187. Talking Tech

Student use of mobile technology can enrich student learning experiences, but can also interfere with the focused attention that is essential for learning. In this episode, Michelle Miller examine how we can talk to students about technology in ways that will help them become more efficient in their learning and professional lives.

Michelle is a Professor of Psychological Sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology research. Her research interests include memory, attention and student success in the early college career.

Michelle is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general interest publications. She’s currently working on her newest book, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: What the Science of Memory Tells us about Teaching and Learning in a Wired World, scheduled as part of the West Virginia University series on teaching and learning.

Shownotes

Transcript

John: Student use of mobile technology can enrich student learning experiences, but can also interfere with the focused attention that is essential for learning. In this episode, we examine how we can talk to students about technology in ways that will help them become more efficient in their learning and professional lives.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guest today is Michelle Miller. Michelle is a Professor of Psychological Sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology research. Her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. Michelle is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general interest publications. She’s currently working on her newest book, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: What the Science of Memory Tells us about Teaching and Learning in a Wired World, scheduled as part of the West Virginia University series on teaching and learning. Welcome back, Michelle.

Michelle: Hi, it’s great to be here.

Rebecca: So good to have you back. Today’s teas are…. Michelle, are you drinking any tea?

Michelle: Well, I’m still on coffee. We have a three hour time difference this time of the year. And so I figure I’m entitled.

Rebecca: How about you, John?

John: I am drinking ginger peach green tea.

Rebecca: And I have golden monkey today.

John: …for a change.

Rebecca: It’s expensive. I only drink it on special occasions. I was like, we’re gonna get to talk to Michelle, today. I’m gonna make fancy tea.

Michelle: Well, coffee is the fanciest tea of all.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk a little bit about how to talk to students about technology and why perhaps you might consider talking to students about technology. You teach a course on mind, brain and technology, and you’ve also created the Attention Matters projects that we’ve discussed on an earlier podcast. Could you tell us a little bit about the mind, brain and technology class that you teach?

Michelle: Right. So this has been such an incredible privilege I’ve had, on and off. for several years. Now, back a long time ago, when I first applied for and was competing for the President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellowship honor and award here at Northern Arizona University, one of the things that we got to do as part of our application packet was to envision a dream course. And this was, gosh, around a decade ago that I did this. So the landscape of the research and technology itself was very different. But this is the course that I came up with to say if I could teach one thing, brand new, build it from the ground up, this is what I would do: something that would connect psychology, especially empirical research-oriented psychology, the role of emerging technologies in our lives and the incursions they’ve made into all of our lives, and blend that with some real practical advice and things that would be engaging to college students today at a variety of levels. And so it went in my packet. I was so fortunate to win the award and be chosen for it. And then I came knocking on the doors, and I said, but remember, there was this dream course, I actually was very literal minded. So I said, “Well, I get to teach this now, right?” And my department said “Well, oh, okay, yes, we can work that out.” And it originally was taught as a senior capstone, and it’s been taught in that form, again. Another time it had an incarnation as a freshman seminar, a first-year seminar, and right now I’m teaching it as a fairly large general elective upper division elective, primarily serving our psychology majors and our minors. And so this is a course that I’ve been able to dip in and out of throughout the years. And I actually quote one of the first cohort of students, I got some really choice quotes that I included in my last book, Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. And this semester, I actually have students reading some early drafts of the book I’m writing right now. And so it’s really been interwoven throughout my professional evolution over the last 10 years.

Rebecca: It’s pretty cool that you got to ultimately teach the class and it’s been going on for so long.

Michelle: Indeed, it is, indeed it is.

John: What do your students think about the role of technology in social media, in their lives, as well as in educational environment?

Michelle: Well, right from the get go, when I got to first design this class, and actually be sitting with a cohort of students every week, and bringing up a new topic, we divided it up into: there’s technologies for learning; there’s the effects of technology on aspects of thinking, like cognition, and so on; there’s several weeks on social media, which we’re right in the middle of right now. So there’s lots of different kind of articulation points where different students can come in with opinions. And so it does really cover that really broad area. So right from the beginning, I was so struck by the thoughtful and sometimes unexpected things that students would say… unexpected meaning kind of counter to what are some real stereotypes about… first of all, that all college students are a traditional age in this kind of lifestyle where you live in a dorm and party on the weekends. And I think most of us know that today’s college students do not fit that mold, and they’re not all that age. But, even students who are in this younger age bracket, to have them really say… like one of the early exercises we do in the course, I asked them to sort themselves on a continuum. We did it on a whiteboard this time via video conference, but in a physical classroom, they’d actually stand on different ends of this… place yourself physically on this continuum: Do you love technology, you want it everywhere, can’t imagine life without it… you hate it, you want to go low tech. And students are really spread across that spectrum. And so many of them have thought… they’ve said, “You know, I noticed I feel a certain way after I’m on Instagram for a certain amount of time,” or “I’ve tried electronic textbooks and I personally prefer paper.” …that’s actually consistent with some of the surveys that have been done with college students as well. So they are varied, they’re rich, and they are very counter to the stereotype that younger people just want technology everywhere in their lives.

Rebecca: What is one of the biggest misconceptions about technology that your students bring up in class that you address?

Michelle: Well, there’s a complex of sort of some interrelated ones that dial into my specialty area, which is cognitive psychology. So naturally, I noticed those really prominently myself. And so those ideas that using technology is going to reduce attention span, it’s reducing even your ability to think. And then there’s a sort of a related set of issues around what has been in the past a very controversial and headline dominating issue, which is the issue of taking notes by hand versus on a laptop computer in class. And that research, in particular, not to go through all of it, but, while the original study that sparked that debate was well designed, the interpretation of it has been just stretched until it screams. That study doesn’t talk about the distraction issue, there’s a lot of things that aren’t addressed in it. But students have come away, they’ve heard this kind of very superficial version of that, by which laptops are bad, and they also have kind of picked up a folk belief that if you handwrite something, it sort of drives it into your memory automatically. And it does not work that way. In fact, if you read the original study, one of the things that they say is that in as much as laptop note taking can be less memorable, whatever you’re taking notes on, It’s because you’re less likely to paraphrase, synthesize, and compress down what you’re hearing. And yet we have other people, they’ve heard these people in the culture say, “Oh, well, if you want to remember something, sit down and copy it, get out that pen and paper,” and that’s not really an effective study strategy. So they’re a little surprised and they say, “Oh, wait a minute, there’s some nuance to that study, and maybe some others that didn’t replicate it.” That study wasn’t talking about distraction on a laptop, it was just strictly speaking about this one aspect of how memory encoding works. Attention span… I probably talked about it on an earlier podcast… This is not a concept that attention scientists usually use. And so right off the bat, that’s a little suspect. And there’s not really good solid evidence that fundamentally, attention is changing. So they’ve absorbed some of those things. And so they’re really delighted to really dig more into those. So I might assign them an editorial or something that ran in a popular magazine or a blog. And then we look at the original research they’re talking about, and we pick up on the discrepancies. It’s not that Mueller and Oppenheimer was badly designed, it’s just they were looking at some effects that don’t always hold up with replication. And that speaks to this idea that the effect size is maybe not that large. Not that, again, anything was wrong with their data, it’s just you have this now you see it, now you don’t quality with some of these effects. And that kind of tells you that maybe this isn’t the hugely overriding consideration. And subsequent studies too have talked about this storage function of notes. It’s neat to think that you remember as a function of note taking without having to go back and study. But in reality, that’s what we do with notes, we go back and we study them. And so here’s this big elephant in the room like, well, are they taking good notes? And if they’re not taking good notes that capture key points, that they are going to want to go back and study actively, then picking up a little bit here or there because it was more memorable during note taking is not as big an issue. So that’s a big like, “Okay, what have you heard? Let’s look at the original research.”

Rebecca: Having the opportunity to talk about these things with students is exciting. And I’m sure the students are really into it, because it connects to their direct lives. And diving into the research makes a lot of sense in the context in which you’re teaching your course within psychology. So it seems like a natural fit there. How might other academic fields adopt some of the ability to talk about these things in their own classes where maybe cognitive science is not or psychology is not, the fundamental underpinning of what they’re doing?

Michelle: That’s, I think, something that I think is really exciting and why I am so excited to be able to share with your Tea for Teaching audience is I’ve really come to believe that that maybe there is something that is more versatile here beyond just the psychology frame and just a senior capstone in psychology. And I think that this is where faculty creativity can come in. I think the fundamental things that I think are so promising… Well, first of all, this is just a topic that is really under discussed, and it’s under discussed in a serious way. It’s not like students have not ever heard anybody critique technology. They’ve heard that. They’ve heard, “Oh, it messes with their sleep that it messes with their social relationships.” They’ve heard a lot of this, but it’s kind of swept under the rug in a way or even treated as “what serious person would ever think about these sorts of things?” So, that said, this is something that, and it’s something that students are doing all the time, even pre-pandemic. Most students do use technology of one form or another and are on one or more social media platforms. And so this is in and out of their lives all day long. So I can only think that there are critical frames and key concepts within a variety of disciplines that could map onto this, even if a faculty member doesn’t have the opportunity, or the interest, to say develop a whole course. Well, perhaps this could be a vehicle for discussing, for example, experimental design. How do you set up a study to really get at things like “What are the impacts of heavy cellphone use?” You do have certain individuals who self select to use technology in a particular way. And that’s something that you see crop up again and again in the research literature. Or if we’re talking about our own personal relationships, classes that have a focus on health can perhaps use one of these sub areas as a springboard for discussion. And so this is just really what I found, is that students who might otherwise be very quiet or, when things are framed in a purely very divorced from reality academic way, they may hang back, but who doesn’t get hooked into a discussion of some of the impacts of technology on our life. So I think it can be a vehicle for those things. And I think that it might be a little bit of a stretch in, say, a physical sciences class where we’re really discussing empirical context. But even there, it can be folded into discussions of effective studying very well, as long as we don’t just have that, again, very superficial tech’s bad, just get rid of it all and do everything on note cards. There’s a lot more to it than that.

John: Students are going to be interacting with technology, not only in their classes, but in their future careers. So having them think about those issues can be a really useful thing to learn, no matter what discipline they’re studying,

Rebecca: It seems like a good hook. It’s something that everyone can relate to, in some context. I was doing an exercise in my own class not too long ago about storytelling, and how brands present stories around what they’re presenting to people. And I use Spotify and Pandora as the examples. I’ve never seen a class so excited, [LAUGHTER] because it was talking about this technology platform that they can connect to. So I can imagine, when you bring up social media or other things that they feel really connected to, it immediately is a hook to talk about anything more complex.

Michelle: Absolutely. And that’s precisely the kind of dynamic that I’ve seen. And if I could throw out a kind of a discipline-specific example, there’s a concept that I really started weaving in more of over the last few iterations of the class. And this is a concept from psychological sciences research and quantitative analysis that really can be very slippery. But it’s a big, big part of contemporary ways that we analyze data. And it’s a concept of mediators and moderators. And so it’s jargony… and essentially mediators, when you have a correlation between two things, and you want to know, does A cause B? Or is there something else in the middle does A cause B causes C, and we have these great techniques for untangling those relationships. And moderators, on the other hand, is the relationship or is the correlation stronger in the presence of a particular variable or for, say, a particular group of people than others? And so yeah, you read that in a textbook and you go, “oh….” and yet, it’s one of the things that we really… I mean, experimental design, and how we can interpret our data is just radically more sophisticated when we can just not say, “Well, these two things happen together, but for whom is this relationship stronger,” and so on? So there are a lot of studies on the effects of technology that have one or more of these involved. And yeah, it just clicks for students when they see it play out in this relatable domain. So, for example, we have a study that I incorporate really early in the course. It’s got a word in the title, “Technoference” in relationships. So it’s a study of your perception that your partner in an intimate relationship uses their phone…. and when you’re talking to them… [LAUGHTER I think, will have a little bit of recognition if we’re in a relationship. That’s part of contemporary relationships, right? And they look at overall well being and how that relates to being in a relationship where your partner’s on the phone all the time. Now, it’s not a perfect study. And that’s part of what we look at. It was only among women who were in opposite sex relationships, and there’s a lot of self report and all that stuff. But you can say that “Okay, now they have a mediator. It’s not that the phone itself is degrading your life’s wellbeing but here’s this chain of causality of when your partner’s using your phone all the time when you’re talking, then you’re not as happy in your relationship. There’s conflict and then your overall wellbeing in your life goes down.” And then, in that context, you go, “Oh, Okay, I get it. Here’s what a mediator is.” And then we can talk about moderators, we can say, “Well, what about individuals who are in same sex relationships? What about men? What about couples who have been together for 25 years versus those who just got together six months ago?” Oh, okay. Now we understand moderators. So yeah, similar to you, Rebecca, I’m just saying, once you bring in some of these things, is not just dropping in sort of pop culture, it’s really taking a substantive look at these things. But yeah, then you springboard into concepts that are otherwise just really abstract.

Rebecca: Do you have some examples of things about learning related to technology that we might be able to slip into any discipline’s classes? …some of the stuff about attention, or good study strategies, or anything that’s maybe mediated through technology, but would relate to anybody.

Michelle: Definitely, the relationship between attention and memory and learning. Now, like I always say, when I’m talking about these topics, memory is not the only important aspect of learning. Learning is not all about memorization. But we now know that when you remember more, we have a broader knowledge base in an area, you’re better able to think critically and think in some sophisticated ways in that area. So that’s all good stuff. So that’s one piece of it. And in order to acquire any new memories, pretty much, for practical purposes, you have to be paying attention. And this is what devices and technologies have been so well engineered at this point to take away from us. So yeah, when you talk about a life skill, you’re going to need this for the rest of your life, no matter what you do. We have to think about, alright, how do we kind of shepherd and be stewards of our own attention. And I think, from a teaching perspective, too, it’s not that we have to constantly entertain students to grab their attention back from whatever it’s wandering off on, or similar that we just have to stand up there and be like, “Well, you have to pay attention… unbroken for an hour and 15 minutes… and all violations will be punished.” There’s different paths between those, but just to share with students that “Yeah, using phones is probably not changing the way our attentional systems work.” They work the way they have for many, many millennia. However, there’s a lot more competition for that now. So having them think about what are their strategies going to be. For some students, they come up with very creative cold turkey types of situations or types of strategies. I had one student say that I put my phone in a dropbox outside at night when I’m studying, and if I want to use it I have to go out there, which may not seem like a big deal, but in Flagstaff, it could easily be three degrees Fahrenheit and ice falling out of the sky, it’s cold out here. So we have students who say, “Well, you know what, I’m gonna be a little bit more subtle. I’m going to use one browser for my classwork and one browser for fun and social media.” And it’s just a little subtle cue that kind of tells you, “okay, we’re in work mode, or we’re not in work mode.” It’s not as much prescribing the answers as getting students themselves involved in saying, “Well, here’s how I’m going to manage this.” So those are some of the things that we would share. And when it comes to learning strategies at work, I’m always going to be evangelizing retrieval practice in one form or another. Lots of ways that that can look… everything from a Kahoot! quiz to sitting and talking with your roommate to try to bat back and forth what you remembered. Lots of different things you can do but, it shows too, there’s a link between you have to put in some active effort for your brain to pick up on that information and store it away in memory if it’s going to. So yeah, there’s sort of a complex of interrelated principles and take homes, there.

Rebecca: The one thing that I was immediately thinking about when you said about phones being really good at taking away your attention. I immediately thought as a designer, what a great example of how to get someone’s attention? [LAUGHTER]

Michelle: Yeah.

Rebecca: …not only to think about how to manage attention and think about what you’re paying attention to, but how do designers actually manipulate that? [LAUGHTER]

Michelle: See… perfect. There’s a cross-disciplinary connection.

John: The importance of attention is a topic that I think all students recognize is a problem. But I don’t think they fully understand quite how much of a problem it can be. Or at least my perception is there’s still a lot of misperceptions about the ability of students to multitask effectively. And I know that’s something that you address a bit in your classes.

Michelle: I do. And a related project that we’ve discussed on some other podcasts is the Attention matters project and I’m happy to report that project is still just perking along like crazy. We still have lots of faculty who are involved with it. So to kind of give a little background on it. Attention Matters was a concept that came out of a great conversation I had with my very smart and dedicated colleague, John Doherty, who’s an instructional designer and a librarian here at Northern Arizona University. And I had been going around and trying to teach a little, almost guest lecture, roadshow for interested faculty to spread these ideas to students of how to study effectively and how to have a plan for not getting distracted in the middle of class and stuff like that. And we talked about it. And we put together an online module that can serve so many more students. This semester, I have several really smart research assistants, undergraduate research assistants, who are in this module, moderating it and helping it run. And for those who know what MOOCs are (massive open online courses), it’s a little bit like that, except it’s specific to our institution. And so, in this, it’s a way of reaching out to students, they oftentimes will earn a little bit of extra credit in their classes for faculty who really want to spread these ideas to their students. They work through these modules that do touch on some of these key ideas about… as far as multitasking, we tend to be very overconfident. You can’t learn by osmosis, you do need that directed attention. Instead of highlighting and passively hoping things soak in, get in there and do retrieval practice. There’s also a little piece of Attention Matters, by the way, that talks about driving safety, which was not really something we set out to do. But I feel like it’s, again, a relatable everyday example that people can say, “Oh, my gosh, I was in a bike accident by a distracted driver,” or “I’m very careful about this.” And students are very adamant, and have strong views that do funnel back to that idea of: if you let it, devices and distraction of all kind can really take over and create some serious consequences. So, that’s yet another way that we’ve been working to bring these ideas to students throughout the years. And yet another thing that’s given us a fascinating window into what students are already doing to cope with these things, and some of their unexpected attitudes and ideas about them.

Rebecca: The thing that a lot of folks are doing is they’re teaching remotely or trying to jazz things up in synchronous online classes is trying to play with the idea of gamification in their classes, which certainly comes from technology, and often from video games and then some experience around that. Can you talk a little bit about how faculty might use gamification in their classes? Or also how that works on students?

Michelle: Yeah, games and gamification has been such a topic for so long in how can we use technology for education? I know it’s funny, when I was doing research for Minds online, I actually went to a Musee Mecanique in San Francisco, as a sort of a background research. It’s this amazing Museum, that’s just whatever the technologies of the time were, and it goes back like 100 years, all these different games, physical games you can play there.

Rebecca: It’s a cool Museum,

Michelle: Oh, you’ve been there.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Michelle: Oh, my gosh.

John: I was too.

Michelle: People have used photography in games and gamification. They’ve used all these different ways of using tech to play. So this is not a modern concept. And so we’ve seen lots of attempts throughout the years to also harness it for learning… some more successful than others. It’s such a deep theme in those connections between mind-brain-learning technology. And so students, here too, they get pretty excited about it. And that’s a good thing for faculty who are looking to use games and gamification. Now it’s another where I think drilling a little bit below the surface is really beneficial. It’s pretty clear to me, from the research and literature so far, that what makes games effective, and what makes them so compelling, you know, elicits the time, effort and attention that you need for learning, it’s not the superficial stuff about the experiences, not the music, and it’s not just calling it a game. It’s not necessarily tacking points onto something, although points and scorekeeping is usually a part of most compelling games, for sure. But there’s deeper things about getting really rapid feedback, there’s the opportunity for friendly competition. And that’s something that I’ve really seen this year, because I’ve also been using quite a few quizzes and polls and things like that in my courses, too, that are remote, is that you don’t have to attach a grade to the game to get some students really into the idea of competition, while other students, there, it’s more anxiety provoking, or it’s just too much because they’re already in so many high-stakes competitive exams, where they can play for fun. And so those are some of the aspects that are important when people are thinking about selecting a game, setting up a game, bringing gamification in some way. It doesn’t have to all be cheesy, let’s make everything look like a video game. But really, that idea too, that mistakes are part of it. While we’re playing a Kahoot and you get an answer wrong, whatever, we’re doing something else in five seconds, and it’s not a big issue like a test question is. So there’s definitely that. And I would say, too, that students here as well, they can be a great source for insight. So talk to your students. Say “What aspects of this game are more appealing? less appealing?” and so on. And games and game culture too, this is something that I really get a sense that they’ve never had a serious, let alone academic, conversation about the role of gaming in their lives. Yet for many students, that’s an important part of their identity. It’s what they do to relax. It’s what they do to socialize now, quite frequently, especially with distancing happening. So, as weird as it might sound, let’s take games seriously. Let’s take games seriously as an important aspect of students’ lives. Let’s take it seriously as a road to learning. And let’s just keep exploring that because the more research that gets done, the more effective and beneficial features we find associated with games.

John: And the most popular games are those that students can work through. And no matter what their prior knowledge with that type of game, as you said, provides them feedback. And that feedback is targeted so that they can use that to improve and the level of the games are set so that it’s neither so challenging that they give up and get discouraged, but not so easy that they don’t have the sense of challenge. And that seems like a really good way of perhaps thinking about how we should design our classes in general, whether we include explicit gamification aspects or not, creating an environment that encourages students to actively want to engage with the material, and where they can see progress and see how they’re advancing. That is, in general, something that I think is a really important thing for us to contemplate at least in course design.

Michelle: Agree 100%, agree 100%. And that’s exactly what makes games compelling. What is about social media that makes people return to it again, and again, and again, hundreds of times in a day? And what features can we extract and adapt in the service of learning?

Rebecca: One of the things we talked about with Ken Bain last week was an example about the arts and how that might change someone’s thinking… an experience with a piece of artwork. So, I used that kind of example, to inspire a little activity with my students this morning. And I asked them, “Can you talk about a piece of artwork that has influenced your thinking?” And I gave them some categories. And I’m teaching an interaction motion design class, but I included visual art, but games were one of my categories. And some of the students put some really interesting examples about how certain games have gotten them to really contemplate interesting ethical questions, relationship questions, really interesting stuff. And they wrote really thoughtful responses. I had them basically write the name of the game and just a sentence about how it impacted their thinking. But there were some really thoughtful responses. And it was really almost surprising to me how deep some of those quick summaries of their experiences had been with games.

Michelle: Yeah, that’s perfect. And without the conversation, you wouldn’t have that window.

John: For many years, we’ve all heard lots of arguments from faculty about whether technology should be or should not be used in classes. The pandemic, to a large extent, has shut those down completely. And that’s been, for many of us, quite a bit of a relief not to have to deal with those arguments all the time. However, as we begin to move back into a more traditional onsite teaching environment where more instruction is taking place in regular classrooms again, what are some of the things that people may have learned about interacting with technology effectively during the pandemic, that may perhaps lead to improvements in how we teach our classes regularly?

Michelle: That is such a meaty question, and I think it’s one we’re going to see so much just rapid development of reactions. it ties into the whole question right now of what does instruction look like post-pandemic or whatever the next stage of the pandemic is? But yeah, what a good time to think about this. And you know, I can look at it too through the lens of faculty experience, I was kind of fortunate to have had my Zoom baptism completely by accident earlier in spring of 2020. Because I had set up this idea of having a lot of guest speakers in one class, and I got a huge response, which is wonderful, but I needed to bring them in. And I had always kind of said, “Well, if I’m going to Zoom, I’m going to kind of sidestep that. I’m going to let somebody else drive.” And I had to get over that really fast. And so I do think that it illustrates the value of some targeted, not totally strategically planned, practice with technology tools. And that’s just the kind of bedrock cognitive processes that, when you have something like being able to just run Zoom, or Collaborate or something like that, or have an online poll, your ability to do that while monitoring a classroom or answering questions, you got to have the practice in first, and our students are the same way. So we can think about, alright, whatever we’re going to have students interacting with or using or if it’s us that are using something, having that practice upfront and expecting that, once we’re on the other side of the learning curve, it looks very, very different. So that is one big part of it. On a much more conceptual or abstract level. I think that, this whole year, we’ve really needed to look at the students and their goals and why they’re there in the class in the first place, wnd why are they taking the course. That’s something I’ve written about in some of the shorter articles I’ve put out this year. I think the pandemic teaching was distinctive for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that you just can’t keep persisting with “Okay, I’m the learning cop here and I’m going to make sure everybody does things because I’m watching you.” At the end of the day. I found if my students… I hope they’re not, but yeah, they are in Zoom, they could be doing other things… they may be minimally attentive, and that is not good for their learning. And I do a lot of things to have a lot of different shifts in gears to bring in gamification. I’ve done a lot of things to do that. But ultimately, if the student wants to check out, they can check out to an extent. And I’m not saying I’m okay with that, but I think that we are going to be meeting students much more in the middle, instead of having a more adversarial relationship to their learning, I’m here to enforce what you have to know. I mean, we have to collaborate to have something like remote teaching the way we’re doing it, to have that work at all, there has to be more of a collaborative approach to it. So I know that that’s a very top-level conceptual type of answer. But I think that in a lot of things, we’re going to be saying, “Well, you know, what, if this is something that helps some students, and if I’ve talked to students about why they’re here, and they’re purpose driven, ‘I am here to actually learn and take something from this class because I need it for the next class.’” Well, that’s a great basis to springboard off of, instead of “how do I write the policy in my syllabus that will prevent any kind of behavior I see as undesirable.” And you know, so many people were already moving away from that, which I think is incredibly fortunate given what we’ve been through in the last year. But this may be, if not a tipping point, something else that pushes us more in that direction of saying, “Well, what are the policies there to do?” Yes, students have to pay attention to learn. And that is very, very clear during remote pandemic teaching, as well as everywhere else. But let’s maybe take some different approaches and have a different philosophy of how we get there.

Rebecca: One of the things that I also hear you hinting at Michelle is that during the pandemic, we’ve all had a lot to manage, we’ve had a lot of cognitive load. And so we have to prioritize, and we have to decide what’s going to win our attention. And so students have the same problem all the time, just like we have the same problem all the time, we’re just more aware of it now. They have multiple classes to balance, they might have family concerns, they might have jobs, and at some point, they’re making choices about what they’re going to attend to, and what they can’t attend to. And I think sometimes we always hope and wish that they’re attending to whatever we’re putting out in front of them. But that might not be the best choice for them at a given moment, based on the other things that are going on in our lives. And we just often don’t think of our students in that kind of holistic point of view.

Michelle: Oh, absolutely. That’s such an eloquent example of this way of thinking, and the things that we have learned and the shift in mindset that we may be on the cusp of. And that’s another thing that really underlies the approach to talking to students about technology that I’ve really come to adopt, which is the same-side instead of opposite-sides stance. Like you said, we do struggle with some common things. I’m caricaturing a little bit, but I think we’re playing off of an older mindset where it’s us, we’re were older, we’re in this position of authority, and here’s how we like to do things. And here’s this young generation, and they think, very alien to us, and they want to do something else, and we’re going to make them come over to our side… saying, look, we all get distracted. In class, I’m frequently saying, “Well, yeah, here’s something unpleasant that happened to me on social media,” even if I don’t tell them all the details. [LAUGHTER] The point is, yeah, I get misunderstandings and hurt feelings on social media, too. I end up in the social comparison that tends to be so toxic on places like Instagram. I get really, really distracted and sidetracked because I’m using the same computer for 20 different things all at once. And so let’s work together to see how we can address those challenges. And yeah, so I think that what you’re describing is, I think, a very healthy way forward.

John: Now that faculty have had a chance to get more insight into students lives, perhaps now faculty will be more understanding of those things in the future, because the classroom environment is somewhat separated from all that it was much easier to ignore those things and maybe faculty will be more likely to treat students as human beings, perhaps in the future.

Rebecca: Are you implying that the classroom is real life?

John: Well, maybe it may more closely resemble that as we move back into more traditional classroom settings.

Michelle: Yes, and I’m all for that.

John: We always end with the question, and it’s particularly relevant now, “What’s next?”

Michelle: As you mentioned at the top of our interview together, I am in the very final stages of completing the Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology book. So I’m really excited to having that book be coming out in the not too distant future. And I’m really throwing myself into a brand new professional role, which is as the Co-editor of the Teaching and Learning Series with West Virginia University Press. Now, this series has just drawn so many dynamic thinkers with so many practical and also evidence-based ideas that we can all use in teaching and learning and so it was a tremendous honor to be invited to take that role on and I’ll be working with the other editor of the series who founded the series and launched it all, Dr. James Lang, who has just been tremendously influential in the area of bringing evidence-based effective pedagogical strategies to so many people in higher education. He’s been this tremendous leader in that area. His writing is also amazing. So what an honor to get to work with him and with West Virginia University Press. Stepping into that role has taken up a lot and it’s been wonderful already. So that is, for the most part, what’s next for me.

John: And I think we could say the same about your writing based on your earlier book, as well as recent comments that Jim Lang made on Twitter about how much he enjoyed the clarity of your writing and your exposition in this new book and how much he’s looking forward to that being released.

Michelle: Oh, thank you, that’s so nice to say and being able to teach students and to talk to students for so many years about these issues was the inspiration that gave me ideas to work with. So, it all comes around.

Rebecca: Well, thanks, as always for joining us, Michelle, and sharing some of your insights and some of the work that you’ve been doing.

Michelle: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.

John: Thank you, Michelle. And we’re looking forward to talking to you about this book as it gets closer to coming out.

Michelle: Absolutely.

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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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186. Super Courses

Students often see our classes as boxes that they need to check in order to graduate. By reframing our courses around fascinating big questions that students can connect with, we can help our students recognize the value of these learning experiences. In this episode, Ken Bain joins us to explore examples of courses that do this well.

