94. Open Reflection

Students can provide useful feedback on instructional practices and class design when they are asked, In this episode, three students from John’s spring economics capstone class join us to provide their reflections on the class’s experiment in developing an open pedagogy project. Our guests in today’s episode are Maria Aldrich, Victoria Heist and Charlie Tararzona.

Show Notes

Transcript

Rebecca: Students can provide useful feedback on instructional practices and class design when they are asked. In this episode, students join us to provide an open reflection on one class’s experiment in developing an open pedagogy project.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

John: Our guests today are Maria Aldrich, Victoria Heist and Charlie Tarazona, three students who participated in the creation of an open pedagogy project in one of my economics classes this spring semester. Welcome.

Victoria: Thanks for having us.

Maria: Thank you.

Charlie: Yep, excited to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

John: None of you are drinking tea, are you?

Maria: No.

Victoria: No tea.

Charlie: No tea today.

Rebecca: How regretful. [LAUGHTER]

John: It happens with many of our guests. I’m having ginger peach black tea.

Rebecca: And I’m drinking Lady Grey. The issue is our tea selection is no longer close to our recording studio. It’s a problem. It’s an epidemic now with our tea choices.

John: …now that we’re recording in this little closet in a building next door, where at least we don’t have toilets flushing every 30 seconds or so that we have to edit out.

Rebecca: So John, can you start first by explaining what open pedagogy is, to kind of frame our discussion?

John: Going back a step further. Last year, I saw a presentation by Robin DeRosa who presented on this at the SUNY Conference on Instruction and Technology and she made a really compelling case for some of the advantages that open pedagogy projects have. And open pedagogy just involves having students create content that is open and shared publicly with the world.

Rebecca: So what class did you do an open pedagogy project in?

John: This class is a capstone course in the economics department here. It’s taken mostly by seniors and a few juniors. And it’s a seminar course in economic theory and policy. It’s one of our smaller classes. And we had only 27 students in this capstone, this semester.

Rebecca: So why this class?

John: Because the students were ready for it. The course builds on all the courses that they’ve had up to this point and it allows them to pull together material they’ve learned in all of their prior courses, as well as the cognate classes in statistics and math and so on.

Rebecca: So what kind of project exactly did you propose to these students?

John: I originally proposed two options. One was to do something on behavioral economics, because past classes have found that to be a lot of fun, and another one I suggested was they could just pick current topics and work in small groups and create papers on that. Turned out that they really didn’t like any of those ideas and given the nature of open pedagogy, I left it up to the class to decide what their topics would be. And I think it was actually Charlie, who came up with the idea. And would you like to tell us what that was?

Charlie: I know you had mentioned in the beginning of the class the idea of open pedagogy. And I found that pretty interesting because it seemed like a good opportunity for us as seniors and juniors to really put what we had learned out there. And also, in terms of topic selection, you gave us the opportunity to really choose which topics we wanted to talk about. We ended up choosing the topic of intergenerational mobility and economic inequality. We focused more on the economic inequality aspect of it in the end. But yeah, like I said, it was just a good opportunity for everybody to really finish their college careers with something that they can show.

Rebecca: Dr. Kane is going to close his ears now and you guys are going to tell us exactly what you thought when he said, “Hey, you’re going to write a book.”

Victoria: I was hesitant at first, just because group projects are kind of daunting, especially in economics. However, a collaborative group project was exciting to do… to see all of our work put together. As economic students it isn’t something you really see, it’s usually individual work.

Maria: Oh, yeah, I would agree with Victoria. I was kind of hesitant at first, especially because it was something new for our class so I figured there are probably a lot of kinks that needed to be fixed. So I was a little worried about not having everything fully figured out at first. I thought it was something interesting. It appealed to me because I like the thought that other people could read what we had written and we could have control of what we would want to talk about.

Charlie: And the topic and the idea of a book project really intrigued me… that it just let us put out there what we had learned over these past few years and gave us something that we can show in the end of it.

Rebecca: Were any of you scared?

Victoria: Not scared. I wouldn’t use that word.

John: Were you concerned?

Victoria: A bit concerned, just because I like doing my individual work. I feel stronger in that.

Maria: Yeah, I would agree. I think group work can sometimes be difficult to have for every class because everyone has a different writing style and everyone works on their projects at different times. So I think at first, you’re a little bit worried that not everyone will be able to work well together. But I found that in my group, we were able to work very well and we’re able to meet once a week to go over what we needed to work on for the week.

Charlie: Yeah, I found something similar to that experience. Whereas my group, after the first few weeks, figured out what we wanted to do, and when we could meet, and what was the most effective way for us to put the book project together? And I think it turned out really well.

Rebecca: So you’ve all mentioned groups, can you talk a little bit about what the groups were, how they were determined, and how that worked?

Victoria: The groups were groups of three from the class, because there’s 27 people. And then we’re able to email Professor Kane and ask if we wanted to work with anyone specific, like if we had friends in the class, we could work with them. But if not, or if we didn’t want to work with someone we knew, we’re able to randomize it.

Maria: I was put into a group of two other random people that I didn’t know, but we were able to set up a group chat immediately and communicate very well through that.

Charlie: I actually emailed Professor Kane about being a group in Victoria and we also included another student in that. I think it worked out pretty well and I was happy with how it turned out.

John: Before the groups were formed, though, the class decided on what the topics would be. So we had kind of a free-form planning session where we narrowed it down to nine topics you wanted to address. And then at that point, we knew how big the groups were going to be. And it worked out nicely with three people per group.

Rebecca: How did each group get assigned a topic?

Charlie: So the way we assigned topics was, we had created a list of the nine topics, and then each individual group could choose their top three, and then we divided them that way based on everybody’s top choice. If they didn’t happen to get their top choice, they usually got their second or third, I think that only happened for maybe two groups, and they seem to be fine with what they ended up with.

John: And going back a little bit further, it was a weighted voting scheme that you didn’t just rank them… that you assigned points, if I remember was it 10 points I gave you? And so if you really wanted to chapter you could bid all 10 points on that. And if you were indifferent, you could have assigned weight to your top three preferences and so forth. And it did work out really nicely where I think most groups got their top choice, but two of them ended up with their second or third choice, but it seemed to work.

Rebecca: How did you find collaborating in the end?

Charlie: I found that it worked really well meeting every week. We also had presentations every week that we gave on specific topics that we’re talking about during that week. So that set the initial schedule for us to meet every week and talk about what we were doing and what was going on. Also with the book project at the time, in terms of organization, I found it very laid out and simple.

Rebecca: That sounds like you had a writing group that met that frequently, but it also would be more of like a study group as well?

Charlie: Yeah, I would definitely say it was a mix between a writing group… a study group. Your group members ended up being the way, if you wanted to succeed in the class, like that was the way to do it was to work cohesively with your group members.

John: And it should be noted that they had other tasks in the class as well, where they selected topics that were presented each week and each group was responsible for presenting an article or a research paper on a topic, some of which were related to the book and others were completely different. The groups were persistent across all the assignments and involved more than just writing the book.

Rebecca: How’d you get feedback to make sure whatever you’re putting out in the public was good enough?

Maria: Well, we mainly used Google Docs. At first, we tried to use hypothesis. But that wasn’t really working out well. So we ended up just going back to Google Docs. And each group would be given a couple of chapters to review each week. And they would write a couple comments in that chapter as well as some comments made by our professor and we used that and we also used each other’s feedback to make those edits.

John: How did that work? Where the comments helpful?

Victoria: No. [LAUGHTER] Just because I’m very protective over my work, which I know I should be open to criticisms. However, I got some comments sometimes I was just like questioning, like instead of “what about this article that you might want to look at” it would be “change this word,” where I know we emphasized that often in class many, many times, but still people would persistently do that.

John: I hope that wasn’t from me. Was it from me?

Victoria: Oh, no. Well, if you wanted to do that, you’re the professor. You can do that. But you also give us feedback that’s helpful. Whereas, students I feel like if they’re rushed or doing it, like 20 minutes before the class, they’re not going to look at me like, “Oh, what about this topic that might be interesting to consider.” Instead, they’re like, “Switch this word.” That just might be the students in the class too, just because we did have a lot of work in the class. And I found that because our group would meet to practice our presentation before the class, a lot of groups are doing their final work 15 minutes before the class.

John: Yes, the quality of the work did vary a little bit across the groups and across the individuals within the groups. Overall, there was some really high quality work, and all three of you did really well. But the quality of the feedback varied quite a bit.

Rebecca: So the feedback was generally done outside of class? Like not during class time?

John: Primarily, except for the presentations on the work where there was some feedback during the presentations.

Victoria: Yes, but I found that your feedback was most helpful, rather than the students.

Maria: Yeah, I would say I paid a lot more attention to Professor Kane’s feedback than some of my fellow students. Luckily, we didn’t have that experience. We had a lot of people give a sincere, really constructive feedback, but sometimes I’d be hesitant to take that feedback because I didn’t know that was the direction that I should be going in. But I definitely think our experience was a little better and our comments were more substantial, I would say.

Victoria: And I think next time maybe switching the groups that review the feedback might be helpful, because if you have one group that gives worse feedback, and you keep getting that, it’s not as helpful.

John: The way it was structured was each group reviewed and provided comments on three other groups, and we did that on three stages. And the class decided to maintain persistent groups there. I did give them the option, but I think it does make much more sense to vary it so you’re getting a wider range of feedback.

Charlie: I think the idea to keep persistent groups stem from the fact that we wanted to have somebody read the paper and then continue to read the paper throughout the weeks when we were supposed to be improving it or making it better. So then they could also see the changes we were making. And I agree with my classmates where I think we can say that it didn’t work out too well. There’s some groups just didn’t happen to give feedback that was too good.

Victoria: I also think part of it was the length of the papers because each of us had to review three full papers for the weeks that we did that, and three 20-page papers is a lot of reading to do on student written economics. And I think maybe in the beginning it was helpful to read all three, but maybe as time went on to scale that back a little bit, so we don’t get burnt out.

John: More detailed feedback on a smaller number of papers.

Victoria: Yeah because at first, I find myself doing it too. Like the first paper, I’ll take the time to read every single word and provide helpful feedback. But I can see myself not doing as much on the third.

John: I gave feedback in three different ways. The first time I gave video feedback, and while I’ve heard that that can be really efficient, I was taking about two hours or so per paper. And that was really slow and people really didn’t like the feedback that much because some of the feedback was fairly long in terms of the suggestions. So, I probably gave a little too much feedback. The second was with comments embedded in Adobe. And the third time I just basically went along with everyone else and provided the feedback directly in Google Docs. And the nice thing about that is I was able to see some other suggestions and sometimes I’d say, “Well, maybe that’s not such a good idea.” Because in many cases, the original draft actually made more sense than the feedback.

Rebecca: What way did you all like feedback better?

Charlie: I think the best feedback I received was actually in class feedback when I would go to Professor Kane and ask him, “Hey, you know, this is what’s going on with my paper. Is there something else I could look at? Is there another source I can find?” I found that to be the most effective in helping me write the paper. I was also a fan of the comments in Google Docs, they were pretty helpful.

Maria: Yeah, I think the most helpful feedback were the comments from Google Docs because, for that last draft, I was able to go through and resolve any comments that I had made the changes to and that just helped motivate me to make my draft a really good copy. And then I would say that I was really against the video feedback because I personally like to review feedback multiple times. I like to go through it and make changes to it. And I found myself just typing up his comments at the end of the doc so that other teammates could see it as well. So I was definitely against the video feedback and prefer the Google Doc comments.

Victoria: Yeah, I prefer Google Docs as well, just because I could see where exactly you wanted the changes done. It gave more specific feedback and then it also gave the students validity I guess, like this should be changed. Like I made a comment in one paper and said, “I think you mean a different word.” And they just resolved it and moved on. But then Professor Kane came through and said, “Yes, I agree.” And I think that you agreed, and they now are aware that yes, those changes need to be made.

Rebecca: I think sometimes when a faculty member responds to student comments in a way that it also helps students know how to make better comments. So it would be interesting to see how another round of that would have gone after Dr. Kane had responded to some of those right? To see if the comments were better the next time around.

John: Yeah, I think I should have done that from the beginning. And I’m sorry, I didn’t. But in the future, I’ll probably use Hypothesis. Now that we have Hypothesis in Blackboard it will be much easier. Among the problems we had is that people had some trouble making comments on Google Docs because they also had edit access to those and they couldn’t mark up specific text. And with PDFs, that was a bit of a problem given the way the browsers were set up that they had to change a program in order to make comments on PDF documents. So now that we have that in our learning management system, it’s going to be much easier to do that and the comments will be a little more persistent, because one of the issues was people were, as you mentioned, resolving comments sometimes before anyone else had a chance to see them. And the strategy was to have the draft documents with the comments copied over to another folder, and they were only supposed to make changes in their working document, not in the documents used for comments. But there were three or four people who through three drafts, just didn’t quite get that notion and I’d see the email saying that comments were resolved, and I would go back in and unresolve them. But in any case, there were some problems with those. That’s an issue that I think has to be worked out a little bit more efficiently.

Rebecca: Beside some of the technical issues that we mentioned, what were some of the biggest challenges of working on a project like this?

Charlie: I think one of the bigger challenges was keeping the cohesive idea behind the whole book where the topic we had chose was income inequality and we also had talked about intergenerational mobility. But as the book progressed, we kind of saw that portion of the book fall off a little bit where chapters were really focusing on the income and economic inequality topic.

Rebecca: So is that something you discussed in class to keep everybody on track?

Charlie: I think we mentioned it at one point towards the end, we’re just like, “Okay, are we going to keep this? Are we going to not keep this?” And I think we agreed, we could talk about it but we won’t make it a major portion of the book.

John: There was also some scaffolding on the project… that it didn’t just start with people starting to write, groups were first asked to put together a bibliography, and then an annotated bibliography, and then an outline of the chapter, and then the actual writing started after they had feedback on each of those steps.

Maria: I would agree with Charlie, I was definitely worried about the cohesiveness of the entire book. But for my group, specifically, we did a very broad topic, the global trends of economic inequality, and for myself, it was really hard to find relevant subjects to talk about because it was just such a broad topic. It was really hard for each of us to find something that we could spend a large amount of time writing about. So I’m not sure how the other groups felt. But for us, it was definitely hard narrowing down what we specifically wanted to talk about, and then to find resources that were recent enough to include.

Victoria: Yeah, I agree with you on that. I think one change I would make after we figure out the specific topics, you can go deeper in that because it’s hard as a group to form a thesis statement or very cohesive argument because we ended up doing more of a timeline than like an argumentative paper because you have to split it up.

John: Your topic specifically was on what?

Victoria: Tax-structure and income inequality. So basically, we looked at early 20th century, later 20th century, and the 21st century, and how the changing tax structures led to increasing income inequality over time. So that’s kind of how we split it up. But I think if I was to do it again, I would take a different approach to it, because I did the first section and finding information on World War One income inequality is much harder than it seems. So I struggled a lot with that too.

Charlie: Yeah, in terms of how we wrote our chapter of the book, I’m usually a fan of writing papers that follow a timeline as an explanation but that’s just a personal preference. It doesn’t work for everybody. So I can definitely see how making the cohesive argument along with following that timeline can be pretty difficult.

John: In your chapter, I think the timeline made a bit of sense. We were talking about the evolution of it and the transitions in your chapter were pretty smooth. I don’t think that worked as well in all the chapters, quite often it looked like they were three essays…

Victoria: Yes.

John: …chopped and pasted together.

Victoria: There was this one paper with a bunch of sub topics, but it wasn’t cohesive. And I was reading it and it just did not make any sense to me how it was organized. So that was one of the suggestions I made… maybe taking a step further in class and presenting maybe our papers a little earlier.

John: In more stages…

VICTORIA. I was just trying to read it and I just could not make sense of the organization of it, where maybe if we caught that earlier we maybe could have made better paper.

John: I was giving them feedback in several groups… that sort of feedback… that they need to smooth out the transitions and have a more logical structure. But some groups responded really well and did a nice job with that, other groups were a little more reluctant to do that.

Rebecca: Perhaps some groups will respond really well to some peer pressure. [LAUGHTER]

John: And having the presentations in class would have helped do that. When people in the class were saying, “This is just too disorganized.” And most of them got better by the end, but it was a stretch getting there.

Rebecca: So you’ve talked a little bit about some of the challenges, but what was really rewarding about working on this project?

Victoria: I found it really helpful to work with the group. I had Charlie and then another student, Junweii, in my group and we all read each other’s parts. I know I went through the document and made comments for my own group too. And we were all able to bring it together, make comments for each other, ask each other questions about like what sources to use especially too. And it was easier in that regard than an individual paper. Because if you make a mistake and you don’t realize it, no one’s there to help you, it’s just you. But here we have people to help each other.

Charlie: Yeah, I always find it beneficial to complete a task with other students also trying to complete the same task as you. It just makes the learning more interesting. And you’re more willing to go and spend the extra hour looking at the document to just make sure you understand what you’re writing, but also that it fits with whomever else you’re working with. I found it really beneficial or satisfying just the fact that we, like I said, could create something that any ordinary person could probably read and understand what was happening.

Maria: Yeah, I think the most rewarding part for me was just seeing that finished product and getting you know, positive feedback from Professor Kane and from my other group members. I think working in that group setting helps to motivate me to do the best of my ability. And I think it was just rewarding at the end to see everything come together well.

Victoria: I think it gave us all a deeper understanding of the material too because, instead of writing it yourself… because you can write something and not understand it. I’ve done it many times. [LAUGHTER] But when you’re sitting in a group, getting a presentation ready, you each need to understand the material. So you’re explaining what you learn to each other. And that’s something you don’t get by yourself. I found that really rewarding.

John: What about the public nature of the project? The fact that this will be out there, it will have your names on it, and it could be out there indefinitely.

Charlie: I found that portion of the project pretty intriguing and exciting. Just like I said, you can go out there, and obviously we’re college students, we’re looking for employment after this. So just showing an employer, “Hey, I’ve written something that’s been published. It’s out there, you can go read it for yourself and see what you think.” It gives something for the students to show.

Victoria: Yeah, it made it exciting because we knew what was at the end of the project. Rather than just a finished paper, we actually had something to like prove ourselves, like we did this.

Maria: I think for me, it was cool to know because at the end of the semester, I’m able to go to my family and say, “Oh, here you go. This is something that I worked on all semester long. Here’s something that you can read and you can better understand what I’ve studied for the past four years.” So I think it was helpful that I was able to show my family I’ve worked hard on this. This is something that is to show for that.

Charlie: I would definitely concur with that. Economics as a topic isn’t really discussed when you’re talking just with family members, so many of them don’t understand what you’re talking about. And you’ll try, but it’s hard sometimes. So to put something together that they’d be able to read and understand, I found that pretty satisfying.

John: And how did the class select the audience for this? What level was it written for?

Victoria: Students with a background in economics I think we decided on. But we came together as a class and decided on that. But you need economic background to understand some of the things we wrote.

John: But at an introductory level, so it wasn’t written at an advanced level. It was written for people who’ve had an economics course somewhere along the way.

Victoria: Or just no background. You don’t have to go to college to read the book.

Rebecca: How would you change this project in the future? We touched on a couple of things here and there, but do you have any other key things that, if the same exact project were presented to another group of students, how would you change the structure? Or the way it’s organized? Or the way that it’s presented the first day?

Victoria: Thinking about the class as a whole rather than just the book project, we did weekly presentations which was a lot of work in itself. So I would probably minimize those and focus on the book. Because we were sitting there reading 20+ page economic journals every week and making a presentation on it and doing the book project. So I think having more time dedicated to the book project and presenting on that material, rather than just economic journals that people have written, like it gives background, which is helpful, but maybe a little less, or maybe shorter ones, or ones that are just easier to understand. Because I know a lot of times you would say, like, “I know you guys don’t understand this, it’s challenging. But we still need to know it.” Like you would explain it in class, which would be helpful, but reading something you don’t understand is really difficult for students… in economics specifically. That’s challenging.

Maria: Yeah, I would agree. I think, at the beginning of the semester, it was a lot of work to have to juggle both the presentations and the book at the same time. So I kind of like the idea, I’m not sure if it was you Victoria, who mentioned it in class, of doing the presentation one week and then the next week working on the book and having class time devoted to the book in the week after. I think that would have been very helpful too because we did meet as groups, but if we were able to meet in a class setting than I think other classmates will be able to make comments on your chapter and offer advice. I think it would just help overall with the workload that we have.

Charlie: I also agree with that. I think the improvement can be made where we’d work on maybe a random topic every other week, and do a presentation on that, and then also incorporate the book project into that. I think it would help with the cohesiveness of the book along with just feedback and all the other problems that we had discussed.

John: One of the things I had suggested at the very beginning, you may recall, is I suggested one option is to spend the whole class focused on this. Another option is just to do it the way it was done in the past, or something else. And the class actually voted for the something else. Now having had the experience, the something else didn’t work quite as well, and that more class time should have been devoted, I think, to this and I saw that too.

Victoria: I think we’re just looking for something exciting. Like yeah, it’s a book project like we know what we’re going to do with that. But the presentations just added something else, but if I went back to a book project because then we could have taken the steps at a slower pace too, like the annotated bibliography, like the topics, we could have taken way more time with that than we did. Because once we did that very quickly, and then went into presentations, and then we just had due dates instead of meetings in class.

Maria: Yeah, I think for us, what appealed to us with this combination of the book and the presentations was that the presentations offered structure for us when we knew what we were getting with those presentations. We knew each week that we’d come in with the presentation. And I think with the book, we were excited because it was something new and different and I think we were a little too hesitant to go fully and choose the book, because we weren’t sure what we would be doing in class. We weren’t sure how we would be tested on that. So I think the combination of fields lost because we were able to have that structure, but we were also able to try something new.

Charlie: I know for some of the students in the class they had mentioned to me… they were hesitant to get rid of the presentations weekly because they were a fan of learning something new every week and learning a different topic, not just focusing on the book project. They really wanted to increase their knowledge base by just learning about multiple fields of economics. So I think that’s why we ended up going with what we went with in the end. But I think we all could all agree that if we had done that every other week, it would have been more efficient.

John: I agree. And I think some combination might be good for the reason you mentioned, but more class time devoted to it would be helpful.

Victoria: Maybe at first too, do a presentation. Like the first presentation, I don’t know what week that was, but maybe keep that one because when our group really met each other, we worked together, and then we planned a time every week where we would meet.

John: And if this is done again, and that will be if the class wants to do this in the future, perhaps that first topic for the readings could be related to whatever they choose to do so they’re actually doing some scaffolding with the presentations then.

Rebecca: I had something similar in my classes before where a team formed early on. We did something small, low stakes, to figure out how to work with each other and what doesn’t go well. So that when we did something a little more high stakes, you already knew what the wrinkles were going to be so that you could plan for that moving on. So it sounds like your presentations served that purpose, whether or not you intended that to happen or not.

John: But it became a lot of work when it was done every week, in addition to writing a book.

Victoria: That was difficult.

Maria: Yeah, I think it just helped to make us all more comfortable with each other and more comfortable speaking in front of the class.

Rebecca: So the big question is, of course, should other faculty do this?

