163. Student Voices

As teachers we may ask for, and act on, student feedback periodically throughout the semester or from semester to semester. What we often don’t hear, as faculty, is the student perspective on their overall learning experience. In this episode, Jessamyn Neuhaus and Theresa Hyland join us to discuss the importance of listening to, and placing value on, student voices in the design of learning experiences.

Jessamyn is the Interim Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is also a recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She’s the author of Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds who Want to be Effective Teachers. Theresa is a nontraditional student in the BA/MST History and Adolescent Education program at SUNY Plattsburgh and is looking forward to her career as a high school teacher.

Show Notes

  • Neuhaus, J. (2019). Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers. West Virginia University Press.

Transcript

John: As teachers we may ask for, and act on, student feedback periodically throughout the semester or from semester to semester. What we often don’t hear, as faculty, is the student perspective on their overall learning experience. In this episode, we talk with a student about listening to, and placing value on, student voices in the design of learning experiences.

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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 guests today are Jessamyn Neuhaus and Theresa Hyland. Jessamyn is the Interim Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is also a recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She’s the author of Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds who Want to be Effective Teachers. Theresa is a nontraditional student in the BA/MST History and Adolescent Education program at SUNY Plattsburgh and is looking forward to her career as a high school teacher. Welcome, Theresa, and welcome back, Jessamyn.

Jessamyn: Thanks for having us.

Theresa: Thank you for having me.

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

Jessamyn: I am. And it’s Prickly Pear Cactus, which is a good tea for an introvert. Like, don’t touch me, stay away. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s perfect.

Jessamyn: It’s perfect.

Rebecca: Theresa?

Theresa: Mine is a Chinese style gunpowder green…

Rebecca: Nice.

Theresa: that’s very good.

John: And I’m drinking a pure ginger tea today.

Rebecca: And I have Golden Monkey. I feel like I needed to treat myself today. [LAUGHTER]

John: As we’re recording this, we’re waiting for election results from the national election. So. some of us haven’t been getting a lot of sleep because we’re checking all the counts regularly.

Rebecca: So, the golden monkey is totally self indulgent.

Jessamyn: Very necessary. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here today to talk about the student experience during a pandemic, and about ways in which we could productively incorporate student voices into professional development activities, and we’re practicing that right now. [LAUGHTER] So, let’s talk a little bit about the impact of the transition to remote instruction last March. What was that like from a student perspective?

Theresa: Oh, yeah, that was intense. [LAUGHTER] It was really the most disorganized and disorienting sort of thing, which I thought was completely understandable, on the one hand, because every single person involved, the students and the professors, were being asked to do something they had never signed up to do. The professor’s teaching our in-person classes had never signed up to be online professors; the students taking the in-person classes were obviously taking in-person classes for a reason, none of us really wanted to go online. Everybody had a different way of doing things when we got online. Sometimes, I had people who were trying a couple of different things because they weren’t sure what was actually going to work. And of course, we had tech issues, and just all kinds of things. So, it was pretty confusing and a little bit messy, and it made things a lot more difficult than they had to be, I think, but it was also the only reasonable solution. Because what else could we have done? …just closed everything and gone: “Oh, well, we’ll just try it again in the next spring.” [LAUGHTER] …like no, that’s not going to work. [LAUGHTER] In my case, too, it was particularly difficult because my father died in February, like three weeks before we went on break. And so going online removed my main source of outside support, which was going to classes because it forced me to get up and leave the house every day, and it put me around people in very controlled environments, and it had been helping a lot and then all of a sudden, that got taken away. So, for me, it was also a depressing experience, because now I had to deal with all of this stuff by myself… completely by myself.

Rebecca: I think that’s an experience that more people experience than we ever really acknowledge… the death of a family member or just any other kind of extra stress on top of the moving online that was happening. So, I think it’s important to acknowledge that students and faculty were experiencing these things, which just added to the complexity of the situation, the stress of the situation for everybody involved.

Theresa: It’s like I’ve been saying, that 2020 is the worst year of my life, even leaving COVID out of it, because other things have happened too that I’m not going to get into, but it’s been the worst year of my life, even without COVID,and now we’ve got a pandemic on top of it that’s not making anything better or easier to deal with… at all.

John: But at least we don’t have any social strife [LAUGHTER] or any other types of stresses in society this year.

Jessamyn: No other major global crises happening.

Theresa: Things are so peaceful [LAUGHTER] and I’m completely expecting a peaceful transition of power to happen any minute now.

John: Are things better this fall in terms of the adjustment to a still unusual environment for teaching?

Theresa: Yeah, it’s not an easy answer. I would say yes and no. The yes comes from the classes I’ve had that have moved online, either kind of officially they moved online recently when we started having COVID cases at Plattsburgh or they moved online for me unofficially when I asked for it, which in and of itself was a long and complicated and messy process. In that case, I think the people who are offering online options were much better prepared and knew what they were doing. So, there isn’t that feeling of disorganization and confusion with the online classes. Because by this time, the people offering them have figured out how they like to do it, have figured out the best way that works for them and their students. And so that is very nice and organized. Unfortunately, for the in-person option, I would have to say… not so much. Because we wound up with some really weird situations with in-person learning. At the beginning of the term, I had five classes, only one of which was in a classroom that was ever meant to be a classroom. And that classroom can usually hold about 40 students plus the professor. But right now, because of COVID, they have it at half capacity. So I had a class of 40 people, but only 20 of us could be in the room at a time. So that professor had to do some kind of strange things like divide us in half, and half of us came on Monday and half of us came on Wednesday, and we all met by Zoom on Friday. And then my other classes were in rooms that were never meant to be classrooms. Three of my classes were in a converted ballroom, and they took this ballroom and divided it in half with one of those dividing walls that doesn’t really do anything except give you a visual separation. So, if something was going on in one classroom that was loud, you could hear it in the other one. If someone was trying to use the microphone, and they didn’t quite get the tech right, all of a sudden their lecture was going into the other room too. The lighting was horrible. The acoustics were awful. There were cases where I had professors who didn’t really want to use the microphone, and I couldn’t hear them. And I had cases I couldn’t hear my classmates at all. So, of course, there was no socializing at the beginning of class. And we were all sitting six feet apart and wearing our masks, we can’t hear each other, and we’re not socializing. And it kind of got to the point for me, where I actually felt like I was almost being punished. And I know that’s not the case, I know that nobody was punishing anybody. But that’s kind of how it felt. I felt like I was walking into something in the Hunger Games or something. [LAUGHTER] When I walked into these classrooms, it was just such a stressful experience, and isolating. I was in a room with 40 other people, and I’ve never felt so isolated. I lived in Japan, in situations where I was like the only non-Japanese person for miles around for months on end, and I felt less isolated than I felt in this classroom. And I’ve been reflecting lately… one of the things that makes me non traditional is I already have two master’s degrees, one of which is in teaching English to speakers of other languages. And one of the things that got really hammered in that course that I did was making a classroom environment pleasant to facilitate learning. There’s nothing pleasant about being in a poorly lit, bad acoustics, socially distant Hunger Games classroom. There just isn’t. And, so I dropped one of the classes. I moved online for other ones as much as I’ve been able to. And so it’s better now, but only because I forced it to be. And I got help from most of my professors to make it be that way.

John: Gamification can be a useful learning strategy in terms of motivation, but perhaps not to the Hunger Games extreme. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: Not to the Hunger Games extent.

Theresa: No. I mean, [LAUGHTER] I know some people will be super motivated by that, but maybe for like two class sessions, not forever, and not in the punishment aspect of it, but in the actual games aspects of it. I’m not that kind of nerd. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: I had one student describe it, too, as being such a powerful reminder of the terrible pandemic…

Theresa: Yeah.

Jessamyn: … raging around the world… that the experience of sitting in a socially distanced classroom and masks, was not only so different from an ideal learning environment, and expectations about the learning environment, but a very visual, emotional, intellectual reminder that a potentially deadly virus is circulating among us. And that that knowledge, that anxiety, that reminder in the classroom was, of course, a huge obstacle to effective learning.

Theresa: And I think that point, too, about the expectations is really interesting, because, to me, what it kind of feels like whenever people talk to us about “Oh, well, we’re giving you the in-person classes, because that’s what you asked for as students.” We asked for what we knew, before COVID, we didn’t ask for Hunger Games classrooms. [LAUGHTER] And there are a lot of people right now, I think, who prefer being in person so strongly that it doesn’t matter to them, and they would rather be in-person in a Hunger Games classroom then be online in their own living rooms, or whatever. And that’s totally valid. I’m not criticizing them. But, for some of us, that isn’t working at all. And it’s not at all what we were expecting. And in my case, I think I was very optimistic, but also very naive, because I did not expect to be in that kind of situation. I thought, well, maybe we’ll be wearing masks or maybe we’ll be social distancing. Somehow, I didn’t think we’ll be wearing masks and social distancing in rooms that were never meant as classrooms, and it’s going to feel awful.

Jessamyn: Yeah. Teresa’s perspective has really powerfully reminded me of how much of effective teaching and learning is that community piece, that welcoming classroom and that inclusive classroom and how much of that emotional component goes into effective learning, and, especially for brainiacs and geeky academics, we’re so focused on our subject and in content coverage, and we forget just how central the emotional connections, the human connections, and the productive professional relationships in the classroom are.

Theresa: And even just think of it in terms of practicalities, like having a group discussion, which is one of the whole points of being in person to begin with, is that you have that give and take back and forth between the students and the professor and between the students themselves. And if you’re in a classroom where nobody can hear what’s going on, or you’re in a classroom where If more than one person talks, it’s so echoey that nobody can hear or understand, that entire purpose cannot exist.

Rebecca: Yeah, we want to make sure that we’re moving beyond the sage on the stage. And we want to make sure that we’re using active learning in these things and technology can be a really powerful way of doing that…

Theresa: Yeah.

Rebecca: …in ways that maybe people didn’t realize going into the pandemic and are discovering.

John: Did you have any classes where there were some people face to face and others in Zoom at the same time, because that presented even some additional challenges that many of us warned against, but it was something that many colleges and many faculty tried to do, and I think a lot of people are backing away from that once they realize that it’s difficult to maintain two separate groups in some type of community.

Theresa: I have not had that happen simultaneously, I had one professor who offered the same class, two different sections, one in person and one online. And, in her case, that was actually how I was able to unofficially switch to online before she moved my in-person section online. But, I haven’t had anyone trying to do a simultaneous in-person while doing Zoom situation.

Rebecca: Because it’s not possible to be in two places at the same time… [LAUGHTER] Last I checked the science is not up on that. [LAUGHTER]

Theresa: Yeah. The only way I can imagine that would work would be if you recorded the in-person class and then posted it on Zoom, which then removes the simultaneous aspect and presents a whole different set of issues.

Jessamyn: Yeah, I would say, here at Plattsburgh, that what was, at least for a while, being called that HyFlex model, has really been utilized very much.

John: We had quite a few people trying it, but I don’t think there’s going to be as many people trying it in the spring.

Rebecca: No, I think people have now officially learned the way they want to teach. [LAUGHTER]

Theresa: Yeah.

Rebecca: This was the experiment. [LAUGHTER]

John: It was a massive experiment.

Rebecca: Yeah, an international experiment on higher education. … Glad that we had this opportunity.

Jessamyn: Yeah. Right.

John: As someone finding a career in teaching, what are some of the takeaways from this experience that you’ll bring into your own future teaching.

Theresa: So I spend a lot of time, first of all, in my own head, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that I literally am alone in my apartment with my budgies most of the time these days, [LAUGHTER] because of online learning I’ve been thinking a lot about things like: “What does it mean to do various things? Or what do various things mean to begin with”? So, for example, what does it mean to teach and learn? What does it mean to educate? And what does it mean to be educated? Why do we do certain things in the classroom? Why do we require term papers? As opposed either in general, or as opposed to something else? Why do we require students to memorize information before they take a test, instead of allowing open notes, open books, their cheat sheets? Why do we do these things? And what changes can we make to support the fact that this is an extraordinarily stressful time, on all levels? It’s like everything happening at once, for everybody, all the time, in every location. There is no such thing as taking a break anymore, really, there’s no break from some things. So, what can a teacher do to help eliminate or limit a source of stress, because let’s face it, school is a source of stress. Even if you want to be here, even if you love learning, even if you could easily be a student for the rest of your life, it is still a source of stress, because, for most of us, something about our future is riding on this. Something about our future is riding on our success here. And it’s not just “Oh, am I going to have the knowledge I need?” It’s also “Am I going to have the grades that I need to be attractive to employers? Am I going to have the grades that I need to keep my financial aid? If I lose my financial aid, what do I do?” Am I going to be out on the street with my birds, trying to find some basement to live in or something? Like, what’s going to happen?” And these things are all concerns that are floating around in people’s heads to varying degrees and varying levels. So, my question, as a teacher, is “What can I do to lessen that burden?” And I think it can be hard because, especially at the high school level, I think there’s a lot that comes down from above. My impression, anyway, is that there’s a lot that comes down from above that I can’t change. But, what can I do about the things that I can change? If I were teaching at the college level, I would be inclined right now to say things like open notes, open books, or cheat sheets on exams, fewer high-stakes exams, replace them with more low-stakes exams, either no term papers or shorter term papers… replace the term papers with something like reflection essays. So much depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. And I think sometimes, at all levels of education, we do things because that’s how they’ve been done. And especially right now, that’s just not going to work forever. And I think right now, whether we like it or not, we’ve been handed a golden opportunity to try some new things. And to see if these new things work at all, to see if they work better, to see if maybe we think that they don’t work better, but they work better in this situation, so we’ll keep up for now and go back to the old way after. Whatever. But, right now is a time I think that all educators, past, present, and future need to be really thinking about what it means to do those different things, and why certain things are happening in the classroom, and how they can change what’s going on in the classroom, to limit a source of stress that a lot of people just don’t have the energy for anymore.

John: These are all things that most teaching centers have been suggesting to faculty for quite a while. But faculty don’t always listen to that. And one of the reasons we wanted to talk to you about this is that, at your institution, you gave a presentation to faculty about this. And I think that maybe hearing student voices can provide a little more compelling story to faculty than if they just hear it from people who run teaching centers. Could you talk a little bit about that experience?

Theresa: Yeah, from my end, it felt really nice. It was like, “Oh, wow, these professors have all shown up.” And it wasn’t just professors, there were some people from the library as well. But like, “Oh, wow, these people have all shown up to listen to what I have to say. And they care about what I have to say.” And I know that there were people who probably watched the recorded session later. So, that was good. But I also know a few things. One, I’m kind of weird, [LAUGHTER] in that…. I’m weird in a lot of ways like, but in all harmless ways, I promise. But, in this case, I’m weird in that I had that opportunity. There are thousands of students here, and I’m the one who got to have that conversation. So, most of us don’t get that chance… at all. And I think, too, a lot of students, especially younger students who are new to college, feel like they’re not going to be listened to. They can say whatever they want to whoever they want and nobody’s gonna listen to them. And why should they speak up, anyway? And I don’t have any power in the classroom, the power is all with the professor. And I don’t have any power at this institution, it’s all with the administration. And that’s assuming that you can even figure out what’s coming from the professor and what’s coming from administration, because most of the time, we students don’t know that. Let’s take attendance policies in example, I don’t know what part of attendance policies are coming from administration and what part is coming from the professors themselves, just as an example. So if I have a problem with an attendance policy, I don’t really know who to talk to, directly. And I don’t know how to address it, maybe, as a student. So, for me, yeah, it felt fantastic to sit there and be able to talk to these people. And they were all great people and very receptive, I thought. But I also know that that’s unusual for a lot of students’ experiences. And I know quite frankly, that had I been 18 and in my first semester as a freshman, I don’t know if I would have been willing to do that…

Jessamyn: Sure.

Theresa: …because I would have been staring down that…

Jessamyn: Yeah.

Theresa: …group of people. Even though they were very nice, kind, friendly people, I still would have been absolutely terrified. So I think that there’s a gap in what students can actually do and what they think they can do. And it’s not necessarily a gap that the students can bridge, or at least it’s not one that they can bridge alone. And that this is a case where professors need to use the power and privilege they have, as professors, to help bridge that gap and prove to us students that if we speak up that you will listen, basically.

Jessamyn: Yeah, I think incorporating more student voices into faculty development is an awesome goal. And it’s not easy. I don’t think it’s easy to do for some of the reasons Theresa mentioned. And it really depends on your student population and your campus culture. Our students at SUNY Plattsburgh are incredibly polite and respectful, and have learned to be passive learners in their high school experience. Not everybody, but that’s the general culture… speaking directly to power with a face… even if it’s on a screen via Zoom…a whole posse of professors would not come easily to most students at any point in their career… maybe when they were seniors… maybe. So, I’ve been looking for ways to get student perspectives into our programming, I used a model created by Jessica Tinklenberg at the Claremont College’s Teaching and Learning Center. She created a model called “What your students want you to know,” a series of discussions where a faculty representative or a staff or mentor figure on campus who worked with certain groups of students, checked in with their students, polled their students, and then reported to the faculty, and we did that this semester. So, like the Coordinator for International Students came and spoke to a group of faculty: “Here’s what your international students want you to know,” the Assistant Athletic Director came and spoke: “Here’s what student athletes want you to know.” So that’s a way to get student voices into the conversation without having that direct, perhaps confrontational, sense. Theresa is a non-traditional student. I’ve worked with her before. We had a class together during that horrible impossible semester. And she’s also my advisee, we share a love of pop culture. So, we got that in common. She came, actually it was during advising and she came to me for advising and got to talking about what her experiences have been like in face-to-face classes. I am teaching this semester, but it’s totally online. So her perspective, combined with I knew her to be confident enough and able to articulate very clearly her experiences and not get weirded out by facing down some professors… and it’s self selecting too. With the faculty development events, people come who want to be there. So, it’s not like a mandatory event: “Now listen to students.” I know the Center for Teaching Excellence did have a Student Advisory Board for a while. It’s been quite a few years since that board was in place. And it’s very difficult to ask students, especially right now, to take on additional labor of any kind, even if it’s just offering a perspective. What I’d like to do is have a selection process to have two student Center for Teaching Excellence fellows next semester, but I’ve run into a major bureaucratic red tape snarl. A shout out to state universities… it’s like a major undertaking to offer a $200 honorarium to a student as part of a student fellowship. So stay tuned… to be continued, I will be trying to wrestle that. Unfortunately, I’m just awful at paperwork. So, we’ll see. But, that’s how Theresa ended up at the round table. And it was the most successful one, I think, of the semester so far of the presentations and discussions. People were very, very interested.

Rebecca: We had a really good experience with students sharing their feedback in our Accessibility Fellows Program, which is a smaller group of faculty with seven faculty at the time. And we worked with our disability services office, essentially, to recruit a few students to come and share some of their experiences and the technology they use with that group. But it was like a very closed situation and it was a small situation and it was not a recorded situation. And I think the students had a good experience based on the responses afterwards. And the faculty all had really great experiences that have impacted all of us in really deep ways by having those structured conversations about something specific. But, I think there’s something about it being kind of a tight knit group, someone they trust is who recruited them to have the conversation. None of their faculty members were there. [LAUGHTER] It was different faculty members. But, it was really powerful. So, I think the more we can find ways to include those voices of students in safe ways, ways that they perceive as being safe, the better.

Jessamyn: Well, especially right now is just so crucial. It’s challenging. We have to figure out ways to do it, though. At Theresa’s roundtable, \my colleague, John Locke, Director of Technology Enhanced Learning, shared that he had really been struggling with some of the decisions he made about his moving online. Did he do the right thing? Was this the best? And hearing Theresa and talking with her, really powerfully confirmed that, yes, he was on the right track. And that kind of feedback, above and beyond what we might be asking from the students as we’re actually teaching them, just can be so incredibly helpful right now. Wow. That’s what we all need. Is this working? Theresa, like you said, we’re trying something new. How will we know without the student perspective?

Rebecca: I’ve been fortunate this semester to also have a TA which I don’t generally have for my classes. That has actually helped a lot, to get that student feedback. I’m getting her feedback on her perceptions of what’s happening and what she thinks might work based on her own experiences as a student in other classes. But also, the student voice is getting filtered to me from her because they feel comfortable talking to her. And so although I don’t generally use a TA in my classes, I found it really important to do it as I was transitioning to teaching online, because I hadn’t taught online before. And it’s been really powerful. She’s helped me think a little bit about what to do next semester, based on what this semester was like. She co-created some of our assignments and activities that we’ve been doing, and it was really important to the design of the experience to have her perspective. And, I think, maybe I didn’t even realize that as much until we were just talking with you right now, Theresa, like how much that actually was really valuable to the students this semester. Because, she’s acted as a sounding board. Even over the summer I ran a few things by her before the semester even started.

Theresa: So, that’s good. Remember too, though, this has to be a two-way street. Because if you get a bunch of students, you can ask for all the student perspectives that you want. But if the professors are not listening and responding, it’s screaming into the void. And you can get me, you can get all the freshmen, you can get the seniors, you can get the grad students, you can get anyone you want. And if we’re screaming into the void, then that doesn’t really produce any kind of results. And I think that they’re kind of multiple problems here. Like I mentioned, the problem with convincing students to speak up to begin with, getting faculty who maybe are less inclined to listen to actually listen and pay attention and follow through, and making sure that the students actually feel like they’ve been heard. And that, even if something doesn’t happen immediately, that something is happening behind the scenes, because I think sometimes they can say something and then nothing happens. And then they go, “Oh, you’re asking me for my opinion again? Well, the last time I gave you my opinion, nothing happened. So, why am I going to bother this time?” So yes, it’s important to focus on that one end of how do I get the students to share their feelings and their thoughts, but there’s also how do we get the faculty and administration to respond in a way that encourages that to continue.

Jessamyn: And here’s another problem. In this context of meaningful student feedback, we have a serious issue in academia getting meaningful student feedback, just from our own individual classes. Even during the before times, the student evaluations of teaching are deeply flawed. They’re often administered very poorly. And every faculty member has a horror story about student evaluations of teaching. They’ve got some incredibly mean, miserable, sexist, racist, homophobic, derogatory, hurtful, demeaning comments, and they will remember them forever. And, for many faculty, that’s the only experience they’ve had with directly soliciting student feedback. And it’s terrible. It’s the worst possible place to start. And it’s not good for students, either. It’s often presented in a way that they don’t understand what they’re being used for. If it’s the first time they’ve been asked for their opinion, they’re going to feel, just like Theresa said, “What’s the point?” They don’t know how it’s used in evaluations. So, in this already really pretty toxic way, we have established… because like Theresa said, “That’s how we’ve always done it.” And then to try to wrestle us out of that and have a more meaningful student voice and student perspective in faculty development. I think, like Theresa said, that the problems are multiple. The challenges are many layered.

Theresa: And with those kinds of evaluations, I think, that also gets back to the point of students don’t know where a problem is coming from, they might know that there’s a problem, or they perceive that as a problem, but they don’t know where it’s coming from. So, something that’s actually an administrative problem gets taken out on the faculty. The racism and sexism, that’s obviously a problem with the student. We know where that problem is coming from. And that’s something that needs to be dealt with, but it shouldn’t be on the shoulders of one individual professor to deal with that. So, just to be clear, I think that’s completely inappropriate of the students and they should not be doing that. [LAUGHTER] But, consider it, too, from the student side, the side of the non-racist and non-sexist students [LAUGHTER] who are angry about something legit, but they don’t know who to direct it at. They don’t know how to direct it…

Jessamyn: Yes.

Theresa: …because they’ve never had the chance to speak before.

Jessamyn: That’s right.

Theresa: I was thinking, even for myself, I have some feedback I really want to give to a professor of mine right now. But I’m kind of sitting here going, “What’s the point? I’m sure this person has tenure and isn’t really going to pay attention. I’m sure that this is how this has been taught forever. Why am I gonna do this?” And it’s a really harmless thing that I’m talking about. And I know that it’s a professor thing, not an administration thing. And I’m obviously not going to go out there and be horrible to this person, because I’m not the kind of person and there’s no need for it. But I’m literally sitting here going, “I want to give you feedback on this part of how the class is taught, but why should I? …because I don’t think that anything is going to happen if I do.” And a lot of times too, remember, there are situations, of course, where students have the same Professor over and over again. But that doesn’t happen all the time. So, very often we give feedback, and we never see if anything comes of it, because we never see that person again. So we have no idea if anything comes of it. So again, it’s that screaming into the void. Why should I bother?

Rebecca: That’s actually one of the challenges of anonymous feedback…

Theresa: Yeah.

Rebecca: …to some extent, is like not being able to have the two-way communication or having a dialogue about something. It’s kind of a one-way scream one way or another, but maybe listened to or not. But, being able to have a dialogue can be really rich and helpful and you can ask follow up questions about like, “What do you mean by that?” or “Have you had an experience somewhere else where it’s worked better? Can you tell me about that?” I’ve been fortunate enough to have some of those experiences of being able to have the dialogue version of that. And it’s so powerful and so helpful, and it helps everybody. It helps the students, because then we can immediately act. It helps the faculty long term. But, I think that’s going to work the best in the situation where the faculty’s open to feedback and sets up a situation where it’s known that feedback will be used. You’re telling students how that feedbacks going to be used, you’re validating the student voice, and then also providing that feedback… like why you might not have done something even though that suggestion was made or whatever. And from my experience, students respond really well when you have that dialogue piece.

Theresa: Absolutely. But it’s something that has to happen from day one of the class.

Jessamyn: And all these nuances are just making me think about how it’s even more challenging right now. So everything is harder now, period. Every single thing is harder now. But when emotions are running high, and we want to lash out, because the world’s on fire, and we’re angry, and we’re disempowered, which is everybody to some extent, and more for some groups than others. And into this, like boiling of emotions, we’re gonna add a complicated dynamic. It’s hard.

John: One of the things we’ve always recommended to faculty is that they request student feedback periodically, either with a form or with open discussions. But one thing I’ve noticed is a lot of people, as they move into new modalities of teaching, have been doing that fairly regularly. Some people do it every class period, asking what’s working, what’s not working, and many people are doing it every week in some way. So, I hope that’s a practice that will continue once we move past the current crisis, as faculty become more used to inviting feedback. And it is important that faculty respond to it. So, just collecting the feedback doesn’t do much if the students don’t see any sort of response. But, if faculty would respond to it, and sometimes it might be by saying, “Well, I understand why you would like this change, but here’s why I don’t think we can do that at this time.” But, at least having that dialogue, whether it’s anonymous or not, at least they’re responding to the voices that they’re hearing and letting people know that their voices are valued and taken into account.

