171. Burnout

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

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

Show Notes

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

Transcript

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

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

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

John: Happy to have you here.

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

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

John: We have some of that in our office.

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

John: I still have some Christmas tea with cinnamon.

Rebecca: Yum.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: mmm, sounds lovely.

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

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Ooh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: It’s so hard.

REBECCA P. It really is.

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: And fun.

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

Rebecca: Imagine that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REBECCA P.: It is.

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

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

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

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

John: Jamboard, maybe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yes, absolutely.

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Sounds really exciting.

John: Have you set up a site yet?

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

Rebecca: I look forward to listening to that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Definitely.

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

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

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170. Preparing for Spring 2021

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

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

John: Our teas today are:

Carmen: Green tea.

Rebecca: Yum, I have Red Sun tea.

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

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

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

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

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

Carmen: It sounds delicious.

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

Rebecca: Oh, I know the one.

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

John: It probably would. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carmen: And why is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: That sounds like John. [LAUGHTER]

Carmen: Yeah?

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

Rebecca: My brain can’t handle that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Easy is what we all want.

Carmen: …what we all need.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carmen: Thank you so much.

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

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

Rebecca: Thanks so much.

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

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

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

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169. Statistical Simulations

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

Show Notes

Additional simulation resources:

Transcript

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

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

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

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Matt: Today’s tea is lemon ginger.

Rebecca: Well, that sounds good.

Matt: Yeah, that’s a fave.

Rebecca: How ‘bout you, John?

John: I have Christmas tea…

Rebecca: Aha.

John: …with a cinnamon stick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: How do your simulations use R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: Inferential learning about inferential statistics.

Matt: [LAUGHTER] Absolutely, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: Ally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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168. Synchronous Online Learning

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

…and now we return to our regularly scheduled podcast.

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

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

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

John: Our teas today are:

Rebecca: I have Scottish breakfast once again.

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

Rebecca: That sounds much healthier than my choice.

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

Rebecca: This is not mine, either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Excellent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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148. Active Learning: 6 Feet of Separation

During the fall 2020 semester, many faculty will be working in a classroom environment in which they will be in a classroom using a video conferencing tool to work simultaneously with a mix of remote students online and masked and physically distanced face-to-face students. There are significant challenges in using active learning techniques in this environment. In this episode, Dr. Derek Bruff joins us to explore some active learning strategies that may work under these very unusual circumstances.

Derek is the Director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a Principal Senior Lecturer in the Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics. He is the author of Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments, as well as his most recent book on Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching. Derek is also a host of the Leading Lines podcast.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: During the fall 2020 semester, many faculty will be working in a classroom environment in which they will be in a classroom using a video conferencing tool to work simultaneously with a mix of remote students online and masked and physically distanced face-to-face students. There are significant challenges in using active learning techniques in this environment. In this episode, we explore some active learning strategies that may work under these very unusual circumstances.

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

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

John: …and

Rebecca: , a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guest today is Dr. Derek Bruff. Derek is the Director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a Principal Senior Lecturer in the Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics. He is the author of Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments, as well as his most recent book on Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching, which we talked about in an earlier podcast. Derek is also a host of the Leading Lines podcast. Welcome back, Derek.

Derek: Thanks. I’m glad to be here. I’m glad to be back on the podcast. And I just want to say I’ve been very impressed at the work you two have been doing these past several months. I used to say Leading Lines comes out on the first and third Monday of every month. And now I say Leading Lines comes out when it comes out. [LAUGHTER] And so, keeping up the schedule that you guys have had with this podcast and bringing in so many great guests and having so many great interviews, it’s just been a really rich resource for me. And as someone who can’t keep up a regular podcasting schedule right now, I’m just very impressed at what you guys have been doing.

Rebecca: It’s all John.

John: We’ve gotten a lot of help from so many people, such as you, who have agreed to join us and share their thoughts in a really challenging time. And it’s been a really great resource for our faculty too, who are faced with all this uncertainty about the fall.

Rebecca: Me too, because I’m not teaching until the fall. I haven’t taught this spring. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Now’s a good time to be on sabbatical.

Rebecca: So, today’s teas are. Are you drinking tea, Derek?

Derek: No, I have some dark roast coffee.

Rebecca: Caffeine. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Yeah.

John: And I have ginger peach green tea today.

Rebecca: I have a summer berry green tea. See, I’m mixing it up, John.

John: That’s a new one.

Rebecca: I gotcha. I gotcha.

Derek: Yeah, sounds lovely.

Rebecca: Actually, you’d be very happy to know, John, that last time I was in Epcot. I got it. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’re recording this in July. It’ll be released probably in early August. And there’s a lot of uncertainty about the fall. Right now, probably most colleges and universities in the country, with a few notable exceptions, have announced that they’re planning to bring students back to campus for face-to-face instruction with reduced seating, with some students coming in remotely (typically through Zoom or some other video conference app), and you recently released a blog post that discuss options for maintaining active learning in this environment where some students will be there in the classroom, spread out to make it hard for them to be in contact with each other, as well as online with a video conference. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that sort of framework in terms of what possibilities there are for people to interact.

Derek: Sure. I wrote this blog post because I’ve been getting so many questions from my faculty at Vanderbilt, trying to imagine what the fall semester will be like. And I gave a presentation based on the blog post at a Vanderbilt faculty town hall the other week, and one of my slides said, “No one has ever done this before.” And I think that’s really important. So, what I’m imagining that a number of faculty will face this fall, and again, different campuses are making different decisions… and even within a single campus, there’s going to be a lot of different configurations… some faculty will be teaching fully online, some faculty will not… and so this is kind of what we’re trying to imagine is that if I’m teaching a class this fall and I’m back on campus, I’m in a classroom, I have some students there in the room with me, but because of social distancing requirements, they’re six feet apart from each other. Maybe we’re all wearing masks, maybe I have a face shield instead of a mask. There’s going to be some variability here. But some students will not be able to come to the classroom, either because the social distancing requirements mean that you can’t hold as many students in the classroom, or maybe they are unable to travel back to get on campus. A lot of our international students are not planning to come back on campus this fall for a variety of reasons. Or maybe you have a student who’s in quarantine, right? They’ve been exposed to COVID and they’re in quarantine for 14 days, and so they can’t come to the classroom. A lot of us teaching this fall. I don’t know how many, but a lot of us, are likely to have these classes where some of the students are in the classroom, but physically distanced and masked, and some students are participating at the same time, but virtually, perhaps through video conferencing tool like Zoom. And you may have some students who actually can’t do either of those. If they’re 12 time zones away, they may have to participate in your class asynchronously in some fashion. That’s a whole ‘nother level of challenge. In my blog post, I just focused on those first two groups of students, the in-person but physically distanced, and then the virtual students may be participating via Zoom. And I’ve been really careful in my terminology of how I describe this, and so I’m calling this a hybrid classroom, because hybrid is sufficiently generic [LAUGHTER] that it would apply to a situation like this. Hybrid typically means some combination of face-to-face and online activities. It’s not quite hyflex. So there’s this term you may have heard, hyflex, which I think means something more specific, where students really have a choice to participate in person, synchronously online, asynchronously online, and they may actually shift from those modalities over the length of the semester. The flex in Hyflex is the kind of student choice and the student autonomy piece and I’m not expecting we’re gonna have a lot of student autonomy this fall. We have some, certainly. Students are electing to be remote-only students or on-campus students, but it doesn’t feel like it’s quite hyflex in terms of the classic model there. That said, though, the folks who teach in a hyflex environment have developed teaching strategies that can work when you have students participating in the classroom and students participating online at the same time. That said, they haven’t had to deal with the physical distancing and the masks. That’s the part that really is novel, and I think it’s going to be important that we as instructors give ourselves a little bit of grace, knowing that literally no one has taught under these conditions in the past, this is new for us, it’s new for our colleagues at other institutions, it’s new for our students. This is going to be really weird and really challenging for them. And frankly, there are a lot who would argue that it might be easier to just teach fully online; that trying to kind of juggle the constraints in this kind of classroom is going to be really challenging for a lot of faculty. And I’ve talked to a lot of faculty who are like, I would just rather teach fully online this fall. And so I don’t want to speak too much into that choice. There’s a lot of factors that go into university decisions about kind of bringing folks back to campus this fall. Our work at the Center for Teaching, we’re trying to help faculty teach as well as they can in whatever conditions they find themselves. We don’t usually get to pick those conditions, right? And so, I just wanted to try to be helpful and so I wrote the blog posts because using technology to foster active learning in the classroom, that’s my jam. That’s what I’ve been writing about and speaking about for a decade and a half now. I wrote my book on teaching with classroom response systems back in 2009…. clickers and polling software… we have tools, actually. This classroom setup sounds really hard, and it will be hard. And there’s stuff about it that I can’t predict in terms of how hard it will be. But we do have some tools and technologies that can help foster more active learning in these types of environments. And so that’s what I wanted to lay out for my faculty colleagues, who couldn’t imagine how this could work at all. And I could see a few ways actually… a few tools that could make it functional. And so I wanted to share those strategies.

John: Before we talk about the specific strategies, maybe we could talk about some of the mechanics. One of the things you suggest is that you’re assuming that the people who are in the classroom will be able to see and hear the people speaking from outside over Zoom or some other videoconference tool, but what about voice going from the classroom to remote participants. Since the in-class students won’t be able to use their own microphones (to avoid possible feedback effects), how will students who are participating remotely be able to hear what other students say in the classroom?

Derek: Right? And that’s where I don’t know that there’s going to be a good answer to that. The audio piece is one of the more challenging pieces of this classroom environment… the students in the classroom getting to hear each other when they’re sitting far apart and wearing masks… but, even more so, the students who are participating virtually. How can they hear the students in the classroom? Presumably, the instructor will be running Zoom off of the classroom computer or their laptop, and they’ll have a webcam and a microphone. If I’m close to my computer when I’m running Zoom, people on the Zoom call can hear me. So, having the virtual students hear the instructor seems fairly straightforward, but the students in the classroom, they’re not going to come anywhere near that microphone. Now we have a few classrooms at Vanderbilt that have some ceiling mounted microphones that are going to help with that, and that will have some capability to pick up the student voices in the room. But, I’m anticipating that’s going to be a real challenge, actually. And so, again, I don’t have a silver bullet, but it does speak to the use of something like a backchannel tool. So like a text chat in a Zoom room or using a third party tool like Twitter, or GroupMe, or Slack, or Discord… a place where you can have a text conversation with all of your students during class. This is often called the backchannel. The front channel, it’s kind of you at the front of the room talking and having conversations with your students. But the backchannel is the text chat that kind of supplements that. And I’ve been doing stuff with backchannel for years. It’s a really interesting way to build community in the classroom, to give voices to more students to kind of create an on-the-fly closed captioning almost or documentation of the discussion that’s happening. It can be really powerful to have a good backchannel. It can also be really challenging. I think a lot of instructors who’ve dabbled with this have realized that when they are at the front of the room leading class, they don’t have the bandwidth to also pay attention to the text chat and see what’s happening there. And so what I’ve recommended is what I learned from Steve Gilbert and Steve Ehrmann years ago, doing webinars to have someone called the “voice of the chat.” Designate someone, maybe it’s a teaching assistant if you’ve got one of those, but it could be a student in the room, and it could rotate among students over time. Their job is to pay attention to the text chat, the backchannel, and then you as the instructor every so often, you would pause and turn it over to the voice of the chat and say, “What’s been happening in the chat? What are the questions that are emerging there? What are some ideas or comments that are really valuable?” Maybe the voice of the chat is someone on your Zoom call, one of your virtual students, because everyone will be able to hear that student. But that way the students who are in the room and the students who are participating virtually can engage in conversation during class, but in the text chat, and then you have these moments where you pull that conversation from the back channel to the front channel, using the voice of the chat. I’ve done this in a lot of online activities, and it works really well. [LAUGHTER] When I’m going to do an online webinar of some sort, I want to have a voice of the chat, someone who can play that role. And so this is actually a pretty proven technique. And I think it’s going to be fairly practical for our classes this fall. I’m glad you asked about this because class discussion. as we think of it in the generic sense, may be the hardest thing to do in this hybrid environment. For me to stand at the front of the room and show them how PowerPoint slides and lecture to my students, that’ll be relatively easy. That’s also something that you could do without students in the room, right? If you’re just gonna lecture then maybe that’s a pre-recorded something that you share with your students. That doesn’t have to be a live interaction of some sort. But the class discussion, the kind of student-to-student piece is going to be really challenging. And so back channel is one way to try to foster some of that in the classroom.

John: So, the students in the room would be encouraged to bring a mobile device to participate in the text chat and to avoid the feedback loop that would result if they were participating in the video chat using audio. That sounds like a really effective solution.

Rebecca: I think one of the other things that you had some interesting ideas about too was group work. One of the reasons why being in class could be appealing to someone is the idea of being able to collaborate or work on something together. But again, same problem as discussions.

Derek: Right. Yeah. So here’s where I’ve done this a couple of times, just because it was fun in my regular classes, is to use a Google sheet as a way to structure groups and their work and their reporting out. And so, years ago, in my stats course, we had an infographics project. So they had to do some data visualization. And so to get them ready for that, I had them look at some sample infographics. And I invited them to essentially crowdsource the rubric that we would use for the infographics they created. I set up a Google sheet that had across the top, it was kind of levels of quality from poor, acceptable, good, to excellent, and each row was blank. And the idea was that the students would work in small groups, they would look at these sample infographics and they would start to identify what are the components of a really good infographic, and each group would pick a different row on the Google spreadsheet and start to flesh out that component and how you would assess it from kind of poor to excellent. I think I had 100 students in the room when I was doing this. And they were working in groups of two or three, and there were all of these anonymous aardvarks all over the Google sheet, adding their ideas for the rubric and it was a little chaotic, but what I wanted from them was more than just a polling question, this wasn’t a multiple choice question. I wanted them to produce something. It was free response, but not just free response, it was a kind of structured free response. And so the Google sheet was a really nice tool for doing this. And so this is what I’m imagining doing thi fall. You can do this in a fully online, kind of a Zoom session, class. Or if you’ve got this kind of hybrid situation, imagine giving your students three questions to discuss in their small groups. You set up a Google sheet, put those questions at the top, one in each column, share that Google sheet with your students, and then send them off to do their small group discussion. As students in the room…. hopefully, this is part of the unknown… if you have two or three students in the classroom, six feet apart from each other wearing masks, will they be able to have a useful discussion as a small group? I hope so. Again, that’s part of the reason for being in the same place at the same time is to have that kind of student-to-student interaction. I don’t know that I would try groups of size six this fall, I might do groups of size two or size three. And the idea is, they would work in small groups. Meanwhile, on Zoom, your students are probably in breakout rooms, again in groups of size two or three, and they’re talking about the questions that you’ve given them, and they are reporting out, each group on a different row of the Google spreadsheet. Now this does a few things. One is you can monitor the Google spreadsheet as students are putting their responses in there. And that allows you to get a sense of how fast they’re moving through the work, when they’re starting to wrap up…. Oh, most of the students have answered questions one and two, but they’re really slowing down on question three. This is helpful information. You can also start to preview their responses and see what ideas are they bringing to the conversation, and that’ll set you up for whatever you do after the group work, to have a sense of what they’re saying. But, I’m also imagining, it’s a nice structured way for the groups to report out, to share, maybe even to focus. It may be that in the classroom, it’s hard for students to hear each other a little bit. And so you could even imagine, if we’ve got three people in our group and three questions, that each of us will draft a response to one question, and then we’ll rotate and revise each other’s drafts. And you can do that right there in the Google doc. This will take some creativity, it may take a little more coordination than you’re used to needing to do for in-class group work. But it’s also nice that, in this case, the Google sheet as a reporting structure would be the same structure for both your in-person and your online students. And so that simplifies things a little bit. And so, I can imagine that kind of technique working pretty well. Again, there’s a bit of an unknown about the students in the classroom and how well they’ll be able to hear each other. But, that would enable a form of group work that I think would be pretty functional. And it wouldn’t have to be a Google sheet. There’s lots of other online collaborative tools that you could use to have students report out in some fashion. There’s these kind of Whiteboard apps where you’ve kind of put sticky notes all over the board. So it could be something more like that. Or maybe they create a PowerPoint or a Google slides, each group has a different slide where they’re gonna put their answers, they’re gonna put their deliverable of some sort. Again, this is not maybe how we want to do group work, but I think it would be functional in the settings that we’re looking at this fall.

Rebecca: I think one thing that you mentioned in your article, which I also strongly advocate for is if you’re going to use some group work techniques, if you establish something that’s consistent so that you don’t have so much startup cost every time you do group work, that that might help too, for that consistency, and then you might get better responses I would imagine over the course of the semester when there’s less cost in terms of figuring out how to do the thing.

Derek: Absolutely. The first couple of times you do it, it’ll be awkward and hard and slow. But after your students have done it a few times, then it’ll be a lot easier to just kind of slide into this mode with your students.

John: You mentioned the use of polling. And when we moved to remote instruction, I continued that using Zoom, but we were completely remote. The way I did it, and I think this was something you recommended, something Erik Mazur had done, is you poll students with challenging questions, and then you have them work in small groups. In Zoom, that’s pretty easy. You send them into breakout rooms with groups of two (or maybe three, if you have an odd number of students.) How would you do that same type of thing in a classroom setting where you want people to engage in active discussions? Might that be a little challenging in the physical room where everyone can hear everyone else, given that they’re spread equidistant apart somehow?

Derek: Yeah. And so you know, I can imagine doing a polling question, having all of your students respond using the same polling tool. And again, this would assume that your in-person students have a device with them that they’re going to use to participate. Now it may be hard for them to do that via Zoom. You’d have to make sure everyone in the room had their microphones turned off and their audio muted because otherwise you’d have too much audio feedback. But if the students in the room were also in Zoom, but kind of silenced and muted, they could participate in the Zoom polling questions. Or you could go to another tool like TopHat or Poll Everywhere, something that lives outside of Zoom and do all of your polling there in parallel to your Zoom session. Either way, this does not seem to be the semester where you want to put a laptop ban in your classroom, we’re gonna need those tools. And you guys know, I’ve been advocating for years for effective intentional use of digital devices in the classroom. [LAUGHTER] So, we’re gonna need it, we’re not gonna have a choice. But now, let’s say you want to have your students turn to their neighbor and chat about the question. Again, in a normal classroom situation, that’s one of the easiest things you can do to build some active learning into your classroom. Give them a good hard question, have them answer it via the poll, then turn to their neighbor and talk it out together, see if they can put their heads together and get the right answer, and then maybe do a second round on the poll and see where things have shifted. It’s a great pedagogical structure. In the hybrid classroom, the turn to your neighbor and chat is going to be challenging, and so you could try to send your online students to breakout rooms and have them talk there and your in-person students pair up and talk to each other six feet apart. Again, until we do some more testing, I don’t know how practical that’s going to be in the classroom, I’m hopeful that it’ll kind of work. It may be that, what in a normal classroom, you might have them turn to their neighbor and talk for 60 seconds, and then move on, that may be too hard to do. And so if you’re going to have them do group work, you’re going to have them spend 10 minutes doing group work because they’re moving to a Google sheet or they’re doing something kind of bigger and more structured. The kind of quick informal pair work may be too challenging. One option that someone suggested to me that I thought was kind of interesting, though, was to have your students in the room, if you have paired them up with your virtual students, you can have the student in the room pull out their phone, put in their earbuds, and FaceTime with their virtual student partner to talk about the question. Again, the first time you do it, there’s a matching problem there, there’s logistics, there’s audio to figure out. The third or fourth time you do it, this may be a lot more fluid and an easier way to have students chat about the question at hand. It also has the added benefit of connecting your virtual students with your in-person students in more intentional ways. And so that could be really helpful for social presence and things like that. Again, a lot of this is going to be trial and error this fall and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.

John: Since you won’t necessarily have the same number of students online or remote, and it may be difficult to do that pairing, the pairing could work no matter where the other student was. If you’re in a lecture hall that seats 400, and you’ve got 100 people there or 80 people there, they might call someone 100 feet away… 200 feet away…

Derek: Sure. [LAUGHTER]

John: …which could work in the same way as if they were calling someone remotely.

Derek: Yeah. Right. [LAUGHTER] I’m in the southwest corner of the room and my partner is in the northeast corner. Sure. That could work.

Rebecca: We’re far away.

Derek: Right. I want to circle back to this question of why aren’t we just teaching online to begin with? And I think that’s a legitimate question. And I think it’s something that faculty and administrators have to really struggle with. What’s the value pedagogically of classrooms like this? Because a lot of it’s going to be really hard and awkward and, shall we say, sub-optimal. These are not the ways that we want to foster active learning and, like I said, the folks who aren’t fostering active learning, the folks who were just kind of, as the literature says, practicing continuous exposition by the teacher…. That, actually, is going to work no matter what you do this fall. If you’re fully online, if you’re hybrid, if you’re just going to do that, I would argue that that kind of instruction can work just fine online. And maybe that’s not a reason to have people in the room. So, why would you have people in the room? What is the kind of value added there? And one piece, I think, is that we’re all in this together, that this is challenging. I think we’re going to find some students this fall, who don’t want to be in the classroom, taking a health risk of some sort, encountering their instructors or fellow peers, and they’re going to really embrace the online option. I think you’re going to have some students who don’t want to have to stay where they are this fall, they need to come back to campus where they have reliable internet access and laptops that they can access and a library that they can access. We have a lot of students who, when they’re home, are not in conditions that are really conducive to teaching and learning. And so for some students, they’re going to actually welcome the chance to be back on campus and to be a part of that learning community again. And this is hard to talk about, because I think a lot of faculty have very strong reactions and opinions about what the fall is, and being required to teach online or being required to teach in person. But, I just want to put it out there, that I think our students are going to come at this from different perspectives. And so for some students that chance to come into class and awkwardly communicate a little bit with some peers may actually help them feel like they’re more engaged and more part of the learning community. I would also argue that, if we look at not just the individual class session, which may have this weird hybrid, physically distanced quality to it, but if you look at the semester, this fall, a lot of universities are announcing different calendars for the fall, they’re starting later, or they’re starting earlier. They’re finishing by Thanksgiving, they’re not doing fall breaks. We don’t really know what’s going to come this fall. And there’s pretty good odds that at some point, some campuses may need to pivot back fully online. And so if you think about designing a course for this fall, where you’ll have some virtual students, you may have students in vastly different time zones, you may have to pack the whole thing up and move it online at some point during the fall semester. Maybe you’re not assigned to teach the course online, but it’s still, I think, helpful to think about it as an online course, if you could design the course to really function well as a fully online course, and then treat your face-to-face component as a kind of add on, as a supplement, almost like a recitation section. So, there’s a little bit of this in a big lecture hall where you don’t have a lot of kind of student-faculty interaction, anyway. The recitation section is the kind of smaller space where you get to actually engage with peers more and talk about the stuff. And so if you’ve got a course that functions well, so that your assignments are online, a lot of your course communication is online, your key learning activities are online, but the face-to-face components, in this weird hybrid modality, are useful to that and supplemental to that, but if you had to give them up the course wouldn’t fall apart. I think that’s the way to think about this fall: as kind of online first, and then using the face to face to enhance what you can of the learning experience. Build the learning community, have that social interaction, give students a chance to practice and reflect on what they’re learning That’s still super useful. The other way to think about it, I would say, is maybe you’re not willing to kind of think about your entire course moving online right now. But, are there some key elements of your course that you can go ahead and move online at the start of the semester, so that if you have to move the rest of it online later, you’re in a better position. So, I think it was on your podcast that Jessamyn Neuhaus talked about having to learn how to do online assignment submission this spring; that she’d actually never gotten around to learning how to do that, which is fine. It was fine to have paper assignment submission up until the spring but then it became a requirement to do online. So this fall, make sure that you know how to use the assignment submission tool in your course management system and go ahead and plan on having students submit assignments that way. Make sure that you’ve got a good communication pathway with your students using email or the course management system or another tool like Slack or GroupMe, something where you can connect with students, maybe more informally. Go ahead and start using those tools from the beginning, so that if you do have to pivot fully online this fall, you’ve already got some essential components there.

John: That’s basically the approach we taken with our workshops here, and we’ve tried to help sell that to faculty, because it’s a bit of a lift for people who’ve only taught face to face before, by saying anything you create now is going to be something that you can use as a basis for future semesters of your course; that if you have these elements there, you can do a more flipped environment in your classroom, you can use your classroom for more active learning activities, and to the extent to which it results in more possibilities for active learning in the future, I think that’s going to be helpful.

Derek: Yeah, and I’ll add, we’ve been running an Online Course Design Institute at my teaching center all summer… every two weeks, all summer. We’re up over 300 participants in it at this point. A lot of faculty this spring figured out that online wasn’t necessarily as terrible as they thought it might be. They were able to connect with their students in meaningful ways and continue teaching in spite of the circumstance. And so we had a lot of faculty who woke up to some of the possibilities of online teaching this spring and then we’ve been working with faculty. he’ll spend two weeks with us in a pretty intensive institute, learning how to teach online, and a lot of them have a big shift in their opinion about online instruction over the course of those two weeks. They were initially skeptical that it could work nearly as well as face-to-face instruction. and they end the institute thinking, “Okay, this could be pretty exciting, actually, I see a lot of potential here.” And so that’s the other thing that I would suggest, that faculty keep an open mind about really the potential of online teaching. A really well designed online course can work just as well, sometimes even better, than a really well designed face-to-face course. And so it’s okay to kind of lean into that. And to let that be a bigger part of your kind of teaching toolbox this fall.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that you mentioned a little bit earlier in our conversation is like, why are you in person in the first place? What motivates being in person, I think you’re right about the social connection. even seeing other people who are also dedicating time to learning a particular thing could be useful, even if they’re not interacting with each other, and just in the same space at the same time. But also just if you’re there for equipment or other reasons, there might be ways of teaching using a lot of online techniques with the opportunity to have access to tools that they might not have otherwise. And it might be down to like access to a laptop or higher end technology or something that is in a lab or… I teach in a design studio, so some of the more expensive software, faster computers or things like that. So, we’re thinking through the ways that, maybe we don’t really need to be teaching so much, like there could be a lot of learning happening in the classroom at that time and not necessarily a lot of teaching… maybe some coaching and some interactions. But those interactions might actually be happening virtually,

Derek: Right. And you can imagine more of a kind of flipped model where some of the heavy lifting in terms of the teaching, the first exposure to the content is going to happen fully online through pre-recorded lectures or videos of some sort or other resources. And then that class time, as awkward as it is, is still an important part of having students apply things, practice things, get some feedback from someone else. That’s going to be a good model for the fall, I think.