Victoria: Yes, I’m working on my honors thesis right now, which is kind of what you would do in a traditional seminar. And it’s very difficult. So just having people there… write it with you… know what you’re talking about… You can ask them questions. In our group chat, we often ask, “What would you recommend for this part of the paper? Or what articles do you think are appropriate for this?” If you’re doing it by yourself, it’s very difficult. And the overarching topic… I feel like in a lot of seminars, they have that. It’s a topic for the seminar, but it doesn’t really filter through as well as the book project does, because we are all cohesive, all of us together working as a class of 27 people, which you never see. So, I found it really helpful and I liked it a lot. And it wasn’t like a crazy amount of work. You did the work, and you study, you did the presentations, and you wrote a paper, but it didn’t take you hours every day to work on. I feel like I learned more in this class than I have in other classes that I write individual papers for.

Maria: Well, I think I would partially agree and partially disagree with that. I think as a class, we all appreciated that Professor Kane was willing to change like the class structure and was willing to try something new. And I think that was definitely intriguing for us and provided something different as our last economic course. But I think if I had done my own topic paper, I think I probably would have learned a little bit more, I think just I would preferred that. But I think it was still important to get this experience and try something new.

Charlie: I think I would definitely suggest it to some other faculty members to maybe try this out. Like Victoria was saying, working with a group is pretty beneficial. And I feel like, from a personal standpoint, I learn more when I’m working with other people who I can ask questions to, get feedback from. Really, it helps your understanding of the class. In terms of incentive, I find that I wanted to work on the book project because you had that end goal of, “This is something that I can put out there and show to somebody.”

Victoria: Yeah, but at the same time, group work can sometimes be the worst thing that ever happens to you. Like we got really, really lucky because I know Charlie, we’re friends so we were like, “Okay, let’s work together. We’ll just get one random person.” Junwei was like such a blessing. We just work together so beautifully, but I feel like if we had someone that didn’t want to do the work… wasn’t willing to put in the work… didn’t show up to meetings… that would ruin the project for us. So I don’t know how you could fix that. But just if there’s a good group, it works. If there isn’t, I feel like it wouldn’t work as well.

Rebecca: So good to write one book during your time here, but maybe not many books. [LAUGHTER]

John: But there could be other things. For example, they could have been podcasts that were created. They could be collections of essays.They could be video projects that are put together by groups. So there’s a lot of different things that could be done.

VICTORIAL: Yeah, I would throw that out there. If you did this again with another book, like, yeah, you can write a book, but you can also do that… a different kind of form of the same kind of structure. That would be interesting.

Maria: I would be interested in doing some type of podcast because I know some of my friends in their classes have been required to do podcasts. And I feel like you have to prepare really well for that. So I think maybe that would have forced your teammates, if they weren’t doing the work, to do the work so that they wouldn’t get to the studio and not have anything to say. So I think that would have been another really cool option.

Charlie: I think it would be a good option for capstone classes, just because I know for a lot of majors, you hear what the capstone is about for the three years before you even get there. And I know personally for me, I’m also trying to get a political science degree, my capstone is next semester, like I’m already dreading the 25-page paper I’m gonna have to write. So to switch it up and have the students maybe not know exactly what they’re in for, I think it gives a little bit of an intrigue and like, “Okay, this isn’t just the I’m going to go and write a paper all year. It’s something else that I’m going to do.”

Victoria: Yeah, it’s more fun. I’m more willing to write a paper that my group members are in. Like we can all see each other too in the Google doc and talk to each other in the chat… be like, “What do you think about this part?” Or like Charlie can watch me while I’m writing my part of the paper and say, “This is good. Maybe change this. Or bring this sentence up.” You don’t do that in individual papers and even if you write an individual paper and have peer feedback, it’s not the same as having it right there, real time, or just people caring more because it’s theirs too.

John: We did have some issues with that early on though, in the first draft or two, because there were some people who really didn’t want to try using Google docs for writing. And were any of you involved in that?

Charlie: So, I’m not opposed to Google Docs. [LAUGHTER] I had just always used Word documents before. So it took a little bit of getting used to but once you commit to it, it’s a really nice thing to have in your repertoire. Google Docs, I feel like, is used by countless numbers of people, companies, places, businesses, the college. So honestly, as a student, you should just take the incentive to try to get to learn it. And once you learn it, it’s really beneficial to you.

John: One of the problems was that some people were writing in Word and then uploading it to the drive and that made it really hard for other people to edit. And eventually everyone switched over, but it did take a few iterations with some people.

Maria: So yeah, I think there were a couple of challenges with having different drafts because people made comments on separate drafts. So I think just sending out a reminder email would be helpful and letting people know because I know I think I made my changes on the wrong draft the first time and we had to send an email right away to have him fix that. So I think just having it set up all before the due dates like before you mention it in class would be really helpful too.

John: Yeah, there were some rough spots. This was new for me too.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up our podcast by asking what’s next for each of you?

Charlie: This December, I’m looking to graduate from Oswego, which is exciting for me. And after that, I’m not really sure what’s going to go on. We’ll see.

Maria: Well, I’m graduating this Saturday, and I’m going to be moving down to Florida for a little bit and doing an internship there.

Victoria: I’m also graduating Saturday and I’ll be working at HSBC this July in their graduate development program.

Rebecca: Sounds like exciting futures for each of you.

John: What are you doing in Florida? An internship where?

Maria: I’m doing the college program, the Disney College Program.

John: Oh, wonderful. Maybe I’ll see you there at the OLC conference. Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure working with you all semester. And thank you for joining us.

Charlie: Thank you for having us.

Victoria: Thank you.

Maria: Thank you.

[MUSIC]

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

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

89. Teaching About Race

Class discussions of race and racism can be difficult for all participants. In this episode, Dr. Cyndi Kernahan joins us to discuss ways of building a classroom climate in which these issues may be productively explored.

Cyndi is a psychology professor and Assistant Dean for Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls. She’s the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Class: Notes from a White Professor, which will be available from West Virginia University Press in Fall 2019. The book will be part of the Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Series edited by James Lang.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Class discussions of race and racism can be difficult for all participants. In this episode, we discuss ways of building a classroom climate in which these issues may be productively explored.

[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. Cyndi Kernahan, a psychology professor and Assistant Dean for Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls. She’s also the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Class: Notes from a White Professor, which will be available from West Virginia University Press in Fall 2019. The book will be part of the Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Series edited by James Lang. Welcome, Cyndi.

Cyndi: Thanks.

John: Welcome. Our teas today are:

Cyndi: I actually I just have water although I am a big tea drinker usually.

Rebecca: I’m drinking golden-tipped English Breakfast tea.

John: That’s a new one.

Rebecca: I know I’m branching out! [LAUGHTER]

John: And I have blueberry green tea today.

Rebecca: We’ve invited you here today to discuss your forthcoming book, Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Class: Notes from a White Professor. Can you tell us a little bit about the book?

Cyndi: Yeah, the book is essentially my answer to a question to my earlier self. So when I started teaching about the psychology of racism about 20 years ago, when I first started here, I felt desperately in need of help, because I’d always wanted to teach about the psychology of racism but it was much more difficult than I anticipated, as most teaching often is. And I was very young and new and I wanted a guidebook and there really wasn’t one. And so I kind of have had it in my mind for a long time and about five years ago, I started thinking seriously about how to do it. So the book is meant to be sort of a guidebook. It’s got both my own experiences, but also a lot of evidence in it. I’m a social psychologist, so there’s a lot of evidence from my field that I think is very easily translatable to the classroom in terms of how to learn and how to think about these issues because they’re hard to teach. It’s hard to teach about racism, I think. There’s a lot of difficulty in it. There’s a lot of evidence and also just sort of my overall philosophy about how we can teach it in compassionate but very honest ways. And so that’s my overall thinking…making sure that you tell the truth but that you tell the truth in a way that doesn’t alienate your students and keeps them engaged, which I think is kind of a can be a difficult line to walk. So, that’s kind of what it’s about. It covers a lot of different things, student resistance, creating a good climate, how to take care of yourself as an instructor when you teach this sort of stuff. But, those are some of the basic ideas.

John: A few years ago, with the election of Obama, there was some people who claimed that we had moved to a post-racial society. I think evidence since then has shown that that hasn’t quite been the case.

Cyndi: Yeah.

John: And I think the book is particularly well timed because these issues are in the forefront with the news all the time. How do you begin to address issues of race in your classes?

Cyndi: First of all, I think that idea of the post-race thing is really interesting, and I see it a lot in students. I mean, I’m just finishing up teaching this class now. We’re in our last week of classes now, it’s finals next week. And when most of my students, most of whom are white, came to the class a lot of them just have this colorblind idea, which is similar to the idea of post-race, like we’re done…sorted that out in the 60s, it’s all good. And it’s obviously not…and so they believe that we’re in this equal playing field, which we’re not really in obviously. And so that’s kind of a starting point. I talk about that in the book, this colorblind ideology that most Americans share. The first order of business is sort of getting through that. And so there’s, I think, two main things that most students and most people (especially white people) need to understand. One is that colorblindness isn’t really possible, even though we think it should be the norm, it’s not really the ideal. So that’s one thing, but then also that there is this larger structure of what people in my field would call institutional racism or structural racism. And that’s the piece that I think most white people, most students don’t really get: that racism is not as people said, individual acts of meanness, it’s also these bigger things that affect us that we don’t think about. That’s usually where I start. We talked about what race is and what it’s not, what institutional racism is, and what it’s not. So I think that mostly answers your question as to where we start.

John: And that feeling of colorblindness is that more unique to white students, perhaps than students of color?

Cyndi: I think it’s more unique, but it’s not exclusive to white students. Students of color can often struggle with that understanding of institutional racism, and structural and cultural racism, as well. If you look at attitude surveys, it’s not unusual for people of color to say that they don’t necessarily see it in institutional or structural terms. Or you’ll see surveys, they’ll ask, “What’s more important? Individual behavior or institutional laws and policies?” And almost all Americans with the exception of really recent immigrants and Native Americans, I think, say that the individual behavior is more important. And as a social psychologist, I would say, actually they’re both important. But as far as what impacts your life more, it’s those big, broad institutional, cultural stuff. So I think white students are more likely, but not only.

John: How do you make students more aware of those issues? How can you help get them past that notion of color blindness?

Cyndi: One answer is a lot of evidence, but it’s how you deliver that evidence. My usual way to try to get these things across is to combine a lot of statistical evidence, a lot of broad evidence, with stories and examples that are representative. So I try really hard in my content, like I don’t just cover a bunch of psychology experiments, and I don’t just cover statistics. I try to have that together with individual stories of people’s experiences. And I also think discussion is really key. So I don’t lecture in this course, really much at all. I’ll do some mini-lectures. But, that’s never the main thing that I’m doing because I think it’s really important for them to read, and then come to class and process all that stuff. Because the number one thing that happens, again going back to the misconceptions they come in with, is that they realize that there’s all this stuff that they didn’t know. So we cover a lot of history, for example, and there’s all this history of how we got to the racial categories that we have now that they’re just like, “No one told me this.” And they need to hear other students say that too. That’s part of also creating that climate is like, “Oh, I’m not weird or stupid for not knowing this. All these other people didn’t know it either.” And we talked a lot about, “It makes sense that you wouldn’t know because we don’t really teach it in our K-12 system very well for most students.” So, I think it’s a bunch of things. I think it’s what the content looks like, it’s how the class is structured, it’s how the evidence is presented. I think all those things matter.

Rebecca: Many faculty members avoid talking about race, especially in classes that are not about race specifically.

Cyndi: Yeah.

Rebecca: So can you address maybe why faculty do that, and how to help faculty overcome that fear?

Cyndi: I think fear is the main reason. And there’s different types of fear. One is: I don’t want to be the bad guy and I don’t want to be confrontational, which is understandable. Many years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who taught in our English department, and she was teaching something called ethnic film and literature. And at the time, I was coordinating ethnic studies, and I really wanted her to teach that class again so that I could get it back into the rotation. And she just told me…we were at a party and she said, “I’m not teaching that anymore.” I said, “Why?” And she said, “Because I have to fight with them about whether or not racism is a real thing. And I don’t want to do that anymore.” She didn’t want to put up with the resistance, essentially. And she didn’t want to have to be what she felt like was the bad guy to deal with that resistance. And so I think that’s a big piece of it. If I try to tell students the truth about this stuff, they’re just going to resist and then I’m going to have to deal with that discomfort. And that’s a real fear, particularly for instructors of color. I mean, they’re all these national examples, right? …of people getting called out by their universities for basically just telling the truth in their classes and trying to teach institutional racism. The most famous example was Shannon Gibney over at Minneapolis Community and Technical College near where I live, and she was officially reprimanded by her University, basically for teaching what I teach, because she was getting pushback from white students, essentially. So I think that’s part of it. Also, it creates a lot of dissonance in students which was related to the resistance, so knowing how to deal with that dissonance can help students feel okay about themselves even as they recognize that they hold a lot of these beliefs and they haven’t really been very critical about it. So I think that all those things, all those types of fears play into why you don’t see people covering it.

Rebecca: How do you suggest maybe faculty get over that or feel prepared for that resistance or can actually deal with that in the classroom and not feel shocked or distressed or overwhelmed.

Cyndi: The big key, I think, is being prepared and feeling like you know how to talk about it. I’ve also heard a lot of instructors say, “I don’t feel like I have enough knowledge.” For white instructors, they feel like they don’t have the right or the credibility to talk about it. So that’s sort of an issue, and for instructors of color, there’s a whole other set of things. If you look at the research for them, there’s just a ton of microaggressions that they often have to deal with. They’re also seen as not being credible purveyors of this information. So that’s an issue. So I think just a couple things: one being as prepared as possible. So knowing your subject really well…being clear that when you teach the class, you’re gonna be clear with the students like, this is the evidence we’re going to use. So you’re not coming at it, like it’s all people’s personal experiences or opinions. That I think is where it gets especially hard. But if you know that, you’re going to come back to this scholarly base of evidence that usually makes most of us more comfortable, because that’s how we roll. …and people had this misunderstanding of teaching about race: “Well, it’s all just opinion.” I once had a student say, “How could you possibly give us a test on this? I mean, it’s just all people’s opinions.” I was like, “No, not quite. [LAUGHTER] There’s definitely evidence there. There’s psychology, there’s sociology, and there’s history and we’re going to use all of those things.” So I think that part of it is knowing that you have this common base of information. And also knowing what to expect…how to deal with the resistance, knowing what the resistance looks like, I have a whole chapter on what resistance looks like and how it manifests in white students versus students of color and how to think about it and how to deal with it. So I think that can be helpful too.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about maybe one or two ways that we tend to see resistance and a couple of strategies that we might be able to use to overcome that?

Cyndi: Yeah, I think, in general, what you see with the research is that white students tend to be more resistant than students of color in general. They tend to be more vocal about it than students of color. One sort of broad distinction you sometimes see is that students of color are more likely to leave if they’re the minority in the classroom. So, if you have mostly white students (which is a lot of what I deal with, and maybe I have a few students of color), you might get more passive resistance on the part of the students of color, they sort of withdraw a little bit more, because they don’t want to be the one student saying things in the class and then being really looked at or targeted in that way. And for white students, they just tend to be more comfortable speaking up about this, particularly in the primarily white environments. So I think the ways to get around resistance are: 1. always sort of coming back to the evidence that you’re using. And if you set the table at the beginning of the class that can usually work so you can come back to: “Okay, here’s what we’re going to focus on.” So for example, I’ve had students say in class, when we talk about wealth disparities or something, they might bring up a particular person that they know who doesn’t fit that. And so what I found is useful as I don’t fight with them about whether or not their story is true. I don’t know the wealth of this individual family of color. So if I tell you that the wealth disparity is like 10 times… white families have on average 10 times the wealth that black families have…and they say, “No, no, there’s this one family I know. And they’re, they’re really, really rich…,” you know, as sort of an anecdotal thing. That’s a way you see resistance manifest, right? And so instead of arguing back and forth about whether or not that family is rich, which is useless, you can just undercut that and talk about the general wealth disparity. So, that’s one way to do it. That’s obviously pretty mild resistance. If you have consistently students questioning evidence, which doesn’t happen as much as you might think, bt it can happen, but it can happen, then I sometimes will take that out of class. For students of color, the way I try to work with the resistance you often see there, which is that sort of passive withdrawal because again, they don’t want to be targeted within a predominantly white classroom, one technique I use is to send an email really early in the semester that says something along the lines of, “We’re going to be talking about racism all semester. Your classmates may look to you to be a representative, just know that I know that you don’t need to do that. That’s not your job. And I’m not going to expect that of you, because I want to try to make those students especially feel as safe as possible. And I also recognize too, I reinforce to them: “I’m a scholarly expert on this. But this is your lived experience and I recognize that. Not saying that one is better than the other, but just I see you and I see that your experience is going to be different than the white students in the class. And so that’s the way I try to short circuit that withdrawal from class as much as possible. And most students, at least so far, have appreciated that…and also just acknowledging way up front that this is going to be new to you. You’re going to be uncomfortable, I put it in the syllabus: “You’re going to feel uncomfortable, this is not comfortable stuff to talk about, and so just know that it’s coming.” So those are a few things.

John: Do you recommend having the class come up with rules of engagement or discussion on these issues.

Cyndi: I definitely do. I mean, I have some that I think are important, but I let them drive that discussion. And then I add them in if I feel like maybe they’ve missed them, or something. And I usually have them. Actually, I think I learned this from an earlier version of your podcasts, someone was on talking about having the students working groups to develop their rules of engagement. And so I did a little bit of that on the first day this semester, let them talk about it in small groups before we talked about it in large groups. And then I just take a picture of what those agreed upon discussion groups are and I post them up on Canvas, so that that way they can come back to them. Yeah, we have a whole discussion about discussion: about what it should look like in our class, how we want to engage. One big question we always talk about is do you want to raise your hands or just talk? How do you want to handle somebody upset? They always think it’s going to be more contentious than it actually is, at least so far in my experience. I haven’t had a whole bunch of anger or confrontation. So that’s been so far that’s worked well.

Rebecca: What are some of the consequences of not dealing with race specifically in classes or subject matter that doesn’t directly indicate that race is going to be a part of the conversation? So we often hear this from faculty in math or science, or I would even say in my area of design where it’s not obvious that race might be something that should be discussed. What are the consequences of completely avoiding it?

Cyndi: Well, obviously it marginalizes it. So, it turns it into something that only some people can do. Only some people can cover these topics, only some people are allowed to on some level. And it’s interesting you ask that because this has come up on my campus in the last couple of years in a couple of different ways. Because we have, I don’t know if you all have it, a diversity requirement, but we do. So we have one course, American Cultural Diversity, that students are supposed to take. And there’s been sort of a…fight is a strong word, but…argument over who should be teaching those courses. And I don’t think just anyone should be teaching them. But I do think people can develop an expertise within their own field. So for example, I have a colleague (and we have a very big agriculture college on my campus), and she teaches soil science and crop production and all that sort of thing. So that’s an area where you think, where’s the race going to be that but it’s deeply in it because she’s teaching these future farmers and folks working in that industry. And there’s so many immigrants that work in farming. So she developed and she developed the expertise on this. And she developed a class on immigration…migrant farm workers, essentially. She and I talked about that course many times when she was in the process of developing and starting to teach it. She teaches it regularly. And I think the advantage of that is that, for the students who are majoring in that college, that’s going to feel very relevant for them. And so again, I think people have to develop some expertise to do it, and then they need some tools for how to teach it. But we all need tools for how to teach it because it’s hard. So, I think it’s important because it allows people to be more motivated to see how it relates to their specific field. I also have a colleague in math, who has talked a lot about trying to develop some courses around race and whiteness and math. You may recall, there was a math professor, I think, in Illinois, who was writing about white privilege and math and got a lot of haters online, essentially. Basically a really good scholarly analysis about the way white privilege works in math. And that stuff is really useful for students. It helps them connect in ways that are relevant to them.

John: You mentioned using narrative. While evidence is useful, it doesn’t always reach all of the students. I’ve been teaching about discrimination in my labor economics classes for decades. And it’s remarkable how resistant people are to facts. Because they rely on the sort of narratives: “My third cousin twice removed is this exceptional case. And it means all this evidence is wrong.” But you mentioned using narrative perhaps in a constructive way to help students understand that. Could you give us some examples of that?

Cyndi: Yeah, sure. Like the example that pops to mind right away was a really powerful piece that I used this semester on black maternal death rates, you may know that they’re wildly disparate, right? There’s a huge health disparities when it comes to race and healthcare. And so there was a really nice piece that was actually in the New York Times Magazine. That was this really good combination of a personal story of one woman and her experience. She lost a baby and then she was pregnant again and dealing with that… and there have been all these famous cases. Serena Williams most famously talked about her complications during birth and not being believed by doctors. So this piece was really great because they both had her story but then woven into it, it was a really well written piece. It had all the statistics, the differences…And the students…I gave it to them over a two-day period, because it was pretty long, and we discussed it for two days. And I just used it as this larger example of implicit bias in the healthcare industry. And these larger statistics on the disparities, the wealth gap…it illustrated a bunch of things that we had already covered. And the students loved it. It was hard for them to read, but they were very engaged with it. And some of the questions I got were excellent. And I’ll just say, too, I think one important thing is that when you come into a discussion, it’s really important to have a base to discuss with. And so, every day they have to read and post questions. I don’t give like reading quizzes, but they have to post questions so that I know that they read or at least mostly read, and I grade them. Because if you don’t do that, then your discussion is not good at all. If people don’t have a base of evidence to work from, you’re not going to get anywhere. And so those types of materials…I’m always looking for them…where they have that combo of the broad statistics and also the individual stories…and yeah, I know economics, it’s really tough to get those pieces. It’s the same for psychology can be really hard to find, but they’re useful.

John: Well, certainly in immigration and discrimination in labor markets, there’s a lot of examples out there and lots of good content.

Cyndi: Yeah, there definitely is. You just got to always be on the lookout.

Rebecca: So, what happens when it’s a conversation where the discussion point wasn’t going to be race, but then it becomes race. There isn’t a piece that you’re going to discuss ahead of time. But it pops up in conversation, it needs to be addressed. Do you have any strategies for handling those more impromptu situations that occur?

Cyndi: Well, for me, I think I always go back to then, either being honest that I don’t know enough to comment on it. What that question makes me think of are when students will bring up current examples, either that I don’t know or that I don’t know enough about. And so I will always try if I can to find some relevant psychological data or evidence or sociological data or evidence that I can bring it back to. And there have been times when if current events are happening, and I feel like I don’t know enough, I’ll just say, I don’t think we know enough. So if we have time, maybe we all spend a few minutes on our phones trying to find some information and you can do that right in class sometimes. But I always see myself as sort of a guide in terms of helping them sort through what the larger patterns are in terms of that evidence. And I think if you create a decent enough climate where they trust you, that usually can work. But yeah, the impromptu stuff can be tough, particularly if it’s not your area. I think that’s where, again, being prepared is hard. And I think you can just say, if this isn’t your area, like, “Let me go and find some more. Let me go find some stuff out and then we’ll come back to it.”

John: On dealing with things in the moment, how would you recommend people respond if someone makes a comment that somewhat racist without realizing the impact of that?

