145: Pedagogies of Care: Ungrading

This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, Dr. Susan Blum joins us to talk about ungrading as a method to support and motivate student learning. Susan is an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame and the author of several books and articles on higher education. Her newest book, Ungrading: Why Grading Students Undermines Learning and What to do Instead, will be released as part of the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning in December, 2020.

Show Notes

  • Blum, Susan (2020). Editor.  Ungrading: Why Grading Students Undermines Learning (and What to do Instead). West Virginia University Press.
  • Pedagogies of Care
  • Blum, S. D. (2016). ” I Love Learning; I Hate School”: An Anthropology of College. Cornell University Press.
  • Blum, S. D. (2017). “Ungrading.” Inside Higher Ed. November 14.
  • Noddings, Nel (2010). Caring in Education. Infed
  • Sackstein, S. (2015). Hacking assessment: 10 ways to go gradeless in a traditional grades school. Times 10 Publications.
  • Arcidiacono, Peter (2020). Differential Grading Policies. Tea for Teaching podcast, February 26. (the podcast that John referred to that discussed women and underrepresented minoritized groups in STEM classes)
  • Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1121.
  • A Theory of Public Higher Education
  • Society for Values in Higher Education
  • School Stories

Transcript

John: This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, we talk about ungrading as a method to support and motivate student learning.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Susan Blum. She is an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame and the author of several books and articles on higher education. Her newest book, Ungrading: Why Grading Students Undermines Learning and What to do Instead, will be released as part of the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning in December, 2020. Welcome, Susan.

Susan: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

John: Today’s teas are. Are you drinking tea?

Susan: I am drinking tea. I’m a tea drinker. I love the name of your podcast and I started my day with Mountain Rose Assam tea with milk and sugar. But now I’ve moved to Light of Day Organic Green Jasmine tea from Traverse City, Michigan.

Rebecca: It sounds like a lovely morning.

Susan: It’s as good as we can have during the pandemic.

Rebecca: It looked like you were drinking out of a lovely cup too, actually.

Susan: This is a Chinese made cup with lids that I’ve had for 35 maybe more years and I’m a China specialist by training and when I first went to China, and everybody was drinking out of covered tea cups, I came home and I thought I had to get some myself. So this is chipped and old, but it’s precious. So, thank you for noticing.

John: Very nice.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you for describing it too. Sometimes we see things… We don’t always communicate all that to our listeners.

John: The visuals don’t translate well on a podcast.

Susan: It’s a white background porcelain mug with blue dragons and clouds and fish.

Rebecca: Yeah, it attracted my attention the second I saw it with your cup earlier. [LAUGHTER] I’m drinking Scottish breakfast tea and I haven’t quite decided what the difference between the breakfast and afternoon is. So I’ll have to report back next time.

John: That’s right. You were drinking Scottish afternoon before. I think the breakfast tea is supposed to be fairly strong. I’m not sure about their afternoon.

Rebecca: I’ll let you know if I can’t sleep. [LAUGHTER]

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

We’ve invited you here to talk about your contribution to the Pedagogies of Care project and your forthcoming book on ungrading. First, could you tell us a little bit about what prompted your interest in upgrading.

Susan: Well, for over a decade, almost two decades now, I’ve been investigating education. And I do that as an anthropologist. So, there have been a lot of dimensions of my inquiries. I began really thinking about plagiarism, which comes in part from work I had done previously on deception. And that comes in part from my own training as a linguistic and cultural and psychological anthropologist. So the plagiarism work made me really wonder what students were doing in school, what their purposes were, how they felt about it, what motivated them, and so forth. And that led to more research on student experience in college and what the purpose of college was. And that led me to really question what we were doing in the classroom and how we were actually meeting students, given what they need or what they want, or what we think they should want, which is a kind of strange conundrum, and how all of this fits into more general ways people grow up and become adults and are socialized into their societies. And so clearly it has to do with issues of social structure and social values and power. And when I think about power, I think about agency and I wonder who has the agency in learning? Is it the students? Is it the teacher? Where are the topics being generated? What is motivating the learning at all? What kinds of ways can we build on innate curiosity and desire to be competent and responsible people in social groups? And how do our pedagogical practices support or even contradict and prevent some of what we actually want? So my more recent book called I Love Learning, I Hate School: an Anthropology of College really explored a lot of the contradictory dimensions of what we claim we want and why those things don’t really work. And students are pretty aware of a lot of these things. So I really explore what I call and others call “the game of school” where if everybody’s going through the motions and the outcome is just a set of points and the learning…. it’s nice if you get it, but you don’t have to, you can sort of cram some thoughts into your head and do well on a multiple choice exam and get the points at the other side. Learning doesn’t happen. Coercion, fear, anxiety, lots of negative things happen. And that seemed to me to be tragic. It’s a waste of time, money, effort, and it doesn’t have to be that way. So I have been engaged for at least a decade in really rethinking my own pedagogical practices from top to bottom. You know, what do I teach? Why do I teach it? How do I teach it? What do I do? What do the students do? What do they do alone? What do they do together? And grading ended up being one of the kind of threads that connect to all these different dimensions of things. And I’ve also been part of a research project to study student learning in an internship. And there were no grades, but there were authentic outcomes of their practices. And so, I’ve been trying to make my classes as authentic as possible, rather than something people are doing simply for performance of competence, but to actually feel competent themselves. So, grades are thought to have three functions: sorting (which I reject), motivating (which we know doesn’t work), and communicating (which also doesn’t work). So I’ve tried to figure out how to make co-operative classrooms where everybody learns as much as they possibly can, for their own purposes, not for me, and I try to have students help generate their own goals so that they see this is not simply a task to be checked off, but as something that matters to them. I mean, I’m spending my life doing this work, and the thought that it’s just something to check off and get out of the way till they can get on to the real important stuff was very galling to me and actually, frankly, almost made me quit, which is kind of the topic of my next book. But the idea that I could actually change something that everybody thinks is central was so liberating to me. And it has really transformed the way I’ve been teaching. And so I’ve really been very pleased with the outcome. And since I published a short piece on Inside Higher Ed in 2017, I found that there are thousands of people at all levels of education, who are engaged in ungrading, throwing out grades, degrading, we call it different things, but we’re all engaged in the same enterprise. So editing this book… I want to be clear. I’m not the author of this book, I’m the editor. I have written the introduction and conclusion and a chapter but about 15 other people have also contributed to this book. And it’s been so gratifying and reassuring and stimulating and refreshing to know that all these other people are engaged in this too from all different directions. So I’m very excited about getting this out into the world so that we can provide some support and reassurance for people who might be interested in doing this but aren’t really sure how to make it happen.

Rebecca: Authentic learning is something that I’ve been really interested in for a long time. And so ungrading has always been really interesting to me, but I haven’t quite gone all the way there yet. And I’m certainly wanting to experiment in that space. Can you describe for folks what on grading look like and how that shifts the focus to learning?

Susan: Sure, and there are ways to do it partially or fully. So I’ve gone to total ungrading until the end of the semester when I am obliged to give a grade for my class. I wish I didn’t have to. I don’t actually think it’s meaningful or informative. But I’m required to do that. So that does happen, and I can tell you a little bit about how that happens, too. But ungrading really means you talk about what people are learning, maybe you have a conversation about what they’ve done well, what they haven’t done well, some things don’t actually have to be graded at all. We don’t have to assess everything. That doesn’t have to be the central activity of our teaching. And there can be what Nell Noddings refers to as free gifts. You can have people have experiences in the classroom, and the outcome is the enjoyment and the learning. And so that is its own reward. And if people perceive that they have been satisfied in their learning, then that’s an assessment. And you don’t have to translate that into some sort of numerical or letter reduction of what is, we hope, a fully human, rich multisensorial experience. I taught a class on food and culture last semester, which is a really fun class to teach. And students did activities, many of which they generated. I didn’t dictate everything. But one of the classes wanted to push one of the topics which was on technology and food. And they wanted to see what tools people use for cooking. So they had this idea that they would take pictures of what was in their kitchen drawer. This was before the pandemic. So take pictures of what’s in your drawer. So we talked about what was in the drawer. And then they had the idea that they would ask somebody older in their family to take a picture of what was in their drawer and talk about it. So then they had the idea that they could interview people about this. And anyway, it was wonderful as an experience. They interviewed their grandmothers and their mothers about what has changed and why do you have this tool? and what is the tool? …and we had so much fun talking about it, and everybody learned everything and it wasn’t graded. It just wasn’t graded. Because who wouldn’t want to do that? And so the motivation was purely intrinsic. And the assessment was when their classmates said, “Wow, that’s so interesting,” or when their grandmother said, “Wow, it sounds like you’re learning interesting things in school.” And so the measure of the outcome was part of the experience. And there was no need or use for anybody else to assess it. So that’s one type of grading is just not grading. You’re learning something, you’re enjoying it, you’re sharing it, and that’s what we’re here for. So there’s no point in doing more than that. But there are other kinds of assessments that are appropriate sometimes, and so for the assignments that are major assignments in my classes, I have the students include with their assignment, a self assessment. And these self assessments used to look a lot like grading, but they don’t anymore. They used to look like: “I did this right. And I did this right. And I had enough sources and I used the proper format. And I did this and that.” And then it was kind of a rubric where you could add things up. Now it’s much more: “What did you learn? What did you do well? What didn’t you do well? Why didn’t you? What do you need help with? What would you do differently? What are you taking with you?” So, it’s a reflection. So, it’s an assessment, but it’s much more of a reflection, which fosters metacognition, which we all say we want. And until this year, I had “adequate,” “not adequate,” and “exceeds expectations” or something which still kind of translates into like F,C and A. Now I just say, you know what you’re doing or you don’t know what you’re doing. And so sometimes in classes where things are new and hard, I teach a linguistic anthropology class where I have students do sometimes very difficult projects: ethnography, conversation, analysis, all kinds of stuff that they’ve never seen before and they admit is difficult. Sometimes they can say “I didn’t do this well.” And because it’s not a grade, there’s nothing at risk for them to admit that they actually haven’t quite felt secure about it. And that’s helpful information for me. It’s very honest, then we can say, “Well, actually, not that you know how to do this. And that’s okay. And we can work at it more, or I don’t expect you to because it takes two decades to master, or whatever it is.” So, then when I return their projects, I reflect on what they’ve done as their project, and sometimes I also reflect on their reflections. So there are a lot of layers here. So, that’s some of what ungrading looks like.

John: Since this relies on intrinsic motivation, what do you do to help build that? I imagine some classes students will come into them with a great deal of intrinsic motivation and in others that they see as just a gen ed requirement or something… a hoop that they perceive as a box they have to check off, which is something that, as you said, always bothers us. How can we perhaps help build that intrinsic motivation in classes when students are there when, as they perceive it, they’re just required to.

Susan: So I teach fundamentals of linguistic anthropology class, which counts as a social science requirement. So I get a lot of students in there for their gen ed requirement. It also counts as something among a set of choices for the major, but it might not be that they’re inherently interested in the topic. I personally think that everybody’s interested in language and communication. And everybody can become interested in anthropology, which is the study of people, but I don’t take for granted that they’re interested in it the way I’m interested in it. So, in that class, in particular, I have spent a lot of time really tweaking every dimension of the class, from the way they sit in the room, to who speaks first every day, to getting to know each other. I try to introduce play and fun. And I have teams and snack teams and students bring in interesting things for themselves. And anyway, this is really my laboratory where I work on how to create experiences that may allow students’ intrinsic motivation to flourish. Because I don’t think I produce intrinsic motivation. I just create conditions for it. So in that class, I now spend a whole week before we even get started just inviting them to ask big questions, to take charge of their learning, to think about what they’re curious about. Sometimes they work in groups that then they have a responsibility to each other. Also the social dimension… sociality, we know is part of it… I spent a lot of time thinking about the emotional and affective dimension of learning. I try to find really interesting things to do and read and try to connect it to their lives. Students are doing a lot of observations of things that are happening around them, which many of them have never done in an analytic or critical way; they’ve only done it in a reactive way. So, I think there are lots of ways to connect students’ own experiences beginning where they are, not with a deficit perspective, but with an asset perspective. You know, what do you know? What do you care about? …and then connect what we’re learning to something that you want to know more about? In that particular class. I have people write linguistic autobiography, and many of them say, “Well, I just speak English. I grew up in America.” And by the end of the semester, when they go back, and they look at that assignment again, they realize “No, there’s actually something to say because I speak this kind of variety…” and there are a lot of things to do that connect to students’ own lives that still get to the material. I’m not shirking my responsibility, but I also think there are lots and lots of ways to get there and they don’t all have to get to the same place. That’s perfectly fine with me. So, those are some ideas.

Rebecca: You talked a little bit at the very beginning about ungrading throughout the semester, but then, at some point, there is some authority that’s requiring a grade. Can you talk a little bit about how to negotiate that?

Susan: this was something I really worried about for years. And then in the summer of 2016, I came across Starr Sackstein’s book Hacking Assessment. She’s a high school teacher, and she has a chapter in our new ungrading book, and she talked about how to go grade free in a conventional school. So, that gave me confidence and ammunition to try to figure this out. So basically, I asked the students to suggest a grade for themselves. I have conferences, I actually try to do the mid semester and semester final to just say like, “If you were going to give yourself a grade, what would it be and why? What’s the evidence?” I’m not that fixated on the grades anymore. grades for me have become such uninformative flat measures of student experience that I find them very maddening. So if I had a student who came in who had never encountered the discipline before, and got very excited and tried some new things and didn’t do that well at those things, but learned a huge amount, to me, that’s a great accomplishment and a great gain, even if their paper wasn’t as good as somebody who’s a senior anthropology major whose paper it’s flawless. I want to say that both of them have had great learning experiences. And if they both say they earned an A, because they learned a lot. I’m actually okay with that. And I know one of the questions people always have is: “What about the engineers who design our bridges? What if the bridges fall down because one person learned a lot but they still don’t know it?” And one of the things we’re really excited about in our ungrading book is we have STEM teachers. So they are talking about what it’s like to teach computer science or math or chemistry and use an ungrading approach. So it can be done in slightly different ways. But for me, because I’m trying to get my students to see the world, reflect on it, analyze the world, that’s what anthropology does. If I get them there, then I am completely happy to give many of my students As. They don’t all ask for As; they don’t all think they’ve earned it. They come in with different standards and experiences about what grades mean anyway. and international students tend to have very, very high expectations for themselves. So they suggest well, modestly, “I only earned a B minus” but I might say that they really demonstrated great learning and accomplishment and it might be harder if they’re not a native speaker of English. So, I may bump it up. I can bump it up or down. They’re suggesting great, but usually, they’re pretty honest. And they learned a lot. They’ve worked hard. And I usually do accept the grade that they suggest.

Rebecca: How do you see the role of reflection and revision as part of the ungrading process? You mentioned handing in an assignment with a reflection, and then you reflect on all of that. What do they do next? Is revision or iteration a part of the practice?

Susan: It depends on the course. I’m teaching a writing course for graduate students again, and revision is obviously the heart of writing. Anybody can revise anything they want in my classes, and I’ve had students say, “I turned this in, but I procrastinated and I couldn’t really get it done, and I’m just not proud of it. And I’ll say, “Would you like to redo it?” And they’ll look at me like “What? What do you mean? I get to redo it. I’m not like branded as a failure my whole life?” No, if you want to redo it, I’m happy to read it again. I try, depending on the course again, to have things build on each other so that even if they’re not literally revising that assignment, they’re recognizing gaps or deficiencies or weaknesses or strengths that they can carry forward to future work that might rely on what we’ve already done. But I have not, at least in this laboratory class that I’m talking about, I haven’t really had one overall semester-long project. I have thought about doing that, and I haven’t done it yet. That could be something I do next spring. If we’re back in pandemic-ville, I may revise things completely again, just because why not?

Rebecca: I’m thinking about ungrading in the realm of, in the design world, doing sprints, so doing one project that builds on it, but having really distinct chunks that you get feedback on and can keep revising all semester. And so it definitely is in that same spirit. So I’ve been wrestling with how to completely implement that.

Susan: Well, I think in a skills-based discipline, there are certainly skills that you need to try and not be good at it first and then get better at. And that’s how we learn anything real. And it seems obvious to me now that punishing people for not knowing at the beginning is the wrong thing to do. So, having only the final product evaluated seems appropriate to me. But I know design… there are some things that people might all agree on, but there are other things that people don’t all agree on. And that’s true of real life. That’s one reason that a single scale of grading is such a distortion of how we really live our lives. People might make a movie and some critics love it, and some critics don’t love it. And to pretend that there’s a uniform single scale is to deny most of our actual experience outside school.

John: One of the things you mentioned in terms of international students is that they often underestimate the quality of their work. You also mentioned in your recording for the Pedagogies of Care project that some underrepresented groups in particular disciplines often experience the same problem. And we had a podcast recording related to that a while back that talked about how women and underrepresented minorities did as well in their introductory STEM classes, but they were more likely to drop out because they didn’t perceive the quality of the work as being sufficiently high. And that served as a major barrier. And I’m wondering how you address the issues of students who undervalue what they’ve learned or underestimate the amount of learning they’ve achieved. When you’re meeting with students and providing feedback and they undervalue their work, how do you address that with them?

Susan: Well, that’s where I’m grading is so perfect, because I can have a conversation. I have these short individual meetings with every student at least twice a semester. And I can say to them, especially if mid semester they say this isn’t very good, because I’m not smart or my grammar’s bad or I didn’t do this before or something, I can say to them face to face, or at least it used to be face to face, I can say, this was extraordinary. I loved what you did, this was such a contribution. So, I can just personally affirm their value and say, you might be focusing on this, but also notice this wonderful thing. And because also, students are constantly interacting in my classes, the students who may have fewer privileges coming in may get a lot of affirmation also from their classmates for their offerings. They may be quiet, they may not be willing to speak, but I try to make people comfortable, at least in small groups or pairs or something, so that they can make their contributions. So, I think it’s less of a problem when people can actually reflect and get comments back. Also, sometimes students exchange papers or exchange work, I tried to have an authentic audience, so that I’m not the sole audience so that people aren’t writing for me, but they’re writing maybe for real people. That’s something I’ve really tried to develop more. I think that when students read each other’s work, they tend, at my school anyway, to be very nice to each other. So they will get some kind of compliment. And I think then in that sense, there’s less of a potential for people to retain this idea that they are somehow deficient. But I also would like to say that schools can’t solve every problem. And teachers and classes, even the best, can’t solve every problem. And so we have broad racism and sexism, and ableism, and all kinds of other things in our society, and one particular teacher might make a difference, but these are really bigger questions that we need to address outside school also. As a professor, my realm is in my classroom, so I can try.

John: At the other side, what about the students who’ve come in who’ve read some material on the topic and have this fluency illusion where they perceive that they’ve learned it very well. I’m thinking of the Dunning-Kruger effect where the people with the lowest level of understanding often overestimate their competence the most. How do you address those issues?

Susan: I’m not so worried about that, really. I’ve had experiences like, that where students think that they’re kind of expert, and they’re not actually, but I don’t really see my role as like cutting down students’ confidence. I think there are enough forces out there trying to do that. So, I don’t really want to jump on the confidence destruction bandwagon, but I like to think that there will be some kind of real consequence where they will say something to somebody who knows more and that person will say,”Yeah, but X” or where they will interact with another student who will know more, and then the student who has this false sense of their own abilities will realize “Wow, I only noticed these three things and Julia noticed 25 things. I guess I have more room to grow as an ethnographer.”

John: This system, though, relies on intrinsic motivation. And you’ve mentioned using authentic assessments, also perhaps, to help build that. Could you describe some examples of authentic assessments that you use?

Susan: Sure. So in this linguistic anthropology class, one of the projects is in groups of three-ish, they have to create some kind of presentation about a particular language. So something they’ve heard of like Hindi, or something they haven’t heard of, like, I don’t know, Tzelta or something like that. And I give them some things they are supposed to include, but the form is completely open. So, I’ve had infographics, I’ve had lots of websites, I’ve had PowerPoint things. And one time, it worked really great… and I’m in this weird classroom that I like with a bunch of screens. The room is imperfect but they’re five screens around the room. And so I happen to have 10 groups that year. So the students plugged in their laptops and the other half of the students circulated and listened to the students as they were talking about their project. And then on these whiteboards that were next to the screens, they were writing praise, questions, suggestions and different kinds of questions. They had to figure out what kind of question it was: Was it a kind of application question? a factual question? or something like that. And the students really loved that project, because everybody saw what everybody did. And the assessment was basically peer generated. It was: “I liked this image.” “This was a really clear presentation,” or “I didn’t really understand what you meant here.” And so that’s assessment. It doesn’t look like assessment. It doesn’t say good and bad, but it’s getting feedback about what you’re doing that you can take with you. So if somebody says, “I couldn’t read the italic font,” next time, presumably they won’t read the italic font. But they’ve had 30, some people responding to their work, which is such excellent feedback, and so much more useful and meaningful than me just sitting there with something and writing a few things.

Rebecca: I like that poster session model idea. It’s a lot of fun and I think students really do respond to peer feedback in that way. I know I’ve been really successful when I’ve done class sessions that are like that poster session or fair-like atmosphere with those same kinds of categories to fill out, I think, is really super helpful. I’ve had really good experiences with that, too.

Susan: One of the things we’re all thinking about is how to translate all this physical stuff online. And you can. Like this past semester, that project ended up online. And so I had a Google Doc, where people were doing the same thing, and it worked fine. It wasn’t as fun as running around the room, but it was effective.

John: I’ve done the same thing the last couple of years in my econometrics class where students create posters, half of them present one day and half the next class day and I give a break, and a group of them can wander around and see the others on the days when they’re presenting, and I’ve invited members of my department. The Dean has come by in the past, and it’s been something they found so much more valuable than the PowerPoint presentations that they used to do, where they’d all be sitting there nervously, and then getting up and being glad to get through it, and then they’d sit there quietly waiting for the rest of them to be done. There’s so much more engagement when they’re up there presenting for the whole class period to anyone who happens to wander by. And it’s a form of a more authentic assessment, I think, that they value quite a bit.

Rebecca: …builds in more practice, too, because they’re talking about it multiple times. [LAUGHTER]

John: Yeah, having them talk for an hour about their project is much more effective than presenting to a silent audience much of the time. I liked it, they liked it, and they strongly encouraged that it continue.

Rebecca: So, we started talking a little bit about how to translate some of these things online. So, why is upgrading maybe particularly important to think about during this pandemic or in this transition to remote learning or the unknowns of the fall semester, as they currently stand? [LAUGHTER]

Susan: That’s a great question. We are in a very unpredictable moment. And every campus is trying to figure out what to do. The ones who are fully online have just made their claim, and so that’s a little bit more predictable at some level. The ones like mine that are committed to in-person except for exceptions or hybrid until we can’t do it anymore.

Rebecca: It’s a familiar story. [LAUGHTER]

Susan: Yeah. And I read everyday about what everybody around the country is doing. And we don’t really know. So anybody who is sticking to a rigid grading scheme is probably going to keep recalculating and recalibrating all semester long… if you’ve got participation, but then people lose their internet connection because they are stranded somewhere, then what do you do? Do you just have a different formula for that person? I think having precision in grading schemes has often been seen as equitable and comforting for students because it gives them security knowing what they’re going to do, but that presumes that you know what the conditions are going to be. I think, even in ordinary times, there are a lot of fallacies built into that and students’ conditions aren’t as uniform as we often assume they are. But, we know now during the pandemic, how widely and wildly variable people’s conditions are, and the New York Times has done stories about one student helping her family with a food truck and the other one is in the family second home in Maine, and there’s everything in between. There’s using the WiFi in the parking lot of the library or there’s using the WiFi in your beautiful six bedroom home. So the lack of uniformity just highlights all of the inequities and all of the unevenness of the conditions. So, if you’re sorting people, but they’re in wildly different conditions, you’re not actually doing a very good controlled experiment, and it’s certainly unequitable. Another dimension we should probably consider is that, in our current moment, everybody is experiencing some kind of stress and trauma. And the trauma-informed pedagogy is something that we all need to learn a lot more about. We know that one of the outcomes of grading in ordinary times (I don’t know what we’re going to end up calling this third condition) is that grades produce stress and pressure. Right now, with so many other stresses and pressures, we don’t really need grades to add to that. How we keep people accountable, how we keep them on track, how we keep them motivated, involved, connected to each other is really our challenge. And that’s what I think those of us who are really thinking about this are trying to spend every minute of the summer trying to figure out. But grading is not the best method for motivating people. So, I think that this is the perfect time to try ungrading.

Rebecca:So if we try ungrading, how would you recommend framing such things in our syllabi?