John: Going back to something else you said earlier, the issue of the students who can’t be physically present during class time, there’s also the related issue of students who may not be able to be present virtually during class time if they become ill, or are remote and have limited computer access or bandwidth, or are in a different time zone. Would you recommend that faculty also start thinking about what types of asynchronous activities they can use to provide equivalent learning experiences for those students?

Derek: Yeah, that’s a good question. And again, I think this is the other thing that we’ve seen our faculty, most of our faculty don’t teach online. Our school of nursing has a really robust online program, but outside of that school, most of our faculty don’t have a ton of experience teaching online. So this has been kind of new territory for them. And one of the takeaways that many of them have from our Online Course Design Institute is realizing that you can do a lot of really valuable learning asynchronously online. For a lot of faculty this spring, online meant they had Zoom sessions with their students that essentially replicated what they would have done in the classroom face to face. But if you look at the last 20 years of online higher education, most of that work in higher ed has been asynchronous online learning. You build your course to work well asynchronously. And it’s only in the last couple of years that we’ve had the video conferencing technology that would make a synchronous online component something that you could really lean into in an online course And so thinking about some of your major learning activities and assignments and assessments, not just being online, but being asynchronous online, that’s a really good model to think about. I think one of the impulses is to say, “Well, I’m going to teach in this weird hybrid modality this fall, I’m going to have students in the room, I’m going to have students on Zoom at the same time, some of my students can’t make it during that time, so we’re going to record the Zoom session, and they can watch it later.” And that’s better than nothing, certainly, but watching someone else participate in class is not nearly as effective as participating in class yourself. And so I wouldn’t want faculty to just do that. That’s fine to do. But, I would want them to add something else intentionally to help those asynchronous students engage with the material. And it could be as simple as saying, “I want you to watch this Zoom session. And here are three questions I want you to answer by the end of that 50 minutes.” It could be a different set of questions than the students in the classroom are given to discuss… something a little more active to help them draw out some learning from those recordings. But again, it’s also fine to say, you know what, for this piece of learning, for this module, for this unit, the core learning is going to happen online asynchronously first. And for those who can attend the synchronous session, either in person or via Zoom we’ll do this supplemental piece. And so that’s okay, too. I just keep giving lots of options here. And I’m hoping that helpful. Faculty are gonna have to figure out what’s going to work for them and their students and their comfort zone. I also think faculty are going to have to learn to do new things this fall. During my town hall, I said, “This is going to be an exceptional semester. And so we are going to make some exceptional teaching choices. And that’s okay.” I think for most of us, 2020 has been suboptimal. There’s been massive disappointments in lots of ways and life has gotten harder in so many ways. And yet, we can either stay in bed and not try, or we can get out and try to make it a little bit better somehow. It’s this growth mindset. I think we need to approach the fall semester with a growth mindset to say: “This is gonna be hard. This is gonna be challenging. I’m gonna have to learn some new skills as a teacher. I may have to learn some new technologies. I’m going to try to do that in a way that doesn’t overwhelm me.” Don’t try to take on too much, too fast. But you’ll have to take on some new stuff this fall. And whether that’s active learning with technology in a hybrid classroom, or that’s designing an online course, or using some part of your course management system that you’ve never touched before, but might actually be helpful this fall, we’re all going to be stretching out of our comfort zones this fall. And that’s okay. It’s going to be hard work, but I think if we collaborate and lean on each other a little bit, we’ll be fine.

Rebecca: And it won’t be perfect. And that’ll be fine, too.

Derek: Right. It’s never perfect the first time out.

John: But with all these new tools, it can improve teaching effectiveness in the future. And that’s something we keep reminding people, that, yes, this is a challenge, but you’re learning a lot of new tools that have value beyond this. It’s not just for this one-time emergency, that this could result in some significant improvements in the effectiveness of your teaching later, even though it will be tough.

Derek: Yes, so one of the tools that we’ve been showing people this summer in our online course design institute is a social annotation tool like Hypothesis or Perusall. And it’s mostly our humanities faculty, but they love it. They are just over the moon with what they can do with these social annotation tools. And most of them just haven’t seen it before. It wasn’t on their radar. And it’s super useful in an online course. But, a lot of them are saying, “Oh, I’m just gonna make this a regular part of my courses going forward no matter how I’m teaching, because having students engaged with the text this way, where they’re annotating collaboratively and discussing it in the sidebar, that’s just a really useful learning process that I want to build into all of my courses no matter how I teach them.” So, we’re finding lots of things that we didn’t know were there that we’re going to make use of in 2021, and 21-22. These are going to be permanent parts of our teaching toolbox.

John: In our course redesign workshop for faculty, we included some samples and documents with Hypothesis, and people have been really impressed by the ability to engage and share and give feedback to each other. And I think we’ve got quite a few people who plan to be using it this fall. It’s a great tool. One of the things you recommend in this document is the use of a fishbowl technique. Could you talk a little bit about how that might work in this sort of hybrid environment.

Derek: Sure. And this is a technique that’s been in the literature for a long time, a way to foster discussion in the classroom. And someone mentioned this as a possibility for the hybrid classroom. And I was like, “Oh, yes, actually, that’s a perfect match.” The fishbowl technique classically works like this. You have a small group of students who have a discussion about whatever the topic is. They’re in the fishbowl. The rest of the students are observing from the outside and they’re quiet during the discussion. They’re taking notes, they’re observing. And then after the discussion, you then ask something of the observers, ask them to summarize what they heard or reflect on what they heard. And it can be really helpful if everyone in the fishbowl is advocating for one point of view. And then the folks who are observing have to then kind of summarize that, even if they don’t agree with it. It can really foster intentional listening. There’s lots of things you could do with the fishbowl, but when I thought about the audio context of these hybrid classrooms this fall, having some of your virtual students be in the fishbowl is totally practical. They’re the ones that are going to be easiest to hear across the entire class. You can have five or six students on Zoom, be the fishbowl, have the conversation, the rest of your virtual students and all of your in-person students are then the observers. They’re listening. They’re taking notes. They’re summarizing. I think that’s gonna work really well, actually. And as I’ve shared that idea with a number of faculty here, they’ve been excited to say, “Oh, yeah, that actually fits this context quite well as a structure for discussion.” And especially on some campuses, the virtual students and the face-to-face students are going to flip flop from day to day, there’ll be some students who come to class on Mondays and they do virtual on Wednesdays and the rest of the students are vice versa. And so you could have most of your students have an opportunity to be in the fishbowl at one point or another with this technique. And that way, you get to have some of the richness of that student-to-student discussion. It wouldn’t involve everyone at the same time. But, if you’re really intentional about what you ask the observing students to do with the discussion, I think it can be really productive. Because frankly, if you’ve got 40 students in the classroom, it’s hard to hear from all of them, anyway. You’re only going to hear from five to eight students in a typical discussion. This just centers them in a way and then guides the other students to participate well, in that type of small-group discussion.

Rebecca: I think what you’re pointing out here is the different ways people can participate in speaking isn’t the only way to participate.

Derek: Yeah, or like collaborative notetaking. This is something that a lot of faculty do as a matter of course, anyway, is have students have some shared document where some of the students in the classroom are taking notes on the class discussion. So their role in the discussion is different. They are not there to participate verbally, they are there to do the note taking piece. And that’s an important role. And that would work just fine in this hybrid classroom as well. And so part of this is thinking intentionally about how you want different groups of students to participate in the learning activities, and it’s okay to give them different roles and guide them to different ways to be meaningful participants.

John: You did mention collaborative note taking, wondering how that might be structured in a class of three or four or 500 students. Would it be reasonable perhaps to do that within your LMS using a groups tool to create that, having a shared google doc or something where you share it with a copy link?

Derek: I think if you’ve got 400 students in your class, that’s just a very different teaching context, and it is something about moving online. So I would say that having 75 students in a classroom and 300 students in the classroom, pedagogically, you’re going to use very similar techniques. If you want to foster active learning, then you’re going to have a lot of think-pair-share, a lot of peer instruction, you’ll have some polling. Anything over 50 is going to kind of look the same, pedagogically at least. Some of the logistics change when you have hundreds of students in the room. But, the kind of pedagogical moves that you’re making, I think are somewhat similar. Once you move online, I think there’s a much bigger difference between 50 students online and 300 students online. And so there’s almost a bit of the kind of MOOC mania that may be useful here. Right. So when we had massively open online courses that had thousands of students, there’s less difference between 300 students and 1000 students. And so we might even look to the MOOCs to see what are some techniques that work well at that kind of scale. And that’s where I think having an asynchronously design course makes a lot of sense. If you’ve got 400 students in the course getting them all together on Zoom is going to be a technical nightmare anyway. Let’s just make this course work well as an asynchronous course. The other piece that I would say that if you’ve got a big class and this gets to your point about collaborative note taking or other group structures that you might use, is that social presence is going to be really challenging. When you’ve got that many students, it’s going to be hard for students to feel connected. In the physical classroom, if you’ve got 400 students, at the very least, a given student has the five or six students they sit near every day to form a bit of a local learning community. And even if you don’t ask them to talk to their neighbor about something, they’re still going to talk to each other after class. And so there’s a bit of social presence, social identity, that comes just by virtue of the seating arrangements. In the online class, you’re not going to have that to fall back on. And I would advise instructors that have big classes to really think intentionally about permanent small groups, and to build in some learning activities and maybe even some assessment activities that leverage those permanent small groups. If you put students in groups of five or six students each and they’re going to meet with that same group every week, doing something useful during the semester, they’re gonna feel connected to the course a lot more than if they didn’t have that small group to lean on. We’ve seen this even in our Online Course Design Institute where we have 70 or 75 faculty participate over a two-week period, but we put them all in cohorts of size five or six. And you really get to know your cohort members, and what their courses are, what they’re teaching. And so that would be my recommendation for the bigger classes. And it could be collaborative notetaking. It could be every time you do a small group activity in class, you send them to the same groups so that they begin to develop working relationships with those group members, those are going to be really important for online classes that are large.

John: And you can always create Zoom rooms that have the same groups that you have within your LMS. So that way, the same students would be working together in both environments, synchronously and asynchronously.

Derek: Yeah, absolutely. You will have to learn how to do that. And again, we’re all going to be learning new tools this fall. I totally know that’s a thing you can do. I don’t know how to do that myself yet, but I would have to figure it out.

John: I haven’t done it yet, either. But I am preparing for one of those large classes in the fall. There’s a lot of questions I still have. One of the things I’ve been wondering about is perhaps the use of peer evaluation. I had done some of that earlier, but we had another tool that was specific for that. I’m not quite sure how well that will work within the LMS. And it’s a little scary at this point. But it’s something I am going to explore.

Derek: Yeah.

Rebecca: That’s something when I’ve taken a MOOC, even if I don’t feel overly connected to other people, there’s still some sort of peer evaluation piece where you feel like you’re getting peer-to-peer feedback, at least, even if it’s anonymous feedback, essentially, because you don’t know those individuals. And that can be effective in at least feeling like you’re learning with other people who are also learning. It’s not as effective as some other things, but it still does it a little.

Derek: Yeah, it does.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next? [LAUGHTER] …and I don’t know, John seems to have me asking that question more frequently, because it feels really stressful to ask someone that right now. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Well, I keep making the joke that it feels like March 97th. [LAUGHTER] Like, this has just been one long March. There was life before March, and now there’s life now… and time and space have no meaning anymore. So, next is a little ambiguous. What’s next? August…. August is next, right? [LAUGHTER] I can predict that. I think we’re going to have an August this year. [LAUGHTER] It’s really hard to kind of look beyond that. I would say, we’re focusing at my center on getting our faculty ready for the start of the fall semester. And what’s going to happen in the first three weeks of this fall semester, like, we don’t have that figured out yet. We don’t know what kind of programming we’re going to offer. We don’t know what kind of responsiveness we’re going to need. It’s been a lot this summer just to kind of do what we’re doing. And so it’s really hard to look very far out. I will say that, among many other complexities in the year 2020, it’s an election year in the United States, and more generally, we have a lot of protests that happened across the United States and across the world earlier this spring. There’s a lot of hard conversations that people are having right now, whether they’re pandemic related or not. And I don’t think that’s going to go away. I’ve been in triage mode all summer, trying to get faculty ready to teach online or hybrid. And so its been hard to think about all the things that may be challenging about this fall semester, but I do think the hard conversations that we need to have with our students and to help our students have productive hard conversations. That’s something that we’re going to spend at least a little time on in my teaching center in August, trying to help faculty get ready for what will likely be a contentious semester, regardless of the kind of modalities, the online, the hybrid, all that kind of stuff. Just the kinds of conversations that we want to have our students are going to be really challenging this fall. And so I think getting ready to do that well, it’s going to be an important component of what’s next for us.

Rebecca: And I don’t think any of us will be bored. There will be an August, and we will not be bored. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Yes, those seem like certainties.

John: Well, thank you. It’s been wonderful talking to you and, we really appreciated the blog post as well as all the very many resources that you share on your website.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much.

Derek: You’re quite welcome. We have a great team at the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching and I’m glad to be the Director and to get to share all the great work that my staff do all the time. So, thanks for that.

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

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

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144. Pedagogies of Care: Evidence Based Practices

This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, Dr. Michelle Miller joins us to discuss how the use of evidence-based teaching practices can be an effective way of demonstrating that you care about your students and their success.

Michelle is a Professor of Psychological Sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. Michelle is the author of Mind’s Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general interest publications. She’s currently working on her newest book, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: What the Science of Memory Tells Us about Teaching, Learning, and Thriving in a Wired World, scheduled as part of the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning, edited by Jim Lang. The tentative release date is 2021. She is also a contributor to the Pedagogies of Care project created by authors in this series.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, we discuss how the use of evidence-based teaching practices can be an effective way of demonstrating that you care about your students and their success.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guest today is Dr. Michelle Miller. Michelle is a Professor of Psychological Sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. Michelle is the author of Mind’s Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general interest publications. She’s currently working on her newest book, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: What the Science of Memory Tells Us about Teaching, Learning, and Thriving in a Wired World, scheduled as part of the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning, edited by Jim Lang. The tentative release date is 2021. She is also a contributor to the Pedagogies of Care project created by authors in this series. Welcome back, Michelle.

Michelle: Hi. It’s great to be here.

Rebecca: Great to have you back. Today’s teas are:

Michelle: I am drinking fresh mint and hot water, which I think is my favorite summer tea of all when the mint is thriving all around here at the house.

Rebecca: Sounds nice and refreshing. How about you, John?

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

Rebecca: And I’m drinking Scottish Afternoon. I haven’t quite run out of that yet.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about your contribution to the Pedagogies of Care project and your forthcoming book. Could you start by talking about your contribution to the Pedagogies of Care project?

Michelle: Right towards the end of the spring semester for many of us, as you know, we in the teaching and learning community and professional development and scholarship of teaching and learning space, were in just vibrant discussion with one another, just talking each other through the experiences that we were having as part of the pivot to emergency remote instruction, which I think for most of us in higher education, that was a big part of what we did in March all the way through May of 2020. So we’d been talking about these and there’s this very vibrant group of authors that have come together under the West Virginia University Press’s project, as you mentioned, edited by Jim Lang. And so we had this group, which was already exchanging very rich sets of advice and ideas about where we were going and really talking about how to help. And so under the leadership of Tori Mondelli, who conceived of this whole project, and also Tom Tobin, who has also been a real leader as part of this group, we talked about how can we put together some resources that grow out of the work that we’re doing, that capitalize on some of the rich conversation and collaboration that’s already happening, and whatever format that takes, put that out there into the world, so that people can use that and there’s all different ways that it could be utilized. We’re not prescribing that but we really had envisioned something that was open, that was helpful, and that was really contextualized within this moment of real upheaval and crisis and new directions that many of us are involved in.

John: We’ve gotten some really good feedback. I shared that with the faculty at our campus just a few days ago and I got about a dozen responses within a couple of hours saying “These resources are really useful. Thanks for sharing.” We’ll include a link to that in the show notes. So, we went through this traumatic switch that was a bit of a struggle for everyone, students and faculty, what can we do now to better prepare for the fall?

Michelle: At the time that we’re recording this, we are, for me, about midway through the summer. So, it really is starting to get real, for many of us, what we are going to do in the fall. And we’re seeing more and more institutions who are firming up and starting to commit to real plans for what the format of instruction is going to be like, what enrollments are going to be like, and all those kind of locally specific pieces of information that are so important for determining what we’re going to be able to do. So, what can we do differently to better prepare for the fall semester? First of all, let’s honor that what the vast majority of faculty that I’ve talked to, what we accomplished in such a short space of time in spring, providing instructional continuity. This was amazing. I mean, we really enabled students who, in some cases, they were set to graduate, they were earning their degree in maybe a month or two, and we made it possible for them to get to that finish line through a tremendous amount of ingenuity and hard work on everybody’s part. So, let’s not sell ourselves short. That said, we are headed into a very different environment. And so what I’ve really suggested in some other things that I’ve written about and definitely in my Pedagogies of Care project is a focus on what does quality really look like? And for me, being a cognitive psychologist, social scientist, totally acknowledging that that’s my perspective… forr me that comes down to aligning with the best of what learning science has to offer. And the neat thing is that we are in an era right now when number one, we really have converged on a set of principles that are fairly non controversial, and if not always easy to implement, it’s fairly clear what we can be doing. And we have technologies, in some cases, that map onto them very well. They don’t do the work for us. But they can really help implement things and make things concrete that we’ve known in theory for a long time were very, very important. So, that’s one of the things that I think that we can focus on. So, there is that. I’ve also really emphasized the reevaluation that we won’t be able to simply do what we’ve always done. I think those of us who work in this space are always quite adamant that teaching, say online or teaching a hybrid course, is not a matter of just sort of capturing a lecture. If that were the case, this would be very, very straightforward. We should just lecture all summer, record it and post it, but that’s not what it’s really about. So, what I think that we can focus on as we do reevaluate, in our teaching, what are we trying to accomplish? We can step back and say, “Well, what do students want to get out of this?” And that I think can help us winnow down from all the things that we could potentially do. It will help us let go of some things that we will not be able to do. And help us find, if not an easy path forward, a more clear one that will allow us to serve our students and also take good care of ourselves during this time.

Rebecca: I think anything that helps us figure out what our priority can be, in terms of content or goals that we have for students, but then also methodologies that we’ll use and why, I think is key because I think we all need to scale back and be reasonable with ourselves because there is so much to accomplish if we want to do it perfectly. But we just don’t have that kind of time. You just said it was halfway through the summer and I almost had a panic attack.

Michelle: Right. Not that I’m counting but it is actually just about the midway through the summer. And you, know, when I started reflecting even more on this Pedagogies of Care concept, which is the kind of overarching ideal that we eventually rallied under as a group, it’s occurring to me that that applies to faculty as well. I mean, self care is a kind of a term that’s very cliched, and it gets kicked around, but I think that we also really do at this time need to be recognizing that, again, what we did, what we accomplished as faculty in the spring was tremendous, that it did require people working weeks and weeks and weeks, sometimes months without a break. And although summers are not really traditionally a break,or vacation for faculty in any conventional sense of the word, they are a time to recharge and for many of us were also taking care of research obligations and other things that went completely by the wayside for a while out of necessity. So we really do have to balance that too. What’s the degree of faculty burnout at this point? What’s the degree of faculty receptivity to brand new things. So, the things that we are looking at also need to be kind to ourselves. We need really good communication and collaboration more than ever before, I think, in university communities. I think that’s really also the thing that’s going to make this fall successful, is being able to recognize what faculty have been through and work with that. So yeah, I think that we should recognize this effort. And with that, I also think that evidence-based teaching, incorporating learning science and those principles… that ideally shouldn’t be yet another thing on the to-do list. I think that if that’s the way it’s coming across, then we’re going about it the wrong way. I mean, to me, frameworks are always a way to simplify. Again, we have this infinite landscape of things that we could do in any given class, all these different decisions to make and choices. We do have a framework for whether it’s learning principles or another framework… that should help and simplify. So I think it kind of fits in that big landscape of possibilities as well. That’s how I see it. It should help; it shouldn’t add to what’s becoming a pretty serious burden for faculty.

John: One of the things I’ve really liked in your discussion, as an economist, is you sounded at times, like an economist, when you were describing that, in terms of this is the most efficient way of helping students reach their goals… that if we use evidence-based methods of teaching, we can let students learn skills more efficiently without wasting as much time and getting closer to that point, making it a form of caring, I think, as you referred to it. That one way of demonstrating your care for students is by using techniques that are more efficient, that provide the largest return on students’ time… there’s the economics part coming in. So I really appreciated that. And I thought it was a really good argument that we tried to emphasize ourselves in our workshops.

Michelle: Oh, thank you. And you said it better than I possibly could have as a non-economist, but that’s exactly the core of that idea, that it is kind to students and perhaps it’s kind to faculty as well. We can pre-select some of these avenues and techniques that, if you’ve got an hour to study (and for many of our students, that hour of study might be fractured and jammed in among all kinds of caregiving tasks) that you’re going to get more from that. If, as a faculty member, you’ve got four hours that you can devote today to preparing for the fall… and as well, that’s going to be divided up among other tasks among your caregiving responsibilities… how can we cut to the chase for faculty so that they can make those choices? So I’m glad that that comes across.

Rebecca: I think it’s important when we are planning for the fall that we are getting down to those essential elements. Can you talk us through some of the steps that faculty might take to focus in on those essential items and the evidence-based practices so they can have a good framework moving forward, not just for the fall when they might be teaching remotely, and that’s what they’re not familiar with, but all the time?

Michelle: Coming down to essentials, and here too, I think, that that has really resonated with many faculty and also with instructional designers and others tasked with making all of this work. That’s what’s really resonated, like what are some of the essentials, and I’ll never claim to be able to I Identify the complete and exhaustive list of exactly what to do. But here’s what comes to my mind. I think that perhaps returning even to those learning objectives, which we may have put in a syllabus long ago, and they can be sometimes kind of abstract, but coming back to those and saying, alright, what does it really look like when students have achieved these? Are there any that need to be perhaps modified, or dropped altogether? So if we are going to have a semester of really focusing on essentials, this might be a good time to do that. Naturally, we will want to think about the content. And oftentimes we talk about in pedagogy and developing pedagogy, we talk about re-focusing away from just coverage of content, that’s something that a lot of us get behind. And it’s okay to be thinking about well what content is going to be in the course. But then really pivoting to look at what’s the engagement with that content? How are the students going to engage with the content and how are they going to engage with you? So that’s a piece of it, asking yourself that question. And I think then, starting to bring in those really concrete logistics. Now, again, typically those of us who talk about pedagogy a lot, we kind of discourage people from talking about very specific tools or technologies, until they’re really, really clear on some of those high-flown ideals of what they and their students want to get out of the course. But I think in this case, we probably want to hold off on th.t, we are going to have to say, “Well, are you going to be expected to teach online but synchronously? And if you want an example of that, the Zoom meetings, which we’re all pretty familiar with, at this point, where we’re in at the same time, but maybe you’re in a different place? So is that going to be a part of what you do with students? Because that is pretty new to many of us. And if so, there’s certain considerations you’re gonna have to have in mind say, ‘Well, how is that going to work?’” Especially, if you’re expected to also be teaching say, a face-to-face course at the same exact time, which I think is going to present challenges. And I think for many of us, it’s going to depend on your local institutional context, but I think you can’t go wrong right now with setting up a robust online component to your course. I think that with the level of uncertainty we have, or even with individual students… if they’re going to need to say quarantine or take care of an ill relative or something like that… having some asynchronous, so different time activities and materials online, is going to be essential. So I think taking those concerns and saying, “Alright, what is this physically going to look like?” I wouldn’t typically push that as much but I think that that’s important now. And I think in the preparation for this, too, another kind of bare essential point that I talk about in my resource for our project is media creation. So in some cases, people are going to want to create, say, a set of videos, or let’s say they’re demonstrating a process. Let’s say they’re teaching studio art. They might want to have some pretty involved videos or other kinds of demonstrations, or perhaps there’s not good written material out there that might replace a series of face-to-face lectures. Maybe they’re going to be wanting to write a fair amount of content or maybe record, even, podcast-style materials. That stuff eats up a lot of time. So I think really being real about what you absolutely need to do in that department and getting started now, that’s sort of the wisdom of experience that I would share with folks as well.

Rebecca: I think that’s really good advice, Michelle. As I’m thinking towards the fall, I made a list of “this is absolutely essential… if I don’t have this content made, we’re screwed if we’re online,” versus like, “this stuff does exist out there that I could use…if maybe isn’t my favorite.” And then there’s well established stuff that’s fine or whatever. Because it does take a lot of time to write, produce and plan some of that stuff… even if you’re using methods that aren’t burdensome, where you’re not worried about production quality and those kinds of details. It still takes time. You need quiet space. There’s a lot of constraints, especially if you’re like me and you have kids at home. [LAUGHTER] You got to find the quiet time to record the thing. [LAUGHTER] So I appreciate the balance there… really thinking logistically a little bit. Because if you have a finite amount of time, then you have to prioritize what can get done ahead of time.

Michelle: Right. And you know, it may not be the way to go. And I though I’d share with you an experience that I had, well, right in the thick of the great pivot, the transition to remote instruction. I was talking to a faculty member who does happen to teach studio art. They teach drawing and painting in a small-class atmosphere, a very intimate atmosphere that’s very hands on… and not somebody who works at my institution. I happen to know them. And she called me up partway through the great pivot week and was distraught. She was really on the verge of tears. And she was saying, “Well, this goes live next week, I need to somehow carry my course forward, my studio art course. And I just learned that my colleague, the guy down the hall, what he’s doing is he’s got these videos that come down from the ceiling, and then we have these close ups on drawing and these techniques and he’s doing all this. I can’t do this. I’m a single parent. I’m at home. I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know what to do.” And I said “Alright, it doesn’t have to look like that. Your colleague may be doing that. It doesn’t have to look like that.” And I said alright, what is working in your course? That’s another thing you can use to kind of cut to those essentials. So what is the strongest thing? What do your students need right now?” She said “Well, they’re absolutely overwhelmed and I think they need a lot of support.” And “Well, is there any kind of social peer-to-peer support?” And she said “Oh, well, we have since the beginning of the semester, I put them into these pods of three. And so they’ve been developing these social structures where they consult with each other every week. And so they have ways of communicating with each other in these pre-existing social groups. Do you think that could be useful? And I said “Yes, go with that.” So what your course is accomplishing really well right now is setting an atmosphere where students are talking to each other and I said, “Well, maybe you can kind of divide and conquer. You can hand off this project to where students are critiquing each other’s work in these groups. So, definitely kind of double down on that arrangement that you’ve already put into place. Your colleague down the hall, maybe multimedia is his thing and this is easy for him. But he may be struggling to say how do we get students to socially support each other form connections and feel connected to the class, even though it’s now in a remote format.” To me, that’s something to really capitalize on. So I took away a lot from that and I’ll be reflecting a lot on that as well. Your “solution” to the challenges we face is going to look different and it really should go with whatever is strongest for you. I think as academics, we kind of say, “Well, if it’s easy, that must be the wrong way to go about things.” But sometimes the path of least resistance maps well and aligns well onto what your strengths happened to be and what your students needs are.

