Tea for Teaching has been taken over this week by a couple of our favorite authors! Join our friends, Sarah Rose Cavanagh and Josh Eyler, as they interview each other about their current book projects.
Sarah is the author of The Spark of Learning: Energizing Education with the Science of Emotion and of Hivemind: Thinking Alike in a Divided World and numerous scholarly publications. She is the Associate Director for Grants and Research at the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, the Co-Director of the Laboratory for Cognitive and Affective Science, and also Research Affiliate at the Emotion, Brain, and Behavior Laboratory at Tufts University. Josh is the Director of Faculty Development and a lecturer in Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. Josh is the author of How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective Teaching.
- The tweet containing the graph discussed in the podcast.
- Eyler, J. R. (2018). How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching. West Virginia University Press.
- Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed, Herder & Herder.
- Hooks, B. (2014). Teaching to transgress. Routledge.
- Cavanagh, Sarah Rose (2019). The Best (and Worst) Ways to Respond to Student Anxiety. The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 5.
- Yeager, D., Walton, G., & Cohen, G. L. (2013). Addressing achievement gaps with psychological interventions. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(5), 62-65.
- Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. West Virginia University Press.
- Cavanagh, S. R. (2019). Hivemind: The New Science of Tribalism in our Divided World. Grand Central Publishing.
John: Tea for Teaching has been taken over this week by a couple of our favorite authors! Join our friends, Sarah and Josh, as they interview each other about their current book projects.
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.
Sarah: Hello, Josh.
Josh: Hello, Sarah.
Sarah: So, I’m Sarah Rose Cavanagh. I work at Assumption University, where I am an Associate Professor of Psychology and also Associate Director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence. And since we’re here on Tea for Teaching, I will tell you that I am drinking water, because I have had an almost toxic amount of coffee already today.
Josh: And I am Josh Eyler, the Director of Faculty Development and Faculty in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. And I always feel as if I disappoint John and Rebecca on this podcast, because I’m drinking water as well. I never drink tea. [LAUGHTER] And we’re here for, I won’t say a special episode of the podcast, but it is a different episode, and we’re hoping not to crash it. So Sarah, do you want to tell everyone what we’re doing here?
Sarah: Absolutely. So, we both announced on Twitter that we have new book projects. And I wanted to interview Josh for his new book project. And he said maybe we could interview each other. And then John said, “Hey, you want a space to do that, publicly?” And so here we are interviewing each other about our new book projects on Tea for Teaching. We’ve taken over the podcast.
Josh: Yes, we have. And it’s my go round to ask the first question. But, I just want to say first, it’s always a lot of fun to talk with Sarah about her work, and so it’s a special honor today to hear about her new work. I’m working on two projects, a book on grades, which will be making up the bulk of the questions, but a smaller project on test anxiety and other kinds of academic anxieties. And so I have a question about that as well. And that’s the one that I’d actually like to start with. And so, Sarah, I’d like to ask you about the attributes of class climate that can lead to anxiousness. I know that you’re working on a project that has to do with our learning environments, and its connections to student wellbeing. And so I’m curious on your take, both from your own perspective, and from the research that you’re doing. What are some of the elements of class climates that can lead to anxiousness in students?