Ken is an award winning teacher, the founder of the teaching centers at Northwestern, New York, and Vanderbilt Universities. He is the author of two very influential prior books, What the Best College Teachers Do and What the Best College Students Do. His newest, Super Courses, was released in March 2021

Shownotes

  • Bain, K. (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do. Harvard University Press.
  • Bain, K. (2012). What the Best College Students Do. Harvard University Press.
  • Bain, K. (2021). Super Courses: The Future of Teaching and Learning. Princeton University Press.
  • Andrew David Kaugman, Books Behind Bars
  • 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.
  • Perusall
  • Hypothes.is

Transcript

John: Students often see our classes as boxes that they need to check in order to graduate. By reframing our courses around fascinating big questions that students can connect with, we can help our students recognize the value of these learning experiences. In this episode, we explore examples of courses that do this well.

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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 Ken Bain. Ken is an award winning teacher, the founder of the teaching centers at Northwestern, New York, and Vanderbilt Universities. He is the author of two very influential prior books, What the Best College Teachers Do and What the Best College Students Do. His newest, Super Courses, was released in March 2021. Welcome, Ken.

Ken: Thank you very much. Glad to be here.

John: We’re really glad to talk to you. You visited Oswego a few years back and people are still talking about your visit.

Ken: Oh, wonderful. I had a wonderful visit.

John: Our teas today are… Are you drinking tea?

Ken: No, my doctor won’t let me do that, and I haven’t had a good cup of tea in… oh my goodness… many, many years.

Rebecca: Oh, that would make me so sad.

Ken: Yes, indeed, it does. Me too. I can’t drink tea… anything that has caffeine in it.

Rebecca: Ah, total bummer.

Ken: Yes, it is. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I have about the strongest caffeinated Irish breakfast tea you can have. [LAUGHTER]

Ken: Oh, my goodness. Well, the last cup of coffee that I had was in 2002. I remember the date. That’s because it….

Rebecca: Oh, no…

Ken: …a traumatic experience, to go cold turkey.

John: Actually, that’s how I started drinking more tea. I had to cut out caffeine, so I started drinking herbal tea.

Ken: Well, I do drink herbal tea from time to time. I just don’t happen to have a cup right now.

John: I am drinking Tea Forte black currant tea today.

Ken: Oh, wonderful.

John: It’s really good.

Rebecca: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss Super Courses. Could you tell us a little bit about the origin of this book project?

Ken: Well, my wife and longtime collaborator, Marsha Marshall Bain, suggested that we do a course around the Invitational syllabus, as we’ve come to call it, what we used to call the promising syllabus. And we began collecting those syllabi from around the world and began looking at them. And in the midst of that endeavor. Peter Dougherty, who is the longtime director of the Princeton University Press, contacted us one day and said, “Would you come down to Princeton, and I’ll buy you lunch?” So that sounded like a great invitation. And we went down. And he asked us what we were working on. And I told him and he said, “Oh, you’re looking for super courses.” And that triggered a whole avalanche Of reconsiderations of what we were doing, and we shifted the Invitational project over to the super course project, and began looking for courses that offered what we had been calling a natural critical learning environment. And we began that project back in, I guess, late 2007.

John: Maybe before we talk about your new book, you can talk just a little bit about the concept of an Invitational syllabus, since that was the origin of this project.

Ken: Oh, sure. It’s the idea of inviting your students into the class, rather than requiring them to come. And rather than focusing upon topics, it focuses upon big and enticing questions, so that the Invitational syllabus begins with an intriguing question, an important question, a beautiful question that students find so enticing, that they say, “I want to be a part of that.” And it becomes a self-motivating experience. So that’s part of what we meant by a natural critical learning environment, is the creation of that self-motivating experience where students would pursue things, not because someone was threatening them with a bad grade, or because they were just looking for credit, but because they became deeply interested in the question.

Rebecca: Can you expand a little bit upon the idea of the natural critical learning environment beyond just the Invitational syllabus?

Ken: Sure, we now have identified, oh, I guess, about 20 some odd elements of what we call a natural critical learning environment. And the first and most foundational of those elements is that it’s organized around those intriguing questions. And its intention is to foster what the literature calls deep learning, that is learning in which students think about implications and applications of what they’re learning and the possibilities of what they’re learning. It’s learning where students look behind the words on a page and think about all of those implications and applications and possibilities and how things are connected to each other. So that’s the foundational element and the chief goal of the natural critical learning environment is to create an atmosphere where students can, and will likely, pursue that deep approach to learning and they develop what we call deep intentions to learn. But, how do they do that? How do we get them to that point? So, what is the natural critical learning environment? Well, it’s an environment where they can try, they can come up short, and get feedback, and try again, without penalty, without any kind of situation where they are punished for coming up short. In other words, if you think about it, it’s the kind of learning environment that we expect, as scientists and as scholars. We try out things, and if they don’t work, if the data doesn’t confirm our hypothesis, we modify it and try again. And we’d be terribly insulted if our first effort out of the box was… and people would say, “That’s nonsense. That’s crazy. Go away.” We try things, get feedback, and try again, and so that’s what the natural critical learning environment does. It’s also an environment where students can work with each other. People learn in community arrangements, where they work with each other to grapple with the problems. And they learn… and this is another key element of the natural critical learning environment… they learn by doing. Sometimes that means learn by teaching. And by teaching, we don’t mean necessarily that they stand in front of a mirror and deliver lectures. In fact, the teaching that they develop often doesn’t even include lectures, it includes a way of fostering very deep learning on the part of other people by creating dialogues, creating exchanges around big questions that move students toward a deeper understanding and a deeper application.

John: Going back to that question of the big questions, because that’s an important part of the approach. I think you talk about that both at the level of the course as a whole in the Invitational syllabus, but also when you’re devising individual components of your course. Could you elaborate a little bit on what faculty should think about when trying to select those questions?

Ken: Yeah. And it’s more than selecting them. It’s framing them, and framing them in a way that will intrigue students. Now, some of the best super courses we came across were questions that sometimes began with questions that were much larger than the course and much larger than the discipline. But in the course of students pursuing those big questions, they discover that “Well, I need to learn chemistry to answer this question,” or “I need to learn history,” or maybe “I need to learn both,” because many of the super courses were multi-disciplinary, built around a big and complex and interesting fascinating question. And then the students would devise ways of trying to answer that question. And the professor would build an environment where they could progressively tackle those questions. They can run from the very simple to the very complex, one of my favorites, and one that I’ve talked about so much, and actually written about, going all the way back 10, 15 years ago, is one that we do mention, briefly, in this new book, but it’s joined by other really exciting examples. First, that old example, it comes from 2006. And there was a professor at Princeton at the time, he was a political historian and political scientist, and who wanted the students to examine the impact of that period we call reconstruction, in period from roughly 1865 to 1877, and to ask themselves, what kind of impact did that period have on subsequent political and social developments and political institutions? Now, as a historian, that’s a very intriguing question to me. [LAUGHTER] But I don’t think you will find many undergraduates who are just dying to pursue that question. So she didn’t ask that question initially. Instead, she built a course around a question that she knew was already on the minds of her students. Now you think about what was on the minds of students in the fall of 20006? …A big question. When I ask American teachers these days, they often can’t remember. [LAUGHTER] I recently did a workshop in China, and in far southwestern China, and they got it immediately. They remembered. But, the question was, basically, “What in the world happened with that disaster we call Katrina?” Now, there’s a lot of evidence that that question became the dominant question in American politics in 2006, 2008, and helped determine the outcome of the election in 2008. You look at Mr. Bush’s numbers of approval, they fell off the cliff after Katrina. So what caused that disaster? So she organized a course, she called “Disaster: Katrina and American Politics.” And students signed up immediately. It became an extraordinarily popular course. Well, how do you get from there to an examination of political history? Well, it happened on the first day. She went into the class, and the first question she asked her students was, “When did the disaster begin? Did it begin in August of 2005, when the storm surge hit New Orleans? Or did it begin in 1866 with the beginning of reconstruction in the Crescent City?” And with that question, she transformed their interest into her interest, and it became the driving push of the whole course. But let me give you another broader example of the book, A guy by the name of Andrew David Kaufman, who teaches at the University of Virginia, about a dozen years ago, organized a program he calls Books Behind Bars. His field is Russian literature, late 19th and early 20th century Russian literature. And that literature is quite famous for asking big questions, questions about: “What’s my purpose in life? What’s my destiny in life?” So what he does in this course, is the help students go into a maximum security correctional facility for young people, people the same age as the UVA students in the course. When they go into that prison, and they help those other young people confront those questions, by reading Tolstoy, by reading Turgenev, raising the questions, and then struggling with them in a class that they do for them once a week, ensure they learn Russian literature, by teaching Russian literature, and not by lecture, but by creating an environment, a natural critical learning environment, where their students, the residents in the correctional facility, will learn just as deeply as they will. And it’s a transformative experience, for both sides, and it changes lives, and it’s self motivating. That makes sense?

Rebecca: Yeah, these are really powerful examples. And I love that both of them have really strong ledes with the course title.

Ken: Yeah. And if you’ll notice also that both have appeal to a sense of altruism. And we discovered that many of these super courses do just that, even in fields like physics and engineering. They do things to help other people. One of our favorites is a course that some high school girls in a high school in northwest Los Angeles, developed for themselves. And the only help they had was they were invited into this program and invited to come up with a project. And they live in a relatively poor neighborhood. They said, “Well, the biggest problem in our neighborhood is homelessness. And we see the homeless out on the street and in the park and under interstate 5 that runs near the high school. And what we want to do is we want to create a portable tent that is solar powered, so they will have heat and the cooking facilities and light and so on and so forth in their tent.” Now to do that, they had to learn engineering. So they organized their own courses, they organized their own sequence of topics that they would pursue. Now they have some guidance. The teachers over there kind of giving them hints or answering questions: “Should we pursue this next?” But they learned everything from electrical engineering to programming, and lots of things in between. But they also learned just the basics of being an engineer. That’s transformative. They created it, and therefore they took ownership of it. Now, the super courses, and the super institutions that we studied, immerse a lot of what they do in the research on human motivation, research pioneered by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. And they argue, in their well documented research papers, that human beings have three basic needs and that if you meet those psychological needs three basic psychological needs… we have physical needs that go beyond these… the three basic psychological needs. And if you meet those psychological needs, people are just naturally motivated to try to learn. You don’t have to stimulate it, it just occurs naturally. And the problem is often that the way we set up schooling for people doesn’t meet those needs, it actually counters those needs. And so we get classes full of uninterested students, students who are signing off and not really becoming involved. And to address that situation, many of these courses deliberately use Deci and Ryan’s work to build an environment, where, what shall I say, where people are just naturally driven to do what they need to do. Those three needs, by the way, are: a need for autonomy, that is, we like to be in charge of our own lives. We don’t like teachers being in control of our learning. We want teachers to help us with it, that’s different, but not to control that. And beyond autonomy, there’s also a sense of competence. So people, if they feel like if they don’t know something, they can learn it. And they feel that what Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset, that mindset that says, “I may not know this, yet, but I can learn it. I may not know calculus, yet, but I can learn it.” While the person with the fixed mindset says, “I’m not a writing person,” “I’m not a computer person,” “I’m not a whatever person,” and they give up. And they don’t try to learn and to push the envelope. And then finally, it’s the sense of relatedness, people like to be part of a broader effort, and an effort in the super courses that’s often larger than the classes itself, larger than the discipline… that they take on these large projects, because they believe that it can make a difference for themselves, and for other people whose lives they will affect.

John: One of the things that’s challenging, though, for a lot of faculty, is that we do have to assign grades for all of this. So we know ultimately, students are going to get these grades. And that tends to lead to more of a reliance on extrinsic motivation. What can faculty do to provide that sort of encouragement and to help create a growth mindset when students are going to struggle with some of the material at first?

Ken: Yeah, it’s to give them lots of opportunities to try, fail, receive feedback, and try again. Now, that seems really daunting to many faculty members. They say, “Now look, I have to two hundred students, I can’t do that, for all of the students.” But there are ways of doing that. And that’s one of the things that we explore in the book. It is difficult to describe, so I won’t attempt to do so in the conversations here. But, the courses develop ways for students to give feedback to each other. Sometimes they have students make an argument about their own learning, and then have each other to assess that argument and make an argument. And that second part that I mentioned, is really an important part of the natural critical learning environment, that it’s an environment where people deliberately learn to give themselves and each other feedback. So they set up the whole system of marks around that idea that students were going to give each other feedback on how well they’re doing. And they’re going to give themselves feedback. And that they learn to assess their own efforts and work through those. Often, in the course of the term, credit is often given for participating. That is, if you do the work, you get credit for. And only at the end, do you approach anything like a summative judgment that we usually call a final grade. One of the things that we do in the book is to explore the history of grading. And we do that to help people see that grading is, for one, a fairly recent invention in education. The idea of putting a number or a letter on someone else’s thinking, that didn’t emerge until fairly late and really didn’t become entrenched until the late 19th to the early 20th century, and that changed everything. So I want people to see this in that kind of context, that there’s nothing natural or automatic about having the traditional approach to grading. And so what people have done in the super courses, is find ways of saying “Okay, now you’ve joined a community, you’re going to be helping each other to learn and you have responsibilities toward that community and to help each other to assess each other, to give each other feedback… substantive feedback, not scores, substantive feedback to one another. And we’ll try to give you feedback as well, maybe as a group, maybe individually in smaller classes, but to give you that opportunity of trying, coming up short, and being able to try again, without that affecting your overall final grade. And then the final grade is based upon an accumulation of lots of things, and perhaps a final project, a final paper, a final presentation, or something of that sort, rather than just simply accumulating, you get 10% on this and 15% on this and 40% on this aspect of the grading.

John: How can we help students embrace the concept though, of productive failure, that process of trying something, making mistakes, and then learning from that experience. Because that’s something that many of our students don’t naturally come to, because many of them haven’t seen it before up to the point when we have them in class.

Ken: Yeah, exactly. And I think one of the keys is to provide them with very dramatic and enchanting learning environments, at the very beginning of their experience, so that the students say to themselves, “This is going to be different.” Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about… my favorite example of this category. It came from a program that was offered, again, in a secondary school. It is called city term. And it brought students from around the world together right outside of New York City, and they use New York City as their classroom. And the first Saturday in the program, they’re invited to go on a scavenger hunt. And they’re given a list of items that they might look for in New York City. One of them, for example, that they often use was: find the first wooden escalator. So students go off in groups, and there’s a teacher that goes with them, but the teacher doesn’t interfere, and just keep them safe. And beyond that the students go wherever they want to. It’s a wild and exciting adventure. And then at the end of the day, they end up in Central Park on a picnic, and they discuss with each other. “How did you find that escalator at Macy’s? What questions did you begin to ask yourself? Who did you talk to? How did you reason through the process?” And by sharing ideas with each other, what they’re actually doing is learning good research techniques. That’s a wild way of learning good research techniques, to say the least. But it’s something that the students will always remember. And they will latch on to that. And they will latch on to the course now, because that first experience was something that was quite dramatic to them. Now, we don’t all have the opportunity to use New York City as our laboratory or our classroom, and to take students on a scavenger hunt. But we can imagine creating a first assignment, and I’m reluctant to use that word “assignment,” because we found often that these courses don’t talk about assignments, they talk about opportunities, and invitations to students. It’s so exciting that it begins to break down all of their sort of stereotypes in their mind about what’s going to happen in a class. So in Andrew Kaufman’s Books Behind Bars course, they’re first asked to apply for the course. So they have to explain why they want to be in the course, and then helps to begin to break down barriers. And then the first day in the class, he begins to break down the barriers by first telling them about a three minute story about a young man who read a little short story by a guy by the name of Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy, and as we called him in the West, and about halfway through the story… in other words, about a minute and a half end of the story, the students began to realize that it’s a story about Gandhi. And it’s a story about an important transformation in Gandhi’s life as a result of reading a piece of literature. And so Professor Kaufman says to his student, “We want you to think about a point in your life, when a piece of art, maybe a piece of literature, maybe a painting, maybe a song, but some piece of art had a deep impact upon you and your thinking.” And the students began to discuss with each other. And they began to realize first, that this isn’t going to be a course where the teacher just talks to them and they take notes and then later take a test on whether or not they can recall the notes that they took. But it’s going to be a class that they will dominate, that they will do most of the talking and most of the thinking, and by creating a different kind of environment, you then can move to ultimately getting them to think about such questions as how are you going to assess yourself? How do you know whether or not you’re making progress, and whether or not you’re learning and you’re learning deeply. And the key point here is helping students to learn what it means to learn deeply, that learning deeply is not the traditional strategic learning… “oh, I learn this for the test. I’ll make an A on the test and I’ll make an A in the class.” No. it’s self-driven learning, where you begin to look behind the scenes, where you intend to look for ways in which this course can transform you and transform your thinking.

John: So essentially, I think what you’re saying is we need to help encourage students to develop more reflection on their work and on their learning process.

Ken: Yeah, I think so. I think that’s the key is getting students to think about their own learning, and help them with categories that will enable them to think deeply about their own learning… categories like deep learning, versus strategic learning, or surface learning. The strategic learner just wants to make straight As [LAUGHTER] and they’ll do whatever is necessary to make those straight As. The surface learner just wants to learn enough to pass the course, to be able to perform on an exam or write a paper or whatever it is that’s required of them. But neither one of those two leads to deep intentions, that I deeply want to understand how calculus works, and how it can help me in understanding the world in which I live, and how this applies to me, and my field and how it applies to my major, even though I’m not a mathematician, and how I can change the way in which I think. So developing those deep intentions. and fostering that deep development of intentions, becomes extremely important.

Rebecca: One of the things that you were just mentioning in terms of the strategic learners and the surface learners is how much many of our courses are probably structured with them in mind, rather than a deep learner in mind, and that we perpetuate these kinds of learners rather than deep learners based on our class structures.

Ken: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And I think we began to break away from that, by the way in which we frame the questions we raise. You think about the example of Kaufman’s course. Or let’s take an example from physics. Eric Mazur, at Harvard, has pioneered a lot of the elements of the natural critical learning environment and super course. And the students in his course do not learn physics, by listening to lecture, boring or otherwise. They learn physics by doing physics. They do three big projects. And each semester of the course… it’s a two-semester course, some students take only one semester… but in either semester, they do three big projects and they’re massive projects. And they work with a team. Each student’s is in a team of about five or six students. And they work together to try to attack a problem. And each of the projects has a back story. For example, you’ve been contacted by a charity that was created in Venezuela, by a well known philanthropist and musician, who became quite convinced that music, and symphonic music in particular (being part of a symphony orchestra), is a transformative experience that can help very poor people rise out of their poverty, and to develop a different mindset that enables them to conquer some of the economic circumstances they face. It’s a program that now has about a million students worldwide who are engaged in it. But it has a problem, namely that some of the students are so poor, that they cannot afford to buy real instruments. Now, you’ve been studying waves and music is made up of waves. So, your team has been invited to create new kinds of instruments that can be made from things that you find in the junkyard. Now that new instrument has to be able to be tuned over to different octaves, has to stay in tune for a specific amount of time, but by creating these new kinds of instruments, you can help the young children. Now, that’s a compelling project. They learn physics and the physics of waves actually doing the project and demonstrating that they can do it. Another project is more fun than anything else. Do you remember the old Rube Goldberg cartoons?

John: I do. I don’t know if Rebecca does. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I know what they are. [LAUGHTER]

Ken: Ok. There was this guy. He was an engineer and he was also a cartoonist from San Francisco. He used to draw these cartoons, where you would attempt to do something very simple, like crack an egg, by a very elaborate piece of machinery, where balls would roll down ramps and would trigger gates that would open up other gates that would cause other balls to fall, and so on, and so forth. So it’s a very elaborate, unnecessary project. So on the Rube Goldberg project, so students are invited to create a Rube Goldberg type device to crack an egg… [LAUGHTER] something you can do very simply by knocking the egg against the edge of your kitchen counter, or your kitchen table. But no, you had to create this very elaborate project. Well, to do that, all of Rube Goldberg drawings and inventions were based on physics. That ball rolling down a ramp at this angle will acquire this speed, and it would open this door and would result in this hammer hitting this hammer that would cause this ball to roll down this ramp… and that would, etc, etc, etc. So you had to know the physics in order to create these absurd projects. But there’s a lot of fun in that. A lot of fun. And the first project they do, I think, is one was just strictly on fun. They build a racing car, and then race each other, like many of them did when they were back in the fifth grade. And they have great fun in doing that. Another one is one where they have to design a lock that other people can’t open. And they get points for 1. being able to keep other people out of their safe, and for being able to crack the lock of other peoples’ safes. So a lot of wild times. Now there’s a textbook that stands behind all of this. And the textbook is written by the professor. And it lays out everything that he might otherwise have said to them in lecture, and more. Now, how do you get students to read that textbook, 1. by creating these enticing projects, but another way you do it is by making reading of the textbook into a social experience. So Mazur and his colleagues created a program which is now available to everyone, called Perusall. And, using Perusall, students can read material together. So in the sense that, “Okay, we’ve got an assignment, we need to read to chapter two. We’re all reading it together, you’re reading it on your computer, I’m reading it on my computer. And as I read along, I may have questions. So I’ll highlight that text, I’ll raise the question.” It’s like writing in the margin, but everybody can see what you wrote. He organizes the groups into groups of 15 or 20 students apiece, and they can read each other’s comments and they can respond to each other’s comments. And to participate in the class, to be a participant in the class, what it means is that they will keep up with offering the comments to each other, and their comments on the text itself, making comments on what’s written there, to raise questions. to answer a question, so on and so forth. And what they found is that reading completion goes from 40 something percent at best, all the way up to 95 to 100% completion.

John: I’ve been using Hypothesis in my classes for the last three years, and nd it’s a very similar type too…

Ken: Yeah, there are several others out there.

John: And students really enjoy that, too. They enjoy seeing what other people are raising questions about. They enjoy answering questions for each other and posing questions to each other, and It seems to make the reading process much more engageing when it becomes this social activity.

Ken: Exactly. Well, that’s the whole idea. And then of course, behind that is this set of really intriguing, interesting, fascinating projects. And there’s a course at an engineering school in Massachussetts that offer a course, for a long time. They no longer offer the course unfortunately, but they offered it for over a decade, I think it’s called the “history of stuff.” [LAUGHTER] And the first day of class, the students go in and they see on the front table stuff. It’s the kind of stuff you might find by going down the aisles of Walmart [LAUGHTER] and picking things off the shelf, just a wild assortment of things. And they’re invited to come down and pick out one of those items. And then to begin to explore it, explore its history. Why was it created? What was it created out of? What materials? What kind of implications does its creation have for society? Does it just clutter up society and create a backlog of unrecyclable material that creates environmental problems of one type or another? Or exactly what is it? Students had a great deal of fun just exploring stuff. And the course ended up by looking at some of the history of technology through the lens of a well known American patriot, Paul Revere. But Paul Revere was also an expert in metals. And so they explore engineering of metals through the eyes of Paul Revere. And it becomes a way of mixing disciplines in a way that makes each discipline more intriguing and more interesting. Rather than “Oh, you study this, then you study that, you make no connection between the two.” Say, one more example?

John: Oh, sure.

Ken: There was a course we looked at in southwest China, and we went to the school, Southwest Jiaotong University, in Chengdu, and it was a course organized by a young woman who teaches physical education. And first day of class, the students are invited to think about what kinds of sports they enjoy doing. is in rock climbing. Is it soccer? Is it basketball? What is it? Now, can you imagine creating an exercise device that will make you a better soccer player, or rock climber, or whatever it is that you want to do… your favorite sport? And then the whole class goes to a sports equipment store, and they began to look at the equipment that’s already there. And then began to think about, “Okay, how can I create something better?” Now, as part of the team, it’s not just this PE teacher, but it’s also other people. Ah, you need someone from biology perhaps, to help them think about… “Well, what kind of exercising do the human muscles need? What kind of social environment do you need to create here?” So, you need other experts. And if you want to make this a product that can go on the market, maybe you need a marketing professor, who can help you devise a marketing plan of the new product that you’re creating. I told this story to my broker several years ago, and his response to me, was: “In Communist China?” And I said, “Yes, they have a market economy just like we do. And they’re interested in marketing and learning marketing. And they have marketing professors, just like we do.” And so they creates this environment where students learn by doing. And they learn by mixing disciplines, rather than keeping them apart. Much more interesting.

Rebecca: I love the move towards more interdisciplinary work….

Ken: Yeah.

Rebecca: …something that I feel really connected to, but it really gets people I think, more excited about different disciplines when they’re more intertwined, because we understand how they’re related to one another.

Ken: Yeah, exactly. So if you’re going to study the human brain, for example, how do you make it interdisciplinary? One of the professors, we studied taught in the medical school and taught medical students about the brain. But she was asked to create a course for undergraduates. This was at Vanderbilt. And so the course on the brain for undergraduates mixed every discipline you can imagine, together, because, as she argued, everything is connected to the brain. So you might be studying music, if that’s your interest, or whatever your interest might be. You might be studying ethics, if that’s your interest, and then you’re encouraged to think about what part of the brain handles ethical questions? What part of the brain helps you to appreciate and understand music? What part of the brain helps you to do this or to do that? So they’re studying all the aspects of the brain, but they’re also studying all these other disciplines, from Holocaust studies to a wide variety of other things, and raising deep ethical questions along the way. And she offered this course for 10 years, and it was a transformative experience for most of her students, the overwhelming majority of them, breaking down stereotypes and prejudices and helping them to also think more deeply about how their brain operates.

Rebecca: Sounds like there’s a lot of classes I should sign up for.

Ken: Exactly. I thought at one point, I was talking to some high school students about where they want to go to school. And I said, “Well, it’d be wonderful if you could go to a school that would mix all these super courses together. Because they’re strung out all over the world.” Maybe there’s a way of doing that virtually I don’t know.

John: Or maybe, as a result of your book, and other similar work, perhaps more faculty will start doing this type of thing and more of their courses.

Ken: Yeah, and perhaps, in designing a curriculum that includes professors from a wide variety of different disciplines, and students from each of those disciplines, working together in small groups, to tackle problems of physics, and then later tackle problems of the brain or tackle problems of history, or tackle problems of well, you name it… and have a opportunity to sort of tour super courses around the world. That would be a wild experience.

John: I still remember examples that you used here when you spoke at Oswego. And I remember examples when I first read your first book on what the best college teachers do, a while back, in large part because you weave in narratives, along with the theory and the reasoning behind these concepts. And I think the use of narrative helps makes the story much more interesting and helps raise curiosity and makes things much more memorable. Is that something faculty should strive to do in their own classes?

Ken: Yes, I think so. And the professor, I was just mentioning at Vanderbilt, I think, did that and created a course that was part history and part neuroanatomy and part philosophy and part literature and part music, but they’re all around narratives of one kind or another. Yeah, I think so. I think creating that narrative. Human beings love stories. And if we began to understand things, in terms of stories, then it becomes much more memorable to us. And we remember what we learn. And if you think about learning, it contains at least these three major aspects: we’ve got to encounter new ideas and procedures, and so forth, but we’ve got to encounter new material, there’s the encountering part. And the second is the making sense of it part where we relate it to other things that we’ve learned. And then the third aspect of it is retaining it long term. So we remember what we remembered, what we learned. And I think encountering all of this in stories, makes it much more memorable. But I think what the super courses do is they have students read stories to learn physics or history or other kinds of things. But they don’t tell them those stories orally, for the most part, they do not use lecture, to do that first aspect, that is of introducing the material. Usually, that’s all that happens in the classes, you’re introduced to the material and lecture, and you never get around, you never have time in class, for those second aspects of the “making sense”part of and the things that you might do to retain it. So super courses are built in a way that they spend their time working on those other aspects. Because the first one, the one of conveying the new information and ideas to the students, that can be done with reading, with films with other ways. But the part of struggling with meaning, with the teacher and with each other, that’s much more complex, and that requires a different kind of approach. And that’s what the super courses offer.

John: This project began with a collection of syllabi, and we should probably note that those syllabi do make it into the book as an appendix. So, not only do you have the stories of how these classes work, but it provides faculty with examples of how these things are implemented. In an Invitational syllabus.

Ken: We took excerpts from some of the syllabi, not all of them. But from a few, to give people illustrations of what we’re doing: one from math, one from the sciences, and one from the humanities.

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

Ken: [LAUGHTER] Good question. Well, I have on my agenda, and I’ve been working on, a book aimed at parents. And the working title of the book sort of summarizes the whole idea of the book. Although the working title is 11 words long, andt hat is way too long. But we’ve got to find a way to achieve the same thing with a shorter title, but it’s: How to Help Your Kids Get the Best Out of School. Now we chose those words carefully, because the first task is defining what we mean by the best. And, in part, it means learning to learn deeply. So how do you help your kids to do that? And we chose one of many words we might have used for kids. We said “kids,” ‘cause it’ss short and to the point. We’re trying to shorten bold type as much as possible. And I’m working on that with a colleague, Mindy Maris, and we have a due date with Harvard press of 2022. So, that’s coming up rapidly. So we’ve got a lot of work to do over the next year and a half. But we’ve already done quite a bit of work in organizing that, and so forth. So that’s the next major project.

Rebecca: That sounds like an exciting addition to the collection that you’ve already have out, and rounds out the offerings.

