in efficiency death. And so that’s where we need to be vigilant in these conversations. But I do think when we think about how our students engaging in learning? What does that really look like? Do they need to be physically present with us in the same room for that to occur? More and more of us have had to really ask that question. So now let’s take the answers that we’ve gotten and do some work with that and reimagine, or rethink or modify, or maybe even just subtly tweak some of our course offerings. I can see myself and the history department that we have at my institution, our survey classes, maybe we have some traditional face-to-face sessions, which is what most of our students would want, I think, and that we have a fully online section or two to to serve our adult and evening programs that are fully online, but maybe we offer a section that’s hyflex, as well. And our student athletes, who at my institution represent a large percentage of our student population, have a way that they could take courses and still travel and not “miss class.” So that’s one of the ways that I think we’re going to be thinking about what this all means. And I think the other thing that’s really salutary here, and I say this as a humanities guy working in a liberal arts college, I think we’ve realized technology isn’t the answer to everything?.So this technofabulism this. “Yeah, we could just put it online. How hard could it be like this teaching is nothing but content delivery, of course online makes everything more efficient?” Well, we have ample evidence that that is not the case. So we need to really be keeping that centered as well. And teaching matters, learning matters, and it’s not something you just throw on the LMS and expect to have happen. And so this sort of techno-utopianism, this “there’s an app for that” kind of thing. Technology is a tool. It’s not the only tool, and it’s not the best tool. And I think we have more than enough evidence that we’ve taken from our experience this academic year, to focus conversations that way. And I think that that’s really important.

John: We always end with the question. What’s next?

Kevin: What’s next for me, is,again, talking about where do we go with hyflex. Or at least the sort of ethos or the ethic that informs hyflex. The rethinking of what learning looks like on the collegiate level, on the higher ed level, and where one needs to be located both figuratively and literally for learning to happen. What’s next for me is that conversation, but I think that conversation is also gonna have a very powerful element of there’s a lot to be said, for the traditional face-to-face method of instruction. And that not everything is an efficiency or a scale up and that in fact, there are things that work worse when we do that. So what’s next for me is what is learning look like? It’s going to be different. But that doesn’t mean completely exclusive from what we would believe learning looks like now. And I think that those conversations are going to be a lot more student-centered as well, because the student experience with hyflex is really important. It mirrors a lot of what the faculty experience has been. And I think listening to student voice with this is not only important for the hyflex conversation, but now brings us back into a place where we realize that’s the most important voice when we’re talking about teaching and learning in general. And so if institutions have these conversations and do the strategic planning and think about the role of technology in terms of the work that they’re doing with their students, I think the incentive to have students involved in those conversations in a really meaningful way has never been more apparent. And so for me, what I see as being next is student voice becoming an even more powerful part of the equation, which I think is essential.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us today and sparking a little bit of hope in what feels like a dark time.

John: It’s great talking to you again, and we’re hoping that everything goes well on all of our campuses this spring.

Kevin: Yes. Thanks for having me and always glad to join you and we are in hopeful times and the work we do matters. And if we don’t like what we see now, we have the luck and the fortune to be involved in creating something different, and that should energize us.

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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.

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173. Pseudoscience

In an era of conspiracy theories and fake news, our students come into our classes with misconceptions and misunderstandings about our disciplines. In this episode, Kristin Croyle and Paul Tomascak join us to discuss how a first-year science seminar class confronts pseudoscience. Kristin is a Psychologist and Paul is a Geochemist. Kristin is the Dean and Paul is the Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY-Oswego.

Show Notes

  • Shermer, M. (2014). Why People Believe Weird Things. Naturalist.
  • Zener cards – American Psychological Association
  • Huff, D. (1993). How to lie with statistics. WW Norton & Company.
  • Van Der Kroon, C. (1996). The Golden Fountain: The Complete Guide to Urine Therapy. Wishland Incorporated.

Transcript

John: In an era of conspiracy theories and fake news, our students come into our classes with misconceptions and misunderstandings about our disciplines. In this episode, we discuss how a first-year science seminar class confronts pseudoscience.

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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.

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John: Our guests today are Kristin Croyle and Paul Tomascak. Kristin is a Psychologist and Paul is a Geochemist. Kristin is the Dean and Paul is the Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY-Oswego. Paul also had been the Associate Director here at our teaching center at SUNY Oswego before he entered the Dean’s office and Rebecca joined us as Associate Director.

Kristin: Thank you.

Paul: Hi, John. Hi, Rebecca.

Kristin: We’re happy to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Paul: I have a special tea for you. I have a tea that has a best buy date of March 2000. A special tea.

Kristin: Does it have flavor still?

Paul: In a way… Yeah, It’s got a special flavor. [LAUGHTER]

John: A vintage tea…

Paul: Yeah.

John: …a good year.

Kristin: And I have coffee in a Christmas mug because the Christmas mugs are still out.

Rebecca: Mine are out year round.

John: And I have Prince of Wales tea.

Rebecca: And I have Big Red Sun.

John: …for a change.

Rebecca: Ah, it’s a little switch up. It seems sciency… It’s what I had open.

John: We’ve invited here today to discuss the first- year seminar course you both offered on “How to Think about Weird Things: science confronts pseudoscience.” First, could you remind our listeners a little bit about what the first-year seminar courses are here. We’ve done some past podcasts on them, but it’s been a while since we talked about that program.

Kristin: The first-year seminar course at SUNY Oswego is a relatively new initiative started just before I came here in 2018. But that’s before I came to SUNY Oswego, so I’m allowed to be wrong on dates before I started. It was initiated by our Provost, Scott Furlong. And the first-year seminar courses, the way that we envisioned them, is partially as passion topic courses for faculty, but also as a transitional experience for new freshmen so that they can have an experience in which they have both some social bonding, some interesting and challenging and really fascinating materials to talk about in course, but also some built-in experiences to help them connect to their new university and transition into kind of the college student way of functioning and being in a supportive atmosphere. So both academic challenge and excitement along with kind of the adjustment to the new university culture… Oh, and those are all taught in classes of 19 or less, so that there can be a strong peer-to-peer experience. And they also have writing intensive experiences involved.

John: What are some examples of pseudoscience that you address in your classes?

Paul: I’ve been teaching this course prior to the first-year seminar series for some years in a variety of different places: as an upper-level Gen Ed course for non majors, as a honors course, because the topic just transcends level, and it’s something that everyone can get something out of. And every time I’ve taught it, I’ve ended up emphasizing different things. And that persists. At one time, I was adamantly avoiding talking about conspiracy theories, because conspiracy theories are just bollocks. It’s a zero-sum proposition, there’s really no way out of it. There’s no good dealing with the topic. But given the fact that conspiracy theory is something that we all really need to be talking about nowadays, it’s something that I’ve brought in little by little, but it’s still dicey. You can talk about creationism, and have some strong things that you can bring up as, this is why this really is not tenable in there, lots of things you can talk about in terms of cryptozoology or psychical ability, or persistence of life after death, consciousness after death. And there are scientific things that you can point to with these. But with conspiracy theories, it’s always going to be “Oh, well…” there is always an “Oh, well” out of it. And so that’s a hard one to grapple with in any real constructive way.

Kristin: Well, one of the things that attracted me to the course…. Actually, let me tell you about how I got into it. As Dean, I wanted to get a stronger connection to the students. It’s good to have the experience in the classroom, especially at a new university for me, because I can see what faculty were going through in terms of: setup your course shell… What are the policies that you have to include? What are the students like in the classroom? How do you submit your grades? …all those kind of technical aspects also that Deans know. I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen Fall 2020 if I had perfect foresight about what that would have been like, but still… not necessarily as my first experience teaching at Oswego. But I still think it was valuable. But one thing that attracted me to the courses when I was thinking about what courses to teach, intro psych was actually my first choice because I enjoy hanging out with freshmen. It was my field. But then I thought… these freshman seminar courses, and I got a chance to talk with Paul on a regular basis in previous years, he was teaching a bit about all the interesting things we were talking about. And I think that course is fascinating, but as a psychologist, some of the things that really attracted me are pseudoscientific beliefs, particularly about interventions and treatments and the way people are scammed the way that having an understanding of how the brain and body actually work, and what evidence for treatment looks like versus people who are charlatans who are taking advantage of people who are in vulnerable positions. That’s the part that really hooks me into pseudoscience and why it’s so important to teach students about it. But with that, as a hook, you’ve got all kinds of possibilities, because it’s many of the same thinking errors and misunderstandings that open you up to paying thousands and thousands of dollars for getting your future read repeatedly. It’s the same kind of thinking errors that opening you up to those and some other things that are not necessarily mainstream.

Rebecca: So how do you overcome some of those thinking errors, or help students overcome their thinking errors?

Paul: I’m going to say “um” a lot and I’m going to pause a lot, because I know that it’s something that John enjoys editing out.

Kristin: But you should totally leave that…

Rebecca: Um….what do we think about that? [LAUGHTER]

Paul: When I teach this class, there are a number of things that I emphasize. But I emphasize that we are on some level, all scientists, we are all critical thinkers. And in order to get through life successfully, you have to be able to do these things. And I like to draw the horizontal line on the board on the first day and say, on this end is complete gullibility, complete credulousness, you’ll accept anything as truth. And on the other side is complete dismissiveness, complete cynicism, and you won’t accept anything, regardless of how well it’s shown to be acceptable or true. And that it’s important that you understand that there is a spectrum. And that being skeptical doesn’t mean being dismissive. It means that you ask questions, it means that you don’t accept things at face value, especially if they don’t really smell right. And if something has the taint of, “Well, this is too good to be true” …it probably is. And you’d be doing yourself a favor by looking more closely at things, getting some more information. So I try to disabuse students of preconceptions by asking questions and by forcing them to ask questions. And even with things that seem to be “Well, that makes sense, so yeah, I’m going to buy into it.” Well, why does that make sense? What’s the physical reality that underlies that, that makes you think that that is the way it should be, the way it might be? And where do you get your information? And that is a very productive line of inquiry, where you start to break down the “Well, I heard it from this person…” Well, what does this person know? “Well, I heard it from this website.” Well, let’s go to that website and look and see if there’s anything that we can connect to. And is this someone who’s just manufacturing information? Or do they have links to somewhere where you can say, “Wes, this is verifiable on some level.” So it’s good regardless of whether you’re talking about something that’s way out there or something that’s not so way out there. It’s good, basic, critical thinking.

Kristin: And one of the things that I think is very helpful is repetition. I went through a lot of topics, but in each case, there is this harking back to what kind of thinking errors might be present, what kind of scientific errors might be present. And as they start to do that over and over, they get better. For example, one of the early topics that I talked about was alien abduction. When we talked about alien abduction, we talked about how does memory formation work, we talked about sleep, the sleep cycle, hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations and sleep paralysis. We talked about false memories, and how false memories are formed, and that they are experienced in the same way as real memories. If you have a false memory, it’s not like a different thing for your experience. We talked about all of those kinds of normal processes, as well as, unfortunately, the role of hypnosis in creation of false memories, which has a lot to do with beliefs and induction. I say, unfortunately, as a psychologist, it’s horribly embarrassing for the field. it really is a terrible thing. So we talk about all of the scientific contributions, and then we talk about “Okay, now the experience of alien abduction.” How does hypnosis fit in there? How do sleep paralysis, and hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations, fit in here? Those are hallucinations as you’re falling asleep or waking up…it feels very real, but are actually more like a dreamlike state. How do all of this fit in? And then we look at an account of alien abduction and say, “Okay, what do you see here?” And then they can identify some of the thinking errors, like “Okay, here’s this part… looks like a false memory.” But sure, they’re really upset because it feels real. This part here, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. There’s no extraordinary evidence, so they can start to identify both how do we separate the science from the non-science and then where can we start to identify thinking errors. And as we do that topic after topic, they get better and better and better at it.

John: In all of our classes, following up what Paul said, students come in with models of the world and those models aren’t always accurate… or we often have better models that we’d like to share with our students. But it’s important to break them down. And you’ve talked a little bit about how you can provide them with evidence to help them perhaps modify their models of how the world works. But, what do you do with those students who are really resistant, who really deeply believe in some of those pseudo science principles?

Paul: Yeah, this is something that Michael Shermer talks about in one of the books that I’ve used as a quasi textbook has been Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things. And in the later editions of the book, he has a specific chapter, that is “Why Smart People Believe Weird Things.” Because, again, early on in the class, there’s something of an inclination to think of, “Well, I don’t think crazy things like that, and it’s only the gap-toothed yokels that believe in alien abductions or that believe in whatever it is.” But it’s important to understand that this is not something that’s limited to people who aren’t smart. There are plenty of people who are genius-level smarties who believe, not just weird things, but things that are patently out there. And so getting students to accept that, “Okay, we can talk about this as a group, because we’re not just pointing out that you’re a dummy, these are things that lots of people believe, and there are reasons why they believe them other than just being morons.” So the idea that preconceived notions are things that aren’t necessarily rooted in ignorance, or rooted in stupidity, but they’re rooted in misinformation, they’re rooted in being told something by someone you trust at some point, and not questioning it. So I think creating an atmosphere that people can feel good about talking about these things, and not just sitting there going, “Oh, I hope he doesn’t talk to me about this, because I actually believe in ghosts,” is useful. And I’ve had students in class who are ghost hunters. And we’ve gone through an entire lesson on why some of the classical ghost hunting techniques really don’t make sense when you analyze them. And I’ve had a student say, at that point, “Well, we don’t really do that, what we do is this,” and everyone in the class looks nervously at one another, that “Oh, that’s interesting. I didn’t realize that they were among us.” But, they are among us, because we are them. They are us, we all have an equal opportunity for believing weird things.

Kristin: One of the things that I also talk about is different ways of knowing. And that when you say science proves X, Y, Z, it has to meet a scientific standard. But if you say, for example, my faith tells me X, Y, Z, that’s a different way of knowing. And it’s not subject to the same kinds of proofs, it’s subject to different proofs. An example that we explicitly talked about is angelic visitations: are angels real? If you say science proves that angels are real, it has to stand up to scientific scrutiny. And in many religions, that would not only be a weird thing to say, it would be antithetical to their religious perspective. As soon as you start saying science proves my religion is correct, it becomes in some ways, a non-religious argument, and that it’s perfectly fine to have different ways of knowing different aspects about the world. But if you say science says this, this is the way the world works, because scientists have proved it, then you can subject it to scientific scrutiny. Another example is intuition and personal experience, that there are aspects of intuition and personal experience that may tell you certain truths about yourself or your relationships with others or whatever. And you don’t have to have the kind of scientific scrutiny in order to believe that you understand the way that your relationships work. But that’s a different way of knowing, it’s a different aspect of the world, and we do talk about that explicitly. And it’s fine with me if students choose to hold two ideas in their mind at the same time, they say, “Well, perhaps this idea that I have doesn’t actually make any scientific sense. I still believe it right now.” But I have some faith that if they continue this process to continue to analyze different ideas using the same skill sets: How does this make sense? What are their thinking errors? Is there an underlying explanation that makes some scientific sense that fits with the way that we know the world works. If they continue to do this, that eventually some of those closely held beliefs, which are scientifically disprovable, that they will start to kind of chip away at the edges there.

Rebecca: I know both of you are big advocates of active learning. Can you talk a little bit about some of the activities or exercises or things that you have students do as part of this course.

Paul: One of the classics, when we talk about psychical ability is pairing students up and having them basically test each other and their clairvoyant skills. So you give them the set of five Zener cards with the star and the squiggly lines and the square and you have them run through a series of “Okay, I’m projecting an image to you, you write down what it is.” And that’s good from a couple of standpoints. One is that it’s active and people are taking part in it, two is that people can understand: “Okay, if I really wanted to do something to show that there is something viable here, what would I have to do differently? Why is this test flawed?” And we talk about the development of good scientific tests. And that’s very productive, because there’s a lot of situations where you can say, “Well, you know, you’re still not controlling for this…” Okay, and the series of sort of nested tests that you have to go through in order to get to something that everyone would say, “Okay, I will accept the results of this” gets to be pretty complex. The other thing that’s good about this on a basic level is that it regresses to the mean. And regardless of the number of students, the number of tests, occasionally students will cheat and you can talk about that. But aside from cheating, you end up with a bunch of people that score exactly what statistics would say you should get and you can talk about one of the big things that I like to emphasize is not to let people use numbers to try to prove something to you that isn’t accurate, basically lying with statistics. A former student in the class sent me a book at some point, this little book called How to Lie with Statistics. And it’s a great medium to talk to students about things that are mathematical in a world where people are fearful of math, and they hate math. And this is a good application of mathematics, sort of basic mathematics to show something that is easy to wrap your head around. And it’s something as well in Shermer’s book, he talks about going to Edgar Cayce’s Institute, and doing this sort of mental ability test or psychical ability test. And he does the same thing. And he tries to convince people that “Well, just because you got 5 right out of 25 doesn’t mean that you’ve got some exceptional ability,” and he draws a bell curve, and they talk about it. And in the end, the person still doesn’t accept it. But it’s a good experiment to run, it gets people thinking about something that is not necessarily easy to think about otherwise.

Kristin: I’ll start by saying that I have huge sympathy for all the new faculty that started in Fall 2020 and were trying to build new courses while coming up with different teaching techniques. I was challenged this semester, this last semester, to build the course while trying to adapt to what was an unfamiliar form of teaching for me. Paul was very gracious in sharing materials. But, you know, when you teach the course yourself has to be rebuilt because it’s your own thinking, and your own style. Just for disclosure, though, I had intended the course to be a hybrid course in which we met with our faces, at least, three times a week, sometimes in the classroom altogether, and sometimes all online together. But as the semester went on, it did not work that way. I ended up having some students that always want to come face to face (a small number), and some that always ended up being online. So it was not the course I anticipated. But that’s okay. I know that we all experienced that. What my students responded to the most enthusiastically ended up being analysis of web comments. So I would often bring in slightly adapted web comments, I would correct for grammar and, you know, readability …say here is this diatribe this person and removing their identity and things because it’s about analysis of argument and they would go to town on it. Here’s this diatribe about astrology, it runs from how scientists are paid to debunk astrology all the way down to how you should stop being sheep and see the truth in front of you and everything in between, with all kinds of false analogies that don’t make any sense in the middle, all that good stuff. They loved that. And I loved it too. We all loved it, because that’s what I really want them to be able to walk out doing, to be able to see kind of something that looks like a well argued and well written diatribe against the world who doesn’t understand and to be able to look at it and say, “Oh, wrong, wrong. wrong, thinking errors, misstatement, false analogy, ripples in a pan have nothing to do with how stars move, and all kinds of different things. [LAUGHTER] So we ended up doing a lot of those kinds of similar things. I think one of the last things I did in the last homework that we worked on together was on a manifestation website service, you sign up for $1,000, you get these courses, and you can manifest wealth in your life and their analysis there was really excellent. It was excellent about why this might appeal to people. What is wrong with all of these arguments? It doesn’t matter how many incredibly well done video anecdotes you get from individuals who have manifested wealth in their life, that that’s not gonna transfer to other people. So lots of analysis of web comments.

John: With social media, there’s a very rich source of data that could be used for this.

Kristin: Exactly.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about the course structure and what you’re doing in these classes?

Kristin: I have avoided student presentations in class for 10 years, because I usually find them to not be a good use of course time, let’s just say that. But Paul was using student presentations, and I put them in for this course and they were awesome. So, I have completely changed my opinion. But part of it is also that I was teaching larger classes in the past. So figuring out how to integrate student presentations in a way that is a useful use of everyone’s time, but the student presentations in this class were fantastic. They were typically on a specific pseudoscience topic that we wouldn’t have spent a lot of time in class on. But it gave them an opportunity to again, have this kind of repeated, “Here’s a thing that you think is really different.” Like. maybe… maybe not… Chromotherapy, you know, does exposing yourself to different colors of light effect different organ functions beyond jaundice, and beyond seasonal affective disorder where there’s clear evidence… if you look at blue light, or red light, or whatever. People go “Hmmm, I’ve seen videos on this on TikTok… well, wait a minute, doesn’t make any sense.” And here are the arguments, a little scaffolding from a student presenter, here are the arguments about why this doesn’t make any sense, then students popping up with other arguments. And having that experience repeatedly, of student presentation after student presentation, I have worked them like you know, three or four weeks, it gave them more experienced practicing. And honestly, some of those topics are fabulous to talk about in class. Although I allowed students to select their topic out of a menu so that they didn’t have to know what was pseudoscience right at the beginning of classes. No one selected urine therapy, though, I was hoping given how much success Paul has had in his classes with that.

Paul: Urine therapy is number one.

John: Could you elaborate on that a little bit, Paul?

Paul: The student response to the class has been really good historically. And I will occasionally, and sometimes out of the blue, receive a book in the mail from a student. This person that I had never heard from after the class, student says: “I was in a bookstore, I saw this and I thought of our class, and I thought you might like it.” So that’s always really nice. But it’s especially nice when the person sends you the definitive book on urine therapy, because my library was not inclusive enough of that topic. So now I have something that when a student chooses, or pulls the short straw, on urine therapy, I have something I can give them as a resource for this topic.

Rebecca: A whole book….

Paul: A whole book. I think it’s called the Golden Fountain. I’m not kidding. When I do the course and I have students do some sort of presentation, I will, so that I don’t run into the problem of a student doing something that they already know a ton about, I’ll have them draw them at random. And from the start, I’ve got the little hat with pieces of paper in it, and I’m telling them: “Who’s going to draw urine therapy?” …and it’s hotly contested. And it’s great when the student comes in to give their presentation that day, and starts out with a long pause and says, “This really makes me sick.” [LAUGHTER]

John: I’m not sure if I should ask, but what is urine therapy?

Paul: Well, I’m surprised being a man of the world that you are not well aware of this, John, but by consuming your own urine, you’re able to tap into a great deal of vitality and essential nutrients, etc, perhaps some reparations to your chakras as well, through consuming your urine. There are people out there who will attempt to get you to pay them money to teach you how you should be doing this. But it comes down to drinking your own urine and having that basically cure any disease. And you can take it purely internally, you can rub it on your skin to produce a healthy skin tone, you can use it in your hair. There are certainly people out there who will claim that it is a cure for cancer. And that’s sort of the bar for all pseudo-medicine is when are we going to get to the end, this cures cancer. And sure enough, there are people out there. It’s usually a sad case where the person had cancer, they went through a number of different treatments, nothing was working, and they hit on this and suddenly they’re cancer free. And it’s a good place to talk about correlation and causation. It’s a good place to talk about how we design clinical tests for medications, vaccinations, whatever. When an agency says “Yes, this is demonstrated efficacious or this is demonstrated safe…” what does that actually mean? Well, it has to go through a certain process, which is not some random process that someone hands over some money and “Okay, yeah, you’re good to go,” that these are real things. So that, I think, is another area in which I’ve significantly improved over. I think I started teaching this in 2006. I talk more about anti-vax. I talk more about clinical trials. I talk about the placebo effect, and Kristin has actually helped me a lot with that. Because she knows about things that I didn’t know about when it came to placebo effects. So there’s a lot of good stuff there that, again, it’s science, but it’s not something that you need to have a degree in something to understand and to be able to then apply in your own life.

John: In terms of the placebo effect, there’s two things that just really struck me in terms of fairly recent research. One is that the strength of the placebo effect seems to be growing over time. And secondly, that the placebo effect still seems to exist, even when people know they’re taking a placebo. Any explanations of why that’s happening?

Kristin: Isn’t that fascinating? I just think that’s amazing. No, no explanations. I have great admiration for the power of the mind.

John: Mystical powers? [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: Well, for example, there is excellent research that says that people who have even late-stage cancer will survive longer, if they have social support. That’s not placebo. That’s because your mind and body are constantly one system and that we survive in a social environment… just one reason the pandemic has been so difficult… and that people survive and thrive better when they’re in a supportive social environment. Totally not placebo. But it is, in some ways, our traditional Western medical approach would see that as a psychological or mental intervention. It’s amazing. Although the early psychoanalysts, they did some strange stuff, and claimed some strange things, Freud and his students, some of that early work, it really does demonstrate if you believe that something is going to be very different. Hysterical pregnancy is a great example. People who believe that they are pregnant strongly believe that they are pregnant who are not actually pregnant, show many physical signs of pregnancy, including abdominal distension and ending of periods. Sso there’s a lot of different things that the mind can do. Unfortunately, only that only takes you so far. But that is definitely something that I talk about in class, as well as the waxing and waning nature of many illnesses, and how that opens people up for charlatans to take advantage of them. Multiple Sclerosis is a great example, where there’s unpredictable often waxing and waning symptoms. And people with MS have been targeted for many, many, many, many years for completely wacky, expensive, invasive, painful treatments because of the waxing and waning nature. And if their experience is that it has healed them, it’s hard to say that’s not your experience. But it is easy to say there isn’t any scientific evidence that this would help anybody else. They’re taking your money, unfortunately. And I also talk about how parents with children with significant developmental disability are often also at a point of desperation, where they’re sometimes ripe for this kind of thing too. One of the students in my class presented on hyperbaric oxygen chamber treatment, which of course is a great treatment if you have the bends after scuba diving, but is not effective for autism, though there is a market to sell people, these chambers for $20,000 to have a chamber in their homes so that they can put their child who has autism in the chamber on a daily basis, which for one thing is expensive and not effective in any way. But it’s also potentially also really scary for a child who doesn’t understand what is going on being shut up in the chamber every day. So, beyond the improved understanding of how the world works, there is, also real harm being done by some of these things. And we’re talking with students about the importance of a control group. Why does having a control group make all the difference? And talking about that repeatedly as these other examples come up, I really believe will help them to understand the world better, and become better consumers and self advocates.