Sarah: Awesome, and thank you for that question. I think that our projects are very related, which isn’t surprising. We also are working together on a grant project that, in part, tackles the question of emotions and grading. And so, for me, anxiety is all about uncertainty. And when we’re unsure of our footing, when we think “what if this terrible thing happens?” when we can’t picture the future? these are conditions under which anxiety arises. So, in terms of classroom climate, the sorts of things that research suggests make students more anxious have to do with uncertainty and with a lack of clarity. And so when students don’t understand the material, when they feel like the material is presented in such a way that they cannot understand it, when there’s clarity and uncertainty there, that makes them feel anxious. When they’re not quite sure where they should be investing their time, and what they should be doing with their time and how their grade is going to be determined, that can also lead to anxiety. And when they are unsure of how they’ll be assessed, what a good result looks like, what the instructor is looking for… and every instructor grades differently, assesses differently, is looking for slightly different things. And I always felt as a student, that part of beginning a class was figuring out what does this instructor want? And what are they looking for? And so all of these things can increase anxiety. I think that climates that reduce anxiety are ones that help students feel safe, help them feel like they belong, and ones that are really transparent and clear. And one of the things I’m trying to tackle in my new project is that we need students to be able to grapple with uncertainty. And I think that we need learning environments in which students feel safe, and they feel like they belong, so that they can tackle uncertainty and so that they can be a little unsteady and a little unsure, without anxiety spiking.
Josh: Great, thank you so much.
Sarah: Alright. So you recently shared on Twitter a graph, and I’m going to try to describe it, [LAUGHTER] because we’re all audio, but it was about grading alternatives. And you had two axes crossing each other. So, if the audience can picture four different quadrants, one of the axes was liberation, from not liberating at all to very liberating… a grading scheme. And then the other axis had to do with logistics, fewer to more logistics. So, various grading schemes were in the different quadrants. We can think of specifications or mastery grading, which have lots of logistics. We can think of ungrading, which has fewer logistics. So, I have a couple questions about that. But, my first question is, what is your operational definition of liberation or liberating? What are its characteristics? Its defining attributes? How do we measure it? This is a psychology question. [LAUGHTER] What is ”liberation”?
Josh: Right, definitely. And thank you for that question. I should say that this book is kind of a first step in a new development for the way I’m taking my writing. It’s different from the last book, in that it doesn’t focus solely on higher ed, but looks at educational systems more broadly, from preschool to grad school, it’s the way I’ve kind of been describing it. And so that’s important for the kind of responses I’ll be giving, I think. Now, about the graph… Everyone loves when people in the humanities delves into graphs [LAUGHTER] and math-like things. So, this should be interesting. To answer your specific question, though, much of my philosophy about higher education is rooted in work on critical pedagogy, in particular, the work of Paulo Freire and bell hooks, both of whom talk about education as a practice of freedom. And for Freire, who was deeply invested in the political climate of Brazil, education as a practice of freedom means giving students agency, empowerment, and the tools, to be able to remake the world that both benefits them, but society at large, as well. So, the liberation there comes from freeing the classroom of the kind of controlling elements that prevent that kind of learning taking place. For hooks (her writing is, as far as I’m concerned, the best education writing that has been done over the last number of decades), she takes it in a slightly different direction. And for her, the liberatory practice, education as a practice of freedom means freeing the student to be able to remake themselves and carve out a meaningful life for themselves. In order to do that, a classroom has to break down some of the hierarchies, it has to give over control to the students equally, and importantly, for bell hooks, it also means that that is a very difficult process for students, and it requires them to be vulnerable. And if we’re going to ask students to be vulnerable, the faculty member has to be vulnerable as well, or be willing to be vulnerable. And for me, in the context of grading, what that means is wrestling with the traditions that we have been handed about what education means and what teaching means. And when I refer to some of these grading practices as being more liberatory, what I mean is that by removing the emphasis on evaluation, and placing the focus on feedback, it gives over some of that control, some of that agency and empowerment, to students. So, that’s the direction that I’m moving in, and how I conceptualize it in terms of mapping the practices. Now, when I posted that on social media, it was an honest and open invitation for discussion, because where they are on that grid for me is not set in stone. In fact, I’ve had really interesting conversations about some folks who do portfolio grading… has lots of logistics. And so that was an interesting conversation. Ungrading, for me to make sense of it in my head, take some logistics to help the students feel comfortable with the process. But then I know others who have a lot of success with fewer logistics with that. But, that aside, what I’m really looking at… how much agency does the grading scheme allow students to take over for themselves?