Rebecca: …and not responding in the moment, not being able to take action in the moment is still reasonable. It is a pandemic, it is really difficult to shift gears right now. And if it’s something that’s just too big to change, maybe it does need to wait until next semester, but communicating that like “Hey, I have my barriers, too.” I found that students are really responsive to that. They recognize we’re humans, if you actually admit that you’re a human.

Theresa: Yeah.

John: …if you act like one.

Theresa: Exactly, yeah. And it’s important to keep in mind that you don’t know our outside lives, but we don’t know yours. We only know what you share with us. And like Rebecca was saying, the more human you seem to us, the more likely you are to get feedback, the more likely you are to get useful feedback, I think, and the more likely you are to actually be able to develop that dialogue with your students that will actually result in something fruitful and good, and not just a bunch of pent up complaining at the end of the term. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: Yes, exactly. Yeah, that humanizing element is so key to online learning. That’s Michelle Pacansky-Brock talks about humanizing online learning so important. And Flower Darby talks about the online teacher presence. But, it’s also face to face, it’s the whole undertaking of teaching and learning. Communication is so key. And as it’s sort of my shtick here, I mean, there’s a lot of nerdy academic brainiacs who just don’t communicate very well, who may be trying something to cope with this unprecedented time with all the best intentions. But, if it’s not communicated clearly to students, they’re not going to get it, and it’s not going to be effective. So, the clear communication part seems even more important. Theresa mentioned our ability to be flexible, and to really focus in on the key student learning outcomes. What is it we actually want students to be able to do at the end of the class? And really focusing on that, and how can we humanize those and be as flexible as possible? And I think this conversation is making me think too, about just how important the communication part is. Like I had a student tell me she was having trouble connecting with a professor. And I said, “Okay, so you emailed her, she didn’t answer the email.” We have Zoom class. Like, okay, so when you go early… this student always arrives early… is the professor there? She’s like, “Yes, but she doesn’t have the volume on or she’s won’t talk to me or something.” That’s one thing about teleconferencing. your face is right there. How can you not try to communicate with a student when you’re staring into each other’s eyes like, why? It’s that ability to communicate, and just to build that rapport and those connections, and it’s hard right now, because everything’s harder.

Theresa: One thing I was really grateful for in the spring, ironically enough, is that we actually did have those few weeks of in-person learning before we went online because I actually knew my professors, and I knew them as people. Like, I didn’t know every detail about their lives, of course, but I knew them as human beings who stood in front of my classroom and had a presence and had mannerisms and I knew how they acted and I kind of guessed how they would react to certain things. And I think that without that experience, it would have been a lot harder and a lot more miserable really, to go online with so little notice,

Rebecca: One of the things that I’m noticing from this conversation, and the last few conversations we’ve had on Tea for Teaching is how much communication and relationship building is important to learning. It’s so important to underscore that those two things are key to learning and reducing stress. Those are all really fundamental to learning. And we focused a lot on technology as we’ve shifted more to online pieces of teaching. But those elements are important, regardless if there’s technology involved. And it really gets back to that foundation of things that we need to be thinking about as teachers.

Jessamyn: And it does not have to be a touchy feely, squishy, non rigorous way of connecting. I think one reason Theresa and I work so well together is neither of us is a touchy feely, squishy person. We are not warm and fuzzy at all. But we’ve established a good rapport around our subject, around the intellectual exploration, and now more around teaching and learning. So, you can be yourself, you don’t have to transform into the motherly, fatherly, grandfatherly professor that everybody loves, and you just want to be around, or the professor who, once we’re post OVID is always hugging their students, you don’t have to do all that.

Theresa: Please don’t hug your students. [LAUGHTER] Not without explicit consent, at least. Oh my gosh.

Jessamyn: But, that connection, and that communication, and those productive professional working relationships are so, so key.

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

Theresa: Well, what’s next for me is making it through the rest of the week. Yeah, I have one more class tomorrow. And I have an exam this week. But it’s a pretty easy exam, so I’m not too concerned. In my immediate future, in the spring, I did actually manage to get an entirely online slate of classes, which is important for me, because I’m one of those people who really shouldn’t be around people right now. And I’m not talking emotionally, I’m totally talking in terms of my physical health. And the fact that if I get COVID, it’s not going to go well, for me, so I was going to say I’m looking forward… but I’m looking towards that. [LAUGHTER] And it remains to be seen if I’m looking forward or kind of feeling trepidatious, or what’s gonna happen with that? Yeah, so I guess in the immediate future it’s just kind of plugging along and doing the best I can and making the best of this really horrifying situation.

Jessamyn: I’m not sure I can better that particular goal. But, I’ll say that scholarship wise, I’m currently editing an anthology of insights into effective teaching and learning from women and underrepresented faculty. I’ve got the working table of contents. And the contributors are working on their revisions, and it’s going to be a fantastic collection. It’s the most practical, yet inspiring, collection of articles I’ve read about teaching and learning all in one place. So I’m really excited about that. I’m going to be the Interim Director next semester. So I’ll continue working with the teaching center. And we’re doing a book group with the SUNY Oswego Teaching and Learning Center, hosts of this fine podcast, and I’ll be doing some other programming as well.

Rebecca: Thank you both for your insights and sharing your experiences, and we’re definitely looking forward to your new book, Jessamyn,

John: When is it coming out? Do you have a timetable on its arrival?

Jessamyn: I don’t have a publication date yet. And I am keeping the deadline to get it to the publishers top secret so I can make sure all my contributors get their revisions done on time.

John: Excellent.

Jessamyn: But, hopefully, I would say 2021, I think late in 2021, or very early 2022.

Rebecca: Excellent. Good luck for the rest of the semester, Theresa. You can do it. [LAUGHTER]

Theresa: Thank you. We’re gonna try.

John: Well, thank you. Thanks for joining us. And this was a great discussion. And I think all of us should spend more time listening to students and having a dialogue with students about what’s working and what’s not… all the time, but especially in these times.

Jessamyn: Thanks for having us.

[MUSIC]

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

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

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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.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guest today is 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.

[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.

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161. Relationship-Rich Education

Many students enter our colleges and universities with hopes for a better future, but depart, often with a large burden of debt, before achieving their goals. In this episode, Peter Felton and Leo Lambert join us to discuss the importance of human connections in supporting students on their educational journey.

Peter is the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning, the Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning, and a Professor of History at Elon University. Leo is a Professor of Education and President Emeritus, also at Elon University. Peter and Leo are co-authors of Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College, which was just released in late October of this year. They also were co-authors of The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most.

Show Notes

  • Felten, P., & Lambert, L. M. (2020). Relationship-rich education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Felten, P., Gardner, J. N., Schroeder, C. C., Lambert, L. M., Barefoot, B. O., & Hrabowski, F. A. (2016). The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Rudy’s Lakeside Drive-in
  • Jack, A. A. (2019). The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students. Harvard University Press.
  • Barnett, Elisabeth (2018). Faculty Leadership and Student Persistence – A Story from Oakton Community College. Community College Research Center. May 9.

Transcript

John: Many students enter our colleges and universities with hopes for a better future, but depart, often with a large burden of debt, before achieving their goals. In this episode, we examine the importance of human connections in supporting students on their educational journey.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare , a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

John: Our guests today are Peter Felton and Leo Lambert. Peter is the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning, the Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning, and a Professor of History at Elon University. Leo is a Professor of Education and President Emeritus, also at Elon University. Peter and Leo are co-authors of Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College, which was just released in late October of this year. They also were co-authors of The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most.

John: Welcome

Peter: Thanks, John. Thanks, Rebecca.

Leo: Thank you. Great to be here.

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

Leo: I am having a cup of coffee. But, I was explaining to John that what I wish I were drinking was a chocolate milkshake from Rudy’s Drive-In in Oswego, New York, one of my favorite places to go and watch a sunset. People who have never been to Oswego don’t know that Oswego is one of the most beautiful places in the world to see a sunset. And I’ve had the privilege of doing that many times. So, you’re very lucky to be situated where you are.

Rebecca: Definitely. It’s beautiful. And it’s beautiful at this time of year for sure.

Peter: Right on the Great Lake

Rebecca: Just cold,

Leo: Yes.

Rebecca: …especially by Rudy’s Drive-in. [LAUGHTER].

John: But it’s less crowded, which makes it a little bit nicer. It’s been a little less crowded this summer with COVID, from what I understand. I haven’t been there, but they were doing takeout as soon as they could bre-open again.

Rebecca: It was. It was my daughter’s favorite thing to do. How about you, Peter, are you drinking tea?

Peter: I have a big glass of water. But, now I want a chocolate milkshake.

John: And I’m drinking Lady Grey tea today.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s a switch up. I have Big Red Sun, Big Red Sun tea, and a big cup of it.

John: And what is Red Sun Tea?

Rebecca: It is a black tea blend from Harney and Sons.

John: Very good.

Rebecca: I’m switching it up, John.

John: So, we’ve invited you here to talk about your new book, Relationship-Rich Education. Could you tell us a bit about the origin of this project?

Leo: Sure, John, I’m happy to do that. In 2016, Peter and I published another book with three friends, John Gardner and Betsy Barefoot, who have long been involved in the freshman year experience program. John really gave birth to that 40 years ago at the University of South Carolina. And they’re prolific scholars and have written so many great things about undergraduate education, as you know, and also with Charles Schroeder, who’s one of the deans of student affairs in this country. And the book was called The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most. We tried to drill down to what really counts in undergraduate education. And we came up with six things, learning matters, relationships matter, expectations matter, having high expectations of students, alignment matters, bringing all the parts and pieces of the university together in alignment, improvement matters, kind of a spirit or a culture of continuous improvement, and leadership matters. And we had an unusual amount of resonance and commentary on this idea of how important relationships were, in the undergraduate experience… something we’ve known through research for more than four decades. And it inspired us to drill down more deeply and write a book on relationships. And that’s what we have spent the last two years doing.

John: As part of this process, you interviewed 385 students, faculty, and staff at 29 campuses. How did you pull this together? What was the process of finding the subjects of the interviews, and then the focus of the interviews?

Peter: John, we started by surveying a fairly large number of higher ed leaders, administrators, faculty, staff around the country, and also foundations and people like that, asking them, where are their really good things happening in undergraduate education? And from that we built this sort of set of programs and institutions that we thought were particularly interesting, and we wanted a diverse set, because American higher education is about 40% Community College students, that we wanted to make sure we had strong community college representation, a lot of the regional comprehensives, a few small liberal arts, and a little bit of everything. So we identified all of those. And then it turns out, people are nice, and you write to them and say, “We’d like to come to your campus for a couple days and talk to your students and colleagues about their experiences.” They say “yes,” and so, back when you could actually travel, we spent a lot of time traveling, a couple days on each campus, and talking with small groups or individuals, asking them often about stories by starting to say, “Tell us about a relationship that’s mattered a lot in your education or in your teaching or in your work here.” And then using that to sort of spin out into broader conversations about identity and education, in all sorts of different directions. So, it was the most fun research I’ve ever done.

John: And you weave those in In throughout the book to illustrate it. And I think that makes a book much more effective by building on that narrative.

Peter: As we have said, John, we know the research is really clear: that relationships matter. They matter for all sorts of things from learning to belonging to motivation, and they matter even more for first-gen students and students of color. And so we knew that. We knew we didn’t have to prove that. What we thought is the stories would help us all understand what that actually means in lived experience… maybe motivate, challenge, inspire, all of us to do better.

Rebecca: I think stories are such a powerful way to learn anything. It’s the nice hook to get us all interested and reading the stories, I think, brings all this data to life, which is really exciting, and, I think, incredibly helpful for faculty and the wider higher ed community.

Peter: Well, thanks. I agree, I got to say, the stories from students and the conversations with students about what’s mattered in their education. If you’ve never done that, sit down with some students and ask them who has mattered in your education and why and just listen, and you’ll be impressed and inspired about professors they talk about, but also the people who work in coffee shops and the campus cop, and moms and dads and just all sorts of people who do small and large things that really support and challenge students in powerful ways.

Rebecca: In the introduction, you describe the changing composition of the student population and describe some of the challenges that are faced by many first-generation students today. What are some of those challenges that have been rising in significance?

Leo: Well, I think when you think about who the American college student is, in the general public consciousness, they probably think of someone who is 18 to 22 years old, going to school full time on an ivy covered campus, sitting on a lawn somewhere, and having the best four years of their lives, right? But, that is increasingly not who the American college student is at all. First of all, 39% of American college students are at two-year colleges. And increasingly, they are people of color, they are working. They are balancing family responsibilities, taking care of children or aging parents. And increasingly, they’re first-generation and new Americans as well. So, we really tried to focus on institutions and people in this book that represent this, what we call an emerging new American majority college student. So, some of the challenges are that these students obviously don’t benefit, oftentimes, by this multi-generational mentoring that occurs almost by osmosis in a lot of families. And so you go off to college, expecting that you might have an experience in study abroad, or expecting that you might do research with professors that, you know, the Academy… Anthony Jack has written a lot about the privileged poor and this hidden code in the academy that is not hidden. It’s quite obvious for people that know the rules of the road for higher education with families that have had generations of experience with colleges and universities. So, that’s a challenge. And I think we also saw very clearly that many of these students, I think, really feel pressured into careers, into needing to do well by their families. This is an incredible opportunity that I have, but I need to get a job. I need to make money. One of the women that we talked to, a Professor at Rutgers University, Newark, Sadia Abbas, speaks about how many of these students almost need permission to be intellectual. They’re interested in philosophy and art history and English, and are passionate, in many cases want to pursue these subjects. But, oftentimes, I think, feel some pressure from families to pursue a degree in accounting or nursing because, not that there’s anything wrong with accounting or nursing, quite far from it, but simply because the pressure for the career dominates. One of the things that Peter and I wanted to be really clear about is that we also think it’s important to recognize that these students bring a lot of assets and agency to college with them. They don’t often recognize all the agency and all the assets, all that they have, but they have accomplished important things in their lives. I mean, they have raised children, they have held down a job, they have sometimes overcome barrier after barrier after barrier to arrive at the gates of higher education. And so we were so inspired by talking to so many faculty who build those assets and build that agency into their curriculum and into their courses and help their students learn to tap into everything that they’ve accomplished. And to be proud of that and to build on that. Many of these students speak multiple languages, are multicultural. And so I think it’s important that we not think of them as disadvantaged students… they have significant advantages and bring a lot to their institutions and to their courses and to the curriculum, if we can be creative about thinking about ways that we can tap into that, as teachers.

John: Following up on that, one of the things you suggest in your book is that we help students develop a sense of meaning and purpose to move beyond this careerist focus that an increasingly large share of students come in with. Why is that important? And what can we do to help students shift their focus to develop these other goals?

Leo: It’s a great question. And I think one of the things I’m most frustrated about with regard to the higher education enterprise at large these days is how often we talk to our students about college in very transactional terms: the number of credits that you need to get this major, what criteria you have to meet to get into this sorority? What hoops you have to get through? What do I have to do, John or Rebecca, to get a B in your class? Students are too often talked to about higher education in this transactional context. And what Peter and I are passionate about is that all of us need to develop a vocabulary and a mindset to help students think about their experiences from a relational approach. And that includes, especially, addressing these big questions of meaning and purpose. We want students in college to be asking questions about: Who am I? What is my identity? What is my purpose? What talents do I have? And I love this big question that our friend, Randy Bass, at Georgetown, who we reference several times in the book, he asks this question about: Who are you becoming for other people, not just yourself? That’s a big question to put before students, and questions like that are best asked and answered and reconsidered in conversations with people that we care about and that care about us. Our mentors, our friends. That’s one of the most important aspects of college. And, so often, it is given short shrift. Think about this time of year how we’re using advising appointments with students, getting them ready to register for classes next semester. And what are we too often focus on? Not the big questions, but the nitty gritty, the hurdles, the degree requirements, we need to be more mindful of making the shift to the relational, away from the transactional?

Peter: And can I add two things to Leo’s really wise response? One is: this doesn’t have to be super complicated. And it doesn’t have to require us all to become philosophers or counselors in some ways. I mean, there’s simple questions. One of the best questions, or best prompts that we heard in this was someone who says to her students, “Tell me your story.” It’s an open invitation to the student to talk about what’s important to them. We heard a lot of students say the most powerful question they get asked is “How are you?” …with someone really just follows it. And then the second thing that I want to say is that we need to recognize that what we do with students… we help them ask each other good questions, too. So when I’m not sure my students always say the most profound things on their mind when they’re talking to me. But what I’m hoping is sometimes the questions I ask get them talking to their friends to say, “You know, professors kept asking me like, “What’s my story? and I’m trying to figure that out? What is my story?” or “Who am I for other people?” …and so they don’t need to tell me, but we need to help seed these conversations and these questions about meaning and purpose.

Leo: We interviewed a fellow by the name of Steve Grande, who’s a Director of Service Learning at James Madison University in Virginia. And he said something very profound. And that is that every day when he goes into work, he tries to raise his consciousness about how much his words matter to students. And the value of five and 10 minute conversations with students that to him might seem, not all that profound and important, but in the life of an undergraduate student, are enormously important. You know that from your own experience. And it could be a conversation in the hallway or the stairwell or in your office or in a coffee shop, where a student sees a gift that they might have that’s been revealed to them in some new and different ways. They’ve discovered something new about themselves as a result of that conversation. We were speaking earlier, before the podcast began, about all the stress that faculty are under right now. And oh, my goodness, you know, it just seems like we’re just barreling through, trying to pull body and soul together during this COVID crisis. But, all the more important during these times, to raise our consciousness about how even those short periods of time we are spending with students is the mortar that is holding the college experience together for our undergraduates. And I wish we could all adopt Steve’s mantra about raising our consciousness with regard to the importance of this work really matters.

Rebecca: I think those relationships and that power goes both ways. Right now, it’s not just what’s holding the undergraduates together things, what’s holding the faculty together? [LAUGHTER]

Leo: Amen.

Peter: Yeah, definitely, my students are the best part of most of my days.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’ve had some really great conversations with students this semester. I tend to have classes where I get to know students really well, because I teach in a studio setting. But, even more so now, even though I have less interaction, I feel like I know them in a really interesting and profound way, which is really exciting. And as you’re talking about relationships, I’m thinking back to my own experience as a first-generation college student. And the things that I do remember are those relationships, I remember very little about individual classes or facts, or whatever, right? [LAUGHTER] But, I remember certain exchanges that I had with a very limited number of people, but those limited number of people is what made me even think about pursuing a higher degree. I wouldn’t have considered it at all. That’s not something that happened in my family. So, I think it’s really interesting. It’s sounding true to me too, those relationships is what I remember.

Peter: And Rebecca, we heard versions of that, and when we could have told those stories ourselves, too. But we heard that from students all over the country, with all sorts of different backgrounds. And one of the big lessons I’ve taken from this is helping students see the capacities they have within them, that they might not believe, they might not trust, they might not know. And so one of the gifts this book has given me and I’m loving it this semester is just every time I’m talking to my students, I try to say something good that they’re doing. This part of your work was really strong, you have other things you need to work on, but this part was powerful. And just the reminder to point out those capacities and help students see that, you know, this is part of a developmental thing. So often students come to higher ed thinking it’s about grades and performance. And it’s not about learning and growth, right? And so they find something hard and they’re embarrassed by it. It’s like “No, the hard stuff is the good stuff.” Let’s focus there and say, “You don’t know how to do this now. But I bet you will be able to know how to do it, maybe not this fall, maybe next spring, maybe next year. But, let’s get there.”

Rebecca: I really like where the conversation is going in terms of thinking about really practical things that faculty can do to help build these relationships. I know you have a whole chapter on just the classroom and the relationships that we build as faculty. Can we talk a little bit about some of the practices that you discovered in your interviews that really worked and had a big impact on students?

Peter: Yeah, just a couple ideas, to begin. And I want to reinforce Leo’s point from Steve Grande that what we do matters a lot, but that everything doesn’t have to come through us. And everything doesn’t have to be one-on-one because it is not scalable. It is not possible for a faculty member to have a powerful, long-term relationship with every one of their students. So recognizing just two different things. One is how we can say the same thing to all our students at once. One of the great stories we heard was from a writing center tutor at LaGuardia Community College, who said when she was in her first semester of writing course, the professor about halfway through the semester came into the class and said, “You know, this is the time in the semester, where one of my best students always just disappears, and I don’t know what it is, if they feel like they’re getting behind, or they feel like they didn’t do as well as they should have this last time. But I need to say to you, ‘Don’t disappear. Come see me. You can get through this.’” And this student thought the professor was speaking to her and went and talked to the professor, ended up being successful, was a writing center tutor. And she said, “The thing that’s stunned her is how many students came in and said, “This professor said this story, and he was talking right to me.” And so there’s ways where we can speak in general to all of our students to help them feel validated, feel that capacity, feel their struggles are common. And then second thing is how do we help students see each other as allies and assets in this work. And the good news is a lot of what we do with active learning is really constructive in that way. It puts students together solving problems and everything. I found one thing in our research that suggests this, students turn out to be like other humans. And so encouraging them to do things like first, introduce yourself to the people in the small group and say each other’s names, because they’ll spend the whole semester working together on projects and sometimes go “What’s his name again?” …and so, don’t let that happen. But put them into purposeful groups and encourage them to see each other as allies in this work.

Leo: We were reminded constantly in the book that some of the interventions are very simple and very powerful. And the power to institute these practices can be in the hands of departments or small groups of faculty. They don’t have to wait for an initiative from the Provost. Sometimes I think, when Peter and I’ve been invited to speak to entire groups of faculty, and I think the faculty are thinking, “Oh Lord, this is going to result in the Provost wanting to create six new formalized mentoring programs at the institution.” And that’s not what we’re trying to see happen, at all. Quite the contrary. I want to give you an example of something simple and powerful to illustrate what I’m talking about here at Oakton Community College, they have the Faculty Project for Student Persistence. It’s a commitment on the part of faculty to get to know their students as well as they can, given that faculty have very heavy teaching loads. These are not small classes. But, they’re trying to create an institutional culture at open, that is relational, where students are going to feel that there is at least one person on campus that knows who I am, and has shown an interest in me. So, there are four things about the persistence project: faculty that are in it commit to know their students’ names. Secondly, they commit, in the first couple of weeks of class, to have a 15-minute private conversation with a student. Now, that’s time consuming. If you’ve got 30 students in your class, that’s quite a bit of time. They commit some time in the early, maybe, say first three weeks of the course, to give students some graded feedback. And fourthly, they promise to uphold high expectations in the class, not impossibly high expectations, but they want there to be a degree of challenge associated with these courses as well. And they’ve had enormous success with this program. And the institution is trying to arrange things such that every student would have at least one of these classes during their first year, so that one of these faculty members is going to be an anchor person in their lives. We tell the story in a book about a former Marine who was in Professor Holly Graff’s philosophy course. And he was concerned that she was going to stereotype him because he had been a marine in his prior career and that she would think certain things about him. He wanted her to know, for instance, that he was a Bernie Sanders supporter. And in their conversation, she learned that, in all of the independent reading he had been doing in the Marines, he had read more philosophy than anyone else in the class. And he left her office after that brief conversation with an honors contract for the course. I mean, think about how that relationship between that learner and that Professor changed as a result of one 15-minute conversation. He’s known, he’s inspired, the professor’s inspired by this incredible student that she has in her class, and the learning dynamic has changed. Because of a really simple faculty-led, faculty-inspired, faculty-developed program.

John: You encourage the development of these networks. But you note that one barrier to that is the incentive systems that faculty face, that the rewards are not very well aligned to creating these types of networks with these types of interactions, what can be done to alter that?

Peter: That’s the easiest question you’re gonna ask us. So, we wish we had a simple solution. But I think there’s at least two parts that we need to think about individually, and we need to think about collectively. So, one thing is this has to be on the agenda of faculty senates, and Deans and things like this. But what we should be asking is what is getting evaluated. Because, often on many campuses, there’s an immense amount of invisible labor, that faculty and others do too. But, since this is primarily about teaching, let’s talk about faculty… where some of our faculty, often let’s say, faculty of color, LGBTQ faculty, do a lot of mentoring that is identity based, that students come to them in particular, and they carry this heavy load apart and on top of everything else. And if that is invisible labor, but that is keeping students at the institution, that is helping students succeed. Sometimes it’s helping students wrestle with the most important questions in their lives. So, there’s invisible labor, and even if it’s not identity based work, we know, you know, some people teach first year students and have those students come back every semester just to say, “Hi.” There’s all this kind of relational stuff that happens. So, how do we find ways to actually capture what’s happening that matters? And then how do we evaluate this? One of the questions that we’ve heard from a number of faculty is that institutions that are trying to reward faculty for doing, let’s say, good mentoring at institutions. We often know how to reward faculty and recognize faculty who have students who go on to graduate school, right? Students who go present at conferences, we can see that. So, honor students, you know, check. It’s really hard, often, to recognize the mentoring that’s happening that helps someone graduate with a C average, and accept that student’s experience at the institution and their education is as important. Perhaps that mentoring is more important and helping the C student graduate than it was to help that honor student… and I mentor honor students, I love them. But the honor student who always knew she wanted to study history, and is coming and working with me, and look, she’s doing great things. So we need to have evaluation systems that both capture the important work. And let us recognize that success might look different for different people in different roles in this work ,and recognize that there’s not one path forward on success.

Leo: I would think also that there needs to be a formalization and a recognition of what constitutes faculty work. Early in my tenure as president of Elon, we took two years to develop a statement, the entire faculty worked on this, called the faculty-teacher-scholar-mentor model at Elon. And it’s something that’s kind of our guide, we were at a point of institutional change where the professional schools were undergoing accreditations and the role of scholarship was rising, to have the business school be AACSB accredited, and so forth. We’re adding lots of faculty, the faculty was growing and changing. And it was one of these moments where we really had to stop and think… we need to move very carefully here and think about what we value as an institution, and how the model of faculty work at a place like Elon needs to be well defined, so that we’re serving our students. Well, we’re meeting our accreditation requirements, our faculty ambitions. And we were very clear that teaching mattered the most, that this was going to be 50% of what constituted the most important work in promotion and tenure criteria. But we differentiated mentoring from classroom teaching and other aspects of teaching to formalize the roles that faculty spend outside of the classroom in so many important ways: helping our students to develop, advising undergraduate research projects, and supervising internships, and traveling with our students all over the world, and leading experiential learning programs of very high quality. And they’re doing their scholarship on top of that, but I think this requires great intentionality. And without the intentionality, I think the relationships, the mentoring, is never going to get factored into the work. Our buckets are so clear in most promotion and tenure processes at institutions I’ve been in in the past: there’s a teaching bucket, and there’s a scholarship bucket, and there’s a service bucket. Where do relationships and mentoring fit in that model. They really don’t. And so I think we have to be more creative and more intentional about redefining the nature of those buckets, if we really want relationships to matter. And we argue in this book, they really do. So I think these are formal conversations that institutions, faculty, deans, provosts, boards of trustees need to have to fundamentally re-examine the importance of faculty spending time on these kinds of activities and being appropriately rewarded for it.