John: Going back to that point, though, about creating media. If you create materials for an online format, you can always use that to support face-to-face if by some miracle things return to some sense of normalcy, it’s probably not going to, but that material will still be there and will be useful. So, a focus on that, I think, is really helpful. And that’s what we’ve been strongly advocating for our faculty as well.

Rebecca: Just as long as you don’t have specific deadlines… don’t put deadlines, dates or anything like that in them.

Michelle: Right? See, that’s just a practice that is so important to create reusable media. And it’s a seemingly small thing, but until you really get into this and get practice, you don’t realize how important that is… that yeah, if you are going to sink the time into that, make it reusable. And that’s an important point for reusability.

John: And going back there, I’d like to once again, we’ve done this many times, recommend Karen Costa’s book on 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Videos. It’s a really nice resource. And it does focus on keeping it simple. Don’t do the fancy transitions. Don’t do something where a half an hour video is going to take you 30 hours of production time. Keep it so that it’s easy for you so that you can keep doing it without imposing a burden that’s going to make you stop doing this.

Michelle: Absolutely. And I’m so glad for that recommendation. I went out and got the book myself. I think I’m on Tip Number 80 as of this morning, so I’m almost there and I’m finding these wonderful… everything from very specific guidelines to much more conceptual things about why you want video in a course to begin with. So yeah, I’m with you on that. It’s definitely worth a read and definitely this summer. But maybe also, to kind of put this into a different focus as well with the focus on creating media and doing so purposefully in a way that is sustainable, let’s not lose sight of the active learning component. So that’s something that I’ve really kind of watched with some concern and definitely some interest as this conversation evolves. So active learning at this point, I mean, people sometimes perceive it as a buzzword, but it is such a robust concept. And I think it’s easy, at a point where we are kind of saying, “Well, how can we make all this work in some different formats” to lose sight of that. And so we may be creating wonderful videos, instructional videos, or all kinds of things and just merrily perking along with that, but we do need to remember how are students interacting with it, which is why a beautiful film of somebody demonstrating a drawing technique might, in some context, not even be as valuable as somebody who’s having students talk to each other because of that engagement. So I think that too, this is going to be so critical as we see more schools pushing for things like recordings of lectures, or even synchronously bringing students in during a live session you’re having with other students, I think that we do need to remind people who are in charge of these things, that education is just never something you watch, it is something that you do. So it is really tempting to say, let’s record everything we can, that’ll be equivalent, but active learning is not a luxury that we can just put on hold for a while. It really isn’t. And so I’m hoping that we don’t see that happen. I think there’s a very similar story that’s going on with Universal Design for Learning. Another concept I know you’ve engaged with so much on this podcast and is so important. And I think you’re too, it’s easy to say, “Well, you know, given all this going on, maybe we won’t have multiple ways of engaging with these great media that we’re creating, or maybe we’re going to kind of shut down this avenue over here for a little while.” And I really hope that doesn’t happen. So that’s another aspect of this balance between the quality and ambitiousness of what we’re doing and the feasibility and protecting ourselves as we face another very challenging semester.

Rebecca: I think that’s a really good reminder about focusing on the learning as the essential element as opposed to the teaching. It’s really about setting up the framework and the possibilities for students to learn, and designing those activities and making sure that we’re spending the time on that, rather than all the time on just delivering something.

John: But having those videos can free up time so that if you do meet synchronously, you can engage in more active learning activities rather than just lecturing to students online, which is probably one of the worst ways of structuring synchronous meetings. And if you really want to do a little bit more work, you could use something like PlayPosit where you embed questions in the middle of a video that could be somewhat open ended and that you could even grade. If you happen to have an institutional license you can embed it directly in your LMS. So the videos themselves can be made, with a bit of work, a little more interactive, and they can serve as a replacement for lecture that allows for more active learning, I think.

Michelle: Absolutely, and I too. I’ve seen some wonderful examples in practice of that technology, and there’s a couple of different ways to do this. So there’s multiple tools that allow you to put a retrieval practice or comprehension questions somewhere in the midst of this online lecture, presentation or video and what better way to help ensure that students are attentive to them, to give yourself some opportunities on the other end to say what’s the actual level of comprehension that’s going on out there. And for students to really solidify and practice the material. That’s all bedrock learning science stuff, right? Retrieval, active practice, and so on. And it just takes a little bit of ingenuity to take that one extra step to say, alright, what’s the level of interactivity here. And that’s something that I hear too, from faculty, it’s quite reasonable. They have taught purely face-to-face and don’t have that level of first-hand experience with something like online teaching. It’s just like, “Well, how do I know what’s going on out there?” And, again, there’s not a technology that’s going to just magically replace the experience of looking at the sea of faces that we experience in a face-to-face class. But think about it. That’s one way to do it. Having something like an online gamified quiz, like Kahoot!, which is currently my favorite quizzing app that’s out there. I ran this just the other day quite successfully in a remote synchronous environment. So, there are two that could help give you that information right away about what concepts are they struggling with. And having other ways of reaching out to students, if not talking to them individually in something like a meeting, a phone call, or even a text chat, having some other ways to kind of figure out on the ground what’s the mood level of the course? How are we feeling about things and are there individual students who are struggling for one reason or another who we can reach out to?

John: One way in which I saw interactive videos being used was several years ago, I took a MOOC on behavioral economics that Dan Ariely had put together and he’d often discuss experiments, but he set up the experiment and describe what the experiment did. But then the video pauses, and you’re asked to predict what the outcome would be. And that type of prediction is a really useful evidence-based technique that you can even do with videos if you can embed the questions in the middle of them. And I thought that was really useful. And it’s something I’m going to be trying to do a bit this fall. But in terms of evidence-based learning, could you talk a little bit about some of the main principles that people should be using to design their fall classes? What should people be focusing on?

Michelle: So, when I talk about bringing down just a vast literature of learning science and I’m going to necessarily boil this down to what I think are my favorites and the most applicable… So, of course, retrieval practice,I think if there’s one success story that our field has had, I mean it goes back even over 20 years that we got the data, determined how this principle works and started flowing it out to practitioners in the field, it’s this one. So that is, of course, the principle that when we actively pull something out of memory, it increases our ability to remember it in the future. And of course, we’d naturally think of tests, exams, and assessments as the avenue for this, but there’s lots of other ways that it can take place. So I always love to direct people to the website retrievalpractice.org. I’m not affiliated with it, but I think they have a wonderful compendium of ideas for how to bring this into classrooms at all different levels, all different disciplines, and so on. So if you don’t have retrieval practice, quizzing, students actively talking about what they remember, great time to bring that in. So you can’t go wrong with retrieval practice. Then, of course, the principle of what’s the timing of your study. So, spaced study, and pretty much by any measure, when we spread out student engagement with material… again, whether it’s through quizzing or solving problems, you name it, you’re going to get more out of that… efficiency… when it is spread over time. And I think that this is one of the real unsung benefits of online and technology assisted learning, even among people who are saying, “Oh, I’m just using the basic learning management shell to organize some materials and students turn their stuff in online. I mean, let’s not sell that short for how powerful that is, for being able to stagger deadlines, change the timing of when we are getting students to be working on different aspects of the course and so on. So while we don’t necessarily always want to bombard students with deadline after deadline, we do have to be mindful and help them kind of organize multiple deadlines. This is something that we could definitely build in as a design principle. So just to be very blunt about it, we always discourage people from the two midterms and a final course design. That’s something that a lot of us have experienced. It could work of course, like that can be fine. But from a memory and learning standpoint, that’s really not ideal. We want students engaging quite frequently. And then the practice… so the practice of this skill. So that advice, bring that up again, about it’s not all about content coverage. It’s about practicing the application of the content knowledge that they’re getting. We can almost always stand to build in more of these, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a course where I’ve said, “You know, you really need to present more content to the students. Don’t have them solving problems so often…” I have never seen that in practice, I will just go on the record and say that. So, if we want students to be doing X,Y, and Z. And again, go back to the front page of your syllabus and remind yourself what you’re hoping they’d be able to do at the end of the course. We want them to do that, what are the opportunities for them to actually try, and try in small bites? In my contribution to the Pedagogies of Care project, I give a very brief example of this in my own courses. So one of the things you have to do… bread and butter skills as a psychologist… is you have to be able to look at a psychology research study and kind of break down the structure of it. So no matter what’s being studied, there’s probably… we call them independent variables and dependent variables. So, things that are being manipulated, things that are being measured, and students have to develop that as a thinking skill and it’s really not easy. So I will oftentimes have them in, say a research methods course, very frequently, as part of whatever we happen to be doing, I’ll say, “Okay, here’s a really short description of a study. Maybe it’s an abstract or just a description, you pull out from me, before we talk about anything else about this study, you tell me, what are the independent variables? What are the dependent variables?” So it’s something that traditionally we’d always put on an exam. But, we didn’t always have students repeatedly practicing. So knowing that students absolutely had to master this before they got out of my research methods course. That’s what I did. So practice, and that kind of segues back into that active learning principle, which…yeah, you cannot go wrong with students getting involved. Once again, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a course where I said “You, the professor, need to get out there front and center, don’t emphasize the students so much.” So, they need to be doing the thinking, the practicing, and quite frankly, the work. That’s where the benefits come from. So with those: the retrieval practice, spaced study, practice of higher-order thinking skills, and a real active learning orientation, I think that that’s something you can take to the bank as a faculty member. You could build on that, but if you start with those, you’re probably going down the right path.

John: And I remember reading this really good book that talked about how using computer mediated instruction or using the tools within the LMS allows you to provide students with lots of feedback and lots of retrieval practice without necessarily increasing the burden on you, as the instructor. I think that book was called Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah. I feel like I might know that author, I’m not sure.

Michelle: Yes. [LAUGHTER] And thank you very much. That’s what I was trying to go for. So, thank you. It is wonderful that people are finding many of those points really relevant right now. So, yes, thank you so much for pointing that out. I think it’s great. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I think one thing that I’ve been thinking about in terms of having more remote time then maybe in-person time is that I often provide a lot of structured activities around retrieval practice and spaced practice in my face-to-face class and if students are working more independently when they’re working remotely, I’m not there to [LAUGHTER] facilitate it synchronously, that structure needs to really be in place, maybe even more so than when you’re in face-to-face class, that they have that structure and that they know they should be doing those things on a regular basis. Of course, we should be reminding them to do these things on their own as well. But, I think focusing a little bit more on having that structure or those reminders in our courses, when they might be remote is actually really, really imperative,

Michelle: Right? And those are learning skills and abilities and principles that are going to serve our students well, no matter what they study or what they may do after they leave a course. And it’s kind of neat. There’s some indication from the research literature that particularly for students who come in who are not from advantaged backgrounds, that when they’re exposed to courses, which as you say, they remind them, “Okay, do this kind of practice. Here’s what you should be doing. Here’s why you should be doing that” …that benefit really does extend not just into that course, but into future ones because students can pick these things up on their own. So, if we do really want to be thinking about how can we set our students up for success no matter what the future holds, I think that’s a pretty high ideal that we can work towards. So yet another reason to incorporate these powerful practices and perhaps, yeah, to talk about how students can adopt them, no matter what.

John: For those faculty who are struggling to prepare their courses, what are some heuristics they could be using in terms of focusing their time where it would give the most benefit.

Michelle: This is something that has definitely been on my mind, both for my own preparation and to share with others. So heuristics, shortcuts, and helpful hints and approaches. So, I talked earlier about looking at what you consider to be your strongest points as an instructor and kind of the highlights of the course… the things that you know, are memorable, that advance learning that you feel really strong and competent with, with the caveat that, yeah, we do want to make sure that those do align with student learning. I think that that’s a great place to start. Say: “Okay, what’s the great parts of my course? Forget about what anybody else is doing. What do I really want to use?” And putting those front and center. If you have a short activity that’s working great, maybe that’s something that could be done every week, or somehow extend it. But the flip side of that is this, and this is another that I didn’t invent this… This is something you’ll see repeated time and again, in teaching advice, which is the pinchpoint heuristic, flipping it around and saying, “Oh my gosh, if there is one thing that students are struggling with conceptually, or it’s something that I know they should be doing, and they don’t do it to the level that they need to,” that you focus your efforts, kind of train your sights on that piece of it. Especially in the discipline. I teach, psychology. I mean, there’s so many fun things we could talk about with psychology, and it’s easy to kind of spend a whole lot of time and effort shooting the videos or setting up the learning activities online and making a quiz that’s about something that’s just cool to learn about. But that can’t squeeze out “Oh my gosh, everybody gets unconditioned stimulus and conditioned stimulus wrong and they do it every single year, and I know it’s going to happen.” So I need to be pulling out those things. You know what, if I’m going to spend the hours on a video or an extra module or creating an interactive quiz with multimedia, spend the time on the places where students are struggling. People who work with UDL, also talk about, “Well, here’s where you want to be especially conscientious to ensure that you do have the multiple means of representation and expression is around these areas that are really, really tough for students.” So what’s working great, where’s the point where you just say, if I could wave a wand and make one thing happen, that’s what I would do. So really looking at those two tracks. So that’s one heuristic. I think, as well, I’ll share with you something that I’m working on for my own courses… big caveat, that this is my courses. I will probably not be teaching a very large set of classes just because of the vagaries of course assignments. So I know I have that a little bit easier. But, here’s what I’m going to do as a framework. I’m kind of thinking of splitting it up so each week, students have a set of kind of general categories that they have to meet, they have to do some type of work or meet some kind of expectations in that area. So, I might, for example, have a column that corresponds to engaging with classmates about the topics for the week, and then a set of options for that week. So maybe you came to a face-to-face class, maybe you participated in an online discussion. And maybe there’s even a third option that I haven’t thought about yet. So just to really simplify things, I say, “Okay, check off in that area, what’s another column or category that you have to participate in, you have to do some type of demonstrating mastery of material” or I’m not quite sure what I’ll call it yet, but that could correspond to taking a quiz or maybe playing a Kahoot! in class or playing a Kahoot! remotely online. And I’ll probably also have a column that constitutes working towards whatever the term project is, and I’ll give them a set of choices again of what that term project can be like. But I am a very big believer in if you’re going to have a big project that there’s lots and lots of formative steps to that. So I tend to take that to extremes. And every week or so, students are doing something to show that they are moving towards and making progress in that area. So it is still a little bit general around the edges. But, to me, that really helped me feel like I had a handle on how am I going to manage choices? How am I going to manage multiple formats, and manage uncertainty with that focus on the purpose? Why do we have this do this week? Well, because it falls into these different categories, all of which are important for your learning in this class. So, those are a couple of the shortcuts that I would share.

John: One of the other things you talked about in your contribution to the Pedagogies of Care is the importance of getting help when you need it or where you need it. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Michelle: So this whole idea of getting help, I mean, it’s very simple on the face of it. I’m a faculty member, I want to do this thing in my class. I don’t know how… I call somebody… magic happens. And in reality, in higher education, what I’ve seen over and over at different institutions is that that is not a direct path at all between support, assistance, and collaboration, and the faculty member and the time and place when they need that. And so I think that this is going to be an issue that, if it’s not on people’s minds now, in leadership and pedagogy circles, if it’s not on their minds, now, it will be in six months to a year, I think that this is going to be one of the differences between institutions that make it through this fall in good shape and those that really struggle is what are those processes? So for faculty members, I’m really encouraging them to say, “Alright, where are the points, in this process, where you could get some kind of assistance that either you invest some time and you get the capacity to do something very efficiently in the future, say, like a workshop on how to do sustainable videos, or how do you actually find somebody to share the load? …actually delegate some of the work? For faculty, they should be reflecting on that, but at that point, that’s where things are going to get complicated depending on what the systems are in place at their institutions. So first of all, I think that institutions don’t always, and faculty ourselves, we don’t always make that distinction. When I say I want help, do I mean, I want you to point me to a great website or a book I can read? Do you want me to spend half a week coming to a workshop series? Or are you going to get in there and say, “Okay, you have the content, I can build these quizzes, you have a script for what you want to do for a complex video, I can shoot that for you, caption it, and put it online.” So what kind of help are we talking about here? And then figuring out how do you approach your institution to do that? So I’ve just really been continually surprised as I do visit different institutions. I mean, almost universally there are these amazing instructional designers and other people who just devote their professional lives to teaching and learning. They’re up on all the new technology. They know what was the great new video editing software that just came out last week? You know, they’re the ones who have that. And oftentimes there’s a disconnect there. People don’t know how, they feel inhibited, or maybe they’ve been actively inhibited. Some institutions, they say, “Well, there’s a process, and we’re going to put a lot of strings on how we’re going to divvy up these resources.” Others actually discourage instructional design and similar staff from even talking to faculty. And there’s a little kind of social piece to it as well, I think, just because we haven’t yet fully incorporated this into what we do… that it’s almost like, well, who makes the first move? If I’m an instructional designer and I know, here’s these courses over here that I could be helpful with, you know, just email people out of the blue… and likewise, faculty, they say, well, should I call the support line for this more complex project that I need help with or not? So I think that institutions will hopefully be sorting that out, but presuming that there isn’t a giant revolution in how we have collaboration between instructional designers and faculty, being aware of that and at least having something very clear in your mind for what you’re asking for, the worst that can happen usually is that somebody says no, but to have any chance you at least have to know what specifically do you want.

Rebecca: I think knowing that’s really helpful too. Because if you start talking to faculty, for example, in other disciplines, they might have a similar goal or they need similar structure in place, you could actually work with those faculty to put the structure in place and share the structure, swap out the content or whatever too. Sometimes we don’t think about those kinds of collaboration.

Michelle: Right, and what you’re describing, that’s something that is kind of non-traditional and new. We come into this with a very strong tradition of “my class is my class” and a kind of an ethos as academics that you do things the hard way, and you do them by yourself. But maybe this can be an impetus for us to really be getting creative with swapping, even things like a syllabus. You say, “Well, you know, maybe the way that I’ve gone about this, you can actually springboard this even if it is, as you said, in a different discipline.” Maybe we’ll even see faculty putting together some more unconventional team teaching arrangements. Traditionally, we know a team teaching is we’ve we’re experts in the same subject. And we’re going to create this class that sort of articulates, or we’re going to pass it back and forth. But maybe I should be collaborating with somebody from another area of psychology. Do they have to be in my sub discipline to just come in and say, help me with discussion forums, if I’m not very good at that, and then I can come into their class and help them with synchronous video, if they need help with that. Maybe if we have to, we will do it that way. So if that comes out of all of this, I think that would be a great benefit. And I want to say I have been really hesitant and cautious about engaging in this narrative of the silver linings and “Oh, isn’t this a wonderful experience? We’ll learn all these new methodologies of teaching will come out of this and we’ll all love online teaching and be fluent with it.” I don’t think that that’s an appropriate message for faculty right now. I think we do need to recognize that this has been somewhere between disruptive and catastrophic for most of us career wise, and not imply that we should all just constantly be thrilled to be learning new things. There are so many new things that we could be learning right now. But fall is coming. And we only have so much time. So I do want to put that out there, and that’s something that I think is an important thread that needs to be, and I hope it will be, talked about more as the dialogue unfolds. But even without saying, “Hey, this is a great time to do new things,” we can recognize that there will be innovation that happens, and it’s already happened. We’ve seen it happen.

John: And while this may not be a silver lining, I know in our teaching center, we’ve seen a lot of faculty who I didn’t even know existed on our campus, because as Jessamyn Neuhaus has talked about, people have broken down some of those barriers where they think they have to do everything themselves, and they’re more willing to request help when they desperately need help in ways that they weren’t willing to do before.

Michelle: Absolutely. I think that Jessamyn Neuhaus has been such a clear and fresh voice on some of these development issues. She’s absolutely right. She talks about it in her own style, which is totally unique to her, but it really gets it across, that we’re Professor SmartyPants, and we are not used to collaborating, working together, or just saying, “I don’t know.” So I guess we can also say, even if we don’t formally work in a teaching and learning center, if there’s something that you know, that your colleague does not, and you can help with, get out there, volunteer it, and let’s all really do this in perhaps a new spirit, where it’s not all just about, “Well, here’s what I know and you don’t know it, and I’m gonna feel uncomfortable coming in,” let’s have a real reset in terms of really open sharing. It’s not about playing the game of who knows more, or who figured out the latest thing. It’s really about serving the students and doing so in a way that we can sustain what promises to be a pretty challenging semester.

Rebecca: These have all been really great tips and things to think about as we move towards the fall, as the fall moves towards us… maybe that’s a better way of thinking about it. [LAUGHTER]

Michelle: I think that’s a frighteningly accurate turn of phrase there. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I want to make sure that we get to talk a little bit about your new book, though, can you share a little sneak preview?

Michelle: Oh, sure. And this book, of course, well predates the era that we’re in. But it’s been something that I’ve wanted to write about for a very long time. And then when I was able to make the connection to James Lang and to his series, I think it was really meant to be. So, it is about memory and technology. So, much has been written in the popular press, and a little bit in the scholarly press as well, about cognitive processes and how those change or not in the presence of technology and with a frame for teachers, of course, so those of us who want to make up even just very specific policies, like should I allow note taking in class on laptops or not, to people who are really interested in this broader sense of teaching and learning in our contemporary era. So what I’ll be talking about in the book are issues such as well, first of all, what do we need to know about how memory works in the first place as a teacher or a person who is really into learning. So what do we now know about how memory works and how it can be improved? I also talk about why anybody should even care about memory, because that’s one of the angles of technology as well… this question of “Well, do you really need to know anything in the age of Google?” And there are people on both ends of that spectrum… probably no surprise that I come in somewhere in the middle of saying, on the one hand, it’s really important to be able to find information when you need it. And yes, we absolutely should be de-emphasizing memorization for its own sake. However, we also know from current research that memory in a subject area helps us think in that area. So there’ll be something for everybody in that section of the book as well. And then we will talk about what is the effect of having something like a smartphone, always at our fingertips? Does that create any kind of global change in memory? Does it change our memory for specific things that we might be doing or thinking about what we’re using that technology? And how, again, can we turn this to our advantage as lifelong learners ourselves and also for our students. Now, of course, you can’t talk about any of this without talking about attention itself. And so while it’s not a book about attention and distraction, per se, we’ll talk about “Alright, well, what’s the flip side of that?” And so how, basically, can we take all the advantages that technology has to offer for building memory and de-emphasize all the things that it does to offset and degrade our memories, and come out of this with the best of both worlds? I will get into a little bit at the end of the book as well into some of these bigger questions of how is memory itself changed when we live in a technological era when so much of our lives are recorded? And what does that say about things like generational differences, or what memory might look like decades from now? So I’m absolutely loving exploring all those themes, and I think they’ll be interesting for anybody who’s in the arena of teaching and learning but also with a lot of practical tips about again, how we can reap all the benefits that technology can offer for memory and for learning.

Rebecca: You’ll have a lot of disappointed listeners to know that that doesn’t come out until 2021. Right?

Michelle: Good things take time. And yes, we will see. It is a work in progress. And although we definitely have all the themes and all the ideas nailed down, it’s something I’m working on as we speak. So that’s part of why I’m so excited about the project. But yes, I got to finish it first.

Rebecca: We’re definitely excited for it to come. We always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Michelle: I am, as many of your listeners probably are, when this comes out, absolutely in the thick of redesigning my own courses for fall. Without getting into too many of the specifics, my institution has kind of laid out a set of parameters that they want us to meet. And so I’ll be re-envisioning my courses and to practice what I preach. I’m going to try to flow that out as much as possible to my colleagues, both locally in my own department, my own college, at my institution, and also nationally. So I’m kind of looking at some different ways that I can continue to engage people in this and share out what I’m learning as we go along. And I’m also pretty excited to be preparing some even more in-depth materials for some institutions who are looking for help in exactly this type of thing, how to get faculty interested in this whole topic of flexible teaching, some specific techniques that are useful for what I’ll call flexible teaching, key resources, things to do and not to do, and so on. So I’m excited to be coming back at it on all cylinders in the fall, and looking forward to engaging students in all the different formats that we now have and seeing where it takes us. So that’s what’s next for me.

John: Well, thank you. This has been wonderful talking to you again. We’ve always enjoyed these conversations, and our listeners have very much appreciated them.

Michelle: Oh, thank you.

Rebecca: It’s always really helpful to know too, that you’re not alone. We’re all going through the same kinds of contemplations, and so thanks for sharing some of your own stories about developing and planning for the fall too.

Michelle: Thank you as well.

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

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

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136. Learning Networks

Students in many classes work in isolation to create written assignments that are shared only with their professor. Unless they’ve kept a copy of this work, it disappears once their course ends. In this episode, Gardner Campbell joins us to discuss how student motivation, engagement, and learning might change if students instead become active contributors to public knowledge sharing networks.  Gardner is an Associate Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Gardner  has long been a leader in the use of open pedagogy projects.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Students in many classes work in isolation to create written assignments that are shared only with their professor. Unless they’ve kept a copy of this work, it disappears once their course ends. In this episode, we examine how student motivation, engagement, and learning might change if students instead become active contributors to public knowledge sharing networks.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guest today is Dr. Gardner Campbell. Gardner is an Associate Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Gardner has long been a leader in the use of open pedagogy projects, and we’ll be talking about that and a few other things today. Welcome, Gardner.

Gardner: Thanks, John. Thanks, Rebecca. It’s great to be here.

John: It’s good to talk to you again. You were on our campus when I first took over as the teaching center director here, you lead a symposium and then a workshop for faculty on web 2.0 tools about 12 years ago, I think it was.

Gardner: It’s hard to believe it was that long ago, but I remember my time on the campus very fondly and had a great time. So, if 12 years ago that would put it what ‘08? Yeah, that’s interesting. Wow, that doesn’t seem like that long ago.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are.

John: Are you drinking tea?

Gardner: I am not. Should I be drinking tea?

John: Well, it’s the title of the podcast… So, Rebecca makes us do that.