John: One of the things you just mentioned is the importance of a strong social network and of human connections. How did you nurture that in this somewhat challenging circumstance of fall 2020 during the pandemic?

Kristin: That was really hard, because it’s something that I have never struggled with in class before. And it was a real struggle this semester. I don’t know if that was the case for you too, Paul, or Rebecca. But this is something that I consider to be an easy and normal thing in my teaching. But this semester, it was really a challenge to have students make peer-to-peer connections. I feel fairly comfortable that they felt a connection with me. And I certainly felt a connection with them. But getting them to connect peer to peer was a challenge. And I attribute that to first, not ever having done it this way before. I think if I had another chance I could do it better. Just like any kind of teaching, the second time around is usually better than the first. But part of it was that I was so responsive to students who felt like they needed the face-to-face interaction that I continued to meet face to face every day with them with a chunk of students on Zoom. And it would have been, given my teaching style, it would have been a better experience, I think, for all of us if we’d stayed in one together format more often, if that makes sense.

John: I think this is a problem we all faced, that student peer-to-peer connections were challenging, both because of the modality and because of the circumstances in which we’re all living right now. Paul?

Paul: This past fall, I taught a different course. And it was an upper-level honors course. So these are students who… they’re high achieving, they had figured college out. And it was, for me the easiest of all scenarios, because they were on task, and not that they weren’t necessarily happy with the way that the world was going, but from an academic standpoint, it was a fairly easy scenario to adapt to.

Rebecca: I wanted to circle back for a minute about the diversity of topics that you addressed in class, and what you’re using as hooks, and the value of the different kinds of topics as hooks for students. So there’s some that I think fit in the category of very outlandish, which are probably really easy for some students to really get into… find fun… and then there’s also some of the medical things that you’re talking about that I think students might relate to more directly, and they can see how it fits into their lives. Can you talk a little bit about how you chose the topics and how your students may be related to those topics?

Paul: Certainly, when you’re just talking about science, it is harder with a mixed audience of students who aren’t necessarily buying in from the start. In previous incarnations of this class, it was nominally a natural science course, but realistically, it was being taken by everybody. When I taught it as a first-year seminar course, there was a fair number of psych majors. But really, it was a complete mixture. So, I felt obligated to present a certain amount of science. Here’s a big idea in science, why do we think this? What’s the evidence for this? Why is this important? Why should you care? So I was able to get to things like creationism through the door of “Well, how is it that we know that the earth is as old as it is? And why is it that this is not just something that was handed to us, and we believe it, but it’s something that’s objectively demonstratable?” And beyond that, when you start talking about biological evolution? And okay, why is it that we believe that this is at least a reasonable description of what’s going on in nature? Okay, here’s some stuff that’s a little bit dry. But the end goal is being able to say, “Yeah, I can accept this beyond just having it handed to me.” Evolution is a good one, in that it integrates a lot of different things. So you can bring in the purely biological, you can bring in populational, you can bring in geological and physics, and you don’t have to dwell in any one particular spot to try to make the point. But nevertheless, there are portions of the class that are somewhat more pure sciency, and I try to front load those in the course to keep the carrot out there of “Oh, we’re going to be talking about psychical abilities soon, and we’re going to be talking about UFOs soon,” because that’s fun stuff and ghost hunting and all that. But yeah, the science is a critical underpinning for the course and trying to get it so that it’s not just: “Here’s the scientific method, memorize this,” …to have it be science is a process that we all are invested in, and when you stop investing in it, then there’s trouble. And I think that the past year has really underscored the fact that that’s something that everyone should be… certainly every college educated person… but really everyone, should be understanding of the fact that science is a critical tool. And it’s not just the sacred tablets that have been handed down from the clouds, it is something that has objectivity, and there are processes… and what makes a scientific paper. We keep talking about, “Well, this vaccine test was done, and it was published in The Lancet, or it was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Why do we care? Is it just we paid more to get our article in this journal that people quote? No, it’s that these journals actually have a high bar for what they accept as publishable. And if it’s published in there, it means something. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be true a week from now. I think in dealing with science, it’s good to emphasize that it’s not just something that is dusty books sitting on shelves. But by the same token, there’s an inherent danger when you expose the fact that we don’t know anything for certain. And it’s nice and comfortable to think that when you drop the apple, it’s going to fall at a certain rate. And when you get up tomorrow morning, the sun is going to be rising in the east. But when it comes to it, the more contentious the scientific question comes, perhaps, the bigger the scientific question becomes, the greater the likelihood that we’re going to continue to develop our understanding of things and rooting out the question of “Well, that’s just a theory.” Well, it’s not just a theory. If it’s a theory in science, it means something. It doesn’t mean that it’s a hunch. It means that this is something that we’ve put an awful lot of effort into, and awful lot of thought into. A lot of people have had their eyes on this. It’s not just one really smart person saying, “Okay, this is the deal.” …just the process by which we have to go in order to get to the point of saying, “Yes, we accept this as the way things work, whether it’s biological evolution, or whether it’s the verifiability of vaccine, or whether it’s anything.”

Kristin: And one of the things that you’re touching on there, I think, is also an important theme that comes out: that science is a continuing investigation, that it’s very comfortable for students, especially in K through 12, to think about scientists having answers instead of being an ongoing investigation. And typically the things that are taught in K-12 are the things science has answers for, not the things that are continually being investigated. So it can be scary for students who have that background to be confronted with news that our understanding of a virus is changing over time, because that’s the way understanding works. It changes over time as we learn more and more. This theme keeps coming up throughout the semester as well saying, “Hey, this is what we understand now. The state of our knowledge is this. The door isn’t closed to the state of our knowledge to be different in the future. It also gives us a good opportunity to bring in the importance of diverse voices as scientists. So one of the things that I talk about in my class is the roots of psychological assessment and intelligence testing, and how some of those roots have explicitly racist foundations among people who were explicitly racist and some probably unintentionally racist, but having racist impacts. And some of that is clearly because there were only white men doing work at that time in that area. And when you have only one perspective, it leads to one group of answers, that if you have a more diverse group of scientists who are studying a question, they expand the definition of the question, they expand the definition of what is possible evidence, the answers that they come up with are different and better answers because of the nature of scientific investigation. That it’s not just we have a question, and here’s the answer. It’s we have this question about the world, what does the question mean? Is that the right question? Is there a bigger question? How can we investigate it? Let’s look at different evidence, let’s expand our understanding. As part of that, we also talked about the foundations of photography, and what happens when you have only white people creating photographic film and processing. And what happens when you expand that into a more diverse group of people on a more diverse group of images, the same kind of idea. Although I have to say the horoscope and astrology stuff was the stuff that got the most excited,

Paul: Ah ha, the fallacy of personal validation. [LAUGHTER]

John: But I think we can also generalize what you were just talking about in that all of our disciplines involve in ongoing investigation, and that students come into our classes, thinking of them as these defined bodies of knowledge that they just have to memorize. And it is a bit of a shock and adjustment to students to see that there are many things we don’t know. And that takes a while to get them comfortable with that idea and accepting that idea.

Kristin: And that it’s not a flaw in the scientific process or the state of knowledge, the fact that it’s changing. That’s not a flaw, that’s actually a feature. Yeah, that’s a tough one.

Paul: And one of the things that I specifically talk about in the whole science, you know, what is science? What is pseudoscience? …is where things go wrong. And we talk about fraud. There are a number of times during the course where we’ll talk about “Well, this was published in this journal, and it was wrong.” And let’s see what happened later. And we talked about retraction and things like that. So the self- policing nature of science, when it’s working, right, it’s the best way to get to the point of feeling good about an explanation for something. It doesn’t necessarily mean that something is proved or something is fact. But we have this process in place, and as long as it’s a topic that people feel is important enough to have lots of eyes on it… well, there’s going to be no way of hiding that one set of results that doesn’t seem to agree with everybody else’s. And those things get found out, they get basically debunked, and the science moves on. So the idea that science is fallible, the idea that science isn’t perfect, it’s something that has to be embedded in that. But by the same token, because of the nature of the process, we can say that science is about as good as we can do when it comes to understanding and this was Carl Sagan… all that.

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

Kristin: What’s next? What’s next… I’m looking forward to spring semester. I’m looking forward even more to the next fall semester. I think we all are in that position. I really do appreciate the experience that I have with my students and I’ll teach again next year, but since the universe is paying me to be Dean, I have to do that work as well this spring.

Paul: Well, my life has been leading up to this podcast. So really after this, there’s not a heck of a lot left for me. Now, it’s nice to know that CELT wasn’t destroyed by my being part of it once upon a time, and it actually seems to have improved since then. That’s a nice job.

John: Thank you. I think this is a fascinating course. And teaching students to more critically analyze what they read and hear in social media and in their social network is a really valuable skill. So I’m glad you’re working on that

Rebecca: It really does seem like what college is all about.

Kristin: Well, thank you. It was a lot of fun. And throughout the whole semester, I was grateful to Paul for the scaffolding that he gave me. He was able to answer all kinds of questions and gave me interesting materials to work off of. So thank you, Paul.

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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.

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172. Advancing Online Learning

We’ve focused a lot on faculty switching modalities during the pandemic, but even experienced online instructors have faced new challenges redesigning their courses to work for students with limited computer technology, network access, and quiet study environments. In this episode, Kevin Kelly and Todd Zakrajsek join us to discuss how universal design principles can be used to provide learning equity and human connections in our online classes.

Kevin works with colleges and universities as an educational consultant and teaches as a faculty member in Education at San Francisco State University. Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of Fellowship Programs in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Todd is also co-author of Dynamic Lecturing that we’ve discussed on earlier podcast episode. Kevin and Todd are the authors of Advancing Online Teaching: Creating Equity-Based Digital Learning Environments, recently published by Stylus publishing.

Show Notes

The Excellent Teacher Series

Resources and tools

 References

  • Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12, 257-285.
  • Tobin, T. J., & Behling, K. T. (2018). Reach everyone, teach everyone: Universal design for learning in higher education. West Virginia University Press.
  • The psychology of progress bars. Spindogs. Samuel Merritt University.
  • Baker, R., Dee, T., Evans, B., & John, J. (2018). Bias in Online Classes: Evidence from a Field Experiment. CEPA Working Paper No. 18-03. Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis.

Transcript

John: We’ve focused a lot on faculty switching modalities during the pandemic, but even experienced online instructors have faced new challenges redesigning their courses to work for students with limited computer technology, network access, and quiet study environments. In this episode, we discuss how universal design principles can be used to provide learning equity and human connections in our online classes.

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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.

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Rebecca: Our guests today are Kevin Kelly and Todd Zakrajsek. Kevin works with colleges and universities as an educational consultant and teaches as a faculty member in Education at San Francisco State University. Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of Fellowship Programs in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Todd is also co-author of Dynamic Lecturing that we’ve discussed on earlier podcast episode. Kevin and Todd are the authors of Advancing Online Teaching: Creating Equity-Based Digital Learning Environments, recently published by Stylus publishing. Welcome, Todd and Kevin.

Todd: Thank you, Rebecca.

Kevin: Thank you.

John: Our teas today are:

Kevin: I’m drinking Irish breakfast tea with honey from our backyard beehive.

Rebecca: …can’t get any more fresh than that.

Kevin: Nope.

Todd: Well, I just finished hibiscus tea. But now I have my big old bottle of water to get me to the next round.

Rebecca: Excellent. And I have Christmas tea.

John: And I have ginger tea. We’ve invited you here today to discuss Advancing Online Teaching. Could you tell us a little bit about how this very timely book came about?

Kevin: Well, Todd and I have known each other for years and years. And it just so happened that one day he was telling me about a series of books that he’s created. And he invited me to work with him on a book about online teaching. And we’ll get into more about how that evolved, but Todd maybe can fill in the gaps in my memory there.

Todd: No, this is perfect. And you know, I take credit where credit is due. Sometimes you just get really, really lucky, and Kevin and I this round got really lucky in a way. I wanted to mention the fact that we’ve actually been working on this book for about two years. This isn’t a situation where suddenly everything went to emergency remote teaching and we threw a book together. We started about two years ago working on this, we’re both massively busy folks. And so kind of kept picking away at it and running back and forth with edits and kind of kept working on and working on it. And then it was about December of last year, we talked about it and said, let’s just get this thing done, put some time aside and just crank away at it. And it was about six weeks later that everything started to go sideways on teaching. And so then we talked it over and really focused hard. And within about three months, I guess, got it done, because it takes about six months in production. What I mean by lucky is we had enough of it as a framework, that had been years of work, that we could then dump it into something that we could get out very quickly. And at a time that I think is going to be real helpful.

John: One of the things I really like about your book is it’s focused from the ground up on inclusion, equity, and the use of universal design for learning. Could you talk about why you chose those as the foundation of course design?

Kevin: We wanted this book to be different in a few ways. Many of the books out there about online teaching focus either on the technology side (what buttons do you click to make a discussion forum take shape or what have you), and some of them will focus on the student side (how do you actually facilitate those discussions?). But with work that both Todd and I have been doing in different circles, we decided that we wanted there to be an underpinning, if you will, of these different concepts so that they would be infused in everything people do, not just a tack-on at the end, the way you might find in a college of education: “Oh, here’s a class on how to make your courses more multicultural,” Instead of infusing that into every aspect of every course. We kind of viewed it like when you go to the eye doctor, and they put one lens down and say “Are you clear or fuzzier now?” And now we have these three lenses, you characterize it as inclusion, learning, equity and universal design for learning. But we frame it as universal design for learning, learning equity, and human connection, which is a little bit broader than inclusion. But it was really important for us to really think about: “Hey, there’s a human at the other end of that internet connection when you’re having a teaching and learning experience.” And we don’t want to lose sight of that. What do you think, Todd?

Todd: I think that’s a really good point. And I think the biggest one still is that concept of coming back over and over again to remember the human in the exchange. It’s really easy to post things out there and open quizzes and do all those things, and forget the fact that when you open the quiz the student who might be taking the quiz may be in a car in a McDonald’s parking lot, because it’s the only place they can get internet. So we really wanted to hit that over and over again,

Rebecca: I really appreciated too, the extensive coverage on accessibility and things as well as part of that discussion, which sometimes gets overlooked, which is really unfortunate,

Kevin: Right, and we also wanted to make sure that accessibility wasn’t the only frame through which to view Universal Design for Learning. Often many people think about it that way, but we think about, “Hey, these are accommodations for students with busy lives. These are accommodations for students who may speak English as a non-native speaker. These are accommodations for people who are parents and juggling one device amongst themselves and other people in the house just trying to get work done and survive.”

Todd: And that’s how we did a lot of the themes, and it comes up over and over again. You don’t design something so that you provide an opportunity for a person who has some kind of challenge, you design so that that challenge doesn’t matter anymore. So if a person does take a little bit more time to cognitively process, you could certainly make extra time for that person. Or you create an exam with no time limit, and then it’s no longer an issue. And so Kevin was phenomenal at finding a lot of different ways of, again, constructing the learning environment, in an online situation, so that challenges don’t matter anymore, to the greatest extent possible.

John: Many of the earlier books focused on an ideal condition where students working remotely were students who had good equipment, good connections, and plenty of time to arrange for this. But that’s not the student body, I think, that we’re generally seeing. Even without the pandemic, we see increasing diversity in the students and the time commitments and the challenges they’re facing while they’re enrolled in college. So, I think that focus is really good.

Todd: I think that’s a really, really important point, because is in the past, students who are in online classes chose to be in online classes. And there are certain types of students, my daughter is one of them, she does much better in an online course than she does a face-to-face course. She’s got a lot of learning challenges, and it just works better for her. But what we found with emergency remote teaching about 9-10 months ago, is that everybody, faculty and students who had no interest in being in online environments, were all there, which means there was a tremendous mismatch. So the other things we’re really working on with the book is if you find yourself in that mismatch, how can you match it up a little better?

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about ways to overcome some of the racial and ethnic achievement gaps that we see online and some of these other maybe economic issues or just experience differences between students who have a lot of experience online versus students who are new to online?

Kevin: Sure, and I would characterize the equity-based gaps that we see…and often we hear them referred to in reports as achievement gaps… but the literature now encourages us to use words like education debt, so it’s not on the doorstep of the student. But, are we making student-ready colleges as opposed to college-ready students. And so, one of the groups I mentioned in the book Peralta Community College District, I’ve got six years of data, I’ve been looking at their work with students of all varieties, and the only data you can really get in a disaggregated form is for ethnicity, because it’s in the student information system, the database that has characteristics about the students, but the fields for first-generation student, the fields for veterans, the fields for students with disabilities, sometimes aren’t filled in at all. So you won’t be able to tell, to the same extent, that there are either biases, assumptions, or institutional barriers that negatively impact students’ motivation, opportunities, or achievement. So when we get to different things that work for different groups of people, Universal Design for Learning really helps because it allows us to construct multiple pathways for people to succeed. And those multiple pathways may need to take into account that some students are interdependent learners, as opposed to independent learners. They grew up in a culture where everybody’s sitting around the table, and they’re learning as a group, as opposed to individually off on your own reading a piece of text and answering questions about it later. And so to create opportunities for students to learn interdependently with small-group projects or discussions, gives those students who come from, whether it be their family or their identity, their culture, gives them opportunities to succeed in ways that we may be not fostering with highly independent, self-directed learning activities that we commonly see in online courses.

Todd: I want to mention the fact that what Kevin just pointed out is phenomenal in terms of making sure that we’re kind of helping create good learning opportunities for students. But a lot of times people will make that mistake of thinking what we’re talking about here is meshing in learning styles. And you have to be very careful because the literature is very clear on learning styles… it’s one of the trickiest things to debunk out there. We’re not talking about teaching to a given learning style, we’re talking about a situation that if a student is in an environment, for instance, where they’re low bandwidth, and you know, watching videos is going to be really hard… text based material will be a lot better. If you’ve got a student who’s an incredible writer, but they’re extremely shy, then asking them to create a video might be really hard for that person, but creating a paper is not. So, it’s helping to match the types of preferences and abilities students have, not teaching to that learning style. So I just want to make sure there was no misunderstanding there.

Kevin: What you said, Todd, just made me think of some of the research that we’ve been looking at to build the Peralta Equity Rubric. I’ll come back to that in a second. But there’s research that shows that African-American and black students, if they don’t see themselves in the course materials, are less motivated. So back to Rebecca’s earlier question about what can we do? We can make sure that the images and media that we use to represent the content and topics in our courses are also reflective of the students in our classroom, whether that classroom be face-to-face, hybrid, or fully online. And so those types of strategies extend beyond just “What is the content?” but how are we presenting it, as well.

John: One thing that struck me with Todd’s comment is that it may be the case of someone in an environment where writing is easier for them or more natural while video might not be, but for a student who is interacting with a course primarily Through a smartphone, it’s quite possible that the video may be the easier form of representing their knowledge rather than trying to type a paper on a smartphone.

Kevin: Correct. And one strategy that I’ve started using in my own class is for students who may not have access to a device, I had a student who first made me aware of this challenge who was living in his car. And so he didn’t have access to a computer on a regular basis unless he went to the 24/7 lab. So he started using Google Docs and then I told him about Dragon apps so that he could do voice to text. And then I got smart enough, somebody told me about Google Voice, which is a free phone number that students can leave a voicemail message. And so now that student can just write with a pen and paper, not worry about typing it at all, and then read it as a voicemail message just like a book on tape, I can still grade it with the same rubric, but that student has fewer barriers to reach the particular goal with respect to that assignment.

John: You mentioned the equity rubric that you developed at Peralta colleges. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

Kevin: The short version of the story is that they were moving from one learning management system to another, from Moodle to Canvas. And at the same time, they decided they were going to write their first ever distance education plan. And based on some data that one of the team members had identified during her sabbatical, when you look at the average between all students in face-to-face courses and online courses, that average of retention and success kept shrinking so that students in online courses were catching up. But when you disaggregate that data by ethnicity, you see that Asian students and white students are well above the average and black African-American students, LatinX, Hispanic students, were below. And so we saw that we couldn’t just think about this in one way. And we decided in that distance education plan they wrote for the district, that they wanted the two core values driving the plan to be the learners themselves and equity. And so we didn’t want it to just to be a document sitting on a shelf collecting dust. And so we started looking at how do you operationalize helping faculty members infuse learning equity into their courses. We went out on the web and couldn’t find anything, the closest thing we could find was the University of Southern California has the Center for Urban Education, and they have five principles about equity by design. But that wasn’t very practical for a teacher learning how to infuse equity. So we just went out, looked at all the research that either showed an equity-based gap that negatively impacted student’s performance or an equity-based intervention that positively impacted student’s performance. And those research efforts led to eight criteria that we wove into this rubric. And now we’ve been using it to train faculty. I’m using it in my own course. And it’s been exciting to see how the whole district is responding. It’s gone from an equity rubric to an equity initiative over time,

John: Is that something you share publicly?

Kevin: It is. Yes, if you go to the Peralta website, and we’ll make sure you have the link for your show notes. But the rubric itself is a creative commons document. The training, which is on a new version we’re going to launch in just a couple weeks, we’re putting in the Canvas Commons for free. There’s a bibliography that’s quasi-annotated, that shows the literature pertaining to each rubric criterion, and document that explains some of the core concepts. And some of my work involves taking that rubric and turning it into a framework. And I like to see it,if you’re familiar with Photoshop, or any tool where you have layers on top of layers. The Universal Design for Learning matrix is a grid three by three that helps you identify the checkpoints for integrating UDL principles into your course. And so I thought it would be a nice add-on, it’s not the same as, it’s a new set of ideas for faculty to start weaving in equity principles. So for example, in Universal Design for Learning, we think about different ways of presenting content based on the format, audio and text, or video and text. And then with learning equity, you think about “How do we present multiple perspectives on that, so that we have different ages and ethnicities and backgrounds and cultures and identities, carrying their ideas on the same topic?” And from there, we’ve taken it forward and built it out into a core part of the book.

Rebecca: It’s a much needed thing… grateful that you guys worked on that. I know it’s something that in doing a lot of accessibility related work and UDL work with our faculty and trying to bring in equity more holistically, it’s challenging, because it’s all these disparate resources and trying to make all the connections, it’s nice to have them all in one place.

Kevin: Well, I have to say one of the things that led to the success of this project was the fact that we had such a diverse group working on it. We had people from all walks of life: students, staff, faculty, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of is the work I’ve been doing with that Community College District

John: Changing the topic just a little bit, you advocate a backwards-design process, as many people do, but you also emphasize the importance of creating learning objectives at the level of course modules as well as at the level of the course and also making those explicit, not just in the syllabus, but also in the course module. Could you talk a little bit about why that’s important?

Kevin: I constantly refer back to what I call the psychology of the progress bar. And so if you’re familiar with progress bars, we as humans are not satisfied or motivated until it’s 75 to 80% complete. So when you have, for every course that you’re taking, and imagine a student with a normal load is taking four or five courses, let’s say you have an average five to 10 learning outcomes at the course level, that’s potentially 40 to 50 learning outcomes, or progress bars, that you’re trying to measure your progress over the course of the 17 weeks. So that means you’re waiting until week 12 of any semester to know how you feel about how you’re doing in a course. So that idea behind having module level learning outcomes means that you’re breaking things into small chunks, students can see that they’ve reached those outcomes right away. They dovetail or fall under the umbrella of those larger course-level outcomes, but provide checkpoints along the way for students to tell how they’re doing and stay motivated. Again, that motivation for persistence and success are key factors in helping our students in these online courses. And then, obviously, Todd brought a whole lot to that conversation, because he knew, just on the back of his head, the entire history of the term “learning outcome,” and why we use that instead of the word objective in the book, Todd, what do you think?

Todd: I’ll just mention this quickly, as I think it’s important for the book, because it seems like folks just love to argue about whether you’re really looking at outcomes or objectives… and goals, we totally get, everybody sees those as being separate… but outcomes versus objectives. So we kind of outline in the book, the different ways that people have actually defined those terms. But one of the cool things about this is that it was back around 1962, that a book was written about objectives, it goes back to the 1800s. But in 62, there was a specific book that was written that says, looking very, very carefully, what is the behavior that’s being done? How’s it being done? What’s the criteria for success, and we should be able to document those things so that we can objectively look at whether or not a person has achieved this. Then in about the late 80s, early 90s, the outcome-based education came along. And the big push was from objectives to outcomes. With the idea being that we’re going to define the outcomes of something we should be able to identify what is the behavior? What’s the criteria for success and how they go about doing it? And then they cited the same research from the 1960s. So we have two or three pages in the book of the folks who say, “Oh, no, no, it’s not objectives, it’s outcomes.” We say, Where do you think that came from? So at this level, and we’re not trying to be rude about it, but it really doesn’t matter. If you’re not writing a thesis on this, what’s important is that you can write a statement that says, “By the end of this unit, by the end of this class, by the end of this whole section, a student should be able to, or will be able to…”, and so that’s what we really went for, but kind of waiting for the feedback. The book’s brand new… out right now …of waiting for the hardcore education folks to kind of explain that we had outcomes and objectives wrong.

John: I gave a workshop on this topic in June for people preparing courses for the fall. And that was something that people from our education faculty were raising, saying, “Well, are these really objectives? Or are they outcomes?” And my point was, it doesn’t really matter. These are the things we want students to be able to do. And let’s just work on helping them get to that point, because both terms are used generally interchangeably, from what I’ve seen.

Todd: Yeah, totally.