Susan: Well, I’ll tell you what I do. I have one sentence on my syllabus. My syllabus is not a contract. It’s not one of those punitive sort of legalistic syllabi. So, what we’re figuring out in this conversation is that everything is connected. But my syllabus has one sentence that says, “We will be practicing ungrading in this class, this will be explained.” And I begin most of the semester by having meaningful, enjoyable experiences where people are learning, and I don’t say it’s not graded, it’s just not graded. And then over weeks, I explain what oungrading is, and I show them this is what we’ve done, see how it works. And when I’m lucky, I have students who have had other classes with me and they can sort of support my claims that this is actually meaningful and they won’t just blow it off and they won’t just think it’s not important. I want to have an acknowledgement here before we end though that contingent faculty, graduate students, people of color, young women, people who are tenure track, people who are teaching lots and lots of classes, may not feel that they have the security to engage in something that’s unfamiliar. And it might be risky for some people. They may need to clear it with their chair or their Dean or somebody like that, who may say no, because it’s scary. That’s one of the reasons we’re trying to have this book so that a young contingent faculty member who really cares about pedagogy can say to the person who’s really holding their employment over their head, “Well, there’s research, too. Look at all these people who are doing it, they’ve done it, they’ve done it, okay, they’ve done it for years, and I would like to try it too. Can I try it in one class, maybe with a good outcome?” So, I don’t recommend starting from a completely conventional class last semester to a completely unconventional class online next semester. I think changing things bit by bit is probably the way to go.

Rebecca: I think that’s good solidI think that’s good solid advice, always: iterative practice with our classes. [LAUGHTER]

John: And you mean by that, perhaps, having some activities that are ungraded and then gradually expanding that as you become more comfortable and your department becomes more comfortable with that?.

Susan: I think that’s a great way of framing it. And it depends on the subject too. Some are much more amenable to ungraded, like writing or social science or something.

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

Susan: So, I’m part of a project called A Theory of Public Higher Education. It’s funded by Indiana University and the Society for Values in Higher Education and we are generating a theory of public higher education. We are going to be publishing our kind of manifesto. We’re finishing It this summer and fall, and it should be published next year. We’re very excited about that. It’s a group of six of us from all different institutions teaching all different subjects. It’s really led us to rethink what is higher education from the foundation up. Another project that I’m also really excited about is called School Stories. And I’d love it if your listeners would give it a look. You can find it at schoolstorieslab.com. And it’s basically crowdsourcing experience stories about being in school. So, it can be students, teachers, parents, administrators, it can be from any place in the world, from any level of school. Our only condition is that you have to be 18 to write the story, because otherwise, we get into problems. But we just launched last week, and we have worked on our web design, and we’ve worked on our IRB, and we’ve worked on every dimension of this and we’re really excited about it. There’ll be a new theme every week; this past week, the theme was racism. So what are people’s experiences of racism in school? We have a whole COVID sort of shell and context for what we’re doing now. So, please check that out. And then my next other project is a book I was writing really well until the pandemic hit. It’s about how your education, it’s called Progress Report about my own transformation in teaching, but it’s on hold right now, because I don’t know what to say, exactly. [LAUGHTER] I’m in a profound process of rethinking right now. So, I will write that but I don’t know what it’s going to be now.

Rebecca: It does seem like COVID-19 has transformed us all. We’re just not sure how yet. [LAUGHTER]

Susan: Right? I mean, we’re living through what we all perceive simultaneously as a huge transformation.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for sharing some insight into ungrading. It’s been an interesting conversation, and hopefully, it’ll provoke people to think a little bit differently about their plans for the fall and in the future.

John: Yes, thank you. We’ve really enjoyed talking to you. And this is a topic we wanted to get on the podcast for quite a while. So when we saw your contribution to the Pedagogies of Care project, it was an ideal match.

Susan: Well, thank you so much for your great questions and your welcoming demeanor and for your own little contributions to how to think about teaching, which I’ve kind of taken notes on, and to our listeners. Good luck to you and we’ll get through this.

Rebecca: We hope

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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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143. Pedagogies of Care: Creativity

Is creativity something you value in the work that students produce? In this episode, Natasha Haugnes and Martin Springborg join us to discuss ways to spark, motivate, and support creativity.

Natasha has served in faculty and curriculum development at the Academy of Art University and as an adjunct professor at the California College of the Arts. Martin is the Director of Teaching and Learning at Inver Hills Community College and Dakota County Technical College, Natasha and Martin both contributed to the Pedagogies of Care project and are two co-authors (with Hoag Holmgren) of Meaningful Grading: A Guide for Faculty in the Arts.

Show Notes

  • Haugnes, N., Holmgren, H., & Springborg, M. (2018). Meaningful Grading: A Guide for Faculty in the Arts. West Virginia University Press.
  • Pedagogies of Care
  • Haugnes, N., & Russell, J. L. (2016). Don’t Box Me In: Rubrics for Àrtists and Designers. To Improve the Academy, 35(2), 249-283.
  • Haugnes, N., & Russell, J. L. (2008, 2014) “What do Students Think of Rubrics? Summary of survey results: Student Perceptions of Rubric Effectiveness
  • Sawyer, R. K. (2011). Explaining creativity: The science of human innovation. Oxford university press.
  • Deci, E. L. (1972). Intrinsic motivation, extrinsic reinforcement, and inequity. Journal of personality and social psychology, 22(1), 113.
  • Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (2001). Extrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivation in education: Reconsidered once again. Review of educational research, 71(1), 1-27.
  • Inoue, A. B. (2015). Antiracist writing assessment ecologies: Teaching and assessing writing for a socially just future. WAC Clearinghouse.
  • Nilson,. Linda (2019). Specifications Grading. Tea for Teaching podcast. August 21.
  • Tharp, Twyla (2006). The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life. Simon & Schuster
  • Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT)

Transcript

John: Is creativity something you value in the work that students produce? In this episode, we discuss ways to spark, motivate, and support creativity.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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Rebecca: Our guests today are Natasha Haugnes and Martin Springborg. Natasha has served in faculty and curriculum development at the Academy of Art University and as an adjunct professor at the California College of the Arts. Martin is the Director of Teaching and Learning at Inver Hills Community College and Dakota County Technical College, Natasha and Martin both contributed to the Pedagogies of Care project and are two co-authors (with Hoag Holmgren) of Meaningful Grading: A Guide for Faculty in the Arts. Welcome Natasha and Martin.

Natasha: Good to see you. Yay.

Martin: Thanks for having us.

John: Our teas today are:

Martin: I’m drinking coffee this morning.

Rebecca: Always… Always the rebels.

Natasha: Well, I had my two cups of coffee and now I’m on to Wild Sweet Orange Tea…

Rebecca: That sounds good.

Natasha: … and it’s delicious. Yeah.

Rebecca: I have iced Scottish afternoon tea

Natasha: Afternoon? Huh…

John: And I am drinking Tea Forte Black Currant Tea. We’ve invited you here today to discuss Natasha’s contribution to the Pedagogies of Care project and your joint work on Meaningful Grading in the Arts. Natasha, could you start by telling us a little bit about your contribution to the project?

Natasha: Sure. “Nurturing the ‘aha moment’” is the topic of the video made. And it was based on one of the tips in the meaningful grading book that I co-authored with Martin and Hoag. This video focuses on the “aha moment,” or that moment of insight in the creative process, and how to really nurture students and invite them into that moment. I focused on the “aha moment,” which could also be called the moment of insight in the creative process because it really is associated with kind of joy and happiness and magic. And there are a lot of cultural myths around insight and creativity in general, but especially these magic moments. People think they come out of the blue, that they’re come down from God, that they’re somehow related to some innate ability. And research shows us, and people who are creative practitioners know, that this is not entirely true. So, I just decided to kind of hone in on that moment. In my work at the Academy of Art University, I have worked with a lot of students and a lot of instructors who are often drawn to creative fields because of the joy and they really want to engage in that, the joy of the creative process. But then when the students get to school, and when the new instructors come to teach, they often get really drained. And they find that there’s so much hard work and there’s so much stress in the classrooms, even in things like painting and graphic design and moviemaking classes, students seem to get really rundown, and they don’t connect with those moments of joy. So, this results in frustration. At my own school, we were seeing pretty high dropout rates of students at a certain point and I actually ended up working with at-risk students in my role as the Resource Center Director at the Academy of Art University many years ago, and that taught me a lot about working with students and engaging them in their creative process. A lot of the students I worked with, they were sent to me by an instructor who would say “This student is just not engaging. They’re really sloppy in their work. They’re really lazy. They’re not putting the time in.” And when I talk to those students, I would find patterns that really ultimately meant that they weren’t understanding their creative process. They were doing things like brainstorming a whole bunch of ideas, and then trying to finish one, but then getting distracted and thinking, “Ah, I’m going down the wrong path, I’m going to do this other project, I need to take this other approach…,” and they would go down another path, and then they would abandon that path, and they would take yet another approach and pretty soon it’s time to go to class and the project they’re presenting for critique looks like it was done at the last minute. Again, this is really frustrating for the student and the instructor. And I realized I needed to learn a lot more about the creative process in order to work with these students and help them connect to that joy, help them understand how the hard work connects with the joy, and help the teachers understand how the hard work connects with the joy. I think it’s really imperative that our faculty understand creative process and define it so we can teach it to our students. And this is especially important for students whose livelihood depends on creativity, like a game designer, a graphic designer, even an illustrator can’t just go to work and hope that insight comes, they need to learn how to have some control over that, not only for their own work, but just so that they continue to enjoy what they’re doing.

John: It sounds like part of the problem is that people think that creativity is just something that people either have or don’t have, and they don’t see that it involves a process that includes a lot of work. What types of things can we do to nurture students in making the connection between the work that they do and that aha moment to get them to that point, so that we don’t lose them on the way.

Martin: One thing that I talk about quite frequently with faculty, no matter their discipline, but especially in the creative fields, and one thing that we go back to quite a few times in Meaningful Grading, is rewarding failure and grading process versus grading that final product. If you value the development of a creative process and you value your students diving into the waters that they’re sort of murky, they cannot be afraid to do that. And at the same time, they should also be aware that you’re rewarding that effort and their engagement and what can be kind of a scary process for them, especially if they consider themselves non-artists or unable to do art because they don’t have some innate knowledge of it. So, as you develop grading systems, making sure to work into those grading systems those things that you truly value about that process and about your course.

Natasha: I think it’s really crucial. And something that I try to point out in the videos is breaking it down, scaffolding the process for them, breaking it down into small accomplishable steps and explaining to them: “No, this is not creativity, this is not your whole project. This is what you need to do now. And here’s what you need to do, and you need to put the work in to do it. And then you can move on to the next step.” I think that’s really important, and it’s just really important for the instructors to do that. We often have the overview, we understand the process, we have faith that they’re going to get there, but the students don’t, necessarily, and so that’s kind of what leads to those patterns of procrastination that we see with the students who aren’t doing so well. They put things off, they don’t understand the importance of that early hard work that you really have to just put in in order to get the payoff at the end.

Rebecca: What are some ways that you recommend building in experimentation or risk taking into the grading system? Because those are often things that we value in creative fields, but are harder things or things that we don’t always build into our evaluation systems. We might focus more on the principles of design or something technical, [LAUGHTER] because those are easy to measure.

Natasha: You’re a graphic designer, aren’t you, Rebecca?

Rebecca: I am. [LAUGHTER]

Natasha: I think graphic design is actually a really great example of a place where you can get really bogged down with rules, right? I mean, you can approach graphic design almost as a mathematician and just kind of go “ka-chink, ka-chink, ka-chink, ka-chink, ka-chink” and you can create stuff that follows the rules, but doesn’t really have a lot of creativity to it. And I guess one piece of advice, this goes to a recommendation that I’ve included in the video, but really simplifying criteria. Again, if you can break down the steps and have each step just be assessed on one or two criteria, that allows students to kind of say, “Okay, I’ve met the goal, now I can do what I want. I’ve done what that teacher needs to see, [LAUGHTER] and I’m going to pass, and now I can really play with it.” In some research that I did with a colleague of the Academy of Art University quite a while ago, we did this big study, twice actually, called “Student Perceptions of Rubric Effectiveness.” We found a common pattern in students’ responses, the students that really liked the rubrics said that they liked the rubrics because it told them exactly what they did have to do. And then once they checked off all those boxes, they could just run with it, and that was very freeing to them. We can talk later that a rubric is not always perceived that way, for some students, it kind of acts like a creative constraint. But, I think if we can keep the criteria to a minimum, that can allow students to know what they have to do and then have fun with it.

John: One of the things I noticed in reading through your book, and also in what you were just talking about in terms of giving stories scaffolding, is so much of the advice that you give could apply in pretty much any discipline. While your focus is on the arts, students don’t have the same expertise that we do. And the tasks that they’re facing are much more challenging and require much more processing. And they don’t always come in with that growth mindset. Much of what you’re talking about basically, is how to help students move from this binary view that they’re either good at it or they’re not to recognizing that learning is work, and that they can get better as they develop. And it was nice to see how closely this was aligned to the advice we try to give in so many disciplines.

Natasha: I totally agree, John, and actually I was in a conference at the University of Missouri where they actually viewed this video, and the person who was facilitating the workshop that I was lucky enough to be able to attend from the comfort of my own home office here, she’s a scientist, and she actually put up a map of the scientific method and said, this is the creative process and this is not the exclusive domain of artists and designers by any stretch of the imagination. So, I love having those cross-disciplinary conversations. I actually teach writing and ESL, and so I see some crossover there. I guess I’m just reluctant to offer a lot more advice to teachers of physics and math and economics and things like that, simply because I don’t have as much experience with those instructors. I’ve been exclusively art and design skills for a really long time. Martin, maybe you can speak to that. You have a lot more majors at your colleges.

Martin: Especially in those foundational courses, you’d certainly get students coming in at a variety of levels. So, they have past experiences, or they don’t, and those with past experiences sometimes come in with quite a bit of knowledge or experience in the arts. So, they’ve had a lot of high school experience, for example, that puts them at a different level than the other students in your class that are truly beginners and don’t have any prior experience and consider themselves very much non artists. So, one thing that’s important to do, just getting to the practical here, if you’re in an arts course teaching at that foundational level… or really going back to your comments about this crosses disciplines, no matter what discipline you’re in, if you’re teaching that foundational level course, getting everybody at that same base level at the beginning. Purely speaking from past experience here on this one point, I taught photography for about 20 years. And in my intro courses, I would frequently have students come in that had high school experience, and they had learned something and could demonstrate that thing. But, at the same time, they learned it in a, I’m not going to say the wrong way, but in a bad way. They picked up some poor practices from their previous education in that, and so you have to make an effort to untrain that a little bit and get them to that same process that you want everybody to engage in, at that very beginning level. So, that step and that effort also makes those students who are truly coming in as beginners and don’t have any previous experience realize that “Oh, yeah, this is something that I actually have to learn and that everybody has to learn and these students who come in with previous knowledge, it’s not just some inherent skill or ability that they have in the arts. Another thing that I found really helpful, in sort of leveling the playing field and making it apparent to those truly beginning students, is using my past beginning students who have come into my courses with no experience, using their products as exemplars when I’m talking about how I want somebody to do something. So, if I’m talking about an assignment, I’m using examples from, and I’m pointing out the fact that these students came in from like, say, they’re nursing students or their automotive students, or this student came in with zero knowledge, and this is the thing that they produced, and it’s actually an ideal example of what I want you to produce in this assignment. So, using that, and going back to those examples shows those students who come in as true non-native or true beginners, that that level of achievement is possible.

John: I think that was an interesting point, too, that also shows up in other fields. I know people teaching computer science often will note that it’s much easier to teach people who are true beginners than those who had been self taught or perhaps picked up something in a course, where perhaps not an optimal pathway was given to them. The importance of unlearning things, perhaps, or breaking down the structures that people have and replacing them with stronger structures, can be as much of a barrier as people who are struggling just to get to that initial level. And that I imagine is particularly true in the arts.

Martin: Yeah. And going back to what I mentioned earlier about valuing process, maybe they do produce a product, that’s roughly the same result, like if they come up with the same result, but the process that they engaged in to get to there is so much more complicated and convoluted than what you’re trying to get everybody to engage in. So, they do need to go back and learn process. They do need to be at that same level as everybody else in your course.

John: One of the issues that often comes up in discussing creative fields is the importance of intrinsic motivation. Could you elaborate a bit on how we can help develop intrinsic motivation for students in these fields?

Martin: So, another thing that we talk about or that we bring up in Meaningful Grading frequently is the building of a community in an arts classroom and how important that is. That community is the intrinsic motivator. For example, if you make that a primary goal of yours in a course, you would then grade heavy on participating in that community at the beginning, knowing full well that the goal you have is to make that a more intrinsic reward for students and to back off on the grading or drop it all together, that participation component. So, that they not only learned that after they leave your course and after they leave an arts program that an arts community is vital. Like you can’t develop work in some sort of vacuum. As an artist, you have to be engaging with others, but also within your course, it’s just showing them and it’s creating that intrinsic value. Like, what’s bringing me back to this class day after day is not the grades that I’m getting from my instructor, but the vast resource that I have in these 30 other classmates that are able to give me feedback and support. And that also show me what they’re working on… that give and take. So, that’s one example of building in that intrinsic value.

Natasha: Correct me if I’m wrong, Martin, but a huge part of that community is critique. It’s critique discussions, right?

Martin: Exactly, hours and hours of it.

NATASHSS: …and helping students to understand that just getting that conversation, it doesn’t even have to be feedback, but a conversation, and engaging people to talk about your work does build intrinsic motivation. That’s the big payoff that we’re working towards.

Martin: And if you don’t have that tight community in that class, when you get to the middle or the end of that class, when you really want students to be engaging honestly in critique, it’s going to be like pulling teeth. You have to foster that community so that students feel comfortable, that they can open up, they can give opinions about other’s work, and accept opinions about their own work.

Natasha: I kind of want to get into a little bit of that intrinsic/ extrinsic motivation research. And I guess one of the things that got me into this field, and my obsession with grading and creativity, which people kind of look at me and they say “You talk about grading in art school, shame on you.” But the thing that was so confusing for so many of these at-risk students that I worked with before was they were engaging in those conversations, or they thought they were, with their instructor and their instructor would say things like, “Yeah, you know, you’re doing great, keep going.” And that can mean “Keep going. You got to keep working. ] 3 handclaps] But you’re not there yet.” But the student was hearing it as “Yeah, I’ve done it. Good enough.” Right? And so that student would say, “I got a D+, I don’t understand. Like, what’s going on? The teacher likes me…” or “the teacher said I was doing great.” And so they weren’t able to suss out the actual evaluation in those conversations, especially these new students. So, this is where it is so important to actually have grading systems that align with those conversations and that reflect those conversations. Keith Sawyer, he is like the creativity guru who I follow. He’s amazing. He wrote this book called Explaining Creativity. And there are a couple of pages in this book, Explaining Creativity, where he does essentially a synopsis of all the research on the effects of reward and grading on creativity. And there’s some things that we can look at here that are kind of important… that yes, we can extinguish intrinsic motivation with grades, we can do it by giving As for everyone. We can do it by just throwing grades that are completely unconnected to the actual conversations we’re having in class. And we can do it when we grade students and use a whole lot of really judgmental language and convey that judgment. That will all really decrease intrinsic motivation and creativity. But a lot of that early research on intrinsic-extrinsic motivation goes back to the Edward Deci studies, I believe, and he actually did more work on this later. And there’s a more nuanced conclusion that he came to later that when grades and rewards are perceived as information, when these grades and rewards are based on the quality of work that students are turning in, that can actually enhance creativity, and it can really build intrinsic motivation. But even when you’re using grades well, they shouldn’t be emphasized too much. This is the conversation that I often had in faculty development when I was working with new teachers. Oh, come to class, you’ll get five points. Five Points, that’s not why you come to class. You should not be coming to class to get the five points; you should be coming to class because the conversations are important. That’s why we want you here… and just changing the script in how we talk about grades. You need to have a grading system that has a lot of integrity. But, we should not be banging that over our students’ heads all the time, it should be kind of in the background just running along in the background. And what we communicate to students is the intrinsic rewards of all the work that we’re having them do.

Martin: And that’s why your grading system has to transform a little bit over the course of a semester, going back to that grading heavily on participation at the beginning of the course, where you have to get the students to the course to participate in the beginning for them to realize that there’s value in those conversations. If nobody shows up, they aren’t going to have conversations, but then that can change and it can evolve over the 16 weeks or 10 weeks or whatever length your course is.

Natasha: Yeah, and there are those students who really do care about grades I find in art and design school, there’s a certain subset of students who really don’t care, and that’s fine. And so they’re kind of on their own path, and they’re often doing well. But there are those students who really care and there are the students who are on the verge of failing out of school so they have to care. And I find that just understanding that, instructors need to leverage that knowledge to convince students to do stuff that we want them to do… that we know will do them good anyway, right? So if I say, “Okay, you’re going to be really a grade grubber… you want an A do these things,” and they’re the things that they need to do anyway. It’s a way of kind of tricking them into doing what we want. If you’re grading what’s important in your course, it’s going to work out, it’s going to work out for the students who really care about the grades, for the ones who don’t as much, hopefully, they’ll just be intrinsically motivated to understand why they need to engage. But grading what’s important is really crucial in that, I think.

Rebecca: One of the things we’ve talked a bit about is scaffolding and helping provide structures. So if we were to provide structure for faculty who are thinking about the idea of building a grading system that has the values that we’re talking about, things that really they care about or are important to their class, what are some of the steps you would recommend they go through to actually develop that system so it actually does reflect the values that they want?

Natasha: Well, [LAUGHTER] my answer to that is it’s ultimately working towards a rubric. And again, that can be kind of a bad word. I’m the one who’s been walking around the art and design school for 25 years saying, “Let’s build rubrics. And let’s do normings.” And I had a photography teacher tell me one time “Natasha, you gotta understand when you say “norming” to an artist, I mean, that’s like death, you know?” So I’m like, “Ah, sorry.”

Martin: There’s a reason why we don’t have assessment in the title of our book.

Natasha: Yes.

Martin: That was on purpose.

Natasha: It was by design. Absolutely. For the really grade-averse instructors, I start with a conversation. And I usually start with grading because that’s a really good entryway. And I’ll just say, “What are you teaching? And what does that look like? And what does it look like when a student does it? And what does it look like when a student doesn’t do it?” And really, that’s where you start. And then I think the next step is really getting real student work in front of this instructor or this department or this cohort of instructors who are teaching the same course… different sections of the same course. They need to look at the student work and they need to say, “Well, yeah, that one meets the criteria for this course that doesn’t.” Why? Why not? Having those conversations, that’s like the best investment that I think any department or any instructor can make into really focusing their teaching and to improving assessment is just think about how you’re making what you teach visible. And then what does it look like when it’s acceptable and when it’s not acceptable, when it meets the goals and when it doesn’t meet the goals? And then it just moves on from there. And if what you think is important, the quality of the color print in your poster, or the resolution on your screen of your logo, or whatever the heck you’re talking about, it might be process. So again, what does that look like? Well, I want to know that they’re listening to the feedback and really taking it in. Well, how can we make that visible? Maybe I have them do a little recording or do a short paper saying here’s all the feedback I heard, and here’s how I responded. “Joey told me I should change the concept, but I didn’t like that idea because…, so I’m not going with that…” and actually have them make that thought process visible. So, it takes some, again, creativity on the part of the instructor in the field of the teaching and learning. But usually, if there’s something really important that you’re teaching, you can have a way to make it visible and figure out what you’re looking for. And what does it look like when there’s evidence that the student has done what you need them to do? And what does it look like when that evidence is not there yet?

John: I usually meet with new faculty and generally ask them what would they like to see workshops on and, about six or seven years ago, one thing that was requested was a workshop on evaluating creative work. So I reached out and we got four people from different departments. We had someone from art, someone from music, someone from theatre, and someone from English. And they put together a presentation of how they evaluate creative work. And one thing that was in common was they all used rubrics, and they all talked about how there are certain fundamental skills or processes that students have to follow. And that’s what they embed in the rubrics and it surprised a lot of people in STEM fields who were attending because they were much less clear about what they were expecting from students and They expected something that would be much less well defined. And so one of the things they also emphasized, and you’ve talked about is that it’s telling students exactly what they’re expected to do and what types of things they need to demonstrate in the work before they can embellish on that. And that was a really important feature in all of their discussions, the same arguments show up in your book. That surprised many people outside of the creative fields.

Natasha: Oh, those are my tribe. That warms my heart to hear that, John. That’s exciting, yeah.

Martin: One of the added benefits of using rubrics is that time saved as well. Faculty time is a precious commodity. And if you can convince them or just show them how much time will be saved by simply having that rubric available, and using it as a guide, as you’re going through the assignments that are piled on their desk, it’s a convincing argument.