Cyndi: A really good example of that happened actually in a colleague’s classroom on campus this semester, and he called me after it. I forget what the term was, but a student had used a term in class that he found offensive and he was pretty sure other students found offensive and he didn’t really deal with it in the moment. And so he called me and asked what I thought. And I think one of the strongest ways to deal with that is, oftentimes, students don’t realize or people don’t realize that a turn might be offensive, or it might seem offensive. And so a lot of times, and what I advised him (and he said, it worked pretty well) is to go into those conversations, discussing it in terms of kind of a growth mindset idea. You know, here’s this term that was used…it’s offensive for some folks, but some folks might not understand why and then maybe talking about why that is. The word “colored” gets used a lot… “colored people.” And it makes sense in some ways that white students now who are very young wouldn’t know that that was an offensive term in the 50s and 60s. And so they use that term because they hear people say, people of color and then so colored people seems like a normal permutation of that, right? But it’s really not. It has this very unique history and so you could talk about how “Here’s this history that you may not have understood. And here’s this term that people didn’t use to describe themselves, it was used about them. And so that’s part of what makes it offensive.” And it’s normal that language changes and it evolves. And there’s plenty of examples you can bring up around that, like we talked in my classes about the word queer and the way that shifted over time…and language evolves…and so just sort of accepting that you’re going to make mistakes, you’re probably going to say things that might be offensive, but what’s the mindset that you bring to that? Do you bring the mindset that it’s normal, and you’ll figure it out, and you have to make your classroom safe for that too. So that it’s not like people are being called out and told that they’re saying the wrong word. We talked a lot in class about the difference between willful ignorance, like, “I know it’s wrong, but I’m gonna say it anyway” and just ignorance…like just really not knowing and coming out that and I give examples of my own, like times I screwed up…things I’ve said that were wrong, as a way to help them see that you’re never finished. I’ve been doing this for like 20 years, and I still make mistakes. I think that helps.

John: When you’re setting the classroom discussion rules, would that be a good time to bring that up?

Cyndi: Yeah, I think so. I think that you could, you could talk about expecting people to make mistakes. In the rule setting phase, you can talk about not expecting perfection, and how people will make mistakes and that’s all right, and ways to sort of come back from that, and gently talk about it rather than calling people out.

Rebecca: How do you handle microaggressions or other behaviors that might happen in class, that aren’t just like a word or whatever, but it’s something that’s happening or you see a pattern of behavior with a particular student. And maybe it’s something that you feel like you need to handle one on one. How do you usually handle those kinds of conversations?

Cyndi: Dealing with those. It’s usually much better one on one, because again, just like anybody, if you if you were to call someone out in class, then you’re likely to just get defensiveness and nobody’s going to be able to hear it. So what I’ve done in the past has been to talk to students one on one rather than to frame it as “You’re a bad person for doing this,” it’s like, “This is what I’m seeing. This is the pattern that I’m seeing. This is how I think it could be perceived” …and then just listening to what you hear. And you have to have a fair amount of trust with a student to be able to do that. But in general, I think whenever it comes to talking about someone’s racist behavior, it’s always better to focus on the behavior rather than the person. This is why when you hear national conversations about is that person a racist, I always want to throw my radio or my phone or whatever because it’s so frustrating to hear it framed in that way. “Is someone a racist?” is not a useful question. And I never quite sure what that means, because the goalposts always move, in terms of like how we think about what that word means. So, instead, focusing on the behavior, this is the pattern I’m seeing this is a problem. And I think if you’re in a moment where (this would be less with students, but more with colleagues) where you’re seeing this happen, and it’s directed at a person who has a lot less power in that moment… so like, a person of color, for example…you could step in and say, “This is what I’m seeing, and this is how I think about it.” So you’re not putting it on the person who was maybe the target of it. But you are saying in that moment, I see this and I see that this is a problem. That can be harder to do and less with students, I think more with colleagues. But, in general, it’s just sort of noting that it’s happening and being honest about it without necessarily saying you’re a bad person for doing this.

John: Last fall, we had a reading group addressing some of these issues. And one of the issues that came up in a lot of discussions is how to address these issues with colleagues, particularly those who are evaluating you for retention, promotion, and similar issues…

Rebecca: or hiring…

Cyndi: That is so hard when someone is in a position of power. Because if you’re the job candidate, there’s just no way that you’re going to be able, in that moment, to be able to do that.

John: What if you’re a junior faculty member on, for example, a recruitment committee and you observe comments or behavior that seems to be biased in some way. What would you suggest to a faculty member in that position?

Cyndi: I think you could go back to the sort of something called micro resistance. And there’s been a little bit written about this. In terms of how to deal with it, again, not making it about the person but just saying like, this is what I’m hearing, this is what I’m seeing. This is how I feel about it. And so you make it more about yourself. In extreme situations, and I’ve certainly been in them and seen them, you could go to other people that you trust on the committee and say, “This is what I’m seeing. This is what I’m hearing.” This is slightly different, but I had a slightly different but I had a student come to me last week and say that she’s in another course. And she’s hearing this from an instructor. And so then I was able to go to that department chair and say, what’s happening? So, I think using your mentors, using your colleagues, if you’re in that lower-power position; and if you’re in a higher-power position in those same spaces, try not to make the target responsible for that. If you’re a man, and you’re seeing sexism, it’s useful to just call that out. And again, not calling the person out, but just saying, “This is what I’m seeing. This is the pattern.” We talked about this actually, there’s an interesting anecdote in my class this last week. We were talking about this micro resistance thing and one of the students is a softball player and she’s on the softball team. According to her, there’s one black softball player on the team and everybody else is white. And, according to my student, whenever racist things will come up, like, they’ll all look at the black student to ask her “Is this okay?” And we talked in class about like, maybe that’s not fair to put that on the student of color. This white student feels like she really wants to be an ally, like she really wants to be an advocate. So we talked about, well, maybe you just say what you think about it, rather than asking her “Is it okay?” or going to her afterwards and saying, “Do you feel okay about this?” Because what is she going to say in that moment? I mean, she’s in the minority…the black student is, and so I think that can be a useful way to think about it too, because a lot of times we want the person who’s lower in power to like, excuse it and make it okay. And that’s really not fair. And I think it happens just because people don’t think about the power dynamics at all. They just don’t think about it. It doesn’t occur to them. And so trying to be more intentional about what is the power in this situation and trying to be more fair.

John: One of the issues if there’s a small number of minorities in a class, one potential issue might be stereotype threat. What are the consequences of that? And how can we address that perhaps by making it a more supportive environment?

Cyndi: Yeah, stereotype threat is really interesting. I know a lot about this. Actually, I’ve given lots of workshops on this, in addition to like implicit bias and stuff, too. And it’s a real problem. The consequences are…they’re sort of short term and long term. So the short-term consequences of stereotype threat is that you have students who underperform. So in a test situation or on a writing assignment, where you have a student who is feeling stereotype threat as a result of race or gender or social class. And so then it just create that extra layer of anxiety and stress, essentially. And it’s not always apparent. And you don’t necessarily know that that’s what you’re experiencing. But we know from the neuroscience research that, you just have less working memory in those moments because of stereotype threat. And so the short-term threat is that you underperform. The long-term consequence is that students disengage from the area altogether. So this is why we hear.…I’ve heard it so many times from my female advisees…“I’m not a math person. I’m not a science person. And I think it happens in art as well. I don’t know about design specifically…

Rebecca: um hmm.

Cyndi: …but you’ll get like, I’m not an art person. I’m not creative.

Rebecca: I can’t draw.

CUNDI: I can’t draw, yeah, that’s it. That one’s, I think, less about race, maybe a little bit more about gender, but it’s a very similar thing of like, “I don’t feel like I can do this. I’m not creative.” And so I’m just going to withdraw from it altogether. And so you see what Claude Steele calls dis-identification. So I’m just going to dis-identify with that field. It’s just not my thing. I’m going to go get my self esteem somewhere else. And obviously, that has serious consequences if the thing you’re dis-identifying with is school altogether. And so that’s why we see this underperformance over time with students of color and with women in math and science. The ways to get around that…there are a few. There’s a whole set of interventions that social psychologists have developed that can be really powerful. I guess I would send listeners to the mindset network web page. I don’t know if y’all have ever seen that. It’s mindsetscholarsnetwork.org. But it’s a bunch of social psychologists who have gotten together to create these really pretty low-cost interventions around increasing belonging…using values affirmations… Utility value is another one…growth mindset. There’s a bunch of them and there’s a little tweaks that you can do in your classes to help that. The other big intervention, and you can sort of call that active pedagogy. So there’s really good research that the more active your class is, that’s going to be good for everybody. But, it’s especially good for your students of color your first-generation students and your students who are women in math and science and engineering courses, where they’re more likely to feel that thread. That as an intervention itself is really great. There’s a ton of really nice discussions of that, and studies of that that you can find in terms of active pedagogy being an inclusive pedagogy. Because, in general, you want students to have a sense of belonging and you want them to feel included, and that’s going to help to undercut that, because really all stereotype threat is about is about a lack of trust. So everybody thinks it’s a lack of confidence in the student. It’s not. They don’t trust the environment to be fair, and so that’s why they disengage and they pull back. And so you want to you want to do everything you can to keep that trust.

John: …and they build more of a sense of community with their fellow students.

Cyndi: Absolutely.

John: I’m going to our conference in a few weeks, and one of the activities there is something called “sip and paint.” A friend of mine tried to convince me to do that. And my reaction was “No, the last time I painted I think I was seven years old.” [LAUGHTER] So, there’s a gender issue perhaps with the artwork thing.

Cyndi: Creativity. Yeah.

John: You mentioned implicit bias. My labor classes are online and one of the things I do is I have them take some of the Implicit Association tests, and then discuss them. And they tend to be pretty comfortable discussing many of them, but they tend to be much less comfortable discussing race.

Cyndi: Oh yeah.

John: But one of the things that led to some really good discussions are the associations between gender and careers.

Cyndi: Yeah.

John: And a lot of female students remark on how surprised they are that they associate women with home activities and men with careers. But, one of the things I note from the students who tend to perhaps have the more resistant attitudes towards facts in general, from other discussions, is that they tend to question the tests themselves and say, it’s clearly set up to demonstrate a bias when that bias really doesn’t exist. And those students are really hard to reach and we can keep giving them facts. But I’ve never been completely successful in getting through that barrier, at least in any one course. Any suggestions?

Cyndi: It’s really tough. As a social psychologist, I feel pretty comfortable talking about the Implicit Association test, but it is really hard to describe well, so that’s one problem with it, because you try to explain “No, no, like 25 years of research…” When I still had paper versions of the literature, I gotta bring in my big giant folder and I just sort of slap it on the desk and be like, “They’ve been studying this since 1995. But, like you said, the facts don’t always help. One thing I think that helps with them understanding implicit associations, is to depersonalize i… and I have some great podcast and book suggestions and article suggestions on how to help them understand what implicit associations are. But really, it’s not about them as a bad person. And that is one way I found to get at it. There’s a phrase that gets used by Mahzarin Banaji, who was one of the test co-creators and she talks about implicit associations as the thumbprint of the culture, which is really accurate, you know. So it’s not you’re a bad person, you have implicit bias… like, we all have it and it’s the thumbprint of the culture. You’ve been learning since you were a baby, what’s associated? what’s good and what’s bad? I mean, it really is that crude. It is your brain saying, “This group is bad. This group is good” over and over and over again, you get those messages. So if you can de-personalize it, I think that can help a lot. I have found that using the podcasts that I have on it, and some of the more newsy articles and they cite the researchers, that can be really helpful, too. But yeah, it’s they want to criticize the test all day long. I’ve gotten to where I don’t have them take the test until after they have a decent grounding in the science because they’re very resistant to the idea. They think the test just sucks.

John: At least those who have their preconceptions not confirmed in the way they’d like them to.

Cyndi: Yeah, because again, they think this means I’m a bad person. They think it’s the racism test. There’s a King of the Hill episode. I don’t know if y’all have ever seen that show, but I used to love that show. And there’s an episode where Hank has to go take the racism test, because he’s worried that his dog is racist or something. I can’t remember the full thing of the story. But, that episode is one of my favorites because it’s like, “Okay, let’s see if he’s racist.” But, that’s not the way it works, folks. I’ll have students sometimes say like, “We should just have all cops and all teachers and all judges take this test. And then we’d know who to hire…” and I’m like, “There’d be nobody left. There wouldn’t be enough people left to do all these jobs.” And I think if you talk about it in that way, it can make it so that it’s not a moral failing, which is, I think, why they’re so resistant.

Rebecca: I’ve done something as a follow up to doing some of the tests in my classes where I had students look at their portfolio of design work, and just see who was represented in the materials that they made. And what they usually do is discover that either it’s a lot of people that are just like them, or that it’s white and young….

Cyndi: Yeah.

Rebecca: …which some of the people in the class may not fit that particular group, but that’s what they’ve still represented. And that helps a lot, because we talk about, “Well, it’s easier to design for a group of people that you’re around all the time, perhaps”

Cyndi: Yeah.

Rebecca: Or, You know, know what, like this particular population, maybe preferences, if that’s a group that you’re a member of. And that sometimes helps too because it kind of breaks down some of the total ownership or blaming a student for something. It becomes more of that cultural identity piece.

Cyndi: Yeah, you can ask them, like, “Who’s most of your friends? Who’s in your environment?” I have them write journal entries all semester. I don’t say “Go find the racism and tell me about it” I just say like, ”Just tell me what you observe in terms of both race and gender.” Just like “What do you see? Who’s doing what jobs? Who’s in what space?” and that helps them too to start to see the stuff that they just sort of take for granted, because it’s the water that we all swim in. We’re all very segregated. And so I think it’s good for students to recognize that and then how that plays itself out in who you select to design, for example, and who comes into your consciousness. So again, thumbprint of the culture rather than moral failing…bad person.

Rebecca: I also do an activity in my capstone class where I ask students like, who are there five designers that inspire them, and then I end up with a pretty small list when we aggregate all of them together. And then I say, I’m going to ask this question again later in the semester, and I expect these lists to be really different. [LAUGHTER]

Cyndi: Yeah, that’s good…makes them explicitly think about it.

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

Cyndi: I want to write more about these issues. What I really want to do is run some workshops for faculty. I’ve done a couple. Most of my workshops have been on stereotype threat and
implicit bias. So I would like to run more workshops on this topic in particular, like how do you teach about racism rather than teaching inclusively. That’s fun to talk about too. But how do you how do you teach about race and racism? I would love to do more of that. And I would also like to write more about these issues. Because I think it’s hard to do. And so I would like to just have more conversation. I’m also hoping eventually to maybe write a different book about inclusive pedagogy. We’ll see. I’m not sure. it’s a ways off.

John: And when is your book coming out?

Cyndi: It’s supposed to be November, I believe, November or December.

Rebecca: Well, I know that will probably have a line of people now that really want to make sure they get their hands on your book, because…

Cyndi: I hope so.

Rebecca: …there’s a lot of books that deal with these issues conceptually, but not in a practical way.

Cyndi: I could not find a lot on teaching about it. Like I said, I wanted the guide that I wish I had for myself 20 years ago, but I there’s just there’s not a ton. There’s a lot of good chapters on it in some edited books, but there wasn’t a lot that had sort of an overarching idea. So that’s what I wanted to try to do.

John: We were looking for that just last year. So, we will have it on pre-order very soon.

Rebecca: Yeah, Definitely.

Cyndi: Cool. Thanks.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. This was really great.

Cyndi: Yeah, thanks so much for asking.

John: Thank you.

[MUSIC]

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

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

85. Small-Group Discussions

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

Show Notes

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

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

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

Dakin: Hi. Good to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Dakin: Yes, I am drinking Sleepytime Vanilla today.

Rebecca: That sounds yummy.

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

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

John: Okay.

Dakin: Nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dakin: Yeah, very much so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dakin: Two months ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

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

74. Uncoverage

Introductory textbooks in most college disciplines tend to become thicker over time as new topics are steadily added while old topics remain. Classes designed to “cover” all of these topics necessarily sacrifice depth of coverage. In this episode, Dr. David Voelker joins us to examine how some faculty are changing their focus from “coverage” to providing students with an opportunity to actively engage in the discipline and uncover its power to help explain their world.

David is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. He is also the Co-Director of the Wisconsin Teaching Fellows and Scholars Program and the co-author with Joel Sipress of “The End of the History Survey Course: The Rise and Fall of the Coverage Model,” which was published in the Journal of American History in March 2011.

Show Notes

  • Voelker, D. J. (2008). Assessing student understanding in introductory courses: A sample strategy. The History Teacher, 41(4), 505-518
  • Sipress, J. M., & Voelker, D. J. (2009). From learning history to doing history. Exploring signature pedagogies: Approaches to teaching disciplinary habits of mind, 19-35.
  • Sipress, J. M., & Voelker, D. J. (2011). The end of the history survey course: The rise and fall of the coverage model. The Journal of American History, 97(4), 1050-1066.
  • Voelker, D. J., & Armstrong, A. (2013). Designing a question-driven US history course. OAH Magazine of History, 27(3), 19-24.
  • Wiggins, G., Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Ascd.
  • Gordon Wood – Author and History Professor
  • Gary Nash – American historian
  • Angela Bauer – Professor and Chair of Biology at High Point University
  • Ryan Martin – Psychology Professor and Associate Dean of Recruitment, Outreach, and Communications at University of Wisconsin at Green Bay
  • Bain, K. (2011). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press.
  • 61. A Motivational Syllabus. Tea for Teaching podcast (with Christine Harrington)
  • Christine Harrington – Associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at New Jersey City University and the author of Dynamic Lecturing
  • Lendol Calder – Professor of History at Augustana College
  • University of Wisconsin’s Teaching Fellows and Scholars Program
  • UW Faculty College
  • Spring Conference on Teaching and Learning
  • Regan Gurung – Professor of Human Development and Psychology at UW Green Bay
  • Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
  • Gurung, R. A., Chick, N. L., & Haynie, A. (2009). Exploring signature pedagogies: Approaches to teaching disciplinary habits of mind. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Ciccone, A. A. (2012). Exploring more signature pedagogies: Approaches to teaching disciplinary habits of mind. Stylus Publishing, LLC..
  • Gurung, R. A., & Voelker, D. J. (Eds. Gurung, R. A., & Landrum, R. E. (2013). Assessment and the scholarship of teaching and learning..). (2017). Big Picture Pedagogy: Finding Interdisciplinary Solutions to Common Learning Problems: New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Number 151. John Wiley & Sons.
  • 54. SOTL. Tea for Teaching podcast
  • International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
  • American Historical Association
  • Tuning Project

Transcript

John: Introductory textbooks in most college disciplines tend to become thicker over time as new topics are steadily added while old topics remain. Classes designed to “cover” all of these topics necessarily sacrifice depth of coverage. In this episode, we examine how some faculty are changing their focus from “coverage” to providing students with an opportunity to actively engage in the discipline and uncover its power to help explain their world.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Today our guest is Dr. David J. Voelker, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. He is also the Co-Director of the Wisconsin Teaching Fellows and Scholars Program. He is the co-author with Joel Sipress of “The End of the History Survey Course: The Rise and Fall of the Coverage Model,” which was published in the Journal of American History in March 2011. Welcome, David.

David: It’s nice to join you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

John:…are you drinking tea?

David: Oh of course, always. Yes. I’m having a Moroccan Mint Green tea.

Rebecca: So you’re a tea drinker so you can come anytime. [LAUGHTER]

John: I’m drinking Black Raspberry Green tea.

David: Oh that sounds nice.

Rebecca: And I have Bombay Chai today.

John: We’ve invited you here primarily to talk about your work on redesigning the introductory history course. Could you tell us a little bit about the problems that you observed in the traditional approach to teaching the survey course?

David: I started teaching history at UW-Green Bay in 2003 and I was trying to create a class that would be very engaging for students. We would look at primary documents, I would really encourage them to think critically about the materials, and so forth. But I was still doing a lot of coverage, I went through the standard list of topics that you would follow to teach American History and I had a textbook. Well, after doing that a couple of years, I had two really wonderful students in my office. These were very engaged, hardworking, curious students, and they were talking to me about an upcoming exam and I found that they were just trying to memorize the content as I had taught it. Now, they were clearly capable of so much more, and they were doing more than that. But when it came time to the hard work they were putting in to study, they saw it as a memorization exercise. And I realized, “Wow, if these are the most engaged students in the class, then something’s not going the way I want it to go,” because that’s where their attention was…on memorization. That’s when I began a long journey to rebuild the way I was teaching—or reconceived how I was teaching—the intro history course. I ended up actually developing not only a new way of teaching the course, but entirely new ways of assessing student learning. So that when students were studying, when they were really putting in the effort and so forth, they would be focusing on the things that I really wanted them to learn, which was: how to interpret a primary source, how to find the argument made by another historian, how to put all that together into historical analysis. So that’s a quick summary of how I got on the path of reworking my introductory history course.

John: I don’t think this is unique to history. I see the same thing in economics. And in general, when students come to college, they often learn somewhere along the way that memorizing lists of things is what they’re expected to be able to do in college, and what you’re addressing is a problem that we see in all of our disciplines to some extent. So what would you recommend as an alternative? How have you approached this issue, or how have you tried to resolve this?

David: Well, first I should say I was really inspired by the book Understanding by Design. And I just looked at my copy and apparently I acquired that and started reading it in 2006. So it’s been a while ago, and it’s quite marked up. But the basic premise there is, instead of starting with, “Here’s a list of all the things I want to cover,” or “Here’s a list of all the things I want students to read,” you really start with “What is it that I want students to be able to do as a result of taking this class?” Now, students taking an intro history class, I’m not going to say, “Well, I want them to be able to build a house,” or something like that. What they’re going to be able to do is think in particular ways. You know, not necessarily the kind of skills that you would be able to observe in some product other than their thought. So I really tried to develop a class that would help students develop their ability to think historically. Now I realize they’re doing that for an intro course at a beginner kind of level, but the emphasis is still on historical thinking.

Rebecca: When you’re talking about the ways that we want students to think and work, we often get frustrated as faculty when students aren’t doing that but we don’t always take the time to articulate that, so I think it’s important to highlight that as a good starting point.

David: One thing I tried to do here is… well, just to be really intentional. What is it that I want them to learn? And then I think the crux of it is to make sure that I’m actually assessing them on the things that I really want them to learn. And I would guess that the overwhelming majority of college level history instructors really do want their students to come away with the ability to think historically, or at least to have some growth in that area with the ability to know what to do with a primary source, you know, historical documents, or perhaps an artifact or something like that. So I would say our hearts are in the right place but the question is, how do we actually get there? How do we align our highest learning outcomes with the actual assessments that we’re doing? In Understanding by Design—I don’t think I mentioned the authors earlier but Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe—they really put a lot of emphasis on assessment. Now I know in higher education there are folks who are wary of assessment and they’re thinking of institutional assessment, which I would say is important, but here we’re thinking about how are you grading the students? How do you know what they’re learning? So I decided to rethink my assessment and make sure that my exams were really requiring students to do some historical thinking on the spot, also drawing on and demonstrating that they have knowledge about the history we’ve been studying. So rather than seeing if they memorize some content, and you know they can somehow show that on an objective exam, what I do is on exams, they encounter a historical claim. So a really simple one would be “Christopher Columbus discovered a new world in 1492,” and I ask them to think about that critically and to think about that the way a historian thinks about it. And I asked them to argue both for and against the statement like that. So they’re arguing, they’re not simply regurgitating information. That means they’re using evidence and, in order to use evidence, you have to have content knowledge, right? You have to have knowledge of historical context, you have to know some of the sources. And so I see all that stuff that we “cover,” so to speak, really is the raw materials that students are working with as they develop their ability to think historically.