John: And in describing them, you do use the SMART acronym. One issue I’ve run into is that there’s many different variants of that acronym, but you adopt one that actually pretty much the same one we had used here on our campus. Could you describe that SMART acronym?

Todd: It’s kind of going to come back to the same thing you were talking about for outcomes versus objectives. For a smart outcome, it is very important for It to be specific, that it’d be measurable, achievable, realistic, time bound, sometimes people change realistic for reachable. And so these words will bounce around a little bit. But I think what’s important, it’s almost… in drawing this analogy to Bloom’s taxonomy, people get so hung up on Bloom’s Taxonomy to say, is this knowledge or is this understanding? You know, it’s foundational. If it’s foundational, I’m good with that. There’s a difference between knowledge and understanding versus application versus synthesis. On a SMART outcome, there’s a difference between writing an outcome that’s just not reachable, it’s not timely, it’s not measurable, those are problems. So again, as far as I’m concerned, as long as you got something that’s specific and measurable, and probably reasonable, those are the big ones. But, that’s what we’re really after.

Rebecca: I love the emphasis on chunking things into small pieces to manage cognitive load, not only of our students, but also of the faculty member teaching the class… because just like students who may have those 50 outcomes they’re trying to head for, faculty are also trying to manage that and keep track of that for their students as well. So I like the idea of the cognitive load management for everybody involved in the learning process and really keeping it organized, which is a key thing for any sort of learning design, to make sure that people know how to move forward.

Todd: Well, yeah, I’m going to say that I think probably one of the most important aspects of creating any kind of learning environment for your students is it comes down to cognitive load. I mean, it really is, because at any given moment, if you have too much to do. For anybody out there who doesn’t know what cognitive load is, think about, like, the expressway. And so you got information coming in, if I’m looking over and I see somebody walking by, and I just watch him for a minute and see what their outfit looks like, that’s one thing I can do. If a friend is talking to me, I can listen to the friend. if they’re talking to me in the car while the radio is on, and then it starts to sleet outside, I’m thinking, you know what? …trying to keep the car on the road, listen to somebody talking, and having the radio is too much. And so it’s just too much material coming through at once. And it’s kind of like when the expressway has too many cars coming in at once, and everything comes to a grinding halt. So what we have to be really careful of is that the more you do something, the easier it becomes. And the more you have frameworks for doing things, the more easily you can do it. So as we build these kind of structures, students can process a lot more information. But that’s the cognitive load. And everybody has that feeling of sitting down to read something and getting about two paragraphs in and saying, “Yeah, not now, I just can’t do this right now.” That’s cognitive load. And we do it all the time. The most important thing to keep in mind is, if you’re an expert at something, the process is very easy, because it’s repetitious, but your students are novice, so they’re going to face a lot higher cognitive load. So the thing that you think, “Oh, this is easy…” they’re holding on by their fingertips. So be mindful of that cognitive load, I think, is really important, from the work of Sweller in the 1980s.

Kevin: And just to build on that and to go back to Rebecca’s concept about the chunking and how important that is, it also serves today’s students. So recently, I was a moderator of a student panel at a conference. And we had in the same panel, a working mother. She was a single mother of two kids and in her 30s. And she said, “Sometimes I’m just trying to get the work done. I’m not aiming for the A, even though I would love an A, I’m just trying to get through this credential so I can get a degree and get upward mobility socially and socioeconomically.” And so thinking about chunking as a universal design for learning concept, where students can track their progress when they’re having to bounce between different priorities, academics, worklife, family obligations, this makes a streamlined pathway. Using Todd’s expressway, we’re creating a carpool lane for busy people.

John: And it also matches with your discussion earlier of the checklist type idea, that when students are given a project, say “write a paper by the last day of the term,” it’s really easy to procrastinate. And then quite often, when people did that, it became overwhelming, and it just never got done. By breaking it up into smaller chunks, you’re keeping the cognitive load lower on each chunk, but you’re also dealing with those human tendencies to procrastination and so forth, to make it easier for people to keep the work manageable to stay on track and not to put things off, because they’ve got many other things that at the moment seem more pressing than something due a month later, or two months later.

Todd: Yeah. And John, you brought up something that’s hugely important there, that so much of this stuff is interwoven. And I think it’s hard for a lot of folks to see all of the different connections that are out there. But if you do a project, just like you just said, that’s due at the end of the semester, students wait till the last minute because they will. As a faculty member, I’ve had reports for Provost that I’ve waited until the last minute to do, but that creates the high pressure. Cognitive load goes up, You start thinking “I can’t do it.” Once I started thinking I can’t do it, now I’ve got to pass this class. And so I started looking out online, maybe there’s a paper I could just buy. So suddenly it becomes an integrity issue. And so a lot of times when you look at the research on students who will do unethical things, or cheating in the classroom, it’s almost always based on pressure. People don’t cheat on things that they don’t feel pressure about. So when you have all these checklists, that Kevin pointed out, through the semester, you keep the cognitive load down, you keep the pressure down, then the need to cheat, so to speak, you take that away. So there are really things that we can do to create a better environment for the students that don’t entice them into these unethical behaviors.

Kevin: Well, and one strategy that we put in the book is to not only provide the due dates, but provide start dates. And when you break up a project into chunks, you can have a first draft, you’re gonna have feedback from a peer, and have those all lined up so that students see it’s not just one thing at the end of the term, and they’ll just wait until the last day. But instead, “Oh, I need to start my draft because I need to turn that in. Even if you’re not going to do a whole lot with it as the instructor, but you’re going to provide opportunities for students to interact with one another to get feedback about their work before they turn it in. All those things are important. I’ve gone to the extent where I have students take a snapshot either digitally on their computer, or with a phone picture if they have a paper-based calendar and show that they have allotted the correct amount of time each week for my class. And I give them, if they want, the ability to download or use an online to-do list that basically sends them reminders to start and finish things up.

John: And that feedback that they’re receiving all the way through also reduces the ability to engage in academic dishonesty and it reduces the benefits of it because none of the tasks are unmanageable. It works a lot of ways.

Rebecca: I really appreciated all of the equity framework built into your book, but I have to admit the chapter I went to first was “managing your workload when teaching online and I think maybe a lot of faculty might switch to that immediately right now, in this moment in time. Can you talk a little bit about some of the strategies to reduce workload for faculty as well?

Kevin: Sure, I’ll start, but I know Todd has lots of ideas to jump in. So a couple things, one, and we’ve referred to this before, and not in this interview. But, Tom Tobin has a book with Kirsten Behling about universal design for learning, and in it they propose this “plus one” strategy, just think about one thing that you can do. So while we present a lot of ideas in the book, it’s chock full of ideas, we recognize that, unless you’re going to do a full course redesign over a summer or something like that, you re lly are going to find that the maximum strategy that will help the most students at that particular time. And so when you’re talking about workload, part of it is parsing out the work of modifying your course. The other is thinking about strategies that will help you maybe be more equitable in how you reply to students in a discussion forum. There’s research that shows it, and that particular study by Stanford 94% of the instructors replied first, and sometimes only, to names that look like white male names. So a strategy might be to create a spreadsheet showing that you have responded to all the students equally throughout the semester, just tracking your own progress. Until they have tools like that in the learning management system, we have to do it ourselves. That increases the workload in some respects, but also decreases the workload in terms of, “Well, I know that I’ve talked to Todd three times already this semester, but I haven’t answered Rebecca once.” If I’m worried about whether or not Rebecca is going to stay in the class, the way to demotivate a student is to give them no feedback whatsoever. So that increases our workload when we get those administrative calls from our department chairs or Associate Deans saying, “Hey, your DFW rates really high.” So just thinking about different things that you can do over time, and also ways of working with colleagues. If you’re teaching a class that has more than one section, you might be able to strategize who’s going to do what this week. The ability to leverage open educational resources, so you don’t have to create something from scratch, but maybe modify it to meet your needs. There’s all these different ways that you could manage your workload in the online course development, and also the course facilitation.

Todd: The other thing I would add to that is… I think it’s really important, everybody’s in firefighter mode, especially right now. You’re just trying to get… tomorrow is all you’re trying to do. But I can remember being a faculty member about 35 years ago, I was kind of in that same framework, too. I know that now is tremendously just pressure for everybody. But you know, last year wasn’t just easy, and three years ago wasn’t simple. So we’re always in this field where, because there’s an unlimited number of things we can do, and if we care about our students and we’re pretty bright, and keep trying to do new things, we’re always kind of overworked. So I think this is no different than a lot of other times, you got to take stock of where you’re at and what you can do. And I think budgeting a little bit of time, even every week just for 20, 30 minutes, and specifically say to yourself, low-hanging fruit stuff… What could I do that would actually cut down some of unnecessary work that I’m doing right now, and not decrease the learning for my students? I could take a thing out here, and they’re still going to learn just as much. Or what’s something that I could add that, after a very short period of time, the cognitive load wouldn’t be bad, because it might take me a couple times to figure it out. But once I got it figured out, then I can do something that takes very little time and has a lot more growth for my students. And so just taking stock once in a while, because I will tell you that I remember when EXCEL came out. So when Excel came out, a friend of mine said, you got to get your gradebook into Excel. And for anybody who’s listening that’s old enough to remember carrying around the green book… the little green book that we all wrote up all our notes with. I had five exams where I dropped the lowest exam. And I was doing my class with 600 students in those green books. And it took me two years before I finally tried Excel, because I was too busy to try it. So my framework now is to say, “What if I had budgeted 30 minutes to try that?” I think in the end, it only took me about 30 minutes to an hour to actually run it in Excel. But I never took the time. So what we’re advocating for is, as busy as you are, take just a few minutes to just say if I jump off the treadmill, what could I do that would take less time?

John: This is going to date me a little bit, but I only used one of those little green books back in 1980 and 81. And then I picked up a Timex Sinclair computer, one of those early things, and I wrote a grade book program and I was using that up until the time I got a spreadsheet. I think Lotus 123 was the first one I used and then Excel after that, and then the gradebook in the LMS. I hated doing all that by hand. So I’ve always tried to automate it.

Todd: Before we move on. You know, I do want to point out, just for nostalgia, that there was nothing in society more powerful than that little green grade book because anybody in higher education had seen that book before. And I can remember my sister got in a car accident and these surgeons would come in, different people come in, and they were very dismissive of us, almost all of us. But, I was grading one time and one of them came in and saw that book and stopped and says, “What do you teach?” And then we got into this really nice conversation and it suddenly occurred to me, even the physicians fear the green book.

John: One of the things you emphasize throughout your book is building human connections in online courses. Could you talk a little bit about some strategies that we can use to do that effectively?

Kevin: So first is being aware of opportunities where students can interact with one another or interact with you, the instructor. And so that awareness then extends to “Okay, we’re going to build it into an assignment but in a way that helps students understand that that’s part of what you want to achieve.” And so we often look at instructions for, let’s say, a discussion forum where it’s maybe a paragraph maybe two of how they should respond to your original prompt, and then please reply to two other students. And so giving them some feedback about what do you want to happen in those replies? Do you want them to extend what the other person did by finding resources that would be helpful for the argument they’re making? Is it to probe or clarify when that student’s not making enough points to really make it clear what they’re trying to say? And so giving them some ideas, and then when we pull in the equity angle, on top of human connection, we can say, “How does your connection to this and your background and your identity map to what you’re experiencing with your student classmate?” And so getting them to start interacting with one another at different levels, also increases that sense of human connection because they know each other better? A lot of instructors I know, especially in fields, maybe like STEM, they’re worried about adding things to the class that would take away time from other important activities. And so it’s finding those ways to do both. I’m a big fan of both/and as opposed to either/or. So, if you’re going to have a discussion, then maybe “How does this physics concept apply to your background? How is it useful in your life?” And so there’s still thinking about the physics concept, instead of just a chance to socialize with your classmates. And then moving on from there.

Todd: I love the way Kevin just covered the one aspect. Another thing we’ve talked a lot about in terms of this human connection is there’s an old phrase that “we teach the way we were taught.” And it’s actually a way to excuse folks for lecturing because like, “Well, I was lectured to, so I lecture.” I don’t actually believe you teach the way you were taught. I think that… in fact I know, back when I was an undergraduate, and we’re talking about back in the late 70s, early 80s, there were faculty members doing service learning, there was small groups, we did problem based learning, we had a lot of different things. I loved this one guy who did storytelling lectures. I don’t teach the way I was taught, I teach the way I best learned. And that makes a lot of sense, because if we really don’t stop and take into consideration other people, every one of us has a way we learn. And we think, “Oh, you know how students will learn best is you do it like this.” And it’s the way you learned. And so what I think the thing is, is we got to break away from this concept of teaching the way we best learned. And by the way, as evidence of this too, you’ll have some students who will do phenomenally well in your class. If you sit down and talk to them, they tend to learn just like you did. And that’s why the class is going so well for them. So I think, for me, what I try to do is to say “Who in the classroom….no matter how I’m teaching, who in the classroom is struggling right now?” And so if I’m teaching something where people raise their hands and just shout and answer quickly, I’m actually teaching to the fast thinking, low concerned extroverts… the people who don’t mind making mistakes. And if I stop and think for just a second, who is that not benefiting? Well, somebody who needs to take a few more minutes to think, a person is a little bit more introverted, or an individual who’s really self conscious about making mistakes. So that’s a part of trying to find that human connection to of getting away from just assuming everybody out there like us

Rebecca: As a slow thinker, I really appreciate that.

Todd: And you know, it’s funny, I just want to say is, I think that’s really, really important. Because people will make jokes about that all the time. It’s like, “Well, you know, we introverts…” They’re all learners. And this is one thing I just loved working with Kevin on. He’s one of the kindest, most human oriented people I’ve ever been around. But constantly be thinking, if somebody makes a joke to me and says, “Well, you know, I’m kind of introverted. So I don’t know if I’ll fit in here.” I’ll say, “Well, wait a minute, how can we make that work? And it’s not a joke. Let’s talk that through.” Because education is by and large, built for fast-talking risk-taking extroverts. That’s just who education had been built for. And online learning actually changes that game, which is why some students dislike it, and others love it. But they’re all humans out there. So we do have some students who are really struggling now with online learning, who wouldn’t be doing much better in the classroom right along with the people again, who are doing much better because we’re online.

John: And we should try to design our courses to work for all sets of students.

Todd: Yeah.

Kevin: There you go.

John: We always end with the question: What’s next?

Kevin: Well, I would say, Todd described how this book evolved over the course of a couple of years. And during that couple year period, this thing called a pandemic happened. So obviously, there’s more that we could be doing. And so I know, for myself, in conference presentations and workshops that I conduct at colleges and universities, I’ve been trying to fill in different gaps to help people with immediate needs that we may not have been able to get to to the book, otherwise it would have been an encyclopedia. We packed that thing full of ideas, but I think Todd just constructed a website. I’d love to find ways to engage the community around the equity challenges that they’re facing and help folks identify what this really looks like in a course. When you’re talking about learning equity or Universal Design for Learning or human connection. These can seem like abstract concepts. And so when you’re saying, “But I’m designing an online course, I need something that I can see.” So getting examples of that, not just by the ones that Todd and I put in the book, but by others. Stories that students tell about things that helped them, those are the things I think would really bolster this book and make it achievable for people who are busy and just trying to help their students. What do you think, Todd?

Todd: I think that’s great, Kevin, and I guess that’s, for me, the same type of thing. We’ve written the book, I think it’s an amazing material, quite frankly, and I’m in awe of it at the end. And I’m not saying that just because I’m the co-author of the book. It’s got so much information packed into it. And so we did set up a website, theexcellentteacherseries.com, because this is part of that series. And it’s going to have information on it. So I think what’s next is what Kevin was just talking about, just continuing to put tips and different suggestions on this so it can be a living project, as opposed to a static book. The book itself kind of launches you and then we have this living project that people come back to and contribute with.

John: Thank you. I really enjoyed reading your book. And I’ll strongly recommend it to our faculty here. And we very much appreciate you taking the time to talk to us.

Todd: Thank you.

Kevin: Thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much for joining us and sharing all of your rich information.

Todd: Appreciate that. Thanks for the opportunity.

Kevin: Yeah, and the chance to have some tea.

Todd: Oh, yeah. Gotta love the tea.

Rebecca: Tea is very important.

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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.

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171. Burnout

Unrealistic expectations and increasing workloads have been present in higher ed for a long time, but have been exacerbated by the pandemic. In this episode, Dr. Rebecca Pope-Ruark joins us to talk about the realities of burnout and the need for self-care.

Rebecca  is a Teaching and Learning Specialist for the Center for Teaching and Learning at Georgia Tech. Rebecca is the author of Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service, and Teaching, the co-editor of Redesigning Liberal Education: Innovative Design for a 21st Century Undergraduate Education, and is currently completing a new book on burnout and women faculty.

Show Notes

  • Project board with three columns: Backlog, Work in progress and done. The Done column is layers of stickynotes and the work in progress only has a few items.
    Rebecca Pope-Ruark’s current project board

Transcript

John: Unrealistic expectations and increasing workloads have been present in higher ed for a long time, but have been exacerbated by the pandemic. In this episode we talk about the realities of burnout and the need for self-care.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

John: Our guest today is Dr. Rebecca Pope-Ruark. She is a Teaching and Learning Specialist for the Center for Teaching and Learning at Georgia Tech. Rebecca is the author of Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service, and Teaching, the co-editor of Redesigning Liberal Education: Innovative Design for a 21st Century Undergraduate Education, and is currently completing a new book on burnout and women faculty. Welcome, Rebecca.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Thank you so much for having me… big fan of the show.

John: Happy to have you here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are… Rebecca, are you drinking tea?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: I am. I take teaching and tea very seriously. So I’m drinking PG Tips from England this morning.

John: We have some of that in our office.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: It’s a favorite. [LAUGHTER]

John: I still have some Christmas tea with cinnamon.

Rebecca: Yum.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: mmm, sounds lovely.

Rebecca: And I’m on I think my last pot of my loose leaf Scottish breakfast tea.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Ooh.

Rebecca: I’ll have to move on to something else.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yum. I’m a big fan of Irish.

Rebecca: The Scottish was a discovery for me during the pandemic, and I’ve been a little obsessed.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: [LAUGHTER] I’ll have to try that

Rebecca: My grandmother’s from Scotland, so maybe it’s that. I don’t know.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, my grandmother’s from England. So I gravitate towards the English breakfast tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your work on faculty burnout. Perhaps we could begin by describing what burnout looks and feels like.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Sure. So the World Health Organization defined burnout recently as a workplace related syndrome characterized by unrelenting stress that is unmanageable, specifically in the workplace. So that’s the definition that we’re mostly working from right now. And burnout has three characteristics that you can be on the lookout for. First, there’s exhaustion, so that mental, intellectual, emotional, exhaustion, where it’s just difficult to get out of bed in the morning, because everything is so tiring. The second sign is cynicism, or depersonalization. There’s cynicism toward the people that you work with, towards the job that you’re doing. You stop being people really as individuals, and they seem more like kind of an amorphous group. And then the last one is this lack of a sense of meaning or accomplishment. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to see the value of the work that you’re doing. We all kind of know what those three things feel like at the end of the semester. But this burnout, as we’re defining it, by the World Health Organization, is a sustained pace of unrelenting stress. And that looks different for everyone. And you can look for common signs like pulling away and isolating from the work context, unexplainable anger, an inability to concentrate or sustain thought to the level that you’re used to, and an inability to write for some folks. And that was one of my problems when I went through burnout. So those can be kind of heartbreaking things and not knowing what’s going on with that. And then if you don’t have a language for burnout, it can often feel like shame, because you can’t emotionally and intellectually do what you’ve always done. And the brain just doesn’t work that well under that kind of stress.

John: And during a pandemic, those things become much more serious. And a lot of it is people are trying to reach the standards they had set for themselves, but aren’t quite able to during the circumstances, and that gets really frustrating. So why do we set such high standards for ourselves and each other at any time, but during a pandemic, in particular?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Oh, it’s endemic to the culture of higher education. The people who are attracted to higher education often come from a kind of a similar personality type, not to say that that’s a total stereotype. But we all have kind of a predilection toward achieving and excellence and knowledge and lifelong learning. And those are wonderful things. But when they get taken to a certain extreme, it becomes really difficult to see past this kind of expectation escalation, every step has to be a little bigger than the last step. And that’s an expectation. It’s not necessarily just something that we put in our own head. So higher education culture really does push that on us in a lot of ways. Burnout, specifically, is really hard in, like I said, the caring work like health care and teaching. And we have to think about: “What are the positive rewards on that?” So sometimes burnout comes from not enough rewards, from not enough positive interactions. And those can be part of the stress, and we have to really think that workplaces cause burnout. The definition and the research that we see says it is very workplace specific. But that doesn’t necessarily mean if you move over to another job, that those kinds of things are going to go away, especially in higher education, because the culture, the expectation escalation, there is kind of an unrelenting pace, and there’s no room to just kind of fit and be content or rest. And one thing I do want to point out too is that burnout itself is not a mental health illness. It’s a syndrome associated with stress. So there’s more that you can do to manage burnout, before it gets bad if you can catch it early enough.

John: For faculty,referring to what you said earlier, one of the symptoms is perhaps dehumanizing your students and, as you said, treating your students as this amorphous blob, rather than as individuals. And I think we often hear some of that in some of our colleagues who’ve reached their limit by the end of the semester, but when that becomes persistent, it becomes I think, a more serious issue.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, that was definitely my problem when I went through my own severe burnout. I was a teacher’s teacher, right? I mean, That was all I wanted to do. My entire tenure case was built on teaching and scholarship of teaching and learning. So when I started to pull away from my students, when I started to feel very negatively about them and their concerns, I was a tenure track faculty member tenured for 12 years plus five years teaching undergraduates with graduate students. So at that point, you’ve kind of seen everything in a way it feels like,so the compassion fatigue starts to set in, because it becomes repetitive for you. It’s the same thing over and over again. And that’s exactly where students should be. Right? That’s their developmental age. Of course, they should be there. The compassion dries up, and the empathy starts to dry up. And that’s a pretty big sign to look for burnout.

Rebecca: How does this impact newer faculty or mid-career faculty differently than faculty that have been around for longer?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: In some ways, I don’t feel like, at this point, there is a big distinction. I think we can all be prone to it. I think we are all prone to it. I think we probably experience in different ways. And by the time I went through my burnout, I was relatively close to going up for full professor and had been successful and was pleased with my career. But it just wasn’t the same anymore. I couldn’t find joy in it anymore. I started having panic attacks just going to campus. Those are signals to look for. And I think we all go through ebbs and flows. Yes, it was more stressful as a junior faculty member, especially given the expectations of graduate students coming out these days. It’s crazy. And what graduate students need to do and be prepared to get those few rare tenure-track positions is exponentially bigger than what I had to do when I finished my PhD 14 years ago. And especially in the pandemic, those poor junior faculty are thinking about their tenure clock, they’re thinking about the tenure case, they might have caregiving responsibilities at home. When do you have time to write? This kind of unrelenting stress makes it really difficult to focus and difficult to think. And I think a lot of the folks who are being productive now, that’s amazing. It could be a coping mechanism that some of us don’t have or don’t have the luxury of. So I really do feel for junior faculty, especially when all of those things are so uncertain. What’s the clock look like? How do you account for the time and publication and presentations in your clock? And I think burnout can be kind of common right after receiving tenure for folks, because there’s a sudden, “what if” kind of that midlife crisis there too. But it depends on how your workplace is kind of playing out in a lot of ways and that the people that you’re engaging with, the activities that you’re doing, things that you are responsible for, that you feel like you can’t step away from. So I think we can all be prone to burnout at any point, if we’re not at least on the lookout for it.

Rebecca: One of the things that you hinted at and that we’ve talked about on a previous podcast related to the pandemic is some of the particular challenges that affect women or faculty of color or contingent faculty who may have some of those additional caregiving responsibilities or other things that are happening if they’re working from home.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Right. And we know from higher education research that women, faculty of color, and contingent faculty, especially, tend to teach larger numbers of students. So they’re already doing significantly more emotional labor on our campuses than we might know. Because it’s hidden, it’s silent. And these populations are often called to do more significant service, more significant mentoring. So more time means more and more potential for secondary traumas on top of all the quote unquote normal workload, and whatever might be going on for them at home as well. It could be childcare, it could be eldercare, it could be a number of different things that they didn’t expect, or they didn’t have on their plates necessarily during work hours. So it’s going to impact time, it’s going to impact attention, the ability to research and write, and it’s just a heavy emotional load. Faculty, for the most part, are not trained counselors. We don’t have that skill set, necessarily. And we shouldn’t be asked, necessarily, to be counselors. But we need some skills to help our students as we’re all going through this unrelenting trauma right now, it’s impacting all of us. So we have to build up our own mental health and our own resilience to be able to help our students work through what they’re going through. And as a woman faculty member, faculty of color, we work with more students, and we see more students and students may be more comfortable talking to us about the struggles that they’re having. So how do we engage with them and point them to the resources that they need? We can be empathetic, but if you’re not a trained counselor, how do we connect them with the resources that are going to help them? And I think one blessing right now is that student mental health had been an issue that was gaining a lot of attention and a lot of traction in higher ed, so there are much better systems in place at many institutions for student mental health, as resources are available. So if we know what those are, we can direct our students to them, and we can ask them for help in helping our students. But we can’t help others if we aren’t helping ourselves. How do we take care of ourselves so that we can take care of our students as well, whatever that means for you?