Rebecca: So, we talked a lot about building in values into our evaluation system. Can you talk about some of the things we should avoid doing.

Martin: I can speak to that a little bit. So, one thing that I’ve seen a lot of arts faculty members do… from a student perspective. So, coming up through the arts, one thing I’ve seen a lot of, and heard stories about, is the instructors bringing their personal bias, their own career and background, and that subjectivity in general, to the process of evaluating student work. So I’ve heard some pretty bad horror stories about that. For example, I’ll just go into one story quickly because I think just every faculty member who’s hearing this should know that this is never something that you want to repeat. So all the work, as you can imagine, all the prints, lining the board during critique and the instructor just, without words, just going across the board, pulling work down and throwing it out the window. Like if he doesn’t like it, right… if it doesn’t meet his criteria, which are a mystery, by the way…

NATASHAS: I’ve been in those classrooms. I’ve seen that.

Martin: Tell non-arts people about these stories, and they’re like, “no.” Yeah, it really happened. So remembering that you got to check your personal bias and your personal preference for art at the door and rely a lot on, or more on, having students engage in self evaluation, like did they feel like, and how do they feel like, they have made this, or communicated this, through their work, this issue that they think is important through their work. And if it doesn’t, like if you’re not understanding, then engage in a conversation about it. Like how they feel they’re getting there and where you think they’re not getting there. So using that as a starting point instead of your own, “I am the authority on art, and this is why this does not work.” That’s a huge demotivator.

Rebecca: I think one of those biases that a lot of faculty might bring to the door, is the history of white art created by white individuals.

Martin: This is the history of art, it’s all white male.

Rebecca: If students are creating their work from different cultural perspectives, and the faculty member is not up to speed on other cultural perspectives, we’re enforcing essentially a white supremacist point of view and system. So how do we engage in those moments in a way that’s productive, especially if we don’t understand the cultural background that something is based on?

Martin: Yeah, if students can’t place themselves in the history that you’re talking about, you’re referring to, how are they to imagine themselves in that world in the future?

Natasha: I’m gonna offer just one little tip here because yes, I hear you, Rebecca, and we see it everywhere in the overwhelming influence and sort of self-perpetuation of the white colonialist culture, even in our art classes. Something that we found when we did our rubrics research was that students, in general, really love rubrics, it helps guide their work. But what they really loved… even more than the grid of language… was samples, examples of work, examples of work that span the quality. Here’s an example of something where somebody tried really hard but they didn’t quite hit the mark. Here’s some examples of passing work. Here’s some examples of work that really hits it out of the park. And it’s really important not to have one example, especially in a creative field, because what happens then? The students who are not very competent will copy. Here’s an opportunity to allow for many different interpretations and really show those to your students. Consider using student work from previous semesters from a diverse range of students with diverse content. And that gives students something to connect to, it helps them see themselves in the class, it helps them understand that you, as an instructor, see them and value them. And that even though you have these criteria, there are many ways to reach those goals and reach those marks, those criteria that you’re putting out.

John: And so, by including a range of examples too, from different genres or different approaches, so that it does not become just a Western culture, perhaps. In recent podcasts we’ve done with Kevin Gannon, for example, he talked about decolonizing your syllabus and just suggesting that when you’re putting together your syllabus or searching for examples or exemplars, you could just do a little Google search on decolonize your [insert subject matter here] syllabus, and you can often find some good discussions of that with some good resources that you can build in.

Natasha: Yeah.

Martin: Yeah.

Natasha: This is incredibly important. In my work at California College of the Arts, there’s a very active group of instructors. They’re working on decolonizing the classroom, anti-racism, anti-racist pedagogies, and I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been in teaching there. I haven’t been there for a very long time. But I guess there’s a book called Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future by Asao Inoue. And he speaks quite a lot about assessment. And the point he makes about assessment is he says, in order to really decolonize your classroom, we need to be careful how we talk about quality, because quality so often is really culturally loaded. It’s so loaded that it is really hard for us to even untangle what we see and what we look for. And as a response to that, he really emphasizes grading on labor, grading on the work. And this, again, relates to some of the topics that are in this little video I put together although I don’t really call it this by telling students and taking all that quality judgment away from your rubric and from your assessment and just saying, create 50 of these things, [make 50 taglines, make 50 photographs, write five different thesis statements for your paper or write five different opening lines for your paper and just do that. And that’s the way of just asking for labor. You’re just saying do this work and it doesn’t have to look a certain way or be a certain way. But if you just put some effort into this, you will do well. This is a way of assessing work that actually pans out much better for students of color, students from cultures that are not traditionally represented very well in the faculty at colleges and university. So this is something I’ve been really taking to heart a lot. And in my writing class, I’ve actually, at CCA, where I teach freshmen composition to non-native English speakers, everything is graded on pass not passing yet. And so that really emphasizes the labor. If they’re not passing yet, the implication in that not passing yet grade is that you will do it again. Just do it again. Do it again. Nope, still not quite right, do it again. There have been a few students who have redone their essays four or five times, and it’s painful. But wow, they learn… they learn. And again, the trick is in not having five pages of criteria, but having a pretty narrow band of criteria that we’re looking for here that doesn’t get really niggly about the quality.

John: It sounds like it’s a specification grading system that you’re using. And it’s also building in something much more explicit than the “keep going” message that can be misinterpreted. So giving students the opportunity to try something to not quite get there, but to encourage them to continue working on it more explicitly than perhaps students always hear.

Natasha: And I’m glad you mentioned specifications grading, Linda Nilson has been a huge influence on the way I think about teaching and grading. She’s got a lot of really good thoughts out there for sure.

Rebecca: One of the things that’s really easy to evaluate is something that’s technical that has a right or wrong answer. How do we evaluate in a rubric format, things that are more qualitative, like the amount of experimentation or risk taking or other things that we might value in terms of creativity? Can you give us a concrete example?

Natasha: Actually, we have a a whole tip in our book about risk taking. There’s some really interesting ideas about ways you can really force students into making some mistakes and talking about them. There’s so much that comes up that seems, at first, like it’s going to be really hard to describe it in a rubric. But again, if we just get instructors and people who teach these disciplines together, talking about things, usually they can come up with something much more concrete, even if it’s not a cut and dry technical skill. Concept is one and I have some examples of like before and after for rubric wording. And often when we first write out a rubric, we might use some really sloppy language like “The concept is sloppy. It’s lazy. It just doesn’t work.” That just doesn’t work, right? [LAUGHTER] And so that might be the first draft. But then you start looking at some student work and talk with your colleagues. And you’ll find some more precise language will come out. Often when we talk about concept… I’m talking about the context of maybe an advertising campaign. But the concept is predictable. That’s a concept that is not acceptable is predictable. It’s the first thing that comes to mind when people think of this product. So, that is not a good concept. So there you go. Now we’ve made something a lot more understandable to the students and to the instructors when they’re using this rubric to grade later. And it can help you move forward in a way that that judgmental language won’t. It just makes the students feel bad. It makes the teachers frustrated, because we’re like, “Oh, it just doesn’t work.” But actually taking the time to look again at a range of work that doesn’t meet or that does meet the expectations for this thing that seems really nebulous at first usually you can manage to articulate it, and if you can’t, then maybe that’s not something you’re actually teaching in your class and maybe that’s outside of what you’re assessing. This is another tip that we come up with quite often. I think oftentimes instructors who fear grading, they think that they need to grade the art and you can’t grade art. No, you can’t grade art. You can’t say Picasso was better than Twyla Tharp. You can’t compare people and grade artists in a holistic way. Your grades should be based on what you’re teaching, and the objectives for your class. And we can communicate to our students, this is what we’re looking at here. You’ve also done this other stuff really well, but in our class, we’re really looking at this, so this is what your grade is based on. And that’s a really important factor in this whole endeavor, as well. One other little trap, I think, that faculty members can fall into when we talk about assessing grading or assessing creative work is that when we sit down to write our criteria out often the first thing we want to talk about is that incredible piece that that student two years ago did, it was amazing. It was mind blowing, it was so good and students need to see this and you get into those conversations. And that’s fun to talk about with your colleagues and you pull up that student’s work. And you talk about how great they were and what they’re doing now. Yes, that work should be shared with other students, that’s exciting. We have to celebrate those moments. But for the student in the middle of the pack in your class who’s kind of struggling, we need to think about what’s acceptable. That’s why it’s really important to really focus on that line between what meets expectations and what doesn’t meet expectations, because there are some students that just really need to work on that. [LAUGHTER] There are others that are going to blast through that and do really great things, but the ones that need our help are usually the ones that are hovering around that middle area.

Rebecca: So, we’ve talked a lot about rubrics and grading and evaluation, kind of assuming that we’re living in a perfect little world in some ways. But as we all know, right now, in this moment in time, there’s a lot of extra stress of COVID-19, protests related to Black Lives Matter, and any numerous other health things that are coming up because of COVID-19, remote learning. [LAUGHTER] All of these things, there’s lots going on. And so students are under more stress than normal. Students are often under a lot of stress, but this is like extra stress. So in these moments, what are ways that we can help promote creativity and also help our students really feel supported and being able to learn whether they’re on this point in the spectrum or they’re finding being creative really therapeutic and helpful, and all the way to students who just feel like they’re frozen because there’s so many things going on in the world, they feel like they can’t move forward.

Martin: I think now is a great time to be engaging students in creative process. It’s what gets us unfrozen. I’m speaking purely from my location at a Community and Technical College. If we can get students to engage in those often elective courses outside of their major or area of focus that allow them the opportunity to dive into those things that they are feeling a lot of stress about or anxiety about. It helps students be more successful in those courses that they do have to get through as a matter of course for their program of study.

Natasha: Oh, boy, these are hard times. I think, just most immediately from the video, the nurturing the aha moment, I think that it’s even more important than ever to break down our projects into small steps and help make those steps really kind of distinct from each other. I think that’s something that’s happening for students now, and for us, is we’re sitting and we’re staring at the screen all day long and it can become this big blob of existence where one thing bleeds into the other. And if we can really make the steps a little bit distinct, including a few steps where the students just disengage from all social media and anything online where they can actually be alone, without all of the electronic stimulation. I think those are things that can really help nurture their creativity. And also just I think there’s this funny paradox right now that we’re all alone. We’re all isolated. And yet, if you’re sitting there on your TikTok and Instagram and all day long you’re connected and that can be really, really stressful… and so convincing students to take a break from that, telling them we’re going through another step now. [LAUGHTER] And keeping things again really simple so that they can have that opportunity to use what we’re doing in our classes as a springboard to express themselves. Encourage them to incorporate what’s going on in their own life into the work that we’re doing, including examples and acknowledgments of what’s going on in the world. Really important. And it’s a fine line. I’ve just talked about this with my co teacher about how we’re going to be discussing Black Lives Matter, the latest George Floyd protests, and the Black Lives Matter protests, and the defund the police protests with our students who are mostly from Mainland China. Where do we even begin with that discussion? How do we do that without completely stressing them out, but also using it as an opportunity to feed their curiosity and acknowledge their own stress around these issues? So we need to let them know that we’re a safe space for everybody to engage and really help them break down things into small packages and celebrate their achievements. And again, let them keep working if they’re not quite there yet. Let them do it again. Let them do it again, let them do it again, I found myself being very forgiving on deadlines,

Martin: We also have to help faculty realize that they’re safe to engage in those redesigns and those conversations, and that comes from at that administrative level, engaging this at a college or institutional level. So that you aren’t leaving faculty to figure this out on their own. At my two colleges, for example, we have this new initiative that will run all the way through next year, and actually, for the next three years, probably called Equity by Design. And so we’re starting with a team comprised of administrators, directors, faculty, helping each other understand what this effort is going to be at a college level.

Rebecca: One of the things that you’ve both emphasize is kind of these small steps. And I think a small step for an expert might be different than a small step for a beginner. [LAUGHTER] Can we just take a minute or two to describe the differences between what an expert might think of as a small step and what might be in practice an actual a small step for a student.

Martin: One thing that we have been engaging in at my colleges is the TILT framework of Transparency in Learning and Teaching by Mary-Ann Winkelmes and her team. Mary-Ann came to one of our colleges in January and actually spoke and I’ve been facilitating communities of practice at both colleges on this topic this year. And in that work, there’s a realization as faculty review each other’s assignments and each other’s syllabi that you’re not starting at square one, you’re actually starting at square five, because we have to so often take a step outside of our disciplines to realize that, like you just said… So, what’s complex or complicated to one student is not for another and vice versa. So that transparency effort helps us to really outline the steps of an assignment, even those small steps. And so I’d encourage any family member struggling with whether or not to start at this point or that to review that transparency literature a little bit to engage with their colleagues, share assignments, and ask their colleagues whether or not they’re starting in the right place.

Natasha: That’s such a good question, Rebecca. The expert/novice thing is just something we grapple with all the time as instructors, especially if we’re teaching a new course… something that I’ve had to do in my own class… I was just thrown into a very new course for me a couple of years ago. And we did a new project on public service announcements this last semester, and I start something in class, I told the students “Now, choose a topic from this list of public service announcements that you’re going to create. And first thing you have to do is do some research. So let’s look at some websites.” And by having them do that in class and seeing what they come up with, I start to say, “Oh, right. [LAUGHTER]] They’re going to TikTok, you know, they’re going to these kind of places I didn’t even anticipate, and that allows me to then say, “Okay, I need to actually really scaffold this down.” I don’t want this to take two weeks of my time, I want them to find a credible source and then I ended up giving them a list of basically five places they should look. And you might say that is oversimplifying it, but again, this was just a step in the process of a larger PSA that they needed to make. So I needed to really like clamp that down. But I think if we can have students start in class and actually watch what they do, that gives us a lot of information about how big a step they’re willing to take on. And again, the little creative process chart that I put in the video that I created, I think a lot of creative practitioners, people who are really established, they’ve internalized this process, and they even don’t even want to put it on the line. They’re just like, “Oh, you bounce around, you know, you go back and forth and it’s not a linear thing.” And that’s not actually helpful to a new student who’s really nervous, who’s really stressed, who’s in school for the first time. They’re paying a ton of money to go to art school and their grandparents are really pissed because they should be an accountant. That’s intense. And so these students really need things broken down. And I think that just an awareness of our own expertise is a good starting point, and taking our cues from the students.

Rebecca: This has been really interesting. We always wrap up by asking what’s next? \

Natasha: What’s next, Martin? [LAUGHTER]

Martin: What’s next for me is to finish this book I’m working on with Cassandra Horii. We’ve been doing this project together for the past decade or so. I’ve been making photographs at colleges and universities across the country. We use those photographs that I make in classrooms in faculty teaching to help faculty think about their teaching practice. So we do this form of photo0based teaching consultation. So we’re putting those thousands of thousands of photographs together into a book. And we’re working with the same press that Natasha and I were with, West Virginia University Press, on that book. As far as my other life as an administrator in higher education, what’s next is figuring out what fall semester looks like. How are we engaging students? And in what space are we engaging them? Are courses going to be offered HyFlex, we don’t know? Are any courses going to be conducted face to face? Some of them have to be. You can’t teach arc welding at a distance. There’s some of that that has to be hands on. So figuring out exactly how we’re engaging students in this next phase is what’s next for me.

Natasha: I’m going really micro because these are really big questions. I’m going to keep working on the curriculum for my ESL class. I am now not in faculty development officially anymore at my university in an official role. My current role is that I coordinate and write the curriculum for one level of the English for non-native speakers at the Academy of Art University. And it’s exciting. So I’m working on actually integrating more of the anti-racist ecologies. I’m working on incorporating even more creative process readings and practices into my ESL course in the new zoom world, also really trying to figure out how to get students conversation practice in zoom. That’s the really tough one. So, I’m very much just kind of looking [LAUGHTER] about two feet in front of myself right now. And boy, as far as the bigger issues go, I don’t know. Let’s check in again in the fall. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I think that’s fair.

Natasha: This afternoon, I’m going to make a creative genealogy for myself. I’m making a creative family tree, because I’m having my students do this next week when we start class and I’m going to do it for myself as a sample for them and also just to see what it’s like to go through that process. So that’s actually been really fun. That’s my fun thing that I’m doing.

Rebecca: It’s all about balance.

Natasha: Yeah.

John: Well, thank you. This has been fascinating. I really enjoyed reading through your book, and I’ve enjoyed your contribution to the Pedagogies of Care, and it’s been really great talking to you. Thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you so much.

Natasha: John and Rebecca, it’s been a really fun conversation. Thanks so much for inviting us.

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

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

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132. Pandemic Pivoting

The unexpected shift to remote instruction during the spring 2020 semester in response to a global pandemic disrupted established teaching patterns, forcing many faculty to rapidly learn new tools and techniques of engaging their students. In this episode, Dr. Betsy Barre joins us to discuss what we’ve learned from this sudden shift to remote instruction and how we can better prepare for the uncertainties of the fall semester.

Betsy is the Executive Director of the Center for Advancement of Teaching at Wake Forest University. In 2017 she won, with Justin Esarey, the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education’s Innovation Award for their Course Workload Estimator.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: The unexpected shift to remote instruction during the spring 2020 semester in response to a global pandemic disrupted established teaching patterns, forcing many faculty to rapidly learn new tools and techniques of engaging their students. In this episode, we discuss what we’ve learned from this sudden shift to remote instruction and how we can better prepare for the uncertainties of the fall semester.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Betsy Barre, the Executive Director of the Center for Advancement of Teaching at Wake Forest University. In 2017 she won, with Justin Esarey, the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education’s Innovation Award for their Course Workload Estimator. Welcome, Betsy.

Betsy: Thanks, I’m happy to be here.

John: Today’s teas are:

Betsy: I am not having tea, but I am having a raspberry lime Spindrift. I actually would love to have tea, but I just didn’t get downstairs in time, so I have my Spindrift here.

Rebecca: That sounds good. I have an English breakfast.

John: And I have oolong tea today.

Rebecca: Oh, you’re switching it up a little.

Betsy: Sounds exciting.

John: Amazon helps. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Betsy, we invited you here today to talk a little bit about the work that you’ve been doing at Wake Forest to help faculty prepare for pandemic teaching. Can you talk a little bit about what the Center for Advancement of Teaching’s approach has been and what it will look like leading into summer and fall courses?

Betsy: Sure, I can talk more about what we’ve done, sort of what we’re planning for the future is still in process, as I’m sure it is for many institutions. One of the great things about Wake Forest is that our Center for the Advancement of Teaching is not the only office that has been working with faculty and faculty development and digital technology issues, academic technology, etc. So one of the first things that we did when we knew we were transitioning to online, or transitioning to remote teaching, let’s be specific there, is that we pulled together the offices that were adjacent to our office. So we pulled together the Office of Online Education, the Office of Academic Technology, which is an Information Systems RIT wing at Wake Forest, and also we had a number of librarians who did work on digital pedagogy. So we pulled all of us together and created a kind of super team that would support faculty, and that was really helpful to do that really quickly because it expanded our reach, the numbers of folks who could work with faculty and integrated it, so faculty didn’t have to go to a million different places, there was one place that they could go. We had about 850 faculty or so that were teaching that we had to work with and there were about 10 of us on our team. So, it’s a better ratio than some schools, but it’s still a pretty not ideal ratio, and so we tried to streamline things as quickly as possible. So, like many schools, we created a keep teaching website that had resources, but we also created a blog that had daily updates. So every day, they could subscribe to an email and get it in their inbox every morning that would have daily updates, but also resources, tips, things we’d heard from faculty, etc. That turned out to be really helpful and we’re still keeping that going, and it’s been helpful as they’ve been teaching. We also, though, really wanted to encourage them to share their expertise with each other. So, that week that we had off to help our faculty prepare, we did a series of open labs, where we were there to answer questions, but they could also share with each other what they were doing. And then sort of unexpectedly, a few things that we did that have gone really well is that those of us that are on social media saw some faculty talking on Facebook about this, we thought, “Hey, let’s just create a Facebook group,” and that group has been incredibly active. We have like over 300 faculty that are in that group now and some of our professional staff and it’s been a way of communicating. We’ve tried to communicate it outside of Facebook for those who don’t like Facebook, but certainly it’s been a wonderful way of building community that I think will live on after this, and so that has been nice. And then of course, our one-on-one consultations that we’ve always done, but we set up a easier streamlined system for requesting a consultation, and it would cycle through all 10 of us and sync up with our calendars, and so we found that to be really successful, and as successful as we could be in this trying situation. Summer and fall, a much more interesting wrinkle, that we’ve been working on. Once we got faculty up and ready to go, we now could transition to thinking about how are we going to support faculty in the summer and fall. And one of the things we’ve been saying all along, many institutions have, is that what we did in the spring where we had one week to transition is not really robust online teaching. At the same time, we don’t necessarily have the staff and resources to transition all of our courses online for the summer in a robust way, but we have more than a week. So we’re trying to hit some sort of middle sweet spot where it’s not exactly what we would ideally do with online education at Wake Forest, but it’s better and more intentional and takes more time than what we did for remote teaching. So currently, we’re planning for those who have volunteered to teach in the summer to run a three-week course for them to take asynchronously online to learn more about teaching online, and then we’re also gonna offer all 10 of us to do one-on-one consultations and some minimal instructional design work with them. Fall is still up in the air and we’re not really sure what’s gonna happen with the fall, but I think we’ll probably know in the next few weeks what we’re planning.

John: It’s interesting to see how similar the approaches of various institutions have become and a lot of it, I think, is social media made it easy to share some of those thoughts. We also have a Facebook group, we’ve also done lots of meetings and we’ve had a number of people working with us from our campus technology services in providing support and workshops, and it’s been nice to see everyone come together to help so many faculty make this surprise transition that they never expected and didn’t always entirely welcome, but they’ve been really positive in terms of how people have approached it.

Betsy: I agree.

Rebecca: One of the things that I saw you guys doing that I thought was really interesting was “Ask the CAT,” can you talk a little bit about that program and how it works?

Betsy: The name of our center is the Center for the Advancement of Teaching. We still haven’t decided at Wake Forest if we want to do cat or CAT, but we often joke a cat would be funny because then we could have all these funny cat jokes associated with that. But outside of the blog, we started getting some really simple questions that we realized would be helpful for everyone to hear the answer to. And so early on, a few people asked some questions, and we said, “Can we turn this into a sort of Dear Abby letter that we can then publish responses to, really quick responses on our blog?” and they were happy to do that, and then we turned it into a formal themed series in the blog where people can submit online, ask the CAT questions, and they can do it with a pseudonym, so there’s no stupid questions, any sort of challenges they have, and it’s gone pretty well. And we hope to continue to do that because I think we’ve seen on the Facebook pages, I’m sure you all have as well, is that often there are many similar questions, and so when they see us answering another question, faculty get ideas and say, “Oh, I could do that, now that makes sense.”

Rebecca: It seems like the ability to have a little bit of anonymity there in asking the question might allow for some questions that really need to be asked actually be asked.

Betsy: Yeah, sometimes they’ll just ask a simple tech question and we try to expand it a little bit beyond that to say “Okay, that’s great. Here, I’m going to give you your answer, but before I do, let’s talk a little bit about pedagogy and how you might think about universal design,” or something unrelated to the specific tech question.

John: Rebecca mentioned that you had won an award for your work on Rice’s Course Workload Estimator, which is something we recommend to our faculty regularly and people find it really helpful. How would you recommend people interact with that tool during situations like the pandemic, especially for people who are adjusting very rapidly from one mode of instruction to another?