John: You’ve mentioned using in general, a backwards design approach, and what you’ve just described is part of it, where you start with the ultimate learning objective and then you design assessments that would measure that. How do you prepare students to reach that level?

David: Well, I guess that’s another big question, right? One thing, I try to be very transparent about this. I mean it’s interesting how sometimes in higher education we’re not very transparent. And that means that I talk with students about what it means to think historically, what that looks like. I try to model that for them, of course, but I do it in a way that’s explicit. I mean, here again, I would say most history faculty across the nation model historical thinking all the time, but they may not be very explicit about what they’re doing. So I tr y to be explicit about what it means to think historically and then also to give students a chance to practice that in class. So it happens my classes are 80 minutes long and well, I’m very grateful that I’m not lecturing for 80 minutes straight. I would just find that very difficult to believe I’m engaging anybody… I’m covering stuff for 80 minutes. So, I really try to break the class session up and have students not only talking about primary documents—which is pretty common for history classes—but we also look at different perspectives from historians. Now, I don’t introduce them to the vast historiography on any topic that we’re looking at, but I do make sure that they know about at least two different perspectives on major issues of the colonization of North America, or the American Revolution, or the coming of the American Civil War. So they can see that there’s actually a debate out there, rather than assuming that, “Well, history is pretty cut and dry. Like, we know what happened, we’re just describing it.” So, I really try to introduce to them the ways in which the study of history is an ongoing dialogue among historians, that we’re always turning up new sources, and we have new ways of thinking about old sources. And so I give them examples of how historical thinking is working in the field and really ask them to wrestle with some big questions. Again, it’s at an introductory level, so they’re not going off and reading everything that Gordon Wood wrote about the American Revolution and then comparing that to Gary Nash’s interpretation or something like that, but they are getting little snippets of that sort of thing so they can really get a sense of the debate and they talk about that in class. I don’t actually hold formal debates but I’ll have small groups discussing a particular issue and then I make a sort of matrix on the whiteboard and they go up to the whiteboard and sort of vote for where they think this historian stands, and where they think a different historian stands on the issue, and then where their group is, and so they’re really playing around with those different positions. And then, of course, on the exams, they’re actually making their own individual arguments using the primary sources and the secondary sources.

Rebecca: One of the things that you said was “modeling, but making that explicit.” Could you talk a little bit about how you shift from just modeling modeling explicitly or being explicit about doing that?

David: Yeah, sure. Well, one thing I do is I have a kind of graphic that I show that I created that tries to describe in a basic way what historical thinking looks like because I do think a lot of students come in with a really simplistic understanding of history. Again, this notion that it’s pretty cut and dry, it’s a description of what happened in the past. And so I try to help them understand both, through my own comments but then through practice that, “Okay, yeah, we have descriptions about the past, but those are based on evidence that has to be interpreted.” And those descriptions, we assemble those into a narrative and built into those narratives is an actual explanation and analysis of what happened. So we’re really thinking about why things turned out the way they did, how different things are interconnected, and then finally—and maybe the most importantly—is significance. Historians are also wrestling with the significance of the past, different events, and developments. Not only the significance in a narrow historical sense like, “Okay, this event was significant because it led to another event,” but also a longer term significance, and then I think even a kind of moral significance. What can we learn from the past? How can we use the past to understand American national identity? Those sorts of questions. So we really kind of build up, there’s multiple levels of complexity there. And I try to get my students at least beginning to climb that ladder to some of those higher levels, even if they’re just doing it in a really rudimentary way. But then I hope they can really see the value of history that goes beyond just kind of rote recollection of something that happened in the past.

John: Do students sometimes resist moving into this more appropriate view of history? They’ve learned through elementary and secondary schools what history is. How do you break their expectations and get them into this more active role?

David: I’m kind of smiling, or maybe even grimacing right now, because I usually am able to win students over. I mean, there’s so much about the past that’s exciting, that’s interesting, that’s unexpected. When we start to dig deeply into some of these topics, they’re interested and they’re curious and sometimes they’re also pretty frustrated or even angry because they feel like they’ve been misled in the past. In other words, that maybe the basic information they had from high school—of course the quality of that instruction varies—but I do have a lot of students who come in who are upset. They feel like they’ve been misled. And I want to rush to add that I have many students who have had excellent teachers in the past and are already really interested in history in part for that reason. So I think there’s a lot for students to be curious about. Occasionally I do run into a student who is very resistant. Most students find that, “Hey, turns out this is a lot more interesting and engaging,” than the history they had been exposed to in the past, or it’s deepening and complicating the pretty good understanding that they already had.

Rebecca: Do you find that they’re surprised by the first assessment or exam because they have these prior expectations and then your methodology in your class is different from their past experience?

David: Well that’s something that I anticipated and so we actually have a practice exam, so to speak, very early in the semester. In fact, that example I gave a moment ago of Christopher Columbus discovered a new world and 1492 is a sort of maybe second week of class practice exam prompt. And so I have them do that outside of class and then bring it in and we essentially go over that together. They share their thoughts with their classmates, we talk it over, I give them a number of examples. So for a student who’s coming to class and whose keeping up, there aren’t really going to be any big surprises and I give them some samples of what the exams are going to look like from other classes. I used to teach a lot more modern American history and so I can easily just share some sample exams that students told me it was fine if I shared and I think that’s really helpful, especially if there’s a big change in expectations, then I think to be fair to students, you should really be clear with them about how the expectations might be different than what they’ve encountered in the past. And a lot of students actually like the assessments I’m using. I think they find them more interesting. They’re perhaps a little harder to study for in the sense that it’s a little less clear cut but they have a pretty good idea of what the major topics are and I give them some suggestions for what they should be reviewing in terms of sources. So they really come in thinking, “Well, I’m going to need to refer to least a couple of these primary documents and the perspective or argument of this historian.” We practice all that in class because again, that’s what I want them to be able to do. So I make sure that we spend a lot of class time essentially practicing the very thing that they’re going to be assessed on.

John: If someone were to come into your class, what would it typically look like? Are the students broken up into really small groups? Bigger groups? How do you have them engage with the material that way?

David: Well I typically have about 65 students in my introductory US history class. I have another class that I teach in a similar fashion that’s actually a writing e mphasis class though it’s a little smaller at 45. So an intro level class and environmental history. But in both of those classes, we will typically start out with the whole group and I make some introductory comments. Sometimes I give a brief lecture on background context. I mean, historians really do value context. This is part of how you make sense of the primary documents and so forth. So I do all of that and you would expect to see that in a history classroom, but then before too long, I’m giving the students some kind of a series of questions and they’re working with primary documents or they’re working with some short essays by historians and talking those through in their small groups and then we have various ways of reporting out. Like I said, sometimes I will send them to the board so they’re kind of recording their analysis on the whiteboard. Other times it’s just more like I’ll choose particular groups to respond and sometimes I just open it up. So, I think that’s all pretty typical except that I’m constantly going back and forth from maybe a brief lecture to small group discussions to a large group discussion. I suspect there’s more back and forth than you would typically see in a more traditional coverage oriented history classroom. Again, many instructors do use primary documents and they would have students talking about them. I think maybe where I’m going further is just that they’re going to have to write about those sources on an exam.

Rebecca: I think sometimes demonstrating that you really value a particular practice by spending so much class time on it really helps students understand how that’s a part of the discipline or a way a discipline works.

David: Yeah I think so, and many students really seem to appreciate having quite a bit of discussion time. I mean they find it productive, they have a clear task, they have something they’re working with. So at the end of the semester I do have a lot of students who say, “Wow that was so valuable to hear different perspectives.” And I think especially for first-year students, many of their classes are very large, many of their classes are lecture based, and so they don’t actually have very many opportunities to talk with other students in a meaningful way about the course material. And I realized that maybe at a small liberal arts college it would be a whole different story, but I’m at a regional comprehensive public university and I know that a lot of my students are in that kind of situation.

Rebecca: I think sometimes there’s a mismatch between the assessments that we assign and what our real objectives are…because it’s easier to assess other things than what we really want to know, and that tends to lead faculty to be resistant because of workload concerns. Can you talk a little bit about the grading and how you might manage that?

David: I have to agree with everything you’re saying there. That’s a real conundrum. The most meaningful assessments are also usually the most labor intensive and so I’ve had to be very deliberate in my case about what compromises I’m going to make. And one thing that I’ve had to do with the for and against essays, students write maybe six of these essays during the semester and they’re fairly brief. I really emphasize with the students that there’s not any room for BS in these essays. So there aren’t a lot of preliminaries and so forth, they just dive right in and make their arguments for and against. So that’s one thing that I’m doing. It’s not a formal essay because I don’t have time to go over all that extra content when I’m grading. I think the other thing that I do is most of the feedback I give on those essays I do with the whole class. So I give a kind of collective feedback where I show some examples. I actually fabricate a kind of weak response [LAUGHTER] and put that up on the screen and ask the students to assess it and then I show them a stronger response and then we talk about that. So they’re getting some examples of work that could use improvement and that’s generally a composite. I mean, I don’t ever show bad student work. But then often the strong examples…I’ve asked the students, “Hey can I share this with the class?” and we’ll take a look at that as well. So what I’m getting at here is one way I save time is a lot of the feedback I’m giving is collective feedback. If I were writing extensive comments on every one of these essays for 65 students, it just wouldn’t be feasible. I would have to do something else. So I’ve decided that’s a compromise that’s worth it.

John: When they’re looking at someone else’s work, the work that you fabricated, it’s probably a lot easier for them to recognize problems than when they try to diagnose it in their own, because they’ve taken ownership of theirs and they become committed. But when you prompt them by giving them this type of thing, it’s a whole lot easier for them to see mistakes and recognize them and perhaps avoid them in their own work.

David: Yeah, I think so, or at least that’s my hope. And, you know, they talk with their classmates about it. So they’re getting multiple perspectives on the shortcomings of a weak historical interpretation.

Rebecca: Have you or your colleagues seen a difference in the upper-level classes that build upon this like introductory class where the move has gone from coverage to uncoverage? Have they been more successful at the upper level or do you have any evidence related to that?

David: That’s a really good question and I certainly don’t have systematically collected evidence to respond to that. Now I do see a lot of these students again in upper-level classes and the students I’ve worked with before do seem well prepared to jump into deeper conversations, whether that’s using more primary documents or more extensive secondary sources. So I find that they’re well prepared for upper-level classes as far as what I’m able to observe among my own students. Now, we do still have courses that are closer to the coverage model on my campus, for sure. I mean, different colleagues of mine, they all have their own approaches. And just to be clear, I would never say my approach is the one right way to do anything. It’s something that works for me and that I think really serves the learning outcomes that are important in my discipline and in my department, but also to me. But I think there’s a lot of different ways to get to that. I guess I would say I don’t have any regrets when it comes to upper level classes. I don’t feel like, “Well, these students aren’t well prepared because we didn’t cover everything at the intro level.” I am always reminding myself, “Well, just because I’ve covered something doesn’t mean that anyone has learned it.”

Rebecca: We’ve been talking about this a lot. We have these first-year signature classes on our campus that are for first-year students that may or may not be continuing in a particular discipline but are really meant to help students integrate into our college and acting like a college student, et cetera. So they don’t have as many coverage concerns in terms of topics that we’re historically thinking about. So we’ve been talking a lot about how that frees you up a lot to really focus on some of these ways of thinking. So we’ve been having this conversation a lot, we’ve had a couple of recent podcast episodes related to that but we’ve also had these conversations on campus that have really made me, and I think some of my colleagues, think about, what is it that we really want students to learn even at the upper levels? We think about, “Oh we got to make sure we get through the whole textbook,” or whatever but really at the end of the day, I think sometimes we place value on things that we don’t actually value.

David: Well what you said really resonates for me. I’ve been teaching a first-year seminar for I think five years now and that’s actually in the Environmental Humanities where there is no canon. There is no textbook. And I’ve certainly had to build on scholarship that’s out there. I mean, I’m not just creating this out of thin air, but I didn’t have to worry about the pressure to cover some specific body of material. Nobody was counting on me to be sure to cover these 10 things. And I learned a lot from teaching in that first-year seminar context where the pressure for coverage is largely eliminated and I think it’s made me a better teacher in all of my classes. I really do believe that, because I’ve taken some of that spirit into some more traditional history courses.

John: I think this is an issue that comes up in many disciplines. I know in economics there have been discussions for years. The economics textbooks—just like history textbooks—keep getting bigger, there’s new chapters added. Since I was in the history class, there’s been a whole lot of time included, [LAUGHTER] you know, in terms of the chronological study. But more generally, in economics, there’s a lot of discussion about how difficult it is to cover all of this and how little students seem to come out learning. But there’s a trade-off when sometimes an introductory economics class is the only thing required for perhaps all upper-level courses, so there is some pressure to make sure you cover it. It’s a very active dialogue right now and there’s many attempts to reach a consensus, but I think this is happening in many disciplines, isn’t it?

David: I think so. Several years ago, I was reading some workshops on this very topic for the UW system and when I was doing that, I interviewed some colleagues in other disciplines. I talked with Angela Bauer, who’s now at High Point University in biology and I talked with my colleague Brian Martin in psychology here at UW Green Bay. And what I found was that they were really trying to go down this road in disciplines where the knowledge is more structured. As you go through you really are building on stuff that you learned earlier, maybe in more linear fashion. And in the history major, we’re looking at the history of so many different times and places that no one person can master all of that. So you don’t have quite the same expectation. But in any case, what they were doing was starting out with some big questions and this is something that Wiggins and McTighe recommend in Understanding by Design as well. So you can structure a course around big questions. And those questions should be interesting to most students who are engaging in the discipline particularly if they want to go on. And I find that really helpful. So I do that in my history courses but I think that you can do that in any discipline. Like what are the big issues here? What are the big questions in the discipline? And to answer those questions, you’re going to be using specific disciplinary ways of thinking and disciplinary tools, so you can really start to align things there. Here’s kind of the raw material you’re working with, here are the skills and other kinds of thinking tools you’re going to be using, and here’s what you need to be able to do in the end. If you can really line those things up, I think students walk away with so much more than if they are simply approaching it as, “Okay, we’re covering this, I’m going to take a test on this, and then probably I can forget most of it.”

John: Ken Bain has written about this extensively in terms of picking those big goals and developing it in What the Best College Teachers Do.

David: Yeah.

John: And we just recently had a podcast with Christine Harrington, where she talked about that in terms of building a syllabus, starting with those big questions and building your course around that. It’s a really important topic to help build student motivation and interests and tie everything together.

David: I really admire the work of both Ken Bain and Christine Harrington. Back when I got started with all of this, in addition to Understanding by Design and history, Lendol Calder was doing a lot of work in this area—and he still is today—and I think he pulled this word out of Understanding by Design, but “uncoverage.” So what can we uncover about discipline and disciplinary thinking? Because if we’re using the coverage model, yeah, we’re covering lot of things, but we’re also covering up many of the fundamental aspects of the discipline. If what you have in front of you is a history textbook, it’s written in a single authoritative voice. This is what happened, this is how it was, this is how it is. There’s something really misleading about that, because that’s not how the discipline of history really works. Where did all that knowledge come from? What are the debates? And so forth. So I really liked that idea of uncoverage and I wanted to acknowledge both Understanding by Design and Lendol Calder for sharing that concept with me. I think it’s a really helpful way of thinking about what we should be doing even in our introductory courses, or maybe especially in our introductory courses. What can we do to uncover the key concepts and ways of thinking in our disciplines?

Rebecca: When you decided to shift from a coverage model to more of an uncoverage model, did you decide to just jump in with two feet or did you take more of an iterative approach? I’m sure other faculty who are interested in this idea would like some guidance on that.

David: Well, yeah, so do as I say, not as I did. I really jumped in with two feet and maybe even got in over my head for a while. And you know, that’s something you can do from time to time. I don’t regret doing that. At the time I was a participant in the Wisconsin Teaching Fellows and Scholars Program—which I’ve now been co-director of for six years. It’s actually my final year—but back then I was just getting my feet wet in the scholarship of teaching and learning. And I believe I had a one-course reassignment that year and so I had just a little bit more time to try to implement a pretty radical makeover for my intro history class and there have been many iterations since then, including some pretty significant changes because, of course, you always learn a lot when you make big changes in a classroom. There are always things you would do differently. That said, I think you really can just choose some part of the class and really start working on getting to some of that deeper learning and assessing in new ways. You can try out new ways to assess with new ways to get students working more directly toward your learning outcomes.

Rebecca: You just mentioned the Teaching Fellows and Scholars Program at your institution. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is?

David: This is actually a UW System program so it’s statewide and it’s been around for probably 30 years, although it has evolved quite a bit ―I think by the late 90s, it was taking a turn toward the scholarship of teaching and learning—so it’s a year-long professional development opportunity for instructors in the UW system and we have many campuses here across the state and each of those campuses sends a couple of representatives to participate in this program. We have something we call Faculty College that meets every year and that’s several days, usually in late May, so kind of right after the academic year has ended. You have these really dedicated teachers going right back at it, like, “Hey, we’re going to spend almost a week working on improving teaching and learning.” So that’s actually a broader program that the Wisconsin Teaching Fellows and Scholars participate in that and that’s sort of where we launch the cohort each year. Then a little later in the summer we have a week-long summer institute and the fellows and scholars are actually designing scholarship of teaching and learning projects at that point. So they’re figuring out what kind of research questions would they like to look at in their classes, what kind of evidence of student learning are they going to gather, and so forth. Then we come back together again in January and do some troubleshooting on the project which they’ve been working on through the fall semester and they typically are gathering more data in the spring semester or more evidence to analyze. And then they actually do poster presentations in April at a statewide teaching and learning conference. So it’s a pretty substantive program. A lot of folks do end up continuing to work on their project and ultimately publishing something. It’s not necessarily a requirement, but many of the participants do go on and remain active in the scholarship of teaching and learning. For me, I think it’s really important because it provides a community in the UW system around teaching and learning, and so while you’re actually working on your projects for that year, you have some support. You have a support network to help you figure out how to handle your data analysis or how to get through the IRB process or whatever it might be. But then that community continues on afterwards and so we’ve had quite a few…thinking of three or four different books…published on the scholarship of teaching and learning where many of the participants that were in the book project came out of the Wisconsin Teaching Fellows and Scholars program so there’s the signature pedagogies book, it’s called Exploring Signature Pedagogies and then Exploring More Signature Pedagogies, two wonderful books and Regan Gurung and I recently published collection of essays on Big Picture Pedagogy, and that’s taking a kind of interdisciplinary approach to the scholarship of teaching and learning. And most of the folks in there came out of the UW system, and many of them were former teaching fellows and scholars. So it’s a really interesting program that I think really enriches what we’re doing here in Wisconsin.

John: That sounds like a wonderful program. I wish we had more of that here.

Rebecca: Yeah. Do you have a little bit of advice for people who are interested in starting in the scholarship of teaching and learning? That’s one of the things that we’ve talked about quite a bit on this podcast and anytime we can get someone to provide a little insight into getting that started…

John: In fact, Regan was on a few months back.

David: It can be intimidating to get started in the scholarship of teaching and learning, especially if you’re coming from a discipline that doesn’t normally do research on or with living people. Like, you know, for me as a historian, my research subjects are typically dead and gone. [LAUGHTER] So it’s quite different to think about doing research on my student learning or with my students and their learning. So I think it’s helpful to start small and just to try to think of the question about student learning that you can answer using methodologies that you’re already pretty familiar with. So you don’t want to tackle a project that’s going to require you to learn how to do advanced statistical analysis if you don’t have experience with that already. So I think it’s important to realize there are a lot of different ways to collect and analyze evidence of student learning and if you continue to develop as a SOTL scholar you will explore more and more of those ways of gathering and analyzing evidence. But it’s completely fine to start out with something that you’re already comfortable with and familiar with and you’re really asking a question—or you can start with a simple question about—what are my students learning in this particular area? I know there’s a struggle here, I know there’s something difficult here, and I’m going to pay some extra attention. I’m going to look at this in a more systematic way than I normally would just in the regular course of grading some papers or exams.

John: In your paper on the rise and fall of the coverage model, I think you noted that there’s a growing emphasis on the scholarship of teaching and learning within history and that seems to be resulting in a growing network of scholars who are working in this. Could you tell us just a little bit about that?

David: Sure. Let’s see, back in 2006 a group came together called the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History and I don’t know exactly what the membership or the participation in that group is but it’s a substantial group of history scholars who are really interested in promoting the scholarship of teaching and learning in history. Along with that, the American Historical Association now maybe for a decade or so has been working on something called the Tuning Project and that’s focusing on learning outcomes for history majors and that project has involved many, many people across the country in all different subfields of history thinking about what is it that we really expect and want history majors to learn and that transcends any particular content area. In other words, if you’re asking that for about history, and we’re thinking about historians coming in who are, not only United States historians, but looking at many different periods of time and in places around the world, you can’t just come up with, “Well here’s a list of twenty thousand facts [LAUGHTER] that we expect all history majors to know.” It was apparent that wasn’t going to work. And so what the Tuning Project has done, it’s allowed our discipline here in the United States to really think carefully about historical thinking and the basic skills and practices of being a historian and that at this point, it’s all very well spelled out. And history departments can then use that to improve the learning outcomes at their program level and you can take that down to the level of individual courses as well. So I think between the scholarship of teaching and learning and this assessment oriented Tuning Project, that we’ve had a real increase in interest and commitment here when it comes to thinking about what does it mean to learn history and to learn how to do history?

John: The last question we always ask is, what are you doing next?

David: I’m happy to say I have a sabbatical a year from now, just a one-semester sabbatical in the spring of 2020, and I’ve really become interested in environmental history and more broadly environmental humanities (I mentioned that earlier in terms of the first-year seminar I’ve been teaching). And my project is going to be to try to articulate a pedagogy for environmental history and environmental humanities and what I’m thinking of there is that there’s more to this field of study than the usual kind of content and skill mastery. And I think there are a lot of areas where this is true, but there seems to me to be a kind of affective component here, an emotional component, as we’re facing up to the environmental degradation and numerous environmental crises in our time. I say facing up to—sometimes we’re not facing up to those problems—and it can just be overwhelming from the standpoint of a learner—especially a young person—to really come to terms with the content that we would have to look at to the areas of environmental studies more generally. So I’m looking at contemplative pedagogies to think about one way to help students come to terms with and to deeply process what it is we’re studying when we look at problems with sustainability. For example, climate change. I’m really excited to dig into that next year.

John: Those sound like fascinating topics, and they should be fun to look at. And it’ll be an interesting challenge working with those issues, especially now.

Rebecca: Yeah it sounds really intense, but really needed.

David: Yeah, I think it is going to be necessary to grapple with those issues going forward.

John: Thank you for joining us. This has been really interesting.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much.

David: Oh, thank you. I really enjoyed the conversation and my tea cup is empty, I don’t know about yours but I think I’m going to have to go get another cup.