John: What are some strategies that faculty could use to help mitigate burnout, to make it less likely, or at least reduce its impact?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: There’s a lot of things we can think about. And depending on how far down the scale you are in burnout therapy might be the best option. And that’s something to talk to your mental health care provider about. Most institutions have EAPs that might offer you some initial conversations with a mental health professional or a coach. So you could take advantage of that to kind of see where you are. Another point of, I don’t want to say diagnosis, but another point of maybe a way to kind of see where you are on a scale is to check out the Maslach Burnout I Inventory. Christina Maslach. It’s kind of the grande dame of burnout research. And she and her colleagues have one of the most validated scales for burnout right now, and inventories. So if you Google that, there’s a $15 version for educators, and that’ll show you where you are on those three dimensions of burnout, so you have a sense of what the challenges are, so that you can direct your attention to those specifically. When I took it, I was almost off the charts. So I waited way too long, because I didn’t have a language for what was happening to me. And I didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t want to talk about it, because it was shameful. I couldn’t think straight anymore. I couldn’t decide what to eat for lunch, I had a panic attack when I got near campus. So if you’re a kind of a hard charging academic, and those things start happening to you, you start questioning “What is going on?” And how do you not display that weakness to other people. So the first thing after therapy, if that’s what you need in diagnosis, is connection. And that’s one of the earliest things that’s going to go, because you do start to isolate yourself. But once I started talking about my burnout, people came out of the woodwork, which is both good, because people are talking about it, and both terrible, because there are so many folks who have told me their stories, and they’re just sad… not just that their mental health, but their physical health has been impacted by burnout. So I think we can do a lot of things. Connection is the first thing and that might be talking to a trusted circle of folks around you that may or may not be in higher education, reaching out to folks in your counseling centers if those are available, reaching out to your centers for teaching and learning and faculty development, they might have coaching opportunities for you or, I know that my institution, we’re talking about how we can develop some programming for our faculty that they can come into and get a conversation and see that they’re not alone, which is a big part of starting recovery, honestly. So some of the things that I do recommend are redefining what your sense of productivity is. We talked a little earlier about that sense of expectation escalation. Once you’ve written a paper in this journal, you need to get into a better journal, you need to get into another better journal, then you need to get a book contract. And once that book is out, everything else needs to be a book with a better publisher. It’s almost never ending. When do we be content? I talked to one faculty member who was at an institution where the administration felt like there weren’t enough women in full professorships. So they wanted to hold events to convince women to go up for full professor. But many of the women at that institution were content where they were, and they had fulfilling careers. They had fulfilling family lives. They were happy at that thought in their career, which is sometimes kind of rare, I think, you know, to feel that kind of contentedness. So why push that just for kind of a sense of it almost feels like kind of a performativity of that. So rethink what productivity means. The uncertainty seems never ending. Now that the vaccines are out, I think maybe we have some hope that there’s an end in sight. But that doesn’t necessarily make it easier to write right now or do your research, especially if you’re doing research with people that you can’t interact with right now, whether that’s colleagues or contributors or a population that you study, right? It’s difficult. So what can you do now? and what is reasonable? And I think there needs to be transparency with administration at this point. They need to be having conversations about what’s reasonable right now, when we’re going through this. Not that this year is a total waste by any stretch. But we need to temper expectations for what productivity means and what we can realistically do right now. Some other options are setting some boundaries for yourself. Self care is a buzzword, we all talk about self care, the need to take care of myself, but we often think of it in a very superficial way: I’m going to get a massage, I’m going to get a pedicure, I’m going to go fishing for the weekend. And those are wonderful things, but they don’t necessarily take care of you in the long run. They don’t necessarily take care of your mental health in the long run. So setting boundaries is one of the key ways that you can take care of yourself. Brene Brown talks a lot about boundary setting and how to hold those boundaries. So that’s a resource to look into. But if we set boundaries for ourselves, we can model that for others, as well, right? We can’t start changing the culture of productivity until we all start thinking about what we’re doing and how we do it. And how we model those things for folks who are upcoming,

Rebecca: Sometimes setting boundaries can be difficult, at least initially. But I’ve discovered, and I think others will discover this too, that if you start small, it becomes a habit, and you can make bigger boundaries. And it really does help to have those boundaries, either in time or expectation boundaries in terms of how fast to respond to students. And once you have the boundaries set and you are okay with them, it’s pretty easy for other people to respect them, but you have to respect them yourself.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yes, absolutely, it’s like sending that time aside in your calendar or really committing to not checking email after 5pm and those kinds of things that we just kind of take for granted.

Rebecca: It’s so hard.

REBECCA P. It really is.

John:…and sharing those with your students can be helpful too, so that they know they should not expect a response at 2am or at 6am. Because otherwise, they might feel neglected if they don’t get an immediate response. But if they know that there are certain times when you will not be responding, they’re much more willing to accept it.

Rebecca: Or even sharing that your response time is at a weird time I respond at 5am. Because I have a small child. And that’s when I can.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, whatever boundary works for you.

John: I do have to say, our administration has been really good about this. Our Provost, at the end of his email, has a message saying he does not expect responses out of work hours or over weekends, I don’t remember the exact wording, but basically, he’s letting us know that we don’t have to respond right away. He’s writing to us when he has a free moment. But he expects us to do it when we have time during our regular work time. The Dean of Arts and Sciences has been wonderful in working with faculty and encouraging them to take breaks to do other things, to get away. And that’s been really helpful for faculty here.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: One thing that I think people can find helpful too, is hobbies. And I think sometimes when we’re kind of in the ruts and the hustle and the bustle, we let those things go by the wayside. But if you have a hobby or a pastime, that is kind of encompassing, and that helps turn your brain around… I ride horses, my husband has motorcycles… so, those are things that you have to focus on, you don’t want to not be mentally present if you’re on a horse, right? [LAUGHTER] …that’s not some place you want to be. So hobbies, whether it’s painting or music or garage science, whatever it is that makes you turn the brain off and think about things in a very different way, can be extremely helpful for your mental health as well.

Rebecca: And fun.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yes. [LAUGHTER] Let yourself have fun.

Rebecca: Imagine that.

REBECCA P.: I’m a terrible horseback rider, I’m never gonna compete. [LAUGHTER] But, it’s fun. So, let yourself have that. When you see competition everywhere. I mean, that’s a feature of higher education as well, because there’s always someone who’s a little bit better than you doing a little bit more than you, that becomes the bar. And going back to that idea of how can we be content where we are. Striving is good lifelong learning is good, but when it becomes this unrelenting pursuit without a purpose behind it, that’s when we need to stop and think because burnout can be close behind that.

John: You’ve also suggested in some of your writing that during a pandemic, we should accept some degree of mediocrity in our work. That we can’t expect to deliver our courses in the same way we’re used to, or necessarily at a very high level of quality. I think that’s a very helpful suggestion.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: John, I get kind of in trouble for using the word mediocrity. But as academics know, our standards are very high, whether that’s in your research or your teaching and service. Really, what I’m arguing is, take a step back, or take two steps back. We are not in a place as a society where we can have really deep thoughts, for many of us. And the more we beat ourselves up for that, the worse it’s going to get. And the worst burnout is going to chase you. In addition to all the trauma that we’re getting from the pandemic, and all the social injustice in the world. Really what I mean is taking a couple steps back, you can still be rigorous, you can still do good courses, your students can still learn in whatever context, if you are flexible in ways that you might not have been before. I think common humanity is really important. We may be seeing the humanity of our students in very different ways. And they’re seeing our humanity in very different ways now, and that’s a good thing. Because they know that we’re not robots, and they’re not alone in the things that they’re feeling and that we’re concerned, we’re struggling, we are experiencing the burnout that they may be experiencing as well. So if we can be human with them, if we can lower some of our standards. And again, that sounds bad, you don’t want to lower your standards, but you can get there in different ways. There might be different ways than high stakes exams, for example, which we know are already very complicated emotionally and intellectually when you’re doing them in a fully remote course, for example. There’s a lot of things there to consider. So how can we help our students learn in ways that are productive, maybe a little bit more fun, but still focus on the learning and the learning objectives, rather than what you have always done in the past. And your students will appreciate that too.

John: And that’s not a bad strategy under any circumstances, but especially during this pandemic. But just as faculty are experiencing burnout, so are many of our students. I know a lot of students sort of faded away. And we heard the story from many of our colleagues this past fall, that students were getting burnt out from all the hours they were spending in Zoom. And what they felt was an increase in the amount of work demanded from them, which may or may not have been the case, but certainly it felt that way to them. What can we do to help our students avoid burnout? You’ve suggested that a little bit by doing some things that are a little more engaging, and perhaps more fun ways than just taking high-stakes exams. Not that there’s much that could be more fun than that. [LAUGHTER] But what can we do to help our students get through this, perhaps, while still meeting those learning objectives?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Well, I think the first thing we can do is listen to them. So I have a lot of colleagues to our maybe weekly doing very short check-ins with their students maybe via Canvas survey or Qualtrics. Just, “How are you doing?” “Where are you in this unit?” “What’s still unclear to you?” …those kinds of things. So they’re checking in on their students’ stresses regularly. And these aren’t long surveys by any stretch. You can do more active learning with your students. I think one of the reasons that students might be feeling like there’s more work is that when we’re switching to more lower-stakes assignments, and more of those, it seems like more work, because you now have 10 homeworks, instead of two giant tests. So it feels like more work. So I think part of it is really looking honestly at what you’re asking your students to do. And is it comparable? …because it should be comparable, or even maybe a little less. But if you have other opportunities for them to engage, whether it’s in the hybrid environment, or in a remote environment, that there are different ways for them to engage the material, to engage with you. And explain why you’re doing things the way you’re doing them. Why is this a great project? Why are you doing these smaller quizzes instead of the big test? And focus on the learning aspects of those not the “I’m not doing big tests, because cheating is rampant…” That’s not going to help anyone. [LAUGHTER] So I’m doing this because it’ll help you learn over time, and it’ll help me see how you’re doing and check in with you, and we’re all going to get to where we were going, we’re just going to get there maybe differently than we would if we were all face to face all the time.

Rebecca: One of the things that I started noticing or that students were disclosing to me is that having more asynchronous opportunities was feeling like more work because they weren’t used to having to manage their time. So, although maybe the same amount of time was being spent on task, it wasn’t being curated in the same way, they might come into the classroom and do some active learning during class time. And maybe we were expecting them to do something similar outside of class on their own, but now that just felt like crazy big ask.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: And when you move big class discussions to a discussion board, suddenly they have to write things instead of have a conversation. So that does feel like more work. And in some ways it is, especially when it’s asynchronous, because then it’s over time, you have to keep going back to this discussion, rather than having it in class for an hour. So I think we just have to think about some of the realities associated with this. And I think we have to be listening to the folks who are experts in online education. It’s a different medium, there’s a lot of different pedagogical challenges and opportunities. But that’s another faculty stressor right now is many of us are completely pushing and flipping and hybridizing in ways that we never expected to be doing. So it’s another case of common humanity, right? So you can tell your students that this is unusual for you, you’re learning along with them in that sense. So that feedback from them is really helpful to make sure that they’re learning the way you want them to be learning and working toward the course objectives. But still in a fair and consistent way with the learning objectives.

Rebecca: Noticing behind you that you’re practicing what you preach with a backlog and works in progress and done….it looks like an agile project board. [LAUGHTER]

REBECCA P.: It is.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how some of the strategies in Agile Faculty might help in addressing burnout?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Sure. I think when you distill Agile Faculty and process down to its core, it’s about prioritizing and breaking things down into small chunks of work. I mean, that’s at the basic. You can layer the other things on top of it and the processes and the meetings. But I think visualizing the work, breaking down the work into small doable chunks, the example that I like to use as if you write literature review on your to do list, it’s gonna stay there for a month. And it’s gonna haunt you. Because there are a million little things you need to do to write a lit review. But if you break those down, and you visualize them, like the board behind me (and I can send everybody an image of that for the show notes, if that’s helpful), when you break them down and you see them, it doesn’t feel like you need eight hours of totally open time to do this thing. This thing might take an hour, this thing might take a half an hour, and it builds up over time, and you can see that. And seeing that visual progress is a wonderful psychological boost, especially if you use a physical board. I would love to do a study about what psychologically happens to people when they move sticky notes on a board. My students regularly cheer when they move something into the done column. They feel that success. So breaking things down as small as you can, realistically, of course, and then prioritizing what you can do now, and then just working consistently on small chunks when you have time.

John: And you also mentioned that there are a number of apps available for those people who are working on activities and groups. Could you share some of the apps that people might use for collaborative work online during this time?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, I mean, you always have Google Suites… that’s helpful. Trello is a board software that I know people use, that you can set up lanes and things like you can on a board, if you need to do that digitally. Padlet might be another thing that you might be able to use. I love Mentimeter, so I’m trying to think if there’s a connection to Mentimeter, but I’m not sure that there is. [LAUGHTER] I don’t think that there is.

John: Jamboard, maybe?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, probably. Anything that kind of looks like a digital whiteboard, and those kinds of things,where you can put squares or sticky notes and things like that you can use. I’m a big proponent of a physical board, but that’s completely unrealistic right now. So something like Trello doesn’t have a huge learning curve. Padlet does not have a huge learning curve. So those are software’s that are available free that students can use, and that you can use with your research teams. And the nice thing about the boards as well when they’re digital, especially for student teams, for research teams, too, is that when you, as a faculty member, have access to those, you can keep track about what students are accomplishing, and not in a surveillance way but in a learning way. Okay, they seem stuck here. This thing hasn’t moved for a while. So I’m gonna have a conversation with this group. Or, most of the group seems stuck in this particular piece of the assignment, so let’s have a conversation about that. So it opens up opportunities for just-in-time learning as well, when you can physically see their progress.

Rebecca: I’ve used Trello with students and they had no problem catching on to how to use it, you can also make templates to get them started, so if they’ve never done any project management like that before, you can get them going pretty easily, which can be really helpful too. And they really appreciated learning how to manage their time. And this is a way to manage their time, just like faculty sometimes need to learn how to manage their time.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, I frequently talk to faculty who, it kind of occurs to them, when they attend one of my workshops that they just assume that their students knew how to collaborate. They teach students how to write a lab report, they teach students how to give a good speech, those kinds of things. We don’t teach them necessarily how to manage their time or to collaborate successfully, and even just spending a little time on that could pay huge learning dividends for the students. So we need to think about some of the things that we take for granted.

John: Are there any other topics that you’d like to address that we haven’t addressed yet?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, I think I would like to just remind people that we need to normalize burnout through having the conversations about it, that this is not something that shameful, especially now we’re all struggling. And it’s not even creeping up on us anymore. It’s there, and it’s present. And it’s something that you can recognize, it is something that you can deal with the signs of. And across that spectrum, there’s a variety of ways to do that, but I think we need to normalize the conversation, but we need to change the culture that makes it normal. This is a cultural issue. Workplaces lead to burnout. Yes, as members of that culture, we perpetuate it, but it’s not going to change unless we really start arguing against it…modeling different things for junior faculty, for our graduate students, for our undergraduate students, and make those changes that live up to the values of lifelong learning and the pursuit of knowledge in ways that don’t become so competition based and kind of so capitalistic that we don’t lose track of the real reason and the purpose that we’re there.

Rebecca: Yeah, this is so important, and I think right now, during the pandemic, people are a little more willing to start to shift the culture. And so, although we don’t want to always say that there’s a silver lining with a pandemic, it’s one of those places where it’s a strategic time to start making change.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yes, absolutely.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking “What’s next?” But that sounds very, very, very perpetuating of such a culture, it could be fun. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Well, I’m looking forward to a quiet Christmas with my husband and Zooming with my family as much as possible.over the break, I will be working on the burnout book, and I’m starting my own podcast. So, I’m playing with that, which is a lot of fun. So that’s what I’ll be doing, hopefully reading some books and trying to set boundaries for when I do work and when I let myself relax.

John: Could you ell us a little bit about this podcast?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Sure. I’m calling it The Agile Academic, it’s a podcast for women in higher education, and it’s going to be an interview show. I’m gonna launch it in January. And really, it’s just an excuse for me to talk to really cool women in higher education and around the higher education space. I think, again, one of the silver linings that we hate to call silver linings, is I feel like I have reached out to talk to more people than I ever would have without this, to have conversations with people I admire that I follow on Twitter that I would love to just have a conversation with. I was enjoying not so much that I said, “Why don’t we record these and let other people kind of peek into these conversations?” So the first season will be out in mid-January, and I’m really excited about it. It’s a lot of fun.

Rebecca: Sounds really exciting.

John: Have you set up a site yet?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, for right now, if you just send them to RebeccaPopeRuark.com, that’ll get them to the main site. And then there’s a tab right now that says “Listen to Me”, which is kind of selected stuff. And I’ll put the podcasts on there, too.

Rebecca: I look forward to listening to that.

John: I am too. And we started the podcast, mostly to do some professional development. But one of the things I think I’ve enjoyed the most. And I think Rebecca has too, is the ability to do exactly that, to talk to some of the people we admire the most and who are doing some really interesting work that we’d like to learn more about.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: I wanted to do one for a long time. But I realized very quickly that I don’t like talking to myself, you know? [LAUGHTER] And if you’re gonna write a script, I’m a writer. So by the time I have a script, that’s like six blog posts, so, why should I record it? Yeah. So I’m excited with the interviews and talking to some great ladies.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us and sharing some really good advice. I hope the conversation about burnout really does open up and that more people have the conversation, see it as normal, and that we start to really shift that culture.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

John: Thank you. We’re looking forward to your new book. And I think we both really appreciated your past work. Rebecca has actually used some of this in her classes.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Oh, great, great. I hope it works well for you.

Rebecca: Definitely.

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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.

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170. Preparing for Spring 2021

The global pandemic forced many faculty to rapidly transition to new teaching modalities during the spring and summer of 2020, substantially increasing faculty workloads. In this episode, Dr. Carmen Macharaschwili joins us to explore some strategies that faculty might use to prepare for and manage the challenges of the spring 2021 semester.  Carmen has over 20 years of experience as an online instructor and researcher. She is also a Director of Academic Programs at the Association of College and University Educators, or ACUE.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: The global pandemic forced many faculty to rapidly transition to new teaching modalities during the spring and summer of 2020, substantially increasing faculty workloads. In this episode, we explore some strategies that faculty might use to prepare for and manage the challenges of the spring 2021 semester.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Carmen Macharaschwili. Carmen has over 20 years of experience as an online instructor and researcher. She is also a Director of Academic Programs at the Association of College and University Educators, or ACUE. Welcome, Carmen.

Carmen: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.

John: Our teas today are:

Carmen: Green tea.

Rebecca: Yum, I have Red Sun tea.

John: And I have Egyptian Licorice, an herbal tea today, because I’ve already had five or six cups of black tea, and I’d like to be able to get some sleep tonight. This was a gift actually. And it has a mix of licorice, cinnamon, orange peel, and a bunch of other things in it.

Rebecca: That’s a new one for you, John

John: It is. It even has black pepper and cloves.

Rebecca: It’s a debut tea, first time on this podcast.

John: It’s tasty. Actually. I think I’ve had it one time before.

Carmen: It sounds delicious.

John: It’s a Yogi tea. It was given to me by our former graduate student.

Rebecca: Oh, I know the one.

Carmen: That particular flavor sounds like it would be good with a little hot toddy whiskey in it as well.

John: It probably would. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Now you’re talking… now you’re talking 2020. [LAUGHTER]

John: And we’re recording this near the end of 2020. It’ll be released in early 2021.

Rebecca: That year will come. [LAUGHTER] So we’ve invited you here today to discuss how faculty should prepare for the uncertainties associated with another semester of teaching during the pandemic. As we all know, the workload is insane, and just not manageable or sustainable. Faculty were able to spend some time in the summer learning new tools and techniques, but that level of preparation and acting in crisis mode just can’t continue. So what can faculty do to start restoring some energy this spring.

Carmen: So I’ve been talking to a lot of faculty across the nation, and all of them are saying we are exhausted. So I think this is a common theme. And the thing I have been saying to everyone is make sure that you rest over break. So whenever this podcast is released, if you’re still on break, please give yourself some time to rest. And please plan on regular rest throughout the next semester, because we are all exhausted. And I was listening to another podcast about the American culture and how we have this culture where we reward people for working longer hours and working over the holidays, and how that’s just ridiculous. We are just way too focused on work sometimes. And in this podcast, they said that the way to get Americans to take a break is to tell them that they’re more productive if they do so. So I’m here to tell you, if you take a break, you will be more productive, and it will get done… and the research backs that. So that’s my number one. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: John, did you hear that? [LAUGHTER] John, if you take a break, you’re more productive.

John: I’ve heard rumors to that effect, and someday I hope to actually try that. [LAUGHTER] It has been a really challenging fall for everyone. And one of the things that made it much worse, and is likely to occur again in the spring, is that many colleges eliminated any breaks during the semester to keep students on campus so they wouldn’t spread the virus back and forth between their homes and their college communities. So planning in time for those breaks, I think, is going to be really important.

Carmen: Exactly. And it can be as little as… like my break I take every day as I walk my dog. It’s 15, 20 minutes, but I do it when I’m feeling very overwhelmed. And then when I get back, I have a clear head and I can go. so it doesn’t have to be like an extended vacation because we’re not going anywhere these days anyway, right? But just giving yourself some time where you’re able to just breathe and not think about all of these overwhelming things, I think is really, really important.

Rebecca: I went back to reading some fiction, which I have not done in like nine months. And it was really restorative. I read one book and I was like, “I feel human again.” I was doing that while I was grading. And that really, really helped. It also put me in a much better mood when I was looking at that student work.

Carmen: Which your students thank you for. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m sure they are. Yeah.[LAUGHTER]

Carmen: Yeah, ”restorative” is a great word, we need to remember that. I also think it’s a really good time to reflect. We went from the emergency teaching. And then we had the summer boot camps. I think it’s hilarious that a lot of people called them boot camps because that’s what they were: “Hurry up and figure out how to learn how to teach online.” And then we had fall and it was “Boom, boom, boom.” But now we know a lot of things. So from that we know what works, what doesn’t work. And so to stop and reflect before we go into the spring semester: What went well? What was frustrating? What feedback did you get from students? Reflect is a central part of our ACUE courses as we ask all faculty, when they try new things in the classroom, it’s really, really essential that you stop and reflect upon them and then make some better decisions from what you’re going to do next from your reflection.

John: We now have a second set of faculty who are just ending the second ACUE course, and one of the things we’ve appreciated at the teaching center is that we’ve given workshops on many things that are discussed in the ACUE course for many years and some people would attend those workshops year after year after year, because each time they intended to try it. The nice thing about ACUE, and also, to a large extent, one, I hate to say nice thing, about this whole pandemic is people were forced to try things that they had considered many times before, but never quite got around to because it’s always easy just to fall into patterns of doing the same thing. With the ACUE program, faculty have to implement things and then reflect on them. And once they get past that barrier of trying something the first time, it becomes so much easier to do it in the future. So we really appreciate that aspect of the ACUE program.

Carmen: Exactly. Me too. We know that that’s what research shows works. But if you’re not in ACUE you can do this as well. And again, you’ll be more productive, you’ll feel more confident in what you’re trying to implement, if you just take that moment to reflect upon how things have been going up until this point.

John: And if things worked, keep doing them. If things didn’t work, either revise it or,perhaps, stop.

Carmen: Exactly. That’s the other thing that we offer, as a best practice is the stop-start-continue survey in the middle of your course. What would you like me to stop doing, continue doing, start doing to make this course better. And I think that, when students say stop, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop, it means that maybe you can give them an explanation about why it’s important. But there might be some things that you do need to stop doing and reconsider. And the students could have some great input into that as well and help you.

John: I know, in one of my classes, I had some similar type surveys, and one of the things students kept asking was to stop using all these graphs, which is just something I couldn’t do. So I had to, though, help motivate it and explain why it’s really essential if they’re going to understand this and be able to apply these concepts that they understand the relationships that are captured in the graphs. I didn’t entirely convince all of them because that advice kept coming up from a couple students all through the term. But it is important to let students know you’re not doing this just to torture them, that it is an essential component of the learning objectives for the course.

Carmen: Exactly. And it can be very motivating, too, when they receive that explanation. And then they say, “Oh, okay, now I understand why I do this.” And maybe then they’ll be more likely to do it.

Rebecca: I think one thing that was nested in what you were talking about, in terms of reflection, based on some of your work that I’ve read, is that it’s not just about what’s good for students and student learning, but also what’s good for the instructor too, and being able to maintain the ability of getting feedback back in time, and all of those sorts of organizational things that might need to occur as well.

Carmen: Exactly. So that’s really important that one, we take it easy on ourselves. And I think we’ve kind of figured out that from emergency to establishing online learning to now that we’re not going to be able to use all the bells and whistles that are in our LMS, we’re not going to be able to do all of these high tech things. And other things I’ve been hearing from faculty is, guess what? Just because your students might be younger, that doesn’t mean that they’re tech savvy either. So let’s take it easy on ourselves and on our students and keep things simple. Evaluate what needs to be known in your course, rather than what’s nice to know. So there might be a lot of things you did in your classroom environment that you’re not able to do as much online, maybe it’s fewer readings, maybe it’s shorter lectures. But that’s okay, make sure that you’re looking at what your learning outcomes are… getting those across first. And then if you can add some fun things in: readings, podcasts, whatever, or bells and whistles, you can do that later. You don’t have to try and do everything perfectly right now.