Ken: And then somewhere in the far distant future I play out entirely, I would love to take all the we’ve learned and how to understand the best in any field. And that was a process in itself. How do you define the best and how do you collect evidence that something is better. I’d love to do a book that might be entitled: What do the Best Coaches Do? [LAUGHTER] and describe good coaches in a wide variety of different sports. But that would be my swan song, if I ever get around to it.

Rebecca: Thanks so much for joining us today and sharing some insight into your newest book. I know that a lot of our listeners will be looking forward to reading it soon.

Ken: Well, I look forward to hearing feedback from your listeners. And as we said, toward the end of the book, we hope that at some point, every reader will say “I wouldn’t do it that way. I’d do it this way.” But when they say that, we hope that they will base that judgment on strong evidence that that presents, whatever alternatives they come up, presents a better learning environment than the one we describe in the book. But, we hope this idea of a super course, is something that is organic, it continues to grow. And five years from now, somebody will summarize something about super courses today, meaning the super courses, 2027 or 2030. And may describe a much different book than the one that Marsha and I wrote. But it’s an organic process. And we’re looking forward to the conversation w e hope that the book stimulates.

John: Well, thank you. It was great talking to you again, and we’re looking forward to sharing this with our listeners.

Ken: Thank you.

Rebecca: Thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.

Ken: Oh, my pleasure. My pleasure. Anytime.

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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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162. Bichronous Learning

When we talk about online learning we often focus on asynchronous learning. In this episode, Jessica Kruger joins us to discuss the creation of rich online learning experiences that include a combination of synchronous and asynchronous components. Jessica is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior, and the Interim Coordinator for Teaching Innovation and Excellence for the School of Public Health and Health Professions at the University at Buffalo.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: When we talk about online learning we often focus on asynchronous learning. In this episode, we discuss the creation of rich online learning experiences that include a combination of synchronous and asynchronous components.

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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 Jessica Kruger, a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior, and the Interim Coordinator for Teaching Innovation and Excellence for the School of Public Health and Health Professions at the University at Buffalo. Welcome back, Jessica.

Jessica: Glad to be back.

John: It’s great to have you here again. It’s been a while.

Jessica: It has. I’m so excited to be back and drinking tea with the both of you.

John: Speaking of tea, today’s teas are:

Jessica: I’m enjoying green tea with ginseng.

Rebecca: That sounds good. I have Big Red Sun again.
Bichronous online learning, which you experimented with this past semester. Could you first start by describing what bichronous online learning is?

Jessica: Yes, there was a recent paper, it really put a name to this type of learning. And it is basically a blend of both asynchronous and synchronous online learning. This is where students can participate in anytime, anywhere, and doing that asynchronous part of the course. But then they can also participate in real-time activities in the synchronous sessions. And so this actually can be varied, whether you have a predominantly asynchronous or predominantly synchronous course. So, it allows some flexibility.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how bichronous learning is different from blended, hybrid or hyflex learning that we’ve become so familiar with during COVID-19.

Jessica: There are many terms that are being used for the types of modalities of courses. The blended and hybrid approach, this is where that course in combination has a face-to-face and an asynchronous online delivery. And then that blended synchronous is a combination of face-to-face and synchronous components with online students in the course. And then of course, there’s hyflex, and this is designed as a model where students have options to be online or on-campus. And so this is a little bit different than all of these types, because it’s blending synchronous and asynchronous, but both online. And the neat part about this is that blend could

John: One thing I think people may wonder is, how is this different than a hybrid course where there are some synchronous activities and some asynchronous activities? What’s the difference in the approach that makes it this new category?

Jessica: I think it’s the approach because it’s not and/or it’s kind of this sliding scale of what you’re doing synchronously versus asynchronously. Traditionally hybrid and blended have been face to face, whereas this is focused more online. And maybe we’re splitting hairs creating a new term for it. But I think it does kind of create this new category that we can begin to think about and further explore. Is this model conducive to specific learners? We don’t know. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to begin researching and exploring these differences.

John: And this whole mode of synchronous online is really something that just exploded recently. That’s an area that we really haven’t looked at very much in the past, or most faculty hadn’t really explored very much in the past, that, for many, has become the dominant mode of instruction. So, thinking about it in this way, I think, could be really helpful. What would be an example of a structure that would use that approach,

Jessica: The bichronous approach? Let me tell you a little bit about my courses. Thi semester, I’m teaching a variety of courses in a variety of different levels. And I accidentally stumbled on doing this because it felt right. I really didn’t want my students to be all asynchronous. I wanted to meet them. I wanted them to be able to have time to ask questions, and for us to do some active learning online. And so how I decided to format my course was that students would have asynchronous components to where they would go through some videos, some readings, but once a week, they would come and join a 30-minute class session. During that class session, there’s a short intro talking about what they’re exploring this week. We also discuss a little bit about the assessments and the upcoming assessments, we answer any questions, and then we move right into active learning. And that’s where they get put into breakout rooms, they get to talk to each other, work on problems, think about solutions. We come back together, debrief for a short period of time, and we’re done. The neat part about that is, because my classes tend to be larger, I offer choice in the section in which they come to. So, students can choose to come to one of two sessions that are offered on that day. And those sessions are actually offered within the class time that’s listed in the course schedule. So, let’s say you’re busy, you have to work that day, or something else came up. I also offer an alternative assessment each week. So whether you’re Zoomed out, or you got called into work, you can still earn those participation points. This allows for flexibility and choice for the students.

Rebecca: Can you talk about some of the advantages of bichronous online learning and how that synchronous component complements the asynchronous component for students?

Jessica: I think it’s so nice to be able to get to talk to students, especially in this virtual environment. And sometimes it’s as simple as clarifying what you wrote in text. And so a lot of times when we start off class, there’s minor questions about the upcoming assessment such as, “What did you mean by this part of this assignment?” And I can easily clarify that and give some examples. Also, by whatever questions students are asking, I can kind of tailor our synchronous sessions so that we can talk through some of those challenging concepts. I think it also brings together a community. Students get to talk with other students. They’re all going through the same struggles right now, or similar struggles. And so having that time where they get to go into breakout rooms, talk about a topic, say something about their day, I think it really creates that community that we’re looking for online. And hey, when I go to the breakout rooms and say, ‘Hello,” they almost always have their cameras on for each other, which I think is a pretty cool thing.

Rebecca: I think Jessica, I was mentioning before we started recording that I’m also doing the bichronous online learning, I just didn’t know it had a name. And I’m finding that students really enjoy that synchronous time, and they request more time with each other. That’s the piece of it that they really love, is interacting and formulating community with each other and around the topic of the class.

Jessica: And I think that’s so important, especially as we’re all isolated due to COVID, that they have that time to talk out these assignments or to talk through these problems. And yeah, just as you said, the students always want more time. The 30 minutes doesn’t seem to be enough for them.

John: Did students know in advance when they signed up for the course that they would be synchronous meetings, as well as the asynchronous component.

Jessica: The course was actually listed in the course catalog as recorded and live sessions. And so at the beginning, they were actually pretty happy that they didn’t have to come for an hour and 15 minutes twice a week. Instead, they got to come for a shorter period of time and earn those same points and get that same information.

Rebecca: It’s interesting that my class also was listed that it was a synchronous time slot, it was listed as a hybrid. But it really was more of an online synchronous class with these synchronous components. And because I teach a studio class, the normal contact hours are six hours a week, which I couldn’t imagine us doing. It would be terrible. So we did the same thing. We were always meeting at the beginning of the week. And then I do small group meetings with students at other times during our regular class time during the week, and students have requested more time together, even if it’s just… we call it accountability club, where they’re just working during the class time on class things in a breakout room together, even if they’re not talking to each other.

Jessica: I love that idea. That sounds like a great way to get students to interact even outside of the typical class time.

John: It sounds as if these courses could be set up on a continuum where some of them are primarily synchronous with some asynchronous components. Or they could be primarily asynchronous with some optional or flexible, synchronous components. Is that correct?

Jessica: You know, that’s a great way to look at it. I’ve had a really nice conversation with some of my colleagues who have put so much time and effort into putting their courses online and making them quality, that they’re really kind of sad to see that in the future, hopefully, we’ll get to come back together and be in person, but you really don’t want all that effort and content to go to waste. So thinking about it as providing some extra flexibility might be a nice way to rationalize all that time that we’ve all put into our courses,

John: Like so many other things. It’s not necessarily a binary choice, that there’s a whole continuum on which people can select an option that works best for their specific courses.

Jessica: Yeah, and I think that is really what’s at the core of this model, is that it is really something that can flow one way or another. And I’m even thinking in the future, how can we continue to bolster this or give students more choice when it comes to their learning? We know that the choice is really important. And I think this way of kind of creating courses could be a way of the future.

Rebecca: I’m wondering if the synchronous component is particularly valuable in these online courses for students right now because it does provide that immediacy with one another but also instructor presence. So, we all actually feel like “Hey, there are humans behind the name and things that are in this online environment” …and help us formulate an understanding that we are all a learning community and a classroom community in a way that maybe is more difficult to get your head around in something that’s entirely asynchronous.

Jessica: I think that’s a good point. And I don’t require my students to turn on their cameras when we’re in person, but I do think they get a sense of who I am, and more than they would in just videos. We can have a conversation. And there’s some times I’m asking them to put information in the Zoom chat or reply. But, as I’ve gone through these courses, I’ve noticed more students are willing to unmute and talk out loud, even in these big courses. And that shows me that they’re beginning to be more comfortable not only with their peers, but with me and how I run these courses, which I think is a really good sign that we can create that community, even online.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about the specific courses you’re teaching and the size of the courses as well as a little bit more about the division of your activities between what you do synchronously and what you do in an asynchronous modality?

Jessica: Sure. So I, ironically, teach a course called stress and population health. And this is a very salient topic nowadays, as you can imagine. This is an undergraduate course, and I have 125 students within it. During a typical week, I will have readings posted in our learning management system. I like to do a few videos, and I have the luxury of being able to be in front of a green screen for some of those videos. So, students do get a little bit of who I am and the wacky things I do while I’m giving them some lecture material. Along with that there’s some outside information that I like to pull in, whether it’s current news articles, or whatnot. But they have a substantial portion of what they’re doing that is basically asynchronous. When they come during our synchronous session, we start off with “How are you?” I usually have a wacky sort of “how are you?” question that’s themed around whatever the holidays are. I had them rate their mood based on candy and other silly scales, just to kind of have an icebreaker. And then, as we talk a little bit about the content, we then do some breakout sessions. So, today, we were talking about a new report that came out about stress in America. So, they had to look through this report and begin to talk about how this report relates to community stress and how we would assess the stress levels of what’s happening within various communities using some kind of higher level data versus that individual self assessment. And so they’re really applying the content when we’re together. And my other course I teach is a 88-person course… I know, real small. And this class is on models and methods in public health. And so, again, they have videos and readings to go through. In that course, we actually create an OER textbook, which is a fun activity. But, when we come together, we’re applying the models, they’re working together as a team to fit different problems, almost case studies together, or they’re doing something like a scavenger hunt. I’ve even done something like Kahoot!, which has been a lot of fun and students are now requesting we have more Kahoots! It does work virtually, which is kind of neat, except I can’t give them the prizes that I typically would in class. My last course that I teach is a 40-person course on incarceration and public health. And this class is a little bit different because we have more discussion. So, when we’re together, it is purely discussion based. And students do a really good job at interacting with each other. And so sometimes we stay together, sometimes we break into groups, where my TA is helping to run some of the discussion. But, that one works a little bit differently than my two larger courses, and it’s an upper-level course. So, I feel like we can really get into the meat of the conversation.

John: You mentioned that you do provide multiple times. And a nice thing about the Kahoot! is that, while they may have fun doing it synchronously, there’s also the option of posting it online so students could try it later if they weren’t able to attend one of the synchronous sessions. I’ve been doing that in my classes too, and students have really enjoyed it.

Jessica: Yeah, it’s a great way to fit in the alternative assessment or assignment that, if you miss class and aren’t there to hear some of the explanations on Kahoot!, I end up having students actually look up the correct answers and telling me why, as a way to have a little bit of deeper learning with that game.

Rebecca: How have students responded to the format overall?

Jessica: Oh, they absolutely love it. In kind of a midterm assessment that I put out, I asked about how do you like this model, and they said, “It’s great. I love that I can come in 30 minutes. We’re in, we’re out, we’re done.” But it’s also I think, created more of a connection, I have students reaching out asking for advice on “What do I do? Should I go to grad school? How do I do some of these life skills?” …and that shows me that they are making that connection to me as a faculty member, which is exactly what we want in these courses, especially these larger courses. And students will tell you, “I have courses where I sit through hour lectures, and it’s really hard for me to stay focused,” whereas in this, they’re continually doing something new, and they’re doing it in a short amount of time that has ultimately a high impact, because they’re getting their questions answered, they’re doing some active learning, they’re working together, and they’re getting to form a relationship with their instructor,

John: What are some limitations of bichronous learning, compared to, say, a fully online class?

Jessica: I think it takes some time to think about what activities you want to do live. With a totally asynchronous class, I think some of the alignment with the course objectives and the assessments become a little bit easier, because you have your roadmap, you know that this discussion board is going to align with this objective. Whereas this, it can be a little challenging to figure out: one, how to stay creative. You don’t want every session to be boring or the same sort of thing. Also, from an instructor standpoint, I’m repeating the same class. And in the model, it doesn’t mean that you have to repeat the same class. I do that personally, because I want smaller groups. And so, some days, it’s like Groundhog Day, when I’m doing the same class back to back. But, you know what? The second time, it’s always better. So, [LAUGHTER] it’s a good way to continually improve my teaching, and really reflect on how I’m displaying information or teaching the content.

Rebecca: If a faculty member was interested in incorporating something like this in the spring, what should their next steps be? It sounds like one thing is making sure that there’s some sort of time slot established for the class. But, beyond that, what else should they be thinking about?

Jessica: Yeah, I think the university modality’s important, making sure you’re transparent with your students about what they’ve signed up for. It’s never fun to find out that you signed up for a class and it’s going to be presented in a little bit of a different way. Second, I think it’s really figuring out what works best for you and your content. So, what content is going to be asynchronous? What content is going to be synchronous? And how are you going to establish some sort of rhythm or schedule for your students? And is this going to be… you only come one time once a week and you only have that choice? Or no choice in this case? Or are you going to make it with some choice? Are you going to offer multiple sessions? Are you comfortable with offering an alternative assignment for students? The reason why I came up with the alternative assessment is because I have students who are in different countries in different time zones, along with people in the active duty military, and they’re not always able to make it to the synchronous session. So I wanted to give them an opportunity to make up those points and to make it fair for students who… life happens. And the nice part about it is, it actually reduced my time in working through students’ challenges such as Internet outages. One day, we had a huge outage in Buffalo… well, you know, no problem… join the next day’s session, and you’re good to go, or do the alternative assessment. And so figuring out what your teaching philosophy is around the flexibility and choice, I think is kind of that next step, and then go for it. It’s a lot of fun to really get to meet and talk with your students so that you can explore this new way of teaching and engage your students in a different way.

John: For those students who, because of their work schedules need to take courses in an asynchronous manner, might this modality serve as a deterrent for those students?

Jessica: Most definitely, I think students who sign up for an asynchronous course are expecting an asynchronous course, I think this is just a different way to think about our delivery model, whether that be having the option of that synchronous session, or moving to a bichronous model to where you’re kind of in between the two and allowing some flexibility and some choice for the students. Or maybe it’s just a way for you to try something a little bit different each week, whether it’s one day synchronous, and the next day asynchronous. I think testing out these different models are important as we’re moving through this new online world.

John: We always end by asking what’s next? Which is the question we’re always t hinking about this year?

Jessica: That’s for sure. I’m interested in actually doing some research on students’ perception of this modality of learning. It’s so new that I think we need to begin by understanding what do students think about it and does it affect their overall performance in a course? And, from an instructor standpoint, what is it like at the end? We’re still figuring this all out. There is some research that’s being planned around asking faculty about how they’re rationalizing or thinking about this topic. Rebecca, you and I both are teaching this way. But, I’m sure it looks very different from both of our standpoints. And so I’m really excited to see where this research goes and hoping to be part of it.

John: It’s wonderful talking to you again, and we’re looking forward to having you back on the podcast again, with whatever your next venture is. I should also note, you mentioned that you have been doing this OER project. We have a podcast we recorded with you on your first iteration of that, and we’ll share a link to that in the show notes.

Jessica: Excellent. I’ll also share our newly published paper on some of the results around that.

Rebecca: Excellent. That sounds exciting. Thanks so much for sharing a new way of thinking about the spring. Hopefully it sparks some ideas for faculty as they move into what’s probably going to be another tough semester,

Jessica: That’s for sure. Hang in there, everyone.

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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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158. Distracted

It is easy to become distracted when materials or experiences seem irrelevant, unobtainable, or uninteresting. In this episode, James Lang joins us to explore strategies to build and strengthen student attention to improve learning outcomes. James is a professor of English and the Director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption University and is also the editor of the West Virginia University Press series,Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, and the author of numerous articles and books on teaching and learning, including Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning and Teaching and Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: It is easy to become distracted when materials or experiences seem irrelevant, unobtainable, or uninteresting. In this episode, we explore strategies to build and strengthen student attention to improve learning outcomes.

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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 James Lang. James is a professor of English and the Director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption University and is also the editor of the West Virginia University Press series,Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, and the author of numerous articles and books on teaching and learning, including Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning and Teaching and Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It. Welcome, Jim.

Jim: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

John: Good to see you again.

Jim: Yes.

John: Our teas today are:

Jim: I’m actually a tea aficionado. I get my tea from David’s Teas, which is a Canadian company. They, I think, have suffered a lot during the pandemic and closed most of their stores, but they still have a great online presence. And my favorite is Nepal Black.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds good.

Jim: Yeah, it’s a great black tea. And I have many David’s Teas, though. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I almost forgot about David’s Teas. I need to cycle back to that.

Jim: Yeah, it’s great stuff.

Rebecca: I’m on my last cup of a big pot of English Breakfast tea.

Jim: I love English breakfast. I love Earl Grey. You know, all the greens. I just love tea.

Rebecca: You’re in the right place, then.

Jim: [LAUGHTER] Yeah, exactly.

John: And, you may remember the collection of teas we had in our workshop.

Jim: Oh, I totally remember. Yes, that was like tea Nirvana in your center.

John: It’s sitting there kind of empty right now. But, we’re hoping we’ll be back there soon.

Jim: Yeah.

Rebecca: The collection of teas is lonely. [LAUGHTER]

John: Although every now and then some get pilfered from the office. And I’m drinking one of them right now. A blueberry green tea.

Rebecca: That sounds good.

Jim: Yeah.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your upcoming book, Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It, which I’m really looking forward to receiving when it comes out in October, I believe. Perhaps we could start by talking about the role of attention in learning. Why should we focus so much on attention?

Jim: So, in the book, I argue that we need to think about attention as actually the kind of foundational step for all learning; no learning happens without attention. So, I actually think it’s a value that we need to be more willing to kind of fold into our pedagogical thinking. If you look at the research on how people learn, almost all of it will tell you that the first thing that has to happen is the learner has to attend to whatever the content might be. And I also believe that it’s important for us to make attention a value in the way we form community in the classroom. We should be attending not only to the course content, but to one another. So, we’ve talked a lot in recent decades about the importance of having a learning community in the classroom, about having relationships between us and our students, and the students having relationships with one another. All of those things depend upon the attention that we pay to one another. So, to me, there’s a kind of cognitive aspect to this. But, there’s also a kind of ethical aspect to it. We owe that attention to one another, we need to be able to pay attention to the students and to the specific students in our room and not just sort of a generic idea of a student, we want students to listen to one another. When students are airing their ideas in the classroom, we as teachers want to be able to listen to them, but we want students to be able to listen to them as well. So, I think we really do need to pay more attention to attention in our pedagogical thinking. So, that’s kind of what the book is about. The kind of overarching point of it really is to get away from this thinking that attention is sort of the norm or that this is something we can just take for granted in the classroom. And that we should expect students just to be able to sit and pay attention, because that’s the normal modus operandi in the classroom. And instead, to recognize that attention is an achievement. It’s something that we have to work at. And as a result, faculty members have to think about how do they support student attention in the classroom. How are they deliberately cultivating it? And how are they deliberately sustaining it, both to the classroom content and to the other human beings in the room?

Rebecca: Like other kind of pedagogical approaches, it seems like talking about attention with your students might be a good thing to start off the semester, and explain what attention actually is. Do you have any recommendations for thinking through that with students?

Jim: Absolutely. There are great resources out there that can help us educate our students about attention and about distraction. And we have to start with those kinds of conversations about how we make the classroom a place where attention is a primary value. And again, this doesn’t mean like attention, where it’s just sort of me laser focused in on the teacher and being attentive like that for 50 or 75 minutes. We’re not built that way. That’s not how attention works. But we want to do our best to kind of continually renew the attention that we pay to one another. And I think that has to start with an explicit conversation with our students. And to say that “Look, you know, it’s important for me to hear your ideas. So, when you come in here, if you’re doing other things, then the contributions that you would make to this classroom, which I know are important, are going to get lost. And when your fellow students are speaking, I want us all to be paying attention and listening to what that student has to say.” So, I think we have to start with those kinds of conversations. And maybe not in the first day… I think there’s a lot we can do on the first day to try to engage students and set the tone for the course… but, sometime in that first week, to really have a conversation with students to say it’s important for us to pay attention to one another in the classroom. Here are the guidelines I’ve developed t do that and I welcome your input on those guidelines. And then, by the end of this week, we’re going to come to an agreement on these are the rules that we all will follow together in order to make sure that we are fulfilling our obligations to one another, in terms of building a community and paying attention to one another, and paying attention to one other’s ideas.

Rebecca: If we build the value of attention into our course, what does that look like,over the course of the semester? We talked a little bit about a discussion, setting some boundaries or some rules, but, how does that play out over the course of the semester?

Jim: Well, so two things. So, first of all, I do argue in the book, actually, that I think there’s value in having an explicit kind of guideline for how we will deal with both attention and distraction in the classroom. And that includes what we’re going to do with our technologies, but it’s not limited to that, and to develop some explicit guidelines that are shared with students that they’re invited to comment on that, then they actually will sign and say, you know, “I agree to sort of abide by this policy,” and then to revisit it, to come back to it in the middle of the semester, for example, at a midterm evaluations and say, “How are we doing with the guidelines? Do we need to update these? Or do we feel like everyone is kind of on board or are people slipping away? What can I do to help get everyone back and make sure that we’re still paying attention to one other? …because attention fatigues over time, that happens in an individual class session, but also happens over the semester, right? So, we’re going to get to a point of this semester, at which we’re all tired, we’re finding it harder and harder to pay attention to one another because there’s lots of stuff going on, and for the students, all their midterms and getting toward the end of the semester. So, it needs to be addressed initially, and it needs to be revisited. Now, from the teacher’s side, there’s a lot of things that we can do to kind of say, “Look, I’m doing everything I can to help support your attention in the classroom here.” And all those are kind of explicit pedagogical practices that we can take. And in the book, I talk about two creative ways of thinking about this, to think like a playwright and to think like a poet playwrights have long experiences of trying to guide people through experiences that unfold over time. So, a playwright has to think about “how do I maintain the attention of an audience for an hour, two, or three hours, sitting in a dark room, where the audience is supposed to be looking just at this stage and following the story?” How do they do that? They vary the structure, right? There are acts and scenes and intermissions, there’s rising and falling action, there are stories unfolding. Not only that, but like you go to the symphony or whatever, right? It’s the same thing, you’re going to have movements, you’re going to have pauses in the action, you’re going to have a movement that ends quietly, but then begins with a bang. The people that have had to think about “how do I pull the attention of an audience over time? …we can learn a lot from that. So, I think teachers need to think a little bit more like that, to think about the classroom experience as something that unfolds over time, and therefore needs to have a structure and variety to it. Right? So, that, essentially, I argue in the book for thinking about your classroom experiences, as kind of a modular one, where you’re going to have an opening activity that takes 10 minutes, and then there’s going to be something that goes on for 20 minutes, and then you’ll have a finishing thing. And not only to make those changes, because change renews attention, right? We know that from the research, change can renew attention. So, you have the changes. But then you also have the fact that these things are different. So, that like I’m doing something passive, like I’m listening to a mini lecture, but then I stop and do something. And then maybe I get that another passive experience. So, that’s the first thing is to think a little bit more like how we’re varying the structure of the classroom experience. And by thinking like a poet, what I mean by that is that one of the things that poetry and literature can do for us, it helps us see the world anew, right? Like, it takes everyday experiences and objects and things that we’re familiar with, and it shows them to us in a new light. So, we wake up to them or say, “Wow, like, I never thought about a peach like that, right? Like, that’s amazing.” There’s this incredibly beautiful and complex thing” or like a still life painting is trying to do the same thing for us, right? …to show the world back to us, in all its wonders and complexities and intrigue. And I think we need to do that as well. We need to think about like, what are the opportunities that we have to show students the amazing, wondrous, mysterious aspects of our discipline that can awaken their attention to what we’re trying to teach. So, in the book, I argue for a what I call signature attention activities, which might be something that you would do, you know, once a day, once a week, a few times a semester, but that are really kind of like creative pedagogical things that get students re-energized and re-engaged. And recognizing, like this everyday thing they might be experiencing, actually is an incredible, amazing thing that deserves their interest and engagement. So, thinking like a playwright, thinking like a poet… to me, those are two kinds of ways to try and develop new approaches to cultivating and sustaining student attention.

John: So, in terms of thinking like a playwright, would it make sense to break up each class period into a narrative or into a storyline where you have those modules that you talk about, but perhaps do something at the beginning to activate attention to provoke curiosity?

Jim: Absolutely. I mean, there’s lots of things that you can do, I think, at the beginning to kind of get them engaged. You can tell a great story, you can pose a problem or a question, but you have to do something other than just kind of “Okay, here we go. Here are the four concepts that we’re going to talk about today.” I think, if you really want people’s attention. Here you can expand it to other creative arts as well. When you pick up a novel, The first two pages, a novelist knows, they’ve got to draw you in in those first two pages, you’re going to put the book down, right? A television show, think about how many television shows, films, they begin with something that really is designed to capture your attention and draw you in and keep you engaged for the rest of that experience. We’re drawn to stories, we’re drawn to questions and problems. But, if we can think about foregrounding those, that’s a way of getting us engaged before we then go through and are doing the sort of harder cognitive work of whatever that classroom might be.

Rebecca: You mentioned some signature pedagogies to implement throughout the semester to focus our attention. In the spirit of small teaching, is there one that’s small and easy that faculty who maybe are under stress during a semester can implement right now.

Jim: The example I give it, the book… I’ll start with the one that kind of originally got me thinking about this. There was a faculty member actually across town for me at Holy Cross, an art historian, who since passed away. But she had her students go to the Worcester Art History Museum, and every week, they had to go to the museum and look at the same painting and write a different one- to two-page essay about that same painting over the course of the entire semester. They do 13 short essays about the same painting. And that, to me, is a great example of creative thinking about like, this is how you make attention a value. You know, you start and you look at it in a very surface oriented way. And then you just have to keep looking and looking and looking. And the more you look, the deeper you get into it. And the more you start to see all the sort of incredible stuff in there. So, I kind of encourage people to think about what is the thing in your discipline that’s like that painting that like you can go back to, or that you can develop some kind of strategy that’s going to get students to see it anew for the first time. So, one that is a little bit more kind of every day, I observed a theologian on my campus, who had her students engaged in an activity that was modeled on study of the Torah, the scholars studying the Torah use, which is she had the students get in pairs. And I was able to observe this class, they sat across from one another. And they were instructed to read out loud to each other the first few paragraphs of Genesis, but after every sentence, they were supposed to stop and say, “Okay, what do I see here?” Like, “What does this remind me of? What word is strange here? What do I notice here that connects to other things that we’ve talked about in the class?” And this went on for like 20 minutes. And some people only got like two paragraphs in like a 20-minute exercise of doing this. But, it was incredible to listen to what they came up with. And I stayed in the class and listened to some students afterwards. One student said, “I’m from an evangelical background, I’ve read these passages so many times, but I’ve never thought about some of the things that we talked about today.” And so it was a way to kind of reawaken them to something that was very familiar and that she could have got up there and given a lecture on things in the first book of Genesis, but the students uncovered it themselves, and were able to do that. So, I actually kind of talked through a process that was developed by someone at the teaching center at Brown University, which is trying to model like, very close looking at something in your discipline. And you start by just sort of doing that, “what is it?” Like, “What is here? Let’s really get in and describe it as much as possible.” And then the second thing we do is we say, “Okay, so what? Why is it important? What matters about it? What does it connect to in terms of other things that we know or are learning?” And the last thing is sort of “Where can we go from here?” Like, what questions does this raise that we can then go and think further about, or for example, that I might go and write a paper about or do some research about?” So, the careful look at it, then the thinking about how it connects outside of that thing to other things? And then the “Okay, now let’s go further, I’m going to develop my own kind of way of thinking about and understanding this thing.” You know, John Dewey, a long time ago, had students doing object analysis, where they would analyze like everyday things in their homes, or like that they encounter on an everyday basis, and trace those everyday things: “Who made it? What is the production of it, say about like, our economy and our world?” And you know, you can do that with anything, and almost any discipline, right? Like this t-shirt I’m wearing, right? Who made that t-shirt? That has huge implications for, like economics and politics and trade and inviting that kind of activity into the classroom seems to me like something that can help students see the discipline in a new way, and then re-engage their attention to show them this course actually has relevance and connections to things outside of the box of this classroom.