John: Yeah, mine’s empty too.

Rebecca: Yeah mine’s getting really close.

John: I don’t know if you can see it, but we have a whole table covered with tea back there in the back of the room.

David: Oh I see that now.

[Music]

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

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

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

73. The Injustice League

Difficult conversations like those around injustice and inequity can be challenging to facilitate no matter the student body, but first-year students have additional barriers to overcome like establishing a sense of belonging on campus. In this episode, Dr. Margaret Schmuhl joins us to discuss how comic books and programming outside of the classroom can help first-year students develop the confidence to engage with complex social issues. Maggie is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Show Notes

  • Mya Brown – Assistant Professor in the Theatre department at SUNY Oswego
  • Amy Bidwell – Associate professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Wellness at SUNY Oswego
  • ACUE – Association of College and University Educators – certificate of effective college instruction

Transcript

Rebecca: Difficult conversations like those around injustice and inequity can be challenging to facilitate no matter the student body, but first-year students have additional barriers to overcome, like establishing a sense of belonging on campus. In this episode, we examine how comic books and programming outside of the classroom can help first-year students develop the confidence to engage with complex social issues.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Margaret Schmuhl an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Oswego. Welcome back Maggie.

Maggie: Hi everyone.

John: Good to have you back.

Maggie: It’s good to be here.

John: Our teas today are….

Maggie: I am having a black ginger and peach tea.

Rebecca: Oh, one of John’s favorites.

John: It is [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m having English afternoon tea.

John: And I have Tea Forte black currant tea.

Rebecca: Oh, another one of your favorites.

John: I have many favorites.

Maggie: That’s a favorite of mine too.

John: We invited you here to discuss your first-year Signature Course here at as Oswego called the Injustice League: Crime, Justice, and Inequality in Comic Books. Sounds like a really fun course. Can you tell us a little bit about the course and how it differs from your other introductory criminal justice courses?

Maggie: This class was a lot of fun to teach. In the class we read various comic books, we watched different superhero movies and we talked about, within those comic books, what it means to have justice, to recognize injustice, and how society responds to crime and maintains or perpetuates various inequalities in those stories and movies.

Rebecca: How does that class differ from the other classes that you teach in your subject area? Because it’s a First-Year Signature Course, so that has particular meaning at our institution.

Maggie: Yeah. So the signature courses here at SUNY Oswego are about bringing a student engagement aspect to our academic course content. And so in this class there’s a balance of introducing our subject matter (in my case, Criminal Justice Studies) to the students but through a really fun way, but also working with students to help them with their academic success and getting engaged with each other and with our campus community.

Rebecca: Are these usually majors that are in this class or non majors?

Maggie: So I actually had a mix of majors and non majors. I had probably about 19 students. I had about 10 or so majors and so about half of the class were non majors. And they came from a variety of disciplines, including computer science, communication studies, and we even had some undeclared majors in the course.

John: And this is part of a broader initiative that we talked about in a prior podcast, and we will include a link to that in the show notes for anyone who wants to learn more about the first-year signature courses here. So one of the purposes of this, as you said, is to build more of engagement with the college community and also amongst themselves so that students will feel more connected. And one of the first things you did, I believe, was take them on a field trip. Could you tell us a little bit about that field trip?

Maggie: In Oswego, there’s a local comic shop that we ordered some of the students comic books from. In the very first class I asked them which comic books they were interested in purchasing and how many students we’re going to accompany me to the comic book shop here in town. And so to get to the comic book shop, you have to take the public bus, or at least if you don’t have a car, and many first year students don’t, they have to learn how to take the public bus. And so part of this field trip was not only obtaining some of the course materials for the class, but also getting the students familiar with public transit in the town and how to navigate a new place with them. So we arrived at the comic book shop and the owner was very gracious to us. She made us cookies and we had coffee and the students picked up their books and some of them even got some additional materials. We had a lot of fun. It was an amusing trip bringing a bunch of college students on a bus, and some of them their first time using public transit, and the bus drivers were even entertained by the group of us, so we had a really good time.

Rebecca: I think you also discovered the infrequency of the buses….

Maggie: Oh yes.

Rebecca: …in our town, right?

Maggie: Yeah…

Maggie: Oh yes.

John: Particularly on weekends.

Maggie: Yeah, particularly on weekends. We did wait about an hour for the bus on Sunday. So that was a little bit of a lag, but we made it through.

John: I should note that the comic book shop is actually owned by the wife of a former member of my department. It’s Arlene Spizman who runs that store.

Maggie: Yeah, Arlene was wonderful.

John: She’s a very nice person.

Maggie: I didn’t realize she had that connection.

John: In fact, I just finished a paper with her husband.

Rebecca: I’m sure it can be difficult to have an authentic conversation about justice in general, especially with a diverse population of students and maybe students that don’t know each other very well. How did talking about comic books as a way to get into the topic help facilitate those discussions?

Maggie: Comic books offer a different world for students to experience some of the concepts and some of the issues that we struggle with as a society. And so to be able to visually see these issues play out across the panels, it’s a place where students don’t feel nervous or threatened, it feels safe. They’re taking these comic books and they’re finding ways to relate with them and work out some of their preconceived notions or feel like it’s okay to start working on some of these biases and issues in society.

Rebecca: It seems like it has a lot in common with some of the other topics that we’ve talked about on the podcast before, like simulations and role playing, where it’s a place to escape the real world and talk about something really challenging in a so-called fake environment, but really they’re working out real-life issues and biases and all kinds of things that can be really difficult to talk about, but it’s a lot easier to talk about character that’s not real.

Maggie: Absolutely. Yeah. One of the comic books we read is an X-Men comic book called God Loves, Man Kills and we talked a lot about the concept of othering and what it means to target out and marginalize a group of people and in a lot of ways X-Men plays out what has happened in race relations in society and in other groups who have been historically marginalized. And so for students to consume this information through a comic book, they can better reflect on their own experiences and start to understand the position of others in society.

Rebecca: It probably also makes it a lot easier to make mistakes when you’re talking about that. I think sometimes students don’t want to talk about touchy topics because they’re afraid of offending someone or saying something in the wrong way but if it’s not about anybody real….

Maggie:Yeah

Rebecca: …then it’s not going to hurt someone’s feelings.

Maggie: Yeah, absolutely…. And another thing that we did in this course right from the get go was to set ground rules for discussion and conversation. And so I had the students come up with various guidelines for discussions and we would write them down so that we could refer back to them as we continued throughout the semester, so that they all understood that they had a responsibility to each other to make sure that everyone was comfortable and safe in this classroom. It really helped to facilitate a lot of these very difficult discussions in a very similar way that comic books themselves kind of help us talk about very critical and very upsetting social issues.

John: They also come in probably very familiar with many of these comics because they’ve seen them in movies, and some of them may have read some of these as well. Could you give us some specific examples of some issues in criminal justice that you were able to address using comic books?

Maggie: In terms of the classroom breakup, we have many students who were avid comic book readers. And we had many students who were somewhat interested in comic books but were more in tuned with the recent TV shows and movies that have come out of Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes. And so there’s, you know, quite a range of knowledge around this. But for the most part, most all of the students were interested in some kind of criminal justice aspect of their studies. And so, one of the concepts that we tried to discuss in this class was the issue of mass incarceration in society. And so what we did was we read a book called Bitch Planet, and in this planet, women are incarcerated on another planet. It has a lot of strong connections to some of the ways that society has restricted women’s rights throughout history and how the punishment of women has differed across time and across place. So to be able to see these concepts in a comic book and to talk about the parallels that exist in our society was a really, really cool process for the students.

John: Did you mostly focus on comic books they were familiar with, or you mentioned Bitch Planet, which was one that perhaps many of them hadn’t seen before. Did you bring in many that were things that they hadn’t expected or that they were less familiar with?

Maggie: There was really a mix. I even had some criminology textbooks that had various criminological theories played out in comic book form and we read a few of those to give us a baseline of various theoretical perspectives on criminal behavior. But most of the comic books I’d say we’re falling in the mainstream. I think that’s what students were typically looking forward to, but they really did enjoy the new reboot of Miss Marvel, with Kamala Khan and Bitch Planet and those were perhaps a little more on the periphery than Black Panther and X-Men.

John: How did students react to this? Did they generally find it interesting? Were some students troubled by using comic books? What about the imbalance between those students who were very avid comic book fans with those who were less familiar? How did that play out?

Maggie: Some of the very avid comic book fans in the class had a lot more context to really draw from when discussing histories of the Joker or Black Panther and the development of the character over time. But because comic books have become so popular in mainstream media, with TV shows on Netflix and pretty much a new Marvel movie coming out each year, that students really had a lot to draw from. Students didn’t need a great depth of knowledge of comic books prior to coming to this class.

John: For those students who were avid comic book fans, was it a little more challenging, perhaps, than they expected to look at some of these things through perhaps a more critical lens?

Maggie: I think that comic books, even if you don’t have a great background of reading comic books, or knowing the development of various characters, I think comic books allow for anyone to just pick them up and start thinking about them in a different way. They’re relatively quick reads, which really helps. Students can read them a couple of times and start to reflect back on some of the course concepts and theories that we discussed and how they apply and pull out those very specific examples. So I think the medium of comic books really provides a great range of abilities for students.

Rebecca: What are some of the things that you learned from teaching this class that you started employing in other classes?

Maggie: Oh, that’s a good question. One of the things that teaching the Injustice League has helped me with my other courses is to really think about being explicit with what I expect and what I hope students learn from various assignments and activities. In the Injustice League, students are entering college for the very first time and so they may not always understand why we’re reading this particular article or how it relates to the comic book that we’re reading today. And so for me to slow down as an educator and say that “Here’s why we’re doing this. Here’s what the research is showing us about why low-stakes testing in this class is a good thing.” That’s helped me in my other courses be more explicit with why I’m making decisions in various teaching practices.

Rebecca: Have you done anything else that’s related to bringing more comic books to other classes or field trips or some of the other things that brought the fun piece to the class that I think really energized the group as a whole?

Maggie: In my research methods class, I’m hoping that students will be able to assist in it by going out into the community and surveying people about dating formerly incarcerated persons. And so I think to get them out into the community and to start locating various areas of the community will bring some of that campus engagement aspect to it. In my crime-mapping class we actually started geocoding some of the locations around campus and so these are more upper-division courses but I’m trying to, even though the winter months make it a little more difficult to get outside, but trying to get outside of the classroom and really talk about how important it is to be connected to our community and to understand our relationship with the community.

John: I believe there was also some type of a video or a movie that you showed and I think other classes participated in that. Could you tell us a little bit about that and how it fits into other classes?

Maggie: There was a collaborative effort among some of the first-year signature course instructors to bring our students together in a common place. We ended up watching a episode of Luke Cage and this particular episode really spoke to a lot of the different courses that were being offered in the Signature Course program. Obviously my course, as one that deals with comic books and crime and justice and inequalities, Luke Cage is a very good example of many of the concepts that we talked about in class. But Mya Brown in the theater department also taught a class called Blackish Mirror and it followed the development of black characters on television. And so this was also a really good place for her class to talk about how various stereotypes that they had learned existed and/or were resisted against in Luke Cage. We also had a professor from political science and from communication studies, talk about political organizing or activism in Luke Cage, as well as narrative and the use of narrative in TV shows. We even had a signature course instructor in the health and wellness department… their class made snacks for the students to enjoy at the event.

John: Healthy snacks.

Maggie: Yeah, healthy snacks and it was brilliant. The students loved it. They created a snack mix that could be created and replicated by using ingredients found on campus. So that was a really cool way to bring in even a discipline that’s not necessarily focused on examining social inequalities in media to this event, and so it really spoke to a lot of students across various disciplines.

John: And we should note that, that person was Amy Bidwell, who was on an earlier episode. Were there any surprises in teaching the class that you didn’t expect?

Maggie: The class was a lot of fun. I don’t think I’ve had as much fun teaching any other classes I had teaching this class. It was really fun to pick up a hobby of mine, something like reading comic books, to bring this to the classroom and to start and challenge students to think about the media they consume in a new way, and how it reflects what we do in society and various values that society has. One of the most surprising things in the classroom was really how much of a community the students had at the end of the class. They had been speaking about other courses and working together on other projects and planning their course schedules for the next semester so that others would be in their courses together and so that was a really cool outcome of the class.

John: …and I believe you also opened an Instagram account for the class.

Maggie: I did and so you can follow it @the_injustice_league_oz… each word is underscored. I won’t say that I have many followers on the Instagram account but a lot of the students who did follow it seemed to really enjoy it.

John: And are you going to be teaching this again?

Maggie: I will be teaching this class next fall. So I’m very much looking forward to the next cohort of Injustice League members.

Rebecca: Did you carry on the superhero fantasy world theme throughout the class? You talked about rules for discussion or rules for engagement at the beginning. It’s almost like world building. Did you think about theming that more? Could you talk about how you might have done some of that?

Maggie: All of the designing my syllabus was all thinking of the class as being a part of a group of superheroes as opposed to just a group of students in the class. I even designed the midterm exam to look like a top-secret mission directive from their Professor S, which is me. The secret mission was about identifying various concepts that we talked about in class and applying them to a new comic book that we hadn’t read in the class. And so, in this midterm exam, they got to explore some of their favorites that we may not have gotten to touch on the class. It was a good opportunity for them to get creative and think about how these theories and concerns about justice translate across various stories.

John: And that way, you’re giving them some autonomy, but you’re also helping them develop transfer skills so they can take the things you learned and apply them in new circumstances, which is a really good practice.

Maggie: Even one of my students, when we were discussing moral panics, stopped into my office hours one day and was ecstatic because he had just realized that his journalism course was talking about moral panics, and so to be able to identify these concepts across disciplines was also a really cool outcome of the class.

Rebecca: You talked a bit about the class being really fun to teach. And part of that’s because you brought your hobby and your discipline together. But were there other things that made the class fun? I can imagine that you’ve all thought about yourselves as a part of a league. So maybe that you felt more connected to your students, or am I kind of projecting?

Maggie: Oh, absolutely. So, I called myself Professor S as a play on Professor X in X-men and so the students really loved that and they had a really good time with the way we even addressed each other in the class. The Instagram account even helped create more of a community by bringing in various pictures of each other doing or identifying various comic things across our everyday lives and interactions.

John: How did you first get interested in comic books?

Maggie: Actually, my first interest in comic books came from graphic novels and reading Persepolis as a kid. But, of course, I fell in love with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and I’ve watched pretty much all of the movies in chronological order.

Rebecca: Of course [LAUGHTER]

Maggie: I called it “research,” the summer I rewatched them all, it was a wonderful time. After reading a novel like Persepolis it was also something that really got me interested in criminal justice and society and inequalities in social life.

John: Did the students seem more open to discussing some of these issues having been exposed to them through comic books?

Maggie: Comic books reflect a lot of what is going on currently in society and they provide us a way to talk about really difficult topics of racism and sexism and things that occur and that people and students are experiencing in their everyday lives. So using comic books to facilitate these conversations is really important for students just beginning to question some of these processes.

John: One aspect of this course, as you said before, was to help introduce students to college life and help them create bonds and connections. But that also frees you up quite a bit because you don’t have a standard curriculum. Is this the first time you’ve ever taught a class where you didn’t have a fixed amount of material you had to cover in the course?

Maggie: Yeah, so this class was really flexible in that way. As I look back on the class, I’d say that it’s equally as important for us to be talking about some of the content about comic books and the sociological and criminological aspects of them as it was to help students become more connected to their community and to their campus, but also to ensure that they will be successful students at moving forward. And so this class really allowed me to work on some of their questions that would just come up, like calculating a GPA or registering for classes. And so the flexibility that exists in this class lets me respond to the students and their concerns in the moment and to occasionally tie-in some of those issues in current events to what we’re discussing in these comic books.

Rebecca: I could also imagine that it allows for the tangents that might occur as you start talking about something related to the comic book but you think it’s a valuable discussion. But if you have a finite amount of material in a finite amount of time, you might not be able to b go down those rabbit holes, but they can be such valuable conversations.

Maggie: Yeah, absolutely. You know, the flexibility of this course isn’t just to my benefit, but to the students benefit, where they can ask questions and we don’t have to worry about how much material we get through. We don’t have that curriculum that requires various elements to be covered and so the students can explore some of their questions in a very meaningful way.

Rebecca: I think it might be useful to just clarify that these classes are not part of any specific major, and they’re not a prerequisite for anything. So that’s what we’ve been talking about in terms of them being kind of freeing. I don’t know if we explicitly stated that.

John: Did you get to know the students better than you would in a typical introductory class?

Maggie: O ne of the good things about this particular classes is that there were only 19 students, and so it really allowed for me to get to know each of them individually and be able to see their personalities through our discussions and to have that comfort level with the classroom to talk about what made their day not so great today and what they really enjoyed about the weekend. And so to have that sort of informal relationship in a very formal setting was a really cool experience.

Rebecca: I know that one of the things that I’ve been thinking about after hearing many of the faculty who taught the signature classes talk about their classes is just finding ways to have some more of those informal opportunities in class, but also thinking very carefully about the content that I think that needs to be covered versus what maybe actually needs to be covered. There tends to be a disconnect, We think we need to cram in so much stuff. What are some of the key principles and things? And can we go into more depth for some of those if students are interested? And I’ve allowed that to happen a little bit this semester, and it’s been really delightful, I think, for everybody involved.

Maggie: Yeah, that was one of the things that I struggled with in the class. At the very beginning I was treating the class like a topics course and cramming, or at least planning to cram, a ton of information in. A few weeks in, I realized that it just wasn’t going to work for this type of class, that this class really did need time to facilitate these relationships and to help students learn and navigate their first semester here on campus. And so to have that flexibility for them to be able to explore their questions and concerns on campus and off campus was a important part of this class.

Rebecca: Sometimes I think that these functional aspects of being a student can get in the way of learning. So spending the time and just addressing those concerns that are preoccupying a student can free them up to actually think about the content and spend time investigating it. So, if they’re really concerned about figuring out their GPA or really concerned about making sure they’re registering for the right classes, addressing that concern up front can actually free them to focus on learning.

Maggie: Yeah, absolutely. And a lot of students, they come into the classroom and they think that college is going to be just like their high school experiences and so that studying in the same ways is going to be effective for them or that GPA’s and what credit hours are. There’s a lot of new information that makes transitioning to college more difficult one then, say, transitioning from their middle school to their high school . And so I think this does give them the time in class to talk with a faculty member to try to work out some of these questions in a way that they may not get to in their other courses and so it does certainly alleviate some of their anxiety around these issues.

Rebecca: When there’s not a context like that I think the option is going to office hours or something and that can be really intimidating, I think, for first-year students, or they just have no idea what office hours are for, which is another thing.

Maggie: Right, or how to book an appointment…

Rebecca: Yeah.

Maggie: …and all of that. And so I know many of the First-Year Signature Course instructors, including myself, tried to have individual meetings with students to break the barrier of setting up an appointment for office hours and how to draft emails to your professors and such and so I think it really helps them not be as nervous about getting the help they need and the resources that they may need in the future moving forward.

John: Because in the past if they were called into go to someone’s office after class…

Rebecca: Right, it was a bad thing, yeah.

John: Exactly. And so, you know, that’s something they do need to get past and it takes a while often and by then sometimes a little too late. So that’s really helpful.

Rebecca: Speaking of criminal justice, right? [LAUGHTER]

Maggie: Colleges, it’s a different culture than they’re used to and so to get assimilated to that culture is really important in many different ways.

Rebecca: Right, it’s like mentoring instead of a penal system.

Maggie: Right? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Kind of a weird word flip there.

Maggie: Yeah, absolutely.

John: And one of the nice things about this whole program is it was set up as a randomized controlled experiment where students were asked if they were interested in courses and then they were randomly assigned or not assigned. And there’s some work that’s being done right now analyzing how their outcomes compared to outcomes of the students who were not in one of these groups, and they’ll be followed a bit to see how this works overall. So, I’m looking forward to seeing more, but the preliminary results they have, as were reported in the meeting this morning, were fairly positive.

Maggie: Yeah, retention was really good and so hopefully that’ll continue.

John: Semester-to-semester retention….

Maggie: for underrepresented populations, yeah. There was…

John: …was 100% retention semester to semester.

Maggie: Yeah.

John: It’ll be interesting to see if that persists, because that has not always been the experience of Freshmen.

Maggie: Right, and hopefully it does and I think one of the things this Signature Course program is trying to promote are those students and faculty relationships and that if students have a strong bond with a staff member or faculty that they’ll be more successful in all aspects of their academic life.

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

Maggie: Well next, I’m currently meeting with various new faculty members for the Signature Course program so we’re going to work our way through more course prep, and I’m very excited to meet the newest members of the Injustice League next Fall.

John: And you’re also joining the cohort of people in ACUE…

Maggie: Yes.

John: …which is starting up here on campus very shortly.

Rebecca: …another league.

Maggie: Yeah, another league of sorts. [LAUGHTER] I’m very excited… very excited for that as well.

John: T hank you. It’s been a lot of fun talking to you about this course and I wish I could take most of these courses.

Rebecca: I know, they’re always so much fun to hear about, but I think they give us lots of prompts and interesting things that we can start to consider in other contexts too.

Maggie: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

[Music]

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

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

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

71. Small Teaching Online

Face-to-face classes have been offered for centuries. Online instruction, though, is relatively recent and many faculty that teach online have little prior experience or training in online instruction. In today’s episode, Flower Darby joins us to explore some easy-to-implement teaching techniques that can be used to help improve the learning experiences of our online students.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Face-to-face classes have been offered for centuries. Online instruction, though, is relatively recent and many faculty that teach online have little prior experience or training in online instruction. In today’s episode, we explore some easy-to-implement teaching techniques that can be used to help improve the learning experiences of our online students.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Today our guest is Flower Darby an Instructional Designer an Adjunct Instructor in several disciplines and the author (with James Lang) of Small Teaching Online, which is scheduled for release in June 2019. Welcome Flower.

Flower: Hi John. Hi Rebecca. Thank you for having me. I appreciate that. It’s good to be here.

Rebecca: We’re really glad that you’re joining us as well. Today our teas are:

Flower: I am drinking Builders tea. Good, strong cuppa here.

Rebecca: Sounds yummy.

John: We have some of that next door. I am drinking ginger peach gree n tea.

Rebecca: I have my Golden Monkey again today.

John: We ran a faculty reading group here in the Fall semester of 2017 based on Small Teaching. Many faculty found that to be highly inspirational and we had over 100 people participate in that. One of the things that came up quite a bit is how this might be applied online. So there’s a lot of people interested in your forthcoming book. Could you tell us a little bit about how this book came about?

Flower: Sure. So Jim Lang came to my campus—Northern Arizona University—in January 2018 and delivered a talk on Small Teaching and as we know, the book has been very impactful for faculty around the country and around the world. And while he was at our campus, when it came time for the question and answers, somebody raised their hand and said, “Sure, but how do you do this online?” And Jim’s immediate response was, “That’s the first question I always get at every talk that I give,” and he said, “I don’t know. I would need a co-author because I don’t know how to do this online, but that would be a great book.” So I thought about that for a few days and then I approached him and I said, “Pick me. I would love write that book with you. I can see the value of it, I can see the need for it.” So that’s how the conversation began.