Gardner: Am I underdressed? Oh dear. No, I’m actually not drinking anything, though I see that it’s soon going to be five o’clock. So, that could change.

John: I’m drinking honey green iced tea today.

Gardner: Oh, nice.

John: Most of my tees are up at the office in a safe, secure location. [LAUGHTER]

Gardner: John’s tea is at an undisclosed location somewhere in a bunker underneath the White House.

Rebecca: Luckily, I have a nice stockpile. Today I have glazed lemon loaf.

Gardner: Hmm, interesting. What is a lemon loaf?

Rebecca: I think it’s like breakfast bread that you might have at like a Starbucks or something. And it does smell a lot like it… it doesn’t taste a lot like it. but it smells a lot like it.

John: So, are there crumbs in it or something? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: No, but it smells like crumbs.

Gardner: See, we’re getting virtual already. I’m all about it. Let’s get to metaphor and I’ll be right at home.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk a little bit about some of the open pedagogy projects you’ve done with your students. Could you tell us a little bit about how you got started with these projects?

Gardner: Well, a long long time ago, I got very interested in the capacity for network communications to kind of erase the compartmentalization of learning on a college campus or in a college community generally… the idea that well, you went to this class from 9:30 to 10:45, you went on Tuesdays and Thursdays, you went to this class from 1:00 to 2:00 Monday, Wednesday, Friday… things never really connected. You never had a sense that it was something more than just one thing after another. And to my way of thinking it had become increasingly difficult, even in the 1990s, to get to this idea of the life of the mind, which sounds kind of highfalutin, but really, for me, it means that you’re never not thinking about things. And you’re always kind of putting things through the tumble in your head to figure out “Huh, well, I learned this in my economics class, and I learned this my Milton class, but Milton was in the government. And so he was familiar with some of the stuff that was going on with finance, and he actually wrote about currency at one point in Paradise Lost.” Those things need to connect, it seems to me, especially in a liberal arts education setting, so one of the things I always felt like I was fighting was the walls of the classroom, including the temporal walls when you were in a particular place for a particular time. When I saw the birth of high-speed internet connectivity in the mid 90s, at Mary Washington, where I was at the time, I saw an opportunity to try to get students interested in various kinds of asynchronous communication that would keep the thread going, would keep the conversation going, would keep that life of the mind present to them in a way. And the first thing I used was email and had it backed up on a listserv server. Back in those days, students would get their first email accounts when they came to campus. And now they don’t have email accounts, because that’s for old people. It’s taken about 25 years to make that change, which is pretty rapid. But, what I found was there was an interesting way, that even though that wasn’t what I would later do with big open project, there was a way in which I was finding what they call a third space, like a coffee house, or a cafe or a diner or a place that wasn’t a formal institutional place and it wasn’t just a home place. But, it was this third space where people were informal, but they also had an idea that they were with other people and they couldn’t just slouch around in their jammies and slippers, they really did need to metaphorically kind of be present in a social setting, but it wasn’t a formal or scripted setting. So I got really interested in that. And then when the web came along, just about a year or so after I started the stuff with email… it was already there, but we were really getting into it in a big way at Mary Washington… I saw an opportunity for students to build things that would be out in the open, that would give them the opportunity to create something that would last beyond just the semester, and that would have an audience besides just the professor or even each other in the class, and that that would present certain interesting challenges to students. That is, they would have to do something that would represent their own growing expertise, but would also be potentially of interest to someone who hadn’t been at the class. When I first started doing that with a first year writing class, and it’s the kind of long tail effect about two years after the first time I did that with a partner in crime named Bill Kemp, who passed away recently, but was a really close colleague and a wonderful mentor and friend at Mary Washington. There was a moment when I got an email (because we had asked that people contact either me or Bill, not the student directly because we were trying to protect the students contact information and privacy) and a student from Africa, wrote in and said, “I just read what one of your students wrote about Tupac Shakur, and he speaks for me, would you please just let him know?” Now, I didn’t have WordPress, I didn’t have any way for people to leave comments on these web publications, but as soon as I got in touch with the fellow who had written that essay, he was just flabbergasted: “You’re kidding me? Something I did for a first-year writing class has now touched somebody halfway around the world two years later.” And I said, “Yeah, that’s part of what the promise of the web is, that these things that we do for ourselves in particular contexts, will find affinity groups, will find people we had not anticipated, making use of what we’ve created and learning with us in ways that we hadn’t anticipated.” So, those two things together: the way in which the class could be in communication with itself without simply being in the same physical space, and know themselves as a learning community; and then this other idea that by being open and sharing what we have done with the world, we could have these unanticipated, these serendipitous, encounters with the way in which this work might matter outside of a school setting, those two things really did, I think, lead to everything I was trying to do with open pedagogy from thereafter. And then you’ve already mentioned the advent of web 2.0. And that was the next big turning point for me, when it suddenly became clear to me that, for very little money, I could set up my own domain, I could set up my own blog, I could run all sorts of discussion forums on my own domain, which I continue to do, that that would be an opportunity for me to kind of set up shop on the web in a way that would be persistent and would make my work more visible. And then I said, “Well, now, hmmm… what if I ask my staff to do that? And hmmm… what if I asked my students to do that and what if I did AAC&U projects using that idea of the open platform and opportunities for connection that had not been anticipated or scripted, but would arrive serendipitously with some intentionality as we reached out to our various networks. I just got completely hooked on that. And I guess the high point of all of that, for me was a moment in 2015, in which I was still on senior staff, I was a Vice Provost at VCU at the time, and there was a lot of conversation about what were we going to do with the World Championship bicycle race that was going to be coming to Richmond, and of course, “What are we gonna do with it? We’re gonna watch it. Are you kidding? This is once in a lifetime.” But the concern was that because the bicycle race would be going around the main Arts and Sciences Campus, that we wouldn’t be able to get faculty in regularly or efficiently. We wouldn’t be able to ensure people could leave at a particular time. And so we couldn’t even be sure the dining services would be able to stay open. We’ll just have to send everybody home. But, there were a number of us who said “Hmm, why would we send people home when part of the way that we recruit them to VCU is to promise them Richmond and the urban setting, and here’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.” So, to make a long story short, there was a project that I was very privileged to lead. But I had some really great collaborators who came up with really wonderful ideas and fed into the project people from the community engagement Vice Provost Office, people from communications, people from web services, just, you know, the Dean’s office, etc. And we had a curricular event during that week, in which we offered about 26 different courses, one credit each, at a special price that would have a kind of in place component related to the bicycle race, but would be conducted primarily online or in perhaps smaller groups that wouldn’t be at any risk of not having facilities they would need during that time, and first-year students would be able to stay on campus, and that was called the Great VCU bike race book. The promise was that what students did would all be syndicated upwards into WordPress sites. These 26 classes were massively across the disciplines, everything from the psychology or in the motivation of exercise to gender and bicycling to bicycling and film to the physics of bicycling. And the student works syndicated up into the WordPress sites would then be curated by the faculty, and would then become a permanent part of the scholarly depository in the library, which made students go “Wait a minute, really, I’m going to be doing something that will be permanently stored in the library as part of the scholarly activity at VCU.” And the answer was “yes.” And while we want you to be very aware of the potential for copyright violation and be a good copyright citizen, when we talk to you about fair use, we’re also talking to you about fair use of your products, the things that you are making that reflect the work you are doing. And everyone I guess, except 2 of the 350 students or so who signed up gave their permission, and their work is now in the scholarly depository at VCU. Jimmy Ghapery, who’s in charge of the digital part of the library’s operations, was good enough to work with me, work with the academic learning transformation laboratory to digitize these student websites and to make them part of the permanent cultural record that was documented during this event at VCU. That was massively open. But it was interesting. I, of course, tracked the MOOC mania very carefully when it was coming out 2011… 2012 all the predictions about “Well, soon we’ll have 10 universities, and they’ll simply offer 10 million courses and it will all scale up and all the rest of that,” I was highly skeptical, though I recognize there’s a little bit of a conflict of interest since I make my livelihood this way. But, what I’ve been working at is not so much these massively open online designs, though I remain interested in them. I think there is some value there. But what happens if you scale up smaller learning communities into larger networks, that is to say you can actually have… wait for it… a network of networks, like the internet On the internet, we’re not all logging into one gigantic computer that AT&T operates on our behalf. There was a time when that was the model that people had in their minds. What we have instead are all these individual computers, these personal computers, that can hook up freely with either other computers in a smaller network, or do things that then become amplified up through greater and greater networks through the web. And that’s really, for me, been the focus of most of my work in open pedagogy. It’s been trying to figure out ways to generate healthy, medium-sized networks and then network the networks. I’ve had some success with that, and at the same time, I can’t tell you that people know more about the web now than they knew in the 2000s, they probably know a little bit less, the smartphone has made a huge difference along those lines, and not just in a good way. I mean, I love my smartphone. But, there’s been a way in which we’ve all kind of retreated into this closed system, and one that’s built on apps and I think that some of the deep knowledge of the way the web operations has eroded over time. But I’m still in there and still getting my students to blog and putting them onto old school PHP, BB forums, because they still have more functionality than anything that the learning management systems have provided. And I guess that’s my story. And I’m sticking to it.

Rebecca: You’ve talked a lot about the scope and some of the possibilities of networks to connect and people to connect from different communities and around the world. Can you talk a little bit about some of the learning gains the students get from working on these larger scale projects?

Gardner: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. I think the first thing that students get is a kind of ambient awareness of what out there in the environment they could connect to. So, for example, when my students are blogging on WordPress, the first thing they start to figure out is, “oh, I can embed a video,” “oh, well, if I can embed a video or whatever, I could make a video” or” Oh, I wonder if I could put screenshots in here to illustrate the kinds of things I’m talking about.” Now, these are things that students typically are pretty capable of doing. It is true that students are not necessarily very sophisticated about the web. I think URLs puzzle a lot of my students, they don’t understand how they’re constructed or what they signify. But they’re doing screenshots all the time. They use their smartphones, that stuff is built in, their tablets have screenshots built in. Well, what if you use the thing that you’re on a day-to-day basis to communicate with your friends, and you use it to illustrate a point you’re making? Could you do that, and typically, that kind of thing starts to happen pretty organically. There’ll be a student in the class who either gets it very quickly or has already done something in multiple modalities, maybe in a composition class or something like that. And they’ll break the ice. And then this ambient awareness starts to emerge as, what I think of it as an enormous learning game. What could I bring to bear on this thing I’m writing that would make it more persuasive, that would illustrate it in a more interesting way, and that by doing so, would draw me into the project in a more interesting way. So, the first learning gain, I think, is that ambient awareness… just what is possible, and I’m an academic, so I do a lot of stuff with academic writing… scholarly publishing. I think it’s fair to say that you don’t always get an enormous amount of ambient awareness of how you connect to the wider world in the scholarly literature. It’s in some ways, I guess, it has a different purpose. But that’s what students are told to do: go get peer-reviewed articles. Nothing wrong with that… a lot that’s good about that. But the other side of that is students get locked into a kind of an imitation rhetoric, that is to say they’re trying to do the thing that the professor seems to recognize as a thing that can be done and the examples of that are in the scholarly articles, and they miss out on some of the ways that they could begin to experiment with multiple modalities and kind of rethink even what an argumentative paper might be. So that’s one of the things I think is a gain. The other gain is when they begin to realize that there are other people in the environment doing similar work and they have an opportunity to connect. Now this is where the school begins to acquire a much bigger role in the student’s life than just the set of classes they’re taking, they start to become aware in a deeper way of what it means to be spending time in a learning community that it’s not simply going from door number one to door number two, that you’re in an environment and that the environment is kind of greater than sum of its parts. This happened just in a blog post that the student published in my senior seminar just today, the senior seminar is on a filmmaker and a writer named Errol Morris. And one of the things that the student began to do was to be curious to see if there were any traces of her classmates in other classes working on Errol Morris. Now, already, this is an interesting kind of ambient awareness that takes the knowledge of other communication channels and the experience of other communication channels, and you get the feeling that “I wonder if anybody is out there in another network.” Typically, learning management systems shut down the network of a class at the end of the semester, because they’re not even thinking of a class as a network and they’re thinking of the learning management system as a kind of a document delivery platform. But,as it happens, this student was in a communications class that used Slack. So she’s using WordPress, as well as we’re doing a Wikipedia project in the senior seminar that kind of goes along with the research project they’re doing for the seminar. And we’ve been spending a lot of time in these other platforms like Zoom, making these kinds of connections and bringing the buffet of what’s available in. So, she went to her Slack channel, which had preserved the chit chat from her class and saw that there was somebody in there this semester, who was also working on Errol Morris. And she thought, “Well, now, that’s interesting.” And then she continued to do this exploration. And she said that the thing she found was that there were more people at VCU working on Errol Morris than she had ever dreamed, and that it was a real surprise because she had never heard of Errol Morris until she came into the senior seminar. And this is a sophisticated student. This is someone who’s not just keeping blinders on and not aware of anything thing that’s going on in the world. But, nobody knows everything. She took the senior seminar and now she’s kind of finding out, “Huh, this is kind of all over the place, including in various places in school itself.” And I think without an open pedagogical approach, in this case, it’s the Wikipedia project and blogging that my students are doing, there’s a way in which it just never rises into their consciousness to even ask the question::are there other people around me doing this?” And of course, if those other channels don’t exist, if everything is locked away in an LMS, it wouldn’t matter if you did ask the question. Which brings me to a part of the question that you’ve asked that I think is also very important, it informed a lot of my work when I was doing this as an administrator for about 13 years. I always knew that the more of my colleagues who were adopting aspects of this approach… and not everything has to be open, closed things need to be a part of what we’re doing… there needs to be a sweet spot between the things that what’s said in the senior seminar stays in the senior seminar and what you’re able to do as a more public self, those are useful skills. But I always thought the more my colleagues who began to adopt these approaches, it wasn’t just about the increased value of the pedagogy in their classrooms, which I firmly believe would happen, but the more open classes we have the more chances for these classes to discover each other. And again, it’s this idea that each class has a network, but then the networks start to network. And the big learning gain, if you’re able to do that is that you’re able to start to understand how connections scale in the world. And I think it makes you a better citizen in a democracy. I think it makes you more effective as a professional, really any activity that you’re in, you start to understand how smaller units like families exist within a community; how communities exist within larger units, like states; how states exist within larger units, like nations; and so forth. So, those are just a few of the learning gains that happened and then maybe two years later someone reads your blog and they say “Wow, you speak for me” and you get a nice little surprise as a comment on something you’ve written.

John: Going back to Rebecca’s question a little bit. I remember when you were here and you gave a keynote address at our teaching symposium, one of the things you mentioned was that students had been writing on a blog, and they continued writing even after the class ended. And that was something I think that people still talk about, how these open pedagogy projects if they get them started, and they continue to provide students with motivation that they might not typically have in their regular assignments.

Gardner: Oh, that’s right. David Wiley, who’s been working with open education for decades now has this great phrase for the opposite of what you’re talking about. He calls them disposable assignments. And I think what you’re saying is absolutely right. The things that students contribute to the world through open pedagogical practices and putting their artifacts up where other people can see them helps students understand that the work they’re doing is not disposable. It’s something that not only can persist but can be the first stage in an expanding kind of public presence as a writer, as a thinker, and as a student. This is a particular challenge… and first of all, I should say that there are not many students who will be motivated to keep on with this in any kind of formal way after the class is done, but some of them are, and if you get any of them, I think that’s a great advantage. But, even for the students who don’t go on as bloggers, or don’t go on to doing podcasts, or whatever. the seed is planted, there’s a way in which sometimes these things may take 10 or even 20 years, and then suddenly, the student will be in a particular context again, and go, “Ah, oh, that’s interesting,” and something will come out of that. It’s just the way it is with any kind of teaching. You can see certain things happening right away. Other things, you just hope you can live long enough to see the day when suddenly there’s an idea and it comes back at you. You recognize it’s what a student has built out that started at a particular moment back in the day, but yeah, I think disposable assignments… it just gets back to this thing that john Dewey said he said, you know, “education is not preparation for life, Education is the process of living.” And there’s a corollary to that, which is hard for my students to understand. But I think it’s valuable. When I tell them blog, they say, “Well, what am I going to blog about?” And I say, “Well, you must tell the story of your learning.” And for a number of them, this is the first time they thought of their learning as a kind of a narrative, that this is a set of experiences, they are living through a set of cognitive events that make a difference in the way they’re going to be approaching the world afterwards. And so you might as well keep a diary, and you’re not going to be wrong. It’s your story. It’s your learning. But it does mean that you think about your learning in a different way,

John: Which builds in a nice metacognitive component where students can learn more by reflecting on what they’ve learned. And that’s something I think you’ve written about a little bit in some of your writings recently.

Gardner: I have tried to do that. I’ve tried to emphasize that when students understand that this metacognition, which for me, of course, I’m always doing that, but for many students either they’ve never thought that that is something they need to do with school, because school for them has just been a series of tasks, or they think of their own metacognitive ideas out in the wild as somehow not being worth other people’s time. And lately I’ve been doing some work with memoirists and one of them is Patricia Hampl. And she has this really great way of talking about her own reluctance to write a memoir at first because she thought it was the most narcissistic thing you could possibly do. And then found out, as I think many of us do, over the course of our lives, that if you write something honest and searching about your own experience, people will connect with that… the first person is a way to get to the first person plural. And it’s kind of a mystery in a way how that works. But I want my students to have that idea. And there have been so many times when students have essentially said to me, “Well, who cares what I think about something,” and I say, “Well, it is true, you’re not an expert. It is true that we got plenty of opinions floating around. In the world, and maybe we don’t need another op ed, but nobody else is going to be able to tell the story of your learning. And if you tell the story of your learning, you’re also telling it to yourself.” And that kind of metacognition expands in all sorts of directions. And when it happens, it’s pretty extraordinary. It’s a wonderful thing to see.

Rebecca: So one of the things that I hear coming up and all the learning that we’re talking about is moving beyond being consumers of tech and consumers of knowledge to creators, and being scholars and students thinking of themselves as scholars, which I think is really interesting because it gives them agency in a way that they might not understand that they have agency. And so when they see themselves as agents, in communities, there’s a lot of power there. And maybe they’re not always able to act on that power initially, but I think that’s what you’re pointing out, Garfner is like, later on, down the road, they realize that they have that power and that they are able to act on that agency… that maybe they didn’t choose to act on earlier. And so I think that’s really powerful and not seeing school as a silo, but part of this bigger part of their lives. And that this agency crosses between a lot of different domains that they exist in.

Gardner: I think that’s exactly right and very well put. It also has the bonus that they begin to understand some deep truths about the scholarly life, which are, for me, that scholarship is about creation. It’s about a certain kind of rigor and responsibility with regard to the material you’re working with. And it’s also about a conversation. So, for many of them, and I’ve seen this happen with the Wikipedia assignment very recently in a poetry class, and I’ve seen it happen with blogging a good deal, for them books on the shelf in the library, or even more so the e-stuff that they get through JSTOR or whatever, it just all looks, again, to use your word, like silos, like these bound volumes, these discrete units. What they can’t imagine is that when you walk into a library, either physically or when you’re surrounded by these electronic resources online, what you’re hearing is a conversation, what you’re hearing our voices over many years, and within each of those articles within each of those books, there’s a network of all the things that the author has brought to bear on his or her argument. And once you kind of get away from this idea that books are inert, articles are just book reports that these things are simply there, like pebbles, or like little capsules. And you start to think, no, this is a kind of time lapse photograph of a flower blooming. This is something that has a rich temporal dimension. And then to the next part of your point, I can be one of those voices too. I need to be a responsible voice. I can’t just run into the conversation and blurt out whatever’s on the top of my head. That’s kind of a rude way to get into a conversation, and nobody’s likely to listen to you. They’ll just be annoyed. But you may come in and find that you have something to say that is rich, that’s authentic, and may surprise the other people in the conversation. This is something that I learned a long time ago from one of the scholars in residence at Baylor University, that if people are sufficiently observant and responsible and responsive to their environment, there’s always a chance that they’re going to see something nobody else has ever seen. And I really do try very hard to work that into my own pedagogy. And if I’m working on, I don’t know, Citizen Kane, a movie I’ve seen 60 times, I always try to tell my students the story of moments when students saw things that I had never seen, because you just need to be alert, you need to be awake. And so that agency that you’re discussing, which is a sense of responsibility, but also a sense of why it’s worth discovering your agency, I just think that’s so crucial. And it can be very, very difficult to convey that in a way that gets those students in the sweet spot where they’re not just kind of popping off without thinking at all, but they’re also not clamming up because what can they offer? They’re not the expert. There’s that middle ground. And in some ways, the open pedagogical framework, that third space idea is the ideal place for them to start spreading their wings and finding that agency.

John: You mentioned that you’ve used blogging for quite a while and you’ve been having students do some wikipedia assignments. And also I believe you have your students work with hypothes.is as well. Could you tell us a little bit about the details of how all these things fit together in your courses?

Gardner: Happy to do that. I know there are a lot of moving parts and some of my students are not happy with all the moving parts, I think because they like the regimented approach. I think we’ve all found that if we try to do some things that are a little more open, or a little more freewheeling, that often students will resist that because that’s not the way they’ve been managing their presence or their activity within school. But, for the students who thrive, here’s what I hope it offers. I always describe this in terms of zooming out and zooming in, or sometimes the microcosm and the macrocosm. And I actually use those as kind of tropes as I’m talking about it with students. There’s no great mystery there. I’m just trying to give them a framework for thinking about it. The blog, it seems to me, is a place for synthesis. It’s a place to take a step back as you tell the story of your learning. You’re making In these connections. You’re knitting things together. You’re trying to make something larger out of more discrete encounters, let’s say with a text, but with hypothes.is, which is a platform for online annotation, now you’re zooming in. Now you’re doing close reading in a social reading environment, in which, in my case, it’s usually a PDF, but it can also be a web page, all the students are reading the same thing and they are highlighting places that strike them as puzzling or interesting or insightful. I actually asked them to use those words as tags, and they highlight those bits. And then in the margin, they leave a comment, they leave a note or they respond to another comment or another note. And hypothes.is, as a platform, has been super because it starts to encourage students to read things more carefully, read things more closely, and to consider again, how the shape of an argument can unfold because they’ll leave a comment at the beginning or a question in the beginning, and then by the end, they see the authors anticipated that question or maybe has complicated that observation even more, and they also become, and this is a great bonus for me as an English professor, they become very attuned to ways in which writers can word things in insightful or beautiful ways. And the tags I’m talking about in the hypothesis environment have to do with making students aware of what Paul Silvia calls knowledge emotions, which he categorizes as confusion, awe, surprise, and interest generally (that also includes curiosity), and for Sylvia, it’s all about balancing certainty and uncertainty in a framework that encourages students to respond but not simply to sum things up… to respond in a way that would record at a particular moment, a cognitive and affective response without simply delivering a summary judgment with a bow on it, which we know can happen. You can think that your whole job as a student is to deliver a set of pat conclusions, but hypothes.is, and using these knowledge emotion tags of “interesting” or “puzzling” or “insightful,” that encourages something that’s a little more open ended and also very attentive to the particulars of a text, it tends to work against paraphrasing. And then often what I’ll do is I’ll say, “Okay, folks, now I want you to blog about your experience of using hypothes.is.” And then they begin to back up again, and synthesize some of the more granular and specific things they were doing with a particular text, also with the dimension of how the interaction with students went, their classmates. So the zooming out, the zooming in, and then connecting that to the work with Wikipedia, you’ve got opportunities to do very granular work with particular facts, with particular sources, to step back a little bit and start to think about the information design of the Wikipedia page. And then to learn how to interact with the other Wikipedia editors in the wild and interesting world of the culture of Wikipedia. Michael Nielsen says “my favorite thing about Wikipedia,” he says “it’s not an encyclopedia, it’s a city whose main export to the world is an encyclopedia.” And in his book on network science, he talks about ways in which the culture of Wikipedia manifests itself throughout Wikipedia. And by the time we are moving in that direction, ideally, if the hypothes.is work and the blogging work have achieved that kind of synergy, students are going to be ready for the detailed work and the cultural work and the synthesis work that comes with contributing to a big public resource like Wikipedia. In that effort. I have, of course, enormous partnership help from various organizations: hypothes.is, the learning resources there, the way they have set up Jeremy Dean as a Director of Education who was able to work with individual faculty and with students to help them make the most of this platform and then Wikipedia opened up to me by means of an organization called Wiki Education, which is a fantastic group of folks, may they live forever. They are devoted to setting up environments in which faculty can very easily, and in ways that are very straightforward with the students, set up a series of training encounters for the students… ways in which the students are able to think at a much deeper level about how to be a responsible contributor to Wikipedia, can begin to grapple with issues of copyright, issues of how do you deal with sensitive things like health pages, or pages describing mental illness. Now, my students aren’t doing a lot with that, but those training opportunities are there for people who are running a class in biology or running a class in psychology and they want to contribute to these articles. And it’s a way to, again, to emphasize to students that we have this enormous privilege of being in this very high-level learning community. Let’s give back. This is a kind of experiential learning in which we’re actually contributing what we have been able to be in contact with and to learn in ways that will benefit the world. And that’s no idle promise either. There’s ample documentation of all of these communities for whom Wikipedia is a primary means of learning about the world and, I would add, a primary means of learning about the dangers and the promise of the internet. I think that my students work in blogging in hypothes.is And in Wikipedia, in particular, make them into better digital citizens, people who understand, I think, at much greater depth, what they can contribute, and what kinds of privileges and pitfalls accompany these platforms. So, ideally, what I’m describing is a kind of synergy. I always want these positive feedback loops in which what you do in one environment makes your work stronger, richer, and brings you more surprises with connections when you move into another environment or when you’re working at a big level what happens when you start to work at a more focused and granular level. This is all interactive. It’s another network and my hope is that it creates a network inside students’ heads. At its best, I think, the kind of, I guess, open ecology and the hypothes.is tends to be open, that tends to be in a small, closed group for the classroom. But what they do there, they can bring in weblinks, they can bring in things from the outside. But my hope is that that kind of ecology begins to create, again, the sense of possibility within the students and they begin to see that, really any class, if you look at it’s design carefully, if it’s been put together thoughtfully doing things that should be mutually reinforcing, and not just one thing after another,

John: What do you do with those students who are reluctant to have their work shared publicly, at least under their name? How do you address the students who prefer to keep their work private?