Rebecca: I think along those same lines, there’s a group of faculty, like part-time faculty, adjunct faculty, who play a really critical role here in relationships and maintaining those relationships that are widely overlooked even more so than maybe tenure-track faculty.

Leo: Oh, my goodness, we talked with the Vice President for Academic Affairs at Patrick Henry Community College and, at a lot of our institutions, a lot of community colleges, especially, you’ll find 50% of the teaching load is shouldered by adjuncts. And they went through a tremendously important process there to re-examine the ways… and again, in their words, this was not rocket science, but it was very intentional… the ways they could support their faculty in achieving greater levels of success with their students. And it was the simplest of things like having spaces for them to meet with students before and after class and perhaps have a cup of coffee, access to a copying machine, and the basics. What the faculty wanted most was information. Full-time faculty had lots of information about all the support services that students could tap into if they were food insecure, or needed clothing, those services were available at the school. But, oftentimes, the adjunct professors were in the dark about where to turn to help their students in this regard. They intentionally paired full-time faculty with adjunct faculty, so that there was a greater dialogue and a sense of cohesion between the two groups of faculty. So much can be done. There’s so many adjunct faculty that Peter and I met as a part of this process, who are so committed to our students and our students’ success. And they’re doing this work with the scantest of support systems behind them. And with a little bit of intentionality and creativity on institutions’ part, we can do a lot more to undergird the student and faculty relationship that exists with adjuncts.

Peter: And just to add one thing to what Leo said, when we talk to students, they told us powerful stories about what adjunct faculty had done to transform their lives. So, students don’t think “Well, I’m just with Professor Felton, who’s an adjunct, so it doesn’t really matter.” This is their professor, this is the person who’s giving them feedback. This is the person who’s inspiring and challenging them. And so we at institutions and we on faculty really need to support our adjunct colleagues, because they are so powerful in students’ educations.

Rebecca: I think along those lines, right now, when students are facing a lot of remote learning still, online learning, online synchronous learning, and having less face-to-face communication in the classroom, those interactions with faculty may be even more important than they were before because they may not be interacting with some of the other folks on campus who may have been important when they were in a physical space. So, what advice do you have during this time to help faculty facilitate some of the relationship building between students, because they’re so isolated right now?

Peter: Yeah, Rebecca, this is really important. This is really hard. We don’t have any simple solutions. One of the places we did visit, though, was Southern New Hampshire University in their online setting. And one of the people we interviewed there said something that just really has resonated with Leo and I, which is, this person said: “My role for these students is to be the human in these courses, that so much is just remote and distant and asynchronous, and there needs to be a human presence in this. And that has to be me.” So, how can we be present for our students? Even if it’s asynchronous, right? How can we check in with them? How can we create opportunities for meaningful formal and informal interaction. So, two small examples for you: one, and you’ve probably seen this with your colleagues. But I’ve been so impressed with some of my colleagues, who are teaching classes in Zoom when they have synchronous moments. And the first few minutes of class, what always happens is when students come in, the professor says, “Hello,” when sends them into small groups with questions that the students have to talk with each other about. These are purposeful questions connected to the work of the class. But, they’re the kinds of questions that are meant to engage conversation. And so students don’t come into class and start by being silent and staring. They start by saying hello to the professor, and then talking with a couple peers. And a second thing is just finding ways to emphasize with our students, that their well being is connected to their learning, and their learning is connected to their well being. And so if they can’t, if they can’t do something right now, if their world is falling apart, we need to be able to be flexible enough and clear enough about what’s most important in this. That doesn’t mean we don’t have standards. It doesn’t mean we don’t challenge our students to work through really difficult things. But recognizing that sometimes your class isn’t the most important thing or the most urgent thing in a student’s life right now. Often they do have challenges they don’t want to talk to us about and just offering a little grace and saying, “Okay, so you can’t get this draft to me today. How’s Monday?”

Leo: One thing I’m hoping that all of us are doing during these very challenging times is, at least in informal ways, being chroniclers of this experience, to have these moments of consciousness about what we are doing, what we are doing well during these times. And I’m of the strong opinion that the world is never going to go back to 2019. Higher Education is never going to go back to 2019. And I think in the early days of the pandemic, we were under this illusion that “Well, things will get back to normal.” We’re not going back to precisely the way things were before. Look at this conversation we’re having here this afternoon and all the ways our teaching has shifted. The ways that I think higher ed is going to think about what constitutes the higher education experience differently, this blending of face-to-face and residential and experiential and online, that could look quite different than the patterns that have always existed. Why do classes have to be 16 weeks long? I think there’s going to be a lot of deconstruction ahead and reconstruction. What I’m hoping is that as we turn our attention to building something newer and better as we emerge from this, that we’ll put relationships at the very center of what we intend to create. That’s, I think, the big challenge before us, that’s what really matters. I think Peter and I both believe that, when students look back on their undergraduate experience, when the two of you, john and Rebecca, look back on your undergraduate experiences, probably what means the most to you are a set of people that helped you become who you are today, professors and peers and advisors, and people that tapped you on the shoulder and helped you discover something about yourself, or gave you confidence that you didn’t know that you had. This is what needs to be prioritized. And I hope that whatever we build will be built around this idea.

John: We always end with the question, what’s next? Which is a very good question at this time.

Peter: So two things I would like to say. One is that, again, the interviews we did, especially with students all over the country, are so inspiring that I’ve just really personally committed to asking these kinds of questions of the students I encounter and asking them about their education and just making that part of my work. And then a second thing Leo and I have been talking about, and we’re eagerly brainstorming about, is it recognizing that students need to be the primary actors in this… creating their own relationship-rich environment, right? Institutions can do a lot, but just like we can’t learn for them, we can’t build webs of relationships for them. We can put them in these environments that are rich, but they need to act. So we’re trying to think about ways that we can create resources and encouragement and support for all students to see themselves as actors in this kind of educational experience. So, whether that’s some sort of book or online resources, or what, we don’t know. But we’re going to partner with some folks, including students around the country, and say: “What can we do to really help students, especially first-gen students who don’t understand the ways and the whyfors of higher ed, come in and not learn by the time they’re seniors that I should have paid attention When my professor said, “Do you want to have a cup of coffee?”

Leo: I would add to that by saying there were times where Peter and I were struck, whether it was students at Brown, or the University of Michigan, or the University of Washington, or LaGuardia Community College, or Nevada State College, we were struck over and over again, about the power of the question: “How are you?” I remember a phone conversation probably in an airport where we were talking back and forth to one another, in our respective places in the country, and having this dialogue about should we call the book: “How are you?” …and then decided that’s probably [LAUGHTER] not a smart idea. But that is such an important question. And students, and especially today, during this COVID crisis, want to be heard. Students want to be heard. They’re not necessarily looking for us to solve all their problems for them, but they want to be seen, and they want to be heard, and they want to be recognized. So I think a part of what’s next for all of us is going back to this very basic idea of not losing sight of this enormous privilege that we have to be on college campuses and to take five or 10 minutes with students to listen generously, after asking the question: “How are you?” It makes all the difference in the world, everywhere. And, in our busyness, and in the craziness of COVID, it’s really easy to forget that. But, some days, it’s the critical question that keeps a student in school, we were struck about how many students acknowledged that at one time or another in their career, again, including at the most prestigious institutions in the country, were one conversation away from leaving school, and “How are you?” …can be the gateway to keeping a student in school and successful, and motivated and inspired… very simple stuff.

Rebecca: Thank you both for such a great conversation and a really powerful book. If you want some positive moments in your life, you can read some of the great stories in this book.[LAUGHTER]

Peter: Our goal was to do justice to the stories people told us, because if we could do that, we knew the book was going to be helpful. And it was going to be powerful, because the stories were just an amazing gift.

Leo: There’s great work going on in higher education in this country. It is rich and deep and powerful and lively. And faculty are working so hard, and students are working so hard. And so much of the Chronicle coverage and the broader media coverage of higher education is so not on point in terms of… you know that… and describing what’s really going on in the halls and corridors and classrooms of our institutions. And we were inspired by how many wonderful, wonderful things are happening all over the country. We have a great system of higher education in this country. It’s something to be proud of. And it’s changing lives every day, and we shouldn’t take our eye off that fact either.

John: Your book does a wonderful job refocusing your attention away from educational technology and back on the things that are most important, the relationships among the participants in the process.

Leo: 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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160. Inclusive Communication

Communication in academia has hidden and unwritten rules that present barriers for students. In this episode, Kristina Ruiz-Mesa joins us to discuss inclusive communication strategies we can use as teachers and mentors to help students feel like they belong in the academy.

Kristina is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at California State University – Los Angeles. Kristina previously worked in diversity, equity and inclusion research at Villanova University, and as a communication and diversity consultant. Her research on these topics has been published in a variety of academic journals and in book chapters. Her forthcoming textbook Inclusive Public Speaking: Communicating in a Diverse World will be available in late 2020 through Fountainhead Press.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Communication in academia has hidden and unwritten rules that present barriers for students. In this episode, we explore inclusive communication strategies we can use as teachers and mentors to help students feel like they belong in the academy.

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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 Kristina Ruiz-Mesa. She is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at California State University – Los Angeles. Kristina previously worked in diversity, equity and inclusion research at Villanova University, and as a communication and diversity consultant. Her research on these topics has been published in a variety of academic journals and in book chapters. Her forthcoming textbook Inclusive Public Speaking: Communicating in a Diverse World will be available in late 2020 through Fountainhead Press.

John: We can also note that we just saw you recently in ACUE’s webinar on Preparing an Inclusive Online Course, which was released in early October and is available online. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes.

Rebecca: Welcome, Kristina.

John: Welcome, Kristina.

Kristina: Thank you so much for having me.

John: Today’s teas are:…Are you drinking tea, Kristina?

Kristina: I am drinking carbonated water.

Rebecca: …out of a tea cup I might note.

Kristina: I thought it was appropriate. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s a beautiful tea cup.

Kristina: Thank you.

John: That’s close enough. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m drinking Scottish afternoon tea.

John: And I’m drinking a mix of peppermint and spearmint tea.

Kristina: Lovely.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your work on inclusive communication. First, though, could you tell us how you became interested in this area of research?

Kristina: Absolutely. So, the research actually started in my own life, a little more than 30 years ago. And so I grew up in southern New Jersey, in a really diverse town in a Caribbean family. And so my dad’s Cuban, my mom’s Puerto Rican, and lived in this really diverse place. And I went to an inner city Catholic School, where I was one of a few students of color and started noticing differences, differences between how our families communicated, how our teachers communicated with our families. And that sparked an interest in me in saying, “Eell, communication seems to not be one-size-fits-all, we all have different ways of communicating.” And yet, when I was studying communication, and when I was in learning, it was like a one-size-fits-all, like “if you do these communicative practices, you will get the same response.” And that was not the case. I didn’t find that to be the case. And so I wanted to know, how culture, how identities, how intersectional experiences impact the ways that we communicate, the ways that we construct messages, the ways that we analyze our audiences, and think about ways that we can train students to most effectively communicate. So, how they can most effectively communicate in different audiences in different places to achieve their personal and professional goals.

Rebecca: Colleges and Universities have become increasingly diverse, and the composition of faculty, though, not so much so… What sort of challenges does this present for communication between faculty and students?

Kristina: I think this is such an important issue, and one that we are feeling as faculty as well, as in “How can we best serve the needs of all of our students, and recognizing that representation matters in the classroom, and that communication matters in the classroom?” And so when I think about how do we address mentoring? how do we address teaching? And how do we address the practices that we are using in the classroom? What do our materials look like? And so we can’t change our racial identities, we can’t change who our students are, and we wouldn’t want to, right? And so how can we make sure that we are teaching all of the students and so one of the things that I always stress is your course materials. Regardless of subject, you have examples, and you have data sets that you use or readings that you’re using. And so, how are you incorporating more voices, more experiences more identities into the course. And so that can be a way to really show your students’ representation. If you feel like you are not representing all of the identities of your students, which none of us are, no matter what our identities are, we can never fully represent all of our students. So how can we bring in this idea of polyvocality? Lots of different voices, lots of different experiences. And sometimes that means thinking about the datasets that you’re using. Are they representative? Who are they speaking about? Who are they speaking to? Who are the scholars that we’re bringing into conversations? And so I think these are all ways that we can help address diversity, equity, and inclusion in the classroom, and make sure that our students see themselves in the course and see themselves in the materials. And obviously, yes, increasing faculty diversity, staff diversity, making sure that our students feel their experiences and their identities are a part of academia and a part of their institutions. Absolutely. And, there are things that we can do immediately in each of our classrooms to make sure that we are making our classrooms as inclusive as possible.

Rebecca: I like how you’re emphasizing our role or our ability to curate, and not just kind of be everything to everybody, but we can curate experiences that include many points of view.

Kristina: I love that you said curate. So, I always, when I teach my graduate students, I say we have like the coolest museum in the world, right? We get to pick all of these scholars and authors and examples and bring them together into one exhibit, whether that exhibit’s in a face-to-face classroom, in a virtual classroom space, we get to showcase different voices experiences, theories, and applications.

John: That can enrich the conversation by bringing in a diversity of examples and leveraging that diversity in the classroom to provide a richer learning experience.

Kristina: Absolutely. My mantra for teaching and thinking about teaching and what my course materials are, we always start by planning backwards. What do we want our students to know at the end of this course? What do we want them to remember? And I always think about how can I challenge the canon? So the canon that we all learned in graduate school, that we have been reading for decades, some for centuries this material has been going on. How do we challenge and think about ways to expand that knowledge, ways that we can incorporate new voices? And I think that that’s so important.

Rebecca: One of the things that I found really wonderful, and I feel like it’s actually happening more right now because we’re trying extra hard to include students in conversations and make them feel included in a virtual environment to allow them to co-curate with us and to pick sources and to share materials. And my reading list got really long this semester… [LAUGHTER] … ‘cause based on all the things that students have brought to the table, podcasts that they’ve introduced me to, videos that they’ve introduced me to, I have a long list of homework to do.

Kristina: Absolutely. And I love that right. I love that idea of “Okay, we’re co-learners here.” And there’s such a reach. And Rebecca, I love that you say that with podcasts. And my students have introduced me to so many artists and performers and theorists that I was like, “Okay, yes.” And they’re seeing it in social media. They’re seeing up and coming scholars whose work perhaps hasn’t come out and those big journals yet, but that they are releasing blogs, they’re doing podcasts, and I love the perspectives and identities and experiences and new knowledge that’s being incorporated through these venues and avenues.

John: Let’s go back to the mismatch between the diversity of the faculty and the more diverse student body that we’re finally getting in most colleges and universities, now. What’s the impact of that, say, on persistence rates for first-gen students and students from underrepresented groups?

Kristina: Absolutely. So, the research has consistently shown us that mentoring and inclusive pedagogical practices matter. I teach in East Los Angeles. And so, as a Latina scholar teaching a predominately Latino student population, as the only tenured or tenure-track faculty who is Latino, who is Spanish speaking, who can connect with families at graduation and at different ceremonies, I find that I have a very easy time connecting with my students and their experiences, even though our families are from different Latin American countries. I grew up on the East Coast, not the West Coast, I’m Caribbean. And so like all of these differences are still under this umbrella of, I think about, like, cultural norms. And I think about cultural values. And one of them that I stress in my teaching is this idea of familismo, this cultural commitment to family and the family role. And I think about how that influences student persistence. And we’re seeing it very clearly now on our campus. So, my role at Cal State LA is that I’m an associate professor, but I’m also the Director of Oral Communication in Communication, which means we have 4000 students taking a standardized general education oral communication course. And so my instructors see 4000 incoming freshmen every year, and we are hearing consistently this semester that workloads combined with having your classroom now be your living space with your families, how do we negotiate and how do we navigate these spaces? And that is absolutely going to impact persistence and graduation rates. And so I think, for faculty, understanding not only how your students are coming in, what knowledge they are coming in with, but understanding the cultural context in which they’re living, and how that may be impacting the learning experience, the needs of the students in terms of… I always think about applied skills, I teach communication, and so when I came into Cal State, LA, one of the first things I did was say, “How can we get an interview assignment into oral communication?” It’s not part of the general education requirements of the state. And so I went to the chancellor’s office, and I said, here’s my pitch. 80% of our students are first gen. We know that interviewing skills, so much of it is based on these unwritten rules and laws that you learn kind of through family, through friends. But, if you’re your first person in your family who’s gone to college, you might not get those experiences kind of organically. And so we needed to embed it into the general education requirement so that all students benefit from it. And again, the universal design we’re talking about, no one’s going to be disadvantaged from learning interviewing skills and practicing interviewing. And so, I think, thinking about persistence in really applied ways and material realities matter. How are we going to get students to get those internships to get those jobs? And so thinking about how our skills can be taught in a way that is problem posing, and that can be applied to students lives as soon as possible.

Rebecca: What I like about what you’re talking about in terms of the oral communication piece is that it’s such a big part of being professional in every discipline, but we often teach public speaking classes as if it’s a very separate activity. [LAUGHTER] Like, I want to stand up and give speeches. I don’t stand up and give speeches, and most people don’t, the kind of communication you do is different. So, putting it in context like that, and providing a clear application of how those skills can be used somewhere, I think is really helpful, especially for students that don’t have that kind of context to build from.

Kristina: I totally agree.

John: And you mentioned some of the challenges associated with students interacting with families in their homes. One of the issues that faculty keep raising is “Our students won’t turn on their cameras.” And we address that regularly with faculty. But, it’s an issue where faculty are used to seeing faces on the screen. And they’re really upset when people choose not to. How do you respond to that?

Kristina: This is something that I have been hearing in my circles as well. And well meaning faculty are frustrated, because we know that a large percentage of our communication is nonverbal. So, if we are missing those nonverbal cues of understanding, of confusion, it is limiting our ability to be able to connect with our students that way. I get that. And the hard truth is that it’s not about us. And so that’s one of those tough kind of answers. Because, right now, it’s about our students and their success, and whatever we need to do whatever practices that we need to kind of adapt to, it’s about them and about their learning. And so one of the things that I have done is incorporate more of the thumbs up, thumbs down, type in the chat. So you can do a popcorn response by giving an emoji. So offering students various ways of interacting, I think is huge. Also, normalizing the ways that we communicate. So, for a speech, for example, we do want to see them in terms of their nonverbals, we want to see your gesturing, we want to see the ways that you’re connecting. And so we normalized giving speeches in bathtubs, giving them from parking lots, giving them in cars, doing our own mini lectures from like, on the floor in the bathroom, because if we’re doing it, then you can do it. And so kind of modeling, that it’s okay, and that we don’t all have these perfect offices that look like they came off of HGTV, and that there might be a dog barking in the background or someone crying. And that’s okay, this is a global pandemic, there are more important things than whether you can hear a baby crying, or a dog barking, or someone in the background. And so I think also being realistic about our expectations, and as empathetic as we can. And one of the things that I often think about is that many of us teaching at the college level, we’re in the top 5%, top 2% of higher education attainment, how we learned and our experiences and how we are now… We have to remember. We have to remember, what was it like to be an undergrad? And for many of us, that meant “Where are we studying? How could we study, if you don’t have the privilege of going to a library right now or a quiet space?” …then being empathetic enough to know that you don’t understand all of the experiences and lives of your students and give them the benefit of the doubt. that they are trying their best. and they’re doing the best we can… all of us.

John: One of the things I asked my students was to share some of their challenges in a low-stakes discussion forum. And I’ve been amazed at how many students talk about just how difficult it is to find time that’s quiet. They may have a spouse or a partner who’s playing live video games, or more typically, they may have small children or they may have siblings in the rooms or in the dwellings with them. And that makes it very challenging where some of them are saying “I wake up at six in the morning, just so I can find some quiet time in order to do my work.” Or, “I have to wait until everyone’s asleep after midnight or at one in the morning.” And it’s something I think we do need to be a little more cognizant of… even just asking them what sort of challenges they face, perhaps, can help faculty adjust to this somewhat challenging environment we’re all in.

Rebecca: Are you sure those are students talking? Because I feel like you just describe what I’m doing. [LAUGHTER]

John: Faculty have had very similar challenges since last March.

Rebecca: I do think, actually, the struggles that faculty are having with family and things being in the same space as them has actually really, really helped start to connect to some of the real challenges that students face regularly, and not just during a pandemic.

Kristina: Absolutely. And then we compound that with housing insecurity, food insecurity, and the things that our students are experiencing. Just every time my students come into my class, I thank them. That’s the first thing I do. Thank you all so much for being here. I’m excited to have our conversation. And I think that goes a long way. And at the end of every class, acknowledging that, and say, “I know that you’ve got a lot going on, and I am really proud of you.” And I think that that transparency of saying, “This is why I need you to do this assignment. This is why I gave you three readings instead of two.” And I think really explaining the “why” is going even further than it has in the past. And so thinking about the ways that we can make our assignments and our assessments as practical and applied as possible… really helpful right now… as well as checking in with students. I’ve been doing the first kind of 10 minutes of class checking in. Now, I know that’s not possible for all classes, and for all students and for every class, but when it is and when we can or a discussion post, tell me the best thing that’s going on in your week. Just connecting, and having this connection in the classroom, I think, is really important now for maintaining not only community and engagement, but also persistence.

John: Ggiven the challenges you’ve mentioned with communications between faculty and students, one of the issues that may come up is microaggressions. And I know you’ve done some research on that. Could you tell us a little bit about your research on microaggressions in the classroom?

Kristina: Sure. I did a study on microaggressions at a predominantly white institution of higher education and looking at racial microaggressions that students of color were experiencing on campus. And so, just as a quick recap, Wing Sue defines microaggressions as kind of brief commonplace verbal behavior, or environmental indignities. And they can be intentional or unintentional, and they communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults. But microaggressions can be about sexuality, about social class, about gender. So, they can be across identities. And my research showed that African-American males and Latino males experienced microaggressions at the highest rates of any students. And the experiences oftentimes lead to what we’d call student misbehaviors in the classroom. If students are feeling disrespected by an instructor or by other peers, there was a few paths they would take. One is they would act out in the class. So, they might say things, they might be seemingly disrespectful about the material about the course. They would drop out, and you would never hear from them again. You wouldn’t know why they weren’t engaging the class, they were just gone. And we also saw psychological stressors. So, higher instances of isolation feelings, that they didn’t belong on campus. And again, this was a predominately white institution, and so students of color have these feelings of belonging, questioning of belonging. And so when they experienced microaggressions, these feelings were exacerbated, and they increased experiences of anxiety, depression and social isolation. What my research found was that, if we could inoculate against microaggressions by offering micro-practices and services on campus, that was where we were able to support students in building academic habits that would help support their success. And so this inoculation came in the form of having Diversity, Equity and Inclusion centers, having counseling resources, having safe spaces and inclusive and brave spaces where students could share their experiences. So that it wasn’t just one person saying,”It must be me. It’s something I’m doing.” But, recognizing that these were structural and systemic, and these were problems that were permeating throughout the campus. And so that was something that we found in the research was that primarily African-American males and Latino males were experiencing this more often on campus, and that the ways to minimize the academic impact was to offer services early and often, having male mentoring groups on campus was helpful and having spaces where students could share their counter-narratives and counter-experiences on campus. All were beneficial.

John: And that’s a useful form of remediation, but what can be done, perhaps, in the classroom to address those as they occur?

Kristina: Absolutely, that is my number one piece of advice for faculty is when you see something, when your, like, hairs on the back of your neck are standing up, you’re like, “Oh, this isn’t good,” you need to say something. And that is something that is scary. And for many of us, particularly folks who are not tenured, who are contingent faculty who are hired by the quarter or semester, that can be really scary, because we know that student evaluations matter. Having grievances can affect your job. And so that, and I’m in a privileged position, I’m a tenured state university professor. So I recognize that. And I think that it’s important that if we are going to have inclusive conversations, inclusive learning environments, we have to intervene. Now, knowing how to intervene takes practice, and knowing that you’re not going to get it right every time is humbling, and knowing that we’re always learning and that’s one of the things that I always stress to faculty is that we are literally trained for this we are trained to learn. That is our job, our job is to learn as much as we can, figure out new, innovative, cool ways to apply it, explain it, expand it, that’s the gig. And so this is another area of knowledge that we need to learn, that we need to just say, “Okay, I needed to learn a new computer system, I needed to learn how to teach online, I need to learn what my students are experiencing, so that I can be a better teacher. So that I can learn what has already worked, what practices are embedded.” And so one of the things that I’ve done in the last few years, and that I found to be helpful is to write down what are the specific practices? …not just saying “You need to be an inclusive educator.” Cool. What does that mean? And what does that look like in my classroom. And so, one of my most cited articles is this quick, best practices piece that I can share the link with. It’s a free download. And it’s 10 Best Practices for Facilitating Difficult Dialogues. And it’s tips, for example, like we disagree with ideas, not people. So we focus on the idea not the person, the other is maintaining immediacy, so making sure that we’re talking at the end of class, you don’t leave conversations undone or unsaid. So keeping track of time and recognizing that you might need two or three minutes at the end of class to do relationship repair, to do community check-ins, to do that repair… really important. Also making sure our language is inclusive. So, thinking about the ways that we, from day one, are establishing inclusive language. Are we getting rid of kind of gender binaries and making assumptions about student genders? Are we asking students: “What is your name?” I never read out of rosters. I always have students introduce themselves. Tell me your name. Share your pronouns with me, and modeling that for students. I also include a pronunciation guide because much like we want our students’ names to be honored, we want our names to be honored and said correctly. So, offering tools and resources and normalizing this in communication, whether you’re teaching comm, psychology, math, chemistry, normalizing that this is how effective communication works. And I think that’s really helpful in the classroom. And of course, setting the ground rules, setting the tone, the things that we know as faculty that we ought to do. But those are some of the big ones. And also, the “oops,” and the “ouch” rule is something that we use a lot and saying that, again, in a single 50 minute, hour and 15 minute class, I’m going to say thousands of words. The chances that one or two of them are wrong, or came out too quickly. Or I didn’t mean to say that? Likely. So, recognizing and having the humility to say, “Okay, if I’m going to say an oops, that was my bad. Let’s start over. Let’s take that again.” And, recognizing that if I miss something, having a mechanism in place with the “Ouch,” to say “That was hurtful, I didn’t appreciate that. Can we talk about that for a second?” And pausing and saying, “I’m sorry. How was that hurtful? I’m sorry.” And acknowledging the moment. And I think these are practical things that can feel super awkward if we don’t establish them on day one. But, if it’s just how things are, the beauty of being a college professor, is that every 10 weeks, 16 weeks, quarter semester, we get to start over. And so, re-establish the norms, re-establish how we communicate and how we want to communicate for an inclusive environment.