Sarah: Lovely. Thank you.
Josh: And now, the rest of the questions are going to be kind of rooted in that project, the book about grades. And so I’m really excited to hear what you had to say about these. And the first one is kind of more of a personal question, reflecting on some of your own responses to the grades that you got when you were a student, Sarah, and how that might have an impact on the grading models you use now, as a faculty member.
Sarah: Well, I don’t think you’re gonna like my answer, [LAUGHTER] unfortunately. But I loved being graded. It was my favorite thing. So I, in middle school, and in the beginning of high school, I was always intellectually curious, but I wasn’t super into school, I would rather be buried in my books reading. And I got kind of As and Bs and occasional C in junior high. And then I started in high school, and I started racking up A’s and I was like, “Oh, I’m good at this.” So, I started getting more and more invested in my studies and more invested in grading. And I actually ended up valedictorian of my high school class. I also particularly loved… and I’ll have a question related to this later on… I loved taking exams. It’s actually the thing that I miss the most about being in college, because it was a very mastery motivated sort of thing. It was like me versus this exam. People talk about flow, and they talk about the zone, and taking an exam is where I experienced that the most. And so I had this almost gamification approach to grades. I was going to figure things out. I was going to master this thing. And I had a lot of fun with it. And then when I got to college, I was sort of in this, you know, well, I’m not going to not get an A in the class, because now I’m someone who gets As and always gets As. And that, and I’ve written about this for the Chronicle of Higher Education and writing about this in my own book on student mental health, that was part of what helped me getting over my own personal struggles with anxiety, because I wasn’t anxious about grades, and I wasn’t anxious about exams, but I was anxious for social reasons. And I was anxious about participation. And I had a really hard time participating. And I managed to get through most of my college degree without participating in class and still getting As because even though professors would say you have to participate to get an A, they would still, based on exam scores and papers, give out As. But then I started picking up women’s studies classes and these women’s studies classes had a third of the grade was participation, because it was all about discussion and all about sharing and really grappling with lived experiences. And I was kind of confronted with this, you know, am I going to not get an A? Or am I going to try to do something about my social anxiety? So, the grades were actually the motivator that helped me, not just with my intellectual journey, but also with my mental health journey. And I’m not saying that that would happen to everyone, or that my anxiety was as severe as some people’s but for me, personally, grades were fun, and they were also this motivator that had this huge effect on my life.
Josh: Great. And what you said about, particularly your approach to grades in high school, really resonated with me. I was an athlete in high school and college and really approached it in much the same way, that it was just one more competitor, one more opponent on the wrestling path…
Josh: …to be conquered. But, reflecting back on it thinking, Okay, well, that obviously, there was an element of success there. But do I remember much about what I was learning in those classes? Thank you for that answer. I appreciate it.
Sarah: Well, you’re welcome. And I’m going to return to your graph, if that’s okay. [LAUGHTER]
Sarah: So, we talked about liberation. And thank you for that beautiful answer. And I love thinking about student agency and autonomy and motivation. But, my second question is about the logistics-the other axis- and this is, in my own thinking about my own grading, something that I struggle with. And so I absolutely am in agreement, that agency and autonomy, and giving students that control, and releasing your own status are all really important. But, logistics… I think of some of these grading schemes can get kind of Byzantine and convoluted, and I have experimented with all sorts of different schemes, and I know we’re going to talk about what we’ve done in the classroom ourselves. And I think students sometimes find those really confusing, and it reduces certainty, and it reduces predictability and transparency sometimes, and they’re trying to navigate it, and they’re really struggling. And I think that that can increase anxiety more than a traditional grade structure sometimes. But then, on the other hand, the ones that are low in logistics, I have experienced student feedback where they just feel like they’re left at sea, and they don’t know where they are in the grading scheme. And most of us are teaching in institutions where, at the end of the semester, no matter what you’ve done, you have to put a grade in the system. So, certainly, it seems like liberation is good to you – more liberation is better than less liberation. How about logistics? More better, less better? Sort of your thoughts and curve?