Rebecca: How does this extend the approach that was used in Small Teaching?

Flower: Well, it follows the same principles for certain that there is learning science that we can draw on to help us make the everyday decisions in our teaching and learning that have really an outsized impact on student learning and outcomes. So there are little things that we do on a day-to-day basis and we can draw from the research to discover what will have the most impact. Again, understanding that in order for faculty to really be able to implement something new, it’s got to be feasible. It must be doable. The daunting overhaul of a major course redesign is so off-putting that most faculty won’t get around to it, myself included. When I have gone to multiple workshops and conferences and sessions or read about an approach. And I, “That is a great idea,” and I spend about five minutes thinking about how I might incorporate that into my class and then I say, “Too much work. Too much time. I don’t have that time available. I don’t want to implement something that’s only half baked,” and the idea gets left out. So in our online classes, there are so many things that we can do that are on that small scale but will have that outsized impact on our students’ engagement and their learning. And so that’s what this book sets out to do, is to explain a lot of those principles and draw on the research that we have to show faculty how they can make these changes in their online classes.

Rebecca: We’ve talked many times on our podcast about the lack of preparation for faculty teaching in general and that’s certainly true for online teaching. You might have taught a face-to-face class, and then all of a sudden, now you’re teaching an online class and boom, you have to figure it out. Can you help us think through what are some things that faculty can do as they’re new or getting used to being an online teacher?

Flower: Sure, and I think that’s really the point here. Centuries, millennia, compared to the way that we teach and we coach and we mentor face to face, or even as we’re doing here using video conferencing software, but it’s a real-time interaction. Well, online teaching is very, very recent, say 20 years or so. And faculty don’t have the experience that they bring into the physical classroom. You may have heard of the phrase of the apprenticeship of observation coined by Dan Lortie. And this is the idea that by the time a teacher steps into a classroom to teach, he or she has had years and years of experience in a physical classroom being a student and observing what happens and how things go and thinking, if somebody chooses to be a teacher, then they’ve clearly put a lot of thought into how they want to teach. Well, we simply don’t have that for online. I do expect this to change in coming years. But the fact is right now that most of our faculty have either never taken an online class or if they have, it may be a very limited experience, not the years and years that they came out of K-12 with. And the same, quite frankly, is true for our students. They’re also pretty inexperienced at an online classroom. And the way this pans out is that literally faculty and students both don’t know what’s supposed to happen in an online class. They don’t have the social norms, they don’t know what the classroom looks like. If you think about it, when you walk into a physical classroom to start teaching, you know what’s in the room and you know what’s supposed to happen. You see the desks or the tables, you see a lectern at the front, you see a whiteboard or a projection screen, and students and faculty understand what is supposed to happen. Students go and sit in the desks, they face front, they wait for the faculty to come to the podium. It’s rare that a student would walk into a classroom and at the beginning of the hour, just step into the lectern. Students know that’s not what they do. But my argument is we don’t have that kind of social norming convention for online classes…yet. I think it’s coming, but right now many of the people who find themselves in our online learning environments go into that space, and they don’t know what things should look like, they don’t know where the light switch is, they don’t know where the desks are, where the whiteboard is. So just that whole lack of experience is rather disconcerting. And it’s hard to know what to do. Faculty don’t have experience—they have haven’t seen models, students are equally unprepared—so there’s a lot of work to be done here just to understand what should happen in an online class, what the furniture is, where it should be to facilitate learning. That’s where those gaps happen for faculty. You ask, “How can faculty prepare themselves?” I could talk for days about that question. It’s a growing need and some institutions are beginning to recognize the importance of doing a much more thorough job of preparing faculty to teach online. But I will argue that those institutions are still pretty few and far between. I would say, based on my research and my experience, the vast majority of faculty who are teaching online have not had specific development in that area. They have not observed peers’ classes. In fact, what can happen is a negative effect. Very commonly, when faculty begin teaching online, they are handed somebody else’s content. We’ve seen that happen and that’s a mercy in a way because that way faculty who are new to teaching online don’t also have to develop the course. But what can easily happen is that the content that might be given to a new faculty member might not actually be exemplary in the design and the delivery of that material. So then what happens is the only experience that faculty get is observing the content and the structure of a less than ideal example and then that’s the model that they have and they think, “Oh, I guess this is how it is”. So work can be done on developing better exemplars, better development programs. I believe, as faculty are coming out of online graduate programs down the line a little way, I believe, will have better experienced faculty and students. A lot of research going on in this area, but that work is all to be done.

Rebecca: As you were talking, I thought, you provide a nice model, it’s a nice way of thinking about it, you don’t know where the furniture is.

Flower: Mmm-hmm

Rebecca: It sticks with me. I was thinking about that the experience that a lot of faculty and students have is more in the realm of social media and so they’re looking for cues that are similar to those kinds of environments. The activity that’s happening in those environments is really different than the kinds of activities we would expect to happen in an online platform for learning.

Flower: Right, that’s a great point. We interact with other people so much online and on our devices using social media and what’s interesting to me is that we can really engage with people in those online spaces. Somebody tweets something that’s a little bit incendiary or provocative and you get all kinds of people jumping in and commenting and you know, sometimes things get heated, or a really heartwarming moment is tweeted or shared on Instagram, and people are all over that post. But the opposite is kind of true in our online classes. Indeed, I feel like we could bring in some of the techniques from social media into online classes. I’m not saying that faculty should all have a component of Twitter or Instagram in their online classes, but what I’m saying is that it’s possible to deeply engage people in online interactions. And that’s not a feature that, I would say, generally characterizes online classes—we usually hear the opposite, that it’s not engaging, it’s difficult to drum up those discussion posts—and I feel like if we could draw some of those principles from how we interact with people online, in social media, of using our devices, if we could bring those into the online classes right away, we’ll see more engagement and engagement precedes learning. Students have to want to be there in order to learn when we’re engaging them and if you could imagine posting a discussion post and then you can’t wait to see what people are responding. We do that all the time on Facebook or Twitter sending something out and then, “Oh let me see! Did people like that? Did people say anything?” And we just naturally are drawn into those spaces to check and see what are people’s reactions? Well, if we could design that kind of a discussion board for online classes, where it’s so interesting and engaging that people want to rush back and see who’s talking to them, who’s replying to them, that would go away way to improving the online learning experience for both faculty and students.

John: That’s not an experience though that many people teaching online find in their discussion forums. Are there any hints or tips that you can give people to make their discussion forums a bit more engaging so that students don’t wait until the last minute to do the standard three posts or whatever is required in that course?

Flower: Great question, John, and a big one. And again, thinking about Small Teaching ways of making small changes, I heard of an example recently where faculty asked students to reply to their peers posts using a GIF that just represented—one of those funny moving little images that sort of expressed—their reaction. And that’s an example of bringing in new ways of engaging and it’s not rocket science. It’s also perhaps a little more fun, which is important to bring into an online class. A great way of sort of getting students to think differently. But if that idea doesn’t resonate with you, maybe you might want to try offering options in your discussion board questions. I’ve supported over 100 faculty, I might even say, hundreds of faculty in the design and development of their online courses and what I see sometimes is one question for students to answer and oftentimes it’s kind of black and white. It’s hard to discuss a question like that. So first of all, craft questions that are discussable, that there’s some debate around that you can make different arguments or points of view. Tie those questions to students’ experiences. How is the content impacting them personally? Where do they see these concepts in their own life and experience? And, even better, provide three or four different questions that students could choose to respond to and then ideally, everyone isn’t all talking about the same question, so that’s more of a natural way of fostering some conversation in an online discussion.

John: One of the nice things about tying it to personal things, I would think that that would also help build more of a sense of community within the group because the students get to know each other a little bit better, which may affect their engagement in other activities,

Flower: Right. Anything that we can do to increase the value and the relevance of what we’re asking students to do online is hugely impactful, and it doesn’t have to take much. I have a colleague who teaches an online First-Year Seminar course, which in a way is a bit of an oxymoron because First-Year Seminar courses are often designed to really hook in our first-year students who are transitioning to university life, but she was tasked with developing and teaching a really highly engaging and supportive Freshman First-Year Seminar class. And one of the things that she does is she brings in a discussion board and one of the prompts is, “If you could be a superhero, what would your superpowers be?” And again, maybe on the surface some people might think that’s a bit trivial, but what she’s doing is she’s getting students to talk about character traits and hero qualities and concepts that rely and relate to the material that they’re engaging with… yet in a fun and a more personal way. And it certainly does a lot to foster those relationships that are so important for online classes to build that community. Absolutely.

Rebecca: I think one of the methods that we hear a lot about in terms of online learning is the ability to do quizzing and retrieval practice and interleaving through quizzing. But are there some other ways that we can integrate some of these evidence-based practices that aren’t maybe the typical solutions that we tend to think of online?

Flower: I think one of the most underutilized functions of the Learning Management System is what we call adaptive release or conditional release. And I actually want to pause here and say that these Learning Management Systems have come a long way in recent years, and they still have a long way to go. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca and John: Yes. [LAUGHTER]

Flower: For many faculty and students, the functionality is lacking, the furniture is stark, they’re not attractive places to be and as I said earlier, engagement precedes learning. If you were to ask yourself for online faculty who are listening, “Do you want to be in your online class?” I suspect many faculty would struggle to answer with a resounding “Yes.” And so here’s a shoutout to our LMS developers to think about space design and the experience of students and faculty in these spaces. Having said that, there is some very interesting functionality that is oftentimes underutilized and I would argue that’s because, again, faculty may not have the preparation and the exemplars to begin teaching online. With adaptive or conditional release—it’s called different things in different systems—you can set a task that then opens up the rest of the content in that module. And I love to use this. You can use it equally effectively at the end of an online module or at the very beginning to open the next module. Now what you can do with this is you can embed retrieval practice exercise. Or, you know, drawing from Jim Lang’s book, Small Teaching, a predicting exercise works equally well. A curiosity provoking exercise, and all it really has to be is an assignment where students submit whatever it might be. A two sentence summary of what their big takeaways were from the previous module, or predicting what might be in the coming module or posing some questions… this can be written, it could be a recorded submission for students who might find it easier to talk through their ideas. Once students submit that element, then the rest of the module opens. Before they do that they can’t access any of the content. These things don’t even have to be graded, you can just set them to be worth zero points, but they are mandatory because the students can’t proceed with the content until they submit them. So when you think about that feature, there’s a lot of creative things that you can do that don’t impact faculty grading time. That’s a big tenet of the new book is we can’t overburden faculty with grading and yet tie into those practices that we know from the research are effective.

John: One of the chapters of your forthcoming book is on fostering student persistence and success. Could you give us perhaps a strategy or two that might be useful in encouraging student persistence? Because I know one of the problems in online classes is they often have higher drop, fail, and withdrawal rates than face-to-face classes. What are some techniques that faculty can do to help improve student persistence in the class and the program?

Flower: That’s right, great question. As you point out, the attrition rates in online classes are remarkably higher. And we also find that for students who are less prepared for higher education, if they don’t succeed in that class, then the odds increase dramatically that they won’t actually persist and attain a college degree, and that’s a problem. But as I was saying earlier, a global concern is that online classes are not nice places to be. And if your listeners have any pushback on that, please feel free to reach out and engage with me on that assertion. But what can we do to just make the place a little more pleasant? How can we be warm and friendly and supportive and encouraging? How can we allow our humanity—even our personality—to show through? I was speaking with a good friend and a colleague of mine just a few months ago when I was delivering a little talk about this book and he was telling me though he’s been teaching online for 10 years, that he’d never thought of just being himself in his online class. And he explained to me that he loves teaching in person—he’s quite a character, super dynamic, very engaging, funny, loves to interact with his students in the classroom—and yet, he told me when he goes into his online class, it’s like a robot. There is no trace of his personality. And other people are saying this too, just be yourself in those online classes and make a deliberate effort to infuse warmth. But a specific strategy that people might want to try is to assign a goals contract as one of the items that are due in the opening module—or the orientation module—and a goals contract, you’ll see different kinds of variations around, but here’s the two pieces that I really like. A lot of people are talking about assigning sort of a memo of understanding or a contract where students agree that in this online class, they should schedule set times, they should plan on X number of hours per week, they should reach out immediately if they have questions. People are doing that. I like to embed a different element as well, which is to require students to set a couple of goals and it can be literally two. What are two goals that you have for your learning, or your success, your ability to earn an A in this class? And then an interesting twist is to ask students to identify one potential challenge. It’s still the case, I have my students all the time saying, “Well, my computer is in the shop, [LAUGHTER] it’s sort of all of a sudden, it busted and now it’s at the technician and I can’t do my online tasks.” So helping students to think in advance about a scenario such as that and of course, in that particular case, many campuses have computer labs or libraries where students can go and access another way to get into the course but maybe they haven’t thought about it in advance. So in the goals contract, ask students to set two goals, identify one potential challenge that might come up, and identify a strategy for how they can address that particular challenge. And certainly, identifying one challenge is not going to cover the range of things that happen in life during the course of an online class, but I think it sets the tone to get students thinking that one little hiccup doesn’t mean that we’re all done with this online class and we just have to sort of fade away and stop participating. And then what you can also do, periodically throughout the class, is you can ask students to revisit those goals that they set for themselves. How are they doing with that? What kind of progress are they making? Are there some strategies that aren’t working for them? Do they need to recommit to the intentional and deliberate scheduling of their class time? Just helping students be very explicit about what their plan is to succeed and finish the course.

Rebecca: What I like about what you’re saying is, it switches from really having the faculty member impose everything, and have the students be co-authors of the class to some extent, and they have some ownership over the space, which generally means that they’ll probably commit more.

Flower: What we know about online learning is that students must have a higher degree of self regulation, self direction, they must be more motivated, and be able to manage their time well. And if students don’t have those things, it’s much less likely that they’ll persist and finish an online class. And yet, when you think about it, online classes work directly against a student’s ability to do those things and here’s what I mean. When you are teaching in person, when you’re a student in an in-person class, you know that every Tuesday and Thursday at 9:30 you’re supposed to be in the classroom and it’s a natural way to help students hold themselves accountable for doing the work. Now I know sometimes students come to classes and they’re not fully prepared, but there’s still that built in mechanism where they’re going to be in the same room with their faculty member with other students. There’s a social element of accountability that’s like, “Well I know I’m supposed to show up and I should have my stuff done,” or “There’s a test next week and I need to be ready.” Well those real time interactions and those interactions with physical people don’t tend to happen in the typical asynchronous online course. Very often—I would say 99% of the time, probably—an online student is sitting at home by himself or at the coffee shop by herself. If she has a quick question about something, she can’t do what she does in the classroom and say, “Hey, did you understand what we’re supposed to do on that particular assignment?” or “Hey, faculty member, can you just re-explain that? I’m not quite there yet.” There’s no way to get that immediate response, that immediate quick guidance that might take two minutes in a physical classroom. So, students don’t have the accountability, they don’t have the physical presence of the instructor or the student, and so we have to go above and beyond in our efforts to build in structures that help students develop the kinds of self-regulated skills, the kinds of self-directed learning skills. Many of our students are not coming in with those skills already but we know students who do have those skills will be much more successful, so let’s build that into our curriculum. Let’s help them develop some of those, let’s talk to them about the importance of monitoring their own learning, and let’s structure exercises that will help them to do this. I’m pulling a lot of this material from Linda Nilson’s book—It’s called Creating Self-Regulated Learners—Although that book is not necessarily focused for an online environment, I think it can be hugely helpful to our online students to be very transparent with them about the importance of developing these habits, these behaviors for success. And as I said, structuring exercises and graded assignments that help them to do that, to hold them accountable.

Rebecca: Following up with what you just said, there’s a chapter in your forthcoming book called “Creating Autonomy.” Can you talk a little bit about small ways that we can give students autonomy in the classroom and in an online space?

Flower: Sure. And again, let’s be sure to keep that focus on small, doable, feasible changes, things that you could do in maybe a 15-minute work session and have it rolled out for your online class. One thing that we could do is to develop a self-enroll group structure. Many online faculty like to bring in collaborative learning tasks to, again, foster that community and the peer to peer instruction and learning that is so important as we know, but I think oftentimes we sort of assume that what we should do is purposefully group students, and there’s certainly value to be found in designing purposeful groups. But what can also be very interesting is to allow students to enroll themselves in groups that might cover a range of different topics. For example, sometimes I teach Educational Technology online classes. And if I were teaching that class today, I might offer five different groups that students can sign up for on a first-come first-serve basis. And one might be virtual reality, and one might be mobile learning, and one might be writing in digital spaces. So students could naturally choose a topic that they’re more interested in pursuing and when students have that level of autonomy, to make that choice of what their going to focus on, that’s one way of embedding just an opportunity for students to exercise that autonomy. Another even easier way I’ve already mentioned here is to offer students a choice between whether they want to submit a written task or whether they prefer to record on video or audio. Students carry these amazing devices in their pockets all the time with high- tech recording equipment embedded right in them. And students love the freedom of just being able to talk through their ideas, their responses, you can get a much more authentic response from students. Teach them how to use the recording software, or how to upload the video or the audio clip into the LMS and now you’ve got an easy choice that you can give students. If you prefer to write this, go ahead. If you prefer to record it, do it that way.

John: One thing that struck me is I used VoiceThread last year in an online class and I expected they’d actually use the video option with it very often. I gave them the choice of whether they use just voice or voice and video or use a video recording and yet none of them ever presented on video, which surprised me, given how common that is in social media. Why might that be?

Flower: Well, sure. I also require video discussions in some of my classes. And what I have learned is that people are nervous, especially in an academic setting about how they come across on camera. I feel like audio is a little bit less threatening, but sometimes people don’t like the way they look. And, you know, faculty too. [LAUGHTER] A lot of faculty are uncomfortable with recording on a video, and yet, it’s the way of the future. So right now, currently, I’m teaching my graduate level class on technological fluency and leadership. I require those video discussions and I say to them, “Are you nervous about doing this? Well, I want you to do it anyway,” because video interviews right, over Skype, or Zoom, as we’re doing here today, or video resumes. These are a thing that are happening and helping people to get more comfortable with showing their face on camera. I also talked to them a lot about the importance of seeing their peers faces and how much we can learn just from that. In the program that I teach now, students tend to take classes with the same people. But in my class, they always say, “I’ve never put a face to a name, how nice it is to see you,” and it makes a huge impact in terms of that community element. But I talk to my students very explicitly. Now, it’s also really important to think about situations where a student may not want to represent their face and there can be very good reasons. I had a tragic situation just last year where a student did not post the video, she posted a static picture of herself. I came to find out at the end of the semester. When she did that I was like, “Oh well, dock a few points, whatever. That was weird. Why’d she do that?” I later found out that she had been in a domestic abuse situation and she was ashamed of the way that her face looked because it was still very visible—the damage—and it just struck me to the core. An arbitrary decision that I made that it’s so important to talk to each other and look each other in the eye and she had a really, really strong reason for not wanting to do that. So back to that topic of offering a choice, what I do now is I tell my students, “If there’s a really good reason that you don’t want to show your face on the video, please send me a quick note. You don’t even have to tell me details, but just explain that you’re going to choose to do this other thing instead,” and posting a static picture is still pretty effective. So I think it’s very important to remember that our online students are people. They have lives and we need to be thinking about the decisions that we’re making in our teaching and how that might come across to a student… how it might induce anxiety in ways that we never anticipated.

Rebecca: One of the things that I wanted to follow up on and see discussed, the self-enrolling groups and collaborative work online. I think we have clear ideas about how that might work in a physical classroom, but not always a good clear way of how we can coach students through collaborative learning online. So even small, quick things that came up in Small Teaching, like Think-Pair-Share, you can envision how to do that in a classroom, but maybe have no idea how to do that in an online classroom.

Flower: It’s a great question, Rebecca. And I know that there’s actually a lot of pushback from online students and sometimes online faculty about the value of collaborative learning activities. It just so happens that my husband is in an online Master’s program right now and so I’m living with the student experience. And it’s frustrating to our online students—many of whom are not traditional 18 to 24 year olds, they might be returning adults—and one of the reasons (in fact, a primary reason) that our online students choose that modality is because they have busy lives. A big percentage of our students have jobs, families, obligations, and they need to do their work when they have time. That might be 8 pm, that might be 11 pm after all the kids are in bed. It might be 6 am, I like to do my online class at 6 am. When you require students to work in groups in an online setting, you’re removing that degree of scheduling flexibility that students value in an online class. So if you choose to require online activities, I have certainly moved towards lower stakes and opportunities that don’t require real-time meetings between students online. And you mentioned a great one. Think-Pair-Share can be set up in an online class. So there’s lots of ways that you can do this but the first thing that came to my mind is you could set up groups of two, and you could auto-enroll students in a group of two, and then they have their own individual discussion boards. In most Learning Management Systems when you have groups you can have kind of a private discussion board where students can interact with each other there, or I’m a big fan of letting some of the learning come outside of the Learning Management System. So let students know who their buddy is, have them exchange phone numbers, and they can just talk on the phone. Sometimes we forget those simple solutions. But a Think-Pair-Share—and so many ways that you could set this up, you could change it from module to module so people are always working with somebody else—just share an idea, discuss something, take it offline, come back and just write or record a quick summary of how that interaction went. When it’s not such a high stakes assignment, students can better engage in those opportunities. It’s so much easier to find 15 minutes to talk with one person than it is to find an hour with four working adults who all have family obligations. So I love the idea of lowering the stakes and embedding lots of little opportunities for students to work in pairs or in groups of three where it’s easier to coordinate. There’s less pressure about the online group member who never does the work—sorry, but that’s a thing—and just help students see other ways of interacting. Now, with my instructional designer hat on I want to remind us of the importance of making sure that online collaborative work aligns with the outcomes of the course. Very important to think about why you’re asking students to work together. Does this actually relate to what you want them to learn and get out of the course? Very important to pause, ask yourself some of those questions before you randomly assign group work because we should have group work, which I’m guilty of doing. [LAUGHTER] It’s an easy thing to do, “I guess we should have group work,” but really pausing to think carefully about the purpose of that. And then again, maybe thinking creatively about those lower stake ways of connecting students and facilitating some more authentic interactions. Maybe they’re going to text each other. That’s fine, they’re talking. We do a lot of talking on text these days. Help students connect in ways that are not so stilted, which is often what we see in the use of the discussion board and the LMS.

Rebecca: I found that too, I use Slack a lot in my classes, because it’s a common platform for designers and people in that realm to communicate professionally, and they love it. It’s convenient, it’s on their phones, takes it away from a clunky interface…

Flower: Sure.

Rebecca: .. some of the LMS’s have and it’s really productive. And they’re able to do that midnight chat with each other.