Rebecca: If you think of it that way, we get so many do overs.

Kristina: Exactly.

John: Eventually, we’ll get things right. I’m still waiting.

Rebecca: That’s empowering. Yeah, I really love the idea of the oops, and the ouch, and really establishing the idea and reminding ourselves that we’re learners too. And we make mistakes, and it does take practice. But just like we want our students to take that first try, we have to do it too. Boy, we should listen to ourselves sometimes,

Kristina: Right, once in a while. [LAUGHTER]

John: Would you recommend that, perhaps, when you have those rules, you give students some say in discussing them and establishing the ground rules?

Kristina: Absolutely. I usually have a few rules that I propose. And then I ask students to add to them, and we do a Google Doc in class, and they can add them in real time. And then I also say from now until next week, review them. If something doesn’t feel right, if you want further explanation, let’s write it out, and let’s talk about it and see how we can come to this together.

Rebecca: One of the things that I really recognize teaching more online than in person is how much more time there really should be to do some of those things at the beginning of the semester, in any semester. But I took the time this semester, and it was really helpful.

Kristina: Love that, that is one of the benefits of teaching online is that I feel like if I miss something, I can make a video, there’s time to kind of fix it. Whereas in face to face, I can send an email, but it’s not the same. Whereas, if everything is built into my learning management system, it’s another opportunity.

Rebecca: So, we talked a little bit about privilege, and how that might impact the kind of experiences you have access to. And one thing that I think we don’t always consider is how our own race, gender, social status and ability status, impact our own social norms. And we don’t necessarily recognize them as being social norms, or that somehow we learned these behaviors, what are some things that we could think about as faculty to better understand what those practices are? And to undo some of them maybe, or at least recognize that there are norms and invite students in to understand that?

Kristina: One of the kind of keys for me is when I hear the word “ought,” like “it ought to be this way,” or “it ought to be…” and I’m like, “Hmm, says who? A really important part of being a good teacher is recognizing that we cannot be all things to all people, and that we have to be critically self reflexive. I read a lot of Bell Hooks work and think about the ways that Hooks asks us to be kind of these self-actualized beings. How do we model the vulnerability and the space? And again, I recognize, I teach communication, I’m humanities professor, I have kind of more flexibility than my spouse who teaches chemistry. And so this idea that it’s going to look different in different classrooms. Absolutely. And, thinking about the ways that we come up with examples, I think, is a way that reflects our own identities. And so one of the ways that I think about that is psychological noise. And so, am I giving an example that is helping students move along in their understanding of a concept? Or have I just put up a giant roadblock because I used an example that’s not clear. And now they’re thinking about the example and they’ve forgotten the concept. So recognizing which examples are from a privileged experience… If you’re giving an example in your like, “So, let’s say you’re in Paris eating a croissant,” and you’re like, “Cool, I saw Emily in Paris, does that count? That was a good show.” And now they’re starting to think about a tangent, that they forgot what you’re teaching. And so, thinking about the ways that our examples can demonstrate our own privileges, and recognizing that talking about more privileged experiences, like, I was thinking about this the other day, when students were talking about having to go to the grocery store, and I was thinking about how many people in my circle were like “Groceries have been delivered since March” and the privilege that that reflects about saying, “Oh, no, I’ve been perfect. I have not had to leave my house.” That’s a privilege. And recognizing that we have paid positions, we still have jobs. And so recognizing that how our examples are privileged, I think, is really important for all of us. And I find the longer that I’m teaching, the more I have to kind of check myself, the more I have to say, “Is this a universal or pretty broad experience? Is this the example resonating?” Is this, as my students would say, “Is that just really boojie?” Like, is this just a really privileged expensive thing, and I’m like, “You caught me.” And I think being humble enough to recognize what our own racial financial gendered positions are, and how our experiences may be tied to those identities and experiences and how that may differ from our students. So, I think that’s something. Examples are one way that I think are really something we can all work on. The other is the ways that we make assumptions about what students ought to know. I’m big on saying that we don’t have underprepared students, we have underprepared teachers, because our students are who our students are on day one. And that’s where we teach them from. What they know is what we know and we’ll build. And I’m very big on understanding that it is my obligation in these 16 weeks to teach them as much as I can. But I have to start where they are. And that’s my job. And if it means that I have to go back in week one, and stay up till midnight, redoing my course schedule, so be it. That’s my job, to make sure that my students are learning and recognizing that where I think they ought to be doesn’t matter. It’s where they are that matters. And that’s our starting place.

Rebecca: So, the way we prevent too much workload at the beginning is we just don’t plan the like last five weeks of the semester, so that if you need to add stuff in the beginning, you can just shift everything.

Kristina: Well, I have my syllabus, and it has the first five weeks, and I always say tentative at the top, and I say this is going to serve the needs of our students and we’ll adjust. And, I think, Rebecca, you hit the nail on the head. Yes, being flexible and adapting and saying, “If we need to take two weeks on this, but you learn it, that’s more important to me than just kind of checking off my boxes, like, Oh, good, we’re in week eight now or week nine.” Absolutely.

Rebecca: I had a conversation with my students this week about projects that they were working on, and they were getting frustrated because they weren’t being as productive as maybe they would be in a non-pandemic situation. Imagine that.

Kristina: Right?

Rebecca: And so they’re like, “But I don’t know how I’m gonna get it done.” It’s like, well, because you’re being unreasonable. Let’s take that back a couple notches, the thing you’re talking about, that’s your next revision. That’s next time. That’s not this time. And I think having those conversations with students about kind of a reality check of what’s even reasonable right now is helpful, because there are these norms of what maybe a normal semester is like, that’s just unrealistic. And maybe it’s unrealistic all the time.

Kristina: Absolutely. And I think for ourselves, too, as faculty, I mean, I have found myself, I don’t know about you all, but I’m working seven days a week. And I’m like, this is not healthy. This is not sustainable. And I’m telling my students, and I’m really open with them. I teach mostly graduate students, but I’m really open with them saying, “Please do as I say, not as I do, because I’m still learning, and I’m still a work in progress, and I’m still trying.” But, I don’t want them to fall into the same patterns that I’m falling into where it’s midnight, and we’re still working. And it’s all the time. And I think that that leads to burnout. And. I know I have been meeting with many more students than in a typical semester. And it’s more one-on-one meetings. And I appreciate that, and I value our time together. And I also am recognizing that I’m making appointments, like from seven, eight in the morning, all the way until late at night. And so our days are kind of blending. And I think that that’s really stressful. And my colleagues who have young children, I feel for them, because they are just working nonstop. And I think we have to be kind to ourselves, we have to show ourselves and our students and our colleagues grace. And to say, Rebecca, I think as you say, this is a pandemic world. So let’s all chill with our expectations, here. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: And I think along those lines, emphasizing still how much learning is actually happening.

Kristina: Yes.

Rebecca: …because, what I’ve discovered, is not that students are learning any less. They might be producing less work, but the quality is actually quite good.

Kristina: Absolutely.

Rebecca: And they’re demonstrating that they’re meeting the learning objectives. It’s just maybe there’s some things there that didn’t need to be there.

Kristina: And I don’t know if you all are seeing this, but I’m finding there’s like a decentering of faculty because I’m not lecturing for three hours in a graduate class. I’m, again, curating materials, making mini-lectures, and then using our time together when we have synchronous time, for discussion. And so I’m finding it to be really enriching. Our conversations are great. The chat… students who I have not heard from in previous semesters are now super engaged and participating because they feel more comfortable. Perhaps there’s communication apprehension, and they didn’t want to speak up in front of everyone, but they can chat and they can type in the chat, and that is another avenue. So, I think we’re also seeing opportunities for further engagement and students really taking on the ownership of saying, “I need to do the reading, because I’m not going to get a three-hour lecture, and so I can’t depend on that. I have to depend on myself.” And I think we’re going to see on the other end of this, perhaps, stronger practices of self efficacy and engagement.

Rebecca: I had a whole class of people who read their stuff today. It was amazing.

Kristina: Amazing. [LAUGHTER] Love that. Love it.

John: I haven’t quite gotten there with everyone. But I have somewhat larger classes, too. But yeah, some of the things that we’ve been doing in terms of having people have the chat capability as a backchannel has been really enriching. And I’m hoping that that becomes more widely adopted later. And also, the move to online discussion forums also gives more students a voice than would occur with synchronous communications, because there’s always some people who want to think and process things a little bit more before they jump out there and say something. And I think in that way, at least, we’ve moved to somewhat more inclusive environments. In many ways we haven’t, but at least that’s one area that I think can be useful moving forward.

Kristina: Absolutely. And I think that, John, exactly to your point, I think that we are creating some more opportunities for engagement. And I see the big barrier is getting folks in the classes and making sure they have the WiFi making sure they have a device. I think that’s the big challenge at the beginning of the semester. And so thinking about planning for next semester, for many of us who already know that we are going to stay remote, is thinking about how those first two weeks can be really flexible, because it might take students a while to get access after the holidays and after the New Year. Depending what happens with the election and different things that are happening, they might need a little bit more time to get their financial aid checks. And so thinking about how those first few weeks can be caught u, I think is gonna be really important for the spring

Rebecca: I think that’s a nice lead into how we normally wrap up, which is: What’s next? {LAUGHTER]

Kristina: Who knows? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s it, that’s all there is.

Kristina: Who knows? What’s interesting to me is when I think about the possibilities for higher education, I think this is really exciting. So, when I think about the different, you know, 1636 and Harvard’s founding, we have seen really slow change in higher education. And all of the slow change was laughed at in March when they’re like: “Guess what? We are going from moving the battleship to like a jet ski right now. We are going fast, and we are hoping for the best.” And so I think we’re gonna see some rapid and lasting changes in US higher education that would have taken decades had there not been a pandemic. And so my hope is that we are going to increase hybrid offerings, we’re going to increase our capabilities of serving more students by offering more online options. And my hope is that institutions will respond by creating tenured and tenure-track lines or online, totally online, programs and teachings. And we’ve got more than 3000 institutions of higher education in this country, that we can really create more access and engagement and higher education achievement in this country. That’s my hope for what’s next.

Rebecca: I think ending on a hopeful note is a good thing. [LAUGHTER] It’s a time when we need a lot of hope.

John: Certainly.

Kristina: Absolutely.

Rebecca: Thank you so much, Kristina. You’ve given us lots to think about and actions to actually take.

Kristina: Thank you. Thanks for the opportunity. This was super fun. I enjoyed it very much. I enjoyed our conversation

John: We have too and we hope we’ll be talking to you again in the future.

Kristina: Anytime. 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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159. Nurturing a Growth Mindset

Emotions and past experiences can lead us to develop fixed mindsets in particular aspects of our lives and learning. In this episode, Kelly Theisen joins us to discuss ways to help foster growth mindsets within a course from the beginning to the end of the semester. Kelly is an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.

Show Notes

  • Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
  • Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Institutional Impediments to Effective Training”. Learning, remembering, believing: Enhancing human performance.
  • 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.
  • Yue, C. L., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2013). Reducing verbal redundancy in multimedia learning: An undesired desirable difficulty?. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), 266.

Transcript

John: Emotions and past experiences can lead us to develop fixed mindsets in particular aspects of our lives and learning. In this episode, we discuss ways to help foster growth mindsets within a course from the beginning to the end of the semester.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Kelly Theisen. Kelly is an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. Welcome, Kelly

Kelly: Thanks for having me.

John: Our teas today are:

Kelly: I have Earl Grey today.

Rebecca: And John, get this. I have a different kind, Gingersnap tea.

Kelly: Oh, that sounds good.

John: Where did you get that?

Rebecca: It’s a Tea Forte, you’d be happy to know.

John: Oh, I haven’t seen that one.

I have a summer berry green tea that I picked up in Epcot last year. My supply is dwindling, though.

Rebecca: I know, and you’re very disappointed you’re not going to be there this fall.

John: I know. I had planned to, but I will be online at that conference.

We’ve invited you here, Kelly, to talk about how you’ve been working to help students reframe their academic anxiety by helping them to cultivate a growth mindset. Before we discuss how you’ve been doing that, could you tell us a little bit about the courses that you teach?

Kelly: Yeah, sure. So I teach primarily my general biochemistry course for non major students, and I teach that every semester. And then in the spring, I also teach physical biochemistry, which is a much smaller class for biochemistry majors only.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about why it’s important that students develop a growth mindset?

Kelly: Yeah, so I think it’s especially important for my 371, the general biochem students to have the growth mindset, because they usually come into my class terrified, absolutely terrified of biochemistry, they’ve heard it’s like the worst class ever. And they think it has math, and they’re just so scared. So, I think that it’s important for them to have the growth mindset so that they feel like they can actually succeed in the class, which a lot of them again, they come in not thinking that they can. So, developing a growth mindset, reminding them that it’s hard, like the class is not gonna be easy, but that they can do it, they can get better with trying, is really key for helping them to keep going if they start to struggle. What I don’t want is for them to get to the first set of content that’s difficult, and then just give up. I want them to keep working at it, because I know that practice is going to make it better for them. For me, that’s why it’s so important, it’s because I want all of my students to be able to succeed, not just the ones who are already super motivated, and everything. I want everybody to get through the class and do well.

John: Why do you think so many people come into our classes with this fixed mindset?

Kelly: So, it can have lots of different origins. And I think some are internal and some are external. So, for example, a student could have somebody in a previous class, any previous STEM class who has told them, you’re not good at STEM, or you’re bad at math, or things like that. And so all it takes is maybe one teacher in school, a professor, when they get to college, who tells them that,for them to decide that this is just not for me, and I just have to take these classes for my major, but I’m just going to get through them because I’m not going to be good at it. And so that’s one way they can develop a fixed mindset about it. Also, it’s possible to have a fixed mindset in one area of your life and not in others. So student athletes is where I think of the most for this, where they have a growth mindset in terms of their athletics. They know that going to practice, working on whatever technique it is, is going to help them improve and do better during the game. But, they don’t always think to apply that to their academics as well. And so they might say, “I did badly on this test. That’s it, I’m done. There’s no point in me trying any more in this class.” Things like that can lead to the fixed mindset in classes, even if they don’t have one in other areas. So, it can be like I said, internal from them, or external with other people telling them, “You’re bad at this,” or whatever. And that happened to me actually a lot growing up, and in my career. Lots of people told me it shouldn’t or couldn’t be in chemistry, lots of very stupid reasons for that. But still, it happened enough that if I hadn’t had a growth mindset myself, and knowing that just because this person tells me I’m bad at something doesn’t mean I really am. Or just because I had to ask for help doesn’t mean I will never get this or that I’m bad at it, then I don’t think I would be here having this conversation with you, frankly.

Rebecca: Sometimes I find that the students that you might least expect to have a fixed mindset do, they might be the students that you think of as good students who have done well or have succeed[ed] previously in other classes they’ve had with you or in the discipline, but they come across a hurdle, maybe for the first time, and they just don’t know what to do, because things have come easy for them, or they haven’t had to work so hard.

Kelly: Right? Or they got by on just memorizing in high school, and then they get to college, and it doesn’t work anymore. And so then they can say, “This is just not working. I’m just going to give up. And I don’t know what else to do besides memorize, and if that’s not cutting it, then what am I doing here?” So, yeah, definitely. And biochemistry is a difficult class, and so not everybody is going to get 100% on every exam. [LAUGHTER] And so that can be challenging for some students, where they really want that hundred percent.

Rebecca: Yeah, and especially in the sciences, or any place where you need to explore or experiment, taking a risk can be really challenging if you have a fixed mindset.

Kelly: Yeah, exactly. And I want the students to think critically about what they’re learning. I don’t want them to just memorize the information and then spit it back out on the test. That’s not what science is really about. It’s about exploring and trying to figure out why things work the way that they do. And so, that risk taking, I usually make them do that every day in class. We do active learning, and they have to say, “Here, try to answer this problem before I’ve explained it to you. And so you’re gonna get it wrong, it’s fine.” And so that process, again, it’s sort of encouraging the growth mindset, but it’s difficult for them at first. They want to know the right answer ahead of time a lot of the time. So, you have to remind them and reassure them: “It’s okay, I’m not gonna grade you badly if you get it wrong. You’re just supposed to try and do the best you can.”

John: While anyone can have a fixed mindset coming into your class, some of students who expect to do well, some others based on their prior experience who might not expect to do very well. But, are there some patterns, perhaps, where first-gen students or students from underrepresented groups might be more subject to this, particularly in the STEM fields,

Kelly: I think that they’re just more likely to have been told that they’re not good at this or that they shouldn’t be in X, Y, or Z discipline. And as I said, that happened to me a lot. I was a first-gen student and female man going into chemistry, which is still pretty heavily male dominated. And then I went into computational chemistry, which is even more heavily male dominated. And so, yeah, I think that just because of that background, they might be more likely to have heard things like that before. And so actually, one of the things I do on the first day of class is, I say, “How many of you were told this or something similar to this?” I don’t usually get a lot of hands. I don’t think a lot of people want to disclose that necessarily in front of the rest of the class, which is fine. But the point of asking is, so that I can tell them, this happened to me all the time. And I made it through and I’m now a professor, and I’m doing these things that they told me I wasn’t any good at, but I actually am. So, that means that you can too, basically.

Rebecca: It’s funny how those early comments from teachers can have a really big impact for a long time.

Kelly: Yeah.

Rebecca: I had some similar experiences. I remember very distinctly in eighth grade, like math teacher telling me I couldn’t do math. I remember a seventh grade art teacher telling me I couldn’t do art. And now I do art that has math in it.

Kelly: Right. Exactly. My teacher in high school told me I wasn’t good at computers, because I couldn’t type both quickly and accurately. Turns out, I’m just dyslexic, and so I just hadn’t practiced typing enough at that point. And I’m now a computational chemist, and I work with Linux and programming, and so it’s fine. It just took me a little longer to get up to that level that they were expecting, then it did some other people. But again, it’s just about focusing on “You can do it, you just have to keep practicing.” And knowing that where you start is only where you start, and that you’re the one who gets to decide where you end up.

Rebecca: You suggested that a growth mindset is a scientific mindset. Can you elaborate on that?

Kelly: Yeah, I think anybody who has done research knows that you have to have a growth mindset to go into research… to enjoy doing research, at least… because you’re going to fail all the time. You’re going to start an experiment, and it’s not going to go right, or it’s not going to happen at all, [LAUGHTER] and you have to figure out why, you have to understand, “Okay, something went wrong. Did I do something wrong? Is it the experiment is actually showing us negative data? What is happening? And that really does take a growth mindset. You have to be willing to fail to go into research. You have to understand that it’s not you necessarily failing, the process of science requires a lot of failure. So, that’s one of the other things I try to tell the students is like, you’re actually living like a scientist, right now. [LAUGHTER] And this is what we do all the time, we set something up, and who knows? We just have to see what happens and then go from there. And one of the things that I really like the most about growth mindset is it sort of freeing, it gives you the ability to just try and know that your first effort is not going to be your best. And I really love that because it frees you from perfectionism, or wanting things to be exactly a certain way, the very first time you do it. You just know, whatever I do, it’s only where I started, and it’s not going to be perfect. And that’s okay, I’m always going to get better from that point. And so I feel like that, at least, has helped me to approach research and teaching and knowing that I might not be great at everything to begin with. And it helped me to try things that I might not have been comfortable with necessarily. But again, it was “Okay, I know, I’m not gonna be great at this right now, but I’m still gonna do it. And I’m going to try my best and that I know, I’m going to get better from there.”

John: What are some of the approaches you use to help nurture a growth mindset in your students?

Kelly: So, there’s actually quite a few that I like, and I use them in all my classes, but again, especially in the general biochemistry for non majors class. So one of them is the frequent low-stakes assignments, it helps the students to build confidence in the material and it gives them sort of a grade cushion, for the exams. And the low-stakes assignments, it helps with inclusion and equity as well. So, one of the other things I do when we have face-to-face exams… I’m not doing it this semester, because this semester everything’s online. But, when I head face-to-face exams, I was doing exam corrections. So, basically, the students could earn back up to half the points that they missed on the exam. And basically, I think that this helps students continue to engage with the material, instead of you learn it for the exam, and then you forget it immediately afterwards. They would have to go back and look up what they had missed, and try to understand why they got it wrong, which helps them to keep engaging with that content. But it also helps them to stick with learning things that are difficult, right? Even the exam is kind of not the end, I guess. I always thank students for asking questions, or for volunteering answers in class, even if they get it wrong, because that kind of thing helps everybody learn. So, I always tell them that I appreciate that, that that’s good. I guess just reassuring students that even if they failed at something, that that’s a step in the right direction to helping them succeed eventually. This semester for the exams, I have them look up a research paper ahead of time. And a lot of students were apologizing because they hadn’t gotten it right the first time or even the second time. And so I had to remind them just because you tried it, that’s the point. Even if you failed, you’re getting better at it just by trying it. And then I think the last thing that I do, and the students really seem to like this, because it comes up on my evaluations quite frequently, is the learning objectives. And I actually think that this promotes growth mindset, because having sort of almost a checklist that they can go through and say here is everything I’m responsible for for the exam. It kind of gives them a way to say “Okay, here’s the things I already know, and here’s the things they still need to work on.” So, it almost forces them to have a growth mindset by going through and checking everything off. So, I really like to do that as well.

John: You mentioned having a list of learning objectives, is that something that you include, say in the course module in your learning management system?

Kelly: It’s on the slides every day. So, when they walk into class, the first couple slides will have the learning objectives. And then I show them again at the end. When we were doing face-to-face classes, there would actually be on their daily worksheet, they’d have a question at the very last thing, which said, “Is there anything you’re still confused about from today? Are there any learning objectives you feel were not met?” And then that gave them a spot to write in, if they had any questions remaining. And that way, I could kind of check in with them as well. It’s harder to do that online I found. And so I kind of missed that this semester. But the students really do seem to love putting questions in the chat and things like that. So. I think we’re still managing to do that okay.

Rebecca: One of the things that, along those same lines, that I like to have conversations with students about, is the more mistakes and things they make they end up learning more. [LAUGHTER] So, it’s like, “Well, if you got that all right the first time, you wouldn’t have had this whole learning adventure that you didn’t plan for.” And I find that framing it like that tends to put a positive spin on something that they might seem as being a very big negative.

Kelly: I don’t know if anybody else is as big of a nerd as I am and watches Disney movies, but in Meet the Robinsons, there’s the part where he’s trying to fix something and he completely fails, and it just like bursts apart. And they tell him that “Well, you learn from failure, you don’t learn as much from success.” And so it’s kind of the same idea.

John: And earlier, you mentioned too that you share some of your own struggles and some of the challenges you were faced with. And I think that probably helps build a growth mindset in your students too, by setting that example and normalizing struggles and failure as part of the growth experience.

Kelly: Yeah, exactly. And I think one of the things that instructors can definitely do is to model a growth mindset for their students, to tell them that things are not always easy for me, even. I’m an expert, but I still come across research problems where I’m like, “I don’t know what’s wrong.” I did that over the summer, I started a new project, and it took us, gosh, it was like months to figure out what was going wrong with our experiment. So, you’re right, normalizing it is great. Saying that just struggling with something is good, in fact. It’s how you learn.

Rebecca: You also mentioned setting up problems that they solve in class that they’re not quite ready for. Can you talk about how that nurtures growth mindset as well?

Kelly: I got this idea from a book called Make it Stick, where it’s called desirable difficulty. And I just love it. We do this all the time in my other classes. Well, that’s like the main principle that I use for my smaller majors class is having them try it before it’s explained to them. And again, it’s trying to get them to let go of that idea that I have to know the right answer before I can try anything, or I have to have had this explained before I can even try, which I think it’s kind of burned into them in the K through 12 system sometimes. Where you’re given the information, memorize it, spit it back on the test, that’s it, you’re done. And that’s what learning is to them. So getting them out of that habit is what I’m trying to do with giving them these assignments that they’re not quite sure about. And I actually tell them that that’s what this is called, especially this semester, I’ve really leaned into just like, here’s my teaching method, it’s called desirable difficulty. And here’s what it’s going to do for you, it’s actually going to help you understand it better when I explain it to you if you’ve tried it on your own first and gotten it wrong. And so we’ll do things like I will ask them, How does the entropy increase when the hydrophobic effect occurs? And they’re like, “Well, I don’t know.” And I was like, “I know you don’t know. Think about it. Here’s the system, here’s what’s going to happen. And what do you think and then don’t look it up?” And actually, they seem to not look it up this year, which was good. I was worried they might because we were on Zoom. But, they actually seemed to refrain from googling it. Because I did see a lot of wrong answers. I think it went pretty well. And then just kind of over the semester, they get better and better and less fearful about putting wrong things down on the worksheets, because they know, first of all, that they’re going to get the grade no matter what, as long as they put something down. But, also because I think that they’re learning to try more and to think critically. And so that’s what I hope for them at least.

Rebecca: Do you have them discuss their solutions in small groups? Or is it an individual activity?

Kelly: Yeah, so in class, I would typically do like a think-pair-share where they would get with another person, and then I could talk to them as the class. This semester, we’re now doing breakout rooms, because I have 50 students, and it’s a little hard to get them in pairs, and then in a bigger group, so I’ve just assigned them groups for the semester at this time. And then they will go and work with their group and discuss. And usually there’s a few minutes delay anyways, in terms of getting the breakout rooms ready to go and everybody into them. So, they have some time to think on their own as well, just because of that.