Betsy: Yeah, so one of the things I shared with Rebecca before we started is this actually is really great timing for you to ask about this, because Justin Esarey is the co-author, co-creator with me and I… he’s my husband actually, we did it together… one of the things we’re thinking about doing in the next couple of weeks is actually revising it in a number of ways. We’ve had a long standing interest in doing it, just haven’t had occasion to do that, and there are some changes we’re going to make that aren’t specifically about online, but one of the changes we’re hoping to do is to actually create some categories that are related to traditional online assignments. And again, these are going to be guesstimates. I always tell people, this is an estimator, it’s not perfect. It’s just our best guesses. But to create some estimates of “How long would it take to have a discussion board if they have two posts, 500 words,” sort of things that we’re used to assigning in online education to hopefully help in that regard. But one of the things that I think is a reason this estimator is important is one of the things we’ve seen, and I’m sure you all have seen as well, after about the second week of remote teaching is that some students started to complain about workload, how much work these new remote courses were. And I think part of that is because faculty were incorporating more accountability measures into their courses, so they may have been expecting that work, but never were really holding the students to account to do that work. And so now students actually have to do and show their work, and so whereas before they might have been able to just show up in a lecture, study on their own time, or not study as the case may be, not do the reading as the case may be. Now, if they’re having weekly reading reflections, they actually have to do the reading and that significantly shifts how much work they feel they have to do. So that’s putting it on the students, but it’s certainly the case, and part of the reason we made the estimator, is that as faculty, we’re not really good at estimating how much time our work takes. And that’s true in a traditional setting, it’s true for me, that’s why I created the estimator. I am a humanist, and so I assign a lot of reading and I never really knew, like, how much time it would take them to read, and so that’s what motivated me to investigate the research on that. I think it’s particularly true that we’re not good at estimating how much time things will take when it’s a new assignment or activity that we’ve never assigned, and that’s what we see in this scenario, many faculty are introducing completely new activities and assignments that they’ve never done before. And they often might think, “Oh, yeah, I should give them discussions in a discussion board,” without taking into account how much time that will take, or “Oh, I really want them to make sure that they connect with me each week, in this way,” or “I need to make sure we have these office hours and they need to watch these videos, but since they’re watching the videos, now, we can have some discussion in class because the videos are no longer part of the class time.” And so we think we’re pretty good at sort of keeping track of that, but it turns out one of the things we found with our estimator is that when we asked faculty to play around with it, that we were often very wrong. Faculty were often very wrong about even their own estimates about how much time they thought they were expecting of students. So, I think it can be a valuable check. It’s not perfect, it’s not exact, but it can be a valuable check on our intuitions about how much time we’re expecting of students, particularly with some of these unique activities that we’re asking them to do online, and I also think there’s some really creative strategies by our friends in online education to help us think about a traditional assignment and how to make it a little bit more efficient, discussion board a little bit less time intensive, that we can talk to faculty about as well.

John: With the pandemic, I would think, some of those calculations based on online classes where people intentionally were in online classes might be a somewhat different situation when people are in households where there’s more people in the room perhaps, or where they’re sharing network access, or where there’s more distractions and noise than the people who had intentionally chosen the online environment.

Betsy: Yeah, I think that’s a really thoughtful insight. Absolutely. I think we’ll hopefully get to talk about this later in our conversation today, is that there are a variety of changes that take place here that are not just about the modality, but thinking about our students’ situation, how long it takes to learn the technology if they’ve never learned it as well. Like, “How do I upload this? How do I take an exam?” And so if we give them a certain amount of time for an exam, recognizing that they didn’t choose to do it, they also don’t know the technology as well, and so how do we account for those adjustments as well, for sure.

Rebecca: Yeah, I agree. I think all of those little extra things that now students have to do, including learning the technology or just getting used to a new system or a new rhythm, they all take time. In a semester, we think that’s what the first couple of weeks of the semester are, but then like this semester, we had two sets of those.

Betsy: Absolutely. And I mean, the fact that we are still sending out posts giving suggestions, means that some faculty are still changing things, they’re still adding new things, because they want to try something new or something didn’t work, and normally, we encourage that, but in this scenario, it’s particularly challenging for our students if new things keep getting piled on over five courses or four courses that they’re taking.

Rebecca: If we’re thinking in a traditional context where there’s in class and out of class work, and now everything is remote, how do we think about dividing up that time or what kind of time they should be spending on what kind of activities?

Betsy: I think this is a really good question. And again, my colleagues in online education who think about this question a lot have more subtle distinctions to make about this, but I actually was just having a conversation last week about what accreditors require and how to think about, quote unquote, contact hours in an online environment, and incidentally, one of the things we found actually, unexpectedly with our Course Workload Estimator… again, the motivation was for me as a humanist to basically answer the faculty question of “How much reading should I assign?” was a very narrow purpose, how much reading should I assign? But what we found is that the biggest usage were people who were instructional designers in online programs, who were interested in this question of “How much time is faculty contact hours, is it actually comparable to the face-to-face courses?” So it is connected, and so I’ve been talking about this a lot, and one of the things that, at least the federal guidance suggests, is that one credit hour is about 45 hours of work for students. So over 15 weeks, one credit hour, you do two hours out of class for every hour in class over 15 weeks, and so it’s about 45 hours. They don’t really enforce it, it’s a complicated question or a comparable amount of work, but that’s an easy way of thinking about it. It’s about 45 hours of work for a single credit hour and then 15 of that is expected to be in the presence of the professor. So traditionally, that would mean 15 of that you go to class, 30 of it’s at home. That’s the traditional model that we think of, but in online, of course, it’s different because everything is at home. So one thing, you could just say, “Well, everything’s at home. So then professor never needs to be engaged,” like, you can just say, “I’m going to record all my lectures, put them all up, and then I’ll grade your exam at the end.” Of course, we know that that’s not good pedagogy, online or otherwise. And so I think the way to think about this is, of the 45 hours of work your students are doing, are at least 15 of those hours, somehow engaging with the faculty member? But that could be, for example, a discussion board where the faculty member is in the discussion board engaging and providing feedback. It could be one-on-one sessions where you work on a paper together with the student in an office hour. There are a lot of ways you can imagine faculty presence and engagement that don’t have to be “Let’s have a synchronous video conference session.” But there are some good reasons for that too, particularly in the remote environment where students want some continuity to what they’ve already done. But I think that there should be more flexibility and I think there often is in good online program about what counts as those contact hours, but without just saying, “Oh, as long as we have a video, that counts as a contact hour.”

Rebecca: Along these lines, do you have any advice about designing learning activities and assessments when we have no idea what the modality might be in the fall?

Betsy: That’s a good question. I’m sure that many other people have been asking that question, I myself am teaching this semester, so it has been interesting in helping all the faculty but also teaching myself and figuring out what’s working and what’s not. And I think Derek Bruff at Vanderbilt had a, I actually liked this language that he shared initially about creating pivotable courses. He ended up changing it, he didn’t like that one as much, but I actually like that, like your course could easily pivot. And I think for me, one of the things that I saw was that my course, even though it was a face-to-face course, heavy discussion course seminar course, I had built in already some asynchronous activity outside of class, they were already annotating the text via Hypothesis, which is a really wonderful tool for those of you that don’t know about that in the humanities or any text heavy discipline, Hypothesis is wonderful and in that sense they were already used to and had learned how to annotate their text digitally in the face-to-face course. When we transitioned, it was easy. Okay, we’re going to be doing that. And that was already built into the course. I also think getting all of our courses so far as possible into a digital environment, whether that’s an LMS, or Google or whatever you prefer, can be an easy way too, because a lot of the time we spent with faculty was just getting them to like, “Oh, how do you collect assignments? Okay, let’s get you into the LMS. Here’s how you collect assignments. Here’s a way that you can think about sending a message to students that’s not just through email.” And so at the very least, if we all get in our LMS, or another digital environment, if you don’t like the LMS, and then think of some activities and engagement that our students can engage in at home with each other, or perhaps with you that’s outside of the regularly scheduled class time, you’re already making it easier to shift. But I also think one thing, and we may come to this when we talk about grading, one thing I’ve been thinking a lot about is I had to scrap one of my activities in my course when we transitioned to remote and I’ve been thinking about the particularly challenging situation for those faculty who had a semester-long assignment. So luckily, my assignment was at the second part and so they haven’t started it yet, we can just do something else, because that would be difficult. But if you have many semester-long assignments, that disruption can be really difficult, but if you could organize your course another way to make it pivotable is to organize it in modules, like really intentionally, not just in Canvas, but actually say, “Okay, we’re going to work on this unit as a self-contained assignment that will be done in two weeks. So that way, if we have to take off in week three, you’re already finished with that assignment in that module.” And then there’s one module that’s remote and then if we come back, hey, we get to start another module that might be face-to-face, and so it gives you some flexibility. If you design your course in a more modular way to prepare for disruptions rather than thinking about it as multiple whole semester-long assignments.

Rebecca: It’s interesting that you say that, Betsy, because I’m not teaching this semester, but I’m planning for my fall class, and I teach web design primarily and I was thinking about teaching agile design. So I decided that I would teach it in an agile fashion, which is really what you’re describing. [LAUGHTER]

Betsy: Yeah, that’s smart.

Rebecca: So, I started mapping out what that would look like in these little sprints to work on a larger project, and we would do maybe two projects, one that was collaborative and one that was individual, but in sprints that would rotate between the two projects. So I’ve been mapping out what that might look like, and my real reasoning for that was, specifically if something was going to be disrupted or if it was going to be online, I thought it would be a little easier to help students through the project if it had these clear checkpoints and finishes to things before starting something new.

Betsy: One of the things that made me start thinking this way, and this goes back to the question of how we’re preparing for fall and all the scenarios that all the institutions are thinking about, Beloit college just decided that they were going to actually teach their fall semester in two seven and a half week sessions, essentially. So basically, students will take two courses for the first seven and a half weeks, and then two courses for the second seven and a half weeks. Certainly it’s a lot of work on the part of faculty to transition their 15 week course to a seven and a half week course, but it also is creative because it means that we have to start late, only two classes are disrupted rather than all four and if you have to leave in the middle, only two classes are disrupted. So, there is a way in which it allows for some flexibility. You can even be as dramatic and radical as going to a block schedule like they have at Colorado College or other schools where they have one course at a time. That would be more work for our faculty and may not work as well, but I did like the idea of thinking, “Okay, let’s just prepare for our face-to-face courses to be seven and a half weeks as an institution.” And then it’s the opportunity to experiment with that kind of pedagogy anyway, because some schools have May terms and other things. And so we are not, at Wake Forest, certainly planning that, but it is an interesting fun thought experiment to think about.

John: One issue that we’re talking about on our campus is how faculty should administer final exams, and grading and assessment, and there’s a lot of concern over people trying to give timed exams and put other limits on students. What are your thoughts on how we should deal with assessing students as we move towards the end of the semester?

Betsy: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, there are a number of issues at work here. One is the challenges the students have at home and thinking about good universal design principles of giving students as much time as possible if it’s not one of your outcomes. If doing things quickly is not one of your outcomes, that’s an important thing to think about. Often, also, what’s in the mind of people, though, is academic integrity. And so part of the concern of a number of faculty is: “Well, I’m usually proctoring it in person. So, how do I give an exam in a way where I’m not going to be there in person?” And then that raises all sorts of interesting challenges associated with technology and the privacy concerns with those online proctoring systems, and so certainly we’ve been thinking a lot about this too, and how to give advice. One of the first easy answers that anybody who’s in pedagogy is going to say, is come up with different designs for your assessments. And I think, absolutely, we should start there. I don’t need to give a timed exam in my course, there are ways I can write the question where I’m not worried about academic integrity issues. So, there are certainly ways in which that’s possible, but I do want to be mindful of my colleagues in intro languages, or my colleagues in intro math, where there are some recall outcomes that are really important for them. And so I think I always want to just be careful to not say, like, “Oh, how dare you have any recall outcomes because that’s just not good pedagogy.” I don’t think that’s necessarily true, so for those colleagues who have recall outcomes, it becomes a more interesting question. On our blog, we have a post on this that we could share, if you’re interested, where my colleague, Anita McCauley, who’s amazing, posted a flowchart of ways of thinking about, “Okay, if you have an exam, what are ways that you can think through how to do something differently?” And one of the first parts of that flowchart that I really like is, if you’ve already assessed it before, you may not need to assess it again, and so particularly for my colleagues in Spanish and other intro languages, maybe they’ve already assessed their ability to conjugate verbs. Do you need to have it on the final in a cumulative way? That was just something that often has not been on the table and talked about and I think it’s worth saying. But, beyond that, they might be somewhat different outcomes where they have to recall but then explain why the verb was conjugated in that way, and so there are ways you can see whether they know it or not, that they can’t just get on the internet. And so being mindful of the challenges there but also saying that “Let’s try as hard as we can to come up with alternative assessments.” Then the questions of how much time to give them, again, always come back to say, like, “Is speed one of your outcomes?” and almost always it’s not; almost always the reason there are timed exams is because they’re in the timeframe of the class. So there’s 75 minutes for them to sit in the class and take the exam and that’s why there’s a limit. It’s not because speed is actually an outcome. So now they actually have some more flexibility where they could give them more time and the technological tools allow them to give them more time, and you can extend it as far as you want. I will often say, instead of giving accommodations to a student to get extra time, give the whole class extra time, especially as they’re learning new technology. If folks are still committed to traditional recall exam and worried about proctoring…. we, for example, at Wake Forest,have not bought proctoring software… and we’re not using it for a variety of reasons, and so one of the things I recommend is if you absolutely are still committed to that, then you can do a synchronous session just like you would normally where they’re taking the exam, and it’s you, not some outside vendor or AI etc, as you would in the classroom.

John: I’m not sure if the problem though, is just due to recall type exams because I can speak from my own experience. Last week I gave a test which were all applications in econometrics and copies of the questions (where there were many different variants for one problem, there were seven variants), most of those problems ended up on Chegg within about 15 minutes of the release of that, and answers were posted. Many of them were really bad answers, which helped make it really easy to find these things…

Betsy: [LAUGHTER] Yes, yes.

John: …within less than an hour of the time the exam was released. So even when people are doing some problems, there are some issues, or even when they’re asked to write essays, there are people out there who are willing to provide those responses for them.

Betsy: Oh, yes. And actually, that will be true in face-to-face classes, too, if you’re not doing in class essays. That’s the one level of academic integrity that you just are never going to be able to catch if you pay somebody to write your essays for you or take your online exam. My background, incidentally, is as an ethicist, so I think a lot about questions of academic integrity. I always get mad at my students when I give this lecture like, “This is an ethics class, you need to take this seriously.” But it is true that the empirical research on student behavior in this regard is not heartening. Let’s put it that way. So I really appreciate all the literature about “We need to trust our students,” and there’s a certain framework of what happens when we come into a course where we don’t trust our students, but the empirical literature about what students admit to have done is really not heartening, and so I do think it’s okay for us to think about these questions that you’re thinking about, John, which is, “Okay, we’re creating conditions where they’re tempted,” and that’s something also we don’t want to do either is to create the conditions where students might be tempted, particularly for students who do have academic integrity, because then they’re at a disadvantage if they choose not to engage in that kind of sharing of resources. What did you do, John, how did you address this?

John: I’m just dealing with it now, I was just grading those today.

Betsy: Yeah, it’s tough.

John: So right now I’m trying to identify the students and I’ll be having conversations with them. Because there were so many varieties of questions out there, it’s going to be pretty easy to identify which student did which. One interesting thing is, someone took one of the answers and ran it through a paraphrasing tool so that the “error terms” in the equation became “blunder terms” in the equation, which was a pretty obvious paraphrase. It was interesting.

Betsy: One of the things I’ve appreciated about this moment and having conversations like you and I are having right now is that it’s encouraged some faculty to think in different ways about assessment. They have a standard way of assessing “This is the kind of thing that I’ve done for years,” and now I have to think, “Oh, what could I possibly do differently?” So one thing I just keep coming back to, when I think about my own courses… there are challenges with this… there are problems with this, because it can be stressful for students… but I think oral exams are often some of the most effective ways to see whether a student knows something is that you, face-to-face, come to my office hour, and let’s talk about it. Tell me, and I’ll ask follow-up questions. That’s a way to really tell whether a student knows something, and so you can still do that virtually. Now that takes more time, especially if you have a big class, but thinking sort of outside of the box in that way of “How can I verify?” is important. I have a couple colleagues that are ethicists too, who have devoted their life to this issue of academic integrity and it consumes them. In some ways, I understand that, because it’s a real violation of trust, and it harms other students. But at the same time, too, I worry sometimes that it becomes so consuming for us that we lose track of all the other things that we should be thinking about with teaching, and so, in this scenario, where it’s as crazy as it is, this is why I think the pass-fail designation that many of our schools have done have made things easier, because we also know empirically that students are less likely to cheat when it’s a pass-fail environment. I think the fact that many of our schools did optional pass-fail means that we’re still in this wrinkle space where many of our students still want to get the good grade, and so they’re taking it for a grade and there’s still temptations. But thinking of ways to make it less high stakes can be another way as well to reduce the likelihood of academic integrity, but it is going to be a challenge that there’s no quick and easy solution for. I don’t have your solution, John.

John: Well, I don’t either, right now.

Betsy: Maybe somebody will… that they can tell us too, who listens to this podcast.

John: One thing I am also doing is I have scaffolded assignments where they have to develop things from the very beginning up to their final projects, and there it’s much more difficult for academic integrity problems to show up because they’ve been guided and getting feedback all the way through and that tends to reduce it, but when you’re trying to test some other things that they’re not using in their projects, but might need to know in the future, there are challenges there.

Rebecca: I think another question that’s come up quite a bit is how to grade fairly just over the course of the semester, either this semester or a future semester when there might be potential for another outbreak or something, when students are not in optimal work conditions, there’s distractions, they might be sick, they might be dealing with family members who are sick. So what do we do to make sure we’re fair?

Betsy: Again, coming back to me as an ethicist, I think a lot about academic integrity, but also about grades and what it means to be fair, and there’s some people who would make the argument that there’s certain notions of fairness… that it’s impossible to grade fairly, even in normal situations, especially if we’re taking into account differences in student background, etc., that they’re always going to be disadvantaged students in our classes. And so thinking about what a grade is, is really important. And again, I’ve been heartened by the fact that these challenges have led so many of our faculty to start thinking in new ways about “What the heck is a grade and how do I want to think about my grades?” And I do think that one way of thinking about fair grades is actually not the model of “Well, we need to take account of all these challenges the students have,” one way of thinking about their grades is that all the grade is, is a measure of their performance. Now, you could say that that’s unjust for other reasons, but that it’s at least I’m treating all the students the same. So this is maybe the difference between equality and equity. So like we’re treating them all equally, that’s a measure of performance and mastery, so it’s ensuring the integrity of the grade. But what’s interesting is that most of us don’t actually grade that way. Most of us have all sorts of other things in our grading scheme that are about behavior, rather than about outcomes. So like, “You have to show up, you have to turn these in by this due date, you have to make sure you participate in class,” and I have those in my typical grading scheme as well, and those we’ll refer to as behavioral grades. And there are some educational theorists, as you two probably know, that would argue that you should never grade on behavior, you should never have behavioral grades. I think we could have a much longer discussion about this. I sort of think there are some good reasons for doing it in the context of higher ed at least. But I think in this scenario, this is if there’s any scenario and this is what I wrote about in one of our first blog posts, if there’s any scenario where that would be unfair, the kind of behavioral grading, it would be this scenario because some of our students did not choose this, they’re in different time zones, they can’t make it to our class, they have to deal with things at home. They were already in the midst of the course too, so it’s not as if we say, “Well, wait a year and come back to us when you’re ready to take the class fully,” because they were ready, and we kicked them off campus. So there is all sorts of other complications here to the traditional model of like, “Well, wait until you’re ready to take a class.” They can’t, they were already enrolled, they already paid, we’re not giving them refunds. So in this context, being as accommodating as possible, and making our courses as accessible as possible, is really important. And some people have even argued, this is why we should give them all A’s like some people have argued, not just pass-fail, but actually all A’s would be a better approach. Because to say like, “Look, you’ve done some work this semester, let’s move on and give you all A’s,” of course that creates challenges for some of our colleagues, who are going to say “What about the integrity of the grades for future courses? Is that fair to students who take it a different time and don’t get the A?” So what I have argued for, but it’s again, not a perfect solution, is really dropping any behavioral grades that you have in these scenarios, at least for this context, and then really focusing on your mastery outcomes, but also being reasonable about the number of outcomes students can master in this scenario. So I actually dropped two outcomes from my course completely, completely dropped them. Now, that’s easier for me to do in an intro religion class than it is in an intro calc class where they’re prepared for the next course. So I always want to be mindful of the differences of my colleagues in different disciplines. But, if you are able to drop outcomes, you can drop them and still be rigorous with the outcomes you still have and being a little bit more compassionate and sensitive to your students. But doing mastery based grading also can be helpful in the sense that, for me, students get multiple shots at showing mastery, and so this would be like specifications grading if you want to read more for the fall, so they have multiple opportunities to show. So, if they have a bad week or an assignment doesn’t work well, they can try again, and as long as by the end of the semester they showed mastery, that’s enough. It’s not about averaging over the course of the semester, and so I already had a mastery based grading system in my course before I began this semester, so I wasn’t recommending to people in this transition, “Oh, completely revise your grading scheme,” that would be not helpful. But if people are thinking about the fall, you know, it might be worth considering thinking about that. There are downsides to mastery based grading too, so I don’t want to act as if it’s this, like, solution to everything, but it might be worth investigating a little bit and maybe incorporating some aspects of mastery based grading into your teaching.

John: And we did have an earlier podcast episode on specifications grading with Linda Nilson.

Betsy: Oh, wonderful.

John: So we can refer people back to that in our show notes as well.

Betsy: Yeah, it’s wonderful.

John: One of the issues with equity, as you mentioned, is that that problem became, I think, much more severe when students were suddenly sent home. On campuses, at least there’s some attempt to equalize that, that everyone gets access to high- speed internet. There’s computer labs in most campuses spread out across campus, and we also don’t have as much of an issue with food insecurity, at least for our on-campus students while they’re there. Suddenly when students are sent home, all those things disappear and the issues of inequity, I think, become a whole lot more severe and it’s something, as you said, we need to be much more mindful of.

Betsy: Yeah, one of the things that I really appreciated from Tom Tobin’s book on universal design, he has a distinction. I don’t actually know if it’s his… it might be his or it might just be generally in the literature on universal design… is distinguishing between access skills and target skills that you want your students to learn versus things they have to know or be able to do to access your material. What I really appreciate, as it helps us think about something as simple as like having a good internet connection, that should not influence their grade, because it’s not one of our target skills. That’s not what we want the grade to be reflecting, whether they had good internet connection. What we want the grade to be reflecting are the target skills that we’re interested in. So I think the way to think about equity here is to focus on any place where things that are irrelevant to your course outcomes are getting in the way of students being able to learn and demonstrate their mastery. That’s where you want to be lenient, that’s where you want to come up with solutions. So for example, in my first-year writing courses in English as a second language, if the thing that you’re assessing is not grammar, if the thing you’re assessing is the way they develop their ideas, the grammar can be a barrier. So there are ways in which you don’t want to grade on that, because your target skills are really about developing ideas. And so that’s a sort of inclusive teaching practice that’s really important in this scenario. What are the things that make it difficult for the students to show up in our Zoom session? And how am I going to create alternatives for them? One thing that we have suggested to our faculty is if you’re doing Zoom sessions, of course, they should be optional. But we also suggested recording it. So the students who couldn’t be there could watch it setting aside the problems with privacy, of course. We can talk about that too. But there’s another wrinkle there too, which is that then that means some students get the interactive, quote, unquote, face-to-face engagement, but the other students only get to watch recordings the whole time. So, one of the things we’ve also said is for equity is also to think of other ways you can engage with those students who can’t come to the Zoom sessions in a way that’s asynchronous or that perhaps at a separate time without overly burdening the faculty member as well.

John: One of the things I’ve done is I’ve shared my cell phone number because all the students have cell phones. [LAUGHTER] I’ve only done that once or twice before in senior-level classes. But this time I’ve done it with all my classes. I did get a phone call coming in right at the beginning when we started recording, and I sent back a text saying I’ll contact you later. But, that has helped because some students do have issues with being able to use Zoom.

Rebecca: And there are certainly tools that you can use to allow you to provide a number that’s not your actual cell phone number that students can still use your phone or texting to communicate.

John: You could use Google phone or you…

Betsy: There’s another one, though, that I’ve used in the past maybe five or six years ago, it’s used in K through 12 environments. Oh, Remind… Remind is the one. Yeah, so I actually used that when I started to realize my students weren’t checking email anymore. I was like, “Oh, this isn’t gonna work, emails not going to work anymore. So I need to find some other way to connect.” But that’s great to be as accessible as possible to your students, but recognizing also that equity issues for us, as faculty. Some of my colleagues can do that more easily than other colleagues who have three kids at home that they’re homeschooling. And so that’s a part of the challenge of this scenario as well, it’s not just what we know is good teaching practice, but also the labor implications for faculty too… that are significant.

Rebecca: Following up on that, that’s a really important consideration is the balance of fairness between both faculty and students because it’s certainly not a situation that any of us signed up for, but we’re all trying to manage. And it’s really possible that we might be in a similar situation in the fall, maybe not exactly the same in that we’ll have a little warning, but it still could happen. So, how do we think about balancing the ability to pivot and make sure that we’re thinking about the ability of teaching remotely without getting too much burden on faculty, but still have really good learning opportunities for students?