Josh: Yeah, I think, in the way, I was envisioning that, logistics are kind of neutral. If you think about that y-axis, the liberation as being the philosophical access, the logistics is the pragmatic axis. And so, what I’m really trying to do with that particular graphic or image is to help people make decisions about what they might want to try. And, as you’re saying, for both the students and the faculty, a scheme, a model that has more logistics could be intimidating, or it could be a deciding factor. Okay, yes, I want to move in the direction of having a more progressive grading model, but doing something that is going to completely change the way I’ve approached my work for the last 20 years, and pile on top of it all these other details to think about, may just be too much. So, maybe rather than going to mastery grading, maybe I’ll start with contract grading, which can have many fewer logistics, and see how that goes. See how it aligns with my own goals and values, and pair that with how the students respond to it. In trying a number of different models, one thing is consistent and that’s what you’re saying. The students uncomfortability with changing the way they interact with grades, the way they respond to grades. So, even in the portfolio-based grading system, which to me is the baby step out of the traditional grading model, where you’re giving mostly feedback but a traditional grade at the end. I mean, the grade happens to be based somewhat on improvement over time, but still fairly traditional. Even then, there’s a lot of groundwork with students, building up their level of tolerance and comfort for that. So, yes, any shift toward a grading model that privileges feedback over evaluation is going to increase nervousness and anxiety at some level with students. And so one thing I talked about with faculty all the time is there has to be a lot of work upfront, being very transparent with students and working through this particular process. And to be honest, I don’t blame the students, because they’ve had at least 12 years of being conditioned in an educational environment where grades have meant something very specific to them. So, logistics for me, neither good nor bad, but an important factor in making decisions, both for our own workload and the student response. And I think it’s worth taking that into consideration. Because, it really matters. If we choose something right out of the gate that has a ton of logistics, and we’re trying to navigate those and help our students, it may actually discourage some people from trying out or continuing down that avenue. And that’s not what we want. And so I have known folks who have experimented, gotten frustrated, and just gone back to the grading schemes that seemed easier for them. So, that, I think is where logistics really come into this equation, both on the faculty and the student side.
Sarah: Thank you.
Josh: So, we talked about your own response to grades as a student, but what about the models that you now use as a faculty member?
Sarah: So I’ve experimented with various parts of your quadrants. And so I’ve done something in one of my classes, not purely mastery, or specifications, grading, but getting there, where there’s a lot of options, and everything is evaluated, not on a numerical score or a letter score, but instead, developing competence, achieved competence, that sort of thing. And so I’ve done kind of more high logistics versions. And then, in one of my seminar classes, which is all seniors, 15 students, and three-hour class, we’re sitting around talking about peer-reviewed neuroscience articles, I’ve taken a more purely ungrading approach. And the thing that I think I’ve decided about all of this, for at least at my institution with the courses that I teach, is that some of these techniques don’t work as well with the lower-level classes that have more content, that are more introductory, and that have younger students in them. In those classes, the students have a much more negative reaction to these untraditional schemes. They have many questions, they get frustrated. And I also, and this will lead into a question that I have for you, our students, most of them work a lot. So they’re working a lot of hours. A lot of them are commuting, they have very complicated lives. And they are not super grade conscious compared to other places that I’ve taught. They’re more focused on getting through the degree program, getting their credits, they are not “I need that A,” for the most part. And they seem to, in particular, dislike some of these grading schemes, because they want to know where they’re at. I had a student come to me, I always give a mid-semester check in and say, “Here’s where I think you’re at, where do you think you’re at?” We talk about it… but we were right before that. And she was kind of lost. And she said, “I’m working 35 hours a week. I’m taking care of my little brother. I’m taking five classes, and I just want a B in all my classes. And I have this limited pool of time. And I need to know where I should be putting my time, and I don’t know where I’m at, do I have an A minus? Do I have a C plus, I want to know if I’m in that (upper) range, because if I am I’m going to dedicate more of my time elsewhere.” And so, that was a struggle. That said, my upper-level class, I absolutely love it. So, in that seminar class, I don’t grade anything. I give them constant feedback on everything that they submit. I have tons of rubrics, and I give them lots of feedback on all different aspects. So, we’re constantly back and forth, back and forth. But we check in once in mid-semester. I ask them where they think they’re at for a grade. And it almost always matches where I think they’re at. And it just takes grading completely off the table, and we’re just talking about neuroscience, and it’s really about the intellectual discovery, and it’s not at all about evaluation. Interestingly, these students because they’re neuroscience majors, for the most part, and their seniors, they are more grade focused, but they’re more motivated and we just chat and it’s lovely.