John: How large are the groups that you’ve been using in the breakout rooms?

Kelly: About five usually for each group. And that’s because, first of all, I wasn’t sure how engaged everybody was going to be in each group. So, I kind of wanted it to be big enough that if a few people went AWOL, that they still had a group. But also it’s nice just that people can work better with other people, and so then they have a couple options in terms of partners, if they wanted to work with just a few people.

Rebecca: Kelly, you’ve talked a lot about ways to foster the growth mindset throughout the semester. But, how do you set the stage maybe on the first day of class,

Kelly: This year, I actually did what’s called first-day fears, a brand new activity I’d thought of, but I had emails and some survey responses over the summer that said a lot of students were terrified of online learning, things like that. And everything was changing, and we were scared. And so it was just this whole mess. And so I basically said, “Here’s your first activity for the day, go into the breakout rooms with your group, write down everything you’re anxious about for the semester, and then I’m going to talk to you and we’re going to try to work through everything.” And so they did that. And I had a lot of “I’m scared of online learning. I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” And we talked about how you can approach some of those anxieties with growth mindset, in terms of try something for the online learning. If it’s not working right away, then change it. Talk to me, see what else we can do that can help you manage your time better, whatever it is. And so that was how I framed it this semester was, “Yes, you’re anxious about things, here’s how you can address some of those with growth mindset.” Unfortunately, all the growth mindset in the world will not make COVID go away, it won’t give us more money if we need it, that kind of thing. So it’s not perfect, obviously. But in terms of the things that we can control, that’s what I love growth mindset for. So, helping them to understand that I’m a resource, that their group is a resource, and that we’re going to keep doing check ins throughout the semester. The other thing that I did is part of the activities, I told them what I was anxious about. So, I told them that I’m anxious about online learning, too. I’ve never done it before. I spent the summer learning about it, but it’s still the first time I’m doing it. And so I told them, here’s some of the things that you can do to help me, which is, if your camera’s not on, I can’t tell if you’re confused. So, you have to tell me that you’re confused. Say, “Hey, wait, stop, I need that explained again,” or put your questions in the chat. And here’s the ways you can do that. Yeah, so we basically just talked about things all of us were anxious about and trying to show them that, first of all, they’re not alone. Look, how many of your classmates have the same worries, this is why you’re in a group, so that you have people to talk to and then you can talk to me as well, then just trying to clear the air a little bit before we could get started, I guess, with learning this semester.

John: So you’ve talked a bit about how you try to help your students build a growth mindset. Do you explicitly talk to them about the differences between growth mindset and a fixed mindset.

Kelly: I do, actually. So, there’s a slide from the first day where I put some students’ examples of what a fixed mindset could look like, and what a growth mindset could look like. So, for example, from the student perspective, if you did badly on an exam or in a class, it might lead you to think “I’m stupid, I’m not gonna get this, why am I trying?” Or “Why am I participating in this class, everybody else is better than me,” it might lead you to think things like that, which are more fixed mindset. And then on the other side of the slide, then I had what a growth mindset would look like for that, which is to say, if you’re struggling, you should ask for help, you can learn more with practice. So, you should go and get more resources, ask for it to be explained, again, things like that. That you should still contribute to class because your responses are unique like you are. And so my favorite example, the one that I shared with them, I had a student my first semester at SUNY Plattsburgh, who was a great student, wonderful in class, and they completely bombed the first exam. And I felt so bad, because I knew they were trying, but anyways, so they kind of wasn’t sure how they were gonna bounce back from that, or if they were, and then we a little bit later, maybe a week or two, after the exam, we were having an activity about allostery, and nobody was getting it. Everybody was complaining: “This is so hard.” “I don’t understand what we’re doing.” “What is going on?” And there was just complaining. [LAUGHTER] And so I was walking around the class trying to help. And I got to the student’s desk. And they were like, “Well, I don’t know. But what about this?” …and they had got it, clearly they had understood what I was actually asking. And so I asked them to share with the class. And they did, and it was like a light bulb went on for everybody else. And so I was just reminding the students like this person failed the first exam, but they were the only person in the class who actually got the next thing. So, it doesn’t matter if you failed, you still have these valuable contributions to make, you’re still a part of the classroom, you’re still supposed to be here. So that’s, as I said, one of the ways that I tried to improve inclusion is just to say, “You’re always supposed to be here, this is where you are, we want you and you’re supposed to be in this class.”

Rebecca: I like how you’re framing things related to the anxiety and emotions that can be big blockers, to moving forward and addressing those emotions and normalizing those emotions and verifying that yes, indeed, we might be frustrated or confused or scared, but if we can acknowledge that and know that that’s what we’re working with, we can move forward and continue to grow and learn. And I think that students don’t always recognize that those emotions can get in the way.

Kelly: Yeah. And it’s about also recognizing what is in your control and what’s not. So, there’s some things that are not in your control, right? COVID is not under anybody’s control right now. Not any of us anyways. So, you can’t tell the students well, you should growth mindset yourself so that this doesn’t affect you anymore. No, that’s not how this works. The growth mindset is to say, “Okay, I’m trying in my classes, something’s not going right. Is there something I can change to maybe make it go better?” Or even just to recognize, “I’m doing the best I can. This is the most that I can do right now. And that’s okay.”

Rebecca: Yeah. Especially with the balancing act and the extra stress of COVID-19, and what have you. Recognizing that like, it might take longer.

Kelly: Yeah.

Rebecca: It might not be an A, it might not be a B.

Kelly: Right.

Rebecca: But, like, you got something. [LAUGHTER]

Kelly: Yes, exactly. And if you decide to try it again, later, you’re gonna do better because of it.

John: And having students share their anxieties makes them feel perhaps a bit less isolated, and recognizing that some of these challenges are ones that are shared by everyone, which I would think would help to build a better community or more productive community within the class.

Kelly: Yeah, that’s what I was hoping for. And again, that’s why I assigned them to the groups as well. With 50 students, I knew they weren’t going to meet everybody online. They barely meet everybody if they’re in person. So, I wanted them to have kind of a core smaller community that they knew, “Oh, yeah, we did this on the first day. We were all nervous about the same thing.” Yeah.

Rebecca: I’ve had those consistent smaller groups in my classes this semester, too, and it’s helped a lot… have it that tight community to express anxiety or share frustrations with. [LAUGHTER]

Kelly: Yeah, and I’ve called them their growth mindset groups, which is hokey, but I couldn’t think of another name. But, yeah, we’ve done a couple check ins so far. There was a question on the first exam about a situation that they had to face, like an academic challenge and did you approach it with a growth or fixed mindset… and then “How could you maybe change what you did?” or something like that, and then we did another… right after the first exam, we did a learning reflection, which is… same idea. I told them, you know, check your current grade on Moodle, because a lot of times they don’t always realize that that’s up there, and then come up with a growth mindset plan for going forward. You know, if you’re not happy with your grade, okay, what can we try that might help you do better?

John: Yeah, that sort of metacognitive reflection, I think, can be really helpful and helping students recognize how much they’re learning, and to see that they can change the pattern.

Kelly: Yes, and to look at the overall grade instead of just the exam grade, because a lot of them saw the exam grade and panicked. [LAUGHTER] And they didn’t realize that the exams are only 40% of the total grade. So, [LAUGHTER] you’re probably still okay,

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

Kelly: So, what I would like to do next… a couple things. First, the SUNY Plattsburgh orientations have started incorporating a growth mindset aspect to it. And so what I’m hoping is to see more and more students coming in who already know about growth mindset, then have started to develop it in their earlier classes too, which would be fantastic. I already lean in pretty hard to growth mindset in my classes, but maybe lean even further into it in terms of assessing it, and trying to see if my class structure actually helps students develop a growth mindset as they go. I’ve had a few students put that on their evaluations at the end, that the idea of growth mindset helped them to succeed in the class. And it was one of the first times they’d heard of it or things like that, where they’ve said that that plus the active learning helped them to be successful. But, in terms of actually assessing overall, even if they don’t tell me that up front, you know, can I determine if it’s actually helped them to develop a growth mindset is one of the things I’d like to do.

Rebecca: Sounds like good research project.

Kelly: Yes, yes, I do education research on top of computational research because I’m a crazy person, and I want to study everything. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well, thank you. It’s been great talking to you.

Kelly: Thanks for having me.

Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you very much.

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

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

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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.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guest today is 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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153. Structured for Inclusion

Learning spaces that are effective for all students require careful planning and design. In this episode, Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan join us to discuss ways to promote inclusion in the way we structure our courses, activities, and feedback. Viji is a Teaching Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at UNC – Chapel Hill and Kelly is an Associate Dean of Instructional Innovation, Quality Enhancement Plan Director, and Teaching Professor of Biology, also at UNC – Chapel Hill.

Show Notes

  • Eddy, S. L., & Hogan, K. A. (2017). Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing course structure work?. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 453-468.
  • Poll Everywhere
  • Hogan, K.A. and Sathy, V. (forthcoming, 2021). Embracing Diversity: A Guide to Teaching Inclusively. WVU Press.
  • Hogan, Kelly A, and Sathy, Viji (2020). “Optimizing Student Learning and Inclusion in Quantitative Courses.” in Rodgers, Joseph Lee, ed. (2020). Teaching Statistics and Quantitative Methods in the 21st Century. Routledge.
  • Panter, A.T.,; Sathy, Viji; and Hogan, Kelly A (2020). “8 Ways to Be More Inclusive in Your Zoom Teaching.” Chronicle of Higher Education. April 7.

Transcript

John: Learning spaces that are effective for all students require careful planning and design.
In this episode, we discuss ways to promote inclusion in the way we structure our courses, activities, and feedback.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

John: Our guests today are Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan. Viji is a Teaching Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at UNC – Chapel Hill and Kelly is an Associate Dean of Instructional Innovation, Quality Enhancement Plan Director, and Teaching Professor of Biology, also at UNC – Chapel Hill. Welcome.

Kelly: Thank you.

Viji: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Kelly: I’m drinking LaCroix… seltzer.

Viji: Yes, me too. I’ve got my sparkling water right next to me.

Rebecca: That’s my second favorite thing to drink, over tea. [LAUGHTER]

Viji: In our writing last summer, we would get together, when we could get together. We would get together and write, and we often had a nice cold sparkling can of LaCroix with us, and one time we tweeted about it and LaCroix contacted me and sent me some water. So…

Rebecca: Nice…

Viji: …it’s become our official working drink.[ LAUGHTER]

John: Somehow tea has for us, as well. I have blueberry green tea today.

Rebecca: I have “Special” English Breakfast tea.

Kelly: What makes it special?

Rebecca: The package? [LAUGHTER]

John: The label? [LAUGHTER] Okay, and where did that come from?

Rebecca: It’s a Harney’s and Sons tea.

John: You’ve both been working together for quite a while now on inclusive teaching practices and have done a really good job in providing lots of workshops and lots of materials for people who would like to improve their teaching practices. What prompted your interest in this area? And how did you start working together on this?

Kelly: For me, I think I started getting really interested in what it means to be a good teacher based on data. So I had seen some data in my own course. And I saw some pretty large discrepancies based on race and ethnicity. And I thought a lot about what it means to be effective. And it really got me thinking about: are there ways that I could narrow and reduce those achievement gaps in my own class? And not long after that, I was in a faculty learning community for teaching large classes, and that’s where I met Viji. So, we were both in this faculty learning community together, paired up in a group, and we quickly recognized ourselves in each other. So, just our style of teaching, our personalities are on the more introverted side, we recognized that we really enjoyed learning how students learned, but weren’t always going to be the most charismatic and funny people. And we felt really strongly that funny didn’t equate to good teaching, and so we really built a friendship and collegiality around really learning, with each other, what good teaching looks like.

Viji: Yeah, and I’ll add that we had the opportunity, in that faculty learning community, to watch each other teach. And up to that point, the only time I had been observed was really for what I deemed sort of high-stakes purposes, like for renewal of my contract or something like that. So this is the first time we got invited to just sit in a classroom for no other reason than to just see how another instructor operates in that classroom and it was very eye-opening experience, because not only was it a chance to do this without sort of a weight around it, but also that it wasn’t a topic that I didn’t know anything about. So, it became a really fun activity to sit in the classroom and just be a student and see it from a student’s perspective. And especially not knowing the content, specifically, it was not about critiquing the content or the delivery of the content, it was really just the mechanics of teaching and what that looks like. And that was a really helpful thing for me to see and experience being a student in Kelly’s classroom.

John: Is that something that was done for just people within the learning community, or more broadly throughout the institution?

Kelly: Those observations were part of the faculty learning community. We have since tried to build programming around that same idea, campus wide. And so we have a peer visits program that we help the Center for Faculty Excellence run and faculty can go into other people’s classes, they can see a menu of people that are available that they can go visit, some rubrics available. So, I think it’s spun out of that, as something really transformational for us that were involved early on.

John: We were just planning to introduce one of those beginning in late March of this year. And then it kind of fell apart because people were no longer interested in doing that when they were panicking in terms of the transition to remote teaching. But, we’re going to be meeting next week to talk about how we might be doing that here. So, it’s something that I’ve been encouraging… I’ve been trying to get some motion on for a while now. And it looks like we’re moving in that direction. And it sounds like it was a really productive experience for both of you. And for the rest of us, given your collaborations since then. Many people have been concerned about the growth in income inequality, and economists have done a lot of work showing that one of the main reasons for that is the growth in the rate of return to education over the last few decades. What we’re seeing are some very unequal outcomes, as you mentioned, in terms of success in courses, persistence, and so forth by race, and in the STEM fields, also by gender. So, it’s really nice to see people working in this area, because it’s an area where I think we need a lot of help. To what extent are they These differences that we’re seeing the result of systemic racism and sexism.

Viji: There’s a lot in that question. Well, racism, sexism, any form of discrimination… In essence, these are learned behaviors, and these are things that we grow up with without really even thinking about sometimes. And the classroom is no different from being in life. And so we have to address them in the classroom in the same way we need to address them in life. And for me, when I think about it, it’s really about sort of concrete things sometimes, like who is speaking up in a certain space? like who feels comfortable speaking up? Who feels comfortable speaking without really having much time to think about their answer? Who gets to see instructors who look like them in the classroom? We already know that, especially for our students, it can be difficult sometimes for them to identify with their instructors, to feel like they’re just a normal person. Sometimes we hear that, right? Like “You do the things we do? That seems so strange. I never would have thought a professor would do those things.” Right? So even identifying with a professor, like adding that layer of seeing somebody who looks like you in the classroom just makes it feel even more unattainable, right? So, there’s a lot in thinking about a lot of aspects of teaching that are barriers for our students. And I often, when I go to a professional conference… when I was able to go to professional conferences… I looked out into the room and what I see in my professional meetings doesn’t look like what I see in my classroom, in terms of the diversity of participation, and I asked myself why that difference exists. And my course is the first course that leads people on a path in what’s called quantitative psychology. So, if I want them to have more people, more interested people, in the field, they have to succeed in my class to then have the interest and the goal to keep going on that track. So, it starts with my class, but it actually starts way before my class and all the messages they get before they even show up at my doorstep in my course and how I can work to counteract some of the messages that tells them they don’t belong, and that there isn’t a place for them in STEM. These are things that they hear either subconsciously or consciously and we need to address that.

John: What can we do to create a more inclusive learning environment for our students that will work well for all of our students?

Kelly: Well, I think we have to recognize that these historical differences, as you said, systemic racism and sexism, that those are things that existed before we met our students, and they lead to differences in who our students are. But, we have to be careful not to blame our students for those differences. You know, diversity is a strength, and we have to find ways to feel empowered to work with the students that we have, to build on that strength that is the diversity, but also not, as I said, blame students. So, the way we like to think about this is by adding structure to everything that we do, and we like to think about it as structure in the course design as well as the facilitation in live sessions. So, a lot of times our students, especially, see teaching is just what we do sort of face to face or in this day and age our live zoom sessions, if we’re doing them… and who’s not speaking up and who’s not participating if we only use low structure, and by that, I mean, like maybe one mode where we expect volunteers all the time. But, we also have to think about course design and a low structure course design might be one that doesn’t have a lot of practice and assessment built in, where students actually learn how learning works. And so we want to think about building structure in everything we do, and asking ourselves constantly: “With what I want to do, how can I add more structure so it’s not left up to chance. Who’s going to know what to do with this? Who’s going to know how to take notes? Who’s going to know that there should be routine practice in learning? Who’s going to know that they could participate in different ways? So, that’s kind of the way in which we think about it, but I’m sure we could get into more specifics with each of our courses.

John: And you’ve both done some research that have shown that there are significant effects of providing that structure in terms of encouraging student success, as well as perhaps reducing that gap, I believe.

Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. Work that I published with a colleague, Sarah Eddy years ago, we looked at my teaching in a much lower, less inclusive structure where I did a lot of talking… you could call it a pretty typical teacher-centered classroom… and then looked at three semesters of me shifting to something far more student centered, a variety of ways of interacting with my students, and basically a higher structure classroom. And even in those first few semesters where, you know, you’re just getting used to something and don’t feel proficient yet, it made a big difference. It closed an achievement gap for first-generation college students, it narrowed the achievement gap for black students, continued to see students talk about an increased feeling of community, among other things. So, it continued to get better as I got better. And I continued to see ways I could put more structure into my course. And I kept asking myself, how can I add more structure?

John: Maybe we could talk a little bit about some of the ways in which you’ve added that structure in each of your classes.

Viji: Sure, I’ll provide some examples of that. When I redesigned my course, and, like Kelly, I had landed as a study to look at how, at that time (it was about maybe 10 years ago), recording micro lectures and having students watch them before they came to class, and using class time to do more polls and some of the assignments that they were struggling with. And that was the challenge I had in my introductory statistics course was I was using the class time to explain ideas and then sending them home to do hard homework problem sets. And oftentimes, that led to a lot of frustration, because there was no one around to help with the questions that they had in real time. So, I wanted to switch the order of that so that they were watching the videos where I’d explain how you might calculate something at home, and then in class, we might practice doing some of those problems together, with peers, with graduate students, with undergraduate learning assistants. So, that’s an example of a structure that’s in place, right? …having the videos available so students can watch them before class. And what I learned was it became a really incredible resource for students to access throughout the semester. I anticipated that they would get used right before the class session where we’d be using the material. And indeed, when I look at the learning management, the site provides some statistics around that. Yes, there were the most clicks right before class, because I had a quiz in class that day on that material. But there were also clicks right before that first exam on some of those videos. There were also clicks before the final exam. There were clicks in random days in the semester when I didn’t think it had anything to do with what we were talking about. But, they went back to watch something. And what that taught me was that they need to see that material more than one time. And when I was doing it in class, it was once, it was ethereal, right? …it was once and it was gone. But, now students could rewatch, they could hit pause, they could work as slowly or quickly through the problems as they wanted to. So, it provided a resource for being able to do that. And again, that’s the example of, by providing it, not all the students need to watch it multiple times. But, it’s available to those who needed to do that or wanted to do that.

John: So they’d watch a video and then you had a quiz at the beginning of the class or was it before the class started?

Viji: The way I implemented it, and there’s lots of different ways people have this piece, how they would structure that requirement, but I wanted it to be done. And so I wanted students to have shown me that they’ve done it through a quiz at the start of class. It helps keep them accountable for doing the work. And I do a fairly good job of what we call, it’s like “the warm demander.” I’m the warm demander in the classroom, and I do a pretty good job of coaching them and asking them to do this work so that we can do hard things together in class, making the argument that it’s the most efficient way we can be together, when we’re together. And then there’s peer pressure, right? Like if they’re the only one, they look around, and everybody else came to class prepared. We’ve all been in meetings where we didn’t do our homework, whatever the homework was. So, if you build this culture, I think people really do take to it and they do learn that it is efficient. And more importantly, like in Kelly’s class, they see results, they do better on an exam because they’ve kept up with it all along. So, that’s when you know, the proof is in the pudding, when they see things that they’re pleased with and they keep going with it.

Kelly: Yeah, and that’s an important point Viji just made… that these kinds of techniques help all students, they disproportionately benefit some students, which makes a difference in terms of equity, but they definitely help all students. My own experience with structure is one that Viji alluded to with the flipped classroom, which is another way of thinking about the learning cycle, that students need to be required to do things before, during, and after class. And that adds a very high structure to what we would consider the learning cycle. So, if I ask students to do some reading before class, I don’t assume that all students know what to take away from a reading. And so for this, I give students guided reading questions and it helps them know where I’m coming from and what they should focus on, and what they might want to use as a study guide. And it helps replace the lecture so that I’m not going to talk to them the whole time that we’re together. When we are together, I want to use the time for collaboration and a variety of things. And so, I also don’t assume that students know what to take away from that. And so I provide class outlines, to make sure that, whether a student has learning differences, is multilingual, distracted, whatever, that all students leave with some basic outlines from class. So, already you’re starting to see how the structure can help all kinds of students. And then in class, I added a lot more active learning, and it quickly became apparent to me that, if I don’t put the instructions in multiple modes, so verbal and visual, that students were not going to be with me, and we were going to waste a lot of time with instruction. So, it’s something I think we don’t think about a lot. Like, if we want them to do something, then we have to be very clear about that, whether it’s in an assignment, a breakout group online, or active learning together in a classroom, providing more silence time for thinking. And then, for me, a lot of it has come down more recently to group work and equity around group work. And I kept thinking to myself, how do I add more structure to the group work because students were telling me if I just said, turn and talk to a neighbor, that certain students always were left out or they were with friends and they weren’t being pushed to really do the learning and feel the rigor of what they were being asked to do because the friends would just sort of agree and then chitchat, And so I thought about structuring groups, assigning groups, and giving people in the groups, roles. So, all of these are just different ways to think about how do I bring more structure to my classroom for all students. And it’s not going to hurt the students that already know how to take notes. And it’s not going to hurt students who know how to take notes on outlines, and all of that, but for the ones that need that, it’s going to really level the playing field for them.

Viji: Yeah. And I’d add to the idea that the technology can help us here. We have a lot of good platforms, not a single one that would do everything, but we have good platforms that help us accomplish these goals. And I’ll give the classroom response system, or polling, the example that I use… that’s something that’s something that I was using, even before I redesigned the course… and the reason I loved it so much was because I could hear from every student in a classroom, right? I didn’t have to wonder if it was just the brave one who raised their hand who understood it and looked and scanned and tried to make sense of the confusion of the faces, right? There’s no ambiguity. If I know that 97% of the people got the question right, then we can move on. That’s a pretty good response. So, thinking through what technology exists to help us help all students is really important in this work.

Kelly: I’m currently really enjoying… in our learning management system,there’s something called lesson tools. And it’s a way to build each lesson for students. And it’s such an easy way to think about building something before, during and after. And I feel like a lot of people are starting to realize that building an online class just requires so much more structure that, as that translates back into the face-to-face classroom, that structure will be built. Yes, it takes a lot of time and effort to build it, but once it’s there, you’ve got all these online homeworks and resources and videos. We’re going to have a lot more ways to say to students, you can learn this this way, or this way, or this way. And that is the basis of universal design, something I think we should all strive to do. But, we know it takes time and effort to get all those resources together.

Rebecca: These are a lot of things that are very dear to my heart too… really thinking about flexibility and making sure that we can engage students in a lot of different ways.

Viji: There are many things about this emergency transition, the change to remote instruction that I think we’re all learning that that flexibility, and the structure, is really important. And sometimes people think that they are at odds with one another, but they’re really not… that we need to think about multiple ways to have assignments be late, for example, because things are happening in life. I think for far too long. we’ve ignored the differences that our students come to the classroom with, and now it’s in our face when we see that a student doesn’t have a good internet connection, for example. So, those differences are becoming very clear in this transition. And, like Kelly, I’m optimistic that many of the things we’re designing and learning will stick beyond this transition, because we are building things that will last… hopefully they’ll last in the courses… the notes you make, the videos you make, these are all things that can be helpful to students in the future as well.

John: That was something we emphasized with our workshops for helping people prepare for the fall back at the beginning of the summer, telling them that “Yeah, this is going to be a lot more work preparing your course then many of you have ever done before, but the people who already were teaching online really didn’t have many problems because they had a lot of the things built. And if you do this, even if this pandemic is gone in a year or so, everything you’ve created can still be used as long as you create them in ways that are modular and that can be adopted for continued use in the future. I think that helped convince a lot of people that it was a good time to start devoting to those activities, because it wasn’t just for a one or two semester emergency, but it was going to be a change that could actually improve their classes indefinitely. At least, that’s what we tried to convince people… there are a lot of really panicked and worried people.

Viji: It’s an investment. It’s a heavy investment, in a short amount of time, in a very panicked way. And we’re sympathetic to my colleagues who are doing this while also caregiving and that there’s a lot… it’s not just life as normal, that we’re asking a lot of a lot of people in a short amount of time.

Kelly: And I like your use of the word modular because for me, that’s really key. I build everything by lesson objective. So, it might only take me 10 minutes to make a video, so I can pop in and out of my life, I don’t have to worry about creating this awesome video with no outtakes, right? …it’s just much quicker. And then students can also say, “Okay, I see I have six videos to watch today, but they’re all five or 10 minutes, I’ll do three now, I’ll do three later. So, I do think it fits nicely with the time we’re in, but it also helps alignment across the course, too, for students to know exactly what they need to do, and then use those modules as the basis for your assessment.

Rebecca: I agree, Kelly, I’ve been spending a lot of time making sure that the modules that I’m creating can actually act as standalone things and don’t connect [LAUGHTER] between them, so that I could mix and match them in the future, because there’s some things that, in a virtual environment, I’m doing in an order that I might do differently if we were in person. And so, I think that’s ending up working really well. I’m having to articulate what I want to articulate really concretely about a particular subject and break it down into smaller pieces. And I think you’re right that that structure is going to stick later on. I’m going to keep doing that in the future and it’s definitely causing me to think about things differently. We’ve talked a bit about the structure of classes and ways that we can be more equitable and inclusive. But what about the way that we evaluate student work and grade student work?