John: When in the classroom, one possible source of distraction, which I know you’ve written about before in the Chronicle and other places, is mobile devices. When we’re in a classroom environment, how can we help students use their mobile devices more effectively.

Jim: So, I think we have to be explicit about them. So, when we have those conversations at the beginning of the semester, I actually recommend in the book, an open source PowerPoint presentation that anyone can get and use. It was developed by a psychology instructor at the University of Toronto, which kind of shows students some of the issues that we face when we’re using our devices in the classroom. And of course, when students are using their devices off task in the classroom, it impacts their own learning, of course. We all know that. But, the bigger challenge is the way that impacts the students around them. And there is some pretty good research that shows that if a student is off task on a device, other students are drawn to that device, and that steals their attention away from whatever might be going on in the classroom. So, I think we have to talk to students about that, We have to say, “Look, you know, your device use is not just a personal choice that you’re making that has no broader implications. It does have broader implications, it has the potential to kind of tamp down the overall level of attention in this classroom.” And again, I think when we make that appeal, we need to do it on community grounds, right? Like, we owe each other our attention in this space. And we are all going to benefit from people’s contributions and those contributions are going to be richer, if we’re paying attention to one another, if we’re thinking together about the ideas. So, I’m not in favor, actually, of sort of full technology bans. I’m also not in favor of saying we should never have a technology ban. I argue in the book for a context-driven policy, which suggests that there may be times when we say no one needs their devices, right now, we’re going to talk about what this means. And you don’t need to take notes on that by hand or by device. There are other times when I may be lecturing, and you can use your devices, or you can take your notes by hand. There are times when we’re going to be having a discussion, you know, you can write down something if you’re so moved, but otherwise, I’d rather have us focus on one another here. We’re gonna be doing an activity and everyone’s going to go to the board, so you don’t need your devices for that. I’m segmenting off sections of the board here, and I want everyone to brainstorm a list of these five things. To me, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to say, we’re never gonna use technology in here, or there’s just an open technology policy, which we can use any time. It depends on what’s going on. And I think if we take that approach, that also helps us be better planners, because we have to think about “Okay, well, what is going to be happening in the first 20 minutes, and would that benefit from technology use? Or couldn’t some students benefit from that?” If so, okay, then great, I’m gonna be explicit about that. But, there may be these other times where it’s gonna do nothing but interfere. And at those times, I want to be able to say, you don’t need your device right now.

Rebecca: I think that makes perfect sense. Right now, I’m teaching synchronously online. So, I’m exploring some different ways of using technology and different ways that pure distraction might play out in a screen environment. Do you have any thoughts about how we can help students attend to each other more so in an online environment? Sometimes it’s a little more obvious, I think, in a physical environment of how to set things up, and maybe not as obvious in an online environment.

Jim: It’s definitely not as obvious whether people are distracted in their online environments, right? Because they can have their phone right next to the laptop. And I’m sure we have all done this in our zoom meetings, department meetings, or whatever committee meetings where things get a little slow, you pop over and you do something else for a little while, and then you come back in. And again, I think, even an online class, we can be explicit about that, when you’re stopping out like that you’re pausing your own thinking, and that’s going to lead to a sort of a less rich conversation for us all. When students have their cameras on, it’s a little bit easier to see obvious sources of distractions. But, of course, I think we do need to give students the option to not have those cameras on for a variety of reasons. To me, because I think about, as I’ve been doing workshops …and a lot of the faculty workshops that I do on other campuses, of course, have switched virtual… what I’ve seen a lot is that the people will actively engage with the chat room. So, when the chat room is there and is explicitly encouraged, that can be a way that keeps people engaged. In some ways, it’s not quite ideal, because people can also get off track in the chat room. I’ve definitely seen that happen as well. But, trying to find regular ways to make sure that people are engaged in parallel activities, or something that’s kind of supporting whatever it is that’s going on. You can still use polling, you can use chat rooms, you can use breakout rooms, you just have to think about the same thing that you think about in the classroom. How am I continuing to provide sort of variety and shifting from one kind of activity to the next. People always talk about like, well, you lose students attention over the course of a 50- or 75-minute lecture, you lose people’s attention over 50- or 75-minute discussion too. Anything that you do for a long period of time, your attention is going to fatigue. So, to me, there is no like one pedagogical technique online or in face to face that’s like this is going to keep people’s attention, guaranteed, for everyone in the room for this amount of time. That’s just not realistic expectations. So, we just have to think about how we are providing that kind of variety, giving people opportunities to actively engage. And kind of what I encourage people to do is what I did during the two years while I was researching the book, and what I’ve been doing over the last six months in my online environments, is just look at like when do people pay attention? When do people get off track? We can learn from those moments. That’s what I’m essentially trying to argue to faculty as well. And what I hope the book will do is get people together on campuses and say, “Okay, let’s just think about this collectively. When do our students drift off? And like, why is that happening? When do our students get really engaged? Why is that happening? And how can we take the sort of engagement moments and maximize what’s happening there, and take the distraction moments and use those as an opportunity to develop creative new approaches?” So, for the online classes, I just encourage people to think about what have their experiences been in your Zoom meetings and your webinars and things that you’ve done when you’re a participant. What’s helped you, and what’s brought you back, and what sent you away? I’ll just say one last thing about it. To me, in the Zoom context, or like a synchronous online class is one of the lines of research I follow in the book, is the use of names, we all perk up at the use of our names. So, if John was drifting right now, and I said, “John, what do you think?”, he’s gonna “What?” If he was drifting, he’s suddenly back in the room, right? So like, even if you don’t have cameras on, you can still be saying, “I’m regularly gonna invite people to post in the chat or to see if they have comments. And I’ll do that by calling your names.” Just even saying that it’s going to get people “Okay, you know what, I need to be kind of attentive here.” But once I actually say, “Hey, Rebecca, what do you think? You know, boom, you are like right there. So, there are simple things like that, that we can do that help. There’s no sure fire solution online or face to face, we just have to keep trying these different approaches.

Rebecca: One of the things I really love is the fact that there are names.

Jim: Yes, I know. Right? Exactly.

Rebecca: That’s amazing. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: Yeah, the first couple weeks in class, it’s hard to do that sometimes. Right? Because you’re still learning everyone’s names.

Rebecca: Yeah. What I noticed about what you were just saying, though, is using this object-based learning or close-look approach on ourselves or within the teaching arena. So this area that we want to study teaching…

Jim: Right.

Rebecca: …you’re actually offering up the suggestion that we do the same thing that we’re suggesting that our students should do within our disciplines.

Jim: Yeah, that’s true, actually, you’re taking a look at the classroom, but through this other lens. We look at it through all kinds of lenses. But, I think if you look at it through the lens of attention and distraction, to me, that’s like an avenue toward creative new thinking. And that’s kind of ultimately what we want here. This is basically the same approach I tried to take in Cheating Lessons, which is to look at like the issue of academic integrity, where does it happen and why? And then say, “Okay, once we understand that, what can we do differently? And how can we use that problem to improve education in general?” And that’s kind of what I’m trying to do here with attention to distraction? How can we use the problem of distraction to help us become better teachers in general?

John: Does your book also address issues of how we can help our students maintain focused attention when they were engaged in out-of-class activities?

Jim: This is a really challenging issue. So, one of the things I’d hoped to find in doing the research for the book was that strategies that people have touted as improving our general attentional capacities, that there are some of those that work. And the truth is, there doesn’t seem to be as much of that as we would like, especially evidence-based strategies that can sort of improve people’s attentional capacities. So, the one that’s been the most thoroughly researched in education in recent years has been mindfulness. So, if we practice mindfulness, to what extent can that actually improve our ability to pay attention? And there is some research that supports that, but it supports it if you are really all in on it, like you’ve got to be doing mindfulness on a daily basis for a significant chunk of time. And you’ve got to be really willing to make that commitment to mindfulness. When you do that, it can help. But we don’t have the ability to do that with our students, for the most part. And most of the experiments that you see being done in this area are like three- to five-minute little mindfulness activities in the classroom. I’m a fan of those, I think those can be really great and helping in the moment. We can help sort of in acute… like we can improve our attentional spins in an acute way. But, in terms of like developing strategies that are going to help students actually improve their attentional capacities in the long term, and outside of the classroom, I’m not sure we have anything yet that has proven to do that. Well, we do have one thing, but again, it’s nothing we should be doing in the classroom, it’s physical exercise, like physical activity improves your blood flow to your brain. And that improves all kinds of your cognitive functioning. But again, we can tell our students to do that, but it’s not like something we can enforce or get our students to do in the classroom. But, I look at some of the research in a great book on distraction called The Distracted Mind by Adam Gazaley and Larry Rosen, and they do a pretty good job of looking at like brain games and drugs and mindfulness and nature exposure. And their conclusion is, so far, we really only know one thing that is evidence based to improve people’s cognitive control, and it’s physical exercise. Everything else, we’re still not sure yet, like we’re exploring. There may be some positive studies here, but, we don’t really have enough to make it prescriptive yet.

Rebecca: Seems to me like something that could be useful to students outside of classes, just having them be aware of attention.

Jim: Absolutely.

Rebecca: …and what being attentive looks like, so that they can self monitor, if they so wish.

Jim: Absolutely. We can give them the sort of tools and instruction they need, and we can give ourselves the same. As the result of doing all this research, I’ve kind of realized that, in my own work life, there are things that I can do with my email and my Twitter feed open, like responding to emails and doing sort of committee work, that kind of stuff. But, if I want to write, I have to close everything out. And you know, since the whole pandemic thing, the weather has been better, I got in my backyard, I close everything out, and I just have Word open, and I do that for 45 minutes and then I get myself a 15-minute break, right? I take a walk around, I look at Twitter, that kind of thing. So, we need to do the same kind of look at our own attentional patterns and like habits and distractions. And we can encourage students to do that. We can help them understand how to do that. It’s up to them ultimately, of course, to decide whether or not they’re going to put those ideas into practice. We can also model for it in the classroom, though, and that’s another reason why I argue that there may be times when it’s a good idea to say to students “All devices away at this point for 20 minutes here, we are going to just brainstorm. We are going to think with nothing but our brains and the book or the problem, or whatever it might be, and the whiteboards, and let’s just try to come up with something. One of the things I suggest in the book is that devices and distractions are around us all the time. That’s our normal way of being. And we want to be able to prepare students for that world. That’s why I argue that we shouldn’t ban technology. We’re gonna be working with technology, like we need to know how to work productively with it. At the same time, it may be that there’s good reason to think that the classroom sometimes is an escape from all that, that the classroom is like an attention retreat, where we can go, put away all that stuff, and use our brains in a different way. And it may be that the more technology sort of intersects with our lives on an everyday, 24-hour, basis, that those spaces are really valuable, actually, and that they give students a taste of what it’s like to put things away and just focus our collective brains on something and see what emerges from that. And if we can give them the opportunity to do that in the classroom, then they may recognize, “Oh, you know, actually, this was really valuable. And there may be times when I want to do it myself outside of the classroom with a few peers, or even just by myself.

Rebecca: I certainly have had students in the past have experienced really stressful times, say like, they’re all in on a particular class or something, because it’s an escape, and it’s a place where they can focus and they put all their attention there. And I think a lot of students are doing that right now, during the pandemic, as well. I have a lot of students that are really focused right now on some of their schoolwork, because they’re stressed by other things that are going on around them.

Jim: Yeah, my last Chronicle column was a review of a book called Lost in Thought, by Zena Hitz. And one of the things she argues and that is that we need to recapture the value of just sort of getting lost in our own thoughts and engaging with ideas and the great thinkers and problems of the past and present. And part of the argument she makes is that when we do that, we have an opportunity to get away from our material circumstances, right? …like the world that we’re living in. And that kind of escape can be really valuable. It’s valuable, both for sort of mental health purposes, like, you know, you step away, and you get to sort of engage with something fascinating and intriguing, and get into kind of like a flow state or a thinking state. But, it’s also valuable, because it can give you a new perspective, like, that’s the moment which you might come up with, like a really creative idea. And I bet almost everybody listening to this podcast right now has had moments where they’re like in the shower, on a walk in the woods, riding their bike, whatever, and something suddenly hits them, and then a problem that they’ve been wrestling with opens up. What’s going on there is you are away from the other stuff. In those moments, that’s where the ideas sometimes emerge. So again, sometimes ideas emerge because you’re online, and you’re seeing all kinds of different stuff. And that’s great. But we want to have these other opportunities as well. And so the classroom should be able to provide a little bit of that for students as well.

Rebecca: I found that some students also respond really well to hearing examples from us of our experiences with attention or lack of focus and how we’ve wrestled with those things. I know that this morning, my class was talking about being tired or having anxiety, and I just expressed that I was also experiencing that as well. And all of a sudden, like we were all in the same place, we were all attentive to each other because we had this kind of common experience.

Jim: Yeah, one of the other major points I hope people take away from the book is just empathy, to recognize that attention is hard. And it’s especially hard in a time like this, when there’s so much going on in the world around us. When we have the pandemic, we’ve got an upcoming election, we’ve got Black Lives Matter. We have all kinds of things that are making us concerned or unhappy or frustrated or anxious. And so those things steal away our attention. And we have to be empathetic to ourselves. First, we have to recognize that our own attention is suffering right now. And then we have to bring that empathy to our students as well. A student who’s drifting away in the classroom. Sure, that can be because they’re looking at their Instagram, but maybe they’re looking at their Instagram, because they’re so stressed out. And this is kind of an easy thing that they do that gives them a quick little relief from everything else that they’re worrying about. Or maybe they’re drifting away in the classroom because they had a terrible night’s sleep, and they’re up with a sick relative. I mean, attention is drawn away, not just by our devices, but by all kinds of things. The more that we recognize that and the more that we are empathetic with our students, the more we can work with them to develop solutions.

John: You mentioned the importance of attention by both students and by faculty. We’ve talked mostly about students’ attention. Do you have any suggestions for faculty on how we can be more effective in maintaining attention to our students and their needs at any given time.

Jim: It’s just the basic stuff that we all think about in terms of the responsibilities that we have to build community in the classroom are essentially the ones I’m arguing for in the book as well. Names are important, knowing individual names, I argue in the book also for an activity like values affirmations in which students get to tell you what matters to them at the beginning of the semester. So, we can do our icebreaker activities in which hometown major, you know, all that kind of stuff. But, to get more substantive, and to get to know the students a little bit better. Invite them to tell you what matters to them what they’re good at, and to be able to kind of then keep those things in your mind and use them in the conversations that you have with students or in the feedback that you give to students. Giving individual feedback, thinking about how we’re doing that, using students’ names, and knowing a little bit about the assets that they bring into the classroom, I think there’s been a lot of good research on the ways that we can help foster community in the classroom. And to me, those are the things that are going to help foster attention as well. Attention is reciprocal. If I pay attention to you, you’re more likely to pay attention to me. If we’re sitting at a coffee shop together, and we’re there to meet and discuss something, and you pick up your phone, that’s the moment in which I’m going to pick up my phone as well. Whereas if neither of us does that, if none of us makes that initial move, we’re probably more likely to continue the conversation with one another and pay attention to each other. So, when our attention is drawn away from the students, when we’re not giving them our full attention, they’re not going to give us their full attention either.

John: Is there anything else from your book that you’d like to share with our listeners,

Jim: The only other thing that I talk about in the book that might be worth mentioning is the role that assessment can play in attention. And I do believe there is a role for assessment to play in supporting attention. And what I argue here is that your great students are going to try to pay attention to everything that happens in class. Your students that are struggling, that may have a harder time managing their academic work, those students actually can benefit from assessments which help them recognize this is a moment where I really should be paying attention in this class. And if an assessment is well designed, and it’s going to promote learning, then I think we’re only doing them a favor by helping students recognize “This is an important thing here, this matters.” And that can be low stakes. But, even low stakes can get some students over the threshold of “I’m going to sit here and check out” or “I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing here. So, I’m not going to say anything, I’m gonna hide in the back.” The students saying “Okay, actually, this counts a little bit. So, I better try and trying is going to help them.” So like, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with thinking about the role that our assessments can play in pointing students toward the activities that are going to help them learn. So, I argue for that in the book as well, that assessments do have a role to play in this process.

John: And it’s not just low-stakes assessments, I’ve been amazed at how much attention and enjoyment students get out of using things like Kahoot!, which is entirely anonymous, but just that feedback they’re getting on how well they’re doing and that somewhat competitive atmosphere with it, where there’s no harm if they make mistakes, but they become really excited about how they do on those.

Jim: Yeah, “I want to see if I got it, right,” like “I’m trying this, I want to see if I got it right.” Because that’s gonna tell me how I’m gonna do in the class. And so, those kinds of activities, I think, can be really helpful for engaging attention.

John: And it’s giving the students feedback, but also giving us feedback. So, we know where they’re struggling, so we can help address those needs.

Jim: Exactly.

Rebecca: I think projects are also another form of assessment that we didn’t discuss right here. But, I think even having small amounts of scaffolded projects where there’s something that like, is done and accomplished, and you can check it off, is another way of kind of feeling accomplishment, but also being aware that you’re focusing on the things that you’re supposed to be focusing on, to move forward in a larger scale project.

Jim: Exactly, and like a lot of this stuff, that scaffolding is good for all kinds of reasons. And one of those reasons is, as we just said, like I can go through, I can check it off, I know that this is important. So, I have to get it done before I can do the next thing. That’s going to keep their attention engaged throughout that process of doing a larger project.

John: And it reduces cognitive load…

Jim: Yeah.

John: …it reduces the amount of anxiety they have, and they’re getting guidance along the way. So, they don’t go off in a direction that it’s hard to recover from later.

Jim: Right. And anxiety and cognitive load are all connected with attention, [LAUGHTER] like anxiety, it steals our attention. When the cognitive load is too heavy, we lose our attention. So, all these things. You know, attention is like one of these things that, once you to start really thinking about it, it intersects with everything. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s why it should be a value. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: Exactly. That’s what I’m saying. Yeah.

John: Yeah, well, I hope this gets the attention of a lot of our listeners [LAUGHTER]

Jim: Well done.

John: …so they can focus more attention.

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

Jim: Well, I’m on sabbatical. So, I am writing a book. And for the first time, I’m kind of going back to my discipline. I’ve been doing sort of off-and-on research on George Orwell for a long time. My area Is 20th century and contemporary British literatures. So, I am using this sabbatical as an opportunity to try and get that book project going. And I hope to be able to have a book. or at least a good chunk of a book, by the end of my sabbatical. There also is a second edition of Small Teaching that we’re working on. And so that will be out at the end of 2021. So, that’s a second edition, which will have updated research, some updated recommendations for techniques, and, actually, there is going to be a chapter on building community. So they’ll be an additional chapter. And so I’m excited for that as well.

Rebecca: That’s like a lot of things to look forward to.

Jim: Yeah.

John: And living in the Orwellian world we’re in right, now… [LAUGHTER] I’m very much looking forward to that.

Jim: Yeah, definitely. There’s definitely a lot of relevance there. And that’s why I hope the book will get some attention. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Nicely done. Thanks so much for joining us and sharing your expertise. And I know that I’m definitely looking forward to picking up your recent book, and I’m sure many of our listeners will too.

Jim: All right. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

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.

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144. Pedagogies of Care: Evidence Based Practices

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

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

Michelle: Hi. It’s great to be here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle: Oh, thank you.

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

Michelle: Thank you as well.

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

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

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139. Pedagogies of Care: Digital Reading

This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, Dr. Jenae Cohn joins us to discuss concerns about, and the affordances that are associated with, reading in a digital environment. Jenae is an Academic Technology Specialist at Stanford University and the author of Skim, Dive, Surface: Strategies for Digital Reading in the College Classroom, which will be released by West Virginia University Press as part of the superb series edited by James Lang.

Show Notes

  • Cohn, Jenae (2021, forthcoming). Skim, Dive, Surface: Strategies for Digital Reading in the College Classroom. West Virginia University Press.
  • Carillo, E. C. (2017). A writer’s guide to mindful reading. WAC Clearinghouse.
  • Pedagogies of Care (Sneak Peek) – video trailer –  website
  • Plato (360 BCE). Phaedras
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. West Virginia University Press.
  • Mueller, D. N. (2009). Digital underlife in the networked writing classroom. Computers and Composition, 26(4), 240-250.
  • Smale, M. A., & Regaldo, M. (2017). Digital Technology as Affordance and Barrier to Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Smale, M. A. (2020). “It’s a lot to take in”—Undergraduate Experiences with Assigned Reading”. CUNY Academic Works, 1–10.
  • Lang, James (2020, forthcoming). Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It. Basic Books.
  • Hypothesis
  • PowerNotes
  • Perusall
  • PowerNotes
  • VoiceThread

Transcript

John: This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, we discuss concerns about, and the affordances that are associated with, reading in a digital environment.

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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. Jenae Cohn. She is an Academic Technology Specialist at Stanford University and the author of Skim, Dive, Surface: Strategies for Digital Reading in the College Classroom, which will be released by West Virginia University Press as part of the superb series edited by James Lang. Welcome, Jenae.

John: Welcome.

Jenae: Thank you for having me.

John: Our teas today are:

Jenae: I have got a white and green tea blend with jasmine today. It’s really delicious.

Rebecca: That sounds good. I have Scottish afternoon tea

John: That’s a little bit stronger, isn’t it?

Rebecca: I like it. It’s good.

John: And I am still drinking English Breakfast tea.

Jenae: A black tea crew. I respect that in the afternoon… a little pick me up.

John: And it’s grading time here so I need the extra caffeine.

Jenae: Yeah, I get that. Makes sense.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your book, Skim, Dive, and Surface. Could you tell us what motivated your work on this topic?

Jenae: Absolutely. I have always found great solace and inspiration in reading. I’ve considered myself a reader for my entire life, and I noticed as a reader when I was in college that I largely depended on tried and true techniques for remembering content from reading: from highlighting and note taking in the margins to drawing little doodles and scribbles. And when I transitioned to graduate school, when I was getting my PhD, I was reading longer, more complex texts. And at that point, I really didn’t have the resources to be printing everything out hundreds of pages of reading a week, to do those techniques that had served me so well as a college student. So I think at that point forward, I started thinking a lot about how does our media, how do our spaces for reading, shape what we’re able to glean from a reading and how we’re able to orient ourselves to the really critical task of reading and being readers. And this became even a more acute kind of question for me when I started teaching first-year composition, and I saw my own students struggling in the same way that I was struggling as a graduate student with trying to get through really new and challenging complicated texts that were changing our orientation, not only to reading texts, but just being readers. And so I kept mulling over this for years and years, and my research kept dancing around it. And then by the time I got to my job at Stanford, it really struck me that it was the time to start writing a book that would help people recognize and see these real distinctions, but not from a language of a deficit model, and not from the language that was kind of coming out the 2016 moment that Google made us stupid, or that smartphones are bad for our brain, like those dialogues are still happening, much to my great dismay, but to actually provide sort of a more open and inclusive and, I think, kind of compassionate take on the possibilities of reading across spaces and finding promise and hope for readers to be more flexible in different ways of reading, especially when it comes to academic context.

Rebecca: I find your work really exciting because I was always an avid reader, even when I was young, but when reading academic texts, it’s a really different kind of reading, like reading fiction is really different than reading an academic text. And I remember when I was in sixth grade, I had an intervention because I was struggling with our Global Studies class because I had really poor reading comprehension on the topic. And I was lucky that a family friend happened to be the reading specialist and helped me out. But otherwise, no one had taught me how to read those kinds of texts, and I really struggled.

Jenae: Oh my gosh, I love that story, Rebecca, because it really speaks to how your context can shape your behaviors and how you approach that task. And I love that you’ve even worked with a reading specialist. I think we take for granted that if you can read in one space, you can read in another space. You are an avid reader and able to really dive into fiction, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily could read those more technical texts or texts that were speaking to different audiences and engaging with different purposes and it’s easy to take for granted, especially at the college level, that the students will have sort of equal proficiencies if they’re able to like technically read, but we know when we get to higher ed context, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Rebecca: So, like me, I think a lot of students don’t get training on how to read academic texts or critical texts when they’re in K-12. So what do you recommend? Or how do we help students transition to college reading?

Jenae: I think there’s a few ways we can begin. First, I think that what college instructors can really do is help demystify the purposes of reading. I think that a lot of instructors, and I’ve done this myself, assume that just if you say, “Okay, read chapter one of this book,” everyone will understand what the purpose is of reading chapter one of the book, but that’s not necessarily so, especially since in different contexts and disciplines those purposes for engaging with a particular chapter article might be really different. And I think as instructors too, we want to think about what we want students to get out of the reading. Do we want students to be reading for content? Are we trying to help them understand a particular concept and how that concept might be in dialogue with something from an in-class discussion or a lecture, or something else, or we want the students to read what we call reading rhetorically, or I want them to read to understand the strategies an author’s using to communicate a claim. So in writing classes in particular, rhetorical reading might happen when we’re trying to understand a particular historical context or moment that might be shaping how an author might be orienting to a topic, to kind of understand the context around that reading, or understand the writer’s writerly moves. So someone who’s also trying to read to understand a written genre might be another thing we need to help students understand when it comes to purpose. So, in the sciences, you might have students read a scientific article to understand: “This is standard format in the scientific article structure: the introduction, methods, description, results.” There’s always sort of a standard pattern to that. That’s all to say, I think just making our purposes clear is Thing number one, Thing number two, that I think instructors could do to help students really develop a stronger sense of being a reader, is to also help them understand different approaches to note take, and to think about how they glean important pieces of information from a context. And different students will do this in different ways. So I certainly wouldn’t recommend a prescriptive, like note-taking model that everyone has to do. I think that it over determines a certain kind of thought process. But there can be a moment, and I think a lot of instructors don’t think of themselves as having to teach academic skills, but it can be really valuable to make explicit: “Here’s the skill you’ll need to develop to do this work.” And to have an open discussion with students: What do you do? Why do you do these kinds of behaviors? How does this help you learn? And to make that really explicit. These are just starting points. The real expert on academic reading proper, I would point you to Ellen Carrillo, she has a great book for college students called Mindful Reading. Ellen Carrillo’s work about really bridging students to academic reading skills is like the best place to start for instructors who want to start at the foundation of what it means to help students read. I cite her a lot in my book because I think her work is really quite foundational to this thinking,

John: As you noted, the type of reading skills vary quite a bit by your discipline. Reading a chemistry article is very different than reading a math paper or reading a novel or reading poetry. Should each discipline include something about teaching students, what’s important in reading in that discipline early in a student’s career?

Jenae: Oh, I think that would be tremendously helpful if, in an intro course, that was a part of the unit. It would help students recognize what it means to be a professional in that discipline too, which can also help students I think, from the level of choosing a major and deciding what academic conversations they want to remain a part of in terms of their career. I think that many students, and I know I was this way in college, don’t tend to see the subjects as communities. We call these discourse communities: mathematicians, chemists, compositions, they’re all part of different discourse, communities that have different goals and functions and ways of communicating and behaving. So the more visible we can make those sorts of tacit understandings of how people communicate, the more we can demystify a bit of a hidden curriculum around how disciplinarity, how intellectual thought, operates. And I think that can be really exciting for students to see “Oh, people who are in math and chemistry, they have a way of talking. It doesn’t mean I’m stupid. [LAUGHTER] It doesn’t mean that I can’t get it. It just means that it’s a community that I don’t know yet, and that I want to understand better through accessing and unpacking what it means to be a reader or a writer in that space.”

John: You need to know the language of the discipline to some extent to be able to participate in the conversation.

Jenae: Exactly. That’s a great way to sum it up. I was like the “too long, didn’t read” version of what I just said.

Rebecca: I think another space where you’re switching contexts is between the physical environment and the virtual environment, which many of us are experiencing maybe more intensely now [LAUGHTER] than we had in the past. I know that while I was on sabbatical, doing research, I found myself doing a lot more reading online in digital format than I ever had before, because our physical library was closed. [LAUGHTER]

Jenae: Yeah, how was that for you?

Rebecca: At first, I was really resistant and I read every single physical book that I had first. So, I could take notes in the margins and things that I was used to and accustomed to doing. But I’ve recently read a couple of texts on my Kindle and really love that I can highlight and take notes there and then end up with a digital file that’s searchable. It’s actually way more useful, but I had never really been forced into trying a new way of reading.

Jenae: Fabulous.

Rebecca: So, I think it’s interesting to start thinking about how do we help students take advantage of some of the affordances that a digital environment actually has, rather than just the resistance. And one of that, for me, is like moving from reading from my computer to a Kindle, which has the e-paper, which is a little better in my eyes and it’s a little more comfortable of a reading environment, but then taking advantage of those tools and techniques that are built into some of the software that’s available.

Jenae: Absolutely. You’ve pointed out several really great affordances to digital reading, where you’re able to archive your notes in a particular space, organize them, create certain kinds of like topical categories for the notes that you’ve got from your Kindle. So, you’re already opening up so many of the wide world of possibilities, especially when it comes to academic reading, in your own experience of having the library closed up for you. So, I really enjoyed hearing your thought process around that.