John: One of the things that’s come across in lots of surveys of students is a feeling that they’re being asked to do a lot more work. Some of it may be the trauma that they’re dealing with that just makes the burden seem more, but some of it is that faculty in face-to-face classes would often ask students to do the reading and then assume they actually had. But as they’ve moved to either synchronous or asynchronous online, they put in more measures to assess students learning, which is actually forcing students to do reading that they might not always have done before. But that issue of increasing workload is something that I think has been a challenge for students and students routinely report that that’s a bit of a barrier. And there might be some issues there in terms of the cognitive load w e’re demanding of students in our classes, when we’re actually requiring them to do all the things in the past we had just kind of hoped or assumed that they were doing.

Carmen: I’m so glad you brought that up. Because I think about this all the time, especially now. It was about 15 years ago, I was part of a faculty program that was one of the first to go online at that institution. And we didn’t need to go online. it was this “We’re going to try going online.” And our immediate gut reaction was “It’s not the same as classroom, so we have to make sure that we justify the online environment. And we threw all of this work at our students, thinking that it was making up for the fact that we weren’t with them face to face. And I’ll never forget one of my students actually called me and asked me to go out for coffee with her. And she sat me down and she said, “You have got to stop.” She said, “We are all overwhelmed. Some of us are in tears. This program is overwhelming us.” And it really made us stop and have a meeting and think about, “Okay, what’s really important and what are we doing, and how are we trying to overcompensate.” And that student is now my boss. So, she was very wise to stop me, and she’s fantastic as a leader, but I was so grateful to her for stopping me and asking me to talk to the program group.

John: That’s another reason why it’s important to get that feedback, we can find out that sort of reaction because students might not always invite you out for coffee, especially during COVID.

Carmen: No, especially not now. [LAUGHTER] We don’t get to see them. But yes, we have to figure out what is working for them, what is not, and be flexible. I’m really excited about the fact that the silver lining in this whole situation is that we’re giving greater attention to our students than we ever have before. We’re forced to interact with them in a different way. And I think we are getting a lot of realizations about what’s going on in their home life, what other responsibilities they have, what their technology situation is… that maybe when we saw them every day, it was a lot easier to have more small-talk conversations, and now, when we actually get together, the things get a little bit more meaningful in our discussions. And we’re able to assess and guide them through how to learn online, where when we’re in the face-to-face classroom, we just have this assumption that this is the way we do things. So we’re all in this together. And I think it’s really important to also communicate with our students what our situations are, they appreciate that. In the ACUE course… again, sorry, this is my world… I get it all the time from faculty, they say, “I don’t feel comfortable telling my students that I don’t know this, or I’m not sure about that. Or that I’m taking a course to help me become a better teacher, I want them to think I already know what I’m doing.” But when they do, when they say I’m taking a course to help me to help you, their student evaluations go sky high, I hear it again and again and again. The students really appreciate that. And what you’re doing for them is you’re modeling this lifelong learning. If you think about it, right now, we’re teaching students who two or three or four years from now, the world’s already changed really quickly this year, and they might be in a world that we don’t even know what the jobs will be like, what new careers will be available. So we have to teach them this lifelong learning process, and how to switch and be flexible. And if we can model that for them, we’re setting them up for life.

Rebecca: When you were talking about their home lives and getting a little window into that, one of the things that students talk to me about is that, at home, their parents are treating their school lives differently than they would when they’re at school. So, as an academic, in a non-academic family, people think I don’t do anything during winter and summer breaks, that I’m just on vacation. Not true, right? But I think the same thing is happening to our students when they’re at home trying to learn and it’s something that people might not realize is happening to our students.

Carmen: I’ve had that same conversation with my family, they say ”Well, you’re not teaching right now. So what are you doing?” Well, all of the work comes before I actually am teaching, and after. Same with students, if you’re not actually physically in a classroom, there’s all of the work that still needs to be done. So I recommend for everyone to try and make sure you communicate with family, but also schedule a time on your calendar where you say, “I’m shutting the door,” or “this is my space right now,” like, before this podcast, I just told everybody to get off the internet and please leave me alone for an hour. We’re all living together in these smaller spaces, and nobody’s going anywhere, so we really need to communicate. And that could be especially difficult for first-generation students whose parents did not have the same college experience… really communicating to them why this is important, and what will come of the time that you give me now.

Rebecca: even coaching our students a little bit on some of the things that they might want to have conversations with their families about could be really helpful in developing a more supportive environment if they’re learning from home.

Carmen: Yes, that’s a great suggestion. And I think I heard, maybe it was on one of your podcasts, somebody saying that even creating assignments that involve asking the family questions, or something that’s going on that’s relevant to life right now, could also be helpful for students and families to understand

John: In an article you had in OpenStax, one of the things you mentioned was the issue of faculty trying to use every possible tool and overloading students. But you mentioned another type of problem, and this is something that is common when many people first start moving online, is they try to replicate what they were doing in a face-to-face class in an online class. They’ll spend a lot of time in really long, tedious, boring lectures and there’s nothing more boring than listening to someone talk on Zoom for an hour to an hour and a half. How can we help convince faculty that perhaps they do need to try some alternative approaches other than taking the ACUE course because we can’t get everybody into it?

Carmen: I liked that you brought this up because I will never forget. I even looked up this podcast… you can tell I listen to podcasts a lot. But NPR did a podcast in 2011, where there was a whole series of professors, physics professors, business professors, statistics professors saying, “We have to stop this large-lecture format, because you might be the most charismatic, wonderful lecture in the world, but unless students get a pause to think about what you’re talking about, maybe take some notes, talk to a friend next to them, or do something with that information, they might have really enjoyed your lecture, but they’re not going to retain as much of it as you would like.” And this particular person on the podcast said that at MIT, students were having competitions to see how many lectures they could miss and still find the information that they needed online… which is terrible, right? Like, this is not what we want. But students are smart, and they know that they can find the shortcuts, and then they’re losing a lot from you, the expert. So yes, we need to really think about what information we’re giving them, what amount of time we’re spending. So, for example, we can still do our lecture, but let’s chunk it into 10-minute periods, maybe stop and give them something that they should take notes on or reflect upon. Whether you’re synchronous or asynchronous, you could have them right in the chat room, the forum, or in a Zoom Breakout Room, discuss what they have just learned. There are many, many ways that we can give the information to students in bite-sized chunks. I’ve also seen research that says that our current generation of students are less likely to read emails, because they’re too long. Now this is crazy, because to me, emails aren’t very long unless you write a really, really long one. But really, the research shows that there are accustomed to sound bites and tweets. And so while we might want to train them to be able to sustain longer periods of reading than a tweet, we definitely need to take into account that that’s how we’re going to be able to communicate best with them is maybe give them something shorter to then engage into something deeper. So, we need to remember that. And I’m sorry, I think I’m even guilty of that. I think we’re so accustomed to the quick click on this, click on that, short read here, short headline there,that I don’t know how many people these days sit down and read a newspaper anymore. I think it’s all on our phones now.

John: It’s been a long time since I’ve physically held a newspaper in my hand, probably 15 years now. So it’s been a while. But even moving from tweets to Instagram to TikTok we see a similar reduction in the amount of time required to communicate and take in information.

Carmen: And can we train our students to do this? Yes, absolutely. But we just have to be aware that this is the reality of the situation. I even read something that the movies that we watch… they make me dizzy sometimes… but they’re made for the younger generation whose brains are already being formed differently. And they see a lot more in those rapid sequences than I can, just because I’m older than they are.

John: Actually movies provide sort of a counter argument to this shorter attention span, because students are perfectly willing to spend an hour and a half or two hours watching a movie and absorbing every second of it, because it’s created to be engaging. And if we could do some of that same type of thing in the classroom to create that same sort of engagement, not by lecturing at them, perhaps, but by getting them more involved with the narrative or with the story of what you’re trying to convey to them. And I should note, that’s one of the themes in Jim Lang’s book Distracted.

Carmen: That’s my book club book. Yes, I can’t wait to read it.

John: In fact, we’re going to be doing a book club reading group on our campus together with SUNY Plattsburgh this coming spring. So we’re looking forward to working with a group of faculty going through that.

Rebecca: One of the other things I wanted to circle back to that you mentioned too, Carmen, was these pauses to do the quizzing and whatever. It’s interesting that I cut back a little bit of the smaller assignments in my class as I was trying to reduce some workload and thinking about what’s necessary and what’s not, and you know what? My students asked for more of them.

Carmen: And why is that?

Rebecca: They wanted more because they wanted to be held accountable for the content in the videos or readings and stuff, and by having little practice assignments and things. I still had some of those, but they just wanted more, because they were helpful. So we sometimes think about workload and trying to balance what’s important or not. And asking the students can be really helpful because they asked, “Hey, can we have more of those little exercises?” I’ve even had them ask for like a quiz. It’s bizarre. You don’t think of students as asking for these kinds of things. But when they have a taste of a little bit of it, and they see that it helps them succeed, they want more.

Carmen: I think that that’s true on a lot of things. One story I like to share with my students. And this is a good place for faculty to start when they’re thinking about how to minimize the workload. Start with the learning outcomes. And if you’re super clear about what you want your students to know and be able to do when they leave your course, that will help. But the way I often start my class is I put the outcomes up or pass them out or put them up on the screen and say “Let’s look at these together, and I’d like to know what you think they mean.” And before they even see what the assignments are, “And how do you think you’re going to be able to show me that you’ve accomplished these learning outcomes?” And they often come up with much more challenging assignments than I would have ever assigned them and creative ways of doing these things. But I’m often astounded. I said, “Really, you want to do that much work?” [LAUGHTER] Because they often come up with things that are more challenging. We would think that they would try and find the easy way out. But no, they want to find what’s going to work. So yeah, they often rise above our expectations. I think.

Rebecca: Maybe it helps that a lot of my little exercises or challenges are like games, but still its a practice opportunity, and that’s really what they were looking for… something that was low-stakes practice, a little competitive, so they could have some fun and learn the material.

Carmen: Exactly. And speaking of fun, I think the thing that we’re all missing terribly right now is the social aspect of school, even just the little looks that you get in the classroom or chatting after you’re trying to go back to your class. And so I also think that we need to maybe incorporate more social opportunities around the learning. And one thing that I like to do in my class is assign buddies, or have people sign up for one or two people that they agree to meet with, and I leave it completely up to them how they want to meet. If they would rather just do a phone call, that’s great. A phone call. I mean, we don’t do that anymore. We text all the time, but we want them to connect, so please phone call, FaceTime, Zoom, whatever. If you’re in school, if you need to meet six feet apart (of course), just have a conversation about the topic. And it doesn’t all have to be on the computer screen, I think it’s really important that we give them those opportunities.

John: And the devices that you have in your pocket can be used apparently to make outgoing phone calls. They’re not just for the spam calls coming in. {LAUGHTER] My mother reminds me of that, because she’s the one who I’m most likely to talk to on the phone these days, because it’s so rare that we actually make phone calls. But that sense of personal connection, it can be useful.

Carmen: And you can hold them accountable by asking one person in the group to summarize what they talked about in the forum, and that way, not everybody has to post every week in the forum. So there can be ways that you can do both things. Also, I did some research, my dissertation was actually about the different ways of engaging socially in the classroom in an online environment. And I found that when you are doing problem solving, creating something, or processing, that speaking to another person is the most valuable thing you can do. When you are doing an activity that you’re trying to understand some content or reflect upon some content, writing is the most appropriate way to address that. So when you’re planning your spring course, you should think about: “Am I asking them to really do some problem solving and big picture thinking?” Maybe this is the assignment where I asked them to buddy up. And also give them timelines. I was laughing with somebody just this morning about this, where they said, “Oh, I always plan this big assignment at the end, and they always do it the night before. And they’re asking for extensions. And I never thought that maybe I should give them: ‘You should have X done by this time, you should talk to your group at this time, and so on and so forth.” Everybody assumes that students know how to go to school. But really, I know you did a podcast about time management. Faculty who are at the highest level do not know how to time manage. So why do we expect our students to do this? We need to help them along, especially now where we’re in our house all day long.

John: You mentioned assigning people to teams or as buddies, and I thought it was worth talking about that. Because one thing that some faculty will do is just let people self-form groups. But there is some advantage, I think, to you doing the assignment. Could you talk a little bit about why it’s helpful to have the instructor create the buddy pairs or the groups?
.,

Carmen: Well, the most obvious reason, I think, is that if students don’t already know each other, it might just be a very awkward feeling situation to just start calling up somebody and talking to someone you don’t know. Another tip that is in our course that I learned this year from an instructor demonstrating it, is she uses her introduction forum to see when people make introductions, who are the people that are replying the most? Who are the people that are really just replying once? So in a normal classroom, it would be like who are the talkative ones and who are the quieter one. And then she forms those groups so that all of the talkative people aren’t in the same group. She balances it. So that’s another thing that you can do to make sure that you are assigning groups that are appropriate. The other way you could do it is maybe by topic. So you could have them tell you which topic or what their skills are. For example, if it’s a group project, if somebody says, “I’m really good at graphic design” or something like that, you can make sure one of those is in each group. So there’s many ways that you can do it, where you’re teaching students beyond “this is a person I like” but really how to work. All of us, when we get real jobs, we have to learn how to work with all sorts of people.

John: When I’m teaching an econometrics class, which is an applied statistics course, one of the things I do in creating groups is I ask students to list how many prior math and statistics courses they have, and just sort it so that there’s an even mix of the people with the most experience across all the groups. Because when students are allowed to self-form the groups, there are some students who may not know anyone and they would feel left out. And then there’s the students who know each other, and they may tend to socialize a little bit more in the group. And when the group is formed for a specific purpose, and they know it’s for that purpose, they’re more likely to focus on that, rather than they see it as being just a chance to chat with their friends.

Carmen: Exactly. And that brought to mind too, timezone needs to be taken into account. Because if everyone went home to work online from home, there might be different timezone issues that you need to take into account when assigning groups.

John: And going a little bit further, people have different schedules. There are some people who are early risers who really like to do all their classwork in the morning, especially if they have childcare responsibilities, or other home responsibilities. So somehow getting information on who would prefer to work early morning, who would prefer to work in the late afternoon or early evening, and who would rather work in the middle of the night or late at night. And that’s another useful criteria to either let students self select to some extent, or for you to use as a criteria in matching.

Carmen: Exactly. Jobs, children, pets, everything… we have to take into account. Communication is the bottom line, I think, in giving them that opportunity to collaborate.

Rebecca: Students often complain about group work initially. But what I’ve discovered, and it was even more true this semester with students being online, is that they really appreciated that little learning community… that they worked on a project together, they socialized, they got to know each other really well, and really indicated that that was one of their favorite parts of the class, which is funny, because it’s usually the thing, they grumble about the most at the beginning,

John: I had the same experience. This is the first time when I’ve had group work in a class without a single complaint. And in fact, when I asked students to rate what things they found most useful, nearly all of them said they really appreciated the chance to interact with other students in the class, because that’s something they’ve been really missing during the pandemic.

Carmen: It’s funny that you say that because much like everything else we’re talking about, same is true for the faculty who are in our course. The faculty say “I don’t have time to do these synchronous discussions.” And so we make them optional. And then at the end of class survey, they all say “We wish we had more opportunities to get together synchronously and talk to each other.” It’s true for faculty as well.

Rebecca: One of the things that you brought up earlier was talking on the phone, which led me to think a lot about my own needs to be off screen a bit more. And students have also said we are Zoomed and screened out. And of course, I teach web design. So like a lot of it’s already on the screen without having Zoom and stuff there too, it’s a lot of time on the screen. So I built in some assignments this semester that intentionally got people off screen, like listening to podcasts and things like that. Do you have any advice for how to balance screen time for faculty and for students moving into the spring,

Carmen: I love that idea of giving other options that are not on the screen. But I also think that we read a lot on the screen as well even if we’re not on a video. And what I often use is text-to-talk software. So if I have papers to read, articles to read, anything digital, a website, I can click on my browser on a space called add to Capti Voice. Capti Voice is, the one I use, but there are many options. And it will take anything that I need to read on the screen and put it into voice. And so I listen to things when I’m folding laundry, walking the dog. I might stop and take notes if I need to about how to respond when I get back to my computer. But it gives me a nice break from the computer, I often recommend it to students as well. And when we’re not in a pandemic, I used to use it all the time for my commute. So I could listen to things while I was driving. And then when I got to class, I was ready to go. So that’s one thing I recommend. You can do this with YouTube, too. You can play a YouTube on your phone and just stick your headphones in and listen to it instead of watching it, if it’s that kind of a YouTube. So a TED talk, that kind of thing. So yes, giving those options, letting students know about the text-to-talk options, and using them yourself can really rest your eyes from the screen.

REBECCA. One assignment that I give that’s been really popular in my web design class is learning the assistive technology on your device. So students have learned how to increase the font size or use speech-to-text and text-to-speech or discovering that you can use the Acrobat Reader app and it will read to you or use iBooks or whatever it is, depending on your device. And I’ve checked in with them at the end of the semester. And they’ll say, “Yeah, I found that one thing and I’m still using it.”

Carmen: Exactly. And then there’s also… these are some little cheats that I do. Like if I know for example, I was in a book club and I hadn’t read up to the point where I needed to. I listened to a podcast that was an interview with the author instead. And I was ready to at least be able to contribute to the discussion after listening to that. So yeah, assistive technology can do things for all of us. And just also our local library. Big surprise. You can download audiobooks that way. And you could commit time to listening to them every day. And another thing I wanted to share was that I noticed that personally, I read very quickly. So when I’m forced to listen to a document, instead of reading it, I get every single word. And there’s no way of going through that without listening to all the words. So sometimes I get actually more out of it. Another thing, Mike Wesch, who’s frequently featured the ACUE webinars, he told me that he’s something like a platinum member on Kindle, because he listens to books while he walks and runs everywhere, and he does it at double or triple speed sometimes. So you can also get more

Rebecca: That sounds like John. [LAUGHTER]

Carmen: Yeah?

John: I probably have lost some of those advantages of listening to every word because for so many podcasts, the hosts speak very, very slowly. And there’s so many podcasts, I want to listen to, that I first ramped it up to one and a half times, and then double time, I don’t have an app that will let me play it at triple speed. But double speed is my standard listening mode.

Rebecca: My brain can’t handle that.

Carmen: Mine either. But whatever works. and it also depends. If this is something that you need to do a close read on, of course, this technique’s not going to work for you. But if it’s something that you just need to know, I used to do it when I was a grad student, I had a commute to school, and I would have the gist, I would be ready for discussion just by listening to what I needed to listen to. And then I would get a lot more out of the conversation when I was in class.

John: And it’s a way of making us more efficient in our use of time, to free up more time for other things.

Carmen: Exactly. Or you can fold your laundry while you’re listening and then you’re killing two birds with one stone.[LAUGHTER]

John: This year, many people are teaching in an environment that they’re not used to, in which some of the students are in person and some of the students are remote. Do you have any suggestions on how faculty can handle classes effectively when some students are present in the classroom, while others are attending remotely?

Carmen: I did a research that I’ve been dying to get out into the world. I wrote this up many years ago. And it was a book chapter and one of those great big anthologies that I don’t think a lot of people are going to go pick up at the library. But I think it’s really, really relevant right now. And so I put a post on my LinkedIn page about it. And it’s about the hybrid classroom. So when I was a grad student, and I was commuting to school, it was a three-hour commute. So it was a big deal. And there was one time where there was a snowstorm. And I just did not make it to my class. And the professor suggested that… at the time, Skype was big. Now Zoom is the big thing… that I Skype into class, and I had my colleague, Linda Skidmore Coggins, who helped me write this book chapter, she was my Skype buddy, or you could have a Zoom, buddy. So there was a person that was face to face in the classroom whileI was attending class from afar. And I know a lot of professors are trying to figure out how, if you have students that are meeting Mondays and Wednesdays and then Tuesdays and Thursdays, or if there’s some people that simply can’t be in the classroom with others because of health issues, how to manage all of this. And what I would like to say is, I don’t think that the professor should have to manage it, I think you can assign somebody in the class that’s in charge of their buddy. They make sure that they are receiving whatever you’re looking at that the professor is showing you: the PowerPoint, the documents. If you’re doing group work, they used to carry my little head to the group and I would be on the screen, but I could see everyone in the group and talk to them from afar. And I really felt like I was part of the class. And if the professor was putting something up on the big screen, my colleague would turn her computer so I was also facing the screen. If it was my turn to present something they put me up on the screen. And we found that it really worked so well that the Professor, Dr. Larry Mikulecky, at IU (a little shout out there). He said “You should write this down. This has been a really, really interesting experience. And I think it’s relevant right now, when we’re trying to figure out how can I hold my students accountable, who are not in the room with me, and also manage all of the screens and all of the information while you hold your student accountable for that. The conversations get richer, there’s a social aspect, which is motivating and my colleague said that she would listen more carefully to what was going on in the classroom because she knew she had to tell me what was going on. So there were all these benefits that we found from having this buddy in the classroom. And sometimes I would have different buddies, but I used to do it when I was doing presentations that somebody couldn’t attend, I would say, “Hey, do you know anybody here that could Zoom you in?” And we would do it that way. So I just wanted to bring that up, because I think it’s very, very effective. And I think it takes the onus off the professor for trying to be in charge of everyone who’s not in the room with them.

Rebecca: It would be really important for times where a student may need to be in quarantine or something and just having that set up from the start, like these are buddies, preferably people who don’t generally hang out because otherwise they’re all going to be in quarantine together, {LAUGHTER] preemptively planned for that, and then they have a backup plan. So if they aren’t able to come to class, but they’re in a face-to-face class, they have some sort of backup plan in place from the very beginning.

John: I was teaching in Duke in the summer of 2009 during the swine flu epidemic, and it was in a program where a quarter of the kids ended up getting infected at one point or another, so there was a different group there every time and back then, it was before Zoom, because it was 2009, I was using Skype, but I had some extra computers with me. And so when a student was out, I’d assign someone in the group to work with the computer, they did a lot of group work, and that person would just be right there. And I tapped them into a mixer into the sound system in the class during other parts of the class. And every now and then you’d just hear the voice booming in through this loudspeaker in the class, just as is happening now. And ever since then, I’ve been using it whenever someone was out sick if they had a presentation, or some group work that they couldn’t really get out of. And students would often say, “Well, I can’t be there.” I said, “Well, yeah, you can. You have a phone, right? Or you have a laptop? You can be there, you can share your screen, you can do your presentation from where you are, people can ask you questions, you can respond. So this is something that has benefits far beyond just the current pandemic.

Carmen: Exactly. I hope we can put in the show notes. I’ve typed up the how-to directions on how to do this, just to make it as easy as possible.

John: We’ll definitely include that in the show notes.

Rebecca: Easy is what we all want.

Carmen: …what we all need.

Rebecca: You’ve had a lot of really rich tips and tricks. Do you have any other advice you want to make sure the faculty have?

Carmen: One of the things I wrote in my OpenStax article that I think is really important is: “Be kind.” Just be kind to yourself and others, especially to yourself, and give yourself a break. We’re not going to replicate what it was.

John: We always end with the question: “What’s next?”

Carmen: I’m excited about what’s next. Because we’re never going to go back to exactly the way it was. So there are all these new things that we’ve been learning and doing. And this practice of being kind to ourselves, narrowing down what we’re presenting, giving flexibility, checking in with students to see what their personal situations are, I think those things are going to carry on into the future. But we need to make sure that we’re just very intentional, that we’re practicing them now. And that they become part of our daily life.

Rebecca: We all need a little bit more kindness in our world That’s for sure.

Carmen: I just think it’s so important. For the past twenty years, we’ve been researching online education and back when I started this work, we were trying to convince people that it was something that was viable and that was effective and here we are all in this situation. So, we’ve speeded up what a lot of higher ed experts have been asking for for many years, like please use your LMS, please use the online option, please minimize 90-minute lectures or 60-minute lectures and use more active learning. And so I think that it’s very exciting that we have this opportunity to try these things. We’re forced to try these things. It’s accelerated the change that a lot of hiring experts have been calling for.

John: That’s a nice positive note, I think, to end on. Thank you. This was fascinating, and it’s going to be very helpful to a lot of people.

Carmen: Thank you so much.

Rebecca: I appreciate the very actionable and easy things to implement. None of these are hard. You just need to commit to them.

Carmen: There’s enough that’s hard right now. We need to make things easy.

Rebecca: Thanks so much.

Carmen: It’s such an honor to meet you both because your podcasts have helped me a lot. So, thank you.

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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.

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169. Statistical Simulations

Abstract concepts can be really difficult for students to grasp. In this episode, Matt Anderson joins us to discuss how simulations can be used to make statistical concepts more tangible. Matt is a lecturer in the psychological sciences department at Northern Arizona University. He was a recipient of the 2020 College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ Teacher of the Year award at NAU.

Show Notes

Additional simulation resources:

Transcript

John: Abstract concepts can be really difficult for students to grasp. In this episode, we look at how simulations can be used to make statistical concepts more tangible.

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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.

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John: Our guest today is Matt Anderson. Matt is a lecturer in the psychological sciences department at Northern Arizona University. He was a recipient of the 2020 College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ Teacher of the Year award at NAU. Welcome, Matt.

Matt: Thanks very much, John. It’s a pleasure to be here. And I’m really excited to be talking about the use of simulations in introductory statistics classes.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Matt: Today’s tea is lemon ginger.

Rebecca: Well, that sounds good.

Matt: Yeah, that’s a fave.

Rebecca: How ‘bout you, John?

John: I have Christmas tea…

Rebecca: Aha.

John: …with a cinnamon stick.

Rebecca: That’s only because I was drinking it last time.

John: You inspired me to buy some Christmas tea, which I’ve been drinking for the last couple of weeks.

Rebecca: I almost sent you some. And I have a Scottish afternoon tea today.