Kelly: One thing that we often talk about in the workshops we do at a lot of institutions is we think about the growth mindset. And the idea that it takes practice to get good at something. And we like to share with students that it takes practice for us and mistakes are part of learning and we hope all educators buy into that. But then when you ask educators, where in your syllabus in your grading policies is the growth mindset. We’ve seen so many faculty just scratch their heads and say like, “You’re right.” This is a philosophy I believe in, but it’s not built into what I actually do. Because we have hard deadlines. We count everything a zero if it’s not there. And so, Viji and I have some ways that we’ve done it, and we’re always trying to think how much more can we put into our grading and our policies that really account for that growth mindset. So, for me, an example is I allow students to drop their lowest exam. And with first-year students in a STEM course, many of them don’t do well on their first exam. And it helped me think about, “Oh, let me give them an earlier failure. Let me give them a hard quiz earlier on so it doesn’t hurt them a lot.” But, allowing them to drop an exam gives them the sense that “Okay, I didn’t do well, but I don’t have to leave the major.” And honestly, students think that… they get one low grade, and they think they’re done with that entire discipline. So, that’s one way I’ve dealt with that growth mindset.

Viji: Yeah. And that point that Kelly made about leaving the major… to some faculty, that might sound ridiculous, like we’ve certainly been knocked down a few times and picked ourselves up. But, there are some students for whom they’ve been told their whole lives, they don’t fit. And if you get that early piece of feedback that, indeed, you don’t fit, and that’s the way they interpret it. It doesn’t mean that that’s what’s actually happening. What’s actually happening is they’ve made a mistake in terms of their preparation, or maybe they didn’t have the right types of study strategies, whatever it is, but we want to convey in our courses that you can recover from that early mistake by using the right approaches. Let’s sit together and talk about what you did do and what we might do better next time around. And so having this grading structure where you drop a grade… In my course, I have a cumulative final in statistics… it’s easy to have a cumulative final, everything sort of builds on one another in terms of content. And I say that if you do better on the final, it can replace one of the earlier exam grades. So again, it builds that opportunity for being able to understand the material at some point, it’s okay, if you don’t get it by the exam date one or exam date two, we’ll get there and it’s not a race. It’s not about getting there at a certain time. It might not even happen this semester, it might take several semesters of chipping away at a certain topic, but that you give them a little bit of grace in terms of the timeline with which they might understand that material. And then again, like does it really have to be a zero if you don’t turn something in versus a 60 or 70 or 80? Right? The mathematical average of that is terrible. So, let’s think about ways in which we can assign grading such that a single late assignment doesn’t harm you greatly or a single low grade doesn’t harm you greatly and bake that into the grading scheme of our courses.

Kelly: And on a bigger scale, when we say we look out into the conferences of our disciplines, or we ask where’s the diversity in our own disciplines, it comes back to these little decisions. This is anti-racist teaching, when you think about these things. By having really hard first exams, that’s a barrier that excludes people, and if we really want diversity in our disciplines, these are the little decisions that we make that are really powerful in terms of the effect and impact they have on students.

Viji: Yeah, we’ve all heard that “Look to your left, look to your right. Some of you will not make it” and then we say as educators “Well, that’s terrible. Why would somebody say that?” But, then you look at our syllabus construction, and really, it’s just a different version of that kind of statement.

John: And I think another thing you advocate is keeping most of your assessments low stake so that way any one thing they may not do well on… besides dropping the lowest grade from a set, just keeping pretty much everything low stakes could also take some of the pressure off and reduce some of that effect.

Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. That’s another great strategy.

John: What are some of the things that faculty do in class that makes class discussions less inclusive? And what can we do to make these discussions more inclusive?

Kelly: Now this is a question near and dear to our heart because Viji and I are often at meetings together and either quietly texting each other or giving each other a look. And we know each other well enough to give a look and know exactly what it means. And a lot of meetings we’re in are just not inclusive. If you’re not the person that’s just going to raise your hand and say something potentially controversial in a room full of ranks and hierarchy. Our students feel that way too. Whether it’s actually ranks and hierarchy, there are lots of reasons why a student doesn’t feel comfortable speaking up. And so a great way to do this is to take the volunteer aspect out of it in a large classroom and put them into smaller cohorts. And many students are very comfortable talking to each other in small groups, verifying their ideas, building their confidence that what they are thinking has merit, is a great way to start building community and to have students start feeling comfortable. And once they’ve gotten that affirmation in a small group, more people are willing to represent what their group said. So like, for instance, I never call on an individual student… cold call and say, “What do you think?” I always give them a chance to talk first. And then I say, “Okay, group number 63, it looks like your numbers up, what is your group talking about? Fill me in.” And so I’m hearing a diversity of voices, but I’m also trying to make the environment a safe place where people can build their own communities as well as contribute to the larger community.

John: And people would feel more comfortable when they’re representing the group discussion than presenting their own. So that takes a lot of the pressure off, I think,

Kelly: Yeah.

Viji: Yeah, no one wants to be wrong, and especially in front of the professor and their peers, right? So, they’re simply reporting for the group and that’s the group’s discussion. And as skilled educators we all know how to turn a wrong answer into a learning opportunity in a classroom, but it still doesn’t take the sting away for that person who feels like they may not speak up again because of it. So, anything we can do to make it feel comfortable to be incorrect, because it’s still a learning opportunity or to say, “Well, that’s a common misperception. Let’s break that down a little bit and talk about it some more.” Those kinds of things really go a long way to building the confidence of the student. I remember one student, in particular, who wrote me just such a kind note at the end of the semester talking about how this is a common refrain in my course… they have not been looking forward to taking a statistics class… Shockingly, there’s not a lot of people who say that they are looking forward to it… But, in this case, she wrote to say, beyond any sort of content lessons I provided, what I provided to her was the opportunity to understand that she was right a lot of times in her group discussions, even though her peers tried to convince her she was wrong. And she began to doubt herself. And she’d pull in her answer because the group had a different answer, and then she realized originally she was right. So, she built confidence, but she also learned that she really knew what she was doing and she didn’t understand that about herself and she had more conviction after she left that course to be more forthright about her opinions in other settings. So, these are the kinds of things we can do when we add structure for giving people a chance to reflect on who they are as a learner and who they are as a person and how they can contribute in their groups and in society.

Kelly: I’d also like to add that we don’t have to have people speak up to be part of a community, that there are lots of other ways to contribute and writing, and using anonymous polling systems, these are all such great tools, and they’re the ones I certainly would have gravitated to as a student, had I ever been given the opportunity. I spent four years as an engaged high achieving student in college and never once raised my hand to participate, it just wasn’t what I was going to do.

John: Yeah, and polling gives people the same instant feedback, so they know whether they were right or wrong, but from a class’ perspective, it feels anonymous, that they’re not putting themselves out there where they risk the embarrassment of appearing to be wrong.

Rebecca: One of the things that I have certainly seen a lot of conversation about currently on Twitter, and I know that you’ve both engaged in these conversations about, is how to community build at the beginning of a class, especially in virtual environment where you have that really awkward online silence, and nobody really knows what to do with. [LAUGHTER] And you’ve offered some interesting ideas, would you mind sharing some of those?

Viji: When we are used to teaching in a classroom space like, in the same building together, I hesitate to say in person, because we’re still in person in this environment. But, when we’re together in a classroom, there’s a buzz that is at the beginning of the class time, right? …so that people are chatting with their neighbors; it feels like a warm environment, oftentimes, when you walk into it, at least the classroom where the conditions are right. You feel a warmth when you come in, that you’re going to be learning, and when you’re online, it’s really hard to simulate that kind of buzz because of the nature of the tool. So, thinking about ways you can have that kind of chitchat is really helpful. So, I use polling in this environment, as well, right? I can have a question posed on the screen and students can respond to that question either in the chat window or through Poll Everywhere. I like using Poll Everywhere because I use it anyway. The downside to using chat in some platforms is if you join late, you don’t see the previous responses. So, if you could use something where students can scroll through and see their peers responses, that’s a nice way to kind of get warmed up for the class session. It might be something about, you know, what they’re grateful for today. Or maybe they could tell you a little bit about something that they ate recently that they really enjoyed. But, just getting some small talk in before having something in place that gives a little structure. I’ve heard people talk about playing music, just any small ways you can to try to bring some sense of community in those moments before class start, I think is really helpful.

Kelly: And I would agree, Viji started teaching in the spring online with some synchronous sessions. I was doing asynchronous, so she told me to do it. I did it, and it works. It’s a nice anonymous way to have that chit chat too without owning it in the chat box. I’ve used it selfishly this semester already to find out how students are doing, if there’s something I could do better for them, just taking the pulse. So, a bit of a survey question as well. My daughter is in high school. She just started high school and, of course, it’s online high school. And I keep asking her, “Did you get into your session on time?” And she goes, “No.” And I said, “Why? Why not? [LAUGHTER]She goes, “Well, I want to be a little bit late.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want to be the first one there.” She’s so afraid of like, how awkward it is that she can see on the platform there on how many people are there. [LAUGHTER] And at some number, that’s when she jumps in.

John: As long as everyone doesn’t do that, then we’d have a bit of a coordination failure. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I don’t know, as a faculty member, I don’t want to be the first one there in an awkward silence either. [LAUGHTER]

Viji: But, that’s just the point. It doesn’t have to be awkward. Why not just design it so it’s less awkward? We all know it. We all go into these things. And we’re like, “Oh, it’s another one of those starts to the meeting,” right? But let’s just make it so that we have something that we respond to, that we see on the screen, everybody can see it. It’s also awkward, I think, when you walk into a meeting, and they’ve started, and they’re talking about something, but you have no idea what they’re talking about or how to jump into that conversation. So, having a prompt on the screen is one way where everyone, even those who come late, can still see what the conversation is about.

Rebecca: I’ve had a couple of colleagues who are also using whiteboard features in video conferencing software to have like a doodle board where people can collaborate or Doodle… we teach art classes… doodle on the board, and collaborate as a way to silently do something together. That seems to be pretty effective as well.

Viji: Yeah, I love that idea.

Kelly: That’s a great idea. I’m gonna do that next time. Thank you.

John: In the chapter that you wrote for Teaching Statistics and Quantitative Methods in the 21st Century, you mentioned using polling tools to provide challenging questions to students. Do you do that in a single-stage process? Or do you have students vote first and then discuss it in smaller groups or with pairs before voting again?

Viji: That’s a great question. A lot of it has been through trial and error, understanding what was a hard question and then breaking it down to something that’s a little bit simpler. So, if it’s a multi-step problem, I’ve learned to scaffold the problem through multiple polls and then get them to the right answer. It’s very helpful in quantitative work because people do work at different pace. And so this can level that playing field by getting everybody at the same stage of the problem through the scaffolded polls. But, there are some polls that I know really work very well as a “Give me your thoughts first.” And then let’s do it now where we talk to one another, we do a bit of peer instruction, and then we re-poll. And I love showing them the results from round one to round two… I call them round…, because then I say to them, “See, you don’t actually need me here.” But the truth is they do. They need me to pose the question, they need to get in there and tease out the problem that I know that they’re going to have challenge with, but they can do the work of teaching each other the material and getting through the problem together, and on the whole getting it right. So, those are fun ones for me, because it’s also about building community and they love it. They know that like my goal for every poll is that 100% of them get it right. And so that’s another way I convey that it’s important to me that all students learn the material

John: If we’re teaching remotely, synchronously what can we do besides meeting with them at the beginning of class and just chatting with them and maybe at the end of class, what else can we do to make that environment more inclusive?

Kelly: Well, one of the things I love about this environment is everybody’s name is up on the screen, which helps me a lot as an instructor, but it helps them know each other, too. So, it can be community building. And it’s a great way for people who have names that are difficult to pronounce to put a phonetic spelling, to ask people if they would like to add a pronoun there. I think these are advantages that we just haven’t figured out quite as easily in the face-to-face classroom. I use note cards in my class for the same reason. But, I can’t tell you how many times they either refuse to take them out or forget them. So, it’s never the hundred percent I get on a Zoom screen with names. But, one thing I’ve noticed people talk about often is the back channel. So, having the chat going, and it seems to be universal that people are feeling already a little bit sad about when we lose chat, when we go back to the face to face or in the same room environment that there’s a lot of good discussion that happens in that backchannel. And I know people do use backchannels in classroom spaces too. That’s one aspect of this environment that’s unique and helps bring more voices to the table. I think another thing that is worth mentioning is, I would hope people are using their live sessions for doing those difficult things together and not talking at students because that could be better served with a video. I’m sure we all find ourselves explaining and talking at times. So, I think one thing we could do is to help our students is to say you don’t need your camera on right now, although I’d love to see you and it helps us build community, this could be a time when you could turn your camera off. I also have invited my students to use virtual backgrounds, because when I’m teaching, I’m in my bedroom, and I think it’s odd to see your professors’ bedroom, so I use one, but I think it’s a nice talking point too. If students feel more comfortable, if they are going to share their camera, then maybe they don’t want to share their surroundings. So, just not just assuming students all know that, to be very explicit and say to students, “Here are all the different ways that you can access this course. You don’t have to turn your camera on, but here are the ways that I think I would love to see you engage.”

Rebecca: You’ve both written a bit about the hidden agenda, or the hidden curriculum, of using these kinds of tools and technologies, and you have a Student Guide for using Zoom. And I took all of that to heart too, and made sure that I made some videos about the different kinds of tools we were using this semester, and actually built in the whole first week of just like, this is how we do the things. And like, let’s try them. [LAUGHTER] And then there were some ways that I was planning on using some tools, and we’ve actually already pivoted, because it didn’t quite work the way that I had hoped. And now we have something that’s working a little bit better for everyone. So, I think that’s also an important piece to point out. Can you point out some of the features maybe of the guide that you created for students?

Viji: Yeah, I mean, what you’re talking about is what we’ve been talking, about adding structure to these tools, right? So, just because it’s in front of them doesn’t mean that they know how to use it. We all saw a car before we knew how to drive, that doesn’t mean we knew how to drive it. And everybody thinks it’s very intuitive, but again, what do you do when you start a meeting? Do you turn your camera on or off? Do you mute… on or off? What does it look like to say goodbye in a Zoom meeting? There are certain things like that, that I, at least when, as Kelly mentioned, I switched to synchronously meeting because we were doing all these problem-solving sessions. I wanted to keep that as what our synchronous meetings were. And I was anticipating that some students would have questions like that. This actually started with somebody tweeting about having a dress code for showing up to a Zoom session, and I just thought, are you kidding? There’s a pandemic going on, and you’re thinking about what the student is going to wear to come to class, when they’ve been moved out of their dorm, sent home, barely have internet, there were so many things where I thought I just need to let them know that that is not on my mind. I don’t care. I’m just grateful that you’re alive and you’re continuing to learn. So, those are examples of things that I wanted to think through and Kelly helped me think through like, “What kind of questions will come up?” …and we brainstormed ways that we could just communicate it in ways that students, hopefully they find them to be just the synched answers to questions that they might be wondering and not sure how to ask or if it’s appropriate to ask and what to wear was one of those things.

Kelly: And that’s a good example of the shared brain we have some times, because I called Viji one night and I said, “You know, we should write something up about being more inclusive with Zoom.” And she goes, “I was just writing a guide for my students.” And so we just quickly put it together and had a lot of the same ideas around that. Coming back to the idea of the hidden curriculum, I think that same idea where a lot of us are new to using Zoom and these different tools, that we remember how hard it was to get on and what the rules of it were. And they’re constantly changing, the settings and all of that. So it might seem obvious to make a guide for your students about how to use Zoom. But, what are the other aspects in our teaching that we take for granted? We’re such experts, and we’re so comfortable with the college classroom, I think we always have to be asking ourselves. “What other guides should we be writing that seems so obvious to us?” We forget that we’ve been here a long time and we don’t want students to feel like there’s this culture they don’t know about.

John: I actually put a note in my syllabus telling students that while they’re invited to use their cameras, they’re not required to. and if they’d prefer, they could put up a picture of themselves or of their pet or of anything that they’d like to use as a symbol for that day, because it probably would look nicer to see images of people than those just little black boxes on the screen. And they responded pretty positively to that. I did send out a note to our faculty before classes started this semester suggesting that faculty should invite students to use cameras ift they felt comfortable, but should not require it. And the response was not quite as positive. A lot of faculty seem to believe that they need to see their students to make sure that they’re there, to make sure that they’re engaged, and to look into their eyes to measure whether they’re learning, [LAUGHTER] because apparently their eyes provide secret signals to some faculty about the amount of learning that’s taking place. It generated a lot of emails,

Viji: They have some tools that I don’t even know about. I didn’t know there was such a tool that I could use,

John: it does suggest perhaps the need for more inclusivity training for faculty.

Rebecca: I had one last question about Zoom environments and things and that’s about microaggressions. We know that we need to shut them down when they occur, but I think that faculty, if they’re not used to being in a virtual environment, whether an asynchronous online chat or discussion board, or in a Zoom session, figuring out ways of handling situations just seems different. Do you have any advice for how to handle those kinds of situations in those different types of environments?

Kelly: Well, I think you hit on it already. One thing that’s common in all of these environments is don’t ignore them. Right? If it’s asynchronous, then like, say something was put on a discussion board. I personally would feel like ‘Oh, phew, I have a minute to think about this without everybody staring at me.” Right? And so each case is going to be a little bit different in terms of how you deal with it. You also can’t pull aside the people after class who may have been impacted by that. So, we have to remember, whatever we do to deal with it, should also include really reaching out and being mindful of who those students are that might have been impacted. I would say live online is probably not that different from in a classroom. because we have to do something at that moment. And that could be saying like, “Let’s take a pause, let’s stop.” My instincts and teaching are always to turn it into a teachable moment and to turn it back on them and say like, “This is what just happened. Can we all take a moment to maybe reflect? to put into writing the impact this could have on a student?” You know, something where I personally just need a moment to think, and I’m not going to be embarrassed about that, and I think that my students will come up with a lot of things I wouldn’t have come up with in a very eloquent way of dealing with it.

Viji: Yeah. And I think the only thing I’d add to that is it feels scarier in this online environment, because oftentimes, we are recording sessions. People can snapshot even though we might set good intentions with our students about what they can and can’t share with an outside community, we can’t control it entirely. And so it can feel even scarier, I think, to feel like there’s some level of posterity around that moment or your reaction to that moment. So, I think, if anything, I mean, we’ve had a lot of discussions in the world about different kinds of discrimination and all aspects of life that are harder for some students… not ignoring it is definitely the first step. I think there’s even the step before that, which is, I might not recognize it. So, how can I support you as learners. And as peers, if you see something, I’d like to know what it is, even if I am the one who’s doing it. I want to know because I want to do better. So, really being open to that kind of criticism from students or just acknowledging that you’re a human being like all other human beings, and you’ll make mistakes and inviting them to help you become a better person by suggesting that this is going to happen. It’s inevitable that something like this will happen, but we should be models of how to deal with that situation and be productive in our conversations about it and to move forward on it, right? We don’t want to shame anybody for doing something that might not have been their intent, but the impact is no less to the people who have experienced that microaggression. So, really thinking through and planning for it happening and talking about what you’d like to do as a community of learners. But yeah, as Kelly mentioned, if it’s asynchronous, you’ve got a moment, you can gather yourself, you could talk to your peers and say, “Hey, this happened, what do you think is the best approach?” But, if it’s not asynchronous, I think it’s fine to just say, “Hey, let’s hang on a second, I need a moment to just think about what happened here, and how we might respond to it.” And it might be, we might need to come back to this at the next class session, and give yourself that time to think through it. But, I think even the students who may have felt slighted by it will appreciate that you hit pause for a second, and you’re willing to work through it and that you trust them to make the right decisions moving forward to learn from it. And I think going on what Viji said about maybe a little bit of prevention, some practical ways you can invite that feedback in an anonymous way is to use a Google form that is always open. You can set it up so that you get an email if there’s something there and students can report on anything relative to the class, but especially microaggressions that you may have performed without knowing or classmates, if they’re doing group work, you certainly can’t monitor everything, you’re not in all of those spaces. And then coming all the way back to setting up group contracts and respect and civility in whatever kind of mode and classroom you have that semester. Hopefully, you get to a place where you’re preventing some of these things, but also recognizing that they will happen.

John: You both have a book coming out from West Virginia University Press. Could you tell us a little bit about what the book will be about and when will it be available?

Kelly: Well, the book is definitely about inclusive teaching. And spoiler alert, it is definitely about structure. [LAUGHTER] And we really walk through course design, facilitation, but we’re also really thinking about all aspects of a course. So, whether it be office hours or communicating with students or bringing in undergraduate learning assistants, whatever parts of a course that enhance learning, we really want to think about structure in all of those areas.

Viji: Yeah, and one of the challenges we faced is we’ve both read a lot about good teaching, right? So, a lot of these practices are good teaching, but we wanted to apply the lens of how it promotes inclusive teaching through this book, so that, ideally, the reader would then be able to take some of these themes and see them and apply them in other areas that we didn’t explicitly talk about. So, just a way to view the world as you’re teaching and thinking about how to add more structure, and the idea that if we leave things to chance that some students will be left behind, and that’s really not acceptable.

Kelly: As far as the timeline, we’re not sure. Our first draft is in, snd that’s all we can say.

John: Excellent. So. that’s a fair amount of progress, because you just signed it not too long ago, if I remember seeing it on Twitter.

Kelly: Yeah, it was fun to write together. We definitely get in a groove with writing some sentences together. And then sometimes it was just you write this, I’ll write this, and we’ll swap. But, it’s certainly a way of knowing someone pretty deeply when you write a lot together.

Viji: Yeah. And we often talk about the benefits of diversity, right? And so doing these projects of writing, but also, when we do our workshops, we speak a lot. And when we come up with ideas about what we might do, it’s always great to be able to bounce ideas off of each other and to say, “But what if we tried this” and “we did this” and well, you get that second person really reflecting on some of the ideas, and it’s really helpful to be able to do that and you get a better product, quite frankly. No matter what it is, it’s better when more people can critique it and give you feedback about it.

Rebecca: And we’re all going to benefit from that collaboration because we’re all looking forward to your book.

Kelly: Thank you.

Viji: Thank you.

Rebecca: So, we always wrap up by asking what’s next? So, we teased you [LAUGHTER] You already said about your books. Now you have to come up with something else.

Viji: You mean what’s my next beverage after I finished this LaCroix, or…

John: It could be.

Rebecca: It could be whatever, yeah… I’m gonna go take a nap, whatever it is…

Viji: Well, literally what’s next is I’m going to get out of my seat because I’ve been in it for a long time and I’m probably going to take a walk with my son who’s home, this his home day. He is learning from home today, and then I’m sure I’ll sit back down at the computer and answer some emails and, I feel like these days, it’s one day at a time and eventually I’ll get to the point where I can look a few months ahead. But, for right now, it’s one day at a time.

Kelly: For me, I guess I’ll take a much broader view, and an optimistic point of view, that I think what’s next is, once we get through this crisis, that teaching and the way we educate our students, I think, is going to come out better for what we’ve been through, because I see people doing the best they can in this environment, but really paying attention to how learning works. And I think our students will be winners in the long run in that, however we come out of this.

John: Thank you. It’s wonderful talking to you. Thank you for all the work you’ve been doing in supporting instructors all over the world for quite a while now. We’ve appreciated it and we share a lot of the things that you’ve done with our faculty.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much. It was really wonderful hearing from all of you.

Viji: Thank you.

Kelly: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

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

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

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151. Video Conferencing

Although video conferencing tools are not new, the global pandemic has resulted in a dramatic expansion in faculty use of this technology in their learning environments. In this episode, Rick McDonald joins us to discuss ways in which we can use these tools to create productive and engaging learning experiences for our students. Rick is an instructional designer at Northern Arizona University who has extensive consulting experience in higher education and in K-12.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Although video conferencing tools are not new, the global pandemic has resulted in a dramatic expansion in faculty use of this technology in their learning environments. In this episode, we focus on ways in which we can use these tools to create productive and engaging learning experiences for our students.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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Rebecca:
Our guest today is Rick McDonald, an instructional designer at Northern Arizona University, who has extensive consulting experience in higher education and in K-12. Welcome, Rick.

Rick: Hello, how are you today?

Rebecca: Great, thanks!

John: Today’s teas are:

Rick: I am a coffee drinker myself, but at least this early in the morning tea is more later in the day for me. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I have Irish breakfast tea today,

John: And I’m drinking ginger peach green tea. We came through a really challenging spring semester, where people suddenly had to move online, and we’ve gone through a really difficult summer. We want to talk a little bit about video conferencing. In general, I think everyone’s become familiar with some form of video conferencing software. Zoom has suddenly become known by pretty much all faculty, one way or another, but there’s Collaborate and other tools as well. How can faculty become more effective in using video conference tools?

Rick: Well, I think, to start, we can all just relax a little bit but teaching with the video conferencing doesn’t have to be tremendously different. There are a few things that are absolutely different, and a few things to just consider that aren’t really such huge problems. First of all, when we’re teaching on video conferencing, we really need to know the software. Some schools are using multiple kinds of software. And I would choose the one that you know best. I would, again, relax and keep a nice and slow pace when we’re teaching over video conferencing, sort of frenetic pace can be very difficult for the remote student to stay engaged with, and at the same time making the class engaging, just like you would in your regular classroom. So, when we’re teaching, we try and engage the students in the classroom. When we’re teaching with video conferencing, we need to find ways to engage those remote students as well.

John: In terms of getting comfortable, one thing I’ve recommended to a lot of people is that, if they’re new to using video conferencing, they should work with other people in their department who may also be new with that, and take turns hosting meetings, so they get to play with all the tools. And if people do that a little bit, there’ll be a whole lot more comfortable, I think, once they arrive at their classroom. Is that something you’d recommend, too?

Rick: Absolutely. And really, I would recommend that those partnerships go on past the preparation stage, if it’s possible to find a faculty member who you can either team teach with, or you can assist when they teach their class and they can assist you when you teach your class. That can be really useful because, let’s say we have a very large classroom, we’re probably going to mute the mics of the remote students so that we don’t hear every dog barking and train going by 100 times. So, as we have been muted, somebody, if they have a problem during the class, we have to have some way of knowing about it. And generally that’s going to be through the chat. So, most of these applications have a chat that can go on simultaneously. And again, in larger classes, it’s not going to be very effective to be monitoring the audio and video of all of the remote students. So, if we use the chat and say, let the students know, “Hey, if you’re simply confused, put a bunch of question marks into the chat. If you have a question, ask it in the chat.” But if you have a partner who’s working with you, and monitoring that chat, that keeps you engaged, and you focused on your teaching, but the person monitoring the chat can say, “Excuse me, Rick, you know, I really didn’t understand that last point you made, could you please go back over it?” or “I didn’t hear it,” or as a partner can say, “Somebody online didn’t hear it” or “There’s a lot of confusion online right now. Could you please go back over that point?” I think that’s really useful. And if you can’t do that with a partner, it’s useful to try thinking about rotating it as a student role. I know there’s some negative issues with that; there’s some problems in that you’re adding something to a student that may have some difficulty keeping up with the content and monitoring the chat at the same time. But, I think it is really important to have a way to monitor and check for understanding and check for technical problems while you’re teaching, and it’s difficult to do that yourself.