Josh: Wow, that’s exactly what you hope for.
Sarah: Yes, [LAUGHTER] yes. I will never grade in that class again. Ever.
Josh: That’s great.
Sarah: And so I guess that leads me into this question that I have for you. So, that story of the student who just wanted to know where to divert her time and her efforts, and then my own experience with grades being sort of fun, and then also a motivation that helps me tackle some personal challenges. And then also, I think, especially in the lower-level classes, there’s a lot that is sort of just boring, rote stuff that we have to get through. And that students need that information in order to get up to those upper-level classes, and to have the foundational knowledge where they can start thinking critically, and they can start being more creative. And I think for that sort of just getting the basics down, sometimes extrinsic motivators are really valuable. And I think that the data for motivation research shows that, for creativity and critical thinking and things, we need intrinsic motivation, but for just mechanical kind of rote things, extrinsic motivation goes a long way. And so my question for you is, given all of those elements – are grades always eeevvil? [LAUGHTER] Or can they sometimes key students in to what a professor values, you know, put more effort here less effort here, motivate some of this rote learning and encourage students to face some challenges?
Josh: That’s such a good question because, I think, too often, when we begin to have this discussion in any kind of group of faculty, it’s been my experience that some people hear this as a kind of confrontation or an accusation. You give grades, grades are evil, LAUGHTER] therefore, you must be evil, which is not at all what we’re saying. What we’re trying to find here are the best approaches to help our students to learn in a meaningful way. So, I want to not flip the question, but change it just a little bit in that, for those goals that we have that are more rooted in knowledge building and rote memorization, and I agree that having some element of an extrinsic motivator can get you out of bed and into the classroom and paying attention and focus on the reason why you’re there and why you need to do well. So, I agree at that level. The question for me, especially in those lower-level courses, is what does a grade communicate? And I’m drawn to the work on inclusive pedagogy and on opportunity gaps, and what grades communicate to students who are coming to our colleges and universities from under-resourced schools where they have not had the same kind of educational opportunities. For example, to have AP classes that would prepare them, to have teachers who were invested in moving beyond just what was on the page, to have the right books, to have the right materials. And so, certainly for a subset of students from well resourced educational backgrounds, a grade in an introductory level course, could be a communicator of this information as important, pay attention to it. The grade communicates that you have mastered it well. For another subset of students from less resourced schools. I think that what the research shows is that more often than not, the grade is penalizing them for what they didn’t have, rather than being able to demonstrate what they know and can do at that point in their career. Now, there’s time over four years to bridge that opportunity gap to get them to a different place. So, what I think about this question, ultimately, in thinking through what we were just talking about with grading models, is that there’s a happy medium, where we could take an approach in introductory level classes with a mastery-based grading scheme, where knowledge standards are an important component of that grade. So, you have a whole mastery based grading, you determine the standard and the points along the way that show that students have mastered that goal. And for an intro psych course, a significant subset of those standards could be focused on knowledge and the information. And if they don’t know the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, then they haven’t checked that box. They haven’t moved their way up to mastering that particular standard. So, for me, that’s a scheme and I was just addressing this question with folks in STEM, who were talking about this very thing. People need to know information before they go out and become doctors and pharmacists and other fields. [LAUGHTER] And that’s a scheme that allows you to accomplish that goal, and to account for the educational opportunities and backgrounds of students who are coming into those introductory level classes.