John: But if students haven’t done much academic work prior to coming to college with e-texts, the skills that they had, as you mentioned in the intro to your book, in terms of dog-earing the pages and using highlighters and so forth, might not translate as easily unless they’ve perhaps learn to adapt with those. Rebecca talked about the ability to take notes and index them, but students don’t always know how to do that. And one thing that complicates it a little bit is they may get their books in different formats, some may be on a Kindle, some may be in Blackboard or Canvas or some other learning management system, and others may be PDFs. So how do we help students with that transition?

Rebecca: And also maybe faculty? Because sometimes I think that’s a barrier, too. [LAUGHTER]

John: I think that’s probably a more common barrier… we’ve had some people give us all sorts of interesting explanations of why books are better, most of them based on neuromyths that have been debunked for decades. But there is this perception that the tangible nature of a book makes it better in some way. Just as, you know, the book was seen as being bad when it was first introduced, because it weakened the need for people to develop their memories. I think people feel the same way about electronic texts. So how do we get past those barriers on the part of faculty and students?

Jenae: Right. Wow. Lots of good questions nested in that one question. And I will say that in the first part of the book, I talk about history, affect, and neuroscience as kind of categories of ways that instructors, in particular, might find their own resistances or anxieties, as I put it, reflected. John, when you mentioned that people once worried that the book was going to destroy memory. And Socrates and Plato had a famous dialogue about this in the Phaedrus. Right, that’s like an anxiety that’s just been really… there’s historical echoes actually all around the world that I detail in the book. That was a really fun section to write because I love history, too. But anyway, I’ll get to your question here, which is how do we help students make this transition? And again, I think we have to unpack that in a few different ways. And one is sort of starting with meeting both students and faculty where they are, engaging, I think, in some dialogue around “Why do you like a paper book? Why do you like to use a physical highlighter? Why do you like to doodle in the margins?” We’ll learn interesting things, and in the book, I do a little bit of a lit review of some major surveys that have been done around faculty and student perceptions of reading on paper and reading on screen and I’ll offer the really like two-minute gloss version of that, which is that the stated reasons these surveys have found is that, for both students and instructors alike, it is familiar. And there’s a perception that it’s better for their memory and attention. And you’re right, John, too, that some of that comes from neuromyths. Some of it just comes from feeling. A lot of the surveys are about, again, to the affect point, “I like the way the book feels in my hand.” “I like the weight of the book.” People, and this is my favorite, would even say things like “I like the smell of the pages.” And that’s all about feeling, that’s about emotions and the cognitive work are tied, of course. And I actually thought really distinctly of Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s work about this, that we can’t unpack the emotions from the learning itself. So all that’s important. So I say you have to start the dialogue there with your own local community and there might be some echoes of that national conversation. And so recognizing why you feel those ways might also help you to see how those feelings or how those perceptions translate into lived experience. A lot of the studies on moving students from print to digital environments are also focused on the memory and retention. And studies have mostly found that students do tend to remember more when they read on paper, but it’s because they don’t actually have strategies for reading in digital spaces. So, something else we might do is, to return to the earlier part of the conversation in some ways, at least, make explicit that there are strategies they’re using in the first place: “Wow, you really like to use the highlighter? What are you doing when you use the highlighter? Oh, you’re pointing out the most important parts of the section? Why is it important to find the most important parts of the section? How are you doing that? What do you do with that information?” Once you find those most important parts, then once you isolate out those skills and what you’re doing with them, we can think about: A. not just how you replicate that in a digital environment, but what a digital environment does differently. So, this is also, I think, part of the conversation needs to include making explicit what the affordances are of a digital environment beyond the fact of it being on a screen, recognizing that paper is a technology. And just as much as that laptops’ are a technology, your Kindle’s a technology. The other technology that I’ll throw in where I think students are doing a bunch of reading these days as their smartphones, I’ve had instructors tell me, “Wow, I’m so horrified that my students are doing all the reading on their phone,” and my response is “Well, especially now on this COVID-19 moment, our students might not have access to laptops that work that are as fast as their 5G network on their phones.” So, I think now more than ever, we have to be really accommodating in thinking about where mobile, and where the affordances of mobile, fit in… What kinds of applications and tools are available across these spaces to, again, both replicate the great labor and thinking around print, but that also take advantage of the easy abilities to link content and connect content across different spaces, the ability to curate and create collections of information across different spaces, and that ability to tag and sort different sets of ideas to see relationships and connections between ideas. This is just sort of the tip of the iceberg in terms of possibilities. I will say I recognize the constraints, I think, of digital environments. We can’t ignore things like screen fatigue. Rebecca, you talked about getting tired, your eyes getting tired reading on a screen, I feel that too. The blue light that emits from screens is really exhausting for our brains. I think probably everyone’s experiencing this even more in our move to living on the internet and our COVID-19 moment. So, I think part of this is also figuring out what are the strategies for avoiding fatigue. And in some ways, this can be good for our learning too. It might inspire us to take more breaks, to work in shorter and more concentrated bursts of time and to recognize and have a clear purpose in mind by working within those shorter bursts of time as well.

John: We’ve just been talking about faculty resistance to reading on mobile devices. But, faculty also often seem to have a resistance, back in the days, a long time ago, when we used to be in the classroom at times. There used to be this resistance to students using mobile devices in the classroom. Would you like to talk a little bit about how students, perhaps, might be using mobile devices in ways that may not be as negative as faculty might expect them to be.

Jenae: Yeah. Isn’t it funny how like mobile bans and laptop bans feel like that was so long ago at this moment of recording? Yeah, there’s a big chapter actually in the book about laptop and mobile device bans, because I think that context might come back again. We’ll see. So anyway, yes, there are number of, I think, productive things students are doing with mobile phones in class. One is that students might be using mobile as really their faster internet connection. I will say that mobile networks tend to be a bit more reliable than even if you are face to face. On-campus Wi Fi networks can be very unreliable. And it can certainly be more reliable than students’ home networks. But in the context of class itself, it might actually give students a more stable connection, which can mean greater access. From a learning and engagement perspective too, what students also might get from mobile that I think is really exciting, is the ability to do really flexible note taking and archiving of work. So mobile apps have the real benefit of being able to use your finger or a stylus to actually draw and annotate and nimbly really respond and react in real time. I actually have an activity in the book where I even suggest that instructors create an assignment where they think of students working through their reading as they might create like an Instagram or Snapchat story, where they can take quick screenshots with like emoji reactions from different parts of the book as a way to engage with it. So I think that our students have found really creative ways to engage. They might not realize that those are creative ways to engage. There’s actually a lot of literature that shows that sometimes students get a little uncomfortable when instructors try to like make their class like “My class is cool, it’s like Facebook for learning.” So I don’t know if I would go that direction. But rather, it’s really saying, “Hey, here are tools you can use to do the things that are really good for your learning,” rather than saying, “Learning is just like Facebook,” which makes some students feel a little bit like their lives are getting too uncomfortably blurred. I’ll say one last thing about the mobile phones in class, which is that for many students who are either working from home or staying connected to the family, it’s important to recognize that students might be needing to connect with people outside the classroom during class. That might seem like a distraction, but for many students, if they are caretakers, for example, they might need to be reading off of their phone, to also be checking to see “Okay, does my parent need me right now? Does my sibling need me right now? Does someone else I’m caring about really need me to stay connected and engaged during class?” Some people refer to these behaviors as being part of the digital underlife. Derek Mueller has a great essay about this concept that I think is really valuable. Maura Smale, I should say, and Mariana Regaldo have done really great work on how students are thinking about mobile as sort of lifelines to the world outside. So, I think that the benefits to mobile happen both at the learning level, but also the access and connection and inclusion level. And I don’t know, man, I don’t think we need policing of how our students are engaging with devices in class, as part of the work of showing compassion, I think, towards our students, is trusting and recognizing good intent. And if students don’t want to engage, they just want to disconnect, even if you ban the devices, maybe they’ll doodle and zone out.[LAUGHTER] So, like there are lots of ways to be distracted and the device is sort of a red herring in a way for that, in my opinion.

John: I found many ways to be distracted as a student long before there were cell phones. So, I fully agree with that. And it can also be a good indicator, if the instructor is walking around and sees a lot of students doing things that aren’t related to the class, that maybe there’s not as much engagement there as you might like.

Jenae: Yeah, exactly.

John: One of the differences between an e-text and a book is that generally the book doesn’t have pop-up messages that might interrupt your focus and attention. Most mobile devices, though, do. What can we do to help students perhaps better manage the distractions that they deal with when they’re reading on a mobile device?

Jenae: So this is tricky, because our brains respond to novelty. And of course, mobile phones have been designed to be addictive. [LAUGHTER] With all those pop-up notifications and things that fire off our endorphins. There’s a concrete tip, right, like encourage students to disable notifications for certain kinds of apps. Not all of our students know how to do that. I think, there is often assumptions too about a traditional college-aged student, or I’ll put traditional scare quotes in the air that our students between 18 and 21 know everything about all digital devices, because they are… and I just love this expression… digital natives… not a real thing… it doesn’t exist. [LAUGHTER] Because even if you’re born when technology’s invented, it doesn’t mean that you are adept at it in every single context and environment. So, I think offering some explicit, just tactical, infrastructure advice around that. The other thing that’s not a technical piece, that’s a cognitive piece, again, to help students recognize their purpose in reading too. So when you veer away to check a notification from your reading, why? Is it because you’re bored? Is it because the text is confusing? Is it because you simply just want to read the notification? Just recognizing and making clear what your intentions are as you’re reading can also be a way of managing attention. The other thing I’ll add around distraction, I think it’s important to recognize that attention does not look the same for every student, either. There are some students who I think actually read really well when they’re multitasking, so to speak. The example I go to is when teaching composition I always have students who work with like 5000, tabs open, approximate number, and they’ll often sort of flip between those tabs, and as an instructor I often asked about students; workflow, cause that’s just of interest to me. And many students will share that they’re looking at Wikipedia for an encyclopedic explanation of something they’ve read, or they’re looking up a word in the dictionary, or they’re looking for an image that illustrates something the book described. So sometimes that ability to kind of flip between different things might look like distraction. It might look like it’s not on task when, in fact, it very much could be tied into the task. Of course, those tabs could also be, you know, the latest TikTok stream, or whatever students are watching right now, which of course, can divert attention and isn’t particularly good for memory. But, I think that mindfulness about why they’re reading and why they might click a notification, just making that explicit, right. And rather than just being some sort of a punishment for the sake of being a punishment, or a better way to put this is rather than just sort of deriding the action as a given… really unpacking the assumption that distractions always bad, and thinking through what does it really mean to be distracted? And I suspect Jim Lang’s newest book on Teaching Distracted Minds is actually going to be a really helpful complement to some of this conversation, too. So I think that’s another text I’m really looking forward to reading as part of this conversation as well.

John: We are too and we’ve actually scheduled an interview with him in a few months when it’s closer to coming out to talk about that book.

Jenae: Oh, fabulous.

John: We’re very much looking forward to it, and I think many faculty will be.

Jenae: Super relevant.

Rebecca: I think related to some of the distraction stuff that you’re talking about to is format, and that digital texts come in different formats. And the idea that students are not digital natives, that they don’t just somehow magically know how to use technology unless we’re showing them how to use it. I found that showing students how to take advantage of accessibility features and alternative formats and the ability to make their text reflow, and things like that, has really opened doors for students because they just didn’t even know that those features were available to them and really changed how they experienced texts or other media on their devices, because they could really change how they could actually consume it or interact with it.

Jenae: Yeah, I’m so glad you brought up accessibility features. Because, you’re right, that text to speech features, screen reading features, even the visual accessibility features that are part of digital technologies… even just understanding where the alt text is… and where, like, image descriptions might be, makes a difference for all learners. This is of course part of a universal design for learning philosophy, that when students are aware, to your point, Rebecca, of the technologies available to them, it’s all students who benefit from that because it gives them multiple models for engaging with those ideas. It gives them multiple models for potentially representing ideas themselves. And so the book really actually deals with UDL philosophies, at its core. I almost had an entire chapter dedicated to UDL. And then as I was revising it, it’s like, I can’t even have just one chapter. This has to be strung into every chapter in this book. And to me, that’s the most compelling reason to encourage students to read in digital spaces, the most compelling reason to encourage faculty to overcome, I think, sometimes resistant perspectives about what digital reading doesn’t offer is, think about the range of students you’re seeing, their ranges of circumstances, their ranges of thinking about the world. And when you open up all these new possibilities for reading in digital spaces, you get to include so many more people who maybe never thought of themselves as readers, right? Who weren’t those avid readers reading their paperback books in the bathtub at three in the morning. That was me. It might be just a different group that you get to bring into the fold and who get to maybe experience reading as they might have never thought of reading before. I found like a million think pieces that were like “Are audio books real books?” Does it mean something to read an audio book, and I did a little bit of like a forehead slap. “Of course, reading an audio book is reading a book. It’s still reading.” But when we disparage based on media, we just exclude so many potential people we could just bring into the fold of being readers and finding people who want to be excited about reading.

John: So besides the accessibility and the UDL nature of this, there’s also some advantages, I think in terms of perhaps the cost of digital readings. College textbooks have grown in price fairly dramatically over the last 30 or 40 years to become a much larger share of college costs. So, by encouraging that, aren’t we also perhaps making education at least a little bit more affordable?

Jenae: I hope so. And certainly the OER movement is really tied to these conversations about accessibility. So, yes, I think that the more we can point students to digital resources that might reduce those kinds of costs, we respond to a major faculty concern. Surveys from EDUCAUSE and the Babson survey group actually suggest that one of faculty members’ major concerns is this very question of affordability. So, if we could be more open minded about the ways that we teach certain academic skills, we kind of kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. We manage to kind of help solve the affordability piece, while also expanding out accessibility options. And I think OERs could be even more powerful as a resource, if we help students understand how to leverage them beyond the ways that they might just read a website, which if you look to research and usability studies and user experience, a lot of people read websites in what’s been called like an L-formation, like the eyes sort of scan only a portion of the page. It’s not really reading in depth. And that’s because people have certain behaviors or attitudes about what they’re trying to find on a website. And you can spend hours and hours thinking about the user experience of website and where you place the pieces to draw attention to the most important pieces of information. And so that’s a matter of training, right? We know that website genres invite certain kinds of reading. So, if we open it up to students, we say, “Hey, you’re going to be doing all your reading online in this OER, that’s a more affordable option. How will you identify the important pieces? What’s going to be your behavior through this text? This isn’t just like reading the website for the news. It isn’t just like going on your Twitter feed. This operates in a very different way. Here’s how we can leverage that and not just sort of feel like we’re following the same patterns we do with other pieces of kind of flattened out web content. So, I deviated a little from your affordability question, but it got me thinking about the UX side as well.

Rebecca: I think one of the exciting things that you discuss in your book, but also capture in the infographic that you are including in the Pedagogies of Care project are some really interesting ways that students can read in a digital environment that allows us to make connections and interact with other people and other texts. Can you talk about some of the ways that we can use digital texts that people don’t always think about.

Jenae: Sure. So, I have a framework that’s at the core of the book. I don’t call it the five C’s for digital read, I call this the digital reading framework, but it is the five C words. So, some of the strategies include connection, curation, contextualization, creation, and what I call contemplation. And so some things people might not think about is when I think especially with connection and curation. We’ll start with curation, that’s actually the first item in the framework. Reading is always an act of curation in many ways. When you take a text, unless it’s just something you’re reading for fun. I should say reading is always an act of curation in an academic or a learning context, because you’re trying to sort of parse out what pieces of information or what examples are the best examples to help me make a claim, remember an idea, draw a conclusion, whatever the case might be. And so with a digital text, what you can do is you can make that curation process visible by… and this is simple… this isn’t even high tech: copying and pasting parts of your text into a taxonomy of your own design that helps you to see “Oh, right, this collection of quotes is really about this topic that I’m learning about in my class.” “Oh, wow, this text A and text B are both speaking to content area one.” You can really bridge that much more easily than on paper when you might have to, you know, an old school technique would be to make like note cards, where you write down the quotes and their different paper books that correspond to these topics. It’s a great strategy, but pretty cumbersome and time consuming, and difficult to manage if you don’t have access to print books, like the moment we’re in right now. So, that might be one strategy that is exciting, I think, for a digital environment, especially. I’ll point to creation as another example. So one of the benefits of being in a digital environment is you can really manipulate text easily. And that goes to everything from modifying fonts, especially if you’re just reading something off of like, an HTML regular old website. You could copy and paste that text into any word processor, you could change the font colors, shapes, sizes, to create different kinds of taxonomies. and customize that more, even in text like a PDF document that you can’t customize the design of text itself, you can still lift parts of that text, you can convert it into different file forms to modify the appearance as well and create something new for you a different kind of map, that’s not just limited to highlighting and doodles, but is actually dealing with and manipulating the words themselves. You can’t lift words out of a print book. So it’s kind of cool to think about what could you do if you could take these words. In the creation chapter I give an example of an activity where you could even create like a visualization of the text itself or create like an audio guide through your text, or maybe you lift those words and create word clouds or mind maps to see relationships between ideas that way. I’m sort of riffing abstractly here because I think you would do this differently depending on different concrete disciplines and contexts. But I think that the framework itself offers lots of different options that I point out the creation and creation categories in particular because in many ways it is the most unique for the digital context and might be the most surprising to people who might think of reading as just a process of underlining, and maybe leaving notes in the margin. There’s a lot more ways to think about and play with the ideas you get from text than just like “This idea is cool” or like “I have a question here.” You could expand a lot more and do a lot more and do a lot more to make text dynamic, I think.

John: One of the things I’ve been using in a couple of my classes for the last couple years is Hypothesis, where I have digital versions of some readings, generally working papers and studies, within the LMS. And then students go through and annotate it and tag it, which kind of forces them, I think, to analyze things a little bit more deeply. And they can comment on each other’s and so forth. And it’s been a really useful tool, which wouldn’t work very well with a physical text.

Jenae: Yes, I love the collaborative component of a tool like Hypothesis, too. It makes reading social, which is something we also lose out on sometimes, unless you go to a used bookstore and you find like the treasure of a book that has someone else’s old annotations. That’s like one of my favorite things of all time. I miss used bookstores in our COVID-19 moment, I have to say. But, Hypothesis, it’s like getting to uncover that treasure of seeing how someone else thought of something, to make it clear that no one text exists in isolation, that you always necessarily need to have text together. I always feel reluctant to cite myself, but I’ll do it since I’m talking about my book in this podcast, anyway. I actually wrote a book chapter all about social annotation in an edited collection about marginalia, that I think speaks to exactly what tools like Hypothesis do. There’s actually a ton of great tools on the market now that do similar things. Perusall is also really good for doing what Hypothesis does. It’s a bit more of a closed system than Hypothesis. It doesn’t exist on the open web, it kind of locks it into a class community. I think there are pros and cons to that. PowerNotes is also a really cool tool that’s new on the market, where students can also collaboratively comment on each other’s. It’s not annotations tied directly to the text, but you comment on annotations in an outline view. So, it kind of privileges how students are rearranging ideas and building them into a topically formed outline. In the book, I have an appendix of tools that will be current as of the writing. Unfortunately, in any book about technology, the instant you publish it, some of it’s obsolete. So I tried really hard in the book not to get too tied to particular tools, because I wanted the concepts to be sort of translatable, because the sort of secret to this book is it’s about digital reading. But really, it’s more about having an expansive attitude to what it means to be a reader in the first place. And it happens to be responding to digital media as the technology that is most prevalent and most centrally part of our lives right now. But I think it’s really valuable to talk about particular tools to make this more concrete. That’s why there are tools in that appendix. And John, I love that you’re using Hypothesis. Have you tried out that too, Rebecca, or other kinds of annotation tools like that?

Rebecca: I haven’t, but I’m looking for an option that will allow us to also comment on images and layout.

Jenae: Yes.

Rebecca: So there’s some limitations to Hypothesis in the ways that I would want my students to use it. So, I haven’t quite found the best solution yet for what I’m hoping I can get in place for the fall?

Jenae: Yeah, I really would like to see a tool that does better image annotation too.

John: That might be an interesting application of VoiceThread, for example, where students can put the image on the screen and either put text notes to it or annotate the image directly, or just talk over it.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s really like Hypothesis and VoiceThread need to like talk to each other and make a tool that combines some of the features of both, [LAUGHTER] because I like the fact that you can go to an actual web page and interact with something in that space where it was designed, because the design piece of it is actually important to me, and it’s dynamic nature, rather than just taking screenshots. So, that’s where I’m finding limitations in the tools currently.

Jenae: VoiceThread is a great recommendation though, John for engaging with multimedia. I love that students too can comment with either text or audio or video. And this conversation’s really speaking to the importance of space and making options and opportunities available. And to Rebecca’s point about limitations, it’s also important from the instructor side to know… Rebecca, it sounds like you have a really clear sense of purpose, what you want your students to do. It sounds like you have that too, John, and that’s where we really want people to begin… this is my technologist side speaking… we want people to begin with their own pedagogical purpose, with their goals, before they start selecting tools. That’s the danger in this conversation about digital reading is that we start first with foregrounding the tool and don’t think about the why. So I always like to begin with that purpose piece. It’s important to go down the features rabbit hole, because part of how we shape the environment. But, we also don’t want ta decision to adopt novel things for the sake of adopting novel things.

Rebecca: I think the foundation of compassion in the work that you’re doing is really important too, because it really is a very inclusive perspective in who’s involved in reading, why we’re reading, and it’s against the deficit model. I really appreciate the idea that there’s like a future of reading that’s exciting and new, and we can all be a part of it, that really supports this moment today. And I’d like to hear a little bit more about some of the compassion pieces of your work if you would be willing to share them.

Jenae: Sure. So, I’d say put up like the UDL piece that kind of gets strung throughout. This compassion piece to me gets threaded throughout the book in the same way that I think my work on UDL, or grappling with UDL, gets threaded across the book, because I think a student-centered philosophy is inherently compassionate. If you’re thinking about who’s going to be a part of your learning experience on the other end, and recognize that students are really bringing good intent into the classroom… when you start from that space and saying, students are the ones experiencing this learning. And for the most part, we have to trust our students to want to come and and have agency in their learning experience. I think something that’s important when you center compassion is recognizing, too, that not every student is like you. I know for me as a really enthusiastic reader, it’s easy occasionally to feel disheartened when students don’t like to read, or don’t want to read, or don’t do the reading. At the end of my book, in my conclusion, I talked about hearing lots of hallway conversations as an instructor about “Oh, I’m so upset. My students never do the reading. They don’t like to do the readings.” and that can feel sad because we want people to feel as excited about what we assigned to them as we feel about it. A third thread in the book then is sort of saying, “Hey, when you can open up your practices, you also help students come at reading where they are.” a student-centered design philosophy says, “You’re going to find your own enthusiastic pathway in here.” And we also need to recognize as part of the compassionate philosophy, also a forgiveness side of like, “If you don’t like this, this isn’t what you like, that’s cool, too.” I was never a strong STEM student. And so I remember in college, I never put very much time… I took like the dinosaurs class for my science class, which I thought be like the easy science option. It was not. I’ll just say that. That was like one of the hardest classes I took in college was the class on dinosaurs. We had to identify dinosaur bone structures. [LAUGHTER] That was really tough, but I can still tell you the different kinds of dinosaur hips, just saying, if you ever want to know, that the dinosaurs have two different kinds of hips. So, I learned things but that’s not to say that like I did the bare minimum in the dinosaurs class to learn the dinosaur bone structures. And I think that we have to accept that our students like that our classes might not be the class, this might not be their major, this might not be what they’re passionate about. So, the more options that we give, to helping them kind of get into this, the more we can again, recognize, see, appreciate, where they are at different moments. One last thing I’ll say about compassionate courses in our current moment, where we’re all sort of forced to be remote, this compassion is even more important. So, I see understanding the possibilities of digital reading as yet another way to include students who might not have preferred to read on screen, but who find they’re forced to because they don’t have access to printers to make paper copies of their readings, they don’t have access to the library, because every library everywhere is closed. And so, a part of this is saying, “Hey, you can still get what you need. Do what is motivating you right now, even if you don’t have access to these materials, rather than kind of falling back to this model of ‘being online is deficient.’ ‘Reading digitally is deficient,’” and saying “Look, it doesn’t have to be, and it might not still be your preference.” I mean, I think lots of students at this moment are going to appreciate face-to-face instruction even more. Many might find a lot to love about remote learning, it’s going to be a range. But again, the more options we can give, the more we show compassion to the different circumstances and needs that might be shaping our student experiences. So, kind of a long answer to that question, but there’s a lot to unpack there too. I think.

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

Jenae: So a few things are next, given that the book will not be out until sometime in early 2021, I am designing right now as workshops and webinars around components of the book that I’m hoping will make certain pieces sort of portable and accessible in the meantime, since as at the time of recording, a lot of colleges are deciding about remote learning options, hybrid learning options, HyFlex learning options, so I’m hoping to tie in some conversation about digital reading with designing in different course models and how we could design learning activities around reading and writing that might be aligned with some online course design work. So I’m really, really excited about thinking through those possibilities. Another component, and I don’t know if this is a piece of writing yet, or something else. But a big piece of the book that I had to cut was about how digital reading operates in the service of developing digital literacy. I’m really interested in thinking about how, in our moment of being more connected and more remote, how colleges can better support students in acquiring digital literacies of various kinds, whether this is using different kinds of software applications for learning, or whether this is just becoming sort of more aware and critical of the infrastructures and tools that shape our reading experiences. I have a chapter in the book that’s all about kind of the dark underbelly of EdTech and the ways in which, even with adopting new tools, we need to be mindful of the lifespan of digital archives as in things that are on the web live forever. [LAUGHTER] And there’s still a lot more awareness raising we need to do and questioning we need to do of people who design EdTech solutions to make sure that we’re remaining cognizant of student safety and privacy. And as instructors, we need to know how to ask good questions about data collection, even around work like reading that might feel like it’s sort of innocuous and not terribly invasive. It still could be, depending on what students are reading or what they’re commenting on. So, I do think that there’s more work, I would like to do that interrogates how we help students become more aware and more critical of the infrastructures in which texts are available to them. And on the instructor end, I’d like to help think about how instructors themselves might develop the literacies to also be able to question and adopt ethical solutions for reading as well.

John: I’m really looking forward to reading your book, and I’ll put it on pre-order as soon as it’s listed somewhere. And we will share a link to your infographic and any other things you referred to in our show notes.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m looking forward to reading your work and also your new work that you’re thinking about and ruminating over and also the workshops and things that you might do related to your book prior to your book coming out. Thanks so much for joining us.

Jenae: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

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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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86. Attention Matters

Our smartphones, smart watches, and other mobile devices provide us with a growing number of convenient distractions that can interfere with our productivity and learning. In this episode, Dr. Michelle Miller joins us to discuss one approach to help students better understand how to focus their attention.

Michelle is the Director of the First-Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and the President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. She co-curated 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

Transcript

John: Our smartphones, smart watches, and other mobile devices provide us with a growing number of convenient distractions that can interfere with our productivity and learning. In this episode, we examine one approach to help students better understand how to focus their attention.

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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. Michelle Miller. Michelle is the Director of the First-Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and the President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. She co-curated 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: Hi, it’s so great to be here.

John: We’re happy to talk to you again. Our teas today are:

Michelle: Well, it is still technically morning here in Arizona where I’m speaking from so I am going with home-brewed coffee today with a whole lot of sugar and a little bit of cream.

Rebecca: I have an Orange Cylon tea today.

John: Cylon? Weren’t they on Battlestar Galactica?

Rebecca: How do you say it?

John: I believe it’s Ceylon, and I have Ginger Peach Black tea.

Rebecca: So we invited you here to talk about your Attention Matters project, Michelle. Could you tell us a little bit about the project?

Michelle: This is one of my favorite projects and really the most unique one that I’ve worked on, really going back to as long as I’ve been at Northern Arizona University. Attention Matters came about like this. After I wrapped up writing Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, I was really just still so engaged in this interest in disseminating cognitive psychology and cognitive science, and pulling out those key principles that we can all use in our lives and can make human wellbeing better and have all these great applications, and especially applications in teaching and learning environments. So you can probably guess that it has to do with attention and attentional processes in the mind and in the brain and how those play out in some different situations, especially with teaching and learning. Basically, the idea is that we do need to raise student awareness—and really raise all of our awareness—about how things like digital distraction—the smartphones, the alerts, the temptations that are always there when we’re online—all those can impact teaching and learning and things like memory as well. I had been really interested in finding ways to get that stuff out to students. So there were some people at my institution (at NAU), who knew that I was interested in that and that I really liked talking to students really directly about what they knew about attention, how things like attention and memory really work, addressing some myths and misconceptions that people tend to have about their own attention. So, I was interested in getting that out to students and faculty who knew that I did that would come to me and say, “Hey, can you come and talk to my students about this?” And I had kind of put together this PowerPoint presentation, and really interactive stuff where I could pull down some video clips and interactive demonstrations off the web and we could actually really get a discussion rolling about this. And so that was my idea. I was kind of going around with my little traveling show from class to class to get this out to students. And it’s obviously not terribly scalable for me to do that. I mean, how many students can I really reach that way? But I still really like doing it. So I was talking about some of these ideas with colleagues at one of our teaching day events at NAU—a lot of institutions have days like these and they’re just wonderful. They’re days when projects like this really get started—and I was talking to one of my most dynamic and really respected colleagues that I have at NAU, and that’s John Doherty. He is a brilliant instructional designer, who now works with the library at our institution but has held these roles for years at NAU. And he said, “You know, have you thought about putting this online? Have you thought about finding a way to make this an accessible online resource so that instead of you having to take your show out to different classes every semester, they can drop in and complete some of these?” and we started talking about what would that look like? How would we do it? Let’s put this together. We had no funding, there was no official initiative behind this. We just jumped in and decided to do this and he looped in some other really generous colleagues, who contributed from our e-Learning Center, and we put this together. I guess we’ll be talking some more about exactly how it’s configured, but we created this project and we’ve kept it going to this day. So this exists as an online resource at Northern Arizona University. I’ve also shared it with dozens of other institutions around the country and a few around the world, and at least one has turned it into their own module that works in their learning management system. It did win an Effective Practice Award from the Online Learning Consortium in 2015—and we were really, really proud of that—and I’ve written about it in a couple of other articles and publications, including one that came out a few years ago in Inside Higher Ed that got some nice feedback. So that’s how it started.