John: If faculty want to keep tabs on how things are going with their students, what else can they do besides monitoring the chat?

Rick: In smaller classes, you can keep an eye on the videos as well, just like you would in your regular classroom. If you have a seminar or discussion-based class that’s smaller, then you’re probably going to have enough room to see the students and keep an eye on them and scrolling through them and just visually checking for understanding. Then there are other things that we can do. We can do live polls, we can do quizzes in our LMS and other activities that will help make sure that students are getting the materials that we want.

Rebecca: I’m newer to video conferencing and have been experimenting with recording so if I needed to share something with a student that was sick, one thing that I realized, for example, in using Zoom is that the polling doesn’t show up in a recording automatically. So, there’s things that, if you don’t test it ahead of time, you might not know how to do it or how to set it up. So, I really found being able to practice with colleagues in advance really helpful, because I’ve discovered some of those stumbling blocks that I didn’t realize were going to be stumbling blocks.

Rick: Right? Well, and that’s key. The technology and where we’re going to be teaching, it might not be our own technology. It’s easier for us to practice on our own computers and our own systems in our own homes in locations where we plan on teaching. But in this case, we are probably going to be teaching in a classroom, and that classroom is going to be designed and laid out by, depending upon the school, somebody in IT or in a teaching and learning center, something like that. And we don’t know how it’s set up. We need to go in there and test it. We need to know how to change the camera if we’re going to use a document camera, for example, we need to be able to switch back and forth. We need to know how to do all those things. And that practice is beyond us becoming familiar with it. Like you were saying there, where you did a recording, I really recommend that people go to every room that they’re going to be using and record a session. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a full lecture, but test what it’s like when you’re speaking at the podium and how you need to speak to be clear, make sure that the levels are right on the microphone for your particular voice. My voice is deep and loud, and it carries very well. So, generally, people can hear me, even if I’m a bit aways from the microphone, but that’s not true of everybody. You really need to know where the mic picks up and how well it picks up. You need to know where the frame is in your video. So, if you like to move around a little bit and walk back and forth from one side of the room to the other, that is probably not going to work in this environment. So, if you want to do it, you need to know where you are in the frame, so that you stay in view for those remote students. If you tend to walk around… and this is something that we’ve been taught to do as teachers, or have learned to do… that we want to walk around and engage the class. We want to make sure that people are paying attention. And we can really do that by moving around. Unfortunately, if we’re teaching to a group of remote students, when we move around, they might not be able to hear us as well. But they’re also then staring at a blank wall or the chalkboard or the whiteboard. And that makes it a lot harder to pay attention for those remote students, and even more so for anyone watching a recorded session.

John: And all that’s good advice, not just during a time of pandemic, but before any semester because one of the worst things you can do is go into class for the first day and set the example of fumbling with the controls and not being able to get this class started well, and that negative impression can have a pretty significant impact on how students see you and your class. So, you want to have a really good strong start, however you’re starting, and working with either the classroom or your computer controls, I think is really helpful, as you said,

Rick: I think we can expect some healthy skepticism from the students too. So we want to try and alay those by being prepared. It’s difficult for people who have never done this before, didn’t plan on doing it, would never have agreed to teach using this modality in any other circumstances. I think, fortunately, most people recognize that this is a big issue today and understand why schools are doing this. We may not all agree with every step that our administrations have taken, but I think we all do agree we’d like students to be able to learn this fall. My daughter’s starting college this fall in California in an art center, and he didn’t want to wait another year to start college. Personally, I would have been super happy to take another year. I would have just taken a year off. I’d be in, like Costa Rica or somewhere far away from here, if I was eighteen, [LAUGHTER] but there’s all kinds of life circumstances. People want to keep their careers moving on and it’s also a very different world today than it was when I was in school.

John: I think it’s a very different world than any of us were in school. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Indeed. For faculty that are having to teach from home or from their offices, and they haven’t done that before, can you talk us through some ways we might want to think about setting up our workspaces to be more effective and efficient.

Rick: I think, first off, we want to try and find a room that is relatively quiet and well insulated, sound wise, or isolated. That can be difficult. When we’re teaching at home, our children are at home too. Ideally, if you’re in a lucky situation, there are other people to help keep the chaos away from the room while we’re teaching, as much as we can. Secondly, I think finding a room that is well lit is a good thing. And then go ahead and start your camera, set up the room, turn on the lights the way you think they’re going to be, and then see how it looks. In the room I’m in right now, there’s an overhead light, and if I turn that light on, it’s not actually going to light my face better, because the way the lights going to come down, it’s actually going to hit the top of my head, and then put most of my face in the shadow. So, in that case, it’s actually better for me to have the natural light coming in from the window. But, we need to sort of think those things through in a way that we haven’t before. So, it’s good to bring up any video app really, and look at it on your computer and then adjust the lighting. So, the computer itself is going to provide some lighting, but then you might need to bring in an extra lamp to put on one side or the other to sort of balance the light. The other thing you can do is, if you have a light that directional and adjustable that you might normally use for reading or something like that, if it’s bright enough, you can actually turn it away from you and face it towards the wall or towards a lightly colored object if your wall is dark, and what that’ll do is that’ll bounce the light off of the wall and onto your face, and a light like that can otherwise be too harsh, but that way it can light it and sort of balance your light, keep your face well lit. Things like that can be really useful. And then again, just making sure that your mic is going to pick you up. Generally, the mics aren’t a big problem when we’re teaching at home in our rooms. Sometimes a headset can be useful. Testing and finding what works best for you, I think, is key in just making sure that the video appears in a way that everybody can see well and clearly.

John: And this was implied in your discussion, but having a natural light is really good, but you don’t want that natural light behind you because then you get more of that shadow effect. If you have a bright sunlit window behind you, which I’ve seen in so many faculty at webinars, you just see a dark blur surrounded by this bright light and you want to arrange it so, if possible, that light is facing you. I had that problem in my office and I had to put up a blackout curtain over the window so I didn’t get washed out that way.

Rick: Right, if you can’t change where your desk is facing and the light is behind you, that’s not gonna work. Even if it’s in front of you, if the way the sun shines at certain times of the day is straight in, it’s gonna make you squint, you’re gonna end up washed out, so the details on your face will get washed out. So, then you might want to think about curtains in that case. We want to work on the lighting so that we’re clear, that people can see our faces and our mouths. That helps people understand what we’re saying, but it also helps them convey all the nonverbal communication that’s part of the way we speak, that nobody can see in this podcast. But when we’re doing our video conferencing, they can absolutely pick up all kinds of clues on whether we’re smiling, on how serious we are when we’re speaking, based upon our facial expression. And you can’t really see that if, like you said, you’re backlit, whether it’s from the window or whether it’s from where the lights are in your room. So, we really just want to straighten out the lighting as best we can right from the beginning.

Rebecca: Also thinking about time of day is key and remembering that in the fall, we’re gonna head into shorter days. So, you might have really good sunlight at the end of the day right now, that lighting is great, but it might actually be much darker. [LAUGHTER]

Rick: That’s absolutely true, especially for those of you up in New York. [LAUGHTER] It’s a little less of an issue for my friends south in Tucson or Phoenix or Corpus Christi. [LAUGHTER]

John: I noticed behind you there’s a painting and some artwork on the wall, but there’s nothing that’s really distracting, that’s taking the attention away from you. Is that something perhaps that faculty should also do? Not have something really distracting in the background?

Rick: Absolutely. Anybody doing any video conferencing, whether it’s for anything that besides your friends, it’s not only going to matter because it’s distracting, but you might have things that… I’m looking around this room and right now I think everything… over the past four months, we have made sure that everything behind us is non-controversial as well. Because you may have artwork in your home that’s beautiful and wonderful, but we don’t necessarily want to begin religious discussion at the beginning of our computer science class, or something like that, right? So, we want to just keep everything nice and clean and neat.

Rebecca: Like my bland gray walls behind me. [LAUGHTER]

Rick: Yeah, exactly. The bland gray wall works really well. [LAUGHTER] So does a nice piece of artwork, I think is perfectly fine… and really any artwork is fine. I don’t mean to be too prudish on these things, but especially if we’re teaching 18 to 22 year olds, sometimes they can be a little bit more easily distracted by things like that. Well, actually, really anybody… You see something that’s gonna upset you, it’s gonna upset you. So let’s think about that and just make sure that the room is welcoming, and, and ready for you to focus on your coursework and not on the room.

John: In a lot of ways, the easiest environment to teach in that sort of framework is when you’re in a room where you get to control all that, to control the sound and so forth. Many colleges are going to be using a system in which there is some type of a hyflex structure, without much flexibility in terms of how students choose to engage, where some students will be present in the classroom in reduced numbers and spread out across the room, while other people will be participating online synchronously. And some other people might only be available asynchronously because of other issues, maybe because of healthcare issues, maybe because they’re back at home taking care of relatives, or they themselves are perhaps in quarantine somewhere, and may not be able to always participate at the same time. in that environment. What are some of the challenges that faculty might face in trying to engage in say, active learning type activities, which require some interaction among the students in person, among the students online, and perhaps even between the online and the face-to-face students?

Rick: Let’s take that last example first. From a teaching standpoint, that’s ideal. We’re mixing our in-class students with the remote students. It’s helping us build community. And it’s great. And that can work really well. But, we need to think about the environment. So, if we do one person locally with one or a few students remotely, then the local student needs to have a computer, or perhaps they could do it through their telephone. And we probably want them to have a headset on because, if everybody in the classroom has a computer open, and is communicating with people from off site, we’re going to just sort of have a bit of chaos in all the sound coming from the speakers. But, if we can find a way to do that, if the room is suitable, or if there’s easy ways to break students out, that’s sort of the ideal. Otherwise, I think we’re looking at building breakout sessions within the remote students so that the remote students and… you mentioned Collaborate earlier… students can make their own Collaborates and then work together there and then come back to the central Collaborate that the class is in and we can do sessions like that and then have them present the results of their group breakout. They can communicate that back. That’s another way of doing it. And then the local students can obviously just meet in groups within the room.

In the LMS, we may find that the group tool is something we need to use for these video classes, though, because some schools are not actually doing the work of dividing the section up. So, if I’m going to have a third of the class come on Monday, a third of the class come on Wednesday, and a third of the class come on Friday, I’m going to need some way to decide that. And since most of the LMS tools do have groups, I can either randomly assign students or I could put signup sheets for the days. And then I could also use that group rule to do breakouts, whether they’re asynchronous or synchronous, it will help to have them set up. And so I can, again, either do it randomly or through sign up. And then there’s all kinds of group activities that people can do once we get into that asynchronous realm. In the synchronous realm, they’re meeting, they’re speaking, they’re coming up with a plan and then they’re reporting it back to the group and the asynchronous it might be different. They might meet, come up with something, and then post their work to the LMS. for everyone to review.

Asynchronous environments can still be very interactive and active through discussions, through group work online. There’s lots of different tools that you can use for that. And we can also engage the students with polling. There’s Kahoots!, I’m not sure everybody’s familiar with those. But in, Kahoots!, there are ways of doing polls and you don’t necessarily have to have your institution on board. So, if your institution doesn’t have a polling system, or it’s not built in… like Collaborate has a built-in polling system… I believe Zoom does as well. But, if you can do some kind of polling that can help the students stay engaged. You can also do little quizzes in a similar way with the polling… and just sort of checking for understanding, I think those are great ways of helping students stay engaged.

John: And in terms of Kahoot!s, you can do it synchronously for the people who are in the room and remote, and then you can have some discussion of their questions after you go through them. But, you can then set it up so that you can share the quiz online so that students, at least, would have the option of participating at asynchronously as well. They wouldn’t have the same real-time discussion capabilities of the students who were there synchronously, but at least they would have the same type of retrieval practice as an exercise with Kahoot!.

Rick: When you talk about the recorded version of your video conference or your streamed lecture. That is not an ideal way to learn or to teach, to watch a recorded session of a bunch of other people. People are going to tend to zone out and not be able to follow everything that happens. They’re going to be distracted by the other things going on and there isn’t going to be anything pulling them back in. Because when you say, “Okay, everybody do this poll…” well, on the recorded version, and they’re gonna do it whenever later, they may not pause it, they may not even notice that you told them to do something right away. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t think people should record their classes. I absolutely think we should. But, I think if we have a substantial number of students who are not able to attend live, then we are much better off with a very strong online learning component. At least in my opinion. A lot of these ideas that sort of flex idea came because people read work by Brian Beatty from San Francisco State where he coined the term HyFlex. When I was researching this when I started at NAU, I found that there is HyFlex, but there’s also been other people who’ve done very similar types of teaching, calling it different types of things, but it hasn’t been widely used. But, when you look at what they did, if you read the articles and research around this, which is relatively scant. But, what there is pretty much shows that all of the previous experiments with this involve having somebody there to assist the faculty member, whether it was a partner or a learning assistant or an educational technologist, somebody was there helping. And then the other thing that they really all did is build extremely good and strong online components. And in the San Francisco State one, they didn’t necessarily have to show up in person at all, they could do it entirely through the learning management system. And in my ideal world, schools would give faculty options so we would be able to teach one day a week live, and we would stream that for anybody who wanted it and everybody would have, say, one live session. And then in my ideal world, there would be an online component for the other half of the course for that week. And that would, I think, give students more actual flexibility in learning, but it would also, because the strong online component is so important, it would give them real incentive to create that strong online component.

John: And that would also have advantage if schools have to shut down at some point because if they do shut down, the face-to-face component will go away. And having that ready would make the transition a lot smoother, I think.

Rick: Absolutely. And if you are counting on everybody showing up every week, in the middle of a giant pandemic, you’re probably going to be disappointed. So, if you’re hoping to pass out papers, the one day a week that the students come to class, I think you’re going to find yourself with a lot of headaches. So, I think having your materials online… that’s the whole thing with an online learning course or a video conferencing course. And we didn’t really get into my background with that. I ran, for 13 years, a video conferencing system at a community college here. We’re the second largest county in the country and more rural than the largest county. And so at one point, we were teaching students over video conferencing who were living at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. So, those students, they’d have to hike out 12 miles or take a helicopter and then drive for four hours to get to our main campus. So, that was why it made so much sense for us and why we had a video conferencing program that went on to 2015. And that’s why it was like that. It was because there was this real reason to do it. But, when I was managing it, I would tell faculty, we have to build online components. And the reason is, the plan that had been made by the academic leadership was… well, we had this complicated system of faxing papers and collecting things through fax, we were already building online components. We started with WebCT and I said if we use WebCT for this we can do low-stakes testing through WebCT. We can distribute papers. When the students lose those papers, we don’t have to worry about finding a secretary or an administrative assistant, or another professor who’s at the other campus to run and print it out. And in the cases where we were working in even more remote areas, we didn’t have those types of resources. So, we really needed to use the online component. And that’s even more true if your students are going to end up staying at home or if somebody gets exposed and has to self isolate for a few weeks, they’re not going to be in person. So, having that online component really is going to make your life easier. And as you said, right now, when all these plans were being made, our state looked fine. But our state now is one of the highest rates of infection in the world. So, I don’t know what it’ll be like in a month. Nobody does.

Rebecca: I didn’t want to follow up a little bit on this conversation. We’ve talked a lot about what it’s like for faculty in planning, but not really entirely about the student side of remote learning, like what their systems might need to be like or what kinds of rules we might have in place? Or what kinds of expectations we have about participation in terms of a synchronous video component. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Rick: I think one advantage we have that this is happening in 2020 is that, if we’re looking at engaging in something that’s primarily video and audio, our telephones really today can do a lot of that, and even answering short polls we can do on our phones. So, the students do have that possibility. But, ultimately, a computer is a little bit more effective. And one of the things I am worried about, actually, is access to that technology for some students who may normally rely on computer labs at our schools. And when we’re thinking about it as faculty members, it’s tricky for those of us in instructional design and educational technology, who have been doing this our entire careers to remember that not everybody has all the tools that we do. And so I’m really hoping that schools are either making socially distanced labs available, or ideally having equipment that is available for checkout for their lower-income students who may not have all the equipment. And I think the other problem that we’re going to have for students is going to be quiet learning environments. A lot of students live with multiple people living in the same room. A lot of students live in environments that are a little bit noisier, and we’re gonna have to adjust to that and figure out, based upon the size of our class, like I mentioned earlier, do we need to mute them? How are we going to check for their understanding if they’re muted? Are we going to have all the video available? You mentioned what the students have at home. What is their internet connection? Do they have a strong enough internet connection? It probably needs to be at least in the megabit realm for this to work at all. And I think the other problem is that sometimes students are going to be on shared connections. And what I found in the spring, that we had switched from the telephone company, because I was able to get a much higher bandwidth to the cable company, which generally has been great. I’m working at home, my partner works at home and that really hasn’t been a problem. But I tell you what, when my two daughters were both participating in Zoom conferences, my spouse was on a Zoom conference, and I was on a Zoom conference, we were not all doing video, it just didn’t work. And so we had to mute some of those sections. And really, some students may not even want their video on. And so I think we’re gonna have to be open and accomodating for those types of questions that students might have. Because they may be a privacy issue. It may be a technology issue, and if they don’t have their video on, I don’t think we need to spend a whole bunch of time talking to them about their video and why isn’t it on, whether it should be on. I really feel like there’s so many different reasons that are valid for the camera to be off, that we should probably let some students participate without video feeds.

John: And the same argument can be made for audio because if they’re in a noisy environment, they may not be able to even speak without a lot of background noise. It’s one thing to invite students to turn on their video and audio if they can, but we probably shouldn’t require it.

Rick: I think you’re right. I think it’s also one of the real key differences between that built video conferencing environment that was pretty popular a good 10 to 20 years ago. Those rooms were purpose built. Every single room was purpose built, whether it was built for somebody teaching or whether it was built for the student receiving the mat. rials. Everybody went into a room that was, ideally sound isolated, that had a good mic setup. And that’s just not going to be the case when everybody’s at home.

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

Rick: I think what’s next, globally… what a lot of us in instructional technology and instructional design really hope is that this fall is gonna go better than last spring. Because I can’t tell you how many, what I personally think are bogus, articles came out saying, “Look, it proves that distance learning doesn’t work.” No, it proves that distance learning needs preparation, and you can’t do it with a day’s notice. So, hopefully this fall, people will have much better experiences. I really hope people contact all the resources that are available at their schools. If they have instructional designers, those people can really help you build that online component. There are people who have been working in video at your school. I know there’s a number of people at Northern Arizona University with extensive experience. Reach out to those people, they can really help you. They can make sure that the room is the way you need it to be. I would say really reach out. But, as far as what’s next, I hope that what’s next is that people say, Wow, building an online component really made my life easier. And that they’ll start building online components all the time every year. And I’ve been pushing that to the point of obnoxiousness…. sorry, folks who worked with me… for decades now, that it’s more work that first semester you set it up, but every subsequent semester, using your learning management system, even for your in-person classes, is going to help. And now we’ve seen that it helps if there’s a global pandemic, but we can also see that it could help if there was a massive forest fire that went through your town, and everybody had to evacuate and you didn’t want to call this semester a loss. And there have been some, more in K-12, but some experiences where that really did happen. People were able to do it, and it’s also really critical. I don’t know how much you guys talk about K-12. But, that’s an environment, too, where preparing for emergencies is easier to see now. But, also where college students may sometimes forget things, 12-year olds and 13-year olds forget things a lot. And so having the work online for them can really help them. So, I’m really hopeful. That’s what I think is next. What I hope is next is that we have a much better experience this fall under such trying circumstances.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for your insights and some thoughts about preparing for the land of video moving forward.

Rick: Thank you so much.

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

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

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143. Pedagogies of Care: Creativity

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

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

Show Notes

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

Transcript

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

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

Natasha: Good to see you. Yay.

Martin: Thanks for having us.

John: Our teas today are:

Martin: I’m drinking coffee this morning.

Rebecca: Always… Always the rebels.

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

Rebecca: That sounds good.

Natasha: … and it’s delicious. Yeah.

Rebecca: I have iced Scottish afternoon tea

Natasha: Afternoon? Huh…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: I am. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin: Exactly, hours and hours of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natasha: Yes.

Martin: That was on purpose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natasha: Yeah.

Martin: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: I think that’s fair.

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

Rebecca: It’s all about balance.

Natasha: Yeah.

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

Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you so much.

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

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

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

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142. Pedagogies of Care: Equity and Inclusion

This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, Dr. Cyndi Kernahan and Dr. Kevin Gannon join us to discuss what faculty can do to foster an inclusive and equitable class climate for all of our students.

Cyndi is a Psychology Professor and the new Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. She is also the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Class: Notes from a White Professor. Kevin is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and a Professor of History at Grandview University. He is the author of Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto. Cyndi and Kevin are both participants in the Pedagogies of Care project, created by authors in the West Virginia University Press series on Teaching and Learning.

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 what faculty can do to foster an inclusive and equitable class climate for all of our students.

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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 guests today are Dr. Cyndi Kernihan and Dr. Kevin Gannon. Cyndi is a Psychology Professor and the new Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. She is also the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Class: Notes from a White Professor. Kevin is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and a Professor of History at Grandview University. He is the author of Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto. Cyndi and Kevin are both participants in the Pedagogies of Care project, created by authors in the West Virginia University Press series on Teaching and Learning. Welcome back, Cyndi and Kevin.

Cyndi: Thanks.

Kevin: Thank you. Great to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Kevin: Mine is no tea. I’m drinking Diet Pepsi in a large cup because I need my caffeine in bulk today. [LAUGHTER]

Cyndi: I came prepared, I have apricot black tea.

Rebecca: Well, that sounds good.

Cyndi: It’s very good.

John: …and I have a Tea Forte Black Currant tea.

Rebecca: I’m rocking iced tea today because it’s 90 degrees. [LAUGHTER]

John: I’ve had many iced teas already earlier today. Is it that warm? [LAUGHTER] Okay, I knew it was getting a little warmer here. We’ve invited you here to talk primarily about your contribution to the Pedagogies of Care project. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Cyndi: Yeah, this collection was started by one of the authors in the West Virginia University Press series on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education that I know you all have had several episodes about. It’s edited by Jim Lang, there’s several contributors. And so we were all asked if we would like to contribute something that would then be provided during all of this time of pivoting to online and uncertainty as sort of a way to provide some quick educational development materials for folks.

Kevin: Yeah, the intent of it was to have it be open access, creative commons license, freely available. And in this time of pivot, there are so many resources out there about how to use this tool, how to do that tool, how to move on to Blackboard in 90 seconds or whatever that may be. But, the larger issue of “How do you do this in a way that acknowledges student needs and your own needs and how do you still keep the type of learning space that’s so important for student learning at least relatively intact, given all of the upheaval?” And that’s what I think the real strength of the collection is, this idea that we need to understand things like tools and techniques. But, we still need to be coming from a larger perspective of care, of empathy, of affirmation of the fact that our students are in just as much of uncharted territory as we are.

Rebecca: in this podcast that you share as part of this collection, and in your other work, you both focus on maintaining productive relationships in the classroom community. And although this is always important, it seems really important right now. Can you talk a little bit about some of the strategies that we can use to maintain productive classroom conversations, especially dealing with difficult issues?

Cyndi: Well, this is something I’ve thought a lot about and I know Kevin has too, because, especially right now, with all the protesting that’s happening, I know that there’s a lot of questions about how to address this or whether to address this in the classroom. So, maybe we can get at the when you should later, but I think having a good connection with your students is always really key. If you’re going to talk about difficult issues, it’s really important. I mean, that’s one of the things I’ve discovered in teaching this and one of the reasons why I want to write about it, because I feel like there wasn’t a lot of writing about the importance of having a good strong connection to your students. And part of that, I think, is about bringing an attitude of compassion as much as possible to your students and to the classroom, seeing them as people, developing a relationship with them, because then that’s going to engender the trust that you need to have those sorts of conversations. And that’s difficult to do. But it really does start on the first day with a lot of the really, I guess, sort of simple things that we think about when we think about a good classroom climate. So, introducing yourself to your students, making sure that they know who you are recognizing them as people and human beings as much as possible. There’s a lot of specific techniques that we could talk about that I have in terms of like how to do it, but I guess I would just say for now, one of the main ones that I keep coming back to is the focus on structure, so having the classroom discussions as structured as possible. There’s a lot of pieces to that. But that’s sort of the overall thing is like having a plan for how you’re going to do it, having a structure for how you’re going to do it. So that then that makes students comfortable to share things. You just sort of open things up to a broad “let’s talk about the protests, “you’re not going to get a lot of participation, because the students are not going to know what to do. They’re not going to know how to behave in that environment, and especially if you don’t have an existing relationship with them where everybody feels seen and valued, then I don’t think that’s necessarily going to work so well.

John: In both of your books, and in our past interviews with you, you talked about setting ground rules for discussions. That’s fairly easy to do and comfortable in a face-to-face environment. Will the same type of procedure work as well if people are starting classes in a remote setting?

Kevin: Yeah. And I think it becomes even more important in a remote setting. So, the things that Cyndi is talking about in terms of structure, in terms of expectations, in terms of an environment where it’s a known quantity of what the discussion is about, and what its purposes are, and have we been transparent with it… all of that is so much harder to do in an online environment (or mostly online environment), whether you’re talking synchronously or asynchronously. So, I think some of the things that are useful to do in an online environment… the discussion forums tend to be a real staple of online teaching. Discussion boards are sometimes where discussion goes to die, certainly in a learning management system. So, I think the first thing to think about is “What tools are we using to engage with students and are there ways that we can get away from just the simple discussion board? Can we do blogs? Can we do messaging apps like GroupMe, or something like that? Is there a Slack channel? Are there other sorts of interfaces where this will work for students?” I’m a big fan of the tool VoiceThread where students can record video and audio, but you need an institutional or a personal license for that, so that may not be an option for everybody. But I think the key to it is how are we building presence because in a face-to-face class, of course, there is the literal presence, the physical presence that we have with one another. In an online class, the research on it talks about… they frame it as social presence as one of the key facets of creating a community of inquiry in your online class. So, how are we building social presence, where we are real people with one another in this course? And so even if we’re discussing things asynchronously, we’re still discussing with people, not screens. And I think that’s a really important thing for us to be able to do. It takes a lot of effort, certainly in the first part of the course. One thing that I would certainly recommend instructors who are teaching remotely do is your first discussion with a class you know, a lot of times it’s an introductory post or something like that… consider having a discussion about discussions; ask your students what’s worked, what hasn’t. We all have experience with this now from the spring. So, this is a good way to kind of process some of that. What helps you learn? What helps you discuss? What gets in the way of that? What expectations do you have towards this space? How can we collaborate in setting those sorts of expectations for all of us? Those are really good ways to start in any class format. But, in an online format in particular, that’s a great way to start building that community and presence right away.