Sarah: And I think part of that response makes me think that, and I know we don’t have time to unpack all of this, but the relationship between assessment and grading, and so your response makes me think more about “What kind of assessments are you using?” And of course, it’s critically tied together with grading. But, I just finished intro psych this semester, and I taught it all online. And I had previously had exams, and they were in class. And so they were by nature timed, and students had to memorize things. And because we flipped to the online environment, and I was not about to use one of those proctoring softwares, they were weekly quizzes that they had the whole day to do… very similar material. But, because it was open book and untimed, I had higher expectations. And I just calculated my grades this morning, and I had the same grade point average as last fall. And so I think that we can probably still grade, but we can make the assessing process more equitable, I think, while still using traditional grading schemes at times.
Josh: That’s a really great point. And the mastery based schemes ultimately give what look like traditional grades. But, it’s the assessments… exactly what you’re talking about…that look very different from traditional courses. You asked about extrinsic motivation. And I’m going to flip it to intrinsic motivation. [LAUGHTER] And I have some amazing colleagues in the psychology department here, who came to a recent talk that I gave on this subject. And I kind of opened with the classic research that shows that grades are an extrinsic motivator, and will impede intrinsic motivation. And for the sake of time, I was kind of glossing over some important distinctions, maybe, but they gave me some really great feedback that I’ve taken to heart and sort of built into subsequent iterations of this, which is that, “okay, but just because you get rid of grades does not mean that magically students are now intrinsically motivated,” because, as you were just talking about, some of the work in introductory level courses is really, really difficult. So, for example, they said, “You might really want to learn how to play the piano, but at the beginning, it’s really difficult.” And so, the ultimate point here, is that in order to really capitalize on the opportunities presented by decreasing the emphasis on grades for increasing intrinsic motivation, you have to have good scaffolding in there, a teacher has to come in and cultivate the intrinsic motivation, it doesn’t magically appear. So, first I wondered if you agreed with that, and second, what are some ways that we can do that work? What are some ways that we can cultivate the intrinsic motivation?
Sarah: Absolutely. And I do agree. And I think that some of the ways that cultivate intrinsic motivation is to really demonstrate how these building blocks get you to really interesting places. LAUGHTER] And one example I had was in one of my first speaking engagements. And someone there shared the story that they were in a nursing program, and some of their introductory courses were very difficult and very rote. And the students were a long way from being nurses, and that they were having trouble motivating their students. And what they did, which I thought was wonderful, is they had their students who were in internship or placements. And in their senior year, or right after their senior year, they had them come back to their class and do a whole class on specifically what they were doing now, which was very interesting, working with patients and all the things that the students were looking forward to. But then they shared explicitly how they were using the information that they were learning in these introductory classes. And so this very real life demonstration of “Yes, this is kind of a slog right now, and I know it’s a struggle. But here are the ways that mastering this content is going to get you to this place.” And I think we talk a lot about various forms of representation. But, like having someone that you can visualize, “Oh, this is me in four years, and here’s how they are using this material in pursuing the goal that I want to pursue…” I thought it was a really beautiful example of doing some of that scaffolding. And even if you don’t have access to that sort of setup, I think that ways of not just staying in the simple foundational knowledge, but showing how “Oh, this is how this informs this current controversy, or this informs these decisions that are being made in the real world,” I think, are ways to demonstrate the intrinsically interesting aspects of this foundational knowledge.