Gardner: Well, the first thing is, they don’t have to do it under their name. One of the nice things about the platform that we’re using, which is WordPress multisite platform, and I’ve done this on my own web-hosted accounts, but we have the big one at school called Ram Pages, they can choose a pseudonym, so they can be pseudonymous to each other. They can be pseudonymous to the world and I talked to them a great deal about the difference between personal and private. I say, you know, you want a good sense of who you are as a person out there. It’s part of your voice and you need to know how to do that in a public setting. But, at the same time, you don’t want to disclose private details. You really don’t want to do that. Because it’s unpredictable how that will promulgate once it’s out on the web. I think the idea that, you know, once you publish something to a blog, it’s there forever, it’s part of your permanent record, is a little overblown. There is that security through obscurity, you’re not going to be found right away. There’s a little bit of space there. That happened to me once. A student blogged about using a roommate’s key to get into the room. And of course, that was an honor offense, you weren’t supposed to do that ,you weren’t supposed to use somebody else’s ID and I had a talk with a student I said, you need to take that blog post down because “ain’t no big thang, but you really don’t want to be talking about that stuff out on the open web.” So, there’s a way I frame it so that I try to anticipate some of the reluctance that students might have and answer questions ahead of time before they even start writing on their blogs. The other thing I do is I always, always, always talk about it in terms of how this is going to be a part of their learning. And I compare it to classes that would have a public performance aspect, a music class, or an art class or a theater class. And I’ll say now we’re doing early modern literature. It’s not necessarily a performance class, but it can have a performance aspect to it that I think is pedagogically valuable. And here is why. If you have a particular objection, then please come to me and we will talk about that. I will try to make you as comfortable as possible and give you what you need to be able to work successfully in an open medium. If at the end of the day, you just can’t bear it, then we’ll have that conversation. What’s interesting to me is, I can’t think of any student who’s ever said, “I’m just not going to do that. I am just not going to do that.” If they don’t do it, it’s usually not because they’re reluctant to put themselves out on the open web. It’s because it doesn’t fit into their normal view of schooling and they just neglect to do it. And that’s the part that always saddens me, because there really is nothing sadder than seeing a student write a tremendous blog post and you think, “Wow, this blogging thing is really bringing out a voice and agency I wouldn’t see otherwise.” But then the student just gets preoccupied or just kind of checks out a little bit and you don’t hear anything from them again. Typically, those students are not going to be attending regularly. They’re not kind of all in to the class. And it’s often been said, and I think it’s true, that one of the things about using these online means is that there’s really no back of the classroom. You’re either there or you’re not. And it’s pretty obvious whether you’re there or not. And some students are just kind of used to being on the margins and being on the periphery. And this is kind of a challenge to them not to do that and they just kind of drift. They’re not terribly interested. But, the idea that people would go, “oh my goodness, if I do this, I’m compromising my inner self and I will be haunted by this for the rest of my life.” First of all, that’s not what we do when we blog in a class. I make that very clear. And second, very few of them say anything about that even after I’ve talked about that as a common apprehension. So, I really do try to make their consent, informed consent. And so far, knock on wood, that certainly seems to have been the case. Every now and then I’ll have a student reach out to me, this happened about 10 years ago, and say, “I just want to make sure that you’ve taken my posts down.” But, that really only happened once, and that was a very special circumstance. Of course, to the best of my ability, I took it down right away. I would like the blog post to have a truly global audience, but a semester is not really a lot of time to build up any kind of a big audience, but the potential is always there. And I think that’s what excites students about work that prepares them to be citizens in a public sphere in ways that maybe they weren’t able to imagine before.

Rebecca: You’ve talked a lot about ways to frame projects like this as a faculty member to make sure that students are safe and responsible and doing what they need to do, and maybe should do, in thinking about their agency. Can we shift gears a little bit and think about what faculty might do to get started on a project and introduce these to students? Where do they start? You know, obviously, there’s the framing, which I think we’ve covered. But, what tools or techniques or kinds of projects would be a good small step in this direction to get started without going full in with three platforms?

Gardner: Well, you know, I feel like if you’re going to take the medicine take the whole dose, because then you’ll conclude, oh, penicillin doesn’t work. And how much did you take? Well, really half a tab every other day. Ah, you didn’t get it up to the therapeutic dose. But, I’ll back down from that. I actually have an answer for your excellent question. I think the first thing that would be helpful for faculty is to run a fairly unscripted, unprompted, discussion forum. And that can even be inside the learning management system. Because one of the first things that faculty need to get comfortable with in my experience is this idea that the student participation doesn’t need to be led by them. I mean, certainly in the classroom, it can be in the assignments, but if there’s a space, a little clubhouse, where students are told they need to be doing things that are interesting, substantive, and relevant to the course, but the teacher is not supplying the prompt. The teacher is not saying it’s going to be 250 words, the teacher is not doing the things that a teacher would often do to try to ensure that students would do interesting, substantive, relevant work. There’s nothing wrong with stipulating certain kinds of ways in which you imagine substantive work would be or interesting work would be and you can talk about that. And I still tell my students, this paper needs to be 10 to 12 pages long, because that’s a way of signifying how much I want them to be invested in a kind of breadth and depth as they approach the topic. But the big step is to say, here’s the forum, I want you to do work that’s interesting, substantive and relevant. I want you to post on three different days and three times a week. In other words, set up the platform so they’re not phoning it in, so that they’re not just kind of doing a big “Oh, I’ll do my three posts on Sunday night” and ”oh, now I’ve got that done.” So that there are maximum chances for the students to work in a constructive way and a couple of guardrails to try to keep them from just driving out of the lane all together. But then don’t prompt it, don’t make the topic yourself, see what happens. And sometimes, of course, you’re going to be disappointed. Other times, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised. And one of the surprises is likely to be the way in which the students who are most committed begin to serve as kind of examples and inspirations for other students, and it belongs to them. I’ve run the discussion forum in my intro film classes for a long, long time. And the platform I use is not hard. It doesn’t seem hard to me, but it’s probably not as, I guess, click here as something that Blackboard or even Canvas would have. I think it’s a lot better. But the key is really not going to be the platform right away. I think I’ve got a platform that encourages kinds of rich interaction that maybe Blackboard wouldn’t, but even if you do it on Blackboard, when the students sense that this is a place in which they are going to need to steer the conversation… within these guidelines: interesting, substantive, and relevant, I tend to use adjectives and talk about qualities in ways that don’t get reduced right away to “How long does it have to be?” and “Do you have a rubric?” Like,” Yeah, my rubric is interesting, substantive, and relevant.” And then if you have questions about those things, let’s talk about that. What does substantive mean? What do you think it means and we have a conversation. If you can habituate yourself to that, then I think you become braver about other kinds of open platforms where you are going to have to give up a little bit of control unless you want the student’s blog to be a kind of term paper published to WordPress, which is a disaster. Just don’t bother. That’s not what a blog is. WordPress can certainly be a place to share the work you do in a term project. You can put your research paper up on WordPress, but that shouldn’t be the only thing you do. There needs to be these opportunities for students to have an idea of what the fruitful directions will be, but not a script, and not a map. And when you get to be able to do those things… And I would say just start small, you know, maybe even start with two weeks in a particular discussion forum just to see what happens and then talk to your students about what happened or what didn’t happen. It becomes a way to reflect on your own instructional design and for them to start to reflect on some of their own contribution or lack of them, and then you just start to build up over time. Now, if you wanted to do something really interesting and a little braver than that, but with plenty of help, I would definitely go to Wiki Education. Wiki education will be a wonderful set of scaffolding for you and your students. It does require some commitment, it requires a little more than running a discussion forum in an unscripted mode for a couple of weeks… that you really do need to think of it as a fairly substantial component of the course, I think, because otherwise it’s just too much work for too little reward for the students. But, if you can do that, you’ll find that you’ve got an army of helpers on Wiki Education. You’ve got a liaison for the students. You’ve got a liaison for the faculty member. You’ve got a dashboard you can look at to be able to see at a glance where students are in working on their articles. You can also pitch the articles they’re working on as making substantive contributions to things that are not well represented in Wikipedia. Women computer scientists, people who are in marginalized groups of any kind… the work that they have done to contribute to any field, or information that’s really important but kind of scant on Wikipedia, having to do with any sphere of interest or something that you’re passionate about that you want to see represented more fully on Wikipedia and the scaffolding you get to help you get the community become part of through the wiki education people, which is simply wikiedu.org is just staggering to me. And did I mention it doesn’t cost anything? There’s that too. So, those are some ways I would say to get started.

Rebecca: I think one thing that’s really interesting to observe as we’ve become distributed teachers and learners with COVID-19… everybody’s remote… is how many of these informal spaces are getting formed by students and faculty alike. I’ve heard examples of students forming their own slack channels to collaborate on work unprompted and just doing that. At Oswego, we’ve had a faculty member who created an Oz hangout group on Facebook that’s actually been really active. So, beyond the formal structure that we generally have for professional development, it’s a space that people have come to and are helping each other out. So, we can observe these things and see how they naturally happen to get an idea of how we can help facilitate that to happen a little bit too.

Gardner: Well, I certainly hope so. And I have to say, though, no one would wish to live through this kind of time. No one would sign up to say, “Gee, I wonder if I could be part of a pandemic.” It is true, necessity is the mother of invention. It is true. Hello. I’m waving to the toddler in the background. And this is another thing that’s so nice about some of these moments, to connect your family and your home with your professional life in a way that everybody is just going to tolerate because my dogs barking in the background and all these things are happening. It helps us embrace the mess and maybe not have the illusion that we can walk around in our uniforms and just keep everything all pristine. So, to your point in particular, it’s always a question of whether the motivation and the sense of urgency and opportunity that you feel during a crisis can actually carry over into business as usual. And I’ve always thought that higher education is the place that is uniquely suited to being able to maintain a sense of urgency and adventure, even if the world isn’t on fire. I can’t say that always happens in higher ed.[LAUGHTER] We have our ruts too, but I remain hopeful and I think your point is exactly right.

John: We’re only in the first week of this ,we’ll be releasing as a few weeks later. But, in my own class, using Zoom for meetings, students start coming in a bit early, and they’ve been likely to stay later. And it’s broken down a lot of the barriers where students might have where they stay a little more distant. We’re seeing them in their natural habitats in their homes. There’s dogs wandering by and so forth. And there also before and after class, and sometimes during class talking about their fears and their concerns.

Gardner: It was such a poignant moment to me when I did my first Zoom session with the senior seminar, when at the end of talking about the unknown known, which was the Errol Morris movie we’re discussing that day, one of the students just said, just almost blurted it out, “I’m so glad for this contact today. You people are the first people I’ve talked to outside of my home all day.” And as the crisis wears on, it’s an opportunity as the uncertainties mount, your dad gets laid off, you find out that somebody in your family is sick, or you’re just kind of increasingly worried, the chance to be together, kind of get your mind off it by doing another kind of learning, but also at the same time to be present to each other with these intimate little portals, which work pretty well now. This is a lot better than CU-See-Me was in 1997. I can tell you that. That’s pretty rich. I think it increases that ambient awareness I was talking about, and frankly, it’s a chance to bond with each other a little more.

Rebecca: I’ve heard some really interesting examples of students from different schools trying to connect as well. I know that’s something in the design area that we’re talking about helping to facilitate a little bit through our professional organizations. Our senior design students, for example, are used to having exhibitions in galleries and can’t, because they can’t have it in physical space. So we’ve talked about ways that they might actually interact with each other and their work in a way that they wouldn’t normally.

Gardner: That’s terrific. Now, that’s magnificent. And you have the impetus to do it quickly. not let the great be the enemy of the good. And then there’s this openness to discovery. That just sounds like a great project. Are you blogging about it? Can I follow you? You’re on leave, That’s right.

Rebecca: We’re discussing how we might be able to help facilitate that to happen and provide a little structure so that the students don’t have to provide the structure, but I’m pretty confident that something will happen.

Gardner: That’s terrific. That’s wonderful.

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

Gardner: Wow, that’s a great question. What is next? I’m not sure. I’m going to keep on keeping on. I continue to be interested in harnessing Wikipedia in ever more intense ways. I’ve use Wikipedia a long time I had been an editor inside of Wikipedia, since I don’t know, I guess I got my first account in the early 2000s, not long after it became Wikipedia. But, it’s one of those things that the farther in you go, the farther in there is to go. And you start to become aware of things that I’m always telling my students and then finding out to my own surprise, it’s true. I was watching a movie called Festival, which is a documentary about the Newport Folk Festival from I think 63 through 67, something like that, and found an artist in there, Horton Barker, I just was fascinated by a blind singer. It turns out he lived in southwest Virginia, knew something like 2000 songs, and had actually performed at the White House at one point. So, I started getting interested in that and decided I would go find more about him on Wikipedia. There was no Wikipedia article on Horton Barker, but because I had been doing this with my students, I knew a lot more about how to start an article up from nothing, what sorts of things might happen. If I didn’t pitch it the right way, it would be marked for deletion, somebody would be on me for this or that because sometimes Wikipedia are kind of persnickety about this wonderful thing that they’ve helped to create, which is perfectly understandable. And the first thing I knew I was creating this Horton Barker article, the next thing I knew, there was an article about the Library of Congress releasing all these folk song recordings in their archive. And Horton Barker was one of the people that they were mentioning, and it was a hyperlink and it linked back to the Wikipedia article I had started and while I was doing it all I met another Wikipedian named Julie Farman, who was one of the people kind of watching new articles about music. She’d never heard of Horton Barker, she gave me some encouragement for the article. and said she was going to spend the rest of her morning listening to Horton Barker, who did put out a long playing record in the early 60s. So the next thing for me is going to be, in terms of my own teaching, is going to be thinking about ways I can be a scholar-practitioner and model that more intensely for my students. They already know I’m on Twitter, they know that I have a blog. But if I ramp up my own involvement in some of these things, I’m interested in in Wikipedia, that gives me another way to create a feedback loop. So I can bring in not just what I’m seeing in articles that they’re doing, but, here’s my Horton Barker article or other things. I just made my 500th edit in Wikipedia, which is nothing, 500 just barely gets you in the door, but it felt like a lot. And so I was at 499, and I said, I’m gonna make my 500th edit in the article on John Milton. And that was my 500th edit. So, that was good. In terms of my own scholarship, I’ve got a project I’m very excited about, which has also been something I’ve worked on in a networked way, which is a book that I’m writing on the story behind Doug Englebart’s authorship of the 1962 Manifesto, which was a research report called Augmenting Human Intellect: a Conceptual Framework. And one of the things I’ve tried to do, in a networked setting, I actually had a big open project on this involving hypothes.is and video interviews over Zoom, just February, I guess about this time a year ago, to try to bring in voices from many different sectors, students, teachers, people who knew Doug and worked with him, people who have used his work in their own work in subsequent years, and try to create a network of conversations to raise awareness of this document, this 1962 monograph, really it is, that was written by an electrical engineer pretty much just off to himself the way a humanities prof would write a monograph. It represented about two year’s sabbatical that he finally had gotten funding for from the Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. So it’s a massive multidisciplinary effort, and it’s a conceptual framework that has never been as widely known as it needs to be. My thesis, one of them anyway, is that without a conceptual framework, we’re just kind of out here on the internet willy nilly, not able to fend off the problems or realize the promise in any kind of rich and ultimately beneficial way. So, let’s go back to 1962. What was this Doug Engelbart guy doing when he was doing the research in everything from linguistics to magnetic core memory that would lead to this document Augmenting Human Intellect: a Conceptual Framework. It’s really a kind of philosophy of networks, a philosophy of computing. And it turns out that there’s a very rich archive at Stanford University of rough drafts of this document, of correspondence with the people who are helping to fund his research from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, various stages of presenting parts of the argument to various people along the way. And the early days of what would become Doug Engelbart’s Augmentation Research Center at SRI. They were the second node on the internet. UCLA was the first the Augmentation Research Center was a place out of which came the mouse, out of which came this idea of a very close coupling between the psychomotor things that the user was doing and the environment in which the user was working. There was even this idea that the operating system, which was called the online system, at the Augmentation Research Center would be a kind of a blueprint for the way in which the internet could keep on providing opportunities for people to innovate applications as they wanted. So there’s a kind of almost a worldwide web built in, even though this was the big mother of all demos that kind of showed a lot of the startling technology to the world, was 1968. So, many decades before the World Wide Web, and many years after Doug had put together really the intellectual and philosophical visionary document, this 1962 manifesto that I want to do a deep dive into to help to try to explain what I think are some of its deepest implications, to tell the story of how it came to be, and to talk about some of the things that it might have to offer for us today, as we try to think about where we’ve gotten to and maybe what direction we should go in. So, that’s my book project. And as you can tell, I’m kind of jazzed about it.

John: It sounds like a fascinating project. Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you again, and it’s good to see you.

Gardner: Good to see you too. And thanks for a fine conversation. We have a good little network here and it’s a privilege to be part of it today. Thank you.

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

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Savannah Norton.

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123. New Trends in Science Instruction

Science instruction in K-12 education has long been provided as if science consisted of a body of facts to be memorized. The Next Generation Science Standards, however, rely on an inquiry-based approach in which students learn about science by engaging in scientific exploration. In this episode, Dr. Kristina Mitchell joins us to discuss this approach and its implications for college instruction.

After six years as a director of online education at Texas Tech University, Kristina now works for a science curriculum publishing company and teaches part time at San Jose State University.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Science instruction in K-12 education has long been provided as if science consisted of a body of facts to be memorized. The Next Generation Science Standards, however, rely on an inquiry-based approach in which students learn about science by engaging in scientific exploration. In this episode, we discuss this approach and its implications for college instruction.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guest today is Dr. Kristina Mitchell. After six years as a director of online education at Texas Tech University, Kristina now works for a science curriculum publishing company and teaches part-time at San Jose State University. Welcome back, Kristina.

Kristina: Thank you. It’s good to be back.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

Kristina: Diet Dr. Pepper.

John: The same as last time. [LAUGHTER] I have a green tea today.

Rebecca: And I have a nice pot of brewed English Breakfast tea.

John: We’ve invited you here today to talk about the Next Generation Science Standards. How did you get involved with the Next Generation Science Standards?

Kristina: During my work at Texas Tech University in online education, I was doing a lot of consulting for publishing companies on their online and curriculum offerings, which led to a full-time job offer from a curriculum company that works specifically in K-12 and some higher ed science curriculum, and I learned very quickly that one of the newest trends in science education at the K-12 level are these Next Generation Science Standards that were created by college-level science professors in order to change the way we teach science to K-12 students.

John: How did these standards come about?

Kristina: I have to admit that because I’m relatively new to the science curriculum world, I am not an expert on their creation. But I do know that there were several panels of scientists from various higher education institutions that got together to try and figure out from the perspectives of different disciplines, “What do we want our students who come to university to know about science once they get there?” When I was in middle school, I don’t know how much you remember your middle school science lessons, but I remember dissecting frogs and doing our Punnett squares about genetics, but what I remember most is that we would learn those principles of science like Newton’s laws throughout the week, and then Friday, we would do a lab to prove that they were true. And unfortunately, that’s not how any of us do science. Being a social scientist myself, that’s not how I did science at the college level, as a researcher. So, the panel of experts from various scientific disciplines sought to change the way students think about science to think about it more as a process of investigation, rather than something you sort of memorize and then confirm.

Rebecca: The Next Generation Science Standards have three dimensions. Can you talk about those a little bit?

Kristina: Sure. So, these sort of three dimensions, or the three pillars of the way students are learning in K-12 about science, the first is they’re learning disciplinary core ideas. So these disciplinary core ideas are the core features of disciplines like physics or chemistry and the things that they really have to know about that specific discipline in order to build on that knowledge. The second one is science and engineering practices, so these are the ways we study science. And the great thing about the ways that we study science is that it doesn’t change across disciplines. Whether you’re a physicist or a chemist or a sociologist, you’re going to use the same types of scientific practices to answer your research questions. And then the final dimension, the third dimension, are cross cutting concepts. So, these are things like observing patterns or observing cause and effect, concepts that also span across all disciplines, not necessarily limited only to science. So it’s concepts that students can use to understand the world around them, regardless of what questions they’re asking.

Rebecca: Can you give us an example of how these three dimensions play out in a particular grade level?

Kristina: Sure. So when we’re thinking about what students are doing in science classrooms these days that might be different from the way we learned science when we were in seventh grade, students are doing a lot more investigation centered science. So, you walked into your classroom, your college classroom, and somebody walks in and says to one of your students, “What are you guys doing?” And your student might say, “Oh, we’re reading this chapter on…” Rebecca, I think you’re an art person, right?

Rebecca: Yeah, design.

Kristina: “So we’re reading this chapter on Photoshop,” and you ask them, “Okay, well, why are you doing that?” And they’d say “Well, because Professor Mushtare told us to.” In trying to get them away from that instead, the way they’re trying to implement science in the classrooms now would be to get students, you know, if they came into your classroom to say, “Well what are you guys working on?” And they might say, “Well, we’re trying to make a flyer for this project.” And you’d say “Why?” And they’d say, “Well, because we’re trying to figure out how we can make people more excited in this project that we’re working on.” So, getting students to start from the point of “What are we trying to figure out and why do we have to do this activity in order to figure that out?” …rather than “What are we memorizing, what are we learning because the teacher told us to?”

John: So it’s more of a project-based learning or inquiry-based approach to the discipline.

Kristina: Absolutely. And we’ve seen that a lot emerging in higher ed. So, it’s really great to see it reflected in the K-12 space too.

John: But it’s important probably for faculty to be aware of this, because if students are starting to use this approach, as they move forward, they might expect to see more of that in higher ed, where they might see it as a step backwards if they have to move to something that involves more rote learning, for example.

Kristina: Exactly. We’re seeing a lot less “sage on the stage”-type activities, both in K-12 and in higher ed. So it’s really important, I think, that we all kind of know what both sides of education are doing so we can at least know where our students are coming from.

Rebecca: How do you see this new approach helping students be better prepared for college?

Kristina: Well I definitely think that the idea of empowering students to be in charge of their own knowledge is really important. Sometimes I find that a struggle that my students have is doing this sort of figuring things out on their own. If I don’t give explicit instructions with explicit rubrics, they sometimes feel very lost. And so empowering them to recognize themselves as people who can ask questions and figure out the answers to those questions, that goes far beyond just physics class. That goes into just being a responsible and productive member of society. So, I think hopefully we can see students taking a little bit more ownership in their learning because of these trends at K-12.

John: Does it also perhaps give students a little more motivation when they have a goal in mind, and they know why they’re doing things rather than just doing it because their instructors told them to?

Kristina: Yeah, I would definitely think so. I definitely remember my seventh grade year not being passionate about the science, other than “Wow, cool. It’s a dead frog.” So thinking about empowering students to ask these questions might get them more excited about what they’re learning about.

John: In one of our earlier podcasts, we talked to Josh Eyler, who emphasized the importance of curiosity and nurturing curiosity and this approach seems to be very nicely tied into that.

Kristina: Absolutely. And I think about my own political science classroom. One of the fun activities I’ve done and I swear the first time I went through it, it was one of those days where I thought, “Ah… I’m tired. I don’t have anything that I’m interested in lecturing about. We’re almost through this semester, what am I going to do today?” And so I decided, I’m just going to have the students write questions on index cards related to political science and hand them all in and I’ll answer all of the ones that I can. And that was one of the best days of class. I’ve recreated that many times in semesters. And so seeing that these Next Generation Science Standards where we’re trying to get students to think there are some things you learn about each discipline, but there are some practices and concepts that apply everywhere and you just learn how to ask the right questions and you use these concepts and practices to answer them. It’s something that I’m using in my political science class, even really, before I realized that I was specifically doing so.

Rebecca: Do you have any idea how students are responding to this curricula?

Kristina: So every individual curriculum and program is going to be a little bit different, but they are all going to tie into these main ideas. And one thing that we’ve seen in student performance and student preferences is that the students really like doing things in class, having activities and hands on specifically to science. Of course, that often means labs. But one thing that I often talk to teachers about and get a lot of really good feedback on is the idea that we kind of think of doing science looks like it’s in lab coats with safety goggles, but we all know as researchers ourselves that science looks like talking sometimes. And sometimes it looks like asking questions, and sometimes it looks like taking notes or revising models, and getting the teachers and students to realize that that’s all part of what doing science is. They get really excited at the idea of doing science themselves. Of course, they like to see things explode in class, but sometimes just getting them the opportunity to have discussions with each other. It’s amazing to me what the middle school students are capable of, and our elementary age students, what they’re capable of. I have kids myself and I didn’t know that they were learning such higher level concepts of science in class.

Rebecca: There’s big movements to move STEM to STEAM. Is the humanities represented in this new model?

Kristina: So, when we think about STEM, that’s kind of what everyone’s prioritizing these days: the science, the technology, engineering and mathematics… and the A to add it to STEAM would be the arts. So the idea that the arts are also important, but I think there are some key pieces missing here. When we focus exclusively on STEM and on creation and innovation, that’s really good. We need creation and innovation. But as I feel like sometimes we’re learning right now, without a good background knowledge of history, we might be creating and innovating things that either already exist, or have already been tried, or that don’t have a good basis in what we’ve experienced as a society. It’s like they said on Jurassic Park, you spend so much time wondering whether you can and you don’t stop to think about whether you should.

Rebecca: So you were just raising that question about ethics and things like this. So,how do you see this curriculum evolving so that the humanities are better represented or integrate more into our integrated learning in K through 12?

Kristina: Well, one thing that I think is really great about the NGSS is that it definitely starts to sort of de-silo the disciplines of science. So, when we think about physics and chemistry and earth science and life science, when I was in school, those were all completely separate years, both in middle school and in high school. And the NGSS standards definitely start to recognize that we can’t silo our disciplines like that because they have so much to speak to each other. Some questions you need many disciplines of science to answer. And so I’m hoping that slowly, more and more curriculum writers will apply that same standard to the humanities, to the social sciences, and to the arts, the idea that nothing can truly be siloed because social science speaks to even questions like “What scientific research do we do? What research questions do we ask?” That can’t be explained using natural sciences alone. Because yes, natural sciences might seem really unbiased, but we’re asking certain questions and we’re not asking others. So using social science and humanities to help answer those bigger questions. I’m hoping that we see less siloing across disciplines over time. And even at universities, we’re starting to see increases in things like cluster hires, where multiple people from different disciplines all come at a sort of similar question, kind of like what we’re doing here. We’re three people from very different disciplines. But we’re all interested in the question of, you know, what makes teaching good or bad.

Rebecca: One of the questions that’s risen a lot in higher ed, and I know as a popular conversation on our campus, is about fake news and debunking pseudoscience. Do you see that this curriculum helps with that,? …perpetuates that?