John: So how long does it take for students to complete this module?

Michelle: Well, it’s a module that self-enrolls so they don’t have to pay, there’s no extensive signup time or anything like that. And it does take about one to two hours for students to work through what’s an online sequence of different activities, discussions that they posted, and other types of reflections and self-assessment. So it is something that works quite well as an extra credit resource and that’s exactly how it’s perpetuated in its current form at NAU. So, faculty can voluntarily opt to incorporate it as an extra credit activity in an existing class anywhere in the curriculum. It tends to be particularly popular with our STEM teachers who have these large science and foundational science and mathematics courses, but anybody can use it. And yeah, then students put in a few hours, and they get this experience that they’re really not going to get anywhere else in that class.

Rebecca: What do students find the most surprising about this module?

Michelle: Well, let’s see. You’re picking up on a theme that we really did try to work into the design of the module itself—that element of surprise—that we typically know a lot less about how our attention works than we think. We take in a lot less than we assume or believe that we are. And so time and again, that’s exactly what we asked students. “What surprised you about this demonstration?” Students are surprised at how much can get past them when they are looking at, say, one aspect of a visual scene, but not paying attention to the whole thing. And you’re going to say that I’m going to be kind of weaseling out and talking around some of these issues. Some of these demonstrations do depend on the element of surprise. So I don’t want to talk too much about exactly what students are looking for in these different displays. Some of our more key demonstrations in this module have to do with some phenomena that most people, even if they don’t know the technical term, they’ve seen something about it before. So one is the change blindness effect, and this has to do with the fact that when we are paying attention to one aspect of a visual scene—like we’re looking at what somebody’s doing with their hands, or we’re looking at their car and not something else in the background of a street scene—we remember very little from moment to moment. And that’s why if somebody is, say, momentarily distracted or they just are really focused on one part of it, they can miss these huge visual changes. And then with multimedia, we can rewind and show you, “Oh, hey, here’s what you missed.” …and, it’s just shocking. And it’s something that is very robust in fact. You don’t have to have these perfectly controlled lab conditions, it happens pretty frequently, very reliable, so this makes a very good demonstration of attention and how attention works. We take a lot of these change blindness effects and those are very surprising. So students time and again will say, “I was surprised that I missed X, Y, and Z out of this thing that I saw.” And when they rewound it, “I just couldn’t believe that it got past me.”

Rebecca: Seems like this is a technique that pickpockets use pretty frequently. [LAUGHTER]

Michelle: Yes it is. [LAUGHTER] …and I was actually pickpocketed when I was abroad last year too. It’s something that can happen in a real scene, it happens visually. We are really subject to attention. And actually, if you’d like to, for people who would like to read a lot more—would like to do a deeper dive on this—there’s actually some really fascinating work on how stage magicians use this as well. So this is something that stage magicians have really known about in a different kind of arena for many, many years and is a very key aspect of what they do. So if you’re familiar with the concept of misdirection, it ties into that. So this is something very close to my heart because a former colleague from NAU named Anthony Barnhart is himself a very skilled stage magician and he is also a PhD who works in visual attention, so a lot of his work plays those out. So exactly, it’s something that we can all really get excited about. There’s these neat connections in so many different areas that are very, very relatable. So this is part of the fun of bringing attention and attention research out into this area to our students.

John: I want to put in a plug for another podcast actually, that came out on April 25 from the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast. There was a discussion on that, where Bonni Stachowiak was talking about something she used to demonstrate—so it won’t be one of the demonstrations you used—where she played some audio to students of a recording where there were three separate conversations going on, and she asked them to interpret it, and they couldn’t recall much of anything. But then she divided them up and she has some of them to focus on one conversation, others to focus on the other, and others to focus on the third, and then they were able to reproduce pretty much everything. But there was that issue of being able to focus on particular things and that focused attention, I think, is an important component to that. It’s not visual imagery, but it’s still, I think, the same sort of processing.

Michelle: Yes, absolutely. I mean, this is the real fun of teaching something like an attention module—which I get to do since I’m a psychology professor—because there are these neat interactive demonstrations. So those are the types of things that besides just the multimedia, and these neat demonstrations and things like change blindness that are out there on the web, I was able to kind of dive into my repertoire of those demonstrations of trying to focus when you’re distracted and how different competing inputs can take over and that affects your memory of which is interpretation, all these things I was able to pull out of my teaching repertoire and think about how could these be put online into this really massive course that students can come into, and can you make that work? And using those to—instead of trying to teach theoretical concepts about attention—to raise students awareness of an investment of that idea of being good stewards of their own attentional resources. To realize that yeah, things like learning by osmosis don’t really happen… that we need focused attention in order to learn, and that we aren’t always aware in the moment of just how our focus is being divided. And once we have lost focus on something, it’s very, very hard—if not impossible—to recapture that and get that information back. So establishing those ideas, getting students aware of and invested in them and getting us thinking about, “Alright, so how does this relate to very practical questions like you’ve got a cell phone and you’re in a class of 200 students, and you’ve got five friends texting you, what do you do? Or what if you’re sitting next to that neighbor in this large class, and they’ve got their laptop going, and it’s distracting? Or even low tech stuff like conversations.” That’s an issue that’s been around forever. So getting students kind of thinking ahead about that, instead of just kind of reactively—or worse depending on the teacher to tell them what to do in this situation. So those are some of the ways in which I was trying to weave together the teaching of some basic aspects of attention and cognition with, “Alright, you’re the student here. How are you going to handle this in your day-to-day life?”

Rebecca: How have your students who have completed the module change their behavior or used this information in a practical way?

Michelle: Well, just with so many of our teaching interventions that we do and our student initiatives that we do, I go to say it is very, very hard—not impossible—but that’s going to be a much harder and more long-term process of determining what changes in terms of actual behavior, the choices that students make. And I want to be real upfront here that in putting together and running this module, while we have done some basic empirical work on things like attitude change and knowledge change. I don’t know. I don’t know if students are more likely to turn off their cell phone and put it in their backpack, but I will say that what students say and do in the module itself is quite encouraging, quite eye opening. I mean, we asked them—and we could talk a little bit more about the design in maybe a minute—but we asked them at the end to tell us, “Alright, what is your plan going forward for managing your own attention? What’s your plan for having you manage your technology instead of your technology managing you?” And I am always surprised at the sophistication and the commitment that they expressed in these things, how they really personalized these concepts. So they will say, “From now on, I really am going to put my phone in airplane mode, or I’ll use the Do Not Disturb functions so that if that there’s a real emergency, my mom and dad need to talk to me, here’s what I’m going to do,” or a lot of what we exchange ideas on towards the end of the module when we say: “What’s your plan?” are, what’s kind of ironically, technology to manage your technology. So there are a range of other things that students can do—apps that are out there—that will do things like give an auto bounce back message when you’re in class, they’ll shut down certain problematic sites—that’s a favorite of mine because I definitely wouldn’t have any of this writing or anything to get this work done if I didn’t have a few checks on my own internet usage while I’m using my laptop—so you can make great concrete plans to do that as well. So those are some of the things that students say about their future behaviors assumption of this class. But yeah, if we look at something—I mean, I do hope perhaps in the Fall when I have a new student coming in—to look at things like longer term differences in say GPA, but those global measures, it can be very hard to discern the influence of something like that. But I do think that’s kind of the next step with this project.

John: In terms of the motivation for this, one of the things you’ve done is—I believe—you’ve looked at the relationship between the counterproductive belief scale and multitasking behavior in a convenience sample that you had worked with. Could you tell us a little bit about what you were looking at there and what you found?

Michelle: Yeah, and you know—just to give a sense of how those measures fit into all this—the part of what I’ve really enjoyed about this project as well has been the fact that it’s an opportunity to gather some data, both those qualitative impressions from students—which are so incredible to test and speaking in their own voices, their own experiences with digital distraction, that’s really neat—but we also have these very brief quantitative measures that we developed as part of the project and built in originally just as part of the assessment, but they have really become part of my research as well. So the counterproductive belief survey is a short 20 question set of items that breaks down in three big groups or subscales and they tap into what do people know and believe about their own attention and memory. So things like “quizzing yourself is a good way to remember information.” And, if we remember back to the podcast that we did together on retrieval practice, that’s such a bedrock idea about how attention to memory works, and it’s primarily an area of memory—but it relates to attention in that we kind of can contrast that with another item that says, “Oh, rereading things or skimming things in your notes is a good way to learn.” So that effortful, attentive processing is really important for memory and other things like really passes. Just seeing something go by doesn’t help you remember. So that’s the sort of thing that is tapped by that scale. So we look at what do they know about attention and memory? What do they know about attention itself like how limited it is, and so forth. And there’s actually another piece of it too that I’ve termed self-exceptionalism. The idea that, “Well, you know, other people might have a hard time texting and driving, but I’m really good, so I can do that,” or “I’m better than most people at dividing attention across different areas.” Oh, and I should say as well that this scale too was really inspired by some concepts in an absolutely fantastic book by Christopher Chabris and Dan Simon—two attention researchers—called The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us. So I went into that book and kind of pulled some of their core concepts and turned that into this counterproductive belief survey. So that’s what we can survey people on, the kind of, “What do you know?” Now the multitasking behaviors inventory was a self-report survey that looked at how often people said they multitasked with certain kinds of media or online types of things and how they did that in different day-to-day settings. So we could kind of cross those in a way so that we could ask, “How often do you do email that’s not relevant to the task at hand? And how often do you do this in classes if you take classes? How often do you do this at work? How often do you do this in social areas?” And then we can go through those same situations with other things like casual gaming or social media, or things like that. So we can also query people and get that sense of what they said about how frequently they found themselves doing this in day-to-day life. And in this survey that we ran with worldwide convenience online sample, we did find that there was a relationship between what people believed about attention and memory and how often they said they did these multitasking behaviors, which just establishing that yeah, beliefs relate to behaviors, at least self-reported behaviors. I think that was an important step. And we found that in particular, that correlation—that relationship—was strongest for the part of the counterproductive belief scale, specifically relating to attention. And that makes sense. So yeah, if I understand attention a little bit better, if I know “Oh, hey, this is limited and I’m not even going to know that I’m distracted until it’s too late,” then hey, I’m less likely to say, “Yeah, I sit in class and I do email because what could it possibly matter?” Right? So that’s something that we kind of uncovered and revealed as part of this project.

John: You mentioned the development process. Could you tell us a little bit about how this project was developed and how it’s evolved?

Michelle: In the design process for this—since it was just a project we put together spontaneously out of interest—we had a lot of opportunity to just go about it in a completely fresh new way. It wasn’t like being handed a course redesign project where new classes developed where you kind of have a rut that you’re already in. So with the design process—so I work really, really closely with John Doherty, who again, put in so much of the intellectual power behind this and made so many of the key design decisions and helped me with that. So we worked together to really talk about, “Okay, here’s sort of what we want. Here’s our philosophy,…” and then he—and again, with input from other instructional design colleagues—said, “Okay, how about this particular resource? How about this particular way of setting this up in the learning management system?” and they were just things that I would never have thought to come up with. So, with the philosophy—or grounding principles of what we wanted—we wanted to show don’t tell, we did not want it to be just this flat website that was like, “Okay, here’s a list of 20 things that I’m telling you not to do,” that we wanted students to have this experience of exploring this on their own, and have these surprising and interactive demonstrations. We did want to have those very selective, curated set of principles about attention that we wanted to convey and we didn’t want it to be academic—this is not a psychology course, not the way it would be taught in the psychology class—but it was very, very important to me that everything that we convey to students be grounded in science. And, if you just Google attention and attention demonstrations, you’re going to get lots of fun stuff off of the web, but this is an area that I already knew there’s a tremendous amount of misinformation, so everything had to be top notch in terms of what we were telling students. And we also wanted it to be something that had an open resource feel to it, something that we could kind of take apart and share with other people that wouldn’t be this one specific package that you had to either, Heaven forbid, purchase or that would be very hard to convey. We wanted it to be something that could be used in a lot of ways by a lot of people and adapted. So that’s what we wanted to do. And our design philosophy kind of converged too on this being a little bit like a MOOC—a Massive Open Online Course—so it’s got that flavor as well. Because it’s not part of my teaching load or anybody else’s, it has to be something that this does not result in a lot of papers or exams for me to grade. That’s just not feasible. It has to be something that can be run with very light interactions from me, so that’s what we were going for. So with that, it became this really creative, open-ended process because they would come up with research and say, “Hey, here’s this video I found,” I would say, “Well, no, it doesn’t really tie to this or it kind of conveys this in a way that I don’t like,” or “Oh my gosh, that’s wonderful.” Just for an example, John and his colleagues came up with one of the videos that I will talk about a little bit. It was put together by a driving safety initiative in Belgium, so it was actually subtitled, and it’s this crazy thing called the Text and Driving Test where it’s sort of like an online prank, where a student taking a driving test is set up to believe that now we’re asking everybody to text while they drive around the drivers’ training course. And havoc ensues, and the students are yelling and saying, “There’s no way this is safe, nobody can do this,” and that is something that I would never have thought to put in there, but that is something that students can definitely relate to since many of them have only recently learned to drive. And they know about the dangers of texting and driving, which—while it’s not learning specifically—it does kind of tie back to that idea that when we’re distracted, we’re oftentimes the last to know and the consequences are disastrous. So that’s how this process played out.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how the faculty have responded? You mentioned that a lot of faculty are using it as extra credit assignments and obviously, if it’s got distribution beyond just your institution, people are obviously engaged with this, but can you give us a little more specifics about what faculty are seeing the student benefit of doing this in their classes?

Michelle: Here to, this is something where really systematic impressions is a project for the future. But there’s absolutely a “voting with your feet” component to this. My fellow faculty have been so willing to incorporate this into their classes, especially those who are teaching with STEM classes, as I said, those really tend to be pretty popular. They are really, really careful about where they put their class time. Their classes are so sequenced and there’s so much in them, that they’re not going to sacrifice a moment or a point, if they don’t believe that this is something that they really want to get across to their students. And, I think this is reflected in some of the numbers which I just drew up as of today since we have students coming through this module all the time at NAU. We have had 4,481 unique users since the inception of this module and about 3,100 have gone all the way through and completed it, which for a MOOC, that’s a pretty good completion rate. So faculty’s willingness to really incorporate this as a core part of what they’re offering students, I think, speaks very highly—and again, I’m grateful to my colleagues. Because this sort of thing would not work if faculty don’t really endorse it, and not just with, “Hey, you can do this, but I will give you credit for doing this.” Another part of this too, though, I think—and especially for those people who might want to try to replicate something like this at their institution—is really needing to look at it from that faculty side as well of how can we make this a really kind of painless and low-investment proposition for faculty. So, you know, being able to really assure that the students are getting something where the science has been vetted, it’s going to pay off for the time invested, but also they don’t need to grade or support it, and it’s not they don’t care about this issue, it’s just really, they’re as stretched as they can be. So what students actually get at the end is a certificate of completion. So it’s something that our learning management system makes it very, very easy for them to just send right to their professors so the professor to mark them down for extra credit. So streamlining that last piece of that I think has been very helpful too for getting that positive faculty reaction.

John: If faculty would like to use this, or to use this approach, how can they go about doing that?

Michelle: Well, let’s see. I think first of all, I really encourage faculty to get a grounding in some of the basic issues and it’s not something, even as a cognitive psychologist, I’m not going to say “Oh, go out there, make a deep dive into the journal articles on this.” There are now some really high quality resources that talk about student distraction in a reasoned and evidence-based way which is so important. I would encourage them to consult—first off—Jim Lang’s excellent teaching distracted students series that has come out in the Chronicle of Higher Education. And he’s just been a really great voice for this, for giving a balanced reasoned take on the issues. So, I think getting familiar with that. Now, really playing around too with like what we did, to say what would be the best way to engage students in this, with that engagement idea of being really key here. And we’ve had such success with this MOOC approach, this online module approach at NAU. If they’d like to do something like that, of course, I say, “Get in touch with your local e-Learning Center and instructional designers to look at that.” There’s just no way that I could have put together something like this without that kind of input to set up the design in the way that we did and to come up with all these innovations. So, seeing whether there are some productive collaborations that can be done there, or perhaps with the library leadership and staff as well. So, having an idea of what does your initiative look like, what approach you’re going to use, how are you going to get it out there to students, is it going to meet with the faculty as we do, or something else? Now, if they would like to specifically take advantage of what we’ve developed as far as Attention Matters, contacting me directly by email or any of my other modalities is the way to go. Now what we have is not a slick commercial type of module that you can just pop open. But we have all of our materials unbundled. Everything from the self-assessments that students can take, the different surveys that we developed if they want to use those, the very short conversational introductions and summaries that I wrote—you’re welcome to those as well—and we can help you to an extent to put that together or give you what you need to create something like this in your own learning management system. And so we’ve had some colleagues who’ve been really willing to do that and to put their own spin on this and make it work for their own students and their own environment, so that’s something that you can do as well. We have a chapter out in a publication that’s free online—it was put out for the Society of Teaching Psychology—that talks a little bit more in depth about the different pieces and some things we found as far as attitude and belief change, so that I think is a good general appeal reading that you can do. And we’ll have, hopefully, some more publications coming out on this. And of course, they can always come to my website or talk to me if you’d like to do a more deep dive, put together a workshop for faculty, or anything else like that on this issue of distraction for students and how to build students skills in this area. I really come to believe that this is a metacognitive skill for the 21st century. There’s so much discussion and debate about what sort of policy should we have, what do we tell students to do or not to do? And I just think we need to come at it in a different way of looking at this as something that students need to master for themselves, to understand for themselves, and really make their own plan for how this is going to be a part of their life, kind of managing their own distractions and what they should know about their own minds. So I’m always really, really happy to share more and to talk more about this because it is just such an issue that I care so much about.

John: And as one of the campuses where Michelle has given workshops, we’d also encourage you to contact her about giving a workshop on these or other materials.

Rebecca: It’s also a topic that, like many others, like learning how to learn and other things that we’ve talked about with you, Michelle—and also other episodes of the podcast—students don’t innately know these things. I think sometimes the assumption is that we know about attention, but there’s lots to learn about it. So you got to meet people where they’re at and remember that that’s not necessarily something that they know about and maybe be willing to spend some time on these issues because in the long run, it might help them engage in whatever subject matter you’re hoping to get them engaged in.

Michelle: Absolutely.

John: And they’ll be more productive in the rest of their lives because these distractions are not going to be going away anytime in the near future.

Michelle: Absolutely, absolutely. I think we’re all completely on the same page as far as those ideas are concerned.

John: We always end the podcast with a question—as you know—what are you doing next?

Michelle: One of the big things, my big project for the summer, is to continue actually revising and getting out there an article that does go into more depth about the impact of the project itself. And I’m spending a lot of this upcoming summer pushing a lot of different kinds of learning related research projects ahead. I’ve got quite a few things in the cooker and I love them, but that’s how the summer is going to go. I am continuing in particular to work on some neat projects having to do with virtual reality for education with the immersive VR lab we have at NAU, so that’s all part of this kind of big complex of interest that I have around the mind, how we take in information, and teaching and learning. I’ll be continuing to work with faculty doing some speaking and some workshops, and I will be tackling my own long, growing, and rather intimidating reading list at this point. So much good work is coming out now, so many books, so many articles. So, I’m really looking forward to continuing to get through those this summer.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much, Michelle. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you and I think faculty will engage with your materials but also just think about attention as a topic that they might want to tackle with our students.

John: It’s always a pleasure talking to you.

Michelle: Likewise, always a pleasure.

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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 Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.

70. Dynamic lecturing

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

Show Notes

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

Tea For Teaching episodes referenced

Student Feedback tools

Transcript

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

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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.

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

Christine: Thanks.

John: Welcome.

Rebecca: Actually it should be “welcome back.”

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

John: Our teas today are:

Christine: I am not today.

Rebecca: I am drinking Lady Grey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: And an outline is like a scaffolding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christine: Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: We really appreciate you joining us.

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

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

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

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

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

John: Thank you.

[Music]

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

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

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

37. Evidence is Trending

Faculty are increasingly looking to research on teaching and learning to make informed decisions about their practice as a teacher and the policies their institutions put into place. In today’s episode, Michelle Miller joins us to discuss recent research that will likely shape the future of higher education.

Michelle is 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 is 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

Rebecca: Faculty are increasingly looking to research on teaching and learning to make informed decisions about their practice as a teacher and the policies their institutions put into place. In today’s episode we talk to a cognitive psychologist about recent research that will likely shape the future of higher education.
[Music]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[Music]

John: Our guest today is Michelle Miller. Michelle is 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 is 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, Michelle!

Michelle: Hi, I’m so glad to be here.

Rebecca: Thanks for joining us.
Today’s teas are:

Michelle: I’m drinking a fresh peppermint infused tea, and it’s my favorite afternoon pick-me-up.

Rebecca: …and it looks like it’s in a really wonderfully designed teapot.

Michelle: Well, thank you… and this is a thrift store find… one of my favorite things to do. Yeah, so I’m enjoying it.

John: I have Twinings Blackcurrant Breeze.

Rebecca: …and I’m drinking chai today.

Michelle: Pretty rough.

John: We invited you here to talk a little bit about things that you’ve been observing in terms of what’s catching on in higher education in terms of new and interesting innovations in teaching.

Michelle: Right, that’s one of things that I really had the luxury of being able to step back and look at over this last semester and over this last spring when I was on sabbatical… One of the really neat things about my book Minds Online, especially now that it’s been out for a few years, is that it does open up all these opportunities to speak with really engaged faculty and others, such as: instructional designers, librarians, academic leadership, educational technology coordinators… all these individuals around the country who are really, really involved in these issues. It’s a great opportunity to see how these trends, how these ideas, how these innovations are rolling out, and these can be some things that have been around for quite some time and just continue to rock along and even pickup steam, and some newer things that are on the horizon.

John: You’ve been doing quite a bit of traveling. You just got back from China recently, I believe.

Michelle: I sure did. It was a short visit and I do hope to go back, both to keep getting involved in educational innovations there and, hopefully, as a tourist as well. So, I was not there for very long but I had the opportunity to speak at Tsinghua University in Beijing, which is a really dynamic institution that’s been around for about a hundred years. For a while in its history it specialized in things like engineering education polytechnic, but now it’s really a selective comprehensive university with very vibrant graduate and undergraduate programs that are really very relatable for those of us in the United States working in similar contexts. My invitation was to be one of the featured speakers at the Future Education, Future Learning Conference, which was a very interdisciplinary gathering of doctoral students, faculty, even others from the community, who were all interested in the intersection of things like technology, online learning, MOOCs even, and educational research (including research into the brain and cognitive psychology), and bringing all of those together… and it was a multilingual conference. I do not speak Chinese but much of the conference was in both English and Chinese and so I was also able to really absorb a lot of these new ideas. So yes, that was a real highlight of my sabbatical semester and one that I’m going to be thinking about for quite some time.

I should say that part of what tied in there as well is that Minds Online, I’ve just learned, is going to be translated into Chinese and that’s going to come out in May 2019. So, I also got to meet with some of the people who were involved in the translation… start to put together some promotional materials such as videos and things like that.

Rebecca: Cool.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca: So, you’ve had a good opportunity, as you’ve been traveling, to almost do a scavenger hunt of what faculty are doing with evidence-based practices related to your book. Can you share some of what you’ve found or heard?

Michelle: This theme of evidence-based practice, and really tying into the findings that have been coming out of cognitive psychology for quite some time, that really is one of the exciting trends and things that I was really excited to see and hear for so many different quarters I visited in different institutions… and so I would say definitely, this is a trend that is continuing and is increasing. There really does continue to be a lot of wonderful interest and wonderful activity around these real cognitively informed approaches to teaching, and what I think we could call scientifically based and evidence-based strategies. One form this has taken is Josh Eyler’s new book, called How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching. This is a brand new book by a faculty development professional, and a person coming out of the humanities, actually, who’s weaving together even from his humanities background everything from evolutionary biology to classical research in early childhood education to the latest brain-based research. He’s weaving this together into this new book for faculty. So, that’s one of the things that I’ve noticed and then there’s the issue which i think is another great illustration of best-known practice which is the testing effect and retrieval practice.

John: One of the nice things is how so many branches of research are converging… testing in the classroom, brain-based research, and so forth, are all finding those same basic effects. It’s nice to see such robust results, which we don’t always see in all research in all disciplines.

Rebecca: …and just breaking down the silos in general. The things are all related and finding out what those relationships are… exploring those relationships… is really important and it’s nice to see that it’s starting to open up.

John: We should also note that when you visited here, we had a reading group and we had faculty working on trying to apply some of these concepts, and they’re still doing that… and they still keep making references back to your visit. So, it’s had quite a big impact on our campus.

Michelle: This wasn’t true, I don’t think, when I first entered the teaching profession… and even to the extent when I first started getting interested in applied work in course redesign and in faculty professional development. you would get kind of this pushback or just strange looks when you said “Oh, how about we bring in something from cognitive psychology” and now that is just highly normalized and something that people are really speaking across the curriculum… and taking it and running with it in a lasting ongoing way, not just as a “Oh, well that was an interesting idea. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing” but really people making some deep changes as you mentioned. This theme of breaking down silos… I mean I think if there’s kind of one umbrella trend that all of these things fits under it’s that breakdown of boundaries. So, that’s one that I keep coming back to, I know, in my work.

So, the idea of retrieval practice, drilling down on that one key finding which goes back a very long ways in cognitive psychology. I think of that as such a good example of what we’re talking about here… about how this very detailed effect in cognition and yet it does have these applications across disciplinary silos. Now when I go to conferences and I say “Okay, raise your hand. How many people have ever heard of retrieval practice? How many people have ever heard of the testing effect? How many people have heard of the book Make it Stick (which really places this phenomena at its center)?” and I’m seeing more hands raising.

With retrieval practice, by the way, we’re talking about that principle that taking a test on something, that retrieving something from memory actively, has this huge impact on future memorability of that information. As its proponents like to say, tests are not neutral from a memory or from a learning standpoint… and while some of the research has focused on very kind of stripped-down laboratory style tasks like memorizing words pairs, there are also some other research projects showing that it does flow out to more realistic learning situations.

So, more people simply know about this, and that’s really the first hurdle, oftentimes, with getting this involved disciplinary sometimes jargon riddled research out there to practitioners and getting it into their hands. So, people heard of it and they’re starting to build this into their teaching. As I’ve traveled around I love to hear some of the specific examples and to see it as well crop up in scholarship of teaching and learning.

Just recently, for example, I ran across and really got into the work of Bruce Kirchhoff who is at University of North Carolina – Greensboro and his area is botany and plant identification. He has actually put together some different really technology-based apps and tools that students and teachers can use in something like a botany course to rehearse and review plant identification. He says in one of his articles, for example, that there just isn’t time in class to really adequately master plant identification. It’s just too complex of a perceptual and cognitive and memory test to do that. So, he really built in from the get-go very specific principles drawn from cognitive psychology… so, the testing effect is in there… there’s different varieties of quizzing and it all is about just getting students to retrieve and identify example after example. It brings in also principles such as interleaving, which we could return to in a little bit, but has to do with the sequencing of different examples… their spacing… So, that’s even planned out exactly how and when students encounter different things that they’re studying. It’s really wonderful. So, for example he and his colleagues put out a scholarship of teaching and learning article talking about how this approach was used effectively in veterinary medicine students who have to learn to identify poisonous plants that they’ll see around their practice. This is something that can be time-consuming and very tough, but they have some good data showing that this technology enhanced cognitively based approach really does work. That’s one example. Coincidentally, I’ve seen some other work in the literature, also on plant identification, where the instructors tagged plants in an arboretum… they went around and tagged them with QR codes… that students can walk up to a plant in the real environment with an iPad… hold the iPad over it… and it would immediately start producing quiz questions that were are specific to exactly the plants they were looking at.
So, those are some of the exciting things that people are taking and running with now that this principle is out there.

Rebecca: What I really love about the two stories that you just shared was the faculty are really designing their curriculum and designing the learning experiences with the students in mind… and what students need and when they need it. So, not only is it employing these cognitive science principles, but it’s actually applying design principles as well. It’s really designing for a user experience and thinking about the idea that if I need to identify a plant, being able to identify it in this situation in which I would need to identify it in makes it much more dynamic I think for a student… but also really meets them where they’re at and where they need it.

John: …and there’s so many apps out there now that will do the plant identification just from imagery without the QR code, that I can see it taking it one step further where they can do it in the wild without having that… so they can build it in for plants that are in the region without needing to encode that specifically for the application.