John: We’ve invited you here today to talk about how you’ve been using simulations in your courses. But first, could you tell us a little bit about what courses you normally teach?

Matt: Absolutely. My main mission is to teach the labs for the undergraduate statistics courses, the introductory statistics courses that are taught within the Department of Psychological Sciences. And so I teach about six to eight of those a semester. And I think it might be useful to just contextualize the labs. They’re one-credit labs, and they’re embedded in four-credit, introductory statistics classes. And all of our faculty use the same schedule, and we use the same textbook, and so there’s a lot of coherence among the sections that we have. So, the thing I love about the lab the most is that, because I’m getting all the psychological sciences majors, I have a chance to meet almost all of them. And I have a chance to do that early in their academic trajectories. And that provides an opportunity to get things on their radar for those who are going on to graduate education such as the graduate record exam and things like that. We have a little bit of a focus on SPSS in our lab, in addition to the normal course content that we would see aligned with the textbook. In addition to the course faculty teaching the lecture portions, and I’m teaching the labs, we’ve got some wonderful tutors, and those tutors come from our Academic Success Center. And we’ve also got a tutor who’s a second year graduate student in our Master of Arts in Psychological Sciences program who adds a lot to the course delivery. So it’s a really wonderful place for me to be teaching. I feel very well supported, and I love the mission, even though I understand that statistics may be, to be contemporary, not everybody’s cup of tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: So how many students are there in these classes? And what level are they? You mentioned they’re fairly early in their career, are they mostly sophomores?

Matt: Well, it’s a mix. Yeah, I think that the tendency is that we’ve got sophomores and juniors, we do have first-year students, and we also have seniors, but most students are sophomores, or juniors. And in each section, I’ve got maybe 30 students. So you can see when I’m teaching eight of those, that’s a lot of folks. And that’s complicated a little bit by the online delivery that we’re using right now as well. I also teach a thing called an undergraduate teaching apprentice class. And in this very small class, I’ve got students who are interested in learning more about the science of teaching and learning. And we focus on statistics, and they have applied assignments where they might help me with our learning management system. I think I’ve been inspired by all of the great simulations out there, and I’m going to add an assignment related to those as well. And then I also teach a fully online statistics lab for undergraduate students who are transfer students, who might not have had a lab experience when they took their lecture. And so this uses the same materials that we use in the face-to-face labs or the labs that we use for our basic introductory classes.

Rebecca: So, you participated in a redesign of your introductory statistics classes, can you talk a little bit about this redesign, maybe where it started, and now where it’s ended up?

Matt: The redesign that I was involved with had to do with the lab portion of the class. And it started around 2013, when I was hired to teach the labs for these courses, and also for our research methods in psychology classes. And up to that time, the labs were taught quite capably by graduate students, but there was variability in content and delivery and things like that. And so it was in the interest of the department to consolidate those into a single uniform experience. And that’s what I had the pleasure of putting together. And so what I started doing was building these what I called lab modules, and they would be used in each of the classes. And when I first started doing those, the version I used on Thursday was much different than the version I used on Tuesday. And there’s a lot of evolution that took place. And teaching eight of these labs a week, it was nice to have some development take place that was meaningful over the course of a single semester. And right now that lab manual is still being used. It’s fortunately not something I have to stand at the copier and print, but it comes in a bound book through our NAU bookstore. And it’s got modules that are aligned with each of the chapters in the textbook that we use, as well as very specific freestanding modules related to things like SPSS assignments and power analysis, and a little bit of Excel that’s built in there as well. And the fun thing about putting this thing together, I just loved the creative process. And I benefited enormously from the input from instructional designers at NAU. We’ve got some just phenomenal folks there who had some really important insights to provide that we put into the lab manual. So, it’s got QR codes, for example, in it. And so if a person gets to a particular part in an SPSS assignment and can’t remember how to do this, they can just use the QR code to see a very short little tutorial on how to do that. And I think being able to build those kinds of resources in something like this, make it interactive, I think is useful for the students and for me. It’s a really fun part of the creative process.

John: When you started working with constructing these labs, did you start using simulations right away? Or was that something you’ve gradually been adding since then?

Matt: Well, I started adding them soon after I started building them. But it wasn’t until maybe a year later that I started embedding simulations in as assignments. I was one of those students who really struggled, I probably shouldn’t say this out loud. My first stats class, it was very abstract. It was early in the morning, which complicated things for me. But, what I found was that I really benefited from seeing things to help marry these abstract concepts to real data. And about the time that I started teaching, there was a series of videos that were put out one was called “The dance of the P values.” It was by Dr. Geoff Cumming and it had a beautiful simulation attached to it. And so I was just starting to learn R at the time. And so I started seeing if I could replicate his findings using R and was able to, and that gave me a little bit of encouragement about building them. And at the same time, in 2014, our mathematics and statistics department helped host a International Conference on the Teaching of Statistics here in Flagstaff. It’s a huge international event. And it brought people together who were just marvelous at explaining and had these beautiful simulations. And they also talked about how to teach courses using R. And I just found that whole thing inspirational, in addition to having the pleasure of meeting some of my colleagues in the math department that I might not have met otherwise. And so that opened a whole new window into what simulations are out there, created by these really incredibly bright and capable and devoted teachers to the introduction of statistics and psychology,

John: I have to ask, what does “The Dancing P values” do as a simulation?

Matt: Well, they don’t actually dance. They do move. This is very similar to the way that I dance I suppose. But what it shows was that with small sample sizes, the P values just really were not consistent. And that was a message that was really central to what he was trying to put across. And the way that it was articulated and illustrated, I thought, was really compelling.

Rebecca: And who can argue with that title. That’s the hook. You have a good stimulation with a good hook, you got your attention.

Matt: It is a hook, right? Yeah, even if you didn’t have an interest in statistics, there might be dancing involved. Yeah.

John: And p-values is a concept that students often have trouble with. So, having that practical application, I would think would be helpful.

Rebecca: For those that aren’t familiar. Can you describe what R is?

Matt: Yes, R is a statistical software package that was built from the ground up to do stats and represents statistical graphics. It’s incredibly powerful. It’s free. And it’s also open source in the respect that people build these things called packages for them, which extend their capabilities quite a bit. And so if you can think of almost any esoteric statistical procedure that you would like to implement in your own lab, for example, there’s probably a package out there to do that. And the thing that I liked about it was that it was able to be paired with a thing called Rstudio, which I thought was a nice integrated development environment, which has some additions that allows you to take some of the things that you do on your local machine and put them on the web. So it was really a nice match between what I wanted to do in the lab and what I wanted to put out on the web for people to be able to see.

John: How do your simulations use R.

Matt: That’s a great question. They basically are simulations that I’ve built in R in this add on called Shiny. And so the students don’t see any R code at all. That said, in the labs themselves, I do think it’s useful for them to be able to interpret statistical output from different software packages. So I do give them some R output and ask them to make meaning out of it. But I don’t ask them to do any coding at all.

Rebecca: Can you talk about the difference in students experiencing simulations versus different kinds of exercises you might have had them complete prior to introducing the simulations into your course.

Matt: Maybe right now, I should just define what I think a simulation is. And so this is a very wide net. And I think it’s basically any visualization that allows you to “What if?” questions, to explore and demonstrate connections between abstract concepts and real data. Some of the simulations that I’ll talk about allow you to do statistical inferences as well… so, incredibly powerful. So I think these simulations and the use of the simulations exist across a continuum. I think there are some environments, such as the one in which I am operating, where we use simulations to try to reinforce critical points. So, Central Limit Theorem comes to mind. But there are also some courses where they build the entire semester around the use of simulations, they start them very, very early in the course, leveraging people’s natural inquisitiveness and their desire to see patterns and use that over the course of the semester to develop this deep understanding, not only of the details regarding statistics, but the big picture, how these things are all wired together.

John: Going back to Rebecca’s question, how have students responded to the use of the simulations compared to what you’ve done earlier in some of these lab assignments.

Matt: One of the simulations is one that’s done by the Rice virtual statistics lab. And it’s one that has to do with sampling distributions, which for me, when I was learning it and teaching it and for students still, a difficult concept. Imagine, if you will, just this normal population at the top of your screen, and then three boxes below, and the box immediate below, you have the mean of a sample that’s drawn. And then below that, it gets pushed into what emerges as a sampling distribution based on that sample size. And then the fourth box, the one at the bottom, would allow you to do a different sampling distribution. So you can do two at once, if you will. But this is visually really appealing, because it allows you to see the random sample being taken and where that winds up being put and how those samples aggregate to develop the sampling distribution. So that’s one that I built an entire assignment around, because you can predict some of the values of the sample distributions based on the math. And so it was nice to be able to put all those things together, I think, and the added beauty of this is that you can take that normal parent population, and you can make it one that’s non-normal. And you’ll see when you rerun the sampling distribution that you wind up with, in most cases, a very normal looking sampling distribution that allows you to run those inferential statistics. So it helps connect some of the dots that might not be connected otherwise. And so, while I don’t have any p-values myself to evidence how successful this has been, I have heard a lot of “a-has” when I’m talking to students about this, which to me is the Holy Grail. And they seem to get it with these simulations. As I researched simulations in preparation for this particular conversation, that was something that was echoed in all of the presentations was just the students really getting it and being able to leverage previous knowledge and being able to put all these things together so they can anticipate what happens in the future, when they do other simulations.

Rebecca: There’s something really powerful about being able to observe something and make that rule for yourself rather than just being told the rule that you have to follow. Otherwise, it seems really arbitrary.

Matt: Rebecca, that’s absolutely true. And it’s kind of fun to see these things played out with real world data that is much more compelling to students.

John: Inferential learning about inferential statistics.

Matt: [LAUGHTER] Absolutely, yeah.

John: But those are things, again, that students do have trouble with. They have trouble understanding that the estimators themselves have distributions. And this should make it a whole lot easier for them to see it. I’m getting a lot of ideas here, because I’m teaching an econometrics class this spring, and many of the things you’ve mentioned are things that my students have trouble with.

Rebecca: As someone who just learned some statistics this January, I’m thinking this could have been really helpful. [LAUGHTER]

Matt: Yeah, and so when I look at what I’m doing, I’m really happy to be using simulations. But as I look at the universe of simulations that are out there, I can see that there’s more that I can do, and that I’m really motivated to do after seeing some of these wonderful things. I shouldn’t get too far without talking about some of the wonderful things that are being done on a grand scale with simulations in introductory statistics courses. There are actually textbooks out there, which are built around these. And what they’ll do is they’ll start off early in a semester using simulations, and without giving names to things like sampling distributions and confidence intervals and P values. But they’ll take some real world data. And then they’ll say, what’s the model that you would use to best describe these data and then run some randomization samples to collect data. And then ask, “How likely is it that the original data were from that distribution?” And so that’s a powerful thing because a person doesn’t need to know any statistics coming into that class and being able to make meaning out of a lot of those things. There are multiple textbooks that use this simulation-based inference testing process to great effect and in the links that are going to be associated with this podcast, you’ll be able to go and find those, and just see the rich resources that they have supporting those texts, which actually can be used independently as well for reinforcing specific points that a person might have about their own statistics class or econometrics class. Another thing that I think is useful to point out is the fact that there’s a document that helps guide all of this. And the American Statistical Association has got the Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Statistics Education. This is called the GAISE guidelines. And they were revised in 2016. And they provide some very implementable recommendations for improving introductory statistics classes. And some of them are very consistent with what we’re talking about today, increasing the use of technology and the use of simulations, and decreasing that distance between abstract concepts and these students’ real worlds.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how to get started in implementing these sorts of things into your classes? So if you’ve never used simulations before, how do you start?

Matt: Well, I think, for me, the best thing to do would be to reach out to colleagues who might be doing that. So, for example, here at NAU, colleagues in the mathematics and statistics department are using these. So I would go to them. And I would say, “What have you found most useful, and how might I implement that in the class, given the context I have?” But, you can also do some wonderful internet searches. And I think I’ve curated a few really good starting places for you, in the resources attached to this podcast, I would recommend, for example, just seeing what’s out there by looking at these lists of applets that exists to teach this and to teach this and to teach this. And if you are thinking about something that’s on a grander scale, listen to the video by Nathan Tintall and Beth Chance, about how they implement this simulation-based inference testing in their classes and the rewards they have from doing that. I think getting a real broad sense of what’s available early can be really helpful in figuring out how you might want to do this. But I think that the nice thing is that you don’t have to do it on a grand scale, to start. You can use a single applet to reinforce a point that you might find your students struggling with. There are some other resources. There are journals on teaching statistics that are very, very useful. And I think this cross-pollenization between mathematics and the psych stats classes, is really useful. So I think it’s helpful to get this strong situational awareness of what others are doing to help inform how you might do what you’re doing better.

Rebecca: I think this idea of “one small step” is always a great approach to trying something new, and it seems very manageable. So I can try one simulation and see how it goes, and then feel confident to implement more and more. But that kind of iterative approach seems really helpful. Of course, not everyone has eight sections that they can iterate through all at once. [LAUGHTER]

Matt: Yeah, even if you’re doing it once. I mean, think about the environment that you have. You’re explaining these findings that are very visual in nature, and how all these things are wired together. And I think one of the most important things the faculty contribute to students’ education is not just the facts, but how these things are all linked, and being able to hear from a seasoned faculty member can help develop student’s ability to think these things through in a more expert way, rather than just memorizing simple facts. So I think that not only do we get some sense of accomplishment in putting those things out there for students to use, but the students do as well, because they want to get this too, and they’re much more enthusiastic about content when they think they’re really getting it, or they know they’re really getting it.

John: I think anyone who has been teaching for any length of time knows where some of the pinch points are, the things that students always have trouble grasping. And those would be a good place to start, not just in statistics, but more broadly, in any discipline, where there’s some concepts that students don’t always make the connection between theory and practice or practical application. So those would be the places I would think where people should get started… thinking back on where students are having trouble making connections, because it’s generally the same areas year after year after year. And that information could be used to help us improve our instruction by using tools that make it easier for students to see those connections.

Matt: Those are all good points. And you know, one of the things that was evident when I was looking into this more deeply was the frequency of which these simulations are being used in AP statistics and earlier. And so it’s much more likely now that we’re gonna see students coming into our classes who are somewhat familiar with this way of presenting information. And so they’re going to get it pretty quickly. And so a nice way to make them feel more at home might be to put these things in and, again, to leverage their learning, give them this feeling of self efficacy, that’s going to be really helpful to them as they get into more difficult concepts.

Rebecca: How have you adapted your instructional approach during COVID-19 and teaching remotely?

Matt: That is a great question. And one of the things that helped was that this online stats lab that we’ve put together over the years really made it so that these labs were kind of ready to go. So, in that respect, the materials had been developed as had many that people had put together at the end of the spring 2020 semester. Those were just in the bank and ready to be used in the fall and are even stronger now. There are lots of models being used throughout the country, for dealing with COVID-19 and instruction. So maybe I’ll just drag the one that we’re using so that listeners can get a better sense of how it all fits together. We’re using a modification of the HyFlex system, which is called NAUFlex. And we started using that really in the fall of 2020. As is the case, I think, for many, after spring break of 2020, people went into mostly completely online mode. And so the NAUFlex system starts off with teaching being done completely online. And that allows students to get on campus and be tested and all of the things that build that strong safe infrastructure. And then somewhat later, students are able to opt in if they choose to participate in in-person classes. Now, the online classes that are held are synchronous, so there’s an expectation that students will be there for those. And then we also have COVID adjusted room capacities. And so what that means for some classes, is that they have two groups or three groups of students who can come in, so that we can maintain that distancing. My experience has been that most students have opted to stay online, which means that they show up for the lectures or the labs in either Zoom, or what I use is BB Collaborate, which is built into our learning management system BB Learn. And so that’s how it works for us. And kind of the unsung heroes in this whole evolution have been the instructional designers who helped make this work, and also the folks from Information Technology Services who found hardware that works, that allows us to both interact with our students in the classroom and push it out there to students who may be in places that have varying degrees of connectivity. What I’ve done to modify my instruction, somewhat based on feedback I’ve gotten from students from the spring and fall semesters: what they liked, what they didn’t, how it worked for them, and try to really bring to the lab, this sense of organization and consistency and safety. One of the things, as educators, we’re used to doing is walking into a classroom and being able to gauge energy levels and look around the room and be able to tell who’s got that faraway look, and maybe we need to go back and regroup and cover some material. And some of those cues aren’t there anymore. And so what I’ve found is that I’m much more elaborate in my explanations so that I don’t leave anybody behind. And I tried to foster an environment which makes everybody feel comfortable asking questions when they want. And it’s very rewarding for me when they do. And I know that, in a class of 30, if a student asks a question, there are several others who probably have the same one. So the other thing that I think, and I know that this is something shared by your listeners too, is just that the notion of teaching with compassion, these students are really out of their academic element, if you will, of the in-person classes and going from one place to another. That sequencing is no longer there. And so it’s a much different world in which they need to learn. And some of them learn very well in an online environment and some don’t, but they’re forced into that anyway. And so I tried to have lots of compassion for what the students are going through and try to extend that in my syllabi for late assignments and things like that. And I think I’m a little more careful with humor, because I don’t know the backgrounds of all the students. I have not had that experience with them in the classroom. And so I’m really careful about how I express things so that everybody can get it, and it’ll be something that everybody can accept and understand. The nice thing about the labs is that we have all of these resources that we can use. And so it’s designed to be delivered in an online environment completely. And so students have interactive tutorials they can go to that help them master the content, complete the assignments. As an aside, one of the things that I found helpful in this communication, is that I wear a clear face mask when I’m teaching. Part of it is because I appreciate that myself. I’ve got some hearing loss. And so I’m a little bit reliant on reading lips. And in the classroom, students need cues that “this is important,” or “I’m trying to be funny here.” And I think that it helps the students understand the content and my commitment to their success when they can see my face better. That’s a little thing, but I thought I’d put it out there. I’ve gotten feedback from students that they found that helpful. And the other thing is that having taught this lab so many times, you mentioned pinch points before, I’ve got an idea of where those are going to occur. And so when we’re coming up on one of those, I can be more explanatory, give them a much better foundation for getting past those. So those are the things that I’ve changed.

John: One nice thing that may come out of this whole difficult teaching experience this past fall, is that I think all faculty have learned to be much more inclusive in their teaching approaches for all the reasons that you mentioned. And I’m hoping that that’s something that will continue as we move past the pandemic.

Matt: I agree with that completely. I think that there are really important initiatives to promote that in every classroom. But I do think that the situation which we find ourselves in now does encourage us or motivate us to do a better job with that. And so that’s one of the things that I would throw out as well is this whole idea of universal design for learning, something that I think is really important, and simulations play into that nicely, don’t they? …in that they provide this other way of representing information, content that students can get, particularly those that the students can work on themselves time after time after time until they feel like they really get it. And so I think that this universal design for learning thing is something that we should probably keep in the forefront as well. And some systems really do a nice job with making that easy for us. So for example, there’s an add on to BB learn that takes PDF files, for example, and creates those in alternative formats.

John: Ally.

Matt: And so you’re familiar with that. And for some students, it’s the only way to get that content. For others, it’s a convenient way to listen to content while they might be on the bus or in the car. And so I just think with these simulations, it just feeds nicely into what I think is a mandate to try to make things available in as many ways as possible, so they can really resonate with students.

Rebecca: Do you have any other tips related to simulations that you want to share with folks who might be teaching similar kinds of courses?

Matt: Well, that’s a great question. And while I’ve talked about simulations, one of the things that might be on the border of that, but I think is very useful for incorporating into classes, are some games. And in the face-to-face labs, I used to really enjoy doing like Stats Jeopardy and things like that. It’s a little bit more difficult to do in an online environment. But one of the things that I’ve done in the correlation module is to use a system put together by John Marden. He’s a Professor Emeritus at the Department of Statistics at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign. And he’s got this nice little system where he provides students with panels: four scatter plots and four correlation coefficients, and they need to match those. And so what I’ve done in previous semesters, and look forward to doing again, is having a competition across all the sections to see who has the longest sequence of correct panels, the winner of that gets a copy of a book by Tyler Vigan called Spurious Correlations, which if you haven’t seen it, his definitely worth a look. And there’s a website online as well, which is kind of fun. And one of the things that I’ve noticed with this particular gamified module is that students really work hard to get it. And at the end, they do, there are heroic efforts to win that book. And at the end, they really do know how to look at a scatterplot and get an idea of what the correlation coefficient might be.

John: For people who might want to go a little beyond using simulations in class, do you have any suggestions on where they might go to learn how to use, say, Shiny in R in order to create their own simulations? Is there a good reference out there?

Matt: I think there are some good references out there. They’re not, I think, specific to building simulations for teaching psychology. Although I have to say that one of the links that I’ll provide following the podcast will take you to an array of Shiny apps that were built specifically for teaching introductory statistics. And here’s the thing, they were built by undergraduate and graduate students for that express purpose. So this is a beautiful selection that were student built. But I think people who start working in R will look at some of the blogs that are out there and start being able to put these together themselves. But again, I think with all of these things, it would be starting off simple and going from there. Some of the ones that you’ll see out there are incredibly elaborate, and I know that they’re not in my skill set to build at the moment. So I would start with simple and go from there. But in the meantime, take a look at some of the other ones that are out there either to implement directly or try to emulate.

John: We always end by asking what’s next?

Matt: Well, for me, what’s next is a nice organized, gradual wind down of 2020. I think all of us are looking forward to 2021. I mentioned how grateful I am to have the opportunity to talk with you today. In preparation for this, I did lots of looking at things that are out there and I’m just really re-inspired to find simulations to put into my lab wherever I can. And also, as I’ve mentioned, planning on maybe building some assignments into my undergraduate teaching apprentice class about how they can use this. But I think I’m missing the contact with students in the online environment and in the lab, and I’m looking forward to being back in the classroom and using some of these things. But, I think, immediately what’s next, maybe another cup of lemon ginger tea.

Rebecca: Sounds like a good way to spend an afternoon.

John: This has been fascinating, and I’m looking forward to doing more of this during the spring myself. Thank you.

Matt: You’re very welcome. Thanks, John. Thanks, Rebecca. It’s a real pleasure to be here today.

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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.

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168. Synchronous Online Learning

The pandemic forced many faculty to experiment in different modalities in 2020. In this episode, we reflect on our own teaching experiences with synchronous online courses this year.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: As we approach the end of a really challenging year, we’d like to thank all of our guests who provided so much help and support to us and all of our listeners, and we’d like to thank you, our listeners, for hanging in there with us. We’ve all learned a lot in 2020 and we’re looking forward to a chance to apply what we’ve learned in circumstances in which there are fewer external threats.

…and now we return to our regularly scheduled podcast.

The pandemic forced many faculty to experiment in different modalities in 2020. In this episode, we reflect on our own teaching experiences with synchronous online courses this year.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Over the past few months, we’ve talked a lot about the pandemic and ways to adjust our teaching. And we’ve talked a lot about online learning, but we haven’t really focused on synchronous learning. John and I both taught synchronously this semester. So we decided that in this episode, we would focus a little bit more on synchronous learning and what we’ve learned about it in our own experiments in our classes.

John: Our teas today are:

Rebecca: I have Scottish breakfast once again.

John: …and I have a blend of spearmint and peppermint tea.

Rebecca: That sounds much healthier than my choice.

John: It’s not my first tea of the day.

Rebecca: This is not mine, either.

John: This is my first herbal tea of the day.

Rebecca: This is my second pot of the day. [LAUGHTER]

John: So, Rebecca, what classes were you teaching this fall?

Rebecca: I was teaching two design classes that are smaller. So I had one web design course that was stacked. So, it had beginning, intermediate and advanced students in it, 25 students, and we met synchronously, but also had asynchronous classes, it’s considered a studio course. So for a three credit course, we have six hours of class time, and three hours of outside work, which is a different balance than maybe other folks. And then the other class I was teaching was a special topics design course, which was smaller, it was about 10 students. And that class was also synchronous, but it was a project-based class, and we worked on two community design projects: one for a project called Vote Oswego, which was a get-out-the-vote initiative on campus, and the second is a project called “Recollection,” which is a storytelling project with adult care facilities.

John: And we do have an earlier podcast on an earlier iteration of Vote Oswego. So we’ll include a link to that in the show notes.

Rebecca: So John, what kind of classes are you teaching? We obviously don’t teach the same thing.

John: I was teaching two classes this fall. One was a large synchronous session with 288 students. And the other was a fully asynchronous section with 60 students this semester,

Rebecca: At what level were the students in both of your classes?

John: These were both introductory economics classes. So most students in the class were freshmen, and it was their first economics course.

Rebecca: So, your classes are much larger than mine, you’re teaching much more younger students or newer students, and my classes are smaller, project-based, and usually junior or senior students.

John: Yes. And there’s certainly some differences in the disciplines as well.

Rebecca: No, that they’re the same. [LAUGHTER]

John: Why did you choose a synchronous mode of delivery rather than an asynchronous mode, or a face-to-face option this fall?

Rebecca: So I chose not to do face-to-face delivery for my own health reasons, I chose to not be on campus for my own safety, because I have a chronic illness. So I chose specifically to have strong synchronous components, because a lot of our students are used to working in a studio together and having a community around each other and kind of feed off of each other’s work and work collaboratively. And I wanted, because of the classes I was teaching, to continue to have collaboration as a key part of my class. And I was really concerned that if I didn’t have a strong synchronous component, my students wouldn’t be able to effectively collaborate with each other, because there would be too much scheduling issues and what have you. So it’s a little bit of a carryover from the way that I would run my classes in person in that I give a lot of class time to project-based learning and team-based work and do a lot of lectures and things like that asynchronously in like a flipped classroom style. How about you, John?