Kristina: I think that’s a really good question, and kind of a difficult one, because I think it’s really important to teach students how to interpret the world around them, and what science is and how it’s done, because that can help us determine the validity of the information that we get. But I also think, like we were just talking about, there is a move away from rote learning, from the idea that an expert in a field tells us what is true about that field and we learn it. The fact that we’re moving toward anyone can be an expert, anyone can do the research themselves, anyone can ask questions. Sometimes, I also worry that that pendulum might swing too far, because that’s sometimes where we get people who go online and find whatever Google can tell them about vaccines not being safe or about climate change not being real. And because they feel empowered to be their own expert, they’re treating themselves and their research as equivalent to people who have devoted their lives to getting advanced degrees and who know the answers to these questions. And so I worry that maybe we’ll see the pendulum swing a little too far in the other direction, but I’m not sure.

Rebecca: Based on knowing what you know about higher ed and what you know about this science curriculum, what do you think faculty should be thinking about in terms of what their students might know or might not know, or how they might know differently than they did before?

Kristina: I think that it’s important to teach students what expertise is to begin with, when we think about what it means to be an expert and know something. So, when we go back to those next generation science standards, and think about those three dimensions, the disciplinary core ideas, to me, those are the things that experts already know and that we can accept as the core ideas of each discipline. So, starting from that point and saying the question of vaccine safety has already been established, we know that the vaccines that are here are safe. That’s a disciplinary core idea. But now let’s use our science and engineering practices and our cross-cutting concepts to think about other types of preventative medicine that maybe don’t have the same consensus or new types of vaccines? How would we know that those are safe or how would we know that those are effective? So, I think it’s important not to forget about those disciplinary core ideas that are things that experts have already figured out questions that have already been settled, and then allowing people to start from that point and ask their own questions and do their own research using the scientific method.

John: Changing the topic just a little bit, we get a fair number of people who are interested in the STEM fields when they’re in middle school and even high school, but then they get to college, and all of a sudden, they have to start taking calculus classes, and Matrix Algebra, and Organic Chemistry. Is there any way that perhaps lessons learned from this approach could be used to make college classes more effective and not having so many people get lost along the way once they hit these courses that have been traditionally a bit of a barrier to progress in those areas?

Kristina: That’s a really great question, and we even see that in political science. I teach our research methods class in political science and it has just the tiniest bit of statistics in it. And students are like, “Why am I doing math in a political science class?” And then of course, in graduate school, we’re seeing increasing amounts of quantitative knowledge needed to finish graduate programs and then to compete on the job market. So, I definitely think that the rise of math as something important is a deterrent to some students who might otherwise be interested in entering STEM or social science fields, but I think that also comes down to the pendulum again. I think that it’s important to realize that quantitative methodology is a method of understanding scientific questions, and you don’t have to use quantitative methodology to answer every scientific question. Some of them can be answered using qualitative methods, and even discussing political theory or other types of theories in other sciences or in the humanities. I think it would be good if we could open up the doors a little bit to people who have really high level intelligence and interest and curiosity, but maybe don’t have an interest in math. I think both by making math more accessible and less required, we might be able to get some really interesting new perspectives in our college level courses. I don’t like the idea of using hard math classes as a way to weed students out. And I think that’s sometimes what they’re used for, because I took Matrix Algebra in grad school, and it was really hard. And I’ve never used it since that class… ever again. So it’s not as though it was a skill I needed to be a PhD in political science. It felt more like a class that was used to weed out students who weren’t as interested or weren’t as good at memorizing how to do Matrix Algebra.

John: The point I was trying to get to, I think, is that perhaps if more of these inquiry-based methods were used to motivate the material, it could help get past that. I actually had a similar experience with Matrix Algebra. And when I was learning, I was able to do the proofs and work through it, but I didn’t really understand it until I started using it in econometrics and other disciplines, when all of a sudden it just made so much sense and why all those theorems were there and useful. But we lost a lot of people along the way there. And perhaps that’s something we could build into all of our classes to help motivate students and not just hit them with a lot of theorems and not necessarily even just rote learning, but a lot of inquiry for which the motivation may not be obvious to people when they take it.

Kristina: Definitely. And I think that when I teach my Statistics and Research Methods class, it always is easier for the students, and they always do better, when I tie the math we’re doing to a real question. So even something as simple as “We’re trying to figure out whether the average American is conservative or liberal,” and this is our question that we’re trying to figure out. Now we need to do a difference of means test to figure it out. And so that would be, going back to what we were saying earlier, the idea of you walking into my class and asking my students what they’re doing. Well, they could answer “We’re memorizing how to do a difference of means test from chapter 12 because Dr. Mitchell told us to,” versus saying, “Well, we’re trying to figure out what the ideology is of Americans from different regions, so we have to use this mathematical test so we can answer that question.” So really about framing it in terms of “What are you doing and why are you doing it?” and making sure that we know that the students would answer in a way that gets them excited about the material.

Rebecca: I think context is everything. The real world problems that you’re talking about in the new science curriculum is not unlike the kinds of things that you’re talking about in your classes or even when you have to use math in design class. So, a lot of visual arts students think math is completely irrelevant to them, but when it’s put in context, when you need to do certain things, all of the sudden it makes more sense. I teach a creative code class and we do fairly complicated geometries there, actually. And if you can see the results, sometimes it makes a lot more sense to some of our students.

Kristina: Exactly. So the fact that they would know why they’re doing this and it’s to accomplish a specific goal, rather than just “We’re memorizing this because the professor told us we had to, it was going to be on the exam.”

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Kristina: Lord, help us for how many times we hear “Is this going to be on the exam?” That seems like the motivation for trying to learn something. And it would be great if we could move it away from that being the motivation, toward the motivation being “Well, we’re trying to learn this because it helps us figure out this question or this design problem.”

Rebecca: Or the motivation, like, “Hey, I really need to understand this mathematical principle, because I really want to know the answer to this question.”

Kristina: Exactly.

Rebecca: And that leads to where they actually start asking for the things that we’ve prescribed previously. [LAUGHTER]

Kristina: Yeah, and it becomes just a tool to figure things out. And if they want to figure the answer out, then they’re going to need all the tools.

John: Could you tell us what this would look like if we were to stop by a seventh grade class, and this was being put in practice?

Kristina: Absolutely. So if we think about what a seventh grader might be doing, so if we start from that point of the goal is to figure something out, and maybe they’re learning about Space science. They’re learning about Earth and Space and trying to figure out “Why do some objects in Space orbit other objects?” …like “What does that mean? How does that happen?” So, one really fun activity that I’ve seen middle schoolers doing is they have these embroidery hoops and these marbles. And so what they do is they put the marble in the embroidery hoop, and they sort of spin it around on the table. And so the marble is swirling in circles and then they lift the hoop and marbles start shooting everywhere. So it’s very funny in a seventh grade classroom, because you got kids running everywhere trying to chase their marbles. And so at first, they’re just having fun, tracking which way the marble goes and trying to figure out when they lift the embroidery hoop which direction will the marble head, and then eventually they start realizing, “Oh, well, the marble kind of wants to go straight, but the embroidery hoop is keeping it going in a circle.” So, if we think about the sun, with the planets orbiting it, if the sun suddenly disappeared, Earth would kind of want to go straight out in whatever direction it was headed. But because the sun’s gravity’s in the middle, it’s keeping Earth going in a circle around the sun. And so they start putting these pieces together and eventually they come up with this idea of the relationship between inertia, which keeps the earth going, and gravity, which is what keeps it in that same orbit. When they think about what is the core idea they’re learning about, well, they’re learning about orbit, but the way they’re figuring it out is by looking at this small model of what is actually happening at the planetary level. And that’s really reflective of the kinds of things that scientists do in their labs. We’re running models that try to simulate what’s happening in space, or what’s happening in the political world, or whatever discipline we’re doing. We’re trying to create these models to help us understand it. And so that’s what the students are doing, too.

John: That reminds me of a talk that Eric Mazur has given in several places, including at Oswego, where he talked about the Force Concept Inventory, and how, while students were able to plug numbers into formulas and solve problems very well, when they were asked about questions like that, specifically, if I recall, “Suppose that you’re swinging a rock on a sling, and you release it, what would the motion look like?” And basically it ends up flying in essentially a straight line… well, other than the effect of gravity. But when people were asked that, they would bring up things that they had seen in cartoons where they expected it to loop through the air, perhaps as it’s moving. That’s actually one of those things where people in really good institutions who had taken a college class had some really poor intuition. And this type of practice can help prepare them with better intuition on which to build later.

Kristina: There was also a video at, I think it was Harvard’s graduation, where they asked a bunch of STEM majors who had just graduated if they thought they could make a little circuit that would light up a light bulb. And so they handed them everything they would need to do, and everyone’s like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, I got this no problem.” And they couldn’t, they couldn’t figure out how to light the light bulb up, because as much as they had done the math in class, they just had never really done the practical aspect. And so getting students hands-on to do the things with those science and engineering practices in whatever discipline we’re in. It’s really important to get our students in the driver’s seat to start practicing what they’re going to be doing when they leave the classroom.

Rebecca: It also seems like having multiple pathways to the same information is a good way to play with our memory, and make sure that it sticks and it stays there. So, something that’s embodied, something that you memorize, something that’s a couple different kinds of examples.

Kristina: Exactly. Maybe it can move it from our short-term back to the long-term memory to help us keep that knowledge.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking “What’s next?”

Kristina: So I think I’d really like to start exploring what this does look like in a classroom setting for myself. So rather than just focusing on what it looks like for students in K-12, I’d like to see if I can use a similar style of teaching in my political science classroom, and just see what kinds of evaluations I get and how the students like it. I think the idea of getting rid of these silos and recognizing that we all use the same practices and concepts could help us with keeping our college experience for our students interesting and consistent. And we start realizing that they’re going to learn in each of our disciplinary core ideas, but there are a lot of things that we all have in common. So, I’m really going to try this semester, maybe my student evaluations will suffer greatly, but we all know from my past talks that they’re biased anyway. But I just kind of want to see what it looks like if I let my students take a little bit more of a driver’s seat in asking the question, “What are we going to figure out? What do we want to know about the world?”

Rebecca: Do you have a piece of this semester that you’re most excited about that you already have planned in this domain?

Kristina: Well, I’m doing the research methods class this semester, which of course, involves some math. And I think that I would like to use their ideas about what kind of data we should be looking at and what kind of questions we should be answering. Because I think that’ll make it a lot more meaningful for them, rather than if I say, “We’re going to look at the American national election study,” letting them figure out “What question do you want to answer?” And then I’ll teach them whatever method it is that they need to know in order to answer that question. So, we’re going to try it. We’ll see how it goes.

John: In a past podcast, Doug Mckee talked about a similar situation in his econometrics class where he was using a time-for-telling approach. Where basically you face students with problems and let them wrestle with it a bit before giving them some assistance and helping them resolve things, and there’s a lot of evidence that those techniques can be really effective.

Rebecca: So, it sounds like well wishes on your new adventures. [LAUGHTER]

Kristina: Thank you.

Rebecca: Thank you so much for joining us.

Kristina: Of course, this is great. It’s always great. I think eventually I’ll have to come visit y’all.

John: That would be great. Well, thank you.

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

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Savannah Norton.

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109. Active Learning

Moving from a familiar instructional format such as lectures to a more active learning environment can be daunting. In this episode, Dr. Patricia Gregg joins us to discuss how she flipped her classes and embraced active learning. Trish is an Assistant Professor of Geophysics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Show Notes

Transcript

Rebecca: Moving from a familiar instructional format such as lectures to a more active learning environment can be daunting. In this episode, we share the story of one faculty member who fully flipped her classes and embraced active learning.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Today our guest is Dr. Patricia Gregg. Trish is an Assistant Professor of Geophysics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Welcome.

Trish: Thanks for having me.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Trish: I am drinking a peppermint decaf tea.

Rebecca: …in what looks like a very nice handmade mug.

Trish: Yes! This was made last summer at the YMCA of the Rocky Camp in Colorado.

John: My tea today is a Harney and Sons chocolate mint.

Trish: Mhmm.

Rebecca: And I have a Prince of Wales tea today.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about some of the active learning techniques that you’ve used in your class and also a little bit about how you use a flipped classroom approach. But, before that, could we talk a little bit about your own experience in science classes, and whether active learning was common while you were a student?

Trish: I was thinking about this and it’s interesting because it’s sort of a yes or no type of situation. Geosciences in general is the fun major in that we pull together a lot of different disciplines. So, you have chemistry and physics and math and computer science and you’re using those all in applied ways to understand the structure and evolution of the earth. And so our classes typically have a lecture-based meeting time and then a laboratory that’s associated with it. So, when I was matriculating, most of my classes, there would be three one-hour meetings throughout the week where we’d be lectured at, and then we’d have a three-hour laboratory class at some point during the week or a field experience that would help to apply some of the knowledge that we gained in the passive-learning setting. But, then as you get at higher levels, and things become more theoretical, it really did switch to more of this passive-learning mode. And I don’t want to age myself, but I matriculated a while ago, so I didn’t ever really experience these new active-learning techniques that have become so much more widely adopted nowadays. So, even through graduate school, most of the classes were me sitting passively scribbling furiously to try to take notes as quickly as I could, while a professor lectured and basically tried to stuff as much knowledge into my brain as possible. So, I didn’t really know a lot about the types of things that you can do to engage learners until after I was out of that student mode. But, yeah, geology is cool, though, because you still do have active portions where you get to go on field trips with your professors, and they show you things in the field and you apply that knowledge directly. But, in the classroom, it really was sort of divided, like, “This is your passive lecture that you’re going to sit and listen to, and you may never get called on through the entire semester.” And then “Here’s your lab where you will look at a microscope and look at hand samples or do other types of things that are a little more active.”

Rebecca: What motivated you to do something different in your own classroom?

Trish: As a graduate student, I really didn’t have a chance to do a teaching assistantship. I was on fellowships through most of my PhD time. So, I knew that I was woefully underprepared for entering academia and teaching my own classes. So, as a postdoc, I applied to this call that I saw out by the Center for Astronomy Education. And it was in 2011, they had this course called Improving College General Education and Earth Astronomy and Space Science through Active Engagement. And I saw the ad for this course and I thought, “Oh, this sounds great.” And then I saw that it was three days in Hawaii, and I said, “Oh, man, I must apply to this.”[LAUGHTER] And so I applied and it was mostly astronomy graduate students and postdocs, and the workshop was run by Ed Prather and Gina Brissenden out of the University of Arizona through the Center for Astronomy Education. And they had been doing all this amazing research about how to engage students in 100-level classes, mainly for the idea that they would sort of entrain new majors and new science students. But, it was just a mind blowing experience. I for the first time learned what think-pair-share was, I’d never heard of that before. We did lecture tutorials, I didn’t even know that was a thing. They did all of these, like voting and role playing and these different pedagogical things that I didn’t even know it existed. And they use them on us throughout the workshop. So, we were learning about these techniques through them actively using us as guinea pigs. And then we each had the opportunity to sort of develop a little module. They gave us specific astronomy, like 101-type things, that we would be teaching and we got to teach the other workshop participants and get feedback immediately on things that we didn’t do so well and things that we could improve on. But, it really just blew my mind. I think that was one of the most transformative experiences for me because, up to that point, all the experiences that I had, had been very research focused and how to improve as a scientist and how to improve my research approach, but I’d never had an opportunity to actually learn how to teach and how to teach effectively. So, yeah, I credit that three-day workshop in Hawaii, which was awesome… to be in Hawaii. It’s just sort of changing my entire worldview on how education can be and how I could be a better educator. Had it not been for the Center for Astronomy Education, I don’t know what I would be doing now. So, I think what I took away from it more than anything is that not every student is going to learn simply through lecture… passive engagement… type of situation. And I was fortunate that I seemed to do well in that mode, but it was amazing. I loved that workshop……. It was great.

Rebecca: It sounds really transformative. But, the one takeaway that I hear is next time we want a faculty member to change what they’re doing, we just need to woo them to Hawaii. [LAUGHTER]

Trish: Well, I have to admit that being a postdoc gave me some flexibility in that regard. So, yeah, when I saw that call, I was like, “Oh, I want to do that… three days in Hawaii.” I took my mom with me and she hung out and snorkeled during the day while I was in workshops. It was wonderful.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about some of the techniques that you’ve used in your classes?

Trish: The first semester that I taught, I was given a class that had already been developed and it was sort of easing me into that mode of becoming the head lecturer of a course. So, I didn’t really have a lot of wiggle room to change the curriculum yet, because I was still sort of learning how one gets in front of a class and does things. And so in that first term, I started to use some of the approaches that I had experienced through the Center for Astronomy Education, and sort of trickled them into my class. I use lecture tutorials and think-pair-share a lot during that term. And then I even used some small group activities and jigsawing to try to figure out ways that I could engage the students. And it was sort of a perfect situation to get my feet wet because I had the scaffolding of a well- developed course where I could put in some of my own ideas and try them out and if things weren’t working, I could get immediate feedback from the students and change my trajectory. I was also really fortunate that the students were super kind to me, it was my very first time teaching, I told them straight out. I was very communicative throughout the course. Every time I tried something new, I’d say, “okay, we’re going to try this. I don’t know if it will work, but this is why I’m doing it.” And the students were sort of brought in as collaborators in that process, so they didn’t see me as sort of this professor that was telling them “Oh, you’re going to do this, this and this and just follow along and trust me blindly.” They realized that I was trying to learn how best to teach them and so they were very helpful and when things didn’t work, they’re like, “Yeah that didn’t work.” And then when things went well, they say, “Oh, I really liked that.” And even after that semester, I’d get emails from students. They do a lot of journal reading and science reviews. And one of the students had emailed me over the summer and said “Oh, that really helped. At my first job they asked me to review some literature and I was able to use the template that you provided in class and what we did as groups to do that for my job.” So, I gained a lot of confidence through that process. And then after that first term, I started looking around campus to see if there were faculty development potential to help me to do a better job of developing my next courses. Because while that one had already been developed, I was then sort of slated to develop three new courses, which would be mine and I’d have to start from scratch and really think about how I wanted to develop my teaching as a portfolio. So, one of the things that I really wanted to try was this idea of flipping and mainly it came from a place that I didn’t enjoy lecturing. I would get bored hearing myself talk… like there would be times where I’m up there at the dry erase board writing out things and then suddenly I forget what I was saying, because mentally I’d fallen asleep at that point… like, alright, I’ve been talking so long, I don’t even know what I’m talking about anymore. And I enjoyed the parts where we were actively learning as a group so much more. That was so exciting to me, where the students were doing things hands on, and I could walk around and help them to gain more insight on what they’re working on. So, I contacted the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning on campus and looked at the different things that they had available. And one of the facilities that they had advertised on their page was the Illinois iFLEX classroom. So, this is the Illinois flexible learning experience classroom. And I was able to get some training on how to use IFLEX classrooms from Dr. Eva Wolf here on campus. And that also then immediately changed my perspective of how teaching could be because these were classrooms where all of the tables were on wheels. So, you could move them around. They had monitors that students could plug in their computers or laptops, iPads or whatever too so that they could do collaborative learning. And she showed me some of the things that other faculty members were doing in these flexible spaces and it helped me to be inspired to think about what sorts of things I could do. So, as I started to develop my next class, I was like “Alright, I want to be able to use the computing facilities, I want to be able to use these flexible classroom configurations and I really want it to be flipped.” So, the first time I taught a flipped class, I recorded lectures and put them online and naively thought my students are going to watch them and they’re going to do the readings and they’re going to come to class prepared, and I did not have the assessment structured as such that the students had points awarded for doing those things. And boy did I learn quickly that students are not going to be these wonderfully motivated pupils that do all of the things on the list ahead of coming to class. So, I quickly spoke to colleagues around the department and found out about this edtech tool called PlayPosit. I don’t know have you guys had an experience with PlayPosit?

Rebecca: No.

John: That one I haven’t heard of.

Trish: So, PlayPosit is an edtech tool that you can integrate with a learning management system. We use Moodle on our campus. And you take your video lectures, and it embeds questions and prompts within your video lecture. So, students can’t fast forward and they don’t know when these questions are going to pop up. But, it’s a way to assess how they’re doing with the video… with the lecture as they’re watching it. So, sometimes I’ll use multiple-choice questions. In the upper-level classes I mostly use essay questions because I really want them to delve into the topic a little bit more. I also sprinkle in questions from the readings that they’re supposed to do because it’s another way to assess that they’re actually looking at the text or reading the papers that I’ve suggested. And then at the end, it’s great because you can put in some questions about what concepts did you not understand? What do you want to learn more about? Are there sticking points that are kind of confusing you? And this fed directly into learning about the just-in-time teaching method. So, I could have these PlayPosits that the students had to watch before class and I set them for midnight the day before. And I could come in the morning before class, assess how they did on the lecture and immediately I have a lot of information going into the classroom that day for where they’re stuck and I could modify my approach to the learning goals for that day based on how they did on their PlayPosit. And that just changed everything. That made it so much better, and I think from the students perspective, they felt more accountable because there were points that were associated to watching these lectures. And then I would come into class and the first thing I would do is sort of go through the questions and the things that they missed and talk to them about it. And it gave this really nice back and forth. And it sort of broke the ice a bit, because there’s always that little awkward start when you get into classroom, or at least there is for me, and this was an easy way for, say, “Okay, so on the lecture that you guys completed for yesterday, here are some topics that you didn’t really understand. So, let’s go through them together and maybe we can make sure that everyone’s on the same page.” And that sort of changed the game for me for the flipped classroom model.

John: Going back to the PlayPosit, you can also do the same thing with Camtasia and upload the videos as a SCORM package into Blackboard, Canvas, or other things as well.

Trish: Oh, I have to check that out.

John: Once the students arrived in class, you mentioned that you used a just-in-time teaching approach. How did you structure the class? What would your class generally consist of during the class time?

Trish: I originally taught on Monday, Wednesday, Friday for 50 minutes and realized that that was not a long enough time period for us to do what we wanted to do. So, I switched to a Tuesday-Thursday class so I could have a full hour and 20 minutes with my students twice a week. So, typically when students come to class, we have this sort of icebreaker where we go through the lecture material. And sometimes that might take 10 or 15 minutes if there’s a concept that the students really need to get for us to do our activity for the day. And then we usually go straight into a prompt for what the activity is going to be. So, for example, one of the classes that I teach… my favorite classes… junior-level class in volcanology… so, it’s just called volcanoes. And it’s a sneaky class because it’s actually a geophysics class. It’s very math and physics heavy, but I don’t tell the students that when they come, and they do not have an upper-level math requirement to take the course. And this was sort of my sneaky way to entrain students that might not realize that they can absolutely do this. So, I get a lot of diversity in that class: we’ll have communications majors, advertising, education majors, as well as the geology majors. The first time I taught the class, of the 20 students in the class only 4 were geology majors and the other 16 were just spread from throughout the campus. So, it was a really cool opportunity to empower students that “Wes, you can use math and physics and it’s not that intimidating”. So, we go straight into these activities and every exercise is quantitative. They get real geophysical data from deforming volcanoes and active volcanoes around the world, and they analyze it. And there’s a large social sciences component because I want them to think about the societal impacts of those volcanoes and potentials for eruption and how it might impact the communities that are around the volcanoes. And then also that communication thruway of how as we as scientists communicate hazards to local populations. So, they have a lot of different levels of work that they’re doing. Almost every class period is done in a jigsaw manner, where they’re broken into small groups and each small group is going to be working on some component that at the end of the class we’re going to come together and discuss. I typically start the prep of the activity, for example, “Okay, today we’re going to be looking at this type of volcano.” And maybe it’s a stratovolcano. And we’re going to look at Mount St. Helens in the US, we’re going to look at Mount Fuji in Japan, we’re going to look at Ruapehu in New Zealand. But, each group will have a different volcano. And they’re going to look at data directly from that volcano and the surrounding areas and do a small activity that helps them to understand that data set, the type of physical processing, and then at the end of class, each of the groups will come back together and present what they found to the group and then there’s some larger full-classroom group discussion questions that will go over as a class. So, it’s usually the activity I hope will take about 45 minutes, but it really depends. I try to keep them short in my mind, but then oftentimes they go a little bit long if the students get really excited about it. One of the things I think is really good about the flipped class is that I’m able to do so much more than I was able to do in sort of a classical passive learning model. And with that came a lot of grading. And so the first term I did flipped classes, I had not learned about light grading, and was buried in the amount of feedback I was trying to provide to students. So, if we had PlayPosits a couple times a week, we had these activities twice a week, they had additional outside of class things, they had midterms… so, it was unreal, the amount of grading. So, I was very fortunate to find out about light grading, and how to maybe back up the amount of feedback and time I’m spending on student papers and that really helped a lot. So, I think that one of the things that has to be said in conjunction with this particular model is: you need to do some sort of light grading, because there’s no way to stay on top of everything without losing sleep. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how you adjusted your grading in specific ways?

Trish: Originally, when I did the PlayPosits, again, there are a lot of essay questions. So, I would take a lot of time to really think through the answers to the essay questions and making sure that I’d have a rubric for what I wanted, what points I wanted them to hit on each of these essay questions, and I was very detailed about when they miss things and providing feedback. And so as I shifted into a light grading model, I would do that for the first couple of weeks. And then from then on out, it would just be a quick glance, like, did they hit this? And I wouldn’t spend as much time with the subtleties of “Yes, they wrote out a great answer, and they hit all these points.” And then for just the in-class exercises, the thing I started doing too was originally I had each student turn in their own exercise, even in the groups because I wanted to see their individual contribution. But, I recognize that there was enough individual assessment through the playp osits, and through their midterms, that having that additional individual assessment through the group activity really wasn’t necessary. And it wasn’t really contributing to their success in the class. By having individual assessment on the group assignments, it wasn’t helping students who were falling behind do better. And so after that point, I started allowing the groups to just do their presentations as a Google slideshow, and then I would have their Google slideshow. So, basically, in the jigsaw puzzle, they go into their group, they work on this presentation and when we come back together, each group shows a Google slide or Google doc of what they’ve been working on, and they present it to the entire class. At that point, I just say that’s good enough and I don’t require that each student then hands in the answers to the discussion questions in their own words. So, little things like that made it a lot more tangible for me. Whereas before when I was having each student providing responses for the discussion questions, and then on top of that having the discussion in the class, it was just too much. [LAUGHTER] But, I admit that it came from a perspective that I was concerned that some students would not fully contribute to the group activity, and I wanted to try to hold people accountable, but it really was a little bit too much micromanaging. And I think that the groups ended up holding each other accountable in their own ways without needing me to sit and say, “Okay, everyone needs to answer this question.” The other thing I really like about the small groups is that I’ve noticed that it brings out a lot of discussion from students that otherwise do not participate in the larger group discussions. And one of my favorite things in those small group activities is going around the room… and I typically spend a couple minutes with each group, and I just sort of keep roving around the classroom and it helps me to get to know individual students a lot better. And it also gives them so much more confidence to talk to me. And I feel like it’s made me more approachable as an instructor because they’ve had these smaller group interactions with me where I’ve sat at their table and said, “Oh, that’s a great idea…” or “Oh, have you thought about this” and those just little micro interactions really build up and it creates a student population where they feel more comfortable in the class. And then by the end of the term, I feel like, as a class, it’s much more energetic and engaged. And even in those larger groups discussion, some of the quieter students that you would never have heard from previously are starting to speak out and oftentimes with the encouragement of their group members. That’s another thing I really like about the small group setup.