Flower: Yes, absolutely. Again, let’s think creatively about tools that students already have. I honestly believe that a lot of Learning Management Systems actually raise barriers to student learning because most of them—although this is getting better—most of them don’t have a super robust mobile app and so a student, really to engage with coursework, has to find a place where they can sit down and log into the computer and access the course and jump through a million hoops before they can even get to where the learning is. Whereas if we take some of that learning into apps that they’re already using or things that they’re doing on their phone anyway where it’s in their pocket, we can communicate in real time. Now I need to exercise caution here because many faculty think, “Oh great. I’ll do Slack, and I’ll do VoiceThread, and I’ll do Flipgrid, and I’ll do Twitter, and I’ll do Pinterest, and it’s just going to be so interesting and fun.” Well, if there’s a reason for using some of those tools, absolutely. If those tools are just shiny entertainment—bells and whistles—then you may want to think again. Another important consideration if you’re asking students to use tools that are not in the Learning Management System is whether those tools are fully accessible for students, whether there’s any fee that’s involved, whether students might have to set up a new account with a new password, that might just be a hassle. So really you want to think carefully about what you’re asking students to do. Are the tools fully accessible and usable and cost friendly? Do they support your learning outcomes? And yet, if a tool that you’re thinking about using passes all those tests, then by all means jump right in. This semester I’m using Remind which is the simplest tool on the planet and the most effective. [LAUGHTER] It’s more in use in K-12 currently than in higher ed. It’s simply a text app that anonymizes people’s phone numbers. So I invite my students to sign up for my Remind list. I don’t require it. But then I can easily send a quick little 140 character reminder, “Don’t forget this assessment is due on this particular day,” or “New content has just been released. Login when you get a chance.” The message goes right to where the students are and because I make it optional, nobody is required to have the annoying instructor on their phone all the time. But students who want some additional support with managing deadlines and the class experience really appreciate the use of the simple tool called Remind.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that we know from a lot of evidence-based practices and books that have come out—including Small Teaching—is that frequent feedback is useful. But we also know that frequent feedback can seem really daunting to a faculty member, and time consuming. So are there ways that you would suggest managing some feedback opportunities online, but keeping it easy, quick, and reasonable?

Flower: Sure. Another great question. Another underutilized approach—at least in my experience supporting the faculty that I work with—is the ability to embed feedback into auto-graded multiple choice or true- false types of quizzes within the Learning Management System. So in most of these systems you can design feedback that will show up for students as soon as they submit the quiz. You can set those quizzes to show students which questions they got right or wrong and in the wrong answers you can embed feedback that says, “Please review pages 32 to 35 of this chapter. That is where you’ll find this information.” Similarly, you could encourage or embed challenging feedback and by that I mean, “Great, you totally know this material. If you’re interested in learning more, you may want to check out this website or this resource,” to offer students a range of experiences and engage students at their different levels of experience with the content. To be fair, setting up that kind of embedded feedback takes a little bit of time in the first place, but many of us teach those online courses over and over again, and once you’ve done that work, you can benefit from it time and time again. If you’re not sure how to do that in your Learning Management System, just about every institution has a Learning Management System support team with instructional designers or system admins, help desk folks who can walk you through the creation of that kind of embedded feedback. And it’s timely, it’s right there when the students are thinking about that problem in the first place, it’s relevant, and it’s a great way to automate some useful feedback for student learning.

John: You have a chapter in this forthcoming book on developing as an online instructor. Are there some general suggestions that you can give to faculty who’d like to improve and develop new skills or improve skills as an online instructor? Besides buying the book, of course. [LAUGHTER]

Flower: Right. Great question. Again, what this comes down to for me is that it’s just new. It’s just new for a lot of people. And to be honest, I suspect that many online faculty didn’t really set out to be great online faculty and many faculty are not finding the experience quite as rewarding as they might find the classroom experience. In fact, I have some data to back me up on that. The 2017 survey of faculty and information technology from EDUCAUSE Center of Analysis and Research found that of over 13,000 faculty respondents, 91% said that they don’t prefer to teach online. 9% said, “Great, I love to teach online.” That’s 91% of us who would rather teach anywhere else. [LAUGHTER] So how can we cultivate that joy, that buzz that we get in the classroom? We love teaching. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be doing it because we don’t get paid enough. How can we cultivate that for ourselves? Now a barrier or a common challenge is time. Who has time to go and learn how to do a whole new skill? It’s different than teaching in person. But there are, again, small things that we can do to increase our awareness. One of the most effective things that you can do as an instructor is to seek an experienced and a thriving online instructor and ask to shadow that class. Ask to be added into that class shell and just observe. How does that person interact with students? What are the structures? What is the teaching? What happens while the class is in session? That can be hugely impactful, it’s usually free, [LAUGHTER] and faculty can invest the amount of time that they have. In fact, this is how I first got started with online teaching over 10 years ago, is before I was going to teach a class. Luckily, this offer was made to me the semester prior to my first online class, just to observe another class and see what happens in there. Simple structure could easily be set up for faculty who are scheduled to teach a new class in the Fall, have them observe or shadow a class in the Spring or the Summer, and yet an often overlooked solution. Certainly there’s lots of online resources. There’s podcasts like this, there are blogs that people are writing about innovative things that they’re doing, but sometimes just finding a thriving online faculty to interact with, shadow, observe, be mentored by, can be the most effective way to learn how to do this better.

John: I even sometimes encourage faculty to join a MOOC, because often you can find some interesting practices there that scale without necessarily requiring much effort on the part of the instructor.

Flower: That’s right. That’s one of my other recommendations and I hope I haven’t given all of the book away here. [LAUGHTER] But one of the other recommendations in that chapter is just to take an online course in whatever form that you can. Whether it’s a MOOC, a lot of organizations like the Online Learning Consortium, Quality Matters, offer online professional development opportunities for faculty. Even if it’s not about teaching online, just go take a class that is online. Or maybe personal interest. Sign up and take Spanish online. And having the experience as an online student is hugely impactful to help you understand what your students are going through. Even as a faculty if you’re taking a course and you’re reading the instructions going: “Now, what am I supposed to do with that?” Immediately, you have much more clarity about what your students might be experiencing and then you can take steps to address those kinds of gaps or areas of concern that might be in your own class… that you may not have previously seen before.

Rebecca: I think the recommendation of taking a course outside of your normal domain or area of expertise is key because you’ve got students who are in an environment they’re not familiar with, with a topic they’re not familiar with. And so to kind of simulate that, I think is key.

Flower: Right?

Rebecca: I know I’ve done that in the past and it’s like, “Oh yes, I forgot what it was like to be a beginner.”

Flower: Absolutely. In fact, I had a really interesting process or experience this past fall semester where I was supporting a redesign in a large cap biology class of liberal studies—or general education biology class—large enrollment. My background is in English literature… the humanities. I don’t think I ever took a hard science class in college because I did an honors program where we could do more sort of ethical concerns related to science. But I went to that class frequently throughout that semester and I clearly remember the first day. 240 students and me and I was sitting in the lecture hall with the students and it was just very, very impactful. Putting me in a situation that was foreign to me—I don’t teach large cap classes, I don’t know a thing about biology—I do now, I know a little more [LAUGHTER]—But I was a novice learner in a very foreign environment and that’s what our students are in our online classes, which is really quite anxiety producing if you think about it. Going into an unknown space, not knowing what’s expected, you don’t know how to get ahold of your faculty member a lot of the time. So just being intentional about helping students be more comfortable and more at ease in our online classes—be more available to them—can make a big difference. And again, you get that insight differently when you choose to place yourself in a situation where you’re a novice, and you’re not really sure what to expect. That’s a great point.

John: Are there any other topics that we should address that we haven’t raised yet? Anything else you’d like to emphasize?

Flower: You know, really only one thing comes to mind and that is an insight that I had literally this past week, which is that I feel like sometimes online faculty—myself included—have somehow developed the notion that we don’t really need to talk with our students. And let me explain what I mean by that. Again, I’m teaching an eight week—it’s an accelerated graduate level course right now—I’m busy. My students are busy. And on a whim a couple of weeks ago, I said, “Well, I know you have this assignment coming up by Sunday night, I’ll be available on Saturday between the hours of 1 to 5pm.” I don’t like to work on Sundays. I tell my students that if you want to just pick up the phone and call me on Saturday, go ahead. So that weekend, I did. I had a student who called me and she was a chatty Cathy, and we stayed on the phone for quite some time, but she got a better understanding of the assignment and how to be successful. Well two weeks later, which was this past weekend, it was my daughter’s 11th birthday and I was right in the middle of finalizing all the food preparation and everything else. And lo and behold, there’s my phone ringing and I can tell that it’s not a connection of mine. And I went, “Uh-oh, it’s one of my students,” [LAUGHTER] because I had said Saturdays 1 to five and that same student who had called me a couple of weeks prior called and we had a great conversation. 15 minutes, I was able to keep chopping the carrots while I was talking with her. And it just occurred to me, that wasn’t really a convenient time for me personally because I was doing that final party prep, but so what? The student needed help in that moment and just taking the time to answer the phone and talking through a couple of quick questions, it was helpful for her, and it just got me thinking about how, you know what, I don’t think a lot of us really talk to our online students, like, literally talk on the phone. I know some faculty have the online office hours, I know people are using video conferencing systems, I’m available, but one of the things I’ve started doing is just saying, “Hey, if you have a quick question, just call me. We’ll talk it through.” And sometimes a five-minute conversation can ease that student’s anxiety and answer a few questions. This happened to me again yesterday where a student was like, “Before I submit tonight, can I please just check in with you?” I talked with her while I was commuting to campus and it’s just a way of talking person-to-person, humanizing the online learning experience. But like I said, I think somewhere along the line personally I had formed this opinion that we don’t actually talk to our online students. And I don’t know why that’s a perception because if you’re teaching in person you talk with your students. If there’s somebody who has a question after class, you stay a few minutes after and answer those questions. But I think for online faculty somehow we’ve missed that connection and it can be a powerful and so simple solution to helping our students thrive and succeed. I think faculty and students both overlook some of those simple solutions. It doesn’t have to be a long, tedious, written interaction in a discussion forum. It could be a phone call, and so much can be conveyed through the tone of voice and emphasis, just as I’m doing here today. And as we all do, when we’re teaching live. Just picking up the phone and calling the students or inviting them to call you. Simple, powerful.

Rebecca: I think you’re pointing to something that I know I’ve experienced even though I don’t teach online regularly. It’s just online communication is always written and it feels daunting and it feels really time consuming. And it feels like, “Oh I got to sit down and dedicate time to do this.” So it’s nice to be reminded that there’s other ways to respond.

Flower: Just in my own work somewhere along the line, I forgot about the phone in my day-to-day job. My full-time job is as an instructional designer and it seems like we never just pick up the phone anymore. It’s always email. And as you said, it just takes longer, especially if you have a little bit of confusion and you’re going back and forth on email. I literally in the past few months, I’ve just remembered how to pick up the phone and call somebody. Have a five-minute conversation, you get your questions answered. And just reminding ourselves of the importance of real- time interactions sometimes, and moving away from the requirement that everything needs to be written all the time. I’m a big fan of video announcements, I do that all the time in my online classes and again, the reason I do it is because tone of voice, inflection, emphasis, and funny faces sometimes, or just emphasis where I might just kind of widen my eyes a little bit to explain that, you know, “This is really important. Pay attention and focus.” Just finding these other forms of communication apart from writing can make a big difference in the online learning experience as well.

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

Flower: Well, I’m not quite done with this project. [LAUGHTER] So I’m wrapping up this book development. But what’s really making me passionate now is to really focus on being a crusader for online education. It’s undervalued. It’s under-supported. I know that faculty don’t see the joy of teaching online and I know that students approach it the same way like, “Well, I have to get this degree and I guess this is a convenient way to do it.” I just want to advocate for how online learning and teaching can be impactful, can be rewarding, and joy giving, and you don’t see that reflected even in the coverage of teaching in higher education. Most of the time, the focus is on what we’re doing in the classroom and that’s so important, but there’s a big gap. What are we doing in our online classrooms? I just want to move into that space and encourage people to think about how they teach in person, and how to do those things in their online classes in ways that are not so daunting that they never get around to it.

Rebecca: This has been really great. I’m looking forward to picking up your book and maybe thinking about teaching online. [LAUGHTER]

Flower: That’s right. And if you don’t mind, Rebecca, I’ll just pick up on that, which is that again, I think a lot of faculty don’t say, “Hey, wow, what a cool opportunity. I totally want to teach online.” For many faculty it’s a daunting prospect, “I don’t know how to do this.” But it can be a really great way to reinvigorate your teaching—to find new ways of finding and addressing those challenges. Keep in mind institutions have the support professionals, instructional designers and such, who can help if you’re thinking about moving into online teaching. Talk with some of those faculty support folks, talk with your colleagues, and jump right in. It’s more fun than a lot of people think.

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

John: Thank you.

Flower: Thank you. What an absolute privilege and honor to be here. Thank you.

[Music]

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

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

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

70. Dynamic lecturing

The lecture has dominated instructional practice for several centuries. In the last few decades, though, the lecture mode of instruction has often been criticized by advocates of active learning approaches. In this episode, Dr. Christine Harrington joins us to discuss evidence on the effectiveness of lectures and how we can create lectures that better support student learning. Christine is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at New Jersey City University and the author of Dynamic Lecturing and several other books related to teaching, learning, and student success. Christine has been the Executive Director of the Student Success Center at the New Jersey Council of County Colleges.

Show Notes

  • Dr. Christine Harrington Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at New Jersey City University (NJCU) Previously served as Executive Director of the Center for Student Success at the New Jersey Council of County Colleges (NJCCC)
  • Todd Zakrajsek – Co-author of Dynamic Learning
  • Dr. Neil Bradbury – Professor of Physiology and Biophysics at Rosalind Franklin University of Science and Medicine
  • Bradbury, N. A. (2016). Attention span during lectures: 8 seconds, 10 minutes, or more? Advances in Physiology Education,40(4), 509-513.
  • Richard Mayer- Professor of Psychology and Multimedia Learning at University of California at Santa Barbara
  • Mayer, R. (2019). How Multimedia Can Improve Learning and Instruction. In J. Dunlosky & K. Rawson (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Cognition and Education (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology, pp. 460-479). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108235631.019
  • New Jersey City University Ed.D. in Community College Leadership program
  • Dr. Harrington’s book, Dynamic Lecturing can be purchased from Stylus Publishing and listeners can use promo code: “ETS20” (excellent teaching series) to receive a 20% discount on the Dynamic Lecturing book or Dr. Harrington’s other book, Designing a Motivational Syllabus

Tea For Teaching episodes referenced

Student Feedback tools

Transcript

John: The lecture has dominated instructional practice for several centuries. In the last few decades, though, the lecture mode of instruction has often been criticized by advocates of active learning approaches. In this episode, we examine evidence on the effectiveness of lectures and how we can create lectures that better support student learning.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Christine Harrington, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at New Jersey City University and the author of Dynamic Lecturing and several other books related to teaching, learning, and student success. Christine has been the Executive Director of the Student Success Center at the New Jersey Council of County Colleges. Welcome Christine.

Christine: Thanks.

John: Welcome.

Rebecca: Actually it should be “welcome back.”

Christine: Thank you for having me again. I’m looking forward to a new conversation.

John: Our teas today are:

Christine: I am not today.

Rebecca: I am drinking Lady Grey.

John: And I’m drinking ginger peach black tea today. We’ve invited you here this time to talk about one of your other books on dynamic lecturing. It’s not uncommon for people to argue that lecturing is ineffective, but it’s still one of the most common forms of instructional delivery. Why is lecturing so often discouraged?

Christine: This is an interesting question. I’m not really sure where this stems from but I think that the push for active learning started to pit the lecture against the active learning approaches, the collaboration. And I really do believe that there is significant value in both approaches and I’m not sure why it became an “either or” kind of situation. But unfortunately, it really has, and one of the reasons that I decided to write this book was because the lecturing is the most common method, you know, it’s still the tried and true method of faculty rely on all of the time. And yet, there are very few resources or support to help faculty be effective at lecturing. If you go to a professional development conference, a teaching learning conference, you’re hard pressed to find a session—unless I’m there, I guess – on lecturing. I actually haven’t seen another one yet—so there really are not any resources for faculty on this and it’s not really fair that it got such a bad reputation, because there’s not validity in that thinking.

Rebecca: So that leads to a good question. What is the research on effective lecturing?

Christine: So in terms of what is effective, I think one of the first questions that we need to ask ourselves is, “Well what are we talking about?” because much of the research that exists out there, if you’re going to research a boring, monotonous lecturer… who’s got the old yellow papers and just is reading and not even looking at the students and engaging them, or you’re talking about a lecture that is dynamic and the presenter is passionate and excited about the topic. We’re not always measuring the same concept. And that’s true in group work as well. So really, when we talk about teaching and learning practices, and we try to look at the literature about what works and what doesn’t, it’s very complicated because of the complexities associated with the teaching and learning processes. However, there is research out there that does support the lecture. What much of the research really points to is that the lecture is most effective for novice learners. For students who have very little background knowledge in the subject matter, they need to have someone who’s an expert present that information in a way that they can take it in so that they are developing that expertise and hopefully learning that content. If you ask them to just engage in what’s been called inquiry-based learning or case-based learning, the research really shows that that approach is not as effective if you don’t have the background knowledge. So what in essence happens is that well-intentioned faculty and teachers use that approach and end up wasting a lot of precious learning time, because the students in the groups aren’t equipped yet to be able to tackle those high-level questions and to figure it out without the guidance. There’s some interesting research out there on the importance of it being done well, but also making sure that the lecture is done before the group work is done, so that the foundational knowledge kind of sets the stage for some of those more what we call traditional active collaborative learning experiences. So if you want to look at novice learners, you’re going to see a strong correlation between the lecture working and student success outcomes. And then there’s something called the expertise reversal effect. What happens there is the more that you know about the subject matter, the less helpful the lecture is and the more helpful those more active collaborative learning group exercises are. I still today learn from TED Talk or a great lecture. But I’m also going to really get a lot of value—especially in my area of expertise—out of dialoguing with other experts and engaging those conversations because I have a strong foundational background. So it’s kind of interesting when we think about “Does the lecture work or does it not work?” it depends on who you’re talking about, in what subject, for what purpose, under what conditions. So it’s not as simple as a yes or no, but I will tell you that there is a significant body of research that says the lecture is effective. It’s not that we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, we just need to make sure we’re using that method effectively.

Rebecca: One thing that you hinted at, Christine, is that with lecture from an expert, there seems to be an opportunity to ask questions, which is why just reading about stuff maybe isn’t always sufficient. If you have that opportunity to ask questions of the lecturer or am I reading into something that I shouldn’t be reading into?

Christine: No, I think you’re right on track there. And actually, I think that’s part of the reason why live lectures are more effective than online lectures… because in a live lecture, you as the expert get to see the puzzled looks on the faces. So even if they’re not offering up the questions, you can say, “I think I need to throw in another example.” And students can ask for clarification along the way, so that you’re not just going on without them following and getting the concepts that you’re discussing. Lectures are not one-way kinds of teaching methods, but they really are two-way processes. Even though it seems heavier on the expert delivering to the student, the student can be very engaged and also asked to be engaged through questioning and other activities during the lecture.

John: And it’s not necessarily an “either-or” condition… that you can embed active learning activities in the lecture, right?

Christine: And that’s exactly how I would define a dynamic lecture: that you would incorporate what I’ll call brief active learning breaks into the lecture because we don’t want to just talk at students for a really long time… and let’s face it, as faculty, we could do that. And quite honestly, it’s the easiest thing to do, especially when you know your subject really well. And you can just walk in and start talking about your subject matter. But that’s not necessarily going to lead to the highest levels of learning. So when we look at what our learning outcomes are for the course, we need to structure our course in a way that’s going to help students learn and achieve those learning outcomes. So in order to do that, it’s really powerful to build in some brief reflective opportunities for students to engage with the content. And Mayer has really done a lot of work in this space, saying that it’s a cognitive focus that needs to be emphasized more so than an interactive focus. So the breaks don’t always need to be a social or group break. It doesn’t have to be a partner activity or a small group activity. Some of them can be independent activities. The key is that once you get a certain amount of information, you need to process that information and digest it and there are a variety of techniques that you can use to help students really learn that content. One of my favorite studies—which is a little bit disturbing, and in fact, I always say it hurts our feelings when we find out what it actually says—there’s a research study that compares students who had no pause in their lecture. So that the professor just kept talking the entire time sharing all the expertise in an effective strategy and an effective way. And then another condition where the instructor paused three times for two minutes each. So we’re talking about a total of six minutes during the class period that the professor stopped talking and during that time the research study was set up such that the students had to do what’s called a “compare and share” of their notes. They had two minutes to take a look at what their partner wrote down, fill in any gaps that they had, and engage in that. And at the end of the day, what they found out was that the students in the pause condition really outperform significantly students in the no-pause condition and it sounds exciting at first until you realize that “You mean, If I stopped talking for six minutes my students learn more?” like that kind of hurts their feelings. [LAUGHTER] But it’s true. Sometimes especially at the end of a class, we start talking faster and faster and trying to give more information as if that’s going to lead to high levels of learning. We need to keep in mind that students need time to digest and process. And it’s really important that we strategically and intentionally build in those opportunities for our students during our lecture.

John: And as they’re building their own mental models, just giving them a little time to process it and to compare notes takes advantage of peer instruction. You’ve got some reflection going on there, and you’ve got a little bit of retrieval going on there. So there’s a lot of evidence-based strategies that are embedded in that basic activity.

Rebecca: I think it also helps students who might start feeling panicked because they didn’t get everything in their notes… give them a second to maybe fill it in and then they don’t feel so panicked and they can focus again. If you get anxious because you feel like you’re behind, it’s really hard to focus.

Christine: Absolutely, and it is human nature for us. Our attention wanders, no matter how wonderful a lecture is, life is happening to you. Sometimes it’s easy to have mind wandering happen and you don’t want students to be penalized for that happening for a brief moment. So giving them opportunities to get back on track and refocus I think is really important. And John, as you mentioned before, there are several of these great learning breaks that you can use that are very, very much grounded in the research. You mentioned retrieval practice, for instance and we all know about the testing effect and how powerful that is. And I think we focus primarily on taking tests and encouraging quizzing—and that’s definitely an important component of what we should be doing in the way that we structure our classes so that students get to benefit from the testing effect—but quite honestly, we don’t have to grade everything and not everything needs to be called a quiz or a test. But if you ask students to do the classic, one-minute paper, for instance, that really is retrieving the content that they just learned and giving them practice at doing that will make it more likely that they transfer those actions into their world outside of the classroom, so that when they’re studying, they also engage in those same kinds of evidence-based practices.

Rebecca: I think a lot of times when you hear good lecturing, people think about TED Talks and maybe some of the storytelling and things that happen or the visual strategies that are used in those talks. Are there elements of those that come into strong dynamic lecturing in the classroom? Are there things that are missing from those that we should be thinking about in our own classroom?

Christine: I think you talked about something that’s really important: Storytelling. For ages and ages storytelling has been a way that we have learned and I think we have all been on the edge of our seats in a lecture that was based on storytelling. We want to know what’s going to happen next. And the lecture really can become the story of our discipline. And we can weave in personal stories and examples and things to make the content come alive for our students. It really puts it into context for them and helps them identify and see the relevance of the material that’s being discussed in their real world application. So to me, I think storytelling is probably one of the reasons why lecturing is so effective if it’s done well and you are weaving that in and mesmerizing your students with the chapter content. The the key element is doing that effectively. So I would say, “Absolutely, that is great.” Although TED Talks, when you think about them, obviously they’re online and they’re one directional still. So stories can be more just told by the storyteller and not have audience participation or they’re stories where you think back to your days in elementary school, where the teacher would pause and ask for you to get engaged in the story and maybe predict what would happen next, and to think about examples from your own world. And I think that’s what we can do in the live lecture, sitting there with students face to face we can give them those opportunities to do a prediction. “What do you think this research study is going to find? What is the key finding going to be? You heard how the study was set up, what are the implications of that?” You’re getting them to think about it and to be really engaged in the story and participants in the story, I think is one of the areas where we can as faculty enhance the effectiveness of the lecture.