John: Basically, I tried to preserve something as close as possible to what was originally scheduled or what was originally planned. And my large class is typically about 400 to 420 students, and I just couldn’t imagine taking that class and doing it in a completely asynchronous manner, because when I teach a class asynchronously, I give students lots of individual feedback, and it would be really challenging providing individual feedback to several hundred students. I just didn’t really have the time to do it in that sort of mode. So I thought it was better to work in a mode where I could give students feedback in a group setting using some interactive tools, where they’re all getting feedback at once. It was the only way I could see handling a group that large. If I was trying to do it as an online class, it would be effectively more in the form of a MOOC with very little interaction, either among the students or between me and the students.

Rebecca: One of the things that we both talked about before we started recording was how we both used a flipped classroom model to help with our synchronous session. So can you talk a little bit about how you did that and what students were doing outside of class.

John: This is actually, in many ways, similar to what I had done in a face-to-face class. Before each class, students would have some readings to work through. And I use the Lumen Learning Waymaker package, which is basically taking materials from a textbook, combining it with interactive multimedia, where they got to shift demand and supply curves and other curves around and see how they responded when they change parameters. And they read a bit in that online text and then they would work through some problems on it where they were allowed multiple attempts at those problems. I also created some videos with embedded questions that were at a somewhat higher level than the textbook readings, which was a little bit more challenging. And they were given unlimited attempts to work through those videos with the questions. And they also, outside of class, participated in discussion boards, where I asked them to relate what they were learning to things in the world around them, in their own lives and their own experiences.

Rebecca: …nice little inclusive teaching practice right there, right? …connecting students with their experience and making it relevant to them.

John: Right, because we know that students learn things most effectively when it has some salience, when they see the relevance to their life.

Rebecca: And the waymaker package, if I remember correctly, had some quizzing and stuff associated with that, and unlimited attempts, a version of retrieval practice there.

John: It’s a mix of things with unlimited attempts and limited attempts. So, the microeconomics Waymaker package is designed, and all of their Waymaker packages, for that matter, are designed, is that they start with a list of broad learning objectives. And they break it down at each module level to sub objectives. And they break those down into sub modules. So, in what would have been the equivalent of a chapter of a textbook, there’s usually two to four sub modules on particular aspects of that. And students work through that. And embedded in it, they have some review questions, some practice questions. And those they can take an unlimited number of times at any point in the course. Once they complete the module, they have a module quiz where they are limited to only two attempts at it. But they’re getting feedback on what they did well. And what they didn’t do well. It’s automatically color coded to indicate whether they mastered the material in one of the blocks of content in there. And then, if they take the module quiz, it will give them feedback on what areas they did well, and what areas they need to work at more. And they’re being directed back to the areas that they need to review. And there, they do have unlimited practice opportunities. And the other thing I did is I created my own videos that focused primarily on the topics that students generally find the most challenging. And in economics, that’s generally with either applications involving math or involving graphs. It was one module a week, and I would take the topics that I know, from past experience, they were likely to have the most problems with, I’d create my own videos with that. And I was using PlayPosit, which allows you to embed questions in there. Most of those videos I created were between five and 12 minutes in length. They would watch the videos and answer questions as they were going. And if they got one of the questions wrong, they could go back and replay that portion of the video and then try it again. And they were given unlimited opportunities for that.

Rebecca: I think you mentioned students really loved those opportunities.

John: At the end of the class, I gave them a Jamboard, which I know is something you’ve used more regularly, asking them what worked well. And there was very much universal agreement on the PlayPosit, as well as on the Waymaker aspects of the course. They really liked the fact that there were practice activities embedded right in their textbook, and that they could go back and try things over and over again until they mastered it. And it was giving them feedback on whether they had, in fact, attained mastery at every step. And it was a nice visual indication of what they’ve learned and what they still needed to work on more.

Rebecca: Excellent.

John: What did you do in your asynchronous components of your class?

Rebecca: Well, the balance of my classes, as I mentioned before, is a little wonky in that we’re supposed to spend more time in class and less time out. So asynchronously, I did a lot of independent stuff that students were not necessarily doing collaboratively. So this is where I had lecture videos that are recorded that were about the topics that they were going to be working on or introduce the component of the project that they were going to be doing. And then they also were completing things like LinkedIn Learning tutorials. And we also have access to D-Q University, which is a set of tutorials for accessibility, and teaches accessibility. So I took advantage of that package as well. And largely they were completing those kinds of tutorials, both of those have exercise files and that kind of thing that they can follow along with. They get little certificates. When they’re done completing there’s little quiz questions and stuff. So they were doing a lot of that kind of work asynchronously. They were also using Slack to communicate with their teams for independent things that they were working on that they needed to communicate out to teams when they were working on projects together. And I also use Slack as a place to have discussion. So like you, I had discussion questions that tried to make what we were talking about relevant. We were exploring design, specifically like web design and how they interacted as a consumer versus how they would interact as a maker and did a lot of observational studies. We also did some discussion boards that were really about design activities and things that got students off the computer. So they were just documenting what they did off-screen, offline. So things like listening to a podcast so that they didn’t have to be staring at a screen and what their takeaways were. They attended virtual conferences, which I guess was still on-screen, and did some sketching, like paper prototyping and some other methods that we like to encourage our students to do, just to kind of help balance the screen time a little bit for students. So that’s largely what they were doing asynchronously.

John: Were you having them submit some copies of that work in some way, or were they just reflecting on the work that they had done?

Rebecca: The little non screen activities were documented in a discussion, essentially, that we were holding on Slack, and then tutorials and things, they were just submitting their completed certificates. And so I broke down those LinkedIn Learning courses and things over multiple weeks. So they didn’t really submit those certificates until they were completed. But they were doing a little bit by little bit, but if they didn’t do the tutorials, they wouldn’t be able to do the projects or the actual work that we were doing of the class. So it was pretty important that they were doing those components outside of class.

John: Once your students were in class, what did you have them do in a typical class session?

Rebecca: The two classes I was teaching I handled a bit differently because of just the sheer volume of students in the bigger class, which was 25 students that were working on projects. They were working on collaborative projects, in teams of three, for the most part. And so what we would often do is show-and-tell’s or critiques in small groups. So let’s say there was two or three teams together that we would do a little critique with in a breakout room, while other teams were meeting and collaborating. We would also do things like come together to answer questions about things that they were working on, troubleshoot or whatever, and then go work on projects in breakouts for a bit. And then we’ll come back at a scheduled time. I also did one-on-one meetings with students during class time. So I’d set up things like a quiet work breakout room or the chatty breakout room. And students would pick the place that they wanted to go while they were working on projects. And then I would meet with them individually for critique, and often a lot of code troubleshooting is a lot of what I spend synchronous time doing. And students sometimes met with my TA to do the same thing, and with our small groups. I also did a lot of design challenges. And students really liked those and would like to do more to hold them accountable for the kind of material that they were learning outside of class or being introduced to outside of class in a low-stakes environment to test it out with some peers and troubleshoot. So I would pose a little design problem. And then they’d work in a small group to work on that problem in a very tight amount of time. They might spend 30 minutes… my classes are three hours long… or an hour, and then we’d come back and show them off or talk about different things. And I tried to make those design challenges fun and entertaining. So one of the first things we did, which worked really well to start gelling their teams that they were with the whole semester was designing an emoji for Slack that they used for their team. And they loved that assignment. It was partly about working at a small size, and so it was tied to some of the curriculum that we were doing, but it was fun. So they did that in a small team and then had to implement it. Later on in the semester, we did things like a 404 error page for their projects, which were just kind of entertaining. We tried to make them amusing, so that if you landed on a page, it was a good user experience. So things that maybe wouldn’t typically work on in one of my classes that were a little bit more fun, but really were emphasizing the technical and conceptual things that we were working on. The other thing that we use synchronous time for is I took advantage of our virtual platform, and I brought in alumni multiple times, and local designers multiple times and did little Q and A’s with them. Not every week, but every few weeks, or every couple weeks, I would bring in a designer for a 30-minute session. They’d introduce their work. And then students did a Q&A with them, which students really loved. And it broke up our time a bit and really gave them something special that maybe we didn’t always do in a face-to-face class that made the synchronous environment kind of special.

John: Excellent. That is a nice opportunity provided by Zoom that actually could work in the classroom too. But I think many of us just hadn’t really considered it so much. It doesn’t really matter where you are when you’re teaching in this sort of synchronous environment. So it’s very easy to bring in guest speakers and it’s something we’ve probably should have been doing more of in the past, but I think many of us will be doing more in the future.

Rebecca: So John, how did you use your synchronous time?

John: I had told students before each class session, what specific topics we’d be working on. And then most of the class time was spent asking him a series of problems of progressively higher levels of challenge. I basically adopted Eric Mazur’s clicker strategy of trying to find challenging questions where roughly half the class will get it wrong the first time and then letting them meet (in this case, I had the meet in breakout rooms), discussing it and coming back and voting again on it. And generally, you’d see a fairly significant increase in the performance after they’ve had that chance to engage in peer discussion. And that’s where a lot of the learning seems to happen when clickers are being used. I used iClicker. The only difference is students could not use a physical radio frequency clicker because they have a range of a couple 100 meters and students were spread out all over the world, I had one student in Egypt, I had students in South America and students spread throughout the country this time. So they needed to use either their laptop or a mobile device in order to do that. We discussed it as a whole class after they come back from the breakout rooms. And then I’d asked them to explain their choices. I generally have them use chat, and then I’d go through and correct any misperceptions they’d have. And I try to guide them to the correct answer by asking them questions, and letting them see for themselves why some of the answers were right, and some of them were wrong. And generally, that’s how we spent many of our classes. Initially, I was also using Kahoot! from time to time. They enjoyed Kahoot!, but I noticed a bit of a drop off when we were doing the Kahoot! sessions, because those were not graded. And with the clicker questions, they were being graded, and that tended to receive a somewhat higher level of interest. It was very low stakes, they got a certain number of points for an incorrect answer on either attempt, and they got a bit more points when they answered the question correctly. And initially, I was giving him three points for an incorrect answer, and five for a correct one. And they asked it perhaps that could be bumped up, because some of the questions were so challenging. And I did raise it. So they ended up getting four points for any answer, and five points for a correct answer. So it is extremely low stakes. So I tried to do a lot of retrieval practice in the class, where it started from essentially no stakes with the embedded questions in the reading, then it ramped up to in class applications of this, where they still get 80%, even if they got it wrong, but they had another chance to get it correct. And then they took that module quiz, and even there, they had two attempts at it. So if they made mistakes, they had lots of resources they could go back to and work on it. So I tried to set it up and provide them with many pathways to attain mastery of the content, and to encourage a growth mindset and to encourage them to recognize that people make mistakes when they’re learning and that there’s a lot of benefit from having those mistakes as part of your learning process. There’s a lot of research that shows that we learn things much more deepl if we get them wrong, when we first try it, we’re much more likely to remember it later on, then if we happen to get it correct, initially. In that case, we’re much more likely to forget it a bit later. And that was a bit of a challenge for students. But I think they eventually appreciated the fact that everything was fairly low stakes.

Rebecca: I think I’m seeing some themes in the things that, although we’re teaching very different classes in very different contexts, there’s some real big themes about how we’re using our synchronous time, and even how we’re using our asynchronous time. And so there’s an emphasis on peer interaction and establishing those peer networks, really enforcing or reinforcing things and dealing with muddy points. And then also just providing the encouragement and support like that low-stakes environment or trying to foster a growth mindset. So in my classes, I did the same thing. I was doing peer group work and trying to really get them to collaborate and troubleshoot together and they love that that… that was really valuable. I spent time doing live demos and troubleshooting, when there was a really troublesome technical component or something that they were trying to do that a lot of them were having trouble with, that they could ask me live questions. So that same muddy point kind of thing that you were getting to in what you were discussing. And then, finally, the growth mindset that you started bringing up, I’d also tried to do and, although I didn’t have a lot of low-stakes testing, or something like that, I set my projects up so they were done in sprints. So a long full-semester project was broken into multiple two-week sprints, where they would work on something, get feedback, and then could revisit whatever they did, and then add a new component to it. And so I did that throughout the whole semester. So there was a bit of retrieval practice, a bit of spaced practice in there, and certainly some fostering a growth mindset and the idea that you make mistakes and that’s how you learn. And I spent a lot of time… I don’t know if you experienced this too, John… but I experienced a lot of time in synchronous and saying like, “You can do this. It’ll be okay. And this is how the learning experience works.”

John: And I did have to do a lot of that, especially in the first few weeks of the semester, because they were not used to a flipped class environment. And they were not used to this notion of making mistakes and learning from mistakes as part of your learning process. Because most of them have come up through their elementary and secondary school system thinking that they need to memorize some things and reproduce it on exams. And they do well if they get high scores, and they don’t make mistakes. And that’s just not how we learn in general. And it was important, I think, to help remind them of that. Another aspect of the flipped class environment that we’re both using is that we let students learn some of the basic skills, the easy things that they can learn pretty easily on their own, from other resources. And we’re trying to focus our class time using essentially a just-in-time teaching approach where you focus on the things that students always have trouble. In a traditional classroom environment, what normally happens is students will learn the easy stuff in class where faculty will lecture them on basic definitions and basic concepts. And then it all makes a lot of sense until students try to apply it. And they try to apply it typically in assignments outside of class, or in high-stakes exams. And it’s much more productive if the students use the time outside of class to master those basic concepts. And then we hold them accountable for having done that somehow in class. And then we give them assistance on the things that they find challenging when they need it. Not after they’ve had that experience of a more high-stakes assessment in some way.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think what I found or that students really shared with me that was something that they really appreciated was that there was a lot of structured time to work on those difficult problems in class. This is true of my face-to-face classes too, but even maybe more so in this online environment where students were having a really hard time managing their time. I would allow time to work on a project during class… it was scheduled, but then there was a check in point later on in the day. You wouldn’t want to spend three hours staring at a screen on Zoom, like this makes no sense. So I certainly did not do that. And I don’t want anyone to think that I did that. But, I would do things like “Okay, we’re going to check in at 9:30. And then we’re going to do a little activity together. And then you’re going to have some work time to work on X. And then we’re going to come back at 11. And you’re going to show me what you did. And then we’re going to have a little discussion or do another little activity, and then we’re gonna come back again at 12.” And we would have a schedule where there was time to kind of come back. What I found is, over time, students often wouldn’t actually get off of Zoom. They would just turn their cameras off and their microphones off. And I would do the same if it was like a work time. And then when we all came back on, a lot of students would turn the media back on. That said, I, of course did not require that depending on where students were, I certainly had students that were in environments where they couldn’t turn their cameras on, or had really poor internet connections, we adjusted as necessary there, and we had a way to communicate in a much more low-tech fashion using Slack during class time. So if something happened with someone’s internet connection, or whatever, they could still stay connected with us and what we’re doing.

John: How did you assess student learning in your class?

Rebecca: My classes are all project based. So the majority of grades are built on projects, not entirely, we had discussion boards, and I had some collaboration things that they were doing, and they were evaluated on those things as well. But projects were the significant piece of the puzzle. And the way that I graded them was really just providing feedback about the kinds of things I was going to ultimately grade very regularly throughout the semester. So every couple of weeks, they were getting feedback on their code for my web class, for example, feedback on their design, feedback on their writing, not a specific grade, necessarily, but feedback on all of those elements that were going to go into the final project. And then the ability to revise all of those again and again and again and continue to get feedback on those.

John: Did you have your students engaged in any reflective tasks?

Rebecca: Yeah, that’s a really great question, John. I had reflection built in two ways. So at the end of each sprint, or kind of module in my class, they were working on two projects at the same time throughout the semester, so they’d work kind of two weeks on one project, two weeks on the next project and cycle back… that was so that I had time to give them feedback regularly. So that was part of my structure. But at the end of one of those modules, I had a reflection activity that I implemented using a Google form. So a few different prompts to think about what they got out of that sprint, goals for their next sprint, that kind of thing. And then I also had some big group reflections at different moments during the semester, I had one at the beginning, and a couple in the middle and one at the end. And I use Jamboard for that, which is a Google suite tool that has sticky notes, and is the same kind of way that you might brainstorm. So I use it as a way to collect reflections in sticky note form, essentially, virtually. And I would have a reflection question for folks to respond to or a couple of different boards with different kinds of questions. In the beginning, we did something called “hopes and fears,” which is something I’ve talked about before… setting up the class like, what are they hopeful that they’re going to get out of a collaborative project? What are they scared about? We find out that like, all the teams have the same hopes and fears. During the middle of the semester, what are some of the big takeaways that you’ve had? What are some things that you want to work on? What are some things that you’d like to see changed about the class and various themes bubble up on that. And then at the end of the semester, I asked questions like, “What was your biggest takeaway? What was the thing you were surprised that you learned? What is one recommendation of something you would change in this semester?” and “What is something that you want to continue learning?” and I got really useful feedback on what to change about the class but also, some really great themes bubbled up across the class, which really results in like kind of three or four things for each of those questions, which was a nice way to wrap up the end of the class and summarize for students after they completed that task. And one thing that I like about the Jamboard is that it actually ends up being anonymous. You can see people while they’re working on it, but it doesn’t keep a name with a sticky, ultimately.

John: So you can see who’s active in the board, but you don’t see who is writing which note.

Rebecca: Yeah, exactly. So that worked really well for me. How about you, John, were you able to build in reflection? I know you have such a big class. So it can be tricky.

John: I wasn’t able to do as much of that with my large section. But I did have them do that, to some extent in their discussions. For one discussion forum in both classes, I had them use a tool called Packback, which uses artificial intelligence to give students some feedback as they’re writing their prompts. And each week, students had to post a question related to that week’s material and they had to respond to at least a couple other people. But one of the nice things about Packback is it will check the cognitive level of the posts, it will give them some feedback in terms of grammar, it will also do a little bit of checking to see if the material has previously been posted. And it gives students some feedback, encouraging them to say more than “I agree.” And it also encourages them to document sources and to provide resources or references for the arguments they provide. And they get a score on that. So it takes a lot of the evaluation of that away. And so I monitored all of that. But it was something that seemed to function pretty well, just by the interaction between the users and that system. I haven’t really mentioned much about what I did in my online class. My online class uses many of the tools, but obviously, I couldn’t do synchronous, because that class is fully asynchronous. I couldn’t do the same type of instruction. But I had students do two other things in that class that provided opportunities for reflection, one of which was I had them work in a metacognitive cafe, low-stakes discussion forum, where they reflected on what they were learning and the learning process. And that gave them another way of making connections to their learning and reflecting on how well they were learning materials and what barriers they were facing, and also sharing effective learning strategies with each other. They were given some readings each week, generally on research-based learning practices as a primer for many of those discussions… others, they were just reflecting on what they’ve learned and how it might be useful in their life to tie it back to themselves. But the other thing I had students do is work on two podcast projects in that class. And in those they were taking what they were learning and making reflections about how that connected to the world around them. Many of them ended up being related to COVID and pandemics, but they were making some really good connections, and they were getting a chance to see how the material they were learning had some relevance in their own lives. And a lot of that came out in some of the things they were discussing in their podcasts. And they also did use Jamboard once at the very end of the term. But I also use Google forms a few times to have them reflect on the process of what was working, what wasn’t working in the class and what was working and what was not working in their own learning processes and what I can do and what they could do to help them learn more effectively.

Rebecca: I don’t know about you, but I was really surprised at how well synchronous learning actually went for me. I had some technical difficulties early on with my internet connection. It took me a while, but I got around to fixing that problem by hardwiring my internet and resolving some of those things. But I felt just as connected to my students as I would normally. I had a lot of interactions. And in some ways, I was able to facilitate those interactions a little more equitably online, because it wasn’t just the person who came to nudge me and stand in line and be the next person. Instead, I could really coordinate using waiting rooms and breakout rooms and really give everybody a chance to have one-on-one interactions with me, which I really appreciated. And I really did get to know all of my students quite well, which I was a little bit surprised about. And then, in an area where it’s really technicalaAnd we’re doing a lot of coding and things on screen, being able to share screens and take control of another person’s computer to fix things or show them how to do something was incredibly valuable. We use some of those kinds of tools in person. But it actually was, I think, in some cases more effective using this particular tool. So I was kind of surprised at how well some things worked. And I think that even when things go back to face to face, there’s definitely some components here that I would keep.

John: I’d agree. And I think students were amazed at how well some of those tools work. When in breakout rooms, they would be using the whiteboard features, they would be sharing screens, they’d be making the case, they’d be drawing on the screens, and that was something that would be much harder to do in a face-to-face environment. Initially, at the beginning of the class, I had some issues with chat being kind of flooded with irrelevant material, and I had to clamp down on that a little bit. But within a couple of weeks, they started actually using it very productively, and it provided a voice for all students, even those quiet students who would have otherwise sat in the back of this large lecture hall. They were able to type something in chat, after thinking about what they wanted to say before doing it, without being concerned about interrupting the discussion that was going on. And I think that was really helpful. And when I taught large classes with three to 400 students, there’s almost always 3 to 10 Students who have trouble not having side conversations when there’s other activities going on. And that mute option is kind of a nice feature and the ability to set their microphones so they’re all muted unless they choose to unmute… to have the default being muted until people click the unmute option… made it really easy. And I was amazed at how quickly they adjusted to muting and unmuting. By the end of the term there was maybe only once or twice a class where a family member or someone else would walk into the room and start talking. And then they’d remember, they had to mute their mics, and it was very rare. In a class that large, I was impressed by it… and working with students one on one, during office hours, it was so much easier to have students just share the screen and show you exactly what their problems were then to correspond with them with email, or even have them boot up their computer or you try to find what they were talking about when they came to your office. It was just much more efficient.

Rebecca: Yeah, I could actually see it. You can Zoom in, you can see what they’re talking about. I also found, and I was really floored, in this last week of classes, students were doing their final presentations,at how well they did develop facility with these tools. They’ve developed a lot of fluency in the kinds of tools that are actually very relevant to my particular discipline. It’s relevant to many disciplines. But designers use these tools all the time when they’re working with clients. And so it was amazing to me that we got through 15 presentations so efficiently. We didn’t wait for anybody to share their screen. They just knew what they needed to prepare, had it ready, they started developing slide decks really effectively, and could just do the things that they needed to do really efficiently. One of the last things I said to my class was like “I’m so proud of you just being able to do that. We didn’t have to wait for anybody today. That was amazing.” And so maybe a little bit of a blessing in disguise, you hate saying like, “Oh, the plague is such a great thing.” But they really did develop some useful skills and tools and they became more effective communicators. That was something that a lot of students reflected on and things that they didn’t expect to learn is how much better they became collaborators and just communicators generally… not just in person, like through Zoom or in text… like through chat in Slack.

John: Video conferencing is likely to be a part of their lives in the foreseeable future, especially now that everyone has adapted tp this mode, it’s very useful for them to learn how to use that efficiently. The one thing I do miss though, is seeing their faces in person and recognizing them. One concern that I have is, I’m hoping to be back on campus in the fall, there may be students that I work with who interact with me regularly, whose voice I would recognize or whose name I would recognize on the screen, but whose face I just wouldn’t recognize because a very large proportion of students just didn’t feel comfortable having their cameras on regularly, and I understand that. We’ve got a lot of students living in crowded living quarters or working with very poor network connections. But I do miss actually physically seeing them. And I had my last class session earlier today. And I encouraged them to stop by in the fall and just say hello.

Rebecca: Yeah, I mean, I agree that the physicality is certainly something that’s missing. But it was amazing to me how connected I still felt to all of the students at the end of the semester. And I think that they felt connected to each other too and they verbalized that, and also wrote that in their Jamboard reflection. So although there’s much to be improved, given this was the first time out and an experiment in many ways. I’m really thankful that I read Flower Darby’s book about Small Teaching Online because that actually informed a lot of my practices, even though it was synchronous, and a lot of her material was about asynchronous learning. It really did help me remind myself of things that I already knew that I needed to do, but to kind of make a checklist of things that I definitely needed to do as I was rethinking my classes for the fall. So thanks for chatting with me, John.

John: We always end with the question: “What’s next?”

Rebecca: I am sitting down to reflect on what worked and what didn’t work, to try to troubleshoot some things for the spring. And I’m teaching a class that’s brand new to our curriculum for the first time in the spring. And so we’re developing it for online synchronous, although ultimately, it’ll probably be a face-to-face class. We’ve had to re-conceptualize some of the things that we were going to do because of the technology limitations that students may have. If they’re online, we’re expecting that we might have a lot of students who are relying on their phones versus software and having access to high-end software packages or computers that can run them. So we’ve had to rethink things. But I’m pretty excited about being able to experiment with my students with all kinds of technology in the spring, but it’s definitely a puzzle that I’m currently starting to work on. How about you, John?

John: Well, I still have a lot of grading to do. But once that is done, one of the things I’m going to be doing is converting a textbook I had written in econometrics to a Pressbooks site, which will be a lot of conversion because it’s originally in LaTex, a typesetting language used for mathematical typing and I’m planning to create a lot of videos, I’m hoping to get many of them done over the break so that I’m not spending 15 or 20 hours a week creating videos as I was all fall. And I’m hoping to get a little bit further ahead of the semester this time, so I’m not doing as much preparation at the last moment. And we’re both going to be working on putting together a series of workshops in January for our faculty to help people prepare for whatever comes at them this spring

Rebecca: We’re just going to be really busy.[LAUGHTER]

John: I’ve never spent as many hours working on my classes as I have this semester.