John: Could you give us some feel for the size of your classes? How large are they typically?

Trish: My typical class size is 20. I usually keep the classes up to 40 students because that’s what the flexible classroom configurations will hold. One of the interesting things about the flipped class is that the first day of class, I do tell the students, these are my expectations. This is a flipped class you’ve signed up for and we go through what that model looks like and I always have students drop after that first day. That’s kind of fascinating for me, maybe it would be nice to follow up and find out…. Did you drop because of the model that was being used in the classroom? Or did you drop because of a schedule conflict? Or were there other things going on? But, I typically end up with 20 students that end up through the entire term. I teach mostly upper-level junior-, senior-level courses. So, I’ve not had the opportunity to try these techniques in the large introductory level classes.

John: I think most of them should scale pretty nicely, except for the grading aspect of it.

Trish: Yeah, I think that were to be done in an introductory class, you probably would want to have some TAs involved as well, just to help. I recognize that other instructors do these amazing small group activities in these large format lecture classes. But, I think having the logistical setup so that you can walk around and interact with groups, maybe not every group every time, but enough so that you can hit most of the groups once in a while, would be imperative because I really think that the students greatly benefit from that almost one-on-one interactivity with the professor.

John: I teach a class typically between three and 420 students in the fall, and I do wander around and I’ve found something similar. I don’t get to sit with each group. But, the students that I do interact with become dramatically more likely to stop by and ask questions, or if they see me in the hallway, to come up and just say hello. So, those individual interactions can make a big difference in practice.

Rebecca: I think it’s just a far more efficient way to give feedback as well. You can disrupt misconceptions and reframe things for small groups. And then if you stop by a couple of groups and hear the same kinds of misconceptions, you can address those more holistically to the whole group. I found that works really well for me, too.

Trish: Yeah, absolutely. And I always get tickled when I see that. I mean, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. But, when there are lots of groups that have the same misconception, because it means that there’s something that… or a piece of information that I have not given the students or something that’s missing in how we’ve set up the activity. And that’s always kind of nice to see and it helps me to redevelop how I’m going to teach it the next time. So, I really do like that. Because otherwise, if I were just lecturing, I would never realize that there was this piece of information that nobody got until the exam comes back and at that point it’s sometimes too late.

John: That’s one of the advantages of a just-in-time teaching approach. It allows you to focus your class time on the things that students are struggling with, and to skip over the things that they already understand. So, it lets you use your class time much more efficiently.

Rebecca: At the end of one of those class periods or even during that class period, I jot down what those things are, so that if it’s a while between each semester when you teach it again you don’t forget what those are because sometimes you can lose track. So, coming up with a system to routinely to check in on those things can be really helpful.

Trish: Yeah, a journaling effort or something. Yeah.

John: And I saw you also do something called Trashcano?

Trish: [LAUGHTER] Yes, Trashcano, Trashcano is an activity that we do late in the term once the weather gets nice. In the class we talked about different styles of eruptions. And one of the styles that we get to later in the class is explosive eruptions andTrashcano is a demonstration that was developed by my colleagues at Colgate: Karen Harpp, Danny Geist, and Alison Koleszar. And they basically developed this experiment where you take a trash can and you fill it up about two-thirds to three-quarters of the way filled with water. And if you submerge a two-liter bottle with liquid nitrogen in it, that bottle represents a pressurized magma chamber and it ends up rupturing because liquid nitrogen is boiling at ambient temperature. And so the two-liter bottle ruptures in that water and creates a column that sprays into the air. So, for this activity, the students do some calculations of plume heights so they can use their iPhones to measure the angle of the trajectory of the water and they can say, “Okay, the plume went this high” and they can do some back calculations to discuss what sort of pressurization caused that amount of uplift to the water. And then we also put styrofoam balls of different sizes and shapes into the trash can. And they can make isopach maps… basically how we actually map explosive eruptions where we take the different grain sizes, and we create a map of how far the different grain sizes spread from the center of the eruption. It’s a fun day outside. This past year, we did it in the rain, which was rather interesting to see how rainfall dampens the amount of distance the styrofoam can spread. I’m not sure that we’d want to do that in the rain again, but it was an interesting experiment. Yeah, we do a lot of little things like that so that the students can take their concepts, the actual equations that we’re working on in class and apply them in a tactile, physical way.

Rebecca: Trish, do you use consistent teams throughout the semester or do you rotate how your groups are formed?

Trish: I’ve done it a couple different ways. I’ve now had the opportunity to teach my flipped classes two to three times each at this point. And some terms I do let them switch around and some terms I keep it consistent. And I’ve found that overall, it works a little better when they’re consistent teams the whole way. I feel like the students build a lot of teamwork and camaraderie with their groups. But, I don’t know… I try to take it by a term-by-term basis because I have had situations where the students are eager to switch around and meet other members of the classroom. We do this a little bit with our jigsaw discussions. So, for example, we do a role playing exercise where each group is a volcano monitoring agency. So, in your monitoring agency, you have a volcanologist, you have a seismologist, you have a geodesist you have a communication specialist, but then all the communication specialists from each group will have to get together and work as a team for one of the activities and all the geodesists will have to get together and work as a team for the activities and then bring them back to their initial group. So, they do get some chances to interact with one another through these, I don’t know, is it a jigsaw puzzle within a jigsaw puzzle? [LAUGHTER] I’m not sure how you describe it, but they do get these opportunities to move around to other groups. But, that’s something that I still am thinking a lot about. I think you had a guest on recently. Dakin Burdick. In his he talked about how sometimes he likes to let the students all which groups all the time because then they get to know everybody in the class, and then sometimes it keeps them all together. It seems like a lot of people do different things with this. I don’t have a great method yet. But, I do tend to go on a sort of term-by-term basis and get a feel for the culture of the class and how people are melding. I do find sometimes when you do the consistent groups, it can happen that the group tends to congeal really well. And then it lifts up all of the students in the group. And so people attend class more regularly, and they’re much more engaged. But, I have seen it happen where groups have sort of fallen apart because one or two members just aren’t attending regularly, and they’re really not committed or engaged. And that becomes difficult. And then you really kind of need to reshuffle a little bit.

John: We talked about that in episode in early October with Kristin Croyle when she was talking about team-based learning where there are persistent teams. And one of the things she suggested is it’s really important to form teams that are constructed to be balanced so that you don’t run into that. But, there are some advantages of having persistent teams. But, if it’s a persistent, dysfunctional team with people missing, then that could be problematic. I think a lot depends on the nature of the activities. If you’re going to have persistent activities like in team-based learning, having well defined teams may be useful, but for other types of activities that vary class to class it may not matter as much.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think there are certainly advantages to both. I’ve had experiences where we’re doing long-term projects. So, doing some preliminary shorter activities with those groups that they’re going to have for their long-term projects can be really helpful. And getting those teams gelled before it really matters. And I’ve also had experience doing persistent teams when I’ve gamified a classroom. And that actually works really well in getting people to hold each other accountable and be competitive. So, I’ve had really good luck when I’ve done that as well. You’ve also received a lot of grants for your research.

Trish: Yeah, I’m in a fortunate position that my primary position is research. So, I don’t actually teach that much. I only teach two classes a year. So, I do try to find ways to integrate all of the exciting research that my group is doing into what we do in the classroom setting, but not just my classes, the other classes in the department too. We teach a 100-level course in oceanography and a lot of my research centers around seagoing expeditions and collecting geophysical data at sea to understand submarine volcanoes. So, we try to bring that experience back into the classroom for our introductory level students. Especially in a landlocked state of Illinois, many of our students have never seen the ocean. They’ve never been to the beach, and they don’t really have a concept for why would scientists be at sea collecting data? And what are scientists doing in our marine setting? So, bringing that into our introductory classes, I think, is really critical. So, the big push there was… I was chief scientist of an expedition we’ve just wrapped up. We had two seagoing missions to the eastern Pacific, it was called the Oasis expedition. And we’re investigating a line of seamounts on the sea floor. So, these are volcanoes that have been active over the past million years, and we were using this submarine to collect data, to collect rock samples from the sea floor, and it started because I have a young daughter and I was going to be gone for about 45 days, and I wanted her to feel connected to me while I was away. We don’t really have great internet at sea, as you can imagine. So, it’s hard to continue to feel connected with loved ones at home. So, I decided with the help of my husband, to create a YouTube channel that would chronicle our life at sea and link back to my daughter’s classroom and some local schools that they could watch what scientists are doing. And then we also ended up using those videos in the introductory courses on campus at a higher level so that students could see a sort of a hands on of what we do when we’re at sea. But, yeah, it started out predominantly as me wanting to stay connected to my then six year old while I was sailing, and became a really great way to provide outreach to a broader learning ecosystem. So, lots of people throughout the community,

Rebecca: I think it might seem more obvious that students in a landlocked state don’t have experience with marine life. But, at the same time, I think that our students don’t have much experience with many professional experiences in what it’s like to be in any kind of industry or research setting. So, I think that that same methodology works in a lot of circumstances to give students exposure to what it might actually be like to be a professional in the field.

Trish: Yeah, and I really like that sort of informal blogging aspect. So, these videos were [LAUGHTER] very informal. I had a blogging camera and I basically just filmed myself doing things. And I remember at one point, my husband sent me this email that basically said, “Wow, you look really tired. Are you doing okay?” Because I just was like, “Alright, it’s 4:30 in the morning, we’re getting ready to do some scientific stuff. I’ll put my camera on me and film what we’re doing.” But, yeah, it’s an exhausting process because it’s a 24/7 operation when you’re out at sea collecting data. You have this facility. For 30, 40 days, whatever it is, and you want to use every second of it to get as much information as possible. But, I think that’s important because a lot of people don’t know like, “Oh, that’s what an ocean scientist….” well, what my particular volcanology centered ocean scientist “…does for research.” And then the other arm of my research program is very much in volcano hazard. So, that feeds directly into the volcano geophysics courses I teach because my group works on developing forecasting mechanisms and algorithms for taking volcano monitoring data and providing monitoring agencies with information about how volcanoes are evolving and we have a lot of monitoring agency partners that we’re working with to try to provide some new quantitative methods for assessing volcanic unrest. So, these are things that we’re thinking about every day, but we certainly can infuse them into classes on volcanology and volcano geophysics,

John: Having that video channel would also let you do some time shifting… where much of the work that you’re doing takes place during breaks when classes wouldn’t be in session. And it still allows you to bring this into your own classes as well. I’ve watched several of your videos, and they’re really good. We’ll share a link to those in the show notes.

Trish: Oh, great… Thanks…. [LAUGHTER] They haven’t been updated for years. But, yeah, I think the asynchronous aspect is really cool. One of the things that we struggled with when we were first doing these expeditions was we were trying to schedule, within reason, because it’s really hard to schedule your ship time because you’re working with all the other scientists that are utilizing the facility, but we’re trying to schedule them such that students could participate synchronously with what we were doing. So, while we’re out at sea we’re sending back Q&As and doing videos. But, what we found was that you could still use all of this information after the fact so students have been benefiting from these videos for the last three, four years, which is really fantastic. And I think that it’s something that a lot of fields scientists could take advantage of. For example, the Antarctic field season is when everyone’s off for holiday. But, perhaps if they’re doing these videos, that they could bring them back and create learning modules for students to see more of what is it like to be a scientist working in Antarctica during the Antarctic summer… and not in a documentary way, I felt like one of the things I really wanted to do was provide that informal feeling for students so that they could look at that and say, “Wow, I actually feel like I could do that. And I could see myself in that role.” Whereas when you have that documentary, shininess, it’s harder to imagine that it’s not this esoteric thing that you could never aspire to be as I wanted to show like, “Yes, we’re up at 4:30 in the morning and we’re tired.” Yeah. I like that.

Rebecca: I think you’re right, that that polish sometimes makes it seem really not approachable to students, or that they don’t belong in the field, or they don’t belong in the discipline. But, if you’re showing that realness in that authentic moment through your own lens, it’s really beneficial to students… and I can imagine this working in just about any context, actually, to help students understand the day in the life that they might be pursuing.

Trish: Yeah, absolutely. It would be so helpful too for K through 12 students, because a lot of times they have no idea. Geology is an interesting discipline in that we’re kind of a found discipline. Students usually come to college thinking, “Oh, I’m going to go do chemistry or I’m going to do physics or engineering…” and geology is not really on students radar, but then they start to see how they can apply chemistry, physics, engineering, and math, all in one discipline, and they sort of gravitate towards us. But, we don’t get a lot of freshmen into our major but maybe if K through 12 students saw what geologists do on a daily basis and what a career looks like, they might say, “Oh, yeah, that’s a major I could be interested in.”

Rebecca: There’s a lot of disciplines and careers that students have no idea exists. The lens in which they see the world is largely through whatever classes they’ve been taking. So, it’s like, world is math, English, science, these really broad categories of things.

John: And they see it from the textbook perspective, as a well defined body of knowledge that they just have to learn or memorize, and not as an active, ongoing endeavor. And those videos you created, and these types of connections that you’re making for students help open up that possibility to them. As part of the OASIS project, you used a variety of social media including Twitter, Reddit, and I believe you did a Reddit Ask Me Anything. Could you tell us a little bit about your use of social media for this project?

Trish: One thing that we learned very quickly is that the internet on the ship was not great. So, the day we did the Reddit Ask Me Anything, it was a day that the Alvin submarine was on the sea floor collecting samples so we knew the ship could stay in one spot. So, it’s sort of like having an aerial antenna on your old TV and you’re trying to like bend it in just the right way so you have a good connection. So, we were able to set the ship in one location and then rotate it [LAUGHTER] so that the satellite was in the right spot so we could get on Reddit, and then we had to like shut down everything using the internet and we all crowded around one computer [LAUGHTER] and did the Ask Me Anything. And I think it was a really good experience. One of the things that cracks me up is that there was a scientist on a sister ship in the northern Pacific that responded to one of our questions and said, “Hey, we’re up here on the RV Armstrong. Hello.” [LAUGHTER] Yeah, I think that they’re Reddit Ask Me Anything was a great experience. It was mostly done by the graduate students on the ship. I was sort of running around doing other things. But, it was a great way, again, to provide outreach. It gives you a demographic that otherwise you may not have interacted with, which I think is important.

Rebecca: Sounds like another sneaky method, like not telling students that your volcano class has math in it. [LAUGHTER]

Trish: Yes. Exactly…[LAUGHTER] Exactly.

John: We always end the podcast by asking, what are you doing next?

Trish: One of the things that we’re working on right now, as I mentioned, we’ve collected a lot of video at sea and on the last expedition, we collected a lot of virtual reality 3D video with GoPro fusion. So, we use GoPro fusions to collect really nice 3D videos on the ship. So, things like how the scientists were cleaning tube worms that were collected from hydrothermal vents and how they’re processing rocks and just the day-to-day life on the ship. So, we collected all this virtual reality video and now we’re working with colleagues and the CITL, the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning on campus to develop VR modules for introductory classes. And this is been a really crazy learning experience for me because one of our goals is to give these experiences to students that would not necessarily ever have a chance to go to sea or to do this type of work. But, building and structuring the learning goals for these VR experiences is really difficult and I didn’t realize how big of a leap it would be from just the video content and lectures to creating a VR structured activity for students. And there’s some really cool things they’re doing here on campus. The medical school’s been doing a lot with VR techniques for med students and different procedures in VR. And there’s an Archaeology Professor on campus who’s been using it to like simulate an archaeological dig using VR. So, we’re working with some really amazing educators. And hopefully, that will come out with some fascinating modules for our students and upcoming offerings of our oceanography class. But, that’s sort of the big thing that we’re doing right now. I’m kind of excited to see how that will turn out.

John: We talked a little bit by email about you and your husband coming back on later to talk about some of that work. So, for our listeners, we will be revisiting this sometime in the next couple months, I think.

Trish: Yeah, hopefully we have a paper in review right now, where we look at asynchronous linkages to field expeditions and ways that you can collect videos and content while you’re in the field, sort of non-disciplinary-specific, of course we’re looking at marine sciences. But, again, you could use it in other fields and how you can bring that back to produce learning modules for your classrooms.

Rebecca: …sounds really exciting.

John: We’re looking forward to hearing more about that as well.

Trish: Thanks.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been really interesting.

Trish: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you guys. And I really appreciated your podcast, it’s been so inspirational to me and my work. I really appreciate it. ‘

John: It’s been a lot of fun for us too. We get to talk to people in depth. Normally, when we gave workshops, we’d hear little bits and snippets of what people on campus were doing, but being able to explore things like this is so much more valuable for us.

Rebecca: And we get to learn about all kinds of different disciplines too which is really exciting. to

Trish: I think what’s so cool is exactly what you said in your hundredth podcast that a lot of times faculty can’t go to those workshops. So, giving them a way to listen to the podcast while they’re commuting or traveling is just awesome. It’s very, very cool. Before going to sea, I always load up my phone and computer with all the podcasts I can get my hands on, because once you’re there, you’re there. That’s pretty much it. [LAUGHTER] Just download the entire catalog.

[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.

102. Team-Based Learning

A large body of research finds that active learning approaches result in larger learning gains than traditional lecture approaches. In this episode, Dr. Kristin Croyle joins us to discuss how she transitioned from  explore using interactive lecture to collaborative learning, and then to team-based learning. Kristin is a Psychologist and our new Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at SUNY Oswego.

Show Notes

  • Johnson, R. T., & Johnson, D. W. (2008). Active learning: Cooperation in the classroom. The annual report of educational psychology in Japan, 47, 29-30.
  • A discussion by Dan Ariely explaining why asking for shorter lists of positive features in a relationship can engender positive feelings appears in this March 24, 2014 video clip.
  • Michaelsen, L. K., Knight, A. B., & Fink, L. D. (2004). Team-based learning: A transformative use of small groups in college teaching.
  • Team-Based Learning Cooperative
  • Epstein Educational Enterprises, What is the IF-AT?
  • Sweet, M., & Michaelsen, L. K. (2012). Team-based learning in the social sciences and humanities: Group work that works to generate critical thinking and engagement. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Croyle, K. L., & Alfaro, E. (2012). Applying team-based learning with Mexican American students in the social science classroom. Team-based learning in the social sciences and humanities: Group work that works to generate critical thinking and engagement, 203-220.
  • Deslauriers, L., McCarty, L. S., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(39), 19251-19257.
  • 74. Uncoverage – David Voelker – Tea for Teaching podcast episode discussing the uncoverage movement in history, March 27, 2019

Transcript

John: A large body of research finds that active learning approaches result in larger learning gains than traditional lecture approaches. In this episode, we explore one faculty member’s transition from using interactive lecture to collaborative learning, and then to team-based learning.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Today our guest is Dr. Kristin Croyle. Kristin is a Psychologist and our new Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Kristin.

Kristin: Thank you.

John: Our teas today are:

Kristin: Earl Grey

Rebecca: I am having Mama’s work tea, because Ada made it this morning and she calls it work tea, which means she pulls the tea bag tag out and puts it in the big cup. Also, it’s just my normal English Afternoon. But, that was a better story.

John: And I’m drinking Spring Cherry green tea.

Rebecca: We invited you here today to talk about collaborative and team-based learning in your classes. But before you do that, you’ve noted that you had a strong preparation in teaching before you got started. Can you talk a little bit about that. We’ve talked a little bit about that on the show before and how a lot of faculty aren’t prepared…

Kristin: Um hmm.

Rebecca: So, could you talk about how your preparation may be informed what you’ve done.

Kristin: My graduate program, I went to the doctoral program in clinical psychology at the University of Montana in beautiful Missoula. And that program takes the preparation of their grad students very seriously, but across several areas not just in clinical work and research, but also knowing that some of them are going to end up in positions in which there will be teaching. So, while I was there, that very first semester I was brought in, they had a structure for teaching their introductory psychology classes where graduate students were assigned our own classes where we were the instructor in the classroom, but we had a supportive network around us. So, the syllabus was already there, the textbook was already there. We collaborated in writing tests. We had a structure of TAs that supported us and they would have recitation sections in which the TAs also received development. And we joined in that so we could see how more hands-on kind of things could be done with students in smaller groups. We even assigned our final grades together. And some of those pieces are pieces that are areas of skill that people don’t often think about developing. So, that first semester, all I had to do was think about working within the structure: How am I going to handle the day-to-day teaching and learning in the classroom? I didn’t have to worry about course design because the course was already designed in front of me. And I also didn’t have to, at the end, think: “When you assign grades, is that rigid? Do you really have to follow the exact, you know, 90/80 that it is in the syllabus? Or what if there are natural breaks around 88 or 89? Is it okay to flex that? What kind of power does an instructor have that is fair to students and evaluation?” I got to do all of that in a collaborative setting with a very experienced faculty member as a guide. There was also a credit-bearing course for teaching psychology that we were encouraged to take… which I really enjoyed. And then I was given opportunities to function more independently. When they needed a stats teacher over the summer, and they knew I was living there over the summer, I got to teach on an adjunct basis, but still with the support of faculty around me. So kind of putting students in the deep end, but with a high level of support around them, I felt very prepared when I was done with the graduate program to enter into an assistant professor position. And I still appreciate the preparation that they gave me.

Rebecca: I think with the preparation like that you’re probably far more willing to experiment and do new things as a faculty member too and to maybe even break away from what faculty around you are doing. Do you find that to be the case? Or were there other faculty doing some of this collaborative work in the department that you were in?

Kristin: Yes, and no. One of the experiences I had at my previous institution, which was the University of Texas – Pan American that then transitioned through a merger to be the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. I was talking with a colleague in another department about the kinds of things we were doing in the classroom. And I still remember him saying “Oh, I didn’t know you could do that in the classroom and that was like teaching.” He had a very restricted idea of what teaching was, and what would be acceptable to colleagues, which he had never had the opportunity to test with other people around him. And that was something that I arrived from day one… that you talked about your teaching… that you can do many different things in the classroom. And it’s all teaching, as long as you are trying to work with students to create a learning environment and they are learning, then it counts as teaching. So I did come in with a much more flexible idea, then certainly some of my colleagues who hadn’t had an opportunity to ever have those discussions. And of course, some people are hired into departments in which those discussions don’t ever happen, so they may persist with those misconceptions for many years.

John: Or throughout their entire careers at times. [LAUGHTER] The scaffolding that was provided is really nice, because we’ve talked to a few people who’ve been in teaching training program or had some training in graduate programs. But usually, it’s not quite as structured as that and that’s a nice feature.

Rebecca: Yeah, I came from a program like that, but it was like very front loaded. It wasn’t that ongoing…. So I felt a lot more prepared, because I did have a lot of those experiences, but I didn’t have that same kind of supportive network throughout. Which is incredibly valuable.

Rebecca: So, you want to take us through what some of your collaborative experiences have been in the classroom and the ways that you set up some of the team-based learning exercises, maybe starting with what are those?

Kristin: Sure. So kind of the way that I journey through my teaching, particularly when I was an assistant professor, I felt comfortable in the classroom, but I didn’t feel expert. I felt like I was still trying to figure out what was going on, which is a perfectly fine way to be and a good state for learning to occur. So I felt like I was a talented lecturer, like I can engage students. I teach in psychology, I also think psychology is naturally very engaging, but part of that is because I really love the field. So, I felt like I could engage students and that they would listen and that they would be interested. But I started to become dissatisfied that there was always a core of engaged students and I had no idea what was happening with the other students in the class. And then sometimes I would be disappointed when we have tests or homework. Everyone said they had no questions. Clearly that was wrong. I was wondering how do you engage the majority or all of the students in their learning so that they aren’t coasting through class believing that they understand until they really don’t. And then I also felt like I was kind of fooling myself into thinking that students were with me when they were not with me. So I had an opportunity at that time to do some intensive cooperative learning training along the model of Johnson and Johnson collaborative learning. And that model from the University of Minnesota, it focuses on the importance of cooperation in the classroom, and that in cooperative settings, students learn more, develop a stronger sense of self efficacy around their learning; that they together are able to achieve more than they would individually. And it also has impacts on retention… that if students are feeling like they are individually known and valued in the classroom by their peers, they’re more likely to continue showing up to class and to develop relationships outside of the classroom that supports them along the way. So through that training, it was intensive, it was like eight hours a week, one day set for several weeks. The very first day, I could see what a difference I was going to make in my classroom. So, for example, I was using group assignments in class and they had all the same disadvantages that group assignments and most classes have, because I had no idea how to structure the group work so that it would be successful. I was doing group work to save me grading time, honestly.

Rebecca: That’s why a lot of people go to group work.

Kristin: Yes! Without understanding that all I had to do was some structural changes, and then it would actually be effective for learning as well, instead of just saving me grading time. In that cooperative learning training, I learned how to structure intensive group work that could be the length of an entire semester, or it could be the length of a single class day. I learned how to structure less intensive moments of team time. So how do you do a think-pair-share that works versus how do you do a think-pair-share that doesn’t work very well. So, that within the course of that training… actually just within a few days… I suddenly had, instead of 10% of the students in the class engaged on a daily basis, I had 100% of the students engaged on a daily basis. So, that was a huge breakthrough and I continued that way for several years.

John: What were some of the structural changes that you made that did lead to increased engagement?