Sarah: So, as you know, my new project is all focused on the best learning environments for student mental health, in particular. And you have one very successful book on how human beings learn and are working on these new projects on anxiety and grading. You direct your Center for Teaching Excellence and you get talks all over the country. So you are an ideal person to ask: “What do you see as the best learning environment to both help students learn and enhance their well being and mental health?”
Josh: I can’t wait to read this new book that you are working on. I think it’s gonna be great. So, what I keep coming back to the area of research that you and I both really love and keep coming back to, and that is emotion, and the environments that I see my own classrooms, my own university, but many places elsewhere, always come back to care and compassion. That over and over again, the learning environments that are most successful for students are those where they feel as if the instructor cares about their learner. And that can look wildly different depending on who the faculty member is. But the student response tends to be the same. I felt invested, because it was clear that the instructor really cared that I succeeded in this class. And you were just saying… Sarah gave a great talk at the University of Mississippi on Tuesday. And she was saying in that talk, and I thought it was a great point, that whenever you move into this discussion, an automatic reaction is “This is getting into touchy feely territory. Right?” [LAUGHTER] That’s a dominant response. And I understand that response. But that is not what we’re talking about. We’re simply talking about having an environment where students feel respected, where they feel valued, where they feel as if their success matters. And sadly, I think in a lot of learning environments, they don’t feel that. So it’s surprising to them when they are in a class that does allow them to feel those emotions. On the faculty side of it, and this is where I think this automatic response comes from, it doesn’t mean you have to develop friendships, although sometimes down the road that happens, and I still keep in touch with students I had 10 years ago, and they’re doing amazing things. But, that’s not what we’re talking about. You can keep all the professional boundaries in the world that you want, and still show students that you are there to help them succeed. Some of the research that I admire the most in the area of social belonging, Geoffrey Cohen and Gregory Walton have a wonderful paper that showed the amazing benefit of a simple comment at the top of a student’s paper. So one group of students only got targeted feedback, another group got targeted feedback plus a comment at the top that said, “I’m giving you this feedback, because I have high standards, and I have every reason to believe that you can meet those standards.” And that had ripple effects that they traced over years in the success of those students academically over time. And while that may seem extraordinary, the sentiment is not. In practice, that one simple way of communicating to a student that the faculty member is here to help you succeed. I’m not here to hear myself talk, I get tired of that, right? [LAUGHTER] I’m not here for me, I’m here for you. And that is the common denominator that, at least, I have observed, both in practice and in research as being the most beneficial thing for helping students in that way.
I have a question that I just thought of this morning. So, I hope you’re okay with some improvisation. It’s a general question, though. So no preparation needed. It’s in two parts. So, maybe if we take the first part, and then come back to the second one? The type of writing that you’re doing now, Sarah, is not… I wouldn’t say very different, but it isn’t necessarily traditional academic writing. It’s popular scientific writing. It’s for a general educated audience. And so I was wondering if you could just talk about how you made that transition as a writer and some of the strategies that you use, I think the audience may really value hearing about that process for you and the evolution of your time.
Sarah: Well, I had done quite a lot of academic writing. And then my first book… Jim Lang approached me about writing a book for his series, because I had been blogging. So, I guess that predated it. So I’d been doing some blogging, first for a Martha Stewart publication, and then for Psychology Today, and he was looking for people who could write accessibly about cognitive science. And he said to me that most social scientists write like robots. [LAUGHTER] And he said, “I don’t want my books to read like they’re written by robots. And so would you be willing to do this?” And so I think that part is just stopping writing like a robot and picturing your audience. You know, a lot of writing advice talks about picturing your audience and writing for an audience, and I think that that’s true. But I think what really is the answer is that I write in my teaching voice. And the voice that I have, I sometimes don’t like my writing voice, I think gets a little chatty, but I tap into the same part of myself when I teach. And so I think that it’s: how does this material relate to my own personal experiences? to things going on in the world? to real-life phenomena? What are metaphors that I can use? What are anecdotes that I can use to illustrate this? What are ways that I could do this in a way that’s kind of positive and hopeful? And all of these things are things that I try to do when I teach. And Hivemind, my second book, it had a purpose, but a lot of it was: here are the coolest things that I’ve been sharing in my classes for the last 10 years, my favorite neuroscience studies, my favorite psychology studies. And then there’s certainly an overarching framework. So, that was even more clearly my teaching voice in writing form.