Rebecca: I agree. There was a lot of startup costs converting to this modality, but I’m hoping a lot of that stuff I’ll be able to keep and reuse moving forward. Thanks, John. Always nice talking to you, John. We chat all the time. But it’s nice to sometimes hear about some of the thought process and things behind some of the decisions that you’ve made in your classes. So it was really nice to actually hear about how you did some of that stuff this semester. So thanks.

John: And I also appreciate hearing more about what you’ve been doing in your classes. We spend most of our time on podcasts talking to our guests and only mentioning little snippets of what we’ve been doing ourselves.

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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.

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167. Supporting Persistence

Some students thrive in online courses and some students struggle. In this episode, Dr. Becky Cottrell joins us discuss the impact of student characteristics and circumstances on their success in online courses. We also discuss strategies that we can employ in our online classes to help all of our students be more successful. Becky is the online and hybrid course development analyst in the social work department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Show Notes

  • Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Tinto, V. (1997). Classrooms as communities: Exploring the educational character of student persistence. The Journal of Higher Education, 68(6), 599–623.

Transcript

John: Some students thrive in online courses and some students struggle. In this episode, we discuss the impact of student characteristics and circumstances on their success in online courses. We also examine strategies that we can employ in our online classes to help all of our students be more successful.

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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.

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John: Our guest today is Dr. Becky Cottrell. Becky is the online and hybrid course development analyst in the social work department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Welcome, Becky.

Becky: Thanks for having me.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Becky: I’m drinking water today.

John: And I am drinking ginger peach green tea.

Rebecca: And I’ve gotten seasonal with my Christmas tea today.

John: I’ve got to bring that back. I’ve got a lot of it up in the office, along with some cinnamon sticks.

Rebecca: I beat you, John, I beat you this time. [LAUGHTER]

John: I saw your presentation at the OLC Accelerate conference, where you were talking about the research you’ve done on student outcomes in online and face-to-face classes at an Hispanic serving institution. Could you give us an overview of what prompted your interest in the topic, first?

Becky: Absolutely. I have been teaching online for more than six years. And I started working with a number of colleagues who really didn’t think that you could teach Spanish online. And I took that as a challenge and really wanted to teach a really great online Spanish class. And from there, it got me wondering who is taking online classes? I noticed a really big difference between my face-to-face students and my online students. And I wanted to know more about who they were and how they were doing in those classes. And combining that with the fact that we have seen an increase in student enrollments in online classes at our institution and around the country over the last many years, even before COVID, it really seemed important to me to know how students are doing in their online classes and what their grades are and what their outcomes were.

John: And that research becomes even more important when we put it in the context of COVID with the rapid shift online. Many people who were avoiding online instruction like the plague, have suddenly been forced to change their teaching modality.

Rebecca: …due to the plague. [LAUGHTER]

John: So, we can no longer say “avoiding it like the plague” anymore.

Becky: And students are complaining now and you hear students who don’t want to pay Harvard tuition rates for a substandard educational experience in an online class. But, are those experiences really substandard? I really want to know that.

Rebecca: That’s definitely a great question and a really relevant one right now.

John: So, this was your dissertation research?

Becky: It was. So, I just finished my PhD in Curriculum and Instruction. So I did a lot of research about what are student outcomes and what do they look like with different types of curriculum?

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about where your study was done?

Becky: Absolutely. So we use a pseudonym for the site. So, Russell University. It’s an urban university in the Mountain West and a very non-traditional population. So, lots of older students, lots of first generation students, veterans, working students, more students who are married… helping raise families. So, not your typical just-out-of-high-school students. It’s an Hispanic serving institution, and has been for the last few years.

John: How large was the sample that you worked with?

Becky: I started looking at every class that had online and face-to-face enrollments over two academic years, and at a large institution that ended up with 156,000 total course enrollments. But the statistical method that I was using doesn’t let one student be in the treatment group and the control group. So we had to aggregate students. And so I aggregated them down. There ended up being 28,000 students in the study. And from there, I just wanted to look at the ones who were taking mostly online classes, or mostly face-to-face classes. So those who were in that top 25% or bottom 25%, in terms of online enrollment, ended up being 7765 students over the course of two years.

John: That’s a nice sized sample. In many institutions, you have some students who are only online students, some students are only face-to-face. It sounds like there was a bit of a continuum there.

Becky: Certainly there were some who were all online or all face-to-face. It wasn’t something that I specifically looked at in my study, so I can’t pull out specific numbers of that. But yes, we definitely had students in the study who were entirely online and entirely face-to-face.

John: In terms of the online classes, were they developed with the assistance of instructional designers?

Becky: That’s a really interesting question. And the answer basically, is I have no idea. It wasn’t one of the things that I looked at in the study, I was looking more at student characteristics than course characteristics. That said, Russell University has a really robust online offering. Over the last 20 years, they have increased their online course offerings a great deal, and particularly in the last five years have really ramped up their efforts to develop courses and have really excellent quality matters certified courses at the university. That doesn’t mean that all of our courses meet that standard. But it has been an institutional goal and one of the things that they’ve worked on. but I was just looking at student demographics when I was looking at the study. Partly that’s hard because we have students who are taking maybe 20 different classes, and so they could have had one or two that were developed through an instructional designer, but the others may not have been. So, no real way of knowing.

John: The outcome you were looking at specifically was student success in the course?

Becky: Yes, so I measured student success in two different ways. The first way was looking at student grades, which we measured by course GPAs that was aggregated based on their course enrollments. And the other one was withdrawal rate. So, what was their percentage of withdrawals during the courses that they were taking during the two-year sample?

John: One of the things I found really interesting about your study is that you use a methodology that took into account sample selection in a way that so many education studies don’t. And you suggested the reason for that, I think, when you said that your online students were quite a bit different than your face-to-face students. Could we talk a little bit about that issue of sample selection in studies of this nature?

Becky: Absolutely. This is a really common problem in educational research, that you have something called selection bias. And I think that those of us who teach are aware that our students who enroll in 8 am classes are really different than the students who enroll in 2 pm classes. And we see some of those similar things with online classes versus face-to-face classes. It’s just a really different group and personality of those students. And what happens is students get to sign up for their own classes. There’s nobody randomly controlling them into different classes. They pick the ones that they want with the teachers that they want at the times that they want and in the course modality that they want. And we don’t know why. So that’s part of what I wanted to look at in this research is: what students are enrolling in online classes and what students are enrolling in face-to-face and why? Is there a balance between the groups? Are they really similar? Or are they really different? And so what I found was that there are different students who are enrolling in online classes versus face-to-face classes, which is not unexpected. As an example here, we found that students who are working full time were more likely to take online classes, which makes sense, they need to take the online classes because it fits better with their schedule and has greater flexibility to match their work schedule. But at the same time, what impact does that have on course outcomes? Does it mean that they are really motivated because they have a full-time job, so they’re going to get better course grades? Or does it mean that they are working full time and they’re managing a family and if something comes up, they’re going to put their schoolwork to the side because other things are more important. So selection bias, and the way that students self selected to classes, really changes how they might perform in those classes. Which brings us to that question of are those student course outcomes based on the online course modality? Or are they based on the characteristics that made students choose the online course modality?

John: When you didn’t control for student characteristics, what did you find in terms of comparing the outcomes in online classes with face-to-face classes?

Becky: One of the things that was really interesting here is that those students who were taking 75%, or more online classes actually had significantly better grades in their online classes than they did in face-to-face classes. So the online course GPA for those students taking 75% or more online classes was 2.55. And for those taking face-to-face classes was only 2.34. So definitely a significant difference and higher grades in online classes, which is not what I was expecting. Then, with regard to withdrawal rates, we had totally different results, which is that there was no significant difference in withdrawal rates among the two groups before balancing for those 15 different student characteristics.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what those 15 characteristics were and how you chose those?

Becky: Absolutely. I used Tinto’s student integration model to look at what characteristics he felt contributed to student success and persistence in the institution. So, I ended up with 15, different personal characteristics related to students. So, a lot of demographic characteristics: age, race, gender, those sorts of issues. We tried to get academic performance through GPA, transfer status, transfer GPA, ACT scores, SAT scores, those sorts of things. We also tried to determine institutional commitment through if they had a declared major. And the one area that we would have liked to have more, but wasn’t available in an institutional data set, was something related to like computer literacy and other skills that were related to performance in an online class, but it just wasn’t something that was available. So 15 different characteristics, including those demographics, academics, and just connection to the institution.

John: So you were using a nearest neighbor matching with, I believe, a two-to-one ratio?

Becky: Yeah.

John: Could you describe that, perhaps, for our listeners?

Becky: Absolutely.

Rebecca: …for people like me that have no idea what that even means? [LAUGHTER]

Becky: So the methodology that I used was kind of an interesting statistical method called the propensity score analysis. And basically what a propensity score analysis does is matches people who are in the treatment group with people who are in the control group. So it creates kind of an artificial match to say this is now one person and what would have happened if they’d been in treatment or if they’d been in control. So it takes all of those characteristics and assigns them a score, and from there can divvy them up and say they are likely to be in treatment or control and it recreates those groups. And that matching allows them to determine the probability of them being in treatment or control groups, which essentially controls for the characteristics that you’ve loaded into the model.

John: To simplify it a bit, you’re comparing people who are similar in characteristics and examining the outcomes when adjusting for those characteristics.?

Becky: That is a great explanation… very concise. And the idea of the nearest neighbor two-to-one matching is basically that for each person who’s in the online class, we found two matching people in the control group. So we tried to keep as many students as possible in the final outcome.

John: And there have been at least some studies that are found one-to-one or two-to-one gives you the best estimates with the least amount of bias from that procedure..

Becky: Absolutely, yes. When there’s a one-to-one match, you get a lot better balance, because you can obviously find a matching student in the online or the face-to-face class that is the best fit. But when you start matching more students, it’s not quite as good of a fit, so you don’t deal with balance quite as well. And speaking of balance, I’m going to jump in and tell you about this right now, just because I think that’s interesting, and one of the great parts about propensity scores is this idea that the first thing that a propensity score model does is say, “Are these groups the same? Are your online groups the same as the face-to-face group?” And what we found out is that they aren’t. And I thought this was a really interesting piece of my research. So they were totally different, different enrollment patterns. and there were about eight characteristics that were significantly different. And this is where I think it’s so fascinating. So we had more part-time students in the online classes… not surprising… but they had higher ACT scores, more transfer students, more credits taken, they were more experienced students, they had higher GPAs, they were more likely to have a declared major and they were all older. So the better students were taking online classes, which is so fascinating to me, and explains ultimately, why we had higher course grades in our baseline data. Students who are better students were taking online classes, where those beginning students who were younger, who had less experience, were taking the face-to-face classes. So I just thought that was fascinating, that it was imbalanced. But it really gave a good picture as to why we were getting the outcomes we were at the institution.

Rebecca: It’ll be interesting to have some follow up studies related to COVID-19 around those ideas, because just anecdotally, students who are newer to being online, or just newer college students, have struggled quite a bit with online learning or complained about it, or just don’t know how to manage their time and those kinds of things. And it seems related to the kinds of findings that you’ve had.

Becky: Absolutely. And I think across the country, we’re seeing that those upperclassmen stay enrolled and are succeeding through these COVID transition. But it’s the underclassmen who are taking a gap year or who are failing out of classes. So I think that these results speak to that, that those students maybe aren’t prepared for an online class,

John: What happened to your results in terms of student success, when you corrected for the sample selection?

Becky: This is so fascinating. After controlling for that balance, we had originally had, in our baseline data, better scores, better course grades in online classes, and after controlling for those characteristics, there was no significant difference in course grades between online and face-to-face courses, which is awesome, it’s really exciting to know that maybe we’re doing something right. And so that was really exciting. But, at the same time, our baseline data had said that there was a non-significant difference in withdrawal rates. But after controlling, we found that there was a significant increase in withdrawal rates, and online classes had higher withdrawal rates, by about 2%, than face-to-face classes.

John: I think that’s a fairly common result, that online students often have much higher withdrawal rates than face-to-face classes.

Becky: Right. The grades are really promising. And I’m glad to know that those course outcomes are doing well. But when we start looking at withdrawal rates, it brings up some really interesting questions about how are we engaging students and why do we have bigger withdrawal rates in those online classes.

Rebecca: I was just going to ask if your research led you to believe anything about those results? If it was this particular characteristic or a teaching method? Or are those just new questions that we need to continue asking? [LAUGHTER]

Becky: I think they are mostly new questions that we need to continue asking. But there are some implications in the literature that I think lead us to some possibilities here. One of the big ones is that sense of community and connection in online classes, students really want to feel that, and if they don’t, they’re more likely to drop out from those classes. And so it’s definitely a consideration as we’re looking at more online classes is how are we building community? And how are we engaging with our students in that online space to make sure that they’re able to connect with their instructor and connect with other students in the class? I think that another factor that we see is who are taking these online classes: so students who are more engaged with families, they’re older, they’re working full time, therefore taking fewer classes. I think that those factors can contribute to their persistence or not in these online spaces. So, definitely some of those issues are there and we know what some of those reasons are. And I would love to do some future follow up research on what really is happening at this particular institution.

Rebecca: I know you had also mentioned high-impact practices and trying to incorporate more of those, like inviting students to do research and things. I’m wondering if we have any data on how prevalent that might actually be in online learning compared to face-to-face learning. How often are those opportunities actually there?

Becky: I totally agree. It would be so interesting to look at what are those impacts? And what is the prevalence of those high-impact practices? I think there’s a lot of research about what we can do to do better. And I think that even from this research that for my dissertation was almost obsolete by the time I defended my dissertation, because COVID happened, but one of the things that we can be doing better, and I think we have started is providing greater access to student services in those online spaces that students maybe before didn’t have access to advising, registration… they didn’t have a good way to connect with people who are on campus. And I think so many of our institutions have had to move towards a much better practice with that. When we went online for months, they had to figure out how to do that. And I think that we’ll keep that around and providing better services to students. And that will definitely help keep them enrolled in classes and keep them from stopping out and persisting at the institution.

Rebecca: Nothing like a pandemic to really force some innovation, right? [LAUGHTER]

Becky: It’s true, but it’s been so much fun. I love seeing that innovation and how we’re benefiting our students. I also love seeing a little more attention towards online teaching, We were the ugly stepchild before and now everyone is excited to learn about this new thing and how they can do it better.

John: It’s gone from being an ugly stepchild to a savior in some way.

Becky: Yeah, absolutely. Think about the last pandemic with the Spanish flu. What happened to their education at that point? We didn’t have online learning. Did they have distance education? What even happened with that?

John: If this has happened 20 years ago, it would have been a completely different experience with a lot of colleges just completely shutting down or moving to some type of correspondence class instruction.

Rebecca: Which I don’t think would have gone well. [LAUGHTER]

John: Which would not have gone very well.

Becky: No, definitely 20 years ago, I think that right now we can say we have similar course outcomes in online and face-to-face classes. But 20 years ago, I would have been one of those students who was protesting at Harvard about paying tuition for a substandard educational experience, [LAUGHTER]

John: What are some of the things that you would recommend doing to help build class community?

Becky: I’m so glad that you asked about this, because this is one of the other personal interests that I have. I’ve been working with a faculty learning community for the last two and a half years around developing instructor presence in an online class. And so I love talking about this, I think that there are a lot of ways that we can really develop connections among instructors and students, and also among students. So one of the best practices that I’ve seen is making sure that teachers have an opportunity to connect one-on-one with their students, whether that’s sending out an email a time or two during the semester, or requiring students to meet with them, at the beginning of the semester or at midterms, throughout the semester, to be able to develop that one-on-one Zoom connection to just be able to have a little bit of face time with students. But I think that works really well. So making sure that there is an opportunity to connect on a human level. When we teach online, we tend to be really text heavy and dry. And taking that human element that we love in a face-to-face class and pulling it out in an online space is so valuable for students, and really helps them to connect with each other and with their instructor. It’s one of those inclusive teaching practices that we do really well face-to-face, but is a little bit harder to do online, and if we’re intentional about it, it can happen. In terms of developing community among students, I think that as much as there’s resistance towards group work, I think that you can intentionally use it to develop community in your classes. And this isn’t just a “Hey, you should write a paper together and divide up the work,” it’s intentionally using that as a community building opportunity. And letting students know that that’s your intention is you want that to be community building. So one of the things I’ve always done in my Spanish classes is have students meet in small conversation groups once a week to have conversation practice with each other. And there’s always a little bit of resistance, and students aren’t so sure that they want to do it. But I have them fill out a survey to let me know what time they’re available. And it’s just a group of three students. They meet every week, and they have a great time talking with each other and get that oral communication practice they need. It also ends up being one of their favorite parts of the class. They develop connections with other students. And I hear all the time about students who actually meet in person and go out for coffee. I had one student who was taking a class from Florida and another student who was in Denver, and the Denver student had to go to Florida for something and stopped and went to go visit the Florida student in person, they went and hung out together. So I think there are just really interesting human personal connections that can be made. And leaving space for that to happen is so important. I think we get too focused on academics and lose those moments at the beginning or the end of a class where we spend a few minutes talking about nothing or the weather or the football game last weekend. And leaving that space in an online class and making sure that you have some space for that, really helps to develop those connections.

Rebecca: I definitely have experienced that this semester with my students who have had persistent groups all semester. They have said multiple times how helpful that has been for them, and they just did a reflection activity and almost every single student said “Oh, being in those groups was the best part…” which we never hear about group work, right? [LAUGHTER]. But they got to know each other and they had support through the class and used that as a way to help each other out with the course material.

Becky: Absolutely. I love that. It’s so amazing when students can get that connection and really work together.

John: I had a similar experience in my online class where I had students work on podcasts. And the first time they met, generally, is when they met in small groups to have these conversations and recorded them using Zoom. And they were supposed to be 5- to 10-minute podcasts, but many of them ended up being dramatically longer because, essentially, they were getting to know each other. It was kind of nice to see that sort of engagement and that interaction where they were getting to form this community. It would have been nice if they had recorded just a shorter segment of it. But I did get to listen in on some of those initial meetings. And it was an interesting experience.

Becky: And I agree, I signed my students to only speak for 30 minutes, and they only had to record 15 minutes of that. But the timer would tell me how long they’d been in and many of them would be in there for 45 minutes to an hour, sometimes an hour and a half… that they would just spend that time together, practicing and talking. And it was great. It was just fun to see that connection, that they went above and beyond what we’d asked them to do.

Rebecca: So drop out rates for something that you mentioned that your research pointed to this was one of the biggest issues that we needed to be thinking about in terms of online education. So in addition to instructor presence and helping students formulate community, do you have any other recommendations for faculty or instructors to help mitigate that or get students to stay? …to retain students?

Becky: Absolutely. So we’ve talked about access to student support services, building a community, some of those high-impact practices that we don’t always think about in online spaces is making sure that students have the ability to collaborate with faculty, like on a research project, especially at a Hispanic serving institution. It’s a culture where those connections are really important. And making sure to provide those to students so that there’s an opportunity to connect with faculty on working on something meaningful is really important. So as faculty, we can make sure that we’re selecting students, when we’re thinking about TAs, research assistants, make sure that we’re thinking about some of our online students as well and see if that might be a good fit for them. And one of the things that I also think about in terms of improving retention is this connection and relationship between the faculty and the student is so important. But in order to do that, we know our faculty are overworked and underpaid, and to make sure that there’s institutional support for faculty, is really important. And so making sure that there’s access to instructional design and pedagogical training through some of the resources available at the institution is a big deal, making sure that there is a collaborative opportunity for faculty to work together and share best practices and generally just supporting faculty. As we hold on to faculty, it gives them more bandwidth to hold on to their students. So institutional support is a really big deal to benefit our students as well.

Rebecca: And one that we can’t underscore enough when faculty are feeling really strained. [LAUGHTER]

Becky: No, absolutely not, not in 2020. And here we are. I don’t know about other institutions, but we’re being furloughed. And so we’re asked to do more and have fewer resources.

John: …while being at further risk in terms of employment risk, as well as all the health risks out there.

Becky: Oh, there’s so much going on.

John: You mentioned forming connections between faculty and students, and one way of certainly selecting students to be TAs, and so forth. But, what are some of the things instructors can do in their courses to help form those connections within online classes,

Becky: One of the things that we’ve really found that is helpful is moving away from a really static discussion board. We see a lot of classes where instructors say, ‘Tell me three things that you learned from this reading,” or “What are three of the five methods that are used to do whatever it is”. And those are really boring discussion boards and do not foster community, but asking questions that really encourage students to engage in a debate, in a conversation, and teaching them how to engage with each other appropriately and respectfully in an online space is really important. So asking them to solve problems together, asking them to work together, not shying away from difficult conversations. This election year has had a lot of challenges, and engaging with those in a student class in a way that allows them to bring in their own unique perspectives helps them to connect. Some of that might be through a discussion board. Some of it might be through a tool like Flipgrid that allows you to have students have a video discussion where they get to record a short video and then reply to each other. That really fosters that sense of connection and community in an online space. So allowing for that to happen is really important. We can move away from a boring discussion board to either a better discussion board or some of these other tools that foster community.

John: Flipgrid or VoiceThread or other similar tools offer a lot more possibilities for connection and hearing each other’s voices and hearing their instructor’s voice I think should help to create that sense of community more so than just reading text on a screen.

Becky: …and videos also. That, if we are recording videos, we can see the instructor, we can see the other students… having a face to put to a name. And having just a little bit of personal information… knowing that I smile and laugh, and I am an engaging person, I think, helps to connect with the course.

John: Humanizing the instructor is a phrase that’s often used, letting them hear you, hear your voice and your sense of humor, letting people know you as a person rather than just as the author of these words that show up on the screen all over the place is helpful.

Rebecca: …and humanizing the other students in the class. If it’s just a name, it’s really easy to not really think of that name as a person, the more you see and hear, not only as an instructor, but also fellow students, I think, can be really beneficial. So I think that students eat up the media when it’s available to them.

Becky: Absolutely.

John: And helping them make connections to their own life in their discussion. If they’re going to have discussion boards, one way of doing it effectively might be to have them make connections, where they draw on what they’re learning and make connections from their own life and experiences and share them, which also is a nice way of forming that sense of human presence in the classroom.

Becky: Absolutely. With a PhD in curriculum, I feel like I hold in my two hands two different things. So on the one hand, I have the curriculum and the course objectives and the aligned assessments and all of those things, and I think they’re so important. In my other hand, I’m holding on to the importance of people like bell hooks and Paulo Freire, and that reminder that we need to be transgressing some of these lines of our existing education and decolonizing our educational experience and humanizing it to make sure that we’re making real personal connections with the content, with the instructor. And so those are the two things that I carry with me as I’m working in my own classes in this and I’m helping faculty develop their courses is, “How do you balance those two things?” That is so hard, and I think in online classes, we do really well with the alignment and the course objectives and the assessments. And sometimes that humanizing part feels like it falls by the wayside.

John: But they’re not necessarily substitutes, they could be complementary. If you design assignments well, where they’re engaging in these authentic interactions, while achieving the learning objectives, it’s more work trying to design that, but there are some things you can do that can work fairly well.

Becky: I think there are wonderful faculty out there who are doing really great things, those are just the two things I try to always carry with me to make sure that I don’t leave one of them behind.

Rebecca: I think it’s really important to think about those two. So, it’s a nice reminder. And I think actually a nice way to wrap up the conversation, because it’s the two things to keep in mind as you move forward. Having those little takeaways at the end is always helpful. So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Becky: For me, I am really excited to dig into some of this qualitative side of things that we’ve talked about today. As I said, I love that hard quantitative research, but I’m also really interested in the humanizing element of it and that instructor presence. So I’ve been working with this faculty learning community for the last two and a half years, and we have developed an online instructor presence self-evaluation tool that we are presenting at OLC in the spring. So we’re really excited to be able to share that with some other people about how you connect with people and how we engage in our classes. So we’re excited to move forward with some of that. And just see what is happening with COVID? How has that changed things? And how might we rethink how we’re teaching online?

John: It’s just something that people would be using on a longitudinal basis to track how their classes evolved? Or is it just used in general as an instrument to share with faculty?

Becky: What we’ve intended it as is a way for people to self assess. So we didn’t want it to be a rubric. We don’t want it to be point based. We wanted it to be conversational, and a way to go in and reflect on your own teaching and consider ways that you could improve. And so absolutely, the way that we’ve designed the tool is it has a “What are my strengths? and ”What could be improved?” area on each of it. And so it would be really interesting to come back and say, you know, I did this last semester, what does that look like this semester? What am I changing? How am I improving? S o I think it absolutely could be used longitudinally.

Rebecca: That tool that you’re talking about sounds really great. So I hope we can have you back so we can talk about that in the future.

Becky: I would love to… only if I can invite a part of our faculty learning community

Rebecca: Of course.

Becky: It was a group effort. It’s one of those things that we couldn’t have done it without each other. We’ve just been in each other’s support system. And when we first found out that our institution was going online, we had a meeting scheduled for that Friday, and we talked about canceling and everyone’s like, “No, these are the people that I need.” And so we all met that Friday that we were moving online, and we haven’t seen each other since in person, but we were just that group. We’re like, “No, I need my support group.” So, I would come back and talk about it, but only if I can bring my FLC with me.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] It sounds important to do so. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a great conversation and we look forward to hearing more research from you, Becky.

Becky: Well, awesome. Thanks so much. It’s been a pleasure to visit with both of you.

John: Thanks for joining us. We’re looking forward to talking to you again.

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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.

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