Betsy: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I think part of it is trying to think about efficient ways of development. So I was, and you, too, may feel the same way, that that week that we had to transition, I have never seen so much learning happening in a week and so much effort and work and those of us in faculty development probably would never have dreamed. I mean, I don’t know, maybe we would have dreamed that that would happen, but it was a really remarkable thing to see that faculty teaching other faculty can accelerate this in a way that often the model of one instructional designer with one faculty member for six months, that model like that’s how much we need, well, maybe not, now. Maybe we see that if you have to get it done, we’ll get it done, and we can have one-to-many trainings, we can have faculty training each other, we can accelerate that, in some ways, I think is important. But support is also important. So, making sure that we’re supporting faculty as they’re learning what things they can do, and also what we often do in faculty development is talk about efficiencies. So, it’s not just “We’re going to give you a million new pedagogies that we know work, but we’re going to give you a pedagogy that’s actually going to save you time,” and that is really powerful with our faculty and I think we can do the same thing here. So, if we know that there’s a faculty member who has children and has had a hard time with this transition, because they can’t do synchronous Zoom sessions, maybe we talk with them about other alternatives that might be easier for them that they can prep in advance, that will make that transition easier without having to show up at a set time for those synchronous sessions with their children at home. So, it doesn’t solve it, but I do think we should work really hard to come up with the most efficient ways of making the best outcomes possible given the resources that we have. And I think adjusting resources… so we’ve talked about at Wake Forest, outside of teaching and learning, some of our staff, their jobs are no longer really needed, so let’s transition them to other places where we need support. I think you could do the same thing with faculty as well. So, maybe those who have the capability of teaching more or have taught online before, maybe they do more in the fall, but then they get a leave in the spring. There are ways in which you can move things around. Again, I’m not a Dean making these decisions, but being creative about making sure to share the load equally. One question that has come up here, which is really interesting, is that for our faculty who teach more as part of their load, in some ways, this is certainly harder on them than those who have a more balanced teaching and research pipeline, because most of the effort here is in revising courses. Of course, if you have a lab that you have to shut down, certainly that’s a lot of effort. But, making sure we’re mindful of the differential impacts of this transition on our faculty and figuring out ways, not that we’re going to pay them for it, but figuring out ways that we might be able to balance the load moving forward once things go back to quote unquote normal, if they ever do go back to normal [KNOCKING SOUND] …knock on wood here.

Rebecca: I know one thing that I’m thinking about, having small children, is that I’m thinking about all the things that require a little less cognitive load that I’m doing right now while I have a toddler at home, and then when I think I’m going to have daycare again, I’m going to take advantage and do the things that actually require a lot more cognition. And I’m planning to do those at those times, including things like recordings or things like that, that I know I might need to do just to have it in the wings just in case something happens in the fall.

Betsy: I think this is an opportunity for all of us in higher ed to think creatively about how we distribute workload and how we think about the semester and timelines. So, even before this happened, our team read the book Deep Work, and we were just talking about how to create space in our daily work to do intensive deep work, and one of the stories he tells in the book is about a faculty member who stacked his courses so that they were all in one semester. So you know, you have a two-two load or three-three load and he decided to do six in one semester, and then none in the next which normally that sounds crazy, but there’s a way in which that could be really helpful in certain contexts and I think this is an opportunity to think about that. So, those who are doing really intensive work, building online courses, maybe they do a number of them, because it scales, economies of scale, like they do a number of them in the fall and then in the spring, they don’t have to teach… you know, ways of thinking about how to balance this, and then it also would allow us as faculty developers to work with a smaller cohort of faculty, rather than having to work with every single faculty member. Now, I don’t imagine we’ll do that, but it is an opportunity to think of these creative ways of making the workload more equitable as well.

John: And faculty, as human beings, tend to keep doing things the same way as they’ve always done them until there’s some sort of disruption. This certainly has been a fairly substantial disruption, and I think a lot of people, as you said, have learned how to use new tools and at least from what I’ve been hearing, many people now having discovered using Kahoot for quizzing, for example, or using Hypothesis. I’ve been giving workshops on Hypothesis for a while on campus, but not many people adopted it. All of a sudden, I’m getting all these questions about using Hypothesis where people are using it for peer review of documents, where they’re using it in the LMS or more broadly, and I’m hoping that this will continue in the fall. What sort of reactions have you been getting from faculty who are trying some new tools?

Betsy: Yeah, I mean, there’s so many who have said, “Oh, wow, I can totally use this in my face-to-face classes,” and that’s really exciting to hear, that they’re gonna keep it, they’re gonna keep the strategies in their face-to-face courses, or if it needs to go remote, of course, as well. As well as, “Oh, now I know how to use Canvas, so I’ll actually use the gradebook.” Things that are going to be nice for our students as well. Students have been asking for to have a place where they can see all their courses together. I think there was a kind of fear about these technologies in some ways and now that they were forced to do that, “Ah, it’s not so hard.” Now some things are difficult, some things are challenging associated with developing a really well designed online course, but some of these little tools that they have to use in this environment can be helpful in what they’re traditionally doing in their face-to-face courses and I’ve seen many of them say they’re going to do that which is such a wonderful thing to hear as well as pedagogical decisions they’ve had to make about assessment, about universal design, about academic integrity, grading, all the things they’re learning there can also translate back to their courses too, even if we don’t go remote.

Rebecca: And I think all those like crossover areas are ways that faculty can be more nimble. The word pivoting has been used a lot, but I think also being nimble, “I’m using this tool or method and it works both online and in person, so it doesn’t matter which modality I’m using” is something to think about. I did want to just ask one last question related to grading and evaluation, and that’s about motivating students to achieve our learning outcomes when there are so many other things in the world right now that we might be thinking about.

Betsy: Yeah, that’s a great question. I often like to quote the former Secretary of Education that said, “There’s only three things that matter in education; motivation, motivation, and motivation.” [LAUGHTER] So motivation is super, super important when we think about how students learn. We can design the coolest evidence-informed course and design, but if students aren’t motivated, it doesn’t matter. So thinking about our student contexts, and their motivation is really central to their learning, let alone how we’re going to grade them. And so there are a number of things we know that lead to motivation. Sort of important is the students have a choice and that they have some agency or ownership over what’s happening, and so I know a lot of my colleagues at Wake Forest did this and I did as well, is when we made this transition is to ask the students, “So what’s going on with you? What’s your preferences for how we restructure the course? How would you like to learn moving forward?” and to keep being in conversation with our students. And what I did, for example is, now again, I had the flexibility to do this in a religious studies course, but I basically threw out that project at the end of my semester, and so instead had time to say, “What do you want to read about? What things about religion do you want to know about?” And so we’ve been reading about religion in violence, religion in COVID-19, just things that they’re interested in, and that has allowed me to help a little bit with motivation is to just engage with the students a little bit more, but it’s tough. Typically, I think a lot of times we think of there’s carrots and sticks related to motivation, so you can certainly use sticks if you wanted to with grades, but that often has unintended negative consequences. So the more you can do carrots, which would mean thinking about what do they want to learn. I also think that my students, at least at Wake Forest, really miss each other. It’s a really communal place and they really miss each other, so creating opportunities for them to engage with each other, even if I’m not there. There are lots of little interesting activities I’ve seen people suggest where they get together and have video chats in groups, and then record them for the professor. Creating opportunities for them to spend time with one another… They will just want to spend time with each other, whether it’s about learning or not, but if you sneak in the learning, that can be something that will motivate them too, but the reality is some of our students, there are too many other more important things on their plate and we need to acknowledge that, and so I’ve tried to make my students feel that it’s okay to say that, that I’m not disappointed in them if they don’t do as well or if they choose to take it pass-fail that like, “Look, this is just a religious studies class. It’s one class among many. There are many other more important things happening right now. Yes, we want to help you learn if you want to learn, if you want to complete the course and get the credits you get, but we all know that there are other things that are taking our attention away right now, and that’s understandable,” and being sympathetic about that, I think, can also be motivating because they’re not demoralized if they don’t do well. “That’s okay. She understands. I’ll give it a try next week.”

Rebecca: I think that humanity piece is key, both for students and for faculty, and it makes people feel like they have a sense of belonging but also that belonging is often motivating.

John: We always end with the question. What’s next? Which is a question on everyone’s mind right now.

Betsy: I think for me, and maybe this is unique to me or my colleagues who are in teaching and learning centers and in faculty development. What’s next is I want to have some time to reflect back on what I’ve learned about faculty from this transition, and what I’ve learned about faculty development from this transition, and we talked a little bit about this in our earlier conversation, but I was really struck by what I saw on that week off that we had to learn how to improve. I mean, again, I need to spend more time thinking about this and what we’ve learned, but one of the things that was really striking to me was how important having a dedicated time to talk about teaching was, like, “This is a week where you’re going to work on your classes, faculty,” and often we talk about “How do we motivate faculty to do professional development?” We think about funding, we think about course releases or making it enticing in other ways, but my hypothesis that we learned through this transition is that time and dedicated time and a sort of cultural commitment to saying we’re going to take two days to focus on our teaching. What if we did that every year, and there are some schools that have a faculty development day, but what if we took three days every year where everybody got together and talked about their teaching. And I think that’s just one example of something that I would like to reflect on, but I think there are many other things that have happened in the past three weeks that can help inform the way we think about faculty development and I’m really excited to think about that as we, as a center, think about how we work with faculty going forward.

John: Things like that Facebook group that you mentioned, and we have a similar one, has been really helpful in building more of a community than I’ve ever seen before.

Betsy: Absolutely. Yep, I completely agree.

John: Well, thank you. This has been fascinating, and we wish you luck.

Betsy: Thanks for inviting me. It was great to talk with you all.

Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you so much.

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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 Savannah Norton.

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122. Differential Grading Policies

Students generally receive lower grades in STEM classes than they receive in other disciplines. In this episode, Dr. Peter Arcidiacono joins us to discuss how these differences in grading policies across departments can help to explain the relatively low proportion of female students majoring in many STEM disciplines. Peter is a Professor of Economics at Duke University.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Students generally receive lower grades in STEM classes than they receive in other disciplines. In this episode, we investigate how these differences in grading policies across departments can help to explain the relatively low proportion of female students majoring in many STEM disciplines.

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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. Peter Arcidiacono. Peter is a Professor of Economics at Duke University. Welcome, Peter.

Peter: Thank you.

John: Welcome.

Peter: Thanks for having me.

John: Our teas today are…

Peter: Green tea. I got it specifically for this conversation.

Rebecca: Excellent. I have English afternoon.

John: I’m drinking Spring Cherry Green tea.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s a little switch for you.

John: I’m looking forward to the spring now that it’s 10 degrees outside here in Oswego in January when we’re recording this.

We’ve invited you here to talk about your December 2019 working paper co-authored with Thomas Ahn, Amy Hopson, and James Thomas, on Equilibrium Grade Inflation with Implications to Female Interest in STEM Majors. In this paper, you know that disciplines with harsher grading policies result in higher earnings than the earnings received by those majoring in disciplines with easier grading policies. Can you first describe what you mean by harsher grading policies?

Peter: Well, harsher grading policies… you look at average grades in STEM classes and economics, they tend to be a lot lower than in the other social sciences and in the humanities. In the school we look at, which is University of Kentucky, it’s a third of a grade lower. And that holds true across many other colleges I’ve looked at, be it the Duke University or Berea College, it just seems to be a general pattern that the STEM classes and economics tend to have lower grades. And in fact, there was a very nice book written about this with Duke data called Grade Inflation: a Crisis in Higher Education or something like that written by Valen Johnson a few years back, and it was making that exact point about the big grading differences across disciplines.

John: How does your model explain the grading differential across departments?

Peter: Yes, so that to me is where the big contribution of the paper lies, though. I don’t think our model’s particularly satisfactory in this regard. I think lots of people have noticed in the past these differences in grading standards. Where I think our contribution is, is thinking about how those grading standards impact different groups of individuals, but also in what you just asked about: What are the sources of this? And I think a portion of it is certainly demand for courses. So, at the school we look at, the STEM classes are twice as big as the non-STEM classes. An analogy from my own experience… when I first got to Duke, no one signed up for my grad labor class. And that was a bit of a disaster, because that would mean I’d have to do a new prep for some other course. And what I did is I bribed two students to take the class. And the way I did that was I said, “The class is going to be: we’re going to write a paper together.” And it was a great experience for them. They did get a paper, they had a revise and resubmit when they went out in the job market. And what do you know, they both got A’s in the class, but now I’m a little more popular. Not everyone gets A’s and I’m not co-authoring papers with everyone in the class. So I think part of it is these differences in demand for the classes affect things. You hear about weed-out classes, they’re weed-out classes because there’s plenty of students who are interested in taking that class, so they can afford to do that. If you’re in a discipline that has low demand, you’re not going to have a weed-out class because you’re not gonna have any students. So, I think that’s a portion of it. A portion of it can also be things like differences in preferences, maybe it is the case that some disciplines are just meaner than other disciplines. And a third component may be that it’s just easier to grade those classes, it might be easier to grade a math problem than an essay. I’m a little skeptical of the last one, in part because when I talked to high school students, it doesn’t appear to be the case that the math classes are that much easier than the humanities classes, for example, or grade that much harder than. And I think part of that is in high school, you have to take those humanities classes and when you get to college, you have a lot more choice and that influences things.

John: This also seems to relate to the academic labor markets. Because there’s so much demand for classes, there’s often more demand for faculty. So, faculty are not under as much risk of losing their job if they don’t fill their classes. While in markets in those disciplines where grades tend to be lower, labor markets tend to have a little more slack in them. And faculty perhaps may, using the analogy you used before, have to be a little more generous to make sure their classes fill so they can keep their jobs, particularly when there’s a large component of adjunct faculty and contingent faculty.

Peter: I think that’s exactly right. I’ve heard some economics professors brag about their low teaching evaluations. I just thought they can get away with that in other disciplines.

John: And we see that in many STEM fields as well, at least anecdotally… certainly not on our campus…[LAUGHTER] But certainly many STEM disciplines do have that reputation of bragging about keeping their grades low and having high standards and such things.

Peter: That’s right. You know, in my view, it’s when you change what you grade around, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the standards… how much work is required in the class may stay the same. And that’s where, I think what’s interesting about men and women, is that women actually study much more than men. So, if you change the workloads, that’s more of a deterrent for men than it is for women. So, you can think about different mixes of either giving high grades but with high workloads, or lower grades, with lower workloads and student life, on average being different between those things, but they won’t be indifferent between men and women. At least on average. Obviously, this is just an on average statement. There are some women who are not interested in studying hard, and some men who are. On average, that appears to be the case.

John: And you do know, though, that the STEM disciplines not only assigned lower grades, but they also require larger workloads based on the survey data you were looking at, I believe.

Peter: That’s right, substantially higher workloads. And that was my own experience… that where I went to college, I guess economics hadn’t quite crossed over to STEM at the time, but I started as a chemistry major, and there the formulas are a lot more complicated and you had to memorize them. In economics, I didn’t have to memorize the formulas and they were much simpler than those in the chemistry major and I had to work a lot harder in those chemistry classes.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how the difference in grading policies impacts underrepresented groups in these different disciplines? So in STEM, for example, where you’re saying there’s these stricter grading policies, there’s less women, there’s less underrepresented groups in general.

Peter: That’s right.

Rebecca: How do those things connect? Can you talk us through that a little bit?

Peter: Yeah, actually I had caused quite a stir here at Duke back in 2011, talking about underrepresented minorities, because you do see, for example, African Americans at Duke… They came in just as interested in the STEM classes in economics as white students, but they left at a much higher rate. And so the negative headline was something like, you know, “Potentially racist study says Black students are taking the easy way out,” and that was not the case. It was that they’re coming in with different levels of preparation, due to pre-college inequalities. We have serious differences in pre-college education. And that’s resulted in this coming in and then finding that it’s very hard to succeed in the STEM disciplines. For women, the story is different. And there, because women come in just as prepared as men and are interested in studying a lot more. For them, it’s not the workloads that are affecting this, but more the lower grades themselves, given that they’re working so hard, and then to see these low grades seems to have a bigger effect on women than men. I think one of my very interesting result from some of the work that Stinebrickner and Stinebrickner have done is actually asked men and women, “What grades do you expect you’re going to get?” And then they’ve showed them their grades later and said, “Now, that didn’t work out quite as you expected.” They got lower grades. Why do you think that was, and men were much more likely to say it was bad luck. And you could see that they actually believed it was bad luck, because they continue to take the same classes where they were getting low grades, and they didn’t change their study habits. Whereas women were much more likely to say that it was something about them, either that they needed to study more, or they weren’t as prepared as they had hoped to be for the class. And then you can see that they ended up being more likely to switch to different types of classes and to change their study habits.

John: I think you also found that women tended to not just equally prepare, but I think women came in with somewhat higher GPAs, if I remember correctly.

Peter: They do come in with higher high school GPAs, for sure, and they get better grades in college than the men, both in STEM classes and in non-STEM classes.

John: So the difference seems to be that women are more sensitive to the lower grades or they tend to blame themselves for the lower grades, while the men tend to be less cognizant of the fact that they may be the cause of the lower grades.

Rebecca: I feel like I’ve been socialized to blame myself for not being adequate.

Peter: Yeah, it’s been remarkable, you know I have five boys. And they’re not socialized that way, despite my best efforts to get them to really care about their grades and to think that studying even matters. Here I am, a researcher who knows that studying matters, and yet some of my boys are convinced that if they do poorly, it’s bad luck. It has nothing to do with their studying.

John: One of the things I assigned in my labor class is a reading from, I think it’s a sociologist, who noted that women seem to be more concerned with what she termed “local status,” while men tend to be more concerned with “global status.” Basically, the argument is that men tend to be more concerned with their income expectations and the impact that the courses in the majors have on their grades, while women tend to be much more concerned with the relative grades and seeing grades as a perception of their worth or their value in some sense, which makes them much more sensitive to that grading differential between majors. While men tend not to be as concerned about their local standing, their relative status, while they tend to be more concerned with how the degree will impact their future earnings.

Peter: And I think it’s compounded by the fact that I don’t think people know when they go to college how different the grades are. I think that they figure it out rather quickly, but at first they just don’t know that they’re graded so differently. I mean by the time they figure it out, they’ve already made the switches, which is too bad.

Rebecca: So what do we do so that there’s more representation in these disciplines?

Peter: Well I think at a minimum, that universities should at least have an obligation to tell people, “Here’s what the average grades are in these different classes,” so that students can make informed choices. I personally am in favor of doing something where, like they did at Wellesley, where they put in something that either capped the average GPA in the class, or having all the classes that are above a certain size give the same median grade so that people are not having their decisions distorted by the fact that one department is giving lower grades than another department. It’s not as though they’re learning less in these STEM classes, just because they’re getting these lower grades. They’re actually working very hard in these classes, so, it would be nice if that was somewhat remedied.

Rebecca: I wonder if even knowing the information across institutions and knowing that people get lower grades in these fields, no matter what school they’re at, would actually be useful to those groups.

Peter: Oh, I think it’d be very helpful. Yeah.

Rebecca: Not just within your own institution.

Peter: That’s right. Yeah, I think that’d be great. Because then you know what you’re getting into. And maybe when you get that B in the economics class, you’re not feeling like you failed, that that is a much more typical grade than what you expected.

John: I think a lot of people might object to the notion that there should be the same GPA on the grounds that you’re forcing students into this curve where if you happen to have a class that does really well you might be lowering their grades, which doesn’t always happen in the STEM field, but I think there might be some resistance to that. But the notion of transparency and making people more aware of that early on might help reduce that differential effect by gender.

Peter: That’s right. And I think also making departments aware… the implications that the level of their grading has on things like the gender composition, should matter. I don’t want the way I grade my class to be a deterrent for women taking economics classes. I think that that’s bad. And I’ve changed the way I grade a bit in response to this. If other disciplines are going to give much higher grades, and I want to have a good gender representation in my class, I’m still assigning the same amount of workload. So I’m not making the classes easier, but I am changing the level that I’m curving around, and I typically teach a class that has over 100 students in it.

John: And this is especially important because a large share of the gender differential in earnings is tied to major choice, because the fields that women are more likely to enter tend to offer much lower wages on average, while the STEM fields tend to offer much higher wages. So the differential impact on major choice has quite a bit of an effect on the gender wage gap.

Peter: That’s right. And this is potentially a very low- cost way, at least from a pure financial standpoint, to changing that. It’s not going to solve all of the gender issues in economics or in STEM fields. It’s not going to come close to solving it, but it can put a dent in it, where it’s often very costly to change something like that. Changing a climate is expensive and difficult.

Rebecca: I think I would have been one of those students that would have moved. I’m a person who does a lot of coding and things and could easily have been in computer science. But I’m not, I’m in graphic design, and it’s a field that is much more populated by women. I got much higher grades in the things that I did, and I was very sensitive to grades. So as a student, if it was something that I didn’t do well in, then I thought I couldn’t do well in. And I had a very fixed mindset when I was earlier on in my career. Obviously, it’s much different now. I do much different things and explore other things. But at that time, I think I was incredibly sensitive to that. If you came in as an A student and then it’s like, all of a sudden you’re not getting A’s, it’s like “Woah…”

Peter: Yeah.

Rebecca: “…maybe college isn’t for me, even.”

Peter: Yeah. And that’s just really unfortunate that decisions will get based on nominal differences in these grades, that don’t really have content outside of something that is relative, relative to whatever the professor’s curving around. Another advantage to doing something like this, too, is potentially getting spillovers. Because once you change the gender composition a little bit, then that makes the environment more comfortable. And then that can have multiplying effects.

John: So, why don’t departments want to do this to improve the gender composition of their classes and to get more students in their classes and persisting to graduation in their majors?

Peter: Well, this is sort of where the equilibrium aspect comes in. Because even if you want to do this, everybody ends up ratcheting up their grades, because some departments really need more students. And in order to attract students, you’re going to have to do something if the students don’t have an innate demand for your field. And people have been talking about this for some time, that demand for the humanities has been falling and what to do about it. So, I think that the pressure’s sort of on both sides, even if the STEM departments decided, “Look, we want to have our grades be a bit higher for this reason,” that’s going to lead to response by non-STEM professors as well. So I think it’s hard to get rid of the grading differences across fields, absent doing something that’s pretty draconian.

John: By imposing a grading standard that’s equal across departments.

Peter: Exactly.

Rebecca: I wonder if initiating conversations between the humanities and STEM fields about the interdependence there actually are on those two fields and that people in the humanities should learn things about STEM and people in STEM should learn things from humanities and that there could be more of a relationship there that would actually help start to equalize some of those needs, because there could be some referrals to certain classes or other things that might help boost some of those relationships. I don’t know.

Peter: That’s right. So right now we’re playing sort of a non-cooperative game and move it more towards a cooperative one. Yeah.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s competitive rather than thinking about “Why are we at a liberal arts institution? And what does an environment like that or general education offer?”

John: Well think about what would happen, though, if grading standards were relaxed in the STEM disciplines. More students would major in them, enrollments would tend to fall in the non-STEM field, and that would tend to lead to fewer jobs for non-STEM faculty. And maybe that’s not something that departments would react well to, and they face the same incentive to just inflate grades.

Rebecca: I don’t think my suggestion was necessarily to do something about the grades directly, but rather to start helping to increase some demand for humanities and helping out some of those…

John: You mean, more interdisciplinary programs?

Rebecca: Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about, even for my students, the benefits of them exploring a lot of different disciplines to be more effective in their own, and understanding how other people problem solve, and think through problems, and explore the world.

Peter: I really like that too because if you end up providing these skills that are then rewarded in the marketplace through taking some of the STEM stuff, but combining it with the humanities, that will increase demand. And then that will naturally even things out a bit more.

John: And you could move more from STEM to STEAM.

Rebecca: Hey, I didn’t say it, but I’m totally a STEAM gal. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well I was expecting that at any moment. And just in case some of our listeners don’t know what STEAM is, would you like to…?

Rebecca: Yeah, included the A …it’s for the arts, [LAUGHTER] which I am a part of.

Peter: Yeah, they’re doing that at my kids’ high school, you know, having a STEAM program to try to get that integration happening a bit more.

Rebecca: There’s some research happening about the need for these creative outlets to help with innovation and things in STEM fields. So, there’s certainly some research suggesting this interdisciplinary approach to all of our disciplines could actually improve the work that we do.

Peter: Makes sense.

John: And many STEM students tend to specialize as much as they can in their field. So, that broader training could be useful in the future in making them more creative perhaps.

So, we always end with the question: “What are you doing next?”

Peter: Well, it’s been interesting, nothing quite related to this. I got derailed because I’m actually an expert witness in the Asian American discrimination case against Harvard, and that is taking up all of my time. We released a couple of papers on legacy and athlete preferences at Harvard, and we’re going to be writing some more out of my reports for that case. That’s what’s keeping me busy.

John: Very good.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us, this was really interesting, and I hope that it launches more conversations across disciplines.

Peter: Thanks for having me, I really appreciate it.

John: 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.

John: Editing assistance provided by Savannah Norton.