Michelle: I think you’re absolutely right once we put the technology in the hands of faculties who, as I said, they’re the one to know: “Where are my students at? Where are the weak points? Where are the gaps that they really need to bridge?” and that’s where their creativity is giving rise to all these new applications… and sometimes these can be low-tech as well… or also things that we can put in a face-to-face environment… and I’d like to to share just some experiences that I’ve had with this over the last few semesters.

In addition to trying to teach online with a lot of technology, I also have in my teaching rotation a small required course in research methods in psychology which can be a real stumbling block… the big challenge course… it’s kind of a gateway course to continued progress in our major. So, in this research methods course, some of the things that I’ve done around assessment and testing to really try again to stretch that retrieval practice idea… to make assessments really a more dynamic part of the course and more central part of the course… to move away from that idea that tests are just this kind of every now and again this panic mode opportunity for me to kind of measure in sorts of students and judge them… to make good on that idea that tests are part of learning. So, here’s some of the things that I try to do. For one thing, I took time out of the class almost every single class meeting as part of the routine to have students first of all generate quiz questions out of their textbook. So, we do have a certain amount of foundational material in that course as well as a project and a whole lot of other stuff is going on. So they need to get that foundational stuff.

Every Tuesday they would come in and they knew their routine: you get index cards and you crack your textbook and you generate for me three quiz questions. Everybody does it. I’m not policing whether you read the chapter or not. It’s active… they’re generating it… and also that makes it something like frequent quizzing. That’s a great practical advantage for me since I’m not writing everything. They would turn those in and I would select some of my favorites I would turn those into a traditional looking paper quiz and hand that out on Thursday. I said “Hey, take this like a realistic quiz.” I had explained to them that quizzes can really boost their learning, so that was the justification for spending time on it and then I said: “You know what? I’m not going to grade it either. You take it home because this is a learning experience for you. It’s a learning activity.” so we did that every single week as those students got into that routine.

The second thing that I did to really re-envision how assessment testing and quizzing worked in this particular course, was something inspired by different kinds of group testing and exam wrapper activities I’ve seen, particularly coming out of the STEM field, where there’s been a lot of innovation in this area. What I would do is… we had these high stakes exams at a few points during the semester. But, the class day after the exam, we didn’t do the traditional “Let’s go over the exam.” [LAUGHTER] That’s kind of deadly dull, and it just tends to generate a lot of pushback from students… and as we know from the research, simply reviewing… passing your eyes over the information… is not going to do much to advance your learning. So, what I would do is… I would photocopy all those exams, so it has a secure copy. They were not graded. I would not look at this before we did this… and I would pass everybody’s exams back to them along with a blank copy of that same exam. I assigned them to small groups and I said “Okay, here’s your job. Go back over this exam, fill it out as perfectly as you can as a group, and to make it interesting I said I will grade that exam as well, the one you do with your group, and anything you get over 90% gets added to everybody’s grade. This time it was open book, it was open Google, it was everything except you can’t ask me questions. So, you have each other and that’s where these great conversations started to happen. The things that we always want students to say. So, I would eavesdrop and hear students say “Oh, well you know what, I think on this question she was really talking about validity because reliability is this other thing…” and they’d have a deep conversation about it. I’m still kind of going back through the numbers to see what are the impacts of learning? Are there any trends that I can identify? But, I will say this: in the semesters that I did this, I didn’t have a single question ever come back to me along the lines of “Well, this question was unclear. I didn’t understand it. I think I was graded unfairly.” it really did shut all that down and again extended the learning that I feel students got out of that. Now it meant a big sacrifice of class time, but I feel strongly enough about these principles that I’m always going to do this in one form or another anytime I can can in face-to-face classes.

Rebecca: This sounds really familiar, John.

John: I’ve just done the same, or something remarkably similar, this semester, in my econometrics class which is very similar to the psych research methods class. I actually picked it up following a discussion with Doug McKee. He actually was doing it this semester too. He had a podcast episode on it. It sounded so exciting, I did something… a little bit different. I actually graded it but I didn’t give it back to them because I wanted to see what they had the most trouble with, and then I was going to have them only answer the ones in a group that they struggled with… and it turned out that that was pretty much all them anyway. So, it’s very similar to what you did except I gave them a weighted average of their original grade and the group grade and all except one person improved and the one person’s score went down by two points because the group grade was just slightly lower… but he did extremely well and he wasn’t that confident. The benefits to them of that peer explanation and explaining was just tremendous and it was so much more fun for them and for me and, as you said, it just completely wiped out all those things like “Well, that was tricky” because when they hear their peers explaining it to them the students were much more likely to respond by saying “Oh yeah, I remember that now” and it was a wonderful experience and I’m gonna do that everywhere I can.

In fact. I was talking about it with my TA just this morning here at Duke and we’re planning to do something like that in our classes here at TIP this summer, which i think is somewhat familiar to you from earlier in your academic career.

Michelle: That is right we do have this connection. I was among, not the very first year, but I believe the second cohort of Talent Identification Program students who came in, I guess you would call it now, middle school (back then, it was called junior high) and what a life-transforming experience. We’ve had even more opportunities to talk about the development of all these educational ideas through that experience.

John: That two-stage exam is wonderful and it’s so much more positive… because it didn’t really take, in my class, much more time, because I would have spent most of that class period going over the exam and problems they had. But the students who did well would have been bored and not paying much attention to it; the students who did poorly would just be depressed and upset that they did so poorly… and here, they were actively processing the information and it was so positive.

Michelle: That’s a big shift. We really have to step back and acknowledge that, I think. that is a huge shift in how we look at assessment, and how we think about the use of class time… and it’s not just “Oh my gosh, I have to use every minute to put such content in front of the students.” Just the fact that more of us are making that leap, I think, really is evidence this progress is happening… and we see also a lot of raised consciousness around issues such as learning styles. That’s another one that, when I go out and speak to faculty audiences, 10 years ago you would get these shocked looks or even very indignant commentary when you say “Ok, this idea of learning styles, in the sense that say there are visual learners, auditory learners, what I call sensory learning styles (VAK is another name it sometimes goes by). The idea that that just holds no water from a cognitive point of view…” People were not good with that, and now when I mentioned that at a conference, I get the knowing nods and even a few groans… people like “Oh, yeah. we get that. Now, K-12, which I want to acknowledge it’s not my area, but I’m constantly reminded by people across the spectrum that it’s a very different story in K-12. So, setting that aside… but this is what I’m seeing… that faculty are realizing… they’re saying “Oh, this is what the evidence says…” and maybe they even take the time to look at some of the really great thinkers and writers who put together the facts on this. They say “You know what? I’m not going to take my limited time and resources and spend that on this matching to styles when the styles can’t even be accurately diagnosed and are of no use in a learning situation. So, that’s another area of real progress.

Rebecca: What I am hearing is not just progress here in terms of cognitive science, but a real shift towards really thinking about how students learn and designing for that rather than something that would sound more like a penalty for grade like “Oh, did you achieve? Yes or no…” but, rather here’s an opportunity if you didn’t achieve to now actually learn it… and recognize that you haven’t learned it, even though it might seem really familiar.

John: Going back to that point about learning styles. It is spreading in colleges. I wish it was true at all the departments at our institution, but it’s getting there gradually… and whenever people bring it up, we generally remind them that there’s a whole body of research on this and I’ll send them references but what’s really troubling is in my classes the last couple years now, I’ve been using this metacognitive cafe discussion forum to focus on student learning… and one of the week’s discussions is on learning styles and generally about 95 percent of the students who are freshmen or sophomores (typically) come in with a strong belief in learning styles… where they’ve been tested multiple times in elementary or middle school… they’ve been told what their learning styles are… they’ve been told they can only learn that way… It discourages them from trying to learn in other ways and it does a lot of damage… and I hope we eventually reach out further so that it just goes away throughout the educational system.

Rebecca: You’ve worked in your classes, Michelle, haven’t you to help students understand the science of learning and use that to help students understand the methods and things that you’re doing>

Michelle: Yes, I have. I’ve done this in a couple of different ways. Now, partly, I get a little bit of a free pass in some of my teaching because I’m teaching the introduction to psychology or I’m teaching research methods where I just happen to sneak in as the research example will be some work on say attention or distraction or the testing effect. So, I get to do it in those ways covertly. I’ve also had the chance, although it’s not on my current teaching rotation… I’ve had the chance to also take it on as in freestanding courses. As many institutions are doing these days… it’s another trend… and what Northern Arizona University, where I work, has different kinds of freshmen or first-year student offering for courses they can take, not in a specific disciplinary area, but that really crossed some different areas of the student success or even wellbeing. So, I taught a class for awhile called Maximizing Brain Power that was about a lot of these different topics. Not just the kind of very generic study skills tip… “get a good night’s sleep…” that kind of thing… but really some again more evidence-based things that we can tell students and you can really kind of market it… and I think that we do sometimes have to play marketers to say “Hey, I’m going to give you some inside information here. This is sort of gonna be your secret weapon. So, let me tell you what the research has found.”

So, those are some of the things that I share with students… as well as when the right moment arises, say after an exam or before their first round of small stakes assessments, where they’re taking a lot of quizzes… to really explain the difference between this and high stakes or standardized tests they may have taken in the past. So, I do it on a continuing basis. I try to weave it into the disciplinary aspect and I do it in these free-standing ways as well… and I think here’s another area where I’m seeing this take hold in some different places… which is to have these free-standing resources that also just live outside of a traditional class that people can even incorporate into their courses… if say cognitive psychology or learning science isn’t their area… that they can bring in, because faculty really do care about these things. We just don’t always have the means to bring them in in as many ways as we would like.

John: …and your Attention Matters project was an example of that wasn’t it? Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Michelle: Oh, I’d love to… and you know this connects to what it seems to be kind of an evergreen topic in the teaching and learning community these days, which is the role of distracted students… and I know this past year there just have been these one op-ed versus another. There’s been some really good blog posts by some people I really like to follow in the teaching and learning community such as Kevin Gannon talking about “Okay, do you have laptops in the classroom? and what happens when you do?” and so I don’t think that this is just a fad that’s going away. This is something that the people do continue to care about, and this is where the attention matters project comes in.

This was something that we conceptualized and put together a couple years ago at Northern Arizona University with myself, and primarily I collaborated with a wonderful instructional designer who also teaches a great deal… John Doherty. So, how this came about is I was seeing all the information on distraction… I’m really getting into this as a cognitive psychologist and going “Wow, students need to know that if they’re texting five friends and watching a video in their class. It’s not going to happen for them.” I was really concerned about “What can I actually do to change students minds?” So, my way of doing this was to go around giving guests presentations in every classes where people would let me burn an hour of their class time… and not a very scalable model… and John Doherty respectfully sat through one my presentations on this and then he approached me and said “Look, you know, we could make a module and put this online… and it could be an open access within the institution module, so that anybody at my school can just click in and they’re signed up. We could put this together. We could use some really great instructional design principles and we could just see what happens… and I bet more people would take that if it were done in that format. We did this with no resources. We just were passionate about the project and that’s what we did. We had no grant backing or anything. We got behind it. So, what this is is about a one- to two-hour module that, it’s a lot like a MOOC in that it there’s not a whole lot of interaction or feedback, but there are discussion forums and it’s very self-paced in that way… so one- to two-hour mini MOOCs that really puts at the forefront demonstrations and activities… so we don’t try to convince students about problems with distraction and multitasking… we don’t try to address that just by laying a bunch of research articles on them… I think that’s great if this were a psychology course, but it’s not. So, we come at it by linking them out to videos, for example, that we were able to choose, that we feel really demonstrate in some memorable ways what gets by us when we aren’t paying attention… and we also give students some research-based tips on how to set a behavioral plan and stick to it… because just like with so many areas of life, just knowing that something is bad for you is not enough to really change your behavior and get you not to do that thing. so we have students talking about their own plans and what they do when, say, they’re having a boring moment in class, or they’re really really tempted to go online while they’re doing homework at home. What kinds of resolutions can they set or what kind of conditions can make that that will help them accomplish that. Things like the software blockers… you set a timer on your computer and it can lock you out of problematic sites… or we learned about a great app called Pocket Points where you actually earn spendable coupon points for keeping your phone off during certain hours. This is students talking to students about things that really concern them and really concern us all because I think a lot of us struggle with that.

So, we try to do that… and the bigger frame for this as well is this is, I feel, a life skill for the 21st century… thinking about how technology is going to be an asset to you and not detract from what you accomplish in your life. What a great time to be reflecting on that, when you’re in this early college career. so that’s what we try to do with the project…and we’ve had over a thousand students come through. They oftentimes earn extra credit. Our faculty are great about offering small amounts of extra credit for completing this and we’re just starting to roll out some research showing some of the impacts… and showing it in a bigger way just how you can go about setting up something like this.

Rebecca: I like that the focus seems to be on helping students with a life skill rather than using technology is just a blame or an excuse. We’re in control of our own behaviors and taking ownership over our behaviors is important rather than just kind of object blaming.

Michelle: So, looking at future trends, I would like to see more faculty looking at it in the way that you just described, Rebecca, as this is a life skill and it’s something that we collaborate on with our students… not lay down the law… because, after all, students are in online environments where we’re not there policing that and they do need to go out into work environments and further study and things like that. So, that’s what I feel is the best value. For faculty who are looking at this, if they don’t want to do… or don’t have the means to do something really formal like our Attention Matters approach, just thinking about it ahead of time… I think nobody can afford to ignore this issue anymore and whether you go the route of “No tech in my classroom” or “We’re going to use the technology in my classroom“ or something in between… just reading over, in a very mindful way, not just the opinion pieces, but hopefully also a bit of the research, I think, can help faculty as they go in to deal with this… and really to look at it in another way, just to be honest, we also have to consider how much of this is driven by our egos as teachers and how much of it is driven by a real concern for student learning and those student life skills. I think that’s where we can really take this on effectively and make some progress when we are de-emphasizing that ego aspect and making sure that it really is about the students.

John: We should note there’s a really nice chapter in this book called Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology that deals with these types of issues. It was one of the chapters that got our faculty particularly interested in these issues… on to what extent technology should be used in the classroom… and to what extent it serves as a distraction.

Michelle: I think that really speaks to another thing which I think is an enduring trend… which is the emphasis on really supporting the whole student in success and what we’ve come to call academic persistence… kind of a big umbrella term that has to do with, not just succeeding in a given class, but also being retained… coming back after the first year. As many leaders in higher education point out, this is as a financial issue. As someone pointed out, it does cost a lot less to hang on to the students you have instead of recruiting more students to replace ones who are lost. This is, of course, yet another really big shift in mindset of our own, because after all we did used to measure our success by “Hey, I flunked this many students out of this course” or” Look at how many people have to switch into different majors…our major is so challenging…”

So, we really have turned that thinking around and this does include faculty now. I think that we did used to see those silos. We had that very narrow view of “I’m here to convey content. I’m here to be an expert in this discipline, and that’s what I’m gonna do…” and sure, we want to think about things like do students have learning skills? Do they have metacognition? Are they happy and socially connected at the school? Are they likely to be retained so that we can have this robust university environment?

We had people for that, right? It used to be somebody else’s job… student services or upper administration. They were the ones who heard about that and now I think on both sides we really are changing our vision. More and more forward-thinking faculty are saying “You know what? Besides being a disciplinary expert, I want to become at least conversant with learning science. I want to become at least conversant with the science of academic persistence…” There is a robust early literature on this and that’s something that we’ve been working on at NAU over this past year as well… kind of an exciting newer project that I like very much. We’ve started to engage faculty in a new faculty development program called Persistence Scholars and this is there to really speak to people’s academic and evidence-based side, as well as get them to engage in some perspective-taking around things like the challenges that students face and what it is like to be a student at our institution. We do some really selected readings in the area we look at things like mindset… belongingness… these are really hot areas in that science of persistence… in that emerging field. But, we have to look at it in a really integrated way.

It’s easy for people to say just go to a workshop on mindset and that’s a nice concept, but we wanted to think about it in this bigger picture… really know what are some of the strengths of that and why? Where do these concepts come from? What’s the evidence? That’s something that I think is another real trend and I think as well we will see more academic leaders and people in staff and support roles all over universities needing to know more about learning science. There are still some misconceptions that persist, as we’ve talked about. We’re making progress in getting rid of some of these myths around learning, but I will say… I’m not gonna name any names… but, every now and again I will hear from somebody who says “Oh well, we need to match student learning styles” or “Digital natives think differently, don’t you know?” and I have to wonder whether that’s a great thing. I mean, these are oftentimes individuals that have the power to set the agenda for learning all over a campus. Faculty need to be in the retention arena and I think that leaders need to be in the learning science arena. The boundaries is breaking down and it’s about time.

Rebecca: One of the things that I thought was really exciting with the reading groups that we’ve been having on our campus… that we started with your book, but then we’ve read Make it Stick and Small Teaching since… is that a lot of administrators in a lot of different kinds of roles engaged with us in those reading groups, it wasn’t just faculty. There was a mix of faculty, staff, and some administrators, and I think that that was really exciting. For people who don’t have the luxury of being in your persistence scholar program, what would you recommend they read to get started to learn more about the science of persistence?

Michelle: I really, even after working with this for quite some time, I loved the core text that we have in that program, which is Completing College by Vincent Tinto. It’s just got a great combination of passionate and very direct writing style. So, there’s no ambiguity, there’s not a whole lot of “on the one hand this and on the other hand that.” It’s got an absolutely stellar research base, which faculty of course appreciate… and it has a great deal of concrete examples. So, in that book they talk about “okay, what does it mean to give really good support to first semester college students? What does that look like?” and they’ll go out and they’ll cite very specific “Here’s a school and here’s what they’re doing… here’s what their program looks like… here’s another example that looks very different but gets at the same thing.” So, that’s one of the things that really speak to our faculty… that they really appreciated and enjoyed.

I think that as well we tested good feedback about work that’s come out of the David Yeager and his research group on belongingness and lay theories, and lay theories is maybe a counterintuitive term for kind of a body of ideas about what students believe about academic success and why some people are successful and others are not and how those beliefs can be changed sometimes through relatively simple interventions and when it happens we see great effects such as the narrowing of achievement gaps among students who have more privilege or less privileged backgrounds… and that’s something that, philosophically, many faculty really really care about but they’ve never had the chance to really learn “Okay, how can I actually address something like that with what I’m doing in my classroom, and how can I really know that the things that I’m choosing do have that great evidence base…”

John: …and I think that whole issue is more important now and is very much a social justice issue because, with the rate of increase we’ve seen in college cost inflation, people who start college and don’t finish it are saddled with an awfully high burden of debt. The rate of return to a college degree is the highest that we’ve ever seen and college graduates end up not only getting paid a lot more but they end up with more comfortable jobs and so forth… and if we really want to move people out of poverty and try to reduce income inequality, getting more people into higher education and successfully completing higher education is a really important issue. I’m glad to see that your institution is doing this so heavily and I know a lot of SUNY schools have been hiring Student Success specialists. At our institution they’ve been very actively involved in the reading group, so that message is spreading and I think some of them started with your book and then moved to each of the others. So, they are working with students in trying to help the students who are struggling the most with evidence-based practices …and I think that’s becoming more and more common and it’s a wonderful thing.

Rebecca: So, I really liked Michelle that you were talking about faculty getting involved in retention and this idea of helping students develop persistence skills, and also administrators learning more about evidence-based practices. There’s these grassroots movements happening in both of these areas. Can you talk about some of the other grassroots movements that are working toward, or efforts that faculty are making to engage students and capture their attention and their excitement for education?

Michelle: Right, and here I think a neat thing to think about too is just it’s the big ambitious projects… the big textbook replacement projects or the artificial intelligence informed adaptive learning systems… those are the things that get a lot of the press and end up in The Chronicle of Higher Education that we read about… But, outside of that, there is this very vibrant community and grassroots led scene of developing different technologies and approaches. So, it really goes back for a while. I mean, the MERLOT database that I do talk about in Minds Online has been trove for years of well hidden gems that take on one thing in a discipline and come at it from a way that’s not just great from a subject-matter perspective but brings up the new creative approaches. In the MERLOT database, for example, there’s a great tutorial on statistical significance and the interrelationship between statistical significance and issues like simple sizes. You know, that’s a tough one for students, but it has a little animation involving a horse and a rider that really turns it into something that’s very visual… that’s very tangible… and it really actually tying into analogies, which is a well-known cognitive process that can support the advancement of learning something new. There is something on fluid pressures in the body that was treated for nursing students by nurses, and it’s got an analogy of a soaker hose that this is really fun and is actually interactive. So, those are the kinds of things. The PhET project, P-h-E-T which comes out of University of Colorado, that has been around for a while… again, faculty-led and a way to have these very useful interactive simulations for concepts in physics and chemistry. So, that’s one. CogLab, that’s an auxiliary product that I’ve used for some time in like hundred psychology courses that simulates very famous experimental paradigms which are notoriously difficult to describe on stage for cognitive psychology students. That started out many years ago as a project that very much has this flavor of “We have this need in our classroom. We need something interactive. There’s nothing out there. Let’s see what we can build.” It has since then picked up and turned into a commercial product, but that’s the type of thing that I’m seeing out there.

Another thing that you’ll definitely hear about if you’re circulating and hearing about the latest project is virtual reality for education. So, with this it seems like, unlike just a few years ago, almost everywhere you visit you’re going to hear that “Oh, we’ve just set up a facility. We’re trying out some new things.” This is something that I also heard about when I was talking to people when I was over in China. So, this is an international phenomenon. It’s going to pick up steam and definitely go some places.

What also strikes me about that is just how many different projects there are. Just when you’re worried that you’re going to be scooped because somebody else is going to get there first with their virtual reality project you realize you’re doing very very different things. So, I’ve seen, for example, it used in a medical application to increase empathy among medical students… and I took a six or seven minute demonstration that just was really heart-rending, simulating the patient experience with a particular set of sensory disorders… and at Northern Arizona University we have a lab that is just going full-steam in coming up with educational applications such as interactive organic chemistry tutorial that is is just fascinating. We actually completed a pilot project and are planning to gear up a much larger study next semester looking at the impacts of this. So, this is really taking off for sure.

But, I think there are some caveats here. We still really need some basic research on this… not just what should we be setting up and what the impacts are but how does this even work? In particular, what I would like to research in the future, or at least see some research on, is what kinds of students… what sort of student profile… really gets the most out of virtual reality for education. Because amidst all the very breathless press that’s going on about this now and all the excitement, we do have to remember this is a very, very labor intensive type of resource to set up. You’re not just going to go home and throw something together for the next week. It takes a team to build these things and to complete them as well. If you have, say, a 300 student chemistry course (which is not atypical at all… these large courses), you’re not going to just have all of them spend hours and hours and hours doing this even with a fairly large facility. It’s a very hands-on thing to guide them through this process, to provide the tech support, and everything else.

So, I think really knowing how we can best target our efforts in this area, so that we can build the absolute best, with the resources we have, and maybe even target and ask the students who are most likely to benefit. I think those are some of the things that we just need to know about this. So, it’s exciting for somebody like me who’s in the research area. I see this as a wonderful open opportunity… but those are some of the real crossroads we’re at with virtual reality right now.

Rebecca: I can imagine there’s a big weighing that would have to happen in terms of expense and time and resources needed to startup versus what that might be saving in the long run. I can imagine if it’s a safety thing that you want to do a virtual reality experience, like saving people’s lives and making sure that they’re not going to be in danger as they practice particular skills, could be a really good investment in these… spending the resources to make that investment… or if it’s a lot of travel that would just be way too expensive to bring a bunch of students to a particular location… but you could virtually… it seems like it would be worth the start-up costs and those are just two ideas off the top of my head where it would make sense to bend all of that resource and time.

John: …and equipment will get cheaper. Right now, it’s really expensive for computers that have sufficient speed and graphics processing capability and the headsets are expensive, but they will come down in price, but as you said, it’s still one person typically and one device… so it doesn’t scale quite as well as a lot of other tools or at least not at this stage.

Rebecca: From what I remember, Michelle, you wrote a blog post about [a] virtual reality experience that you had. Can you share that experience, and maybe what stuck with you from that experience?

Michelle: Right, so I had the opportunity, just as I was getting to collaborate with our incredible team at the immersive virtual reality lab at NAU… one of the things I was treated to was about an hour and a half in the virtual reality setup that they have to explore some of the things that they had… Giovanni Castillo, by the way, is creative director of the lab and he’s the one who was so patient with me through all this. We tried a couple of different things and of course there’s such a huge variety of different things that you can do.
There’s a few things out there like driving simulators that are kind of educational… they’re kind of an entertainment… but he was just trying to give me, first of all, just a view of those… and I had to reject a few of them… I will say, initially, because I am one of the individuals who tends to be prone to motion sickness. So, that limits what I can personally do in VR and that is yet another thing that we’re gonna have to figure out. At least informally, what we hear is that women in particular tend to experience more of this. So, I needed, first of all, to go to a very low motion VR. I wasn’t gonna be whizzing through these environments. That was not going to happen for me. So, we did something that probably sounds incredibly simplistic, but it just touched me to my core… which is getting to play with Google Earth. You can spin the globe and either just pick a place at random or what Giovanni told me is… “You know, I’ve observed that when people do this, when we have an opportunity to interact with Google Earth, they all either go to where they grew up or they’ll go to someplace that they have visited recently or they plan to visit. So, I went to a place that is very special to me and maybe it doesn’t fit into either one of those categories neatly, but it’s my daughter’s University… her school… and I should say that this is also a different thing for me because my daughter goes to school in Frankfort, Germany… an institute that is connected to a Museum. So, I had only been to part of the physical facility… the museum itself… and it was a long time ago… and part of it was closer to the holiday. So, this is my opportunity to go there and explore what it looks like all over… and so, that was an emotional experience for me. It was a sensory experience… it was a social one… because we were talking the whole time… and he’s asking me questions and what kinds of exhibits do they have here… and what’s this part of it. So, that was wonderful. it really did give me a feel for alright, what is it actually like to be in this sort of environment?

I’m not a gamer. I don’t have that same background that many of our students have. So, it got me up to speed on that… and it did show me how just exploring something that is relatively simple can really acquire a whole new dimension in this kind of immersive environment. Now the postscript that I talked about in that blog post was what happened when I actually visited there earlier in the year. So, I had this very strange experience that human beings have never had before… which is from this… I don’t know whether to call it deja vu or what… of going to the settings and walking around the same environment and seeing the same lighting and all that sort of stuff that was there in that virtual reality environment… but this time, of course, with real human beings in it and the changes… the little subtle changes that take place over time, and so forth.

So, how does it translate into learning? What’s it going to do for our students? I just think that time is going to tell. It won’t take too long, but I think that these are things we need to know. But, sometimes just getting in and being able to explore something like this can really put you back in touch with the things you love about educational technology.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that I’m hearing in your voice is the excitement of experimenting and trying something… and that’s, I think, encouragement for faculty in general… is to just put yourself out there and try something out even if you don’t have something specific in mind with what you might do with it. Experiencing it might give you some insight later on. it might take some time to have an idea of what you might do with it, but having that experience, you understand it better… it could be really useful.

John: …and that’s something that could be experienced on a fairly low budget with just your smartphone and a pair of Google cardboard or something similar. Basically, it’s a seven to twelve dollar addition to your phone and you can have that experience… because there’s a lot of 3D videos and 3D images out there on Google Earth as well as on YouTube. So, you can experience other parts of the world and cultures before visiting… and I could see that being useful in quite a few disciplines.

Rebecca: So, we always wrap up with asking what are you going to do next?

Michelle: I continue to be really excited about getting the word out about cognitive principles and how we can flow those in to teaching face-to-face with technology… everything else in between. So, that’s what I continue to be excited about… leveraging cognitive principles with technology and with just rethinking our teaching techniques. I’m going to be speaking at the Magna Teaching with Technology Conference in October, and so I’m continuing to develop some of these themes… and I’m very excited to be able to do that. I’m right now also… we’re in the early stages of another really exciting project that has to do with what we will call neuromyth… So, that may be a term that you’ve turn across in some of your reading. It’s something that we touched on a few times, I think, in our conversation today… the misconceptions that people have about teaching and learning and how those can potentially impact the choices we make in our teaching. So, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with this amazing international group of researchers who’s headed up by Dr. Kristen Betts of Drexel University… and I won’t say too much more about it other than we have a very robust crop of survey responses that have come in from, not just instructors, but also instructional designers and administrators from around the world. So, we’re going to be breaking those survey results down and coming up with some results to roll out probably early in the academic year and we’ll be speaking about that at the Accelerate conference, most likely in November. That’s put out by the Online Learning Consortium. So, we’re right in the midst of that project and it’s going to be so interesting to see what has the progress been? What neuromyths are still out there and how can they be addressed by different professional development experiences. We’re continuing to work on the Persistence Scholars Program on academic persistence. So, we’ll be recruiting another cohort of willing faculty to take that on in the fall at Northern Arizona University. I am going to be continuing to collaborate and really work with and hear from John and his research group with respect to the metacognitive material that they’re flowing into foundational coursework and ways to get students up to speed with a lot of critical metacognitive knowledge. So, we’re going to work on that too… and I like to keep up my blog and work on shall we say longer writing project but we’ll have to stay tuned for that.

Rebecca: Sounds like you need to plan some sleep in there too.

[LAUGHTER]

John: Well, it’s wonderful talking to you, and you’ve given us a lot of great things to reflect on and to share with people.

Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you for being so generous with your time.

John: Thank you.