Kristin: So, the cooperative learning approach of Johnson and Johnson, is kind of theoretically heavy, in the sense that they outline the pieces that are necessary for strong collaboration to occur. And then they turn it over to you as the instructor to say, “How do I build those pieces in?” So, for example, they emphasize positive interdependence as one of the essential components of cooperative learning… that when you create a group and a group activity for them to do, the activity has to be structured in such a way that each person is necessary to contribute. You can’t structure it in such a way that you can have three people talking when one person is only needed, and there are specific recommendations on how do you structure it so that everyone is needed. At the same time you have to build an individual accountability as another required component, so that, even if each person is needed, people can still slack off, say, “Yes, you all can’t do as well without me because you need me, but I don’t really care about what is happening here.” There has to be a level of individual accountability that’s also built in. Along with that, some of the skills that I thought were most important, they build an emphasis on group processing and social skills, so that if you have people consistently working together in class, they may not have developed the social skills to do that effectively, especially over time. You can work with someone for two minutes on a think-pair-share and really be bad at social skills. But, if you have to work with them over an extended period of time on a project and things are going south in terms of group conflict, it’s the instructor’s responsibility to help them to develop the social skills to work together. For example, on the first day of class, when I first start having students talk to each other so that they know that’s going to be a pattern in the class, I give them something quick to talk about. And I say introduce yourself to the person next to you… spend two minutes talking about this. And then I’m going to ask you about what you talked about. And then I run around the class real quick… pair up people who aren’t participating, introduce them to each other so that they understand this is a part of the class. So, then I follow back. So, what pieces are important there? …that I explicitly instruct them, you turn with your body… you actually make eye contact. And I will point out as people first start doing this, look at these two people, they are looking at each other, because many times students won’t do that, and it’s very hard to have a cooperative interaction if you don’t make eye contact… and I will say, “Who was the person you talked to? Tell me their name.” So they understand that I was serious when I said, introduce yourself, tell me something about them and that there’s individual accountability through just random calling on… that they need to participate in the cooperative portion. And then there’s also the self-reinforcing aspect of it that five minutes later, when I say to talk about something else, they realize they already know somebody in class, they have a connection. The next day, when I come in, they’re not quiet, they’re already talking to each other, they’ve created those connections.

John: A nice thing about that, too, is for people who are uncomfortable talking about themselves in class, having one person tell you something about the other person, it’s a little bit less pressure, it’s a little less revelation to the whole group. There’s some evidence that that type of thing is more effective in providing a more comfortable environment.

Rebecca: Kristin, can you also talk a little bit about a specific example of a cooperative activity where all of the members are held accountable, and all have a role? …just to provide an example for people who have less experience.

Kristin: So cooperative learning can be divided into informal and formal cooperative learning. Informal cooperative learning tends to be much shorter activities that can be done kind of on the fly if you already have an idea in your mind of how you might want to do that. Formal cooperative learning tends to be more intensively structured… longer-term activities. So that could be a single class session. If you’re going to do an activity that takes an hour, that would be more formal… or if you’re going to do something that takes an entire semester. The pair-and-share that I just talked about is an example of informal cooperative learning. Something like a jigsaw classroom activity can be structured as a formal cooperative learning activity. And it already shares almost all of the components: there’s individual accountability, because each student is given a specific role. There’s also positive interdependence, because the success of everyone depends on each person doing their role. So there are ones that are already structured with a built in component. The pieces that aren’t built into something like a jigsaw classroom activity, would be the group skills and group processing, and the ways that you can build that in. You can, for example, ask groups to reflect on what went well. I typically emphasize that more than asking them to reflect on things that went poorly, because asking to reflect on what went well tends to maintain a positive atmosphere, but also helps them to cover both bases at the same time anyway.

Rebecca: …or realize that my list for what went well is not very long… [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: Right. So, a common group processing thing I would have students do after their first more lengthy or more formal cooperative learning activity would be: list three things that your team did well together and one thing that you could improve on. And another thing I might ask them to do is to provide positive feedback to each member of the group at the end of the activity. And the kind of feedback that they provide is usually pretty specific, and helps to shape their behavior throughout the rest of the semester. So when they say things like, “I like it when you disagreed, and you said that this other thing would be a better way to go” that provides important feedback, and it helps to encourage better processing going forward. But I will go around and give individual social skill feedback too. But it’s usually things like, “Oh, I see you’re sitting so far away from your group, I’m not sure they can hear you, let’s scoot your chair in so that they can hear you.” Or I might ask, “Oh, do you know this person’s name next to you? What’s her name?” …and we’ll make sure that people maintain the social and cooperative connections that enable to do that kind of good group.

John: Just as an aside, it’s useful if you’re asking about things that went well, to keep the list fairly short. I’m reminded of a study that Dan Ariely talked about where they did a controlled experiment where in one case, they asked people to reflect on three things they liked about their partner and another case to list 10 things I liked about the partner, and then they surveyed them on the quality of the relationship. And those who were asked about three things generally rated their relationship with a partner fairly high. But when they were asked to come up with 10 things, they struggled with that and they rated that relationship lower. So keeping the list short…

Kristin: Right.

John: …is really good so you don’t…

Kristin: There’s kind of analogous thought about keeping things like gratitude lists. If you list too much stuff, it can have a negative effect, because you start to identify things that you really don’t think are that important, and it makes you think the whole thing is less important.

John: And if you want to get the opposite effect, ask people to list 10 things that were bad, and then they’ll struggle beyond the first few. You talked about having continuous relationships or persistent relationships with collaborative learning. Did you try to keep the group relationships consistent for the same groups throughout the term? Or did you vary that?

Kristin: I varied it. There are some good data to suggest that in collaborative learning… they refer to them as base teams… that base teams have a persistent positive effect, particularly on things like student engagement and retention throughout the semester and throughout the year…. that you have a team that is expecting you every day. But when I was doing cooperative learning, I didn’t restructure my courses. I restructured the day. Does that make sense?

Rebecca: Um hmm.

Kristin: So I didn’t have a reason for base groups. And I felt strange imposing them on the students without a reason. Besides, they would maybe be socially a good idea. I had to completely rebuild my courses from the ground up before I started using base teams. And that’s when I transitioned to team-based learning.

John: …and in team-based learning, persistent teams are recommended as part of the process.

Kristin: Absolutely.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about this transition to team-based learning. What prompted you to introduce that? …and how it worked?

Kristin: So I was happy with how courses were going. People were interested and engaged. I had students telling me, “I know every single person in this classroom.” and when you’re teaching a class of 30, or 40, or 50, that’s unusual. “I know everyone in here, I feel really supported.” I feel like things were going well. But I was unsatisfied with what I was teaching. I wasn’t clear, in my own mind, about what persistent learning outcomes I wanted for my students. I had not sat down and really thought through if I were to follow up with a student in a year or five years, what would I want them to recall from this class? What would I want them to be putting into use in their lives or in their careers? I had never thought that through. And I was fortunate enough to run into team-based learning at that time, right as I was primed to start thinking about this questions. Team-based learning originated by Larry Michaelsen. He was coming from the perspective of enrollment increases. He had been assigning some pretty challenging work. He was a faculty member in business. And as his course enrollments increased, he started to wonder how can you maintain the same kind of interesting, really challenging in class… by case work, for example… with a large enrollment. So he developed team-based learning to address that piece, but it also requires you to completely rethink the design of the course. And to start from the course outcomes: “What do you want the persistent outcomes to be?” …and then structure the course forward in that way. So in team-based learning, after you make a decision about your course outcomes, and what you really want students to be able to do, then you structure the course in a modular fashion. And each module has certain steps. So the beginning is student preparation, then when they come into class, you test. You say, “okay” …and it’s called the readiness assurance process. So you want to know what students are ready to do after they’ve individually prepared, and what they’re not ready to do. So they prepare, they test. And then, since it’s a team focus, they also test as a team. After that you have a good idea as an instructor, what are they ready to do? What are still the fuzzy areas? What do they really not get at all? What are their competencies as a team already, even if every individual student doesn’t have it, and then you can do some corrective lecturing, basically, so many lectures that fill in some of the gaps. And that’s all part of the readiness process, because you’re getting them ready to do some interesting application work in class. And the rationale for that is… and actually what I had been doing prior to that, was giving interesting application material to work on at home individually, while doing lecture and cooperative learning in class. But the interesting application material was actually the heart of the course, and the much more challenging piece. So it was better to bring the hard piece where they needed support into the classroom. And the piece they were ready to do, which was to do their own self study back into their own lives. So you do this readiness assurance process to make sure they are ready for interesting application, and then the majority at the time for the module you spent on application. Doing that after I had already worked with cooperative learning was really helpful, because all of that application work is done in a team setting. So when you already have some experience with how to build teams, how to maintain and develop their social skills, that’s really, really, really helpful. That’s a short version.

John: One of my colleagues, Bill Goffe, who was on one of our very early podcasts, noted that when he gave the group test, the performance always went up significantly, so that they could see the benefits of the peer discussion that was part of that. And he was really impressed with it. And he noted that, oftentimes, if a student didn’t show up for class one day, they get a hard time from their classmates from the group because they let the group down. And he said his attendance had never been better than when he was using a team-based learning approach.

Kristin: Absolutely. And a lot of people who do team-based learning, use the same methodology for doing the team testing, which is honestly really cute. It’s a scratch-off form. And the scratch-off form is used so that the team gets immediate feedback on each option. So on any particular item in a multiple choice test, if they want to select “B” they scratch off “B.” If it’s not there, then they continue to scratch until they get the right answer. For one thing, they love it. But also they are getting immediate team feedback. If this person is not speaking up, if they say I think it’s “B” and then they stop advocating and then it turns out to be “B” later than the team immediately knows, by the time they get to the next question. “Okay, we need to incorporate more feedback from all of our team members, wait a minute, this person who’s not speaking up actually has a lot to say.” In the course of just a few multiple choice questions, it brings their team development forward leaps and bounds. And they kind of have fun with a scratch off, which is also a bonus.

John: And it also gives them incentives to come prepared and to listen to other people in ways that they might not otherwise.

Kristin: Yeah, and their team will give them grief, if they say “Oh, I don’t know, because I didn’t read,” their team members will be like, “But we are depending on you, you need to read, we all read.”

John: And it also gives them a little bit, perhaps, of improvement in metacognition because they’re getting that immediate feedback, and it’s being coupled with the reactions of the peers. So if someone was insistent on a wrong answer, and they dominated that discussion, they might be a little more careful in the future and more willing to listen to the other people and reflect.

Kristin: Exactly, and it doesn’t have to wait till next week, it can happen right away. Right on the next question. The team application activities are also structured in a particular way. In team-based learning, they talk about the four S’s for the application activity, the first one is that you have to select a significant problem. So what they’re working on is something that will be important to them, something that they will identify with, or that they recognize is worth their time in thinking about and trying to think through. The second one is that they need to be working on this same problem. You can’t say teams one and two are working on this, three and four are working on this, five and six are working on this. Third one is that they structure in so that they make a specific choice as the outcome. Because it’s easier to solicit team feedback if everyone is making a specific choice rather than having kind of an open-ended narrative response. And it helps to stimulate whole group discussion as you’re moving. Now it can sound like it’s limiting to say that you have to make a specific choice, but you can do in a very broad way. And the fourth one is simultaneous reporting. So all the teams are asked to report at the same time on what the choice was that they made, so that they can’t piggyback off another team who’s putting in effort. So, as an example, one of the courses that I taught in the psychology major in Texas was the tests and measurements course in psychology, and test and measurements starts with a stats review. They’ve all had statistics, it usually comes prior to tests and measurement. But it’s the first time that they have an opportunity to work with statistics in kind of a decision-making way. So you start with a stats review. So one of the activities that I would do, I gave them two hypothetical first-grade teachers with how many questions 10 of there students got right on a spelling test. And the two distributions had the same mean, but one was fairly normal, and one was highly skewed. So they had to do their quick statistics review… Do the mean, median, mode and standard deviation describe the shape of the distribution. But the question I was asking them was, “If you were the principal, which teacher would you offer an after-school tutoring program to for extra pay? And which teacher would you potentially nominate for a teaching award?” They found that question to be a really interesting question. For one thing, students think a lot about what good teaching is, and what constitutes a good teacher. So they already come in with very strong opinions. And they also understand the complexity of, you know, if everybody’s passing but people aren’t excelling, is that good teaching? Whereas if most people are failing, but a few people are getting an “A” is that good teaching? …and how the data contributes to good decision making, but can also be kind of manipulated to contribute to decision making in not such a good way. So instead of just saying, “Let’s review the stats, here they are,” it was a question with a specific choice that they simultaneously reported on. And then we could discuss together. And of course, their answers are different. There’s different rationales in both ways. So then we could discuss together what their rationale was, if they want to debate they can debate a little. It generates a lot of student enthusiasm, and everybody’s doing it instead of just 10% of the class.

John: And once they’ve committed to an answer, they have a stake in and they really want to know, that’s something we’ve seen a lot of things we’ve talked about in the past, too.

Kristin: Absolutely.

Rebecca: When you were doing the team-based learning, were you sticking specifically to problems that were on a class-by-class basis still, like you were discussing in the co-operative setting, or were you doing some longer term activities that went across multiple class periods?

Kristin: I had the… what I consider gift… to often be teaching in a three-hour time slot, which is my very favorite time slot. So I would have activities that would extend two or three hours, but typically not between classes, I found that to be more of a sweet spot, at least for me. At my previous institution we had a very high commuter population. And I promised, in both models, that I would never ask them to do something out of class with their teams, that was one of my rules… that it was just simply too burdensome for students who have multiple outside of school commitments… family and work, or living potentially 150 miles apart, which was not unheard of. I promised them no out of class stuff. I structured that intentionally so that the individual preparation that they were doing, they could do anywhere on their own time schedule, but they were expected to be there. And their team expected them to be there to be able to engage in class. And it was also one of the ways that you talk people into it, when they say “I worked with other groups who were all slackers and we would always set times and they wouldn’t show up.” And I said “That’s not going to happen in here. We already have a time we’re all going to show up together.”

John: And the philosophy that’s very similar to the flipped classroom approach where you let students do the easy stuff outside and then give them assistance with or have them work in a framework where they’re getting more assistance with the more challenging issues.

Kristin: Absolutely. I think TBL [team-based learning] is definitely a flipped classroom approach.

Rebecca: I think the other thing that helps too with that model… of making sure you’re not working outside of class… really helps students with really different backgrounds start working together, because you might have students who are more traditional who are on campus. And so for them to meet outside of class is often not such a big deal. But then if you have students who are working or have families, and there’s a disconnect in the class, even, between those two populations, that helps make that more obvious and work a little bit better,

Kristin: Right. Absolutely. Yeah. And I didn’t want to set up anything where people were made to feel like unvalued team members, because they couldn’t do what was asked of them because of other commitments. Since that was in my control, I wanted to make sure that people felt welcome.

Rebecca: I’ve tried to even do that with long-term projects. In the field that I’m in, we tend to do things that go across class periods, but there’s always the “Are we going to do this outside of class or are we going to do this inside of class, and I try to have them do anything that needs to be collaborative, and decision making, in class, and then things that can be done on their own, even if that means doing some creative work, or whatever, outside of class. But those are independent things that can be done for the same reasons. And I find that students will try to manipulate that system, so that they’re gonna: “Oh, we’ll just do it outside of class, because we don’t want her to know whether or not we’re on top of something,” or whatever. But I call them out on it, because it’s really devaluing some of that exact thing. People have other commitments and things.

John: You mentioned, you started to use a backwards design approach where you started with the things you want them to remember five years later. Did you have to cut back on the breadth of the coverage in the class, to some extent, by doing that?

Kristin: Yes, I did. When I was going with the straight up cooperative learning approach, I did not have to cut back on the content at all. Without the full redesign, I found I could cover the same amount of material in straight lecture versus in a cooperative setting. But it was all coverage. It was just a different kind of coverage. When I approached it from a backward design perspective, and I really was able to focus on the objectives that I thought were important, I did have to reduce the amount of things that we were covering. I have no regrets about that, of course, because I completely recognize that covering material isn’t just covering it. What are students going to do with something I covered in class? They didn’t cover it, I was the one who was learning it and talking about it. So I’m much happier with an approach in which I am consistently hitting on the objectives that I really want them to recall, and that they are working hard to apply those throughout the semester.

John: If they’re not going to remember it passed the final exam, covering more material isn’t terribly useful.

Kristin: No.

John: We talked about that in a previous podcast with David Voelker, who talking about the coverage approach in History…

Kristin: Right.

John: …which is the same logic.

Kristin: Exactly. And I actually now consider that to be a complete waste of time. So why am I spending class time on something that I actually don’t really care if they remember, it’s not the most important thing to me, and they really don’t care if they remember.

Rebecca: You have some compelling arguments for why team-based learning and collaborative learning are good options. If one wanted to start moving in that direction, what would you suggest their first steps be?

Kristin: For team-based learning, there are a couple of great books that are very easy to approach. There are several great resources for team-based learning. Larry Michaelsen published a book in 2008, for example, that covers that from front to back. It gives examples of applications in different disciplines. There’s also a book published a few years later on team-based learning in the social sciences and humanities. That also covers the basics, but has applications that are more specific to social sciences and humanities. Team-based learning has really caught on in medical education and in business education. So in the original book, there are more application examples that are in MD preparation or in business schools. So if you’re looking for other examples, the second book might be a good choice as well. And that one is edited by Michael Sweet and Larry Michaelsen.

John: And in fact, I read your article, or

Kristin: Oh, did you?

John: …your chapter in there as background.

Kristin: I’m glad someone read it.

John: Now I have to read all the others. But, I, at least, did read that. It was very good. So for faculty who are moving to this, what are some pitfalls that they might run into? Or what sort of problems might they encounter?

Kristin: Team-based learning as being a much more structured approach… Michaelsen does a really nice job of laying out the pieces that he thinks are critical. And I agree they are critical. So, for example, he talks about explaining, and testing the model with students on the first class day, and you cannot skip it. So the very first class day, I give students an example individual application test, like they would get for their readiness assurance. It includes basic psychology knowledge that may or may not be present in the culture. So they have some chance of getting some of them right and some not. And then I have them do it as a team. And the team scores, of course, are always dramatically higher than the individual scores. And the team testing process is so much better. [LAIGHTER] It’s more pleasant and interesting and collaborative than they expect it to be. That simply going through that, it allays many of their fears about what a team is going to be like to work with. Plus, when they see that the team has tripled their individual score, they’re like, “Hey, maybe I could depend on other people to help me learn, and maybe this will pay off for me.” So going through an explanation of what the rationale is, having them experience it a little is really, really critical in helping them stay open minded while they experience it. And then regularly throughout the semester, I will keep reinforcing them with those messages. I’ll say, look at this amazing thing you guys did. You used all the intellectual resources around you, and you analyzed this difficult problem and came up with some great solutions. I’ll remind them how much they’re learning and what kinds of challenging tasks they’re able to do as a team when they have the preparation to do it, which helps as they’re starting to think “Well, wouldn’t it just be easier if I could do this by myself?” It helps them to kind of remember, ”Well, yes, but you wouldn’t be doing this, you would be doing something not as challenging, not as integrative.”

John: and probably not learning quite as much either&hellp;

Kristin: Yes. He also emphasizes an aspect that is also emphasized in cooperative learning… of helping the teams develop and giving them feedback, helping them give each other feedback. That’s also really critical, especially very early in the semester, as they’re starting to develop group norms and bond together to make sure that you don’t short the time in class for them to have some group processing time and to build their team skills. So, for example, when I taught last spring, I had a student who came to me after I think it was the second week. So it’s very early in the semester, and she said, “I really need to reassigned teams. My team hates me, they won’t make eye contact with me.” She was really upset. And I’m reluctant to reassign people teams, because often what they’re experiencing, they take with them. It’s not always a function of that team process. So we talked some, and I tried to get a handle on what she was experiencing. I knew where she sat, I had an idea of the team composition. And I asked her to try one more day, just one more day. And then we would talk about reassigning her teams. And that day, I was sure to build in plenty of time for group processing, where they talked about what they were doing well as a team and something to improve. Their team turned around immediately. She was a relatively assertive person, which I already knew. I knew that she could handle this. So she went back to the team. She was able to talk with her team about not feeling heard. They immediately turned around in the way that they were with her. And by the very next class day, they were a relatively high functioning team. They did well all semester. They brought doughnuts for each other. I mean, it was a really nice supportive group. What they needed was the time in class to do some processing. And if I, as the instructor, had been moving too fast, and not giving them time to do that, and not giving them a prompt to do that, it would have been a really negative experience for her. So, also building in time for the team to develop and prompts for them to do that.

Rebecca: So you mentioned liking to have a three-hour teaching slot.

Kristin: That’s my favorite. It’s not required.

Rebecca: So, in that amount of time, how much time would you designate towards this group processing, for example, to give people an idea of what that proportion or the amount of time to dedicate so that you don’t shortcut it and you don’t rush through it?

Kristin: If I were to do an activity that might take an hour, I might spend 10 minutes for group process, it doesn’t have to be very long, or even five. And you don’t have to do it every time, you could do 10 minutes after the first one or two more intensive activities, and then not do it for another few times… and another five minutes just every so often to help them resolve their underlying dissatisfactions and to recognize that what they’re doing is not just application activity, it’s also group interaction. So please take time to do both. Another really important required component that I didn’t mention is peer evaluation, I always incorporate peer evaluation as part of the grade.

John: How did you form the teams in these classes?

Kristin: They’re heterogeneous, first, with a very open process so students can see it happening and know there are no shenanigans… that this is all very open… talking about the rationale that people of different backgrounds bring different strengths. So you want a group that has people of different backgrounds, so you can have a larger kind of learning base between you. So usually, I’ll pick a few characteristics that might be important in that kind of background. And I will line them up around the room based on those characteristics. And if it’s 200 people, it’s a really long line. And then we count off. So when I teach introductory psychology, students who have had a high school psychology class usually are starting a big leg up on the other students. So I’ll include that as a characteristic. Sometimes I’ll include the distance that people are coming from, because then they have different experiences, depending on what class I might also include if their student athletes, just because if you put too many together in a team, then they’re all gone on the same day. They have interesting backgrounds, but they also have patterns of attendance and of absence that need to be adjusted around. And we’ll count off all the way around so people can see how the teams are made. But heterogeneous teams are really, really critical. Having students with pre-existing relationships will throw off the team process in a way that automatically excludes people that don’t have pre-existing relationships… plus they tend to be lower performing teams. And I don’t want to set that up on purpose.

John: One of my colleagues once did this in a class of, I think it was about 350 students, but he just sorted them alphabetically. So he had them organize himself that way, and it was a fairly long process. But, it was kind of amusing for those of us wandering by and just seeing…

Kristin: …this huge line… Yeah.

John: He didn’t do it that way In the future, he used other criteria.

Kristin: I’ve had colleagues that I’ve talked with that think that this is a long process. It’s not. You can sort 200 people in 10 minutes, and then you’re done for the whole semester,

John: Doing it alphabetically…

Kristin: takes a lot longer.

John: …can be more challenging, because they were self forming that… it didn’t convert rapidly.

Kristin: The other thing I never do is I don’t put the students who didn’t come the first day into a team, because there are characteristics about why they didn’t come the first day. If you put them all together in one team, they share some of those characteristics… It tends not to be a very high performing team. So I make sure they’re sorted out among the other teams. But that was one of the things that I learned in cooperative learning. That, before I did cooperative learning training, and I was assigning group work, I would assign people based on if you didn’t come the day we did the assignments, you were in another group. And that group typically did not do very well. And as an instructor, it’s my responsibility to create a learning environment in which students can excel, it’s on them whether they do their part. But if I’m setting up a team in ignorance, with predictable characteristics, so that they’re going to have a failure experience, that’s on me to correct. And it’s not on them. So afterwards, I felt guilty when I had come to a new realization. But, yeah, it’s my responsibility to set up an environment in which those students can be successful in their teams.

John: In your chapter in that book, you mentioned that when you switched over, it did affect your course evaluations a little bit. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Kristin: Just a little bit. But yes, it did. So when I was doing straight lecture, I was shooting for engaged lecture. And in psychology, you can build in little experiences, especially in introductory psychology, where the topics are changing frequently, you can always build things in that are kind of interesting. You can do a little optical illusion here and a little bit of memory trick there. And there’s these ways to build it in, but it is still basically straight lecture. And I got high evaluations for that. I was careful about trying to build those in every day, you know, every few minutes. And when I went to cooperative learning, where it was essentially the same approach, but in in a much more engaged and cooperative fashion, those evaluations stayed very high. Students knew each other, they were happy in class. When I went to team-based learning and I was actually asking every student to participate all the time, and be prepared in class in a way that their contributions were much more obvious than mine. My evaluations did drop just a little bit, not a lot, but a little. And I am grateful that I was teaching in a context where I knew that my department wouldn’t care. They were more interested that I was doing good teaching. And they understood the many factors that influence student evaluations. But I also recognize that it’s incumbent on me to help students understand how they are learning, what kinds of things encourage learning and retention, and then you kind of let the student evaluations fall where they may.

John: When I read that, it reminded me of that study that came out a few weeks ago from Harvard in their physics program, where they found that students in active learning classes did demonstrably better on tests, but they perceived their learning as being lower. So there was a pretty strong inverse relationship between their perception of learning and actual learning. That seems to be fairly common, there have been a number of other studies where what students think to be most effective, is often not what most enhances their learning.

Kristin: Right.

John: Do you have any other advice for our listeners, who might think about using either collaborative or team-based learning in their classes,

Kristin: The one thing I would say is that teaching a cooperative learning or a team-based learning structure class is a lot more fun. You have to be willing to give up control, because when you’re lecturing, you have absolute control… meaning even that students can’t ask you weird things, because you haven’t opened the door for that to happen. But when you structure the learning experience, and then you give up the control to the students, it is an exciting environment to be in. I wasn’t as tired when I was coming out of class. I was energized, you could feel the difference in the room just walking into class… they were excited and talking with each other. When I would circulate around before class started, they’re talking about the class instead of talking about other stuff. It completely changes the environment in the classroom in a way that I think really matches what I expect out of a university education for students, it creates a environment of intellectual enthusiasm around the topic that you’re teaching.

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

Kristin: That’s a great question. So right now I’m 100% administrative. And since I’m in a new position, in a new institution, I’m gonna spend some time figuring out all the newness pieces. But I’d like to go back to the classroom, at least for a course here and there when I can. There’s nothing different about students than there is about people. So I also think often about how what we do in the classroom, what we understand works and what we understand doesn’t work, how that applies in administrative settings as well. We know for example, that people tend to try and find the shortest path. So if they’re trying to learn something, they want to put in the least effort to learn it. If you ask a faculty member to do a task for the department, they are obviously going to choose the easiest path to do that… not necessarily the best path. So how do I take the experiences of learning and teaching, that in some ways are better understood to an environment of administration that in some ways is not as well understood? What kinds of lessons can I apply there as well?

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much. It’s been a really interesting conversation. I’m sure it gives a lot of people things to think about as they move forward in this semester and future semesters.

Kristin: Thank you.

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