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107. Project NExT

Faculty beginning their teaching careers often rely on the teaching methods that were inflicted on them when they were students. These practices are not always consistent with evidence on how we learn. In this episode, for Assistant Professors from the Math Department at SUNY-Oswego join us to discuss how our math department is transforming its instructional practices through the use of professional development opportunities provided by the Mathematical Association of America.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Faculty beginning their teaching careers often rely on the teaching methods that were inflicted on them when they were students. These practices are not always consistent with evidence on how we learn. In this episode, we examine how one department is transforming its instructional practices through the use of professional development opportunities provided by its national professional organization.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

John: Today we are joined by four assistant professors from the Department of Mathematics at SUNY Oswego. Our guests are:

Sarah: Sarah Hanusch.

Rasika: Rasika Churchill.

Jessalyn: Jessalyn Bolkema.

Zoe: And I’m Zoe Misiewicz.

Rebecca: Welcome everyone!

John: Our teas today are:

Rasika: I’m having Earl Grey.

Jessalyn: I just poured myself a cup of lemon ginger.

Sarah: I’m not having any tea today. I’m not much of a tea drinker.

Zoe: I’m not having any tea today either. I just haven’t unpacked to that point yet.

Rebecca: And I have… English afternoon.

John: And I have Bing Cherry Black Tea. So, we invited you here to talk about Project NExT, which is something that people in our math department have been involved with. Could you tell us what Project NExT is?

Sarah: So, Project NExT stands for New Experiences in Teaching. It’s a program that is sponsored by the Math Association of America that brings new mathematics faculty…so you have to be in your first or second year of a full-time job…but they bring these new mathematicians in from all over the country to teach them about active learning.

Rebecca: How did your involvement, or the department’s involvement, with Project NExT get started?

Sarah: I learned about it as a graduate student, and was highly encouraged by a lot of people to apply. And so I kind of brought it into the department by saying, “Dear Department Chair, will you pay for this?” And since then, in part because of my starting it, we’ve encouraged everyone we’ve hired to apply. And as a result, there’s now five members of the department that have either completed or are still in Project NExT.

Jessalyn: Yeah, I will echo that experience. It was something that I was aware of as a graduate student, in part because some of my mentors had gone through Project NExT…it’s now 25 years old…just celebrated 25 years. And so for me, it was something that I knew I was interested in. And in fact, when I visited Oswego for a campus interview, and the department said “Oh, yeah, we have Project NExT fellows on the faculty, and we would be happy to support you in that,” that was a really exciting and encouraging thing about the department.

Rasika: For me, actually, I didn’t heard about that before. But, when I got the job offer, it came with that. I said “Yeah, sure.”

Zoe: I was just hired this past year and so I’m doing Project NExT, but I think I can already see the effects that it has had. It was a program I already knew about, I really wanted to participate in. So, as I was going through the hiring process, one of the first things I would ask the chair at a place was “Would you support an application for Project NExT?” …because it does require a bit of funding. And so seeing that there were already multiple Project NExT fellows in this department was also a good sign for the department as a whole when I was thinking of what sort of department I’d want to be at. And so I think it’s just showing that it’s already been recruiting people who are interested in it already, at this point.

Sarah: I was just going to clarify a little bit about how the funding for it works. There’s actually no fee to participate in Project NExT. The way it’s organized is that you attend special sessions at three of the national conferences in mathematics. So, you attend two math fests in the summer, and then the joint math meetings, which is in January. And so these are big nationwide meetings in mathematics. And so the idea is that you’re going for some special sessions during the meetings. And then your first year, you go for a couple days pre-conference for the really heavy duty workshop. So, the financial commitment from a department is just the funding to go to those three conferences.

Rebecca: You mentioned active learning. Can you talk a little bit more about how those workshops and things are structured?

Zoe: There were a lot of workshops about active learning and just using evidence-based pedagogy, so saying not only active learning is good, but we have evidence to support it and here are some of the things that you could do in terms of active learning. And all the sessions obviously are structured with that in mind. So, we’re not just sitting there listening passively to someone tell us about active learning, but they really make sure you’re doing something, whether it’s a fun little game like building a marshmallow tower, or some other interactive activity in each session. The sessions aren’t only about active learning, there’s a lot about inclusivity and diversifying the profession. So, a lot of sessions on that, or maybe I just chose sessions on that. But, there’s also a whole professional development stream. So, there’s stuff about how to get started in your career in terms of grants and so on. It’s really a lot of everything in there.

Rasika: It’s categorized like if you interest on the tactile learning, so are you interest on the group work, are you interest on some other…you know, inquiry based and mastery grading and so forth. So, depending on your interest, actually, they give more opportunity to listen, go talk with people and have a conversation: what they had, what they tried and what failed and what succeed. Which is like a really nice thing for us, as a beginner, to see what people have gone through and what I should expect, and so forth. Actually, I was interested about the whole program.

Sarah: So, they do some three-hour breakout workshops where you get to go based on what your interests are. So, I did one that was focused on teaching future educators because that’s my background, but I doubt any of these other ladies chose that same session because that’s not their expertise and not what their job is going to be about fundamentally.

Jessalyn: I will add, I attended two workshops that stand out to me in retrospect. One on making active learning intentionally inclusive. That was all about inclusive pedagogies and ways to incorporate group work in the classroom in a way that benefits all students and allows all students to participate fully. I also did a longer breakout workshop that was building a toolkit for student-centered assessment, that was all about learning objectives and exam structures from a more experienced instructor. And then there are also facets of Project NExT that extend well beyond the physically meeting in person. So, as Rasika mentioned, there are lots of ways that you can navigate the workshop according to themes that are of particular interest to you. So, if tactile learning or kinetic activities are of interest, or you’re really focused on educating future teachers or whatever that might be, you might be encouraged to declare a goal for yourself in your first year related to one of those areas of interest. And then we’ve got little email exchanges that go on for people who’ve declared interest in one of those goals like “this email list is all about mastery based grading, check in when you’ve tried something. check in with your questions.” So, there’s a little bit of accountability built into that structure that these people know what you’re trying to do, and they’re going to check in with you on it. But, then just the larger structure of email lists is that you have this cohort of other new instructors who will fire off questions like, “Oh, I’m teaching this class next semester I’ve never taught before, what textbook might I use?” or “I had this really strange interaction in my classroom, and I’m not sure how to handle it” or “I think this part of my syllabus is just crashing and burning. Help! Has anyone been here before?” And so you have this sort of communal resource and the community experience of brainstorming and problem solving together.

Sarah: …and included in that they assign each of us a mentor. So, a more experienced instructor that’s a mentor is assigned to each person in the program currently, and it’s always someone that is outside of your department. In fact, they will not allow anyone to be a mentor who has a fellow in their department. So, as long as we keep having fellows, we won’t have any mentors here. But, what’s nice is when you do send emails out on that list of “I’m trying this and it’s not going well, help!” you do get responses from your peers. You also see responses from all of the mentors for that cohort, which I think is also valuable because sometimes they have a little more experience than your actual cohort.

Rasika: We have a group that people who are interested on the inquiry based or tactile work, they have their own little Zoom conversation whenever they have time together. You get to know all different schools, what they’re doing and, you know, share your experience.

Rebecca: Would you all like to talk a little bit about how Project NExT has influenced your own teaching?

Rasika: For me actually, I was really interest on the tactile experience from this Project NExT. So, I decided to do some activities this semester starting as a beginner and also some group work. And also something that… not exactly what I’m getting from the Project NExT, but it’s like I will say, part of the SUNY Oswego Reading Group, that I was so interested on the book that we are reading. And I decided to give a couple of pages for the students every week to read, and I assigned them 5% for the final grade that they have to read and write half a page to one-page report for me and tell me what they think. Do they think like it’s feasible for them to change and try and do the things in that nature? So far, it’s really going well, and I have good comments from students saying that “you are opening up different ways of thinking…that we were stuck and never complaining about everything. But, we are now having, you know, in a broader way of looking at the things about growth mindset and so forth.” So, I was speaking here and there like chapters from some interesting books. So, that’s what my experience so far this semester, as a beginner.

Sarah: I think for me, it just gave me a lot more lesson plans and ideas to draw from. I already had a pretty active approach to my teaching, but it just opened a broader view of what kinds of things could work well. Especially in some of the more tactile things available that can be helpful for helping students to learn.

Jessalyn: Within my own teaching, I think it’s been really easy or natural to draw on resources from Project NExT in setting up my class or setting up lessons. When I taught Calc I, on day one, we made zip lines out of ribbon and key chains and measured average velocities and it was fun and it was memorable and it got students working in groups and they reported at the end of the semester. “Hey, remember when we did zipline? That was fun!” and I 100% would not have pushed myself to do something that involved or non standard, I’ll say, without thecontext of Project NExT saying “Oh, just try one new thing each semester.” I completely overhauled the Calc II class to be entirely mastery based grading in response to some of my own frustrations with how I had been setting up my class. And Project NExT supplied a whole lot of resources, a whole lot of people, a whole lot of information and motivation to try something like that, which I think was helpful. As far as department culture goes, I think the fact that we’ve had this many Project NExT fellows and continue to have Project NExT fellows gives us a shared language to talk about teaching. Some shared frame of reference on “Oh, yeah, you know, this person who tried this technique,” or “Have you heard anything about…. “”…Oh, hey, this came through on my Project NExT list.” That I think has encouraged just our conversations about teaching and being intentional in how we’re structuring our classes, or how we’re handling things.

Sarah: I’m experimenting with mastery based grading this semester because of the information you and John got, from your experience in Project NExT. And so your experiments with it last year has led me to experiment with it this year. So, it definitely has changed just how we even hear about new things to try.

Jessalyn: That’s delightful. I appreciate that it’s trickling around.

Sarah: It is trickling for sure.

Zoe: So, I’d say it’s still obviously fairly early. We’re only one month into my first semester after going through the first part of Project NExT. But, I’d say a lot of it has been both an affirmation of things that I have been doing and also it’s sort of given me the confidence to do the things that I was doing even more fully and to advocate for these approaches, even though I am brand new in this department. So, I’m not afraid to send to the whole department email list like “we need to be more positive toward our students and not say that it’s all their fault if they’re struggling. we need to take responsibility for that.” Or just to try things that may or may not work well. For example, I’m doing mastery-based grading just of the homework in my general education math course. And I’m using an online system that,it turns out, is not that great for mastery-based grading of that course, even though I’ve used it for other courses. Students, I think, still benefit from it, but it’s not quite as effective as I might have hoped. But, I’m just willing to try these things and willing to speak up about things, so those are the main impacts in my courses.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about how you’ve implemented mastery learning technique?

Sarah: I think we’ve all done it a little different. Why don’t you start, Zoe, since you were just talking about it.

Zoe: I’ve done it only in the homework, so not in their exams. So, the homework is done online, it’s 15% of their grade. And so for each little subtopic, they have to do a little quiz. It’s five questions: three medium, one easy, one hard, and they need to get at least 90% on it. And they can try as many times as they want, but they do have to keep trying. And so, in courses like college algebra…is the one that’s most similar to where I’ve done it before…the material all builds on itself and it divides nicely into little component and there, I’d say it’s going well. The students complain about it at the beginning, but already after I asked them to reflect on their first test performance, a lot of people said, “Oh, it’s actually really helpful that I had to go back and keep learning these things until I fully understood them.” Whereas in the first couple of weeks, there’s always a bit of pushback about “Why do we need to get 90% on this. It’s too hard to get 90%…couldn’t it be lower?” And then once the results come in, they see it’s worthwhile. The other course I’m doing is similar, the gen ed math course…it’s also their online homework…15% of their grade, but that textbook just doesn’t break down the material into as nice sections and the questions are longer and the grading of the online system is pickier. So, that one has some issues, but the same basic idea.

John: Are you using publisher provided questions then, and tools?

Zoe: Yeah, publisher provided questions and tools.

John: Are you allowing unlimited attempts or is a limit on the number of attempts?

Zoe: Yeah, unlimited attempts, and flexible deadlines too. So, I do say they need to achieve a certain amount before each of the test. But, the idea is that if you haven’t yet mastered something, you can still go back and do it several weeks later. As you keep practicing the material, we keep building on it. So, it’s not that you have just one chance and you’re done. The goal is to get them all to understand it fully by the end of the semester.

Jessalyn: My approach to mastery based grading in my first implementation was to go totally off the deep end, and just structure the whole class with a mastery-based grading scheme. So, what this meant was that I did away with midterm exams, everything was broken down into learning objectives roughly correlated to the sections that we were intending to cover in the textbook. And the primary mode of assessment was quizzes. So, my students had quizzes that they could retake as many times as they needed to. And each quiz had three questions and I wrote problem banks of many many questions for each quiz. And in order to earn an A at the end of the semester, the expectation was something like, “Oh, you need 18 of your quizzes to be three out of three and the rest of you two out of three.” So, it was not a points accumulation scheme, it was just quizzes and repeated quizzes. They also had online homework through web work and that was unlimited attempts. There were deadlines, and they just needed to… there was sort of a threshold percentage associated to an A or a B, or a C. And then I had a few more other activities and elements going on. But, primarily, the structure involves these mastery quizzes. And I owe a great deal in the structure of this class to Laura Taalman from James Madison University, who shared a lot about how she structured her class that way and so I sort of borrowed and adapted from her setup for my experiment.

Sarah: So, my class is pretty similar to Jess’s. The main difference is I’m doing it in a proof-based course, so it’s fewer questions. She had three questions per objective. I have one, because they’re a little bit longer questions. The only exam in my class this semester is the final and that’s only because I’m required to have some common questions on a final exam. So, I had to have a final exam…instead I’m doing weekly quizzes. Each week, we add one to two new objectives. There’s about 20 for the entire semester. So, our first week we had two questions on the quiz. The second week, we had four questions on the quiz, but questions one and two were the same objective as one and two from the first quiz. So, the questions are just going to grow cumulatively…so our last quiz will have about 20 questions on it. Although I did tell them once everyone has mastered a question, it’s just going to say mastered, it’s going to be no new question writing and at some point, I’m going to recycle some of the early ones.

John: Your building in some interleaved practice and spaced practice as well.

Sarah: But, the idea is that once they have mastered a question, they no longer have to do it again. They’ll have the questions for practicing and for getting ready for the final. In addition to these mastery quizzes, I’m having them write a portfolio, which is going to have a little bit more of that interleaving practice and making sure that at the end of the semester, they still remember how to write some of these early proofs and it’s also to focus on the writing aspect. So, to help make sure they’re really using the language precisely. Sometimes with a quiz when it’s timed, you’re a little more flexible, but I want to make sure that they have that precision of language down by the end of the semester. So, I’m sort of balancing those two aspects of it that way. They have “unlimited attempts” in air quotes…restricted by what? …there’s 12 times I could quiz during the semester…13 for something…So, restricted to…they need to do number one all semester long. They can have all semester to do it, but we are eventually going to run out of time.

Rasika: So, for me, I haven’t tried to mastery based grading yet. Maybe in the future.

John: Are there any other new techniques any of you have used in your classes?

Sarah: I’ve done a lot of experiments with this idea of embodied cognition, where you actually have students sort of using their bodies to experience things mathematically. One way that we did this with my pre-service elementary school teachers, I give them a bunch of clothesline, and I have them make a circle. So, you may think, “Okay, no big deal.” But, what happens is, it’s not good enough until it’s a perfect circle. Part of this is to elicit the definition of a circle, because to non-mathematicians, I’m going to pick on you for just a moment, Rebecca, how would you define a circle?

Rebecca: One continuous line that’s in a loop.

Sarah: So, a lot of times they come up with something like that. Well, how does that distinguish, though, a circle from an oval. So, it’s not really a precise definition of a circle, right? With the precise definition is being it’s all of the points that are a fixed distance from the center. But, what happens is, by forcing them to make their circle better and better and better and better, they actually all know that’s the definition of the circle. Maybe they don’t remember it, but they know that there’s this radius thing involved. And so by not allowing them to sort of quit until they actually are in a perfect circle, the only way to do that is you have someone stand in the center, and you take another piece of clothesline to measure your radius, and you move everyone in and out as appropriate. So, that activity of physically making the circle and by having to have that person in the center, and that radius gets them to say the definition of the circle properly, first of all, but they get to experience it in a way that they don’t get to otherwise. And that’s an activity that I never would have thought of without going to Tensia Soto’s session at my first Project NExT meetings.

John: It is certainly safer than giving them all compasses with sharp points where they can stab each other, which was how people used to do it.

Sarah: We still do compass and straightedge constructions in geometry, but again, that doesn’t actually help you really understand what the definition is. I think doing this physically actually helps them understand why a compass works. I know that sounds silly, but it really helps make those kinds of connections. I have another activity where we take clothesline and I make a triangle on the ground, and I make them walk the interior angles of the triangle and you spin 180 degrees and it, again, helps them experience that the sum of the internal angles of a triangle is 180 degrees. And again, that’s something that, the first time I did it, it was baffling because first of all, it’s hard to turn the interior angles. Your instinct is to turn the exterior ones, but you end up backwards. From a geometry standpoint, it makes sense, but somehow that physical aspect just really changes things.

John: It makes for a much more memorable experience, where they’re seeing things from a different perspective. And I think that’s really useful.

Sarah: I agree. That’s why I do it.

Rebecca: Does anyone else want to chime in about how having so many fellows from Project NExT has influenced the larger department? Because you’re not just five people in your department, you’re how many?

Sarah: There’s 14 of us tenure/tenure-track now. I do think it’s changing the way some things are done. It’s slow going. I think everyone would concur with that. Jessalyns’s smirk is definitely confirming that. It’s slow going, some of us would like change to happen faster. But, I do think change is happening. I think there’s a lot of respect from our colleagues that we are trying new things. I think a lot of them have a “You can do what you want, but don’t make me change yet.” But, I think we’re starting to get them a little bit, too.

John: If your students are more successful, that often convinces people and sometimes when students say, “I did this in this other class and was really helpful,” that’s often really persuasive to other faculty. But, it’s convenient that you had so many people all come in at once, because that’s not typical in most departments that have such a large cohort, in a short period of time.

Sarah: We have had a lot of retirements, one right back on top of each other. So, we have had an influx of young faculty in our department, which…that alone…to have so many in this program as well. Definitely.

Rebecca: I think it really helps to have models of ways that you can do things because if you didn’t learn using these methods or you didn’t have exposure to that as a student, you have no way of knowing how those really play out unless you have examples. So, it sounds like Project NExT played that role for you, but then you are playing that role for other faculty in your department.

Jessalyn: Thinking about department culture more broadly, not just among discussions and relationship among faculty, but in terms of the student experience, and this engagement that we’re having from our majors and the sort of activities that we’re involving them in. I think there has been a Project NExT influence there as well. Sarah, you and John started the Putnam Competition before I came even and a lot of other conversations and gatherings have come out of that, like we’re getting together with our majors and talking about preparing them for graduate school if that’s something they want to do. The math club or other organizations have taken on a different role in the department and I think a lot of that comes out of some of the ideas in Project NExT, like hearing about how another department celebrates their students participating in something like the Putnam Competition. But, it also comes out of the relationships you build in an active learning classroom and the way that we connect with students when we are trying new things. And we’re being honest with them and saying, “Hey, I’m trying something new. And I’m going to want your feedback.” The community that you build in a classroom flows into the community that we support and foster as a department.

Zoe: So, it’s a bit hard for me to talk about departmental culture change in the one month that I’ve been there not having seen it before I did Project NExT. But, I can certainly talk about how the department seems different from other departments, just in the willingness to embrace new ideas. And there’s also a sense that these ideas are just supported. Even if we haven’t had an explicit conversation, I know that there will be support for trying something new that was suggested in Project NExT. And it seems, when it comes time to make policies, that we have almost a majority just of Project NExT people. Obviously, we need a couple more people, but there are other people who haven’t participated in the program who would still support these sorts of initiatives. Knowing that that base of similar views is there, makes a big difference in what sorts of ideas we would even suggest or consider.

Sarah: I think a lot of our Project NExT fellows have also been very active with doing undergraduate research with students.

Rasika: I think even like talking to colleagues. For me, like I have a personal experience, because my husband is also a mathematician and teach at SUNY Oswego. If I learn something new, I share with him of course, he’s not a Project NExT fellow, but…

Rebecca: So, it sounds like the program’s working really well. You’re all really excited about it. It sounds like it’s engaging all of you. So, glad that you’re able to share it with us.

Sarah: The MAA has definitely done a lot to support improving teaching in mathematics and I do think it is a program that other disciplines could look at and possibly model. I will say they have put a lot of money and a lot of investment into making this a success. It is well run and has been well funded, which is a testament to how important professional organization views it.

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

Sarah: Well one thing that’s next is we’re trying to get one of our other new faculty, his application was rejected last year. We’re also hiring two people, hopefully this year…So, possibly trying to send them next year as well.

Jessalyn: Another immediate thing that’s next is that our two current NExT fellows will be attending the joint math meetings in January and maybe organizing some Project NExT sessions or at least attending some sessions.

Zoe: I’ll be helping to organize a session on getting started in math education research, which I was made part of because I said it was something I wanted to do, but it’s not something I have any background in. So, I’m finding it a bit of a challenge to assist in this organizational process. But, I also, possibly for Math Fest next summer, helping organize a session on reducing math anxiety, which is something that a previous NExT fellow who I follow on Twitter help organize this session. So, having attended NExT, I think, gave me the confidence to respond on Twitter to this senior mathematician and say, “Oh, yes, I’m interested in this topic.” And so that will come later. And that’s something I actually feel like you could contribute to in a meaningful way, unlike math education.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for joining us. This has been really interesting.

Sarah: It’s our pleasure.

Jessalyn: Yeah, thanks for having us.

Zoe: Thank you very much.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Kiara Montero.

75. Concourse Syllabus Platform

Syllabi are important resources for students, faculty and institutions. Syllabi that are readily available, consistent, accessible, and up to date can provide important scaffolding for students. In this episode, Jeffrey Riman joins us to discuss a tool that can help both faculty and institutions accomplish all of those things while keeping faculty focused on learning outcomes and course design.

Jeffrey is a coordinator of the Center for Excellence in Teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He’s also a consultant and educator at Parsons The New School University. Jeffrey is a chair of the State University of New York faculty Advisory Council on teaching and technology at FIT, the Fashion Institute of Technology. He is also the chair of their Faculty Senate Committee on instructional technology.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Syllabi are important resources for students, faculty and institutions. Syllabi that are readily available, consistent, accessible, and up to date can provide important scaffolding for students. In this episode, we’ll talk about a tool that can help both faculty and institutions accomplish all of those things while keeping faculty focused on learning outcomes and course design.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Today our guest is Jeffrey Riman. Jeffrey is a coordinator of the Center for Excellence in Teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He’s also a consultant and educator at Parsons The New School University. Jeffrey is a chair of the State University of New York faculty Advisory Council on teaching and technology at FIT, the Fashion Institute of Technology. He is also the chair of their Faculty Senate Committee on instructional technology. Welcome back, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Nice to be back.

Rebecca: Glad to have you.

Jeffrey: [LAUGHTER] You make me sound so busy that I think I have to cancel, though. So we’ll do this another time. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I think you are just as busy as it sounds from what I know.

Jeffrey: And I’m very happy to set the time aside to be with you guys. This is a great topic, so thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Jeffrey: Russian Caravan.

John: Yorkshire Gold.

Rebecca:…and Jasmine Green tea.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about the use of the Concourse syllabus management platform that’s been adopted at FIT. Could you tell us a little bit about this service?