Michelle: Oh, thank you. Thanks so much. It’s a pleasure, an absolute pleasure. Thank you.

[MUSIC]

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

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Theme music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance from Nicky Radford.

33. The Marmots of Finance

In our ongoing coverage of wildlife in the classroom, we can’t help but ask: How does a marmot become a mascot for a finance class? In this episode, Alex Butler, a Professor of Finance at Rice University, joins us to discuss how rich imagery can be used to help students make connections and deepen their understanding.

Alex received the Rice University Presidential Mentoring Award and the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching in 2018. He is also the recipient of the Jones School’s Award for Scholarship Excellence in 2011 and 2012.

Show Notes

  • Duke Talent Identification Program (TIP)
  • Medina, J. (2011). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. ReadHowYouWant.com.
  • Bjork, R.A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe & A. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing (pp. 185-205). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Alex’s web site at Rice

Transcript

Rebecca: In our ongoing coverage of wildlife in the classroom, we can’t help but ask: How does a marmot become a mascot for a finance class? In this episode, we’ll discuss how rich imagery can be used to help students make connections and deepen their understanding.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

John: Our guest today is Alex Butler, a professor of finance at Rice University. Alex received the Jones School’s Award for Scholarship Excellence in 2011 and 2012. Alex teaches financial markets and corporate finance in the undergraduate MBA, MBA, and PhD programs. Sometime in the latter part of the last century, Alex and I spent three summers teaching introductory economics to highly gifted middle school and high school students at the Talent Identification Program at Duke University.
Welcome, Alex.

Alex: Oh, thank you. Thank you for having me, John.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Alex: I am not drinking tea…. just water at this point.

Rebecca: Another one… epidemic.

John: My tea is ginger peach white tea.

Rebecca: I’ve Prince of Wales today.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about the courses that you normally teach?

Alex: Sure. I have, over the years, taught almost every course that we have… either here or at other schools. Right now what I teach (and I’m glad to finally have settled into a group of classes that are my classes year in and year out) and those classes are the undergraduate business finance class and PhD courses – one in corporate finance, and one that’s a topics class on causal inference. I really enjoy teaching the undergrad business finance class in particular because I was an undergraduate student here at Rice many, many years ago, and so it’s fun to be back and be on the other side of the podium teaching the students. One of the things that I really like about teaching the undergraduates here is that they are able to appreciate my dorky sense of humor.

Rebecca: …which is indeed a very important thing.

Alex: Agreed. For years, I tried to suppress my dorky sense of humor in the classroom… ad tried to teach the course sort of straight up and dry, and it made everybody miserable… the students…. me… and so, eventually over time, as I grew more and more confident teaching, I started incorporating more and more jokes here and there… and then I allowed them to become more elaborate, and then before you know it, I’ve developed a full-blown dad sense of humor and full-on dork mode.

John: That’s actually why we invited you here. We read a little bit about that in a teaching award you just received. What do students expect the course to be about when they take an introductory finance course?

Alex: At Rice, the students have a good grapevine of information about what courses are about and so, at this point, the students come in with pretty solid expectations that line up with what the class actually is… and whereas some students are hoping that I’m going to teach them how to become millionaires in the stock market, what the course mostly is about is that’s very hard to become a millionaire investing in the stock market and how to make decisions in a corporate setting that will maximize firm value.

Rebecca: So you mentioned that some students come in with this misperception of becoming a millionaire. What are some of the strategies that you use to dispel that myth?

Alex: I should say this class is one that is a fairly standard course that’s taught in lots of different business schools all over the country, all over the world. One way that I do it differently is in the order of material that I cover… and so the very first week of class, I talk about market efficiency. That’s the notion that it’s very difficult to earn abnormal returns in the stock market. In other words, you can’t beat the stock market very easily, unless it just happens to be by luck… and so I come in the first week talking about the reasons why it’s very difficult to beat the stock market… and the reason why is because there are literally tens of thousands of people who have more money and more resources and who are faster and are doing this as a full-time job who are also trying to find the stocks that are mispriced… and so unless you are the investor who is faster, and smarter, and has more money to throw at the trading strategy that you think of, it’s very very difficult to beat the other 10,000 people… and so I spend the first week of class introducing this concept and then providing copious amounts of evidence… research that highlights how difficult it is for lay people to earn abnormal returns in the stock market. That sets the setting for the rest of the course, which is this notion of how competition affects prices and how that feeds through to other applications and the corporate domain as opposed to the financial markets domain.

Rebecca: What made you switch the order?

Alex: What I realized after teaching this class for a long time is that most of corporate finance, most of business finance, is about discounting cash flows back to the present at some appropriate discount rate, and I found I was having a hard time getting the students to understand the notion of what interest rate, what discount rate, should be used to make these cash flows that are spread through time to get a present value equivalent. I figured if I started with some aspect of that, where that rate comes from, where those prices come from. but that would make the rest of the course easier for them to understand as we go through. So, that’s why. Most people wait until after they’ve introduced things like: “oh, portfolio theory” and “capital asset pricing model” and other asset pricing concepts before they talk about market efficiency… and so I just sort of turned that around backwards… and I open the course with that. So, point number one is pedagogical, and point number two is that the lectures that I do on market efficiency are really fun, and so I really like starting the course off with something that’s really fun. So, we can talk about stories of insider trading, and we can talk about stories of surprise announcements and how that affects stock returns, and we can talk about “oh, so you think you’re going to beat the market, well let me explain to you how hard it is and the reasons why …” also were very fun. So, we can spend the first week talking about fun stuff. It’s a giant bait and switch.

[LAUGHTER]

I lure them in with fun stuff and then beat them to death for the next fourteen weeks with discounted cash flow analysis.

Rebecca: It also sounds like it’s a good way to motivate students. Not only is it fun, but it gets students motivated and interested and they buy into the class, which I wouldn’t discount that. I think that’s an important task.

Alex: Oh, absolutely.

John: …discounting in a different sense, but…

[LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah, sorry… I’m a designer

John: …but it also starts a class by dispelling that myth that they’re going to learn tools that will allow them to become really wealthy in financial investments and so forth. So, you’re setting it up by getting rid of that myth and they’re ready to start actually learning without having that at the background.

Alex: Correct.

Rebecca: I really like the idea of just meeting students where they’re at. If this is where some students are coming with, and maybe they’re super motivated in some ways but not in others, that you just tackle both of those in one week.

Alex: That’s right.

Rebecca: Cool.
You recently won a 2018 George R. Brown Award for superior teaching, and the Georgia R. Brown Awards are based on an interesting selection process. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Alex: Yeah, so what the university does is they solicit feedback from recent alumni, people who graduated, I think, it’s two and five years ago. Now, they have graduated and they’re looking back what teachers would they want to see when these awards… and so, it’s really a neat honor, because once the students are two, three, four. five years out, they’re not responding to the short-term incentives that some professors used to gain teaching evaluations and things like that, they’re looking back and they’re actually remembering what the course was, what the professor was like, and whether it was meaningful to them. It’s really been just a phenomenal honor, and one that I honestly thought that I would never win. So, it’s been really special to have gotten that award.

John: It’s a really interesting idea to have an award given in that way, because it focuses on that long-term learning, that you’ve taught them something that’s going to benefit them later rather than, as you said, something that people do short term. I know some faculty, when we’re doing course evaluations, will give out cookies or other things just to boost their short-term course evaluations. But, that’s not going to pay off very much two to five years after graduation.

Alex: That’s correct. I went through the cookies and brownies phase myself years ago and decided that that just wasn’t who I wanted to be, so…. Now, we’re on to just just the pedagogy at this point.

Rebecca: I think there’s a couple of interesting things that I see about those awards, too, and one is that is more meaningful probably to win it because you can feel the impact but two it meshes really well with what we know about evidence-based practices in that students generally don’t like them while they’re happening, but they have longer-term effects… and that students tend to learn that material and transfer that material later on.

Alex: That’s absolutely correct, and I’m a big subscriber to that basic view that students often don’t like things that make them uncomfortable, and learning new and difficult things is uncomfortable. I think one could make students happier in the short run by giving them lots of little assignments where they feel like they’re making progress every day but they’re not actually being challenged, they’re not actually being pushed, and so instead holding them to very high standards for demonstrating their mastery of material while that is very uncomfortable for some of them, it is that that makes them better students and better scholars of that topic.

John: It reminds me of Bjork and Bjork, in their writings on “desirable difficulties.” that the most learning occurs when students are faced with feasible challenges… that if things are too easy, they get bored, and they may be happy with the course if they don’t have to struggle much… but they learn the most when they’re struggling but they see it’s possible.

We’ve heard that this award, though, based on some of the write-ups we’ve seen at your institution, may somehow be tied to marmots, wolves, and The Princess Bride. What do they all have to do with finance?

Alex: Several years ago, I was reading some books I thought would be…. some I thought it’d be helpful for my teaching, some that I just thought would be helpful for me, and one of the books was a book called Brain Rules by John Medina, and it’s basically a book that tries to take cognitive science, brain science, down to a level that lay people can understand and gives several rules of thumb of how the brain works and why the brain works the way it does… and as I’m reading this, reading it mostly for my own consumption so that I can be a better researcher and more thoughtful person, smarter, that sort of thing, I realized “Gosh, a lot of the rules here applied very directly to teaching, at least in the lecture format that I use in most of my courses…” and so one of the things that really stood out to me is how people learn better, remember better, I guess I should say, when they see images images that relate to whatever the topic at hand is. So, text maybe a PowerPoint slide with text, and you remember X percent but if you see an image, you remember much more of that material later on… and so this gave me just a license to, all of a sudden, start having fun on a completely new dimension. Reading this book and sort of embracing the notion that I could maybe help students remember the material better simply by infusing my lecture slides with some relevant images, was just eye opening for me… because now I could take my completely dry, boring slides with words and numbers and equations and now I can have fun with them…. and have this entire new dimension, a degree of freedom, to play around with what the slides are gonna look like and how the students are going to experience them. So, that’s sort of the extensive margin. The first part is: “Hey, I need images…” so the intrinsic margin is “what kind of images do I need?” “what will work best?” and Brain Rules comes to the rescue there again… and it says people respond to images that are faces, that are things that are scary, things that they can eat, things that might want to eat them, and things that they might want to mate with. Well, that last one’s kind of out for most of my lecture slides… [LAUGHTER] I can’t really incorporate that very directly. But it got me thinking “okay, what’s scary?” So, I started looking around for images of things that are scary to people… and I found this great image of this really, just terrifying, snarling wolf. I’m like “Ah, I’m gonna use that to get people’s attention…” But, as I started thinking about it, I wanted to lead into the wolf a little bit… and so the main prey of wolves in North America are marmots… yellow-bellied marmots… and so I found this great image of a little cute yellow-bellied marmot sitting on a rock somewhere in the mountain somewhere… and now when I come in to teach what could be the absolute driest lecture of the entire course which is time value of money and understanding how to discount cash flows (it’s the tool that everything else builds on, so it’s incredibly important to get it right, but it’s also potentially incredibly technical and boring)… and so I start that lecture not with an equation not with numbers but with a giant image of a marmot filling the entire computer’s projection screen…. and I just leave it up there… and the class is all looking at it… and I look back at them… and I pick someone at random. I cold call… and I say: “So, Charlotte, what do you think?”

“What do you mean what do I think?”

“What is it?”

… and we go through a series of guesses, and the guesses range from just ludicrous things: “it’s a gopher.”

“No, no, clearly it’s not a gopher. Gophers are a lowland creature. This is obviously in the mountains.”

“It’s an otter.”

“No, no, no. Otters prefer marine habitats, and this is clearly not there.”

… and go through this for a while until usually somebody recognizes it as a marmot. I say “Yes, very good. Alright..”

…and so then on to the next slide and the next slide is this picture of George Soros with no caption, no explanation, but again filling the entire screen, here’s this giant picture of George Soros… and so I go back to the first person: “Charlotte what do you think about this one? You didn’t get the marmot, how about this one?” …and so invariably somebody will eventually guess it’s a hedge fund manager.

I say: “Yes, very good. That’s George Soros, a famous hedge fund manager.” then the next slide is the wolf, the snarling wolf, and so at this point the captions on the slides read “This is a yellow-bellied marmot,” “This is a hedge fund manager” … and then it’s obvious what the wolf is. People get that right away. So, Charlotte gets to redeem herself at that point.

[LAUGHTER]

“This is a wolf, one of the main predators of the yellow-bellied marmot,” and then the next slide is another picture of a marmot but this one looking somewhat quizzical and the caption here is: “Why do wolves eat marmots, but not hedge fund managers?” …and the answer that I propose is because hedge fund managers understand the time value of money, but marmots do not. Now, that obviously doesn’t actually follow, but the correlation is there… that part is true… and so I just sort of lean into that and the ridiculousness behind that statement and from there on the marmot becomes our time value of money mascot… and so every time throughout the course I introduced a new application of time value of money then I bring in another image of a marmot to sort of tie all that together. iIt’s hard to see that the tie that binds everything together is time value of money and so the marmot, the mascot, is the visual cue, that “oh, this isn’t special, this isn’t different, this is just another application of the same technique we’ve been doing over and over again.

John: That notion of using visual cues goes back to the Greeks who use it to remember long stories before there was much printed word, and one of the arguments is that it’s because visual imagery developed much earlier than the use of language and the things you described in terms of things that might eat you may be tied back to our evolutionary adaptation, and so we’re tying into things that evolve fairly early in the evolution of human beings.

Rebecca: …and it also is just that emotional response.

John: Right, when you trigger an emotional response and fear is a major one…

Rebecca: Yeah. mm-hmm

John: Do the wolf’s chase the Princess Bride? I don’t remember that…

Alex: Well no…. So, the Princess Bride lecture is where I talk about decision rules using discounted cash flow techniques…. and so this sort of standard playbook for any finance professor anywhere as you talk about net present value and internal rate of return and payback period and maybe a few other rules as well, you just sort of go through the… whatever they have in the book in the order in the book, and you talk about each one in turn. But, it’s a lot more fun if you can personify those.. and so that’s what I use the characters from Princess Bride to do… and so the main character, which is net present value, is personified as Wesley / (there’s a spoiler alert here – so you haven’t seen the movie Wesley is the Dread Pirate Roberts). I always show my kids my lecture slides and when I showed them that one my older daughter was mortified that I would ruin the Princess Bride movie for students by revealing that Wesley and the Dread Pirate Roberts are one and the same… and so from there, I personify the different rules based on the different characters in Princess Bride… and so internal rate of return which is sort of flashy and useful but has some flaws as Inigo Montoya; the payback period which is sort of a blunt instrument is Fezzak the Giant, and so forth… modified internal rate of return is the Cliffs of Insanity.

[LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: So, the important thing to ask then is do you have the spoiler alert at the beginning of your lecture.
AEX: I do now.

[LAUGHTER]

John: How old was your daughter at the time when she reacted to that?

Alex: About ten years old.

John: Okay. So, by the time students are in college, they’ve probably either seen it or they may be less likely to, so it probably doesn’t do quite as much damage.

Alex: I hope so, and in fact I even now encourage them to watch the movie before that lecture without really telling them why. So some of them do. Some of them ask around and figure out why, but that makes it more fun.

Rebecca: That was gonna be my follow-up… is that homework?

Alex: It’s the best homework they’ll ever have.

John: So, how have students responded to this? Do they remember this later?

Alex: Yes and no. for the Princess Bride lecture I believe that the students sort of uniformly enjoy that…. but I don’t have a good sense of how much that actually impacts the depth of their learning. For the marmots, it’s a completely mixed bag… some of the students really love it, and I really do lean hard on the fact that this is the mascot… this is the thing that ties it all together… and this is the visual cue so you will now recognize that when we do bond pricing “oh, here’s a marmot, that means it’s just time value of money…” “oh, when we do net present value, here’s a marmot showing up alongside our Princess Bride character it’s just time value of money” and so forth. Many of the students really enjoy that and grab on to it and some students, they’re not having any of it. They want boring… they want dry… and I’m afraid they’ve come to the wrong place. Been there and done that. I don’t do that anymore.

John: But that use of imagery is really common. People who work on developing memory… the memory palace type things where you tie specific concepts and bundles of concepts with chunks of item to key images, helps people remember things long term. I can see how it would be really effective.

Rebecca: I also could see that one of the things that students often struggle with when information is new to them is making those connections. So providing that visual cue like “here’s time to make a connection…” it’s actually really helpful, because those are the kinds of things that might seem really abstract and very separate if you’re not making an explicit. So, I like that you don’t even have to say explicitly like “this is the thing” you have by putting the image up there, and you’re prompting the students to predict what that connection is or challenging them to think of it on their own before you reveal what that connection is.

Alex: That’s right, and so what started off as just a fun way to get attention: “Hey, class is starting let’s all key in… Here’s a scary wolf.” So, now we’re all paying attention to the scary wolf because that’s how our brains are hard-wired. It’s now grown into this entire thing where throughout the entire class is a continuing callback.

Rebecca: It sounds to me like you must have some pressure every semester to have to have something new that you introduce into some sort of lecture so that there’s some anticipation.

Alex: I’ll be the first one to say that I shamelessly recycle all of my jokes…

[LAUGHTER]

… and so I’m always sort of terrified when I have a student who started the class last year but had to drop at the 6 week mark or the 8 week mark because whatever was going on their life, and then they’re back the next year. Like “oh man, you’re gonna get the exact same jokes with the exact same timing, the exact same patter.” It mostly seems to work fine, and I do continually try to incorporate new things. One of the nice things about teaching finance, although some of it is very static… the basic concept of time value of money is going to be there for basically forever and I won’t need to change the actual examples in those slides really ever… but a lot of the other material changes very rapidly. So, the notion of what does market efficiency mean? who can beat the market and win? what is the evidence? But for topics like market efficiency, for topics like financial markets, for topics like investment banking, those areas transform rapidly… and so I’m continually changing those lectures year after year because one of the big topics that I cover in my course that is not really traditional for an undergrad business finance class is how firms raise external capital. The reason why is because it’s one of my main research interests, and so I have lots of ideas of what I want the students to know, and lots of research that I can tie into the lectures that I give. For the past five or ten years financial markets, the regulation of financial markets, firms’ ability to raise external capital, has changed tremendously as regulation has changed and so I’m continually revamping that portion of the course basically every time that I’m breaking it out.

Rebecca: One thing that I can’t help but think is that you and John have some similar backgrounds in terms of content, so the time value of money that you keep referencing probably makes sense to you but I feel like our listeners might not know exactly what that is so maybe we should just take a minute and give a quick cap of that so people know.

Alex: Yeah, absolutely. So, if you have $100 and you invest it earning an interest rate of 5% per year, in a year how much money will you have?

Rebecca: One hundred and five?

Alex: One hundred and five dollars.

[LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s not a trick question, right?

Alex: No, No, it’s not…

[LAUGHTER]
… and so, as you invest money it earns some rate of return and so then money in the future you have more, because it earns some positive rate of return, and conversely, would you rather have $100 today or $100 in a year? Well, the answer is $100 today, because you could invest that for that year and have the hundred dollars plus some additional return. So, you’d have a hundred and five dollars one year from now instead of the: “oh, I’m going to give you a hundred dollars a year from now” and that’s all the time value of money is.. and then it’s application of that over multiple cash flows and multiple periods where people start to lose track that it’s just math.

John: That’s the fun part.

Rebecca: Yeah. Yeah.

John: I also ask my students have they ever burned their mouth on a slice of pizza, and why don’t they just wait? ..and it’s one way of introducing the notion that we prefer things now to later. It’s a fairly important concept in economics and finance and it’s at the basis of finance.

Alex: Oh, absolutely… and I like the way of framing it as how patient you are. Are you willing to wait or are you impatient? …and so the way that I sometimes describe that in class is if you have a low discount rate that means that the future is worth about the same as the present and so you are patient. If you have a very high discount rate well then the future and the present are very different, so high discount rates → impatient, low discount rates → patient.

Rebecca: You realize that the irony of this whole thing is that I have these conversations with my husband all the time because he’s in finance, right? Yeah….

[LAUGHTER]

John: Ok, well, does that help explain it?

Rebecca: Yeah, yeah. I’ve had it explained to me many times.

[LAUGHTER]

I figured our listeners would need it.

Alex: Well, since we’re talking about the things that our students do, I’ll just share one example that I use in class that I continue to use even though it completely does not work with undergraduate students. It’s when I’m trying to introduce the concept of sunk costs… and so a sunk cost is some amount that you have paid… a cash flow that has happened in the past perhaps… and so once that is paid, you can’t get it back …and so it’s like the notion of “should he throw good money after bad” is another way of phrasing it… and so, what I used to say is, “Well, you go to a movie, you pay your fee to go in, and you decide it’s a terrible movie, should you keep watching to get your money’s worth or should you leave? and then a student pointed out to me one year that well, actually, if you go and you complain you can get your money back from the management.

[LAUGHTER]

Okay, different example. This is the one that never works on the undergrads. You go to an all-you-can-eat buffet and you have a choice of do you buy one plate for this amount or do you pay a little more to get the all-you-can-eat buffet and you decide to go for the all-you-can-eat. You pay the $10 for the all-you-can-eat instead of the $7 for the single plate… and you go and you fill up your plate and you eat… but you decide you’re full after just your first plate… but you’ve already paid that all-you-can-eat price. Should you go back for more? …and the intellectual scholarly answer is “Well, no, because the marginal benefit of eating more food is negative at this point because you’re full. Even though the marginal cost is zero.” But, for the students, the undergraduates, the marginal benefit of eating more food is always positive.

[LAUGHTER]

They view it as a sport. Dinner’s not over until they kick me out.

Rebecca: I think that’s really important to consider your audience and what works. So, I think that’s a really good demonstration of knowing your audience and why something might not work for a particular audience.

Alex: Yes, nonetheless, I still use that example… but I tell them ahead of time “I know this is not going to make sense to you. You’re going to push back on me. Nonetheless, I want to talk it through with you so that we can think about who has marginal benefits and marginal costs of what amount.”

John: Just last semester I used exactly the same thing of asking them how many of them would leave a movie theater if it was clear that they weren’t enjoying the movie and this time I had some people argue “I do that all the time.” So, yeah…

Rebecca: Movie theaters? Don’t you just have Netflix?

[LAUGHTER]

John: Okay, that’s actually a relevant point. In terms of the Princess Bride, we’re moving into a generation where many of your students might not have seen that. Do you have any other movie references that you might substitute in the future?

Alex: You know, I haven’t found the right one yet and, honestly, even if I found a good substitute, I’d really want to keep the Princess Bride, just to give them the incentive to watch that movie.

[LAUGHTER]

It is such a classic and such a gem. I really would like for them to all see that movie.

Rebecca: It’s an investment you’ve made.

[LAUGHTER]

Alex: That’s right.

Rebecca: How have faculty responded to the methods that you’ve been using?

Alex: Faculty are not surprised that I do the things that I do.

[LAUGHTER]

John: They’ve known you for a while.

Alex: They’ve known me for a while and I really lean into the corny pun bad jokes big time in class…. and I really I’m quite shameless about it.

John: That’s not new… I seem to remember that back at Duke when you were still in college.

Alex: …and it’s just a question of do I try to suppress that innate desire or not?

[LAUGHTER]

…and I’m at the stage in my career where “nope, not anymore.” You’re just gonna let it all out. My colleagues are not really surprised, but interestingly, one of my colleagues has adapted her lectures quite a bit to embracing this notion of adding images into the slide decks… and that’s my wife. She teaches business law and regulation of business. She was an attorney by training and I described her as a born-again economist because when she started teaching regulation of business she had to teach herself basically all of public choice economics. So, she got a couple of high-level textbooks and worked through them all but she and I regularly discuss teaching techniques and so she now has gone down the rabbit hole of finding that perfect image to highlight the point that you want to make… to have that really stretched metaphor that you can then call back throughout your course. So, it’s been a lot of fun to have her as a sounding board to go back and forth with.

Rebecca: I appreciate that you’ve brought design into the process.

Alex: Yeah.

John: Excellent. It’s something we all should probably do more of and think about more and certainly much more effective than those PowerPoint bulleted lists that are so common.

Alex: Yeah, a little bit of both actually goes a long way.

Rebecca: You’ve won some awards for your research. How do you maintain a balance between teaching and research?

Alex: It’s difficult. There are some ways in which research can feed directly into the teaching… and so my research that touches on market efficiency, some of that can come into the classroom. My research that touches on how firms raise external capital, some of that can come into the classroom. Now when I teach my PhD courses, those are heavily flavored by my research interests and preferences, but when I teach the undergraduate core finance class there’s not a whole lot that can flow back from that teaching into the research. So, that’s one of the downsides of teaching that class as opposed to perhaps a class that is more specialized or an elective or something that’s a little bit further downstream from the core class.

Rebecca: But at the same time, if it’s something that you teach routinely then the prep isn’t as difficult.

Alex: Absolutely. That’s true. It is hard to overstate how useful it is to teach a class a second time, or a third, or a fourth, or twentieth. Nonetheless, every single year, even though it’s the same class and mostly the same topics, I go through every slide, every lecture from the beginning every year.

Rebecca: But, I remember teaching a bigger selection of classes and one of the things that I’ve liked about my position at Oswego is that that suite of classes has gotten smaller… and then there’s a little less I’ll keep on top of to make sure that you have all that fresh information and what-have-you for classes.

Alex: Absolutely, and I’ve done the same thing. I’ve taught a variety of courses over the years and it’s been nice… as you describe it that suite of classes narrows, so that you have the same core group of classes that you’re teaching over and over again and you can start to specialize. You can really invest the time to get over the fixed costs of finding all those right images for the slides… to going through and taking time to invest in the design aspects of the lectures. That if you had four different courses every term, it would be incredibly difficult to find the time to do that effectively.

John: While you’re working with PhD students, you must do quite a bit of mentoring of them. How do you see the role of a faculty member as a mentor for graduate and undergraduate students?

Alex: Faculty vary widely on their views of how much mentoring PhD students should have… and so you have one model where it’s sink or swim… the PhD students are some of the smartest people in the world… they’re good students… they’ll figure stuff out… just point them in the right direction and let them go, and they’ll get there. That’s not the view that I subscribe to. Because I think we frequently overestimate just how much the doctoral students know, particularly about how the profession works. There’s no book for that. They can’t just go down to the library and find a textbook on how to be a good assistant professor or… there are books on how to write a dissertation but that only gets you so far, because it really needs to be very field specific. So, I tend to go very much the other way, which is a lot of sort of high-touch mentoring. I write co-authored papers with many PhD students, one of whom is now your colleague there at Oswego in the Finance Department in the School of Business, and it’s enjoyable for me. It is a good learning experience for the students and I think it helps them to learn how the profession works much more efficiently, because when it comes time to write a paper and they might put together some tables and say I want to structure the introduction this way. Oh, no, no, no, no, we can’t do that… because if you do that then it’ll make people be concerned about this issue here. So, instead, we need to twist it around this way and start with this… start with the big picture, not what your paper does but what your paper’s about. That sort of thing. That’s hard to learn on your own.
PhD students are PhD students because they are extraordinarily good students and they’re really good at learning. Though, that’s not the job for academics. The job is not the learning, the job is creating knowledge… and the transition from being a consumer to a producer of knowledge is scary, and it is the road that has very few signs or roadmaps to help them get down. It’s a transition of going from a consumer to a producer of knowledge… is very profound for a lot of people.

Rebecca: What’s interesting about what you’re hearing is you know my field the terminal degrees in an MFA a Master of Fine Arts, and the undergraduate degrees are really professional degrees. But, it’s the creators of cultural content ,and so that struggle happens at the undergraduate level too, of going from being that consumer of culture to a producer of culture. It’s really not that much different… just what they’re creating is a bit different.

Alex: That’s right.

John: I remember when I was working on my PhD, one time, where up until that point I had been meeting with my advisor every month to talk about my research, and at first I was just asking him questions… and then he was asking me questions and I realized suddenly that I knew more about the topic than he did… and that’s I think that sort of transition that’s sometimes difficult… because when you’re working on your research you’re mostly going out and finding all these earlier studies and so forth but you get to some point where suddenly you become the expert in the field and that’s a tough transition to make. It’s scary, as you said.

Alex: It is. It’s quite the watershed moment when you realize… when you are presenting your research to a room of 30 presumably learned scholars that maybe collectively they know more about the topic than you, but you know more than any individual person in that room… and becoming that expert and then owning it, so that you can write confidently is, I agree, a very tough transition

Rebecca: I like the emphasis on the owning it part. I think that’s key.

Alex: Yeah, imposter syndrome is real.
[LAUGHTER]

John: Everywhere.

Rebecca: So, we usually wrap up by asking “what are you gonna do next?”

Alex: Well, that’s a good question. I really wanna keep doing what I’m doing, making my class better year on year, teaching PhD students and training them year on year and working on research, hopefully research that people will actually find interesting and useful.
I have a sabbatical coming up.

Rebecca: When’s your sabbatical? What’s the countdown?

Alex: Well, the sabbatical is a year from now and in between then, one of my colleagues with whom I co-teach a doctoral seminar, he’s on his sabbatical. So that PhD course, that normally I teach half of, I’m now teaching the entirety of next fall. So, I think the first thing I’m gonna do is prep the rest of that class.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca: Deadlines make a difference.

Alex: Yes, indeed.

John: That procrastination thing… and that time preference…

Well, thank you!

Rebecca: Thank you so much.

Alex: Thanks.

[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.