Rebecca: How does a faculty member learn to be a better storyteller?

Christine: I think that some of that’s natural, I think some of us are more naturally better storytellers than others. But one of the strategies that I suggest to faculty is for you as the expert to take a step back and to think about what are the key elements of your story? Or what are your big ideas of your lecture? Because it’s all natural, and it all flows to you as an expert, because you know, this material so well. But for your students who are getting exposed to it for the first time—or maybe on the second or third time hearing this content—they don’t know what the big ideas are. So I think that one of the strategies that faculty can use to become better storytellers is to almost map out what are the many chapters in this book that I’m telling, right? Who are the characters and the main players? What are the big theorists that we’re going to talk about? Or, what are the big researchers that we’re going to discuss? And what are the key variables—or the factors really—that are going to comprise this story? I think one of the most helpful things you can do as a faculty member to strengthen your lecture, is to step back and identify what are the three big ideas or major elements of this lecture for today. And if you’re able to do that, and then clearly communicate those to the students in the beginning and throughout every time that those big ideas are getting introduced, that will really help students hone in on the most important elements versus getting lost in some of the details of the story.

John: That’s one of the ways it helps reduce the cognitive load of the students so they can focus on those key points, without getting lost in the details that they’re not quite ready to incorporate into their models. What do we know about student attention and how we can keep student attention during a lecture? I know sometimes when I have a large class of 3 to 400 some odd students, sometimes their attention will wander. What can be done to try to keep that, a more constant level of attention and focus?

Christine: Well I don’t know what you’re doing, John, I don’t have that problem. [LAUGHTER] No, only kidding. [LAUGHTER] Attention during a lecture as an interesting topic. You know, I’ve been going around the country doing a lot of presentations on dynamic lecturing. And as you know, my colleague and co author, Todd Zakrajsek speaks on this topic quite a bit. He said, “Christine, try this out when you go present. I want you to ask the audience how long a student can pay attention during the lecture.” He said, “Just throw the question out there and see what they say.” And I have done this and he has done this, you know, we’ve compared and shared notes of ourselves and immediately people are throwing out numbers. It doesn’t take very long at all, the numbers usually start out like and hover in that 15 to 20 minute range —although I get, you know, some wise guys in the audience a 90 seconds and some others who are more optimistic, saying larger amounts — but immediately they’re throwing numbers out. So I said to Todd when I was writing the book, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I’m usually pretty good at finding the research. I can’t find the research on this topic.” I said, “I heard this over and over. I’ve been to professional conferences where the presenter has said 15 to 20 minutes is all that folks can maintain their attention for, so you’re going to have to change things up if you want them to stay attentive and I couldn’t find it.” And we had this really deep conversation about it. And he says, “Now go and ask those audiences, how long would a student be able to pay attention if they were reading” and immediately you hear silence for a minute, because they’re processing and they’re trying to decide how long it would be for reading. So you don’t get answers right away. What almost always happens is somebody says, “It depends” pretty quickly. Or if they do say any numbers — and they do sometimes — they’re usually saying it in a much more tentative voice, lower, not as loud and enthusiastically, and not with confidence. Todd and I will say to our audiences is, “Why is that? Well doesn’t it depend for both the lecture and the reading?” It depends a lot on whether I liked the book, if it’s written in a way that I can understand it, am I able to take it in — if I’m reading a really dense, heavy textbook in a subject I don’t know and I don’t understand what I’m reading — I’m going to be done with that in a couple of seconds. But if I’m reading something that I really enjoy, and I have some background knowledge on and I’m able to take in and I care about, then I’m going to read for hours at end. I mean, you could be on the beach reading all day long, right? The same is true in a lecture. There really is no magical number about how many minutes a student can pay attention to. It depends on how much they care and their personal variables as much as the professor variables. Obviously, the attention span would be longer in an interactive, engaging presentation versus a monotonous boring presentation. The folks who talk about the 15 to 20 minute mark, it’s really not based on the research. However, there is some mind-wandering research that does say that students report higher levels of mind wandering in the second half a class as compared to the first half of class. It seems that there is a small drop around that 20 minute mark, that may have been where it came from. But, I have to be honest with you, some areas I can tell you those robust data or we have like hundreds of studies — this is a handful of studies, we don’t have an enormous body of research in this space — but the good news is, is that it started to get people thinking about: “I guess, if we need to keep students attentive, then we need to switch things up.” And I don’t think that was bad practice. Despite it not being founded on good research, I think that the result was probably positive if faculty were in fact incorporating some active learning break that could be advantageous for student learning.

John: Actually, this is a topic we talked about in an earlier podcast. In Episode 16, one of the people we interviewed, Neil Bradbury, had written a paper on attention span during lecture because he was faced with the same thing. He kept being told that you should keep your lectures or videos to 10 to 15 minutes or so at the most. And so he went to try to find the research and he published this in the Advances in Physiological Education a couple years ago. He found that it was based on a study that was really just looking at note taking and it was done in one class and it was based on an analysis of students’ notes and how much they wrote during different periods of the lecture, which had very little relationship necessarily to the importance of what was being discussed and so forth. And that became cited over and over again in other studies, and then people just started repeating it without ever seeming to go back and analyze that. And I think there was another podcast where someone had looked at attention on videos, he was looking at how effective videos of different links were on student learning — it was in chemistry, I believe. There really isn’t much research on a student attention span. And that obviously will vary, as you said, with the quality of the presentation. The students are willing to spend hours watching movies, we don’t see them walking out or starting to chat with their friends 10 or 15 minutes in, normally.

Christine: Right. And I think that some of the online video research that people rely on is sometimes is for non-educational purposes, so they’re looking at the attention span of someone watching a video from a marketing perspective. But when there’s no grade attached, we’re in a different situation. Hopefully we’re with an audience that has some motivation, they’re in the class, they’re in college, so their motivational level, I think, is very different than a consumer. I think it’s problematic that we’re trying to bring all of this really heavy, deep content into these like very brief news clips. But don’t think that this is the way that students are going to learn best. I remember I was working with someone and they were convinced they had to be two minutes or less. I’m like, “What can I accomplish in two minutes or less?” I mean, I can give you a quick news flash, but if you want to have deep learning, we’re going to have to have a deeper conversation. And I suspect you’re going to want additional examples from me, and you’re going to want me to share the relevance and that will actually help you. So, I think online videos are not as engaging as in-person videos. We probably do need to have them maybe in shorter chunks, but the key is is trying to bring their attention back and your initial question was, “How do you maintain their attention throughout?” And one of the strategies I think that we’re all very aware of is that we need a hook or something at the beginning of a presentation or beginning of a class. But we don’t really think about the hook throughout the class. So I advocate for faculty to go back to those three big ideas that I asked them to identify and identify a hook or an attention grabber before you introduce each big idea. It can vary, I get kind of silly in my classes sometimes, and we’ll use hand gestures and things of that nature. But for the faculty member who’s not comfortable doing that, you can do something as simple as saying, “Here’s big idea number two coming your way,” right? Because it doesn’t have to be that complicated. So I think the idea is that our lectures just like textbooks are filled with more important content and less important content and when we’re talking about the more important content, the chapters bring attention to that with bold headings and things of that nature. What are we doing in our lecture to help them see? Where is the bold heading of our lecture? Do they get to see those subheadings? Can they figure that out or are we in a little rabbit hole of detail somewhere… that they don’t necessarily even need all of that information?

John: In one of our earlier podcasts, Alex Butler was using an example where there were certain key big ideas in his class and he used images on that. And he put those images on whenever there was an application of those big ideas. And that sounded like a really nice application continued over the whole semester, not just within a single lecture, even.

Rebecca: I couldn’t help but hear as you were talking, “accessibility, accessibility, accessibility.” because structured content is one of the biggest themes of accessibility — or one of the biggest principles to make things accessible digitally — but you’re talking about the same exact concept in a lecture. What is the skeleton or the outline of what we’re talking about so that people can kind of fill in the blanks? And sometimes you have to make that obvious to someone who doesn’t have the expertise that you have because it’s obvious to you what those are.

John: To develop the scaffolding that they need to make sense of it all to fit it all together.

Rebecca: And an outline is like a scaffolding.

Christine: That’s excellent. Yeah, I love it. That’s an excellent point. That’s terrific.

Rebecca: I was wondering, Christine, if you could talk us through one of your lectures, one of your classes. What does it look like? What does it feel like?

Christine: Sure. So I begin class with an activity called “dusting off the cobweb.” So the first thing that I do is, they know as soon as we walk into the class together, they got to put their books away, their notebooks away, and they need to just rely on their brains to engage in practice retrieval. And the question on the table is, What did we talk about last class? So they have a minute and a half to begin that exercise. And they’re talking with a partner and they’re trying to remember what they recall from last class. After about a minute and a half or so then I have them open up their books and their notebooks and fill in any gaps. So they’re going to continue to talk about What did we talk about? And at this point you hear, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I forgot about that” and I’m sitting out there thinking, “Yeah, I can’t believe you forgot about it, but I’m glad you’re remembering now.” So about three minutes or so passes, and then what I do is I’ll randomly call on students. I’m not a fan of randomly calling on students if you don’t give them processing time… talking about accessibility issues and students with disabilities and processing information in a different way. But after I gave you three minutes to do what I call a fairly low-stakes engagement, I think you’re all fair game. So I’m going to call on you and you’re going to remind us of what we talked about from last class. So now we spent about another five minutes or so recapping some of the highlights. If they don’t mention something that I think is particularly important for us to refresh on, especially given the new content that we’re going to do, then we do that. So I always begin with this because what that does is it activates their prior knowledge so that they’re ready to take in the new information and the new information will be easier to learn because it can stick onto that previous knowledge that they just learned from the last class. So that takes about, you know, five or seven minutes or so. The next thing I usually do in my lectures, I shift to a reading assignment so they usually have some kind of reading assignment — might be a journal article, might be the chapter — and they have questions that they need to answer. This is another activate their prior knowledge kind of activity and holding them accountable for the reading and learning outside of class so that I’m not having to spoon feed everything to them. So now we spend another 10 or 15 minutes where they go over those questions, and this will be with a different partner, and I actually go around the classroom and do spot checking of their assignment while they’re engaged in those activities and I grade them — they’re, you know, low stakes kind of grades, but I grade them nonetheless. So it keeps them on track and it really keeps them focused and interesting that you mentioned that the visual image before because sometimes I’m asking them to do their reading assignments in picture format, like I want them to use either SmartArt or graphics or images because otherwise I find that they’re trying to like copy content that they don’t get. So I’m trying to get them to digest the content as best they can when we’re working together. So then when we’re done with that, now as I spot check, I can see which topics seem to be the ones that they got pretty well. And I still will go over them, but in a much briefer way versus the topics that I could see that they might have been struggling with and they had questions like, sometimes I’ll be walking around, it will be like, “Dr. Harrington, I really didn’t understand this question” and that might be a theme. So then that’s the one that I’m spending a little bit more time on. It’s kind of a very modified version of the intro teaching. It’s not quite exactly following that model but I’m using that reading activity to kind of guide the lecturing and then during the lecture, I will identify what my three big ideas are and I usually do some kind of gesture. So I’ll introduce it with like a gesture about whatever the topic is, get them really excited. I get a little loud and excited, “It’s big idea number one time!” and then I go into the content and then I always have a practice opportunity after it. So after every big idea — and that varies, it might be as simple as a turn and talk or one-minute summary. Sometimes I put them into smaller groups to do like a case study or to develop and answer Socratic questions related to the content. So that piece will vary depending on the nature of what it is that I’m talking about — and I’ll repeat that through the next two big ideas. And then at the end of class I usually will do a very quick — it might be only five minutes — like a preview of the next chapter to make it a little bit easier for them to read. So I’ll highlight stuff, I know that a content’s coming up, let’s say it’s the learning chapter in psychology. I know classical conditioning is often challenging for them to wrap their hands around, I might give them an example and expose them at least to some of the vocabulary and the language that’s going to be in the chapter so that they’re all set and ready to roll with the reading assignment for the next time. That’s kind of what a typical lecture would look like for me.

Rebecca: Thanks. I think a lot of times we often hear some best practices but don’t really take time to think about how that actually plays out throughout an entire class period.

Christine: Mmm-hmm. In the back of the book, you’ll see that there are lots of forms that I have created for faculty and one of them is the sequencing. So, on one of the forms, I’m asking them to plan by identifying: what are the big ideas? How are they going to draw attention to those? What examples are you going to give? What kind of active learning break are you going to give? And then there’s another document that helps them sequence the activity: to always begin with some kind of introductory activity, and then going through those three big ideas and at the end, some kind of concluding activity to get them set for the next learning adventure.

John: Those worksheets and forms that you provide at the end of the book are superb, and that alone is a good reason to buy the book, in addition to all the other wonderful content included in it.

Christine: Thank you.

John: For those people who use multimedia in presentations… who use PowerPoint or visual imagery or perhaps videos, do you have any recommendations on how multimedia could be used or how presentations can be designed to more effectively maintain student attention?

Christine: Absolutely. I think that this is another area that’s gotten the baby thrown out with the bathwater. You see all these sessions, Death by PowerPoint… that PowerPoints are overdone, and sometimes people are rolling their eyes if you’re going to use a PowerPoint. Well again, the PowerPoint is an incredibly effective tool, if it’s done well. If it’s done poorly, it’s an incredibly ineffective tool. We need to make sure we’re using evidence based practices for creating the multimedia, whether it’s slides, videos, whatever tool it is that you’re using. And this is an area that has a robust amount of literature. Mayer has done, I think hundreds of experimental studies on what works best with multimedia presentations and has really found that adding visual images really enhances learning. In psychology, we have a concept called the picture superiority effect, where our memory for pictures is stronger than our memory for word. Something I didn’t mention before in terms of my presentation, my lecture, I always have the PowerPoint as my visual backdrop. It’s not our textbook on slides, it’s really a visual story. It’s kind of like the picture to the storybook. That’s what I view the multimedia presentations to be. So if you look at his research, basically you should have one big giant image and maybe a couple of words associated with that image, and that would be the best PowerPoint slide. And I joke with a lot of my faculty colleagues and I’m like, “Look, I know that I’ve had those slides with so many bullets.” In fact, I’ve heard professional say you’re only to have so many bullets and so many words. Well again, I can’t find any research on any of that. No, stop the bullets, stop the words, go with one big image and just a couple of words. But I said to my faculty colleagues, “I know I too have had slides that had too many words on them. And I’ll tell you exactly why that was the case. It was because I was just starting to teach that class and I didn’t want to forget something. So it was a tool for me, it was not a tool for them. What I learned to do is to have two separate tools, I could still have my additional notes if I didn’t want to forget something. But it is not a visual aid to put it there because it’s not helping them, it’s hurting them.” So to create a powerful presentation really means you need to think clearly about what images are best going to communicate your content, and then to put that up on the board as a visual backdrop, and then take any notes that you need to put it aside and it can be helpful to share those notes. Again, going back to the accessibility issue, if you have notes, why not share them with students? It’s a good idea to share them, but they’re not visual aid for your lecture. Because students can’t do what Mayer called, the redundancy principle. But I actually like to call it the be quiet or shut up principle. We can’t listen and read at the same time. So if you have a slide that has a lot of words, you have students saying, “Hmm, should I be reading this? or should I be listening to what that person is saying? I can’t do both at them same time.” And what usually happens is nothing, so you don’t get anything out of it. If you do have to use a lot of words on the slide, which I think would be a very rare occasion, then you should shut up and let them read it or read it together — I don’t think it matters one way or the other. I’m not familiar with any research that points you in one direction — and then describe it, but don’t talk over your slides. That really is problematic for learning. It’s not even that it’s not helpful, it’s actually harmful to learning.

John: In presentations, instructors will often use some technology to get feedback from the students. What are some effective ways of getting feedback from all of your students or for many of your students, during a presentation?

Christine: Well, I think that the technology tools available today really allow us to engage our students in a new way. So whether you use something like a Poll Everywhere, or a Kahoot! tool or clickers, or asking them to engage via Twitter, there’s so many tools out there that can get students engaged. And I think especially with large classrooms, if you’re trying to lecture, sometimes you don’t know whether they understood the concept that you described. And even asking a quiz question about it, and having them answer it via technology can show you and them whether or not everybody’s kind of on the right track. Now, of course, whenever you introduce technology, you also introduce the possibility of increased distraction. So you have to be mindful. I think that you want to be careful about it. And I think students often respond well to faculty when they believe that you really care about them and are interested in them being successful. So by sharing the rationale and structuring it before you begin to use those tools — and you might even make a joke about it and say, “Look, I’m going to be having you pull out your cell phones but you’re going to also have to put them back, you know, so we’re going to be like on cue here, it’s out, in, you know, like bring them into the class, put them out of the class.” — So I think it is important for us to recognize that the temptation to be distracted is going to be high once we start using their cell phones, because there could be a message on there that they all of a sudden pulls them into a different direction. But the value of getting everyone engaged is powerful and some faculty will even count those to increase their accountability throughout the class and to keep them more focused on the questions if they do count in some way. But I think you have to be careful about that because some students may need more time on task to learn that content. So if I didn’t get it in five minutes, I don’t think I should be penalized. So, it is a tricky process and I think you just need to know your students and what works best in your classroom. But there’s so many great tools out there that really allow faculty to engage students throughout, and engage them in the practice retrieval actions as well.

Rebecca: So one of the things that faculty always want to know is whether or not they’re doing a good job. So how would you recommend faculty get useful feedback about the quality of their lectures and maybe tips for improvement?

Christine: Yeah, I think this is a really important point because I have heard about some faculty actually getting poor evaluations just because they use the lecture. So I think that we have to do a variety of things. First of all, we need to, A: educate our peers, and obviously our chairs and deans and whatnot, about the value of the lecture. And then we need to then figure out well, how can we best evaluate whether or not a faculty member is doing an effective lecture or not? In the back of my book, I also do have a chapter on evaluating lectures and I think that the listeners would probably find it valuable to go through that to see. Because what I basically have done is, taken all of the research-based practices and turn them into kind of self-evaluation or peer-evaluation questions. You can also engage in self assessment as well as the peer assessments, I think both are critical to have you really think about. I think it’s essential that we talk to the person who’s observing us ahead of time so they have context for what’s happening. So to have kind of a pre-meeting that really describes what’s happened and transpired in the class before this isolated lecture that you’re coming into, so that they know any of the story about why it is you might be doing what you’re doing. And also to ask them specifically: “You know, I’m trying out this new brief active learning break, we haven’t done this one before. Maybe we’re going to try asking one another Socratic questions, could you help me be another pair of eyes to see, were people engaged in this? Were they struggling? Were the instructions clear? Were they taking the ball and running with it right away or where they fumbling and not really knowing what to do immediately and needed more guidance?” I think that there are so many strategies, it’s not like there’s a wrong or a right way to do it exactly. I think that the key is, are you integrating the research based practices in a way that supports the learning goals of your class? So really keeping hyper focused on the learning outcome that you’re trying to accomplish that day.

John: So we always end with a question: What’s next?

Christine: Well, I mentioned to you before that I just took on a new position, so I’m now at New Jersey City University. I am a faculty member and also co-coordinator in our brand new (Ed. D.) Community College Leadership program. So as part of this, I mean my primary focus is going to be obviously the launching of this new program, some of this includes curriculum development, and marketing, and recruitment. And I’m really excited to get this program off the ground because we really need to build the leadership capacity in the community college sector, at all levels. So very excited about that. But I do have a new book that I’m going to be writing, I actually just got the contract last week, it’s going to be about the guided pathways movement, which is all focused on increasing student success completion rates. And it’s primarily a community college initiative, although, many of the four year colleges also have been getting into the space, and the book is going to be focused on engaging both full- and part-time faculty in Guided Pathways Leadership. So to get them engaged in this movement, and to really see themselves as leaders in the student success reform efforts… so really excited about that and I have some other potential things in the mix to that hopefully will pan out as well. But lots of great stuff happening for me, so I really appreciate this opportunity and look forward to staying connected with both of you.

John: We really appreciate you joining us.

Rebecca: Yeah, we always have a lot of fun and walk away thinking about a lot of things we can start doing to improve our own classrooms.

John: And you can find Christine’s books at Stylus Publishing, and I believe there’s a discount code available for our listeners.

Christine: Yes, if they put in ETS — which stands for excellent teaching series — 20, they will get a 20% discount on the Dynamic Lecturing book but also the Designing a Motivational Syllabus, and I believe it’s going to work for all the books in the series that will eventually come out. So it will be a 10 book series once all of the books are out and published, but ETS20 would be that discount code.

Rebecca: Well, thanks for joining us. We always have a great time.

Christine: Well, thank you. Always my pleasure, I appreciate it.

John: Thank you.

[Music]

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

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

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

65. Retrieval Practice

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

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

Show Notes

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

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

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

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

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

John: IIt sounds good.

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

Michelle: Yup.

Rebecca: A nice tall one.

Michelle: That’s what I need.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle: Great.

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

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

Rebecca: Sounds like fun.

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Those are very good reminders.

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

Rebecca: Do you mean learning’s not easy?

John: Students would like learning to be easy.

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

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

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

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

Michelle: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: …and they were having fun.

Rebecca: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Sounds like some exciting adventures.

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

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

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

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

60. Inclusive Teaching

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

Show Notes

Studies of bias in the classroom:

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

John: Welcome.

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

John: Our tea’s today are…

Danica: I’m drinking a coconut lime seltzer.

Rebecca: That sounds pretty good.

Danica: It is.

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

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

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

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

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

Danica: Okay.

Rebecca: Very rainy today.

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

Rebecca: I have the Prince of Wales tea.

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

Danica: Sounds yummy.

John: It is good.

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

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

Rebecca: Well that sounds really exciting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danica: Yeah.

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

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

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

Danica: Exactly.

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

Danica: Yeah, definitely.

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

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

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

Danica: Certainly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.

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

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

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

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for joining us. [Music]

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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.

59. Gatekeeping in Math Ed

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

Show Notes

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

Other resources:

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

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Our guest today is Dr. Marcia Burrell, the Chair of the Curriculum and Instruction Department at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Marcia.

Marcia: Thank you.

Rebecca: Welcome. Today our teas are…

Marcia: Earl Grey with caffeine.

Rebecca: Extra caffeine. [LAUGHTER]

John: Mine is just a pure peppermint tea today.

Rebecca: And I have a jasmine green tea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: …a lot of evidence-based practices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marcia: Correct. That’s correct.

Rebecca: The method doesn’t match the material.

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

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

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

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

Marcia: Correct. Correct.

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

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

Rebecca: That’s really incredible.

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

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

Marcia: Thank you.

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

John: It’s a major social justice issue.

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

John: Well, thank you.

Rebecca: Thank you so much.
[Music]

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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.