Jeffrey: Yes, thanks. The product itself—and I like to preface whenever I talk about this product or VoiceThread for that matter—is we’re always looking to have choices in the products that we use and it’s really always a needs-based issue. What do you want to do and how are you going to get it done? In the case of Concourse, which is a product made by a company called Intellidemia, we knew that we had some challenges with the use of syllabi at FIT and we wanted to find a way to manage them. In most cases, what we found were products that were distributing PDF files or text files, but they weren’t truly interactive living syllabi, and let me explain what that means. First of all, like many colleges we have a very high percentage of part- time faculty, which means that many of them only are in the college to teach their courses, which means that they are not necessarily exposed to the curricular process or all of the syllabi that represent the curriculum they’re teaching. These syllabi tend to be handed down from semester to semester, in some cases, generation to generation. And, as a result, we were finding that many syllabi either had no learning outcomes or the course description was out of date. We’re all teaching in a technology driven world and a lot of what we teach at FIT is really based on practice, so products change, textbooks change very frequently. This is not unusual for any college but at FIT, because we have about 70% part timers, it’s a bigger challenge. So in doing a search we found Concourse and what Concourse allows us to do are a few things. First of all, it allows us to synchronize how all syllabi are formatted so students going to each class where Concourse syllabi appears are seeing a very similar appearance and the sequence is very similar. Now I want to stress that it is editable, it allows for full academic freedom, except in certain areas where the college—and I’m talking about the Faculty Senate Curriculum Committee—and the faculty as a whole feel certain things should not be edited. For example, the course description and the learning outcomes that the course is predicated upon. Those should be uniform, so if all three of us are taking the same course from different instructors, we should not have different outcomes. And many faculty were taking it upon themselves—with all sincerity—to amend the outcomes to better fit their practice or to better fit the way they think the course should be taught. And this, by the way, was not just the part timers, the full timers too. In one department, I was pelted with tomatoes when they found out that they were no longer able to edit the outcomes. [LAUGHTER] However, we need to put the students front and center in this situation. They sign up for a course and their friends are taking the same course, they should have certain unifying elements. So the synchronization of format, the format is fully digital but you can make a very nice looking PDF. It is completely compliant for screen readers. Font size, color contrast, and they have a VPAT that is easy to access that you can see basically their compliance levels which have improved and when you look at it it’s not like a beautiful piece of graphic design but it has a pleasing appearance. So many syllabi are in Times Roman and people are editing Word documents when they don’t know how to manage the formatting. The formatted syllabi allow you to input all the things you’re allowed to input and let me give you examples of what faculty will input. They’ll input their own unique course policies. They’ll input their absence policy. At FIT we do not regulate the grading scale from course to course, so there are some people who have an A that starts at 94 and others have an A that starts at 95. Those things are permitted. In addition, you can put down the materials needed for the course, the office hours, and really your whole calendar of how you have the course unfold. So if all three of us using this scenario are taking the same course in different sections, the syllabi can be quite different with respect to how each professor teaches to their strengths , but that does not mean that the pillars that support that course and the way assessment is achieved are unified. So how do we do this? First of all, like many colleges in the SUNY network I can speak to they use Banner. And Banner feeds will synchronize through the Concourse product. So we actually input all of our learning outcomes and all of our course descriptions into feeds that are updated on a daily basis. So I’ll explain how the feeds work a little bit more in a minute. But what that means though is everybody in each course is getting the same thing. Now that is on a course level. When you look at an institution-wide level, there were many policies and services that are available to everybody in the college, and we found that many syllabi either were out of date or did not even have them. So here’s examples of things that will go into what we call school policies and resources. Where is the center that helps students with special needs? Where is the learning center? The tutoring center? Advisement? Counseling? Where is the policy on academic integrity? All of these things are put into a separate feed that’s updated each semester so that they represent the current state of affairs. We’re never more than 14 weeks out of date.

Rebecca: From a student point of view, I can imagine how useful it would be to have this consistency that you’re describing from class to class. So that you know that the information that you get as accurate but also where in the document it is. That the heading structures and things look familiar so it’s easy to skim and look at it. I don’t think faculty always stop to think about that a student might have five classes and for each class, it’s almost like having five different employers where each place has its own set of policies and like, “This information is located here, and that information is located there.” So I can imagine for consistency purposes how useful that could actually be for a student.

Jeffrey: It does help the students and it helps the students and the faculty. And I’ll give you two examples. If there is a concern about plagiarism, both the professor and the student can go to the syllabi and click on the latest policy and procedure for dealing with plagiarism. Because we have different schools of thought on plagiarism, right? Some people think they should be tarred, feathered, and you know, left outside on a cold day. And other people treat it more like it’s a learning process. The school has very, very clear prescriptives on how to deal with plagiarism and when everybody’s using the same tool, it means that the students are informed of their rights and their ability to defend themselves and to deal with the issue. And faculty are prescribed a step-by-step process as well. That’s a great unification of process. It also is reassuring to a student who doesn’t have to go looking for that information. Another example is the academic integrity policies in general are very prescriptive to the students and the faculty alike in terms of best practices when it comes to the proper attribution of content and also the rights of use. And actually we have a significant issue with visual plagiarism.

Rebecca: Yup.

JEFFERY: … I knew you’d say “yup” to that one. [LAUGHTER] And so, this works. So without beating it to death too much in simple terms, so what we do is if you visualize your college, your college usually has several schools and within those schools are departments and within those departments are the courses. Taken as a whole—for instance, FIT runs around 2100 sections per semester—we have five schools and many departments within. The way we use it is from the highest level, course policies and resources are shared throughout the school. Course descriptions, learning outcomes are curriculum specific. And then the rest of it is left up to the faculty. The first time they create a syllabus, it could take them a good hour and a half because you need to input each thing individually and on a week-by-week basis. Building your calendar the very first time will take more time. But then once you’ve done it, it is easily transportable from section to section semester to semester. So the import process not unlike importing a Blackboard course—well, Blackboard you push from the old to the new and with Concourse you pull—so you go into the new course. So let me talk a little bit about the integration. Not that anybody’s stopping me here. [LAUGHTER] We are a Blackboard school, at least at the present time. We are fully integrated with Blackboard. We use a product called API Adapter which helps to manage the connection between Concourse and our Banner system. And it’s very simple, it’s just like middleware, it’s open-source, it’s easily used. On a larger scale there might be a fee but for our size college it’s not really a big deal. So, as the courses are run in Blackboard and we do run three times a day early in the semester, there were several things that happened in every school that’s using an LMS. The teacher assignments are updated, the course sections are updated, and course shells are generated. And Concourse will run right behind those runs so that if John is teaching a course and he has three sections and one section was cancelled, that update will be evident in Blackboard and you will not be able to create a syllabus in the course that was cancelled. Or conversely if a time has changed, that’s updated too. All of this goes through Banner. So if you just basically think of it as a one-two kick, we do our feeds for courses through Blackboard and then syllabi into Blackboard. Every single course that is a credit- bearing course has a syllabus template associated with it. Now let’s just say it’s an old course and it doesn’t have outcomes, Concourse understands when there’s something missing and will allow you to edit it. So if for some reason you got a course that didn’t have outcomes at all, and in the early days—we have some courses we’ve been teaching here for 45 years—like shoe making. [LAUGHTER] The outcomes are not that different now than then, except maybe now you’re using a 3D printer to make some of these pieces and back then it was all nails and leather and hands, you know? So, nonetheless, when something is missing, the door is open to paste it in. Now, they’re supposed to notify us when things are missing and we do get notified. Now the faculty who use it like it, but it is an adoption process. One of the challenges is most part-time faculty are not notified they’re teaching a course until anywhere from three weeks, a month, to 48 hours. And so a lot of times they have to use what they have and that means that the Concourse syllabus is less likely to get used. Now, I’ve explained to you how we use it, and before we move on, maybe I should give you guys a little oxygen to ask me questions.

John: One question is, can students access this outside of Blackboard or can they only do it within their course?

Jeffrey: Okay, so the answer is yes. When you create a syllabus there is a link that you can get that’s called a public link, and that link can be shared just like a Google Doc that is view only. So they can use that link. They can print a syllabus, it makes a very nice looking PDF file if you generate a PDF file from it.

John: And is that persistent? If someone say wants to transfer a course into another institution? Can they go back and use that same link to get a copy?

JEFREY: To another institution?

John: Well for example, I’ll have a student who two or three years ago took an online class here at Oswego from me and then they want to copy of that because they’re transferring from one school to another. Is there a persistent link?

Jeffrey: Yeah they’re better off making a PDF because the students only access Concourse through either public links that are deliberately shared by the faculty or through Blackboard and we close our Blackboard courses about a month after the end of the semester. So they would not have access to their course. And the link, I don’t think the link would work, but I’ve never tried it. You’ve given me something to add to my list. [LAUGHTER]

John: I was just thinking if they could get it, it could save faculty a lot of work because I keep getting emails from past students who want a copy of the syllabus.

Jeffrey: Wow, I’ve never had that happen. But you know, it’s an interesting thought. I will definitely look into that.

John: Well it’s partly because I have 340 to 420 students in my large class every fall and some of them transfer or some of them were online students who are doing it for some other institution.

Jeffrey: And at Parsons it would take me nine years to have that many. [LAUGHTER]

John: Although that’s just one class but…

Jeffrey: Okay, okay… [LAUGHTER]

John: I still have several other…

Rebecca: He always wins that one. [LAUGHTER]

John: I’m not sure that’ winning. [LAUGHTER]
In a recent podcast, Christine Harrington talked about her book on creating syllabi and so forth and one of the things she noted is that she runs syllabus workshops that are really professional development workshops and Rebecca does the same thing here, that building a syllabus could be really useful in terms of guiding faculty towards backwards design or to better instructional practices. Is that being used to some extent or have you seen it being used in that way at FIT?

Jeffrey: I personally, when I work with faculty for the first time, that’s exactly what I talk to them about. The process of building syllabi from different sources, meaning how you have historically taught the course, what your unique policies are, but the normal natural constraint of abiding by what the curriculum committee approved. So, in some ways you’re constrained, which means you need to understand, analyze, and incorporate the way the curriculum was designed. And then at the same time, we can really engage them in what is the pedagogy that they’re going to use in their course? When they build their calendars we talk about the different types of activities and assignments that they can hypothetically project by doing their calendar ahead of time. And a lot of times, they just haven’t had the time to really explore what are other ways that I can assess my students progress? So the syllabus process allows you to really re-examine everything, kind of like when you clean out a closet, you put things back one at a time. I like that metaphor. You know, that’s a good one. But that’s what building a syllabi is and this product kind of requires that you do that. I can tell you there’s other scenarios though that are being used. For example, some departments have course coordinators who coordinate all the faculty teaching that curriculum. And so the course coordinator will meet with the faculty as a whole and share their syllabi so that the other teachers can actually, if you will, harvest intelligence from them. And because they have a course coordinator, they can touch base as needed on what works, what doesn’t work, and what they need. That’s a side benefit.

John: What are some of the other features that you don’t use, and why not?

Jeffrey: One of the things that it is capable of doing is allowing a department chair or even a dean to audit all the syllabi, to view all the syllabi, so there’s a management function there that allows you to, in effect, take a look at what the syllabi looks like that are going to the students. We don’t do that at FIT. Some departments request or require that the syllabus be submitted each semester by a certain date and others just coordinate and follow up with the faculty without that formality. So the Concourse product allows you to audit and manage as much as is either permitted or accepted within your culture. At FIT faculty really like to hold their syllabi close and they are not all comfortable and this reminds me of the argument at MIT when they went with, you know, opening all their syllabi that there were still professors who will not permit that, and that’s the same thing here. There are some people who said, “Everybody can look at my syllabus,” and others say, “No,” and no is no. So the college does not take a very strong top-down position on that.

John: In my department, at least, the secretary collects all the syllabi for review or potential review. I don’t think anyone’s really reviewing them except when we go through Middle States accreditation and so forth, and then that whole portfolio goes to the evaluators. But occasionally we’ve had a syllabi study on campus where people have gone through and evaluated them, but it was generally voluntary submissions to that.

Jeffrey: Just to give you another perspective, at The New School you’re required to submit your syllabi for every section you teach named in a very specific fashion and the implied consequence of not submitting it could interfere with your reappointment. So they feel very strongly it’s very important. And I agree with you, John. They probably don’t read everyone. But if there’s a problem, they have everyone and they can look at it. And I bet you they do look at areas they’re concerned about.

Rebecca: I was going to say, that reminds me of when you were talking about some of the capabilities of the system that I was thinking having some of these structured ways of having policies and things in the documents and having a repository where they’re all located prevents the ask mom versus as a dad. Like the scenario where students are trying to find the answer they’re looking for. So they’ll just keep asking people until someone gives them the answer that they want to hear, but if it’s really formalized and that process is reinforced and that the policies are reinforced and consistent, that they’re always going to get the same answer no matter who they ask.

Jeffrey: And I’ve had faculty thank me as if I created the product because this takes some of the guesswork out of what they need to do. And I think, realistically speaking, especially as we all look to bring in learners from different stages of their lives and different points in their careers, whether they be right out of high school or they’re coming back for additional learning, that tools like this permit a more consistent product for whoever is coming in from anywhere and it kind of helps support what I’m going to call the shared governance of a faculty that generates curriculum, which is the lifeblood of the college. And that protection is really, really valuable. So many people work so hard to make sure that these courses maintain their relevance and at FIT we’re opening up new degree programs and closing old. And so as we continue to build toward the near future, this product becomes more and more valuable. But I will say on the other side, it’s an organic process and it takes time.

John: What went wrong along the way? What things might you do differently if you were to implement it now?

Jeffrey: First of all, typically a lot of people who are instructional designers would be involved in training people to use a product like this and showing its value within a course design. But the upfront implementation process in a Banner school really requires that you have somebody who understands how feeds work, how to generate feeds, and how to test feeds.The folks at Intellidemia—they refer to themselves as syllabus geeks—will provide an implementation manual, but that manual is best read first by IT. To be perfectly candid, you need that upfront integration to be rock solid in order for everything else to work. In my case, we came in early on the product and their implementation strategy was not 100% clear. And I want to emphasize that my experiences were more challenging than many people who are newer customers, but you do need to have IT support and engagement with it. And I recommend do a pilot with just a small amount of courses so you see how it plays out. Initially we did previews. I did a pilot with 14 faculty. They all loved it to bits but they all had trouble convincing other people to try it. And the organic process of growth has begun to speed up now, but the initial sell was difficult and you can’t push. You have to kind of show value and, “If you build it, they will come” is not always true. We still have resistance in some pockets of the college and our Academic Affairs Office has been very reticent to do a top down push on this. However, I will tell you that one of our Business and Technology departments that has a very high adoption rate, about 80% of the syllabi in that department—and that department has 1200 students. It’s bigger than some community colleges, just that department—and when they had an accreditation review by an organization that directly works with the merchandising and marketing type colleges and courses. They cited this product as being an integral part of the success of the department, the way they are coordinating courses and making sure that everybody has that same syllabus tool at their disposal and is implemented. And so they were congratulated for what they did to the point where I know they’ve encouraged others to do the same.

Rebecca: I can imagine that some faculty pushback would come from the assumption that if most of the structure is there and you can only edit some of the language… Some of the ideas that Christine Harrington brings out in the motivational syllabus, writing from a particular point of view, being warm and welcoming, and not like: “Don’t do this, don’t do that,” kind of language could get lost if you’re not the writer of all of the content or have the ability to do some of those things. Can you address that a little bit?

Jeffrey: Yes, and actually, I’m going to tell you that your interpretation right now is far more constrained than the reality of what we do. When you open up your course for the first time and you see the syllabus template, here’s what you will see that’s generated by the college, let’s say, or by the system. The header which has your course number, your CRN, the meeting date, the meeting time, and the meeting location are all managed through Banner. Then your name will appear as it appears in the system. So that’s always manageable, if somebody’s unhappy about something or they’ve hyphenated or you know, all these things that happen. And then the next thing they see is the course description as approved and the learning outcomes. The only other part of the syllabus that is constrained are the institution’s policies and resources. The faculty have complete freedom without any approval process to then add to the syllabus everything about their absence policies, their philosophy on teaching, their calendar is completely written in their own voice, so it’s really only those three things. The institution’s resources, the learning outcomes, and the course description. Everything else is up for grabs and is used very, very differently by different people.

Rebecca: I can imagine. I kind of had the idea that that was probably the case, but I think a lot of times when we hear a system that’s going to manage these things, red flags come up, and that’s what the assumption is and that can prevent adoption. So thanks for making that more clear.

John: Pretty much all colleges have fixed statements that have to be included in the syllabi. We certainly have them. But I suspect if we looked at all the courses out there, we’d see some were five-years old, some were 20-years old, and some might, perhaps, have never gotten in statements on disability access, and so on.

Jeffrey: And, you know, as I’m sure Christine Harrington has stressed also, many teachers are not trained to be educators. They are practitioners, they are people who have been out in the world, they’re bringing their world experience in, and then they’re being asked to follow the structures of an educational institution. And so we’re actually, by doing this, providing them with, let’s call it the core skeletal needs that every syllabi should have. And let’s be candid, you know, many people take more than one course or one semester to improve their practice, so the better we equip them upfront, the better start they get.

Rebecca: Seems only fair that we scaffold for faculty like we try to scaffold for our students.

Jeffrey: Yeah we don’t talk about that enough, do we? I remember the first time I taught as a part timer. You know, I felt like I had a great experience but I went in and was talking to a bunch of 20-year olds. The only 20-year old I’ve been talking to lately was my own daughter, and that’s not such a good conversation all the time. [LAUGHTER] So with your students, you learn over time that when you’re working with employees versus students, there’s similarities, but there’s far greater differences, especially when it comes to motivation, risk taking, quality of work, and so on. So we need the freedom to learn and to grow and to help each other. It’s a kumbaya moment we just had.

Rebecca: Yeah, that feels very supportive and loving. How have students responded in general? I don’t think we’ve really addressed that.

Jeffrey: Feedback I’ve heard is that the student reaction has been positive. Ironically, some faculty were thinking it was not advantageous for students to see the same format in different classes, but students actually recognize it makes it a lot easier for them to navigate. I’m going to make an analogy that I think works. I’m making a generalized statement here, most faculty who use rubrics have far less problems with their students in terms of their perception of assessment because they know that the entire class is being graded with the same tool. And I think that when they know that all of their colleagues— or their classmates if you will—are getting a product that is also regulated in the fundamental basics, that tells them that their teacher and their friends teacher are dealing with the same basic toolset before they go in and exercise their freedom as educators. Does that makes sense? Is that a good analogy?

John: It does.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think that’s a good way to look at it. It also gives the perception that the faculty… that they’re all at the same level. Or they all have expertise and they’re all to be respected, which can be really helpful.

Jeffrey: Students give great feedback, and especially when they’re asked. I don’t want to digress into it too much, but even in like in an open pedagogy situation where students are really generating content, it can be amazing how they can be so insightful as to the benefits. Maybe we don’t always give them enough credit, but my interactions with students about the product have been, it shouldn’t be a big deal that this should be a no brainer. To them it’s kind of like, “Why is anybody not using it?” You know, and I don’t want the Intellidemia people to be too happy.

John: Because there’s always room for improvement.

Jeffrey: I want them to worry. I want them to worry and I want other people to make a product that competes with them too because we shouldn’t just have a singular product that functions in this level. However, the amount of work that Intellidemia has done to make the plumbing work I think is it truly impressive and it’s kind of, and I’ve mentioned before VoiceThread and you know the three of us talked about VoiceThread some time ago. VoiceThread continues to improve their product in ways that are very impressive, including most recently automatic captioning. And with the syllabus product, a lot of what they’re doing in terms of improvement is related to the simplicity of setting it up, the appearance of the product, the compliance of the product, and also—and this was a weak point for the product for some time—reporting. In the early days, I could not get a report that would tell me exactly how many syllabi had been opened. It took a long time before they were able to do that, not because they disagreed with my request or anybody else’s, but because they were really working on their back-end systems to be as flexible as possible so they can continue to add on. So although we do not use the management tools I’m going to call them, they continue to improve those as well so that if each of you were chairs of a department, you would be able to get an instant picture of how many syllabi are out there and you would be able to view them. I know there’s different points-of-view about that. But I think there’s a difference between looking at something and playing an editorial role at its creation. I think that people who overstep the administration side and start telling faculty what the verbiage should be, or what the emphasis should be, they’re tread ing in very dangerous territory. And that’s true whether or not you’re using Microsoft Office, or Acrobat, or Intellidemia, right? It’s really a principle, it’s not unique to any one product.

John: I do get reminders for sending in one of my syllabi every Spring because I have the students develop some of the syllabus on the first day of class. So, I just have to remind the secretary for my department that the syllabus will be coming as soon as we have a chance to finish putting it together. But again, that’s not unique to this, because even without the system, secretaries can be monitoring to make sure everyone has submitted their syllabus.

Jeffrey: But you know, there’s a good scenario there, John, where even with this product—and, by the way, I do this in my class—I have a conversation with them about how late is late, and how many absences have an impact, and what does an A mean and a B and so on. So even though they may not be able to alter exactly what we’re doing in terms of what’s required, they do get to change the verbiage on some of this stuff to fit what’s real. And so if you are using Intellidemia, you make those edits either in the classroom or that night. And that’s the way everybody will see it the next time they go in.

John: Right.

Jeffrey: You’re working with a live link. One other thing one, some faculty actually use the syllabi as a living document of what the assignments are. In other words, they update the calendar daily to represent what’s due each and every week.

Rebecca: I do that. [LAUGHTER]

Jeffrey: Yeah so there you go, you would love this for that reason then. So students know that they must go into Blackboard to view their syllabi or use the link that they’ve gotten to view it and not to depend on a static document.

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

Jeffrey: As far as this topic is concerned, we’re beginning to work with the Office of Academic Affairs which we report up to on having more workshops on the creation, editing, and strengthening of syllabi, and we’re using that as a unifying message about actual course design as well. So if somebody is projecting how their syllabi will impact their students and then they link that or align it with the course design, it makes for a much more powerful subject as opposed to feeling that they’re related, but they’re not connected. And we’re trying to connect them so that’s really what—it’s much more holistic than it is anything else. I will say this that anybody is welcome to contact me if they want more information. I would then be willing to share with them an example of the syllabi for example. So, there you go.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for joining us, Jeffrey. It’s always a pleasure.

Jeffrey: It is a pleasure. It’s nice to see you both, and let’s keep that tea going. [LAUGHTER]

John: Yeah, mine is empty.

Jeffrey: I just have to say that I think that you guys do a great job. The series is so relevant, and I’m doing a commercial now for you but it’s from the heart. You guys are really performing a great service and I just encourage anybody who’s listening for the first time to go back and look at the incredible archive of content there that is all relevant and frankly, none of it is older than what, about 18 months John?

John: I think so. I think our first significant podcast was November of 2017, the first week of November.

Jeffrey: That’s right. I have found that it really enhances not only my teaching process, but it also helps me in terms of my work I do as a faculty developer. So thank you both for that. It’s really great.

John: It’s been a lot of fun.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you for such kind words. And if you want that full list, we do have a page for that now. It’s teaforteaching.com/episodes.

John: Or just go to teaforteaching.com and click on… I think it’s episodes at the top so you don’t have to scroll through six or seven pages of descriptions now. Well, thank you again Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: My pleasure. I look forward to seeing you guys again soon. Take care.

[Music]

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

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

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

65. Retrieval Practice

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

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

Show Notes

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

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

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

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

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

John: IIt sounds good.

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

Michelle: Yup.

Rebecca: A nice tall one.

Michelle: That’s what I need.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle: Great.

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

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

Rebecca: Sounds like fun.

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Those are very good reminders.

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

Rebecca: Do you mean learning’s not easy?

John: Students would like learning to be easy.

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

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

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

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

Michelle: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: …and they were having fun.

Rebecca: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Sounds like some exciting adventures.

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

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

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

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

61. A Motivational Syllabus

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

Show Notes

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

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

John: Welcome, Christine.

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

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

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

[LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: It’s sneaky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christine: Terrific.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christine: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

Christine: mm-hmm

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

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

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

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

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

John: …and also information about your other books.

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

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

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

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

Christine: Absolutely.

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

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

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

[Music]

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

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

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

54. SOTL

As faculty, we face a tradeoff between spending time on  teaching and on research activities. In this episode, Dr. Regan Gurung joins us to explore how engaging in research on teaching and learning can help us become more productive as scholars and as educators while also improving student learning outcomes.  Regan is the Ben J. and Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Human Development in Psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay; President-Elect of the Psi Chi International Honor Society in Psychology; co-editor of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology; co-chair of the American Psychological Association Introductory Psychology Initiative and the Director of the Hub for Intro Psych and Pedagogical Research.

Show Notes

Show Notes

John: As faculty, we face a tradeoff between spending time on teaching and on research activities. In this episode, we explore how engaging in research on teaching and learning can help us become more productive as scholars and as educators while also improving student learning outcomes.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Regan Gurung, the Ben J. and Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Human Development in Psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay; President-Elect of the Psi Chi International Honor Society in Psychology; co-editor of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology; co-chair of the American Psychological Association Introductory Psychology Initiative and the Director of the Hub for Intro Psych and Pedagogical Research. Welcome.

John: Welcome.

Regan: Thanks a lot, Rebecca and John.

John: Our teas today are…

Rebecca: I’m drinking Prince of Wales today.

Regan: Alright.

John: I’m drinking ginger tea.

Regan: Ooh, now you’re making me want to. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here today to talk about research in the scholarship of teaching and learning, or SOTL. You’ve conducted a lot of research on teaching and learning as well as research within your discipline. In most disciplines there has been an increase in the journals devoted to teaching and learning and an increase in research in teaching and learning, but it hasn’t reached everywhere yet. SOTL research is often not discussed in graduate programs and is sometimes devalued by campus colleagues. Why does that occur?