Josh: I love one of the ways that Jim talks about writing is “the voice of the colleague down the hall.”
Sarah: Mm hmm.
Josh: And I think that you do that so well. He does that so well. And it’s really accessible. And I think an important development in books about teaching.
Sarah: Well, thank you.
Josh: The second part of this question, though, is a little bit more technical, but I think people might benefit from hearing about it. And that is, the sort of interviews that you and I are doing right now, that you did a lot in Hivemind, that you’re doing in your book, are different from the kinds of interviews that social scientists would do in peer-reviewed publications, because we’re not trying to use the interviews to make a research claim, we’re using them more in an illustrative sort of way. Here’s our point. Here’s someone who’s doing that thing, or thinking about that thing, and illustrating that. And so my kind of technical point that I think is worth thinking about, what is the role of your IRB in doing this kind of writing? Because I know, on my campus, they want me to submit about this project, and talk about the fact that the interviews look more like what a journalist would do than what a social scientist would do. So, that they can say this does not actually qualify as research. It’s just kind of a box checking, so that they have it on file, and they know what’s going on, and that makes a lot of sense to me. But, I’m wondering, kind of from a technical standpoint, what do you have to do at your campus to make this writing work for your school and your career?
Sarah: Well, until recently, I was chair of my IRB. [LAUGHTER] So, I don’t know if that taints my response, but it’s two different things. So, the interviews like this, I’m actually a little surprised to hear that your IRB had you submit. It sounds like an exempt, just checking that it’s exempt from IRB review, which is not IRB review. But, actually, the Common Rule states that journalism and oral history projects and a couple other sorts of categories of doing interviews, they’re not considered research. Research has this technical definition of data gathered in order to contribute to generalizable knowledge. And because things like oral histories and journalism are on specific topics and they’re opinions about things, they are not considered research. And so, on my campus, they don’t go through IRB review. The exception is, so in my new project, unlike my older projects, I am also doing student interviews, and that is actually not even exempt from IRB review. It’s gone under IRB review. And so that part of the project, I did submit for official review, and a number of committee members reviewed it and approved it. And so the student data, and that will be anonymous… The student interviews were considered research. were reviewed by the IRB, even though it’s for kind of a journalistic book project, but the expert interviews that I’m doing, I did not.
Josh: I just think it’s interesting, too, as we think about doing different types of writing, how our campuses see that, and what kind of role they play in that, as well. So thank you.
Sarah: So what’s next, Josh?
Josh: A lot of writing is next, I think. [LAUGHTER] And you know how this is, these are writing projects that require a lot of mapping out ahead of time and squeezing that into campus responsibilities, like workshops, and things like that. But, I’m looking forward to the process. It’s always fun to be kind of starting out on something new. Sarah, what’s next with you?
Sarah: Pretty much the same. [LAUGHTER] I’m going to be doing a lot of interviews. So, people listening to this may be getting little taps on their shoulders. And I am also launching the student interview portion, which I’m excited about, because I’m eager to hear what they think. This is my first qualitative study I’ve ever done. So, it’s going to feed into the book project, but it’s also hopefully going to be a peer-reviewed article. And I’m working on that with my honors student, Jasmin Veerapen, and she and I are presenting at POD together. So, people who go to POD, you can check that out. And I’m eager to see what students have to say about all of this, because we’re going to try to let the data speak to us, let the students speak to us. And so we have hypotheses in our head, but we want to see where they take the conversations.
Josh: That was an amazing conversation.
Sarah: This has been fun. Thank you.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Savannah Norton.