Regan: So. I think there are multiple reasons why the—and I’m going to start with the devaluing. I think there’s a lot of uncertainty about what it exactly it is, so on one hand, when people say a scholarship of teaching and learning… very often if it’s somebody who hasn’t really read up on it recently the sense is, oh, you know, that’s research on teaching; that’s not as good as your regular research. Now, I think that’s a misperception and once upon a time, and here I mean maybe even 15 years ago, there was some scholarship of teaching and learning that wasn’t done very well and I think people have heard about that in the past and that’s why there’s that knee-jerk reaction. Far too often it’s seen as something where it’s not as rigorous, perhaps, or it’s not done in the same way and most of that is wrong. What I like to tell folks who see that is, if you think the scholarship of teaching and learning is not rigorous, well, you haven’t tried to submit something to a journal recently. I co-edit a journal on the scholarship of teaching and learning in psychology and I can actually see some people submit poor work and I send it right back; I do the classic desk rejection and I say, look, this is just not good enough. So my favorite tip for “How do you write for a scholarship of teaching journal?” is very simple: just like you write anything else. There’s a lot of baggage, but I think that as you alluded to, John, it has changed more recently and I think part of what you notice now or what I’ve been seeing is that this kind of work, this kind of examination is being called different things. For example, a term that I’m hearing more and more often is DBER: disciplinary based educational research. And I’m hearing this come out of medical schools and engineering schools and social work schools and many professional programs where they’re doing DBER, which is essentially what the scholarship of teaching and learning is. So, I think because of that baggage with the term, people are calling it different things but in general the work is getting much more rigorous.

John: Excellent, and if changing the name is sufficient to do that, it’s a valuable step.

Regan: I think that’s why, when I talk about it I like to talk about it as: “Do you want to know if your students are learning? Do you want to know if your teaching is effective?” Well, then you should do some research on it. You can call it what you want. I started really calling it pedagogical research because that’s what it was, but it’s truly a rose by any name.

John: And that’s something that Carl Wieman has emphasized.

Regan: Absolutely, yup.

John: In the sciences, you test hypotheses and there’s no reason we couldn’t do the same thing in our teaching.

Regan: Exactly.

John: And that’s starting to happen, or it’s happening more and more.

Rebecca: In some disciplines, the scholarship of teaching and learning is not accepted as being part of their tenure and promotion file, for example. What would you recommend faculty do in a department like that if they really want to get started in SOTL?

Regan: Well, so, Rebecca, let me take you a half step back.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Regan: When you say “in some disciplines it isn’t as accepted.” What has surprised me is that most disciplines have actually been doing the scholarship of teaching and learning and publishing it for the longest time. I mean, if you take a look at chemistry, it goes back, gosh, seventy years or so. Almost every discipline out there has a journal that publishes the scholarship of teaching and learning, but, and here’s the big but: most of us in our normal training never run into it. So, I’ll take my own case. In psychology, the Teaching of Psychology Journal has been around for 46 years, yet all through grad school, all through my post-doc I never even knew the journal existed. Why? Because the programs that I went through weren’t focused on teaching the individuals—wonderful as they may be—who I worked with didn’t do that kind of work, so they didn’t know about it. So I think that’s a really important fine-tune there: there is a journal in almost every discipline—almost every discipline—for the scholarship of teaching and learning. So, it’s just a question of discovering it… it’s a question of finding it. Now, that said, where can they start? I think I can answer your question from a conceptual level and from a practical level, so I’ll start with the practical. The easiest place to start, there are lots of compilations of how to do it. For example, I think both of you have my website. On my website I have a simple tab called SOTL. On that tab is a list of places to get going, and I’ve organized it so that there’s a brief introduction to SOTL, there are journals, there are resources, there are little handouts. So, if a faculty member has even ten minutes, go to my website, hit SOTL, scroll through. That’s the more practical, that’s the easiest way to get started. From a conceptual standpoint it really starts with the question, what aspect of your teaching or your student learning are you curious about? John, I know you do some work in large-class instruction in economics. Why is this assignment not working? Can I get my students to remember certain concepts better if I change how I present information? It starts with a question. And you don’t have to read anything, you don’t have to look at any manual. If you look at your class and you go, “Hmmm, why isn’t this working, or why isn’t that working?” That’s where it begins, and from there you follow the same route that we always do: go look at what’s been published in it, fine-tune your question, design, think about what do you want to change and so on and so forth. I think it’ll help if I give you my working definition of the scholarship of teaching and learning, and when I think about it I think of SOTL as encompassing those theoretical underpinnings of how we learn. And more specifically, I see it as the intentional and systematic modifications of pedagogy and here’s the important part: the assessment of the resulting changes in learning. So that’s the key: you intentionally, you systematically, modify what you’re doing and then you measure whether it worked or not. That’s it. I could say that nonchalantly. There’s a technique , there’s a robustness to it, but at the heart, where do you start? You start by asking the question.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that I hear you saying is not much different than someone has a really reflective teaching practice—they’re doing it but not in that systematic way?

Regan:Yeah, absolutely right. There’s a term called scholarly teaching and in this kind of literature there’s a distinction made between scholarly teaching and the scholarship of teaching and learning, and all the distinction is is that scholarly teacher is reflecting on their work and then you’re right, you’re absolutely right; making those intentional systemic changes. That’s scholarly teaching. When it becomes the scholarship of teaching and learning is when you present it or you publish it, preferably through peer-reviewed ways, but you’re absolutely right; at the heart of it it’s scholarly teaching. It’s reflective intentional systematic changes.

John: One of the barriers, that people who are considering doing research in the scholarship of teaching and learning, is going through IRB approval, and in many disciplines that’s something they haven’t experienced before. It’s common in psychology. It’s less common in economics and perhaps in art.

Rebecca: It doesn’t exist in design. [LAUGHTER]

John: Could you tell us a little bit about that process?

Regan: Sure. Every university has an institutional review board and essentially what that board does is it’s in place to make sure that any research that’s being done isn’t harmful. Now, normally when we think about harmful we think about a drug or a food substance being tested, but here it just means any research that’s being done, and so when you do the scholarship of teaching and learning or when you’re examining your classes, yes, you could just look at your exams and see if exam scores are changing, but, if you do want to publish that, if you do want to share that, you really should go through institutional review board review. Now, the key thing here: it does sound like this whole new world, and it is, but at the heart of it is a very simple process. Now, there are three levels of review and I think knowing about the levels helps. For example, the first level is called an exempt review. The next level is called an expedited review, and the third level is called a full board review. I don’t think I’ve run into scholarship of teaching and learning that has gone through a full board review, because we’re not doing things that are more than minimum level of stress. Now when you say, hey, hang on, I didn’t know they were stress involved. Well, anytime you ask anybody to fill out a survey, there’s a minimal level of stress. And when you’re asking your students to reflect on their learning, well that’s a minimum level of stress. Every university has its own procedure. SUNY Oswego probably has a forum online. It’s a short forum; you’re basically telling this board what you plan on doing, what you plan on doing with the information, and most importantly, in these kind of cases, you are letting the board know whether or not students will be put under duress. What the IRB is going to look for is are you the instructor in some way forcing your students to do things that normally wouldn’t be done in the normal course of the educational process. But at the heart of it, all you’re doing is you’re sharing with this board whether or not you can do it and most scholarship of teaching and learning is at that exempt level. That exempt level essentially translates to exempt from further review. It doesn’t mean exempt from being reviewed; it just means this is mundane and low stress enough that it’s exempt from further review. Now that second level, expedited. If you do want to measure or keep track of names, if you want to look at how certain names relate to scores down the line—and that’s actually some really key research—well that’s expedited review. Now, even there it’s reviewed by one person. Both the expedited and the exempt review are reviewed by one person, often the chair. It often takes no longer than a week, and by doing that you just know that all your t’s are crossed and your i’s are dotted and it’s the ethical thing to do. So, whenever people say: “Oh, this is really mundane and I’m not really doing much more than just measuring student learning,” I still sa y if there’s any chance you want to present it or publish it make sure you go through the IRB.

John: And many journals will require evidence of completion of the IRB process.

Regan: Oh, absolutely. The moment you want to publish it you have to sign off saying that you got IRB review..

John: We do use an expedited review process on our campus. I was going to say, though, that we’re recording this a bit early because we’ve recorded a few things in advance, so we’re recording this in late October, but just yesterday I read that Rice University has introduced a streamlined expedited review process or IRB and apparently that’s something that’s been happening at more and more campuses. Are you familiar with that?

Regan: You know, not as much, because right now there’s so much up in the air with the IRB because national guidelines are changing. They were supposed to have changed in January, then it was moved to July. The latest I heard is it’s moved to next January. So, for the most part actual regulations are changing. Even on our own campus we switch from one form of human subjects training to another form, but this so called short-form expedited process will definitely help. That said, even the regular expedited, it’s a very easy process and I think the neat thing about this—and I tell students this when I’m teaching research methods, too—as the instructor or the researcher, just going through that IRB form really reminds you of some key things that you may have otherwise forgotten about, so, yes.

Rebecca: Do you talk a little bit about your own research to give people an overview of what project might look like from the beginning to the end?

Regan: Sure. What really got me interested in this is I teach large introductory psychology classes, the class is 250 individuals and I was struck by how when publisher reps come into my office and try to convince me to adopt one book over the other they would talk about the pedagogical aids in the textbook; “oh, look, our book has this and our book has that.” And that really got me started studying textbooks and how students use textbooks. So the umbrella under which I do research is student studying: What’s the optimal way for students to study? …and I use both a social psychology and a cognitive psychology lens or approach to it and it really started with looking at how they use textbook pedagogical aids. So, for example, in one of my really first studies I measured which of the different aids in a textbook the student uses and then I used their usage to predict their exam scores. Now, what I found, and this is what really surprised me and got me doing this even more, is that even those students were using and focusing on key terms a lot. Now, mind you, I’ll take a half step back—you may not be surprised to know that students use bold terms, they use italics, that’s what they focus a lot on. But students in my study also said that they use key terms a lot. Now if you’re studying key terms that should be good. If you’re making flashcards and studying those key terms that should be good, but what I found is that the more students use key terms the worse their exam scores. There was this negative correlation and that’s completely counterintuitive. Why would they go the opposite direction? So, I dug into it some more and I realized that students spend so much time on key terms or so much time on flashcards that they’re not studying in any other way. So even though they’re using flashcards, they’re so intent on memorizing and surface-level processing that they’re not doing deeper level processing. So, that was some years ago and I’ve been building on that, trying to unpack how students study. My most recent study… that’s actually under review right now… a colleague, Kate Burns, and I took two of the most recommended cognitive psychology study techniques, which is repeated practice or testing yourself frequently and spacing out your practice or spacing out your studying, and we took both of these and across nine different campuses divided up classes such that the students in those classes were either using high or low levels of each of these. So, in one study across multiple campuses we tested is there a main effect of one of these types of studying or is there an interaction? And what we found is that there is an interaction and the critical component seems to be spacing out your studying. Not so much even repeating your studying, but really spacing out your studying, and I think what’s interesting here is the reason this is happening is the students who said that they were testing themselves repeatedly, that sounds great, and if you’re a cognitive psychologist you say, hey, the lab says repeat testing is great; the problem is in the classroom a lot of students who were repeatedly testing themselves were repeatedly testing themselves during a really short period of time.

John: Right, I’ve seen that myself.

Regan: And I think that’s the issue, but because we had both these factors in the study, we could actually tease that out. So that’s the kind of work that I do… is take a look at what the cognitive lab says is important; let’s see how it works in the actual classroom.

John: Now was this a controlled experiment? Or was this based on the students’ behavior?

Regan: So, yes and no, okay. [LAUGHTER] I love this study because of a number of reasons. Number one, we tested two different techniques in the same thing. Number two, we did it at multiple institutions, so it’s not just my classroom. A lot of SOTL is one class. So, here we went beyond to try and generalize. But, to get to your question, we actually used a true experimental design. So we recruited these different campuses and we assigned a classroom. So, for example, I’d say, “Hey John, thanks for taking part. If you can have your students do high repetition and high spacing?” “Hey Rebecca, thanks for taking part. Could you have your students do high repetition and low spacing?” And that’s how we spread it out. We had about two campuses in each of these cells. That’s the true experiment on paper. To get to the other part of what you said… in reality, that’s not exactly what students always did. And you know students; we can tell them to do something but a whole bunch of things gets in the way. Fortunately, of course, we measured self reports of what students said they actually did and it was relatively close to the study cells, but even though it varied a little bit we could still control for it. So, yes, it was close to a controlled study as much as you could control something in the real world across nine campuses.

John: That brings us to the general question of how you construct controls. Suppose that you make a change in your class; how do you get the counterfactual?

Regan: Right.

John: What would be some examples for people designing an experiment?

Regan: The word control, especially in research, has the true connotation of the word control group and that’s controlling for factors as different from having a control group. Optimally we’d love a control group. The problem with the control group is that it means no treatment. So, very often a true control group means this group of students is not getting something. From a philosophical and an ethical standpoint, I don’t like the notion of one group not getting something. So, the word I like to use is comparison group. So, your question still holds, but what’s the comparison group? I think here’s where if you’re fortunate enough to teach multiple sections, well one of the sections can be the comparison group. If you’re not fortunate enough to have multiple sections, you compare the students this semester with the students the last semester when you weren’t doing that new, funky innovation. So, there are a bunch of different ways to gather the comparison group, but you’re absolutely right: having a comparison group is important. Most commonly in scholarship of teaching and learning, the comparison is the students before that intervention, so it’s a classic pre- and post- measure. I’ll give you this quiz before I’ve introduced the material, I give you an equivalent quiz after, let’s see if there are changes in learning. And that’s the most common comparison; you’re comparing them with them before but optimally again you want a different section, you want a group of students, a different semester, or so on, and so on.

John: And it’s best if you have some other controls…

Regan: Absolutely.

John: for student ability and characteristics.

Regan: You nailed one of the key—my two favorite are effort and ability. As much as possible, measure their GPA. If they’re first-year students, measure their high school ACT scores or their high school GPA and then you have to measure ability, and I think those two are probably the usual suspects for control. And again, a lot of SOTL doesn’t do that and it should.

Rebecca: I think one thing that comes up a lot for me (and maybe some others who are in disciplines maybe more similar to my own) is that the kind of research that we do is not this kind of research generally, but we’re really interested in what’s happening in our classrooms. So, for faculty who might be in the arts or some other area where we’re doing really different kinds of research, how would you recommend being able to partner or do this kind of work without that background?

Regan: And I think implicit in your question is the “Do I need to have a certain methodological tool bag?” and I remember I was at a conference once and somebody accosted me and said “Hey, is it true that you have to be a social scientist to do this work?” And the answer is no, and I wrote a pretty funky essay called “Get Foxy,” which is how social scientists can benefit from the methodologies of the humanists and vice versa. But, you’re right; you can collaborate if you need to do that kind of work, but there are a lot of questions even within your discipline… and when I think about SOTL I think about answering questions about teaching and learning with the tools of your discipline. Now, I’ll give you an example: a good friend of mine was an art and her project, or something that she wanted to dig into, was to improve student critiques in an art class. Here we have students learning how to do art (and I think it was drawing or jewelry making) and across the course of the semester everybody had to present their work and then critique each other’s work… and those critiques, they just didn’t have the teeth that she wanted them to, so she was giving them skills and how to do it. So here’s a case of how did she know whether or not the critiquing tools were increasing? Well, she came up with a simple rubric and to score them against and look at if the scores changed. Now, you may say, well, we very often in the arts and theater you don’t get skills to do that, which is true, but that’s where I think collaboration comes in and that’s why what’s really neat about scholarship of teaching and learning is very often there are class collaborations. I have a historian on my campus who wanted to change the quality of his essays and he and David Voelker changed how he was teaching and wanted to see it roll out and had students on their essays use teams in a different way. Well, he compared, and John this goes back to your point, he compared essays from before the change with essays from after the change, counted up the number of teams students had and then, Rebecca, to your point went over to my colleague in psychology and said, hey, can you tell me if this is statistically different. So, he didn’t even bother with doing the stats; he just said, “Hey look, I don’t need to do the stats.” But you can, in a click, and literally within minutes my colleague in psychology had done the stats for him. I think that’s the kind of stuff that can happen to truly get at those answers if you go, “You know, I don’t know how to do that.” But, you’d be surprised… the basic skills for SOTL can give you enough to test questions pretty well.

Rebecca: I think John and I have also found in the teaching center that it’s really exciting when faculty from different disciplines start talking about their research when they’re looking at learning because there’s things that we can learn from each other and the more that we’re talking across disciplines can be really valuable as well.

Regan: Right, and I think this is where reading the rich literature that exists in your discipline or even across disciplines on scholarship on teaching and learning really gives you the leg up, because I find now when I do workshops and somebody says, “You know, I’ve got this question; I don’t know how to start.” More often than not it’ll remind me of a study that I can say, hey, here’s what you can do. And it’s just because I read a lot and I’ve got all that in my head and I just matched to that question and it’s pretty easy. I mean, very rarely do we have to invent something from scratch. We go, “Hey, yeah, you know what? Here’s the study that’s pretty close to the question you have, let’s use that methodology.”

Rebecca: So, how do we build a culture of the scholarship of teaching and learning—the departments who might have faculty who are resistant to the idea of their colleagues spending their time doing that? How do we start changing minds and really building a culture that embraces the idea of the scholarship of teaching and learning?

Regan: Well, I think you’ve got to attack it from two different levels. You definitely want a champion in the administration who is educated enough about the scholarship of teaching and learning and how it can be done robustly. If you can convince somebody of it’s worth and then if you go “How do you do that?” …well that’s where you need to make sure you have at your fingertips, as a teaching and learning center, the exemplars of really robust work… and I think if you have that really robust work at your fingertips, that’s definitely a key place to start. One of my favorite examples along those lines of trying to convince (especially administrators) about the worth of scholarship of teaching and learning, I recommend a 2011 publication by Hutchings, Huber, and Ciccone, it’s called A Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Reconsidered and this 2011 publication is a great collection. It does your homework for you. That one book pulls together evidence for why scholarship of teaching and learning helps students, helps faculty, helps institutions. So that’s where the top down—get your administrators to check that book out and go, “Oh yeah, look, there is actually some good research.” Coming at it from the other angle—I know this for a fact—there are people on your campus doing some of that work, but often they may be isolated, they may be a small group. You want to strengthen them so that they can spread that to their circles, and that’s really how it starts. On my campus, when Scott was the Dean at Green Bay, we did a lot to develop scholarship of teaching and learning through the teaching center. There was one year where we had 14 faculty who got together every month and talked about their projects. Now you may say, well, that’s 14 and you had 160 faculty. You know what, you do 10 of working every year and colleagues see the value of the work those 10 or 14 are doing, pretty soon you’re gonna have a culture where people recognize it more and appreciate it more. So I think that’s how it goes… you put your efforts on those people who are already doing it to make them stronger and that’s gonna spill over and pretty soon you’re gonna win over folks.

John: We generally had support from the upper administration and there’s often been a lot of faculty who are new, interested in doing it; it’s usually the promotions and tenure committees that have served as a barrier in some departments, but we’ll work on that and we need to keep working on that.

Regan: Well, just along those lines on our campus we felt so strongly about the scholarship of teaching and learning that the Faculty Senate actually passed a resolution recognizing the importance of scholarship of teaching and learning. Now again, it still gave department chairs some leeway, but at least the faculty voted on it as something that the university values and that goes a really long way to having especially junior faculty say, you know, I can do this.

Rebecca: Certainly makes faculty, especially junior faculty, feel supported when the Senate is saying, “Yes, we believe in this” and it’s not just one person saying we don’t.

Regan: Absolutely. And they’ll be naysayers. We started off this conversation with “There are people out there who think it’s not good enough” and there are people out there but I’ve had conversations with such people on my campus where sharing some information, sharing things about how it’s done goes a long way towards changing minds.

John: In my department, it’s helped that I’ve been the chair of our search committee for a few decades now. We’ve generally hired people who are interested in this, but that’s not the case in all of our departments yet, but we’re hoping that’ll change. For those who have small classes or may not be interested in doing research in their own classes, one other option is meta-analysis. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Regan: So meta-analysis, where one study is taking a look at a lot of different studies, there is the mother of all meta analyses… is one that we should talk about because I think the interested person can run to it. John Hattie, now at the University of Melbourne, did a meta-analysis where actually he did a meta-meta-analysis; took 900 meta analyses and then synthesized the data from those 900 studies that had already synthesized data, and the reason I like talking about that is the sample size when you take all those 900 meta analyses is a quarter of a billion with a “b”; that’s a lot of data points, it’s a lot of students. And what’s neat about meta analyses is that instead of just being one study at one place it’s now multiple studies over multiple contexts, and if you can find an effect over multiple contexts, that’s really saying something because a lot of single studies are so geared into the local context of where that place is that if you run into a meta analysis, so even if anybody listening pulls up an educational journal or an SOTL journal and sees meta analysis in the title, I would spend more time reading that one because it’s gonna be more likely to generalize from that. So, I think it’s statistical and methodological advances now mean that there are more meta analyses around and more meta, meta analyses around as well.

Rebecca: As an advocate for the scholarship of teaching and learning, where do you hope the scholarship of teaching and learning goes in the next five years?

Regan: Honestly, I think it should be a part of every teacher’s repertoire. When I think about a model teacher, and it’s not just when I think about it—I’ve published on evidence-based college and university teaching and when my co-authors and I looked at all the evidence out there and what makes a successful university teacher… one of those components, and we found six… I mean, it wasn’t just student evaluations, no, it was your syllabi, it was your course design, but one big element was doing the scholarship of teaching and learning… and to answer your question, I think if in five years from now we can see it be part of teacher training to look at your class with that intentional systematic lens, I think that’s where the field needs to get to.

John: At the very least it would get people to start considering evidence-based teaching practices instead of just replicating whatever was done to them in graduate school.

Regan: Absolutely. People would be surprised at how much good SOTL there is out there, and I always like sending folks to the Kennesaw State Center for Teaching and Learning where they have a list of journals in SOTL in essentially every field. You will scroll through that list for ages and it is just mind-boggling to realize that, “Wow, SOTL has been going on for a very long time.” And Rebecca, you mentioned art and performance arts and theater and music… not as much, but even there there is a fair amount and I think it’s just a question of getting folks making those resources more available to individuals and that’s why whenever I interact with teaching and learning centers I have a short list of key resources to look at. And again, that’s on my SOTL link. But, even that small list is an eye-opener to most people who never knew this existed, and I think once they realize it’s there they will start seeing it everywhere and once you start doing it it really energizes you. For those of us who’ve been teaching for 20-plus years to look at our classes with that new eye of how can I change something, how can I make it better and then seeing the positive effects of those changes, that’s invigorating.

Rebecca: I’m energized after having this conversation.

Regan: It is good stuff.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Regan: I just got back from a three-day conference and all we did was sit around and talk about cool SOTL. And you’re right …came back and sitting on the plane I was texting people with study ideas to collaborate on. It was that exciting.

Rebecca: The more you talk… collaborate… the more it happens.

Regan: There you go.

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

Regan: You know, I think I like getting the bang for my buck and you mentioned this in the intro: right now I’m working on the American Psych Association’s Introductory Psychology Initiative and what’s next is basically two years of really focusing on the introductory psychology course. It’s taken by close to a 1.5 million students a year and I’d like to make sure we can make that course the best learning experience for our students as possible, so that’s where my energy is gonna be for the next little bit.

John: That’s a big task and a very useful one.

Rebecca: And definitely worthwhile. Well, thank you so much for spending some time with us this afternoon. it’s been eye-opening and exciting… energizing. I can’t wait to look through some of the resources.

Regan: You know, is there anything else that you’d like, get in touch and I welcome anybody listening to get in touch as well.

John: Thank you, and we’ll share links to the resources you mentioned in the show notes.

Regan: Sounds good.

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

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

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

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49. Closing the performance gap

Sometimes, as faculty, we are quick to assume that performance gaps in our courses are due to the level of preparedness of students rather than what we do or do not do in our departments. In this episode, Dr. Angela Bauer, the chair of the Biology Department at High Point University, joins us to discuss how community building activities and growth mindset messaging combined with active learning strategies can help close the gap.

Show Notes

  • “Success for all Students: TOSS workshops” – Inside UW-Green Bay News (This includes a short video clip in which Dr. Bauer describes TOSS workshops)
  • Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc.
  • Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Life Sciences Education
  • Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 69(5), 797.
  • Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American psychologist, 52(6), 613.
  • The Teaching Lab Podcast – Angela Bauer’s new podcast series. (Coming soon to iTunes and other podcast services)

Transcript

Coming Soon!