Rebecca: I’d like to circle back to the idea of structure a little bit more, because I think that a lot of faculty think they’re very structured. We all have a structure and it makes sense to us. [LAUGHTER] In a face-to-face classroom or something that’s synchronous, there’s the ability to improv. And it’s a performative kind of thing that happens that’s not as easy to do in an asynchronous environment, or just a different thing to do in an asynchronous environment. Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by structure and the kinds of things that really need to be in place?

Cyndi: Yeah, the examples that pop to my mind for structure, and I know there’s a lot that’s been written about this particularly in inclusive pedagogy too, so there’s a lot of ideas, but what I mean is that you first make sure students are looking at the content outside of the class, getting familiarity with it, writing their thoughts, either in a blog post or in comments or questions, that’s frequently what I do is have them write those first so that I can see them and that way, I have something to work with. I sort of know what they’re doing and then I have a structure when I come into the class of how I’m going to use that and they know how that’s going to be expected. So, they know I’m going to call on students based on what I’ve read. And even within that, you can also do… I know there’s a lot of good work that’s been done on something called inner teaching, and also reading group roles, where you give students very particular roles to play. And so in that way, you’re setting up the expectations of what they’ll be doing and how they can expect the class to feel every day. And so if you’ve done that, those are just a couple of ways you can do it. So the discussion comments ahead of time, or like I said, the very specific roles or posts that they make, so that then they know it’s not just going to be this open discussion, but there’s going to be that piece to it. So that’s one way in which I sort of think about structure.

Kevin: And in an online format, one of the things that might be useful to do is to think about the prompts that you use to start a discussion, sort of open-ended questions like “So. what do you think?” …you’ll get a wide variety of things, but it might not be the stuff that anyone’s looking for. It’s also worth considering what role students might be able to play in this so might students be taking a lead and be responsible for posting the prompt and sustaining the discussion for that particular week or that particular module. One of the things that’s useful to think about in that regard is working with students explicitly on like, “Hey, what makes this work? What’s a good question? What kind of questions do we really want to be asking here in terms of not just getting at particular content or answers, but in sustaining a conversation?” …and one little tweak I made, I use blogs as my principal form of discussion when I teach online, is when a student is writing their, what I call the lead author posts or the leader for that particular week, I encourage them to end their posts with a series of questions just like we might see at the end of a section in a textbook. So, we’ll have some thought questions, “What do you think about these things in your assessment? What might be the most important factor?” …etc, etc. And so they’ve written a post, they’ve started to elicit ideas, but then they’re providing that direct springboard for other students to jump into the conversation. And I found that to be a really useful way to get discussion started much more quickly in an online environment because they have that cue and that signpost, like, “Here are the specific things that I can start responding with.” And then the conversation can go from there.

Cyndi: Yeah, just one more thing, too. I was thinking like, do you do that in small groups? Because I was thinking that can be another structure piece too, especially online. I know, one of the complaints that I heard a lot in the spring was I have to read everybody’s posts, and they’re so long. And you know, I don’t know. And so it seems to me like having folks in groups, and we will certainly do that in the classroom face to face when we have them. So having those sort of breakout groups where they’re just responding to a few people seems like that might be a good structure piece to to transition to online.

Kevin: Yeah, coming from the small college environment, my classes are all 30 people or less, so it’s a little more manageable. But you’re right. In a larger group, that would be the strategy I would recommend is creating groups. And you might have those be consistent throughout the course or you might change them up. But that way, it’s not an overwhelming thing. And you’re not just clicking through discussion posts to respond because then you’re going to get the stuff that’s just sort of pro forma, almost resentful, replies. So keeping that cognitive load manageable, I think is a really important part of it.

John: You mentioned VoiceThread a few minutes ago, and I’ve used voice thread, I’m not using it right now, but I’m probably going to be switching over to Flipgrid. But one of the things that happened there is I had two discussions going each week one was done in VoiceThread one was in text. And one of the things I noticed, and students commented on this at the end of the term, too, is that when they were reading the text discussions in the other forum, they were hearing the voices of the people there. So it created much more of a sense of presence, you got more of a feel for the people, they were no longer just words on the screens, you already learned more about their personalities. And it made the discussions much more alive than the typical discussion board.

Kevin: Yeah, again, social presence, the degree to which the other people in the course are actual real human beings. And VoiceThread is a great tool for that because it adds exactly that, you hear the person, you see the person, you have that image associated in your head. We use Blackboard as our learning management system here and the threaded discussions… Instructors would come and “I just can’t sustain a discussion,” and I couldn’t and I’ve been teaching online for six, seven years now, and It finally dawned on me that if you look at the actual interface of those discussion boards, they don’t look a thing like what our students encounter when they engage online with other people. They actually look like, I’ll date myself here, but in the early 90s, when I was an undergraduate, the old BBS’s, with the sysmod and the thread, you know, that’s what a Blackboard threaded discussion looks like. That is ancient history for students, [LAUGHTER] in terms of how they’re engaging online. And so I moved to a WordPress blog, because it looks like Yelp, it looks like social media, it looks like things that they’re already used to engaging in. And so I do think one of the things we could do to create presence is add media, add video with a tool like VoiceThread. But even the interface itself is a place that looks like a place of engagement for our students. That’s a really important consideration, I think.

Rebecca: I use Slack for a similar reason, because it allows for asynchronous conversation, but it also has the ability to be immediate in a way that threaded discussions don’t feel that way. And you can @mention people… [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Yeah.

Rebecca: …like the things that students are used to being able to do.

Kevin: Yeah I have some colleagues here who run a graduate program in athletic training and it’s cohort based. In each cohort slack is the main tool they use throughout the program. And they’ve been super successful with it.

Rebecca: I wanted to follow up a little bit on the difference between the spring and the fall in that, in the spring, many faculty were in a face-to-face environment, and they had established relationships in person with students and then moved to an online environment, which is really different than if a group needs to start online and maybe move to face to face later or maybe stay online. So, can you talk a little bit about establishing that community when it might have to start remote especially for faculty who aren’t as familiar?

Cyndi: I have less experience with that. I have not taught a ton online but I think the social presence idea is super key. I mean, in the courses that I’ve taught online, I find that to be useful. So, using as much short video and voice as much as possible so that they get a sense of who you are as a person and asking them to do things that are personal and low stakes in terms of like just getting to know you. I know sometimes when I’ve taught, like having them post pictures of their dog or cat or things like that. I have not gotten outside of the LMS as much as it sounds like Kevin, you have, but it seems like using other tools that allow for, like you said, it to look more like what they’re used to seems like it would be a useful thing. One quick thing I would add that I’ve been thinking about a lot is, again, I teach about pretty difficult topics often, particularly when I teach about race and racism. And so something I’ve been thinking about a lot is like how to create that presence when I’ve never taught that class online until this last March when I suddenly was, but I was grateful that I had those established relationships. And I think going forward one thing that I’ve been doing the last couple semesters, especially for my students of color, and especially I think, given the environment now, I always reach out to sort of let them know that while I have a lot of expertise around racism, because I’m a white person I don’t have the same sort of lived experience that they have of race and racism, and I don’t expect them to answer exactly, but I just sort of say like, “I want you to know that I recognize this,” so that you see this. And I’m thinking that that’s going to be especially important teaching in this format going forward over the next year, I’m gonna want to make sure that I’m definitely reaching out to students, particularly students of color to let them know that, because I know that that’s an important piece of making them feel a part of the community. And I’m going to be trying to develop as many other techniques as possible, because particularly in that class, and in a lot of what I teach, I think it’s just going to be super important to develop that sense of belonging and compassion. And that’s going to be harder to do, in some ways, without being able to see them so often.

Kevin: I would echo Cyndi’s emphasis on the idea of presence and ways that people can be seen for themselves and students can be seen for themselves as opposed to just sort of avatar pictures or even generic avatar images. Sean Michael Morris has a great thing that I’ve seen him write a bunch in his work on online in critical digital pedagogy where he says we need to be teaching through the screen, not to the screen, and such a simple way to put it, but I think that’s really the difference. So one practical tip on that line is video is great… short, quick, they don’t have to be super fancy produced. I record intro videos with my phone in selfie mode. And in fact, having them a little rough around the edges actually, I think, kind of helps in terms of being authentic. Someone who I think is really good at this and has a lot of good ways to get started with videos in online teaching is Mike Wesch, W.E.S.C.H. And a lot of people have heard of him. He’s been doing a lot of stuff since our online pivot. But I really like his approach to the use of videos. And I really like the way that he talks about if you haven’t done this sort of stuff before how you might get started, and what you might think about doing and de-complicating it for us. So, a Google search will bring up his website and he’s got some great resources and materials there. And I’ve spent a lot of my faculty colleagues look in there who have had questions about effective use of videos. But again, to what degree are we real people in an online learning space? Anything that we can do to raise that. And regular communication is so important too as Cyndi talks about, whether it’s with individual students or the whole class, you know, check it In emails. It requires a lot more monitoring maybe in terms of are people in the space and, not… you don’t want to turn into like a surveillance tech or anything like that. But, by the same token, it’s very easy for students to drift away in a class that’s mostly online, and we need to be really cognizant of that.

John: One of the factors there that makes a difference is economic inequalities, where students in low-income households may not have the same access to high speed WiFi, to computers, and other tools. What can we do to try to maintain an equitable and inclusive environment when students have very different resources for connecting to classes?

Cyndi: Yeah, this is so challenging. I think one thing is just to know for sure that that is a problem. And so I know a lot of us in March did little surveys to find out where the students’ at, what sort of access do they have? Are there any issues that we need to be aware of? I know on our campus, there was so much concern that students not having access wouldn’t even know because they wouldn’t be getting an email, that we sent out postcards to every student just in case, to try to make sure that we caught all of them. So, those are some things. I think also really pushing your institution as much as possible to provide resources because a lot of this, it’s so upsetting because it’s so disempowering, or at least that’s how I’ve experienced it, because I know that there are students who have very simple needs. I was talking to one student on the phone, one of my advisees, I was doing advising over the phone in March or April, and we have a fair number of rural students from Western Wisconsin, and she was talking about living in a house where there were mice that would chew through the cord so that then their WiFi, you know, they would lose it. And it’s just like, “Oh, that’s such a terrible problem that I don’t know how to fix.” Like, “I don’t know how to fix that.” And so like really pushing our institutions to provide as much as possible to those students to find out who they are, to make sure that we’re providing them with a laptop, at least something loaner, some sort of hotspot, maybe, that they can use for WiFi. I know lots of campuses did that. We tried to do that. But really pushing administration in our campuses to remember those students and to help them, because at the faculty level, it can be really difficult to solve some of those problems. I mean, sometimes you can, but it can be difficult if there are those sort of material problems.

Kevin: Yeah, at a small school like mine, it’s easier to do those sorts of things. Because most of us know the students well, and it’s easier to communicate and you know, touch base with one another. But at larger institutions, this is imperative, right? Because oftentimes, it’s going to be the faculty member who’s probably most aware of where the lack of access or spots are in our own particular course. So, what’s the communication channel to try to get those things resolved? So, every institution, their faculty need to know who do I approach to help problem solve this? What’s the protocol? How are we going to figure this out? So many institutions got access to CARES Act money, for example. So, emergency grants to students, little Chromebooks and things like that, but we can’t guide those resources efficiently if we don’t know where they need to go. So, “What’s the communication plan?” is the biggest one and then as Cyndi points out, how are we finding this from our students? So, a quick survey about, not just access, but availability, like there’s a difference between access to WiFi and ready availability of WiFi. If the public library is still closed, does this person still have access, right? [LAUGHTER] Or is it still available? So details we can get in terms of where you’re at right now? Do you have steady access to internet? What’s the connection like rate it from zero to 10, with zero being the mice have chewed the cords and 10 being I can stream three things at once, right? …and try to get as much of a sense as we can, because then that informs the choices that we make. There’s a lot of online practitioners right now who are saying in the stuff we’re designing online, make it so students can do it on a phone. And I’m a big proponent of that. If we’re going to be moving into remote instruction, this is not what most students signed up for. And so we need to make sure that they can still access. So, don’t have students uploading and downloading large video files, for example, be conscious of how we might be forcing students to use parts of their data plan. So, streaming things might work but what platform are they streaming it through? Was it something thing that has a good mobile app, for example? If you’re using Zoom, is that a good mobile app as opposed to Skype? And then reach out to your colleagues, if you’re not quite sure what the answers to those things are, because those are important considerations in those sort of routine choices we make in creating learning spaces, especially if we’re in for a remote fall.

Rebecca: I think along those same lines, and those same surveys asking about that availability in terms of caretaking jobs like actual time, because they might have signed up for a class at a specific time, but that might not actually be their availability. There’s, I think, a lot of assumptions that faculty might make that we shouldn’t be making.

Kevin: Right. I think one of the things that folks really struggled with this spring was the expectation that we could just continue classes synchronously as normal. And I think, very quickly, a lot of folks learned that that is not the case. And if we end up this fall with maybe some in person, but some online, and I think that’s the best-case scenario. For the students who are online, we can’t expect synchronous, we just can’t if they’re not on campus. So we need to be thinking really hard about what the pathways to learning are and are those equitable are those inclusive… the equivalency of an in-person versus online synchronous versus asynchronous. Those are some really important decisions that need to be made. And they need to be made from a, I think, planning for the worst as opposed to the sort of magical thinking that everything will go away. It will be normal in August because I don’t think it’s responsible for us to approach our planning that way. He said pessimistically… [LAUGHTER]

John: Realistically.

Cyndi: Yeah, realistically. Yeah, I feel like that synchronous/asynchronous is such a challenge too in terms of thinking about our own classes. I mean, it seems like, yeah, that is difficult, I think sometimes to get folks to understand from an equity perspective, that really, if you are online, even if you have to suddenly pivot to it, or you’d plan for this, but then it’s going to be mostly online, which is, like Kevin said, I think probably most likely, just really understanding and helping your colleagues to understand that that really does need to be asynchronous. And I know that’s really hard for people. I think there’s a lot of maybe grief is the right word around sort of like having to give that up. And there’s also a lot of focus on “Well, if we just get the right cameras, and if we get the right kind of technology, then somehow we can still do it synchronously.” But all of that assumes, first of all, that the students can like download or have all the bandwidth for that to be able to, like livestream that or whatever. But it also assumes that they can be available during those times. And I have a lot of fear because, just because it’s on the schedule, let’s say right now, like we’re registering new students right now, I’m doing that all day tomorrow. So, there’s this expectation that somehow they should be able to do that without really thinking through what it’s like for those students. So, I feel like that synchronous, asynchronous is a real thing that a lot of us need to focus on and help other people understand better.

Kevin: And even with the synchronous piece too, not to say we could never do synchronous stuff, but I think when we’re requiring students, if you’re needing participation, you might want to rethink that as a strategy. And then, what kind of opportunities might be available for students? Are there different windows of time where they could drop in, as opposed to only at Monday from 1:00 to 1:50 and that’s more work on the faculty side, plain and simple, but if you want to preserve that part of a course then you have to put in the extra work to make sure that it’s accessible for all your students. And I think in some cases, that’s a perfectly appropriate strategy. And for schools like mine that are doing the HyFlex model of preparation, there is a synchronous element to it. But it’s heavily modified from what our usual expectations are. So, I think we need to really think through that clearly, before we start making design choices.

John: So, the HyFlex model can be pretty challenging for faculty, because basically, you’re developing the equivalent of two courses… where you’re developing some activities that are synchronous, and then equivalent activities that are asynchronous. How are faculty reacting to that? I know we’ve done a series of workshops here, and that was not a concept that appealed to all faculty at this point, having come right off of this spring semester.

Kevin: And that’s the thing there is that sort of sticker shock to it, where you look at it, and you say, “Oh, this is a lot.” …and it is. And so what I think what administration needs to do is to acknowledge it and affirm that effort. Are there ways that you can support that faculty or even if you can’t be handing out money left and right are there ways that small stipends can be given? What kind of faculty development support are you giving faculty? How are you going to help guide and mentor them through that? I think one of the things about the HyFlex model that is appealing is one of its core principles is the idea of reusability, that there are learning activities and artifacts that could be used across these different modes. And I think that’s something that we could really take advantage of. One of the things that I think could work really well is that the students who are attending asynchronously online doing equivalent learning activities, might those activities be leading a discussion online that involves the whole class. So, the whole class is still participating, but there’s a little bit of a level up in terms of the effort and the direction that’s coming from students on the asynchronous side. So, they’re doing equivalencies, you’re still building community, you don’t have students who are in separate tracks and never meeting. The HyFlex model to me seems to be most effective when we’re able to braid these things together as much as we can. But, you’re right. It’s not like you’re designing three separate courses, but it’s certainly more than designing one course. It’s somewhere in between there. And what that means is work, plain and simple, and I think administration, the people who are cutting the checks, need to realize the scope of effort that goes into that, in particular with what we’re asking our part-time colleagues to do in terms of preparing for the fall, because I think it’s a perfectly reasonable response for an adjunct faculty member to say, at the same rate of pay as a normal semester course, that I can’t do that for this. And so what are we going to have in place, because a lot of times in institutions, it is our adjunct colleagues who are teaching our hundred-level courses or courses that really intersect with a large number of students. And if you’re not supporting adjunct faculty anyway, you’re doing it wrong. But certainly in this process of HyFlex, we really need to be paying attention and directing resources to that group in particular.

John: One of the things you mentioned is an argument I’ve tried to make to faculty here, which is to focus your time on activities that can work in any modality and have most of the graded work done asynchronously, so you don’t have to spend as much time creating completely separate assignments and then create things that support instruction in any way and then you’ll have them if things get back to normal in semester or two or three or four. And that seemed to help a little bit, but people were still not entirely convinced.

Kevin: The one thing about the HyFlex model too is if we do have to go fully remote in October or whatnot, if you’ve already created that pathway, that’s going to be a lot easier to do than it was in the spring. And I think one of the things that I really saw in the spring that kind of gladdened me was there was a lot of extending of compassionate grace to faculty and to students, that we’re all figuring this out together. I don’t think that’s going to be the same case for the fall, there is going to be this like, “Okay, y’all had some time to think about this.” If there is this sort of pivot that has to happen, hopefully, we’re a little bit better prepared. And so John, I think your ideas about the way to structure those assignments and to have them asynchronously and have those things that work across modalities. Those are some of the key strategies to that kind of preparation.

Rebecca: I think we talked a little bit earlier about the ongoing protests related to George Floyd’s death and the unrest related to that in addition to COVID-19. And so faculty are feeling concerned about that and wanting to make sure that they’re addressing all kinds of inequities, not just the ones that bubbled up from COVID-19, despite the fact that those are the same inequities that existed before COVID-19… they just became more visible. Can you talk a little bit about ways that faculty might better prepare themselves for dealing with these kinds of issues and these kinds of conversations in the fall? We’re getting a lot of questions, especially from white faculty, about not feeling prepared to address issues of racism, for example.

Cyndi: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this a lot in terms of like, a lot of people are putting out statements, for example. So, institutions are putting out statements often coming from Chancellors and Presidents. And I’ve been thinking more about, rather than doing things like that, actually doing the work of trying to make your classes as inclusive as possible. I think sort of a cliched way to put it, but what matters is what you do, not really what you say. So, I keep thinking about a couple things. There’s like two pieces to this in my mind. There’s like the inclusive pedagogy piece of it, which is the work that may not be the talking about difficult ideas, but you’re addressing the actual inequity, right. And so really thinking about, and there’s a lot of good guides on inclusive pedagogy. I know Kevin’s written about this Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan had a great advice guide in The Chronicle and their book will be coming out soon-ish, I think… not sure exactly when, but they have a lot of good ideas and have written a lot about it. But actually doing that work and really thinking about your class in terms of being as inclusive as possible. Because, when you’re doing that, then you are doing that equity work, whether or not you’re making a statement about it. So, that’s one thing. I think the other thing too is that if you do want to talk about it sort of being as prepared as possible, and this gets back to this idea of structure, but it really doesn’t go well. If you don’t know a lot about these issues from your discipline’s perspective, I think it’s a good idea to find out. So, let’s say you teach a course where traditionally you don’t think these issues would come up. I have a good friend who works here who’s a mathematician who talks a lot about the idea of math and white privilege, which is really a foreign concept to a lot of folks, but like he’s done the work to understand that even though it’s not his specialty area, and he talks about it in class, and it’s hugely helpful for those students. In addition, you could also just look at your field overall, in terms of, and I know, Kevin, I’ve heard you talk about this, like looking at who are your textbook authors and then just making that visible to your students like, “Here’s who these authors are. Here’s how this field has been inequitable. Here are some ways to think about this field overall and look at the resources that I’m sharing with you where I’m trying intentionally to be equitable.” So, really just doing the work less about statements and more about actually doing that work of trying to find ways to bring it in that are relevant and understanding it really well before you try to talk about it. Because when you know it, and you have a plan for how you’re going to talk about it, and a plan for helping students make sense of it, like this is why I’m talking about this, this is why this matters in this particular field, you’re going to be a lot better off than if, say, you just sort of wanted to open it up and ask people to talk about their feelings about it. You could do that. But I think you have to do that in a context where you’ve already done a lot of work to prepare them for that. So, I think it takes some effort to get ready for that but it’s certainly doable and definitely worth it because it helps those students to feel seen and to feel a part of the class in ways that they probably usually don’t.

Kevin: And in terms of the work that we need to do as faculty members as well, now is not the time, for example, to email one of your black colleagues and say, “Help me learn about anti-racist work.”

Cyndi: No, no, no.

Kevin: That’s sort of let’s put that out there. I’m a white man. For those of us who identify as white, there is an onus on us to do the sort of work to interrogate, not just inequities, but whiteness and how whiteness works at the university. And so the questions we need to be thinking about already are certainly heightened now. Does our faculty and staff at our institution, does it look like our student body? The answer to that is probably no. So, what’s being done about that? How are we addressing that as an institution? What am I doing in the classroom to promote a sense of belonging for all of my students? Belonging is key. And again, in an online or mostly online environment, it becomes even more important. How do I belong in this class as a learner? Am I seeing ways that I can personally connect with the course material the instructor, my peers in the classroom. So, how do we foster that sense of genuine belonging and welcome. That doesn’t mean that you do the equivalent of sit in a circle and sing Kumbaya for the first class. But, it does mean students are not just brains on sticks. [LAUGHTER] And students are coming to us just like as we’re coming into this work, it’s been a hell of a few years. Our bandwidth is weird, our attention spans are weird. There’s anxiety, there’s ambient stress. So, let’s recognize that and acknowledge that for our students when we think about the choices that we make when we’re designing our learning spaces. Even if we may not think our material is political, or has to do with race, the lives that our students are living are political and have to do with race, for example, and they are not coming to us from a vacuum. And I swear we didn’t pre-plan this, but I will promote Cyndi’s book in this regard. It’s been super useful. And again, for those of us who are white, I found it really helpful and thinking about the ways as a historian that I’m approaching the subject with my students, but also as a faculty developer and working with colleagues too. It’s a great book full of concrete suggestions about how to do this kind of work, especially if it’s not a type of work that you’ve been doing or felt like you’ve been asked to do before. So, that’s one good starting point.

Cyndi: Thanks!

John: And I’d like to throw in that we regularly promote both of your books with our faculty because they really do a nice job talking about creating an inclusive environment in classes, which is something we all have to worry about.

Kevin: Yeah, it’s a teaching and learning conversation. Do all our students have the equitable opportunities to accomplish the goals for the course? If I create course goals, these course outcomes, Dee Fink calls them the significant learning experience, if not all of my students have the opportunity to get the same significance in the learning experience, then that’s a problem. We are breaking promises that we made to students when we admitted them to our institution. So, yeah, it’s all of our work to do

Rebecca: To follow up on something that Kevin said about this isn’t the time to reach out to our faculty of color for advice. Instead, I’d like to recommend, if it’s a topic that you don’t have a lot of practice talking about, is to work with a few colleagues who also need to practice, and practice with each other. Open up the conversation and give yourself the opportunity to practice before you’re practicing in front of all your students.

Cyndi: And there’s so many resources like that’s one of the things in this moment. Like there’s tons of lists of books going around. Right. And really good podcasts. I mean, I certainly have no shortage of recommendations. I’m sure Kevin does, too. There’s lots of stuff out there where you don’t need to ask people individually, you can read about people’s lives, you can read about their experiences and take them seriously. And the more you do that, and the more you listen in that way, the more prepared you’re going to be. But, I love the idea of practicing too. Let’s practice talking about these awkward topics. It’s an excellent suggestion.

Rebecca: We want our students to practice, right? So, we might as well practice, too. [LAUGHTER]

John: One topic that came up in our earlier podcast with Kevin was the notion of decolonizing your syllabus and one of the issues when we address that idea with many faculty is that there may not be many voices from other groups. One of the questions that comes up often is, might it be effective just to address the systematic exclusion of those other voices in the classroom, to at least address the issue and recognize that it’s a problem.

Kevin: Yeah, absolutely. getting students to critically interrogate the silences in our disciplines at our fields, I think is really important decolonization work. And it’s an easier thing to do in a discipline like history where you can sort of trace who got to write the history when, but I think it gives us a chance to talk about what are ways of knowing what type of knowledge claims are valued? …the western emphasis on so-called rational objectivity? That’s a very culturally specific product. And so if that’s the dominant paradigm in let’s say, a math course, then what does that mean? Is that the only path? And when we think that we’re learning something that’s true with a capital T, objective with a capital O, chances are it isn’t. And if there aren’t other perspectives, then yes, absolutely, let’s have those conversations about why that’s the case. I think sometimes the silences are more powerful of a learning tool than anything else and getting students to look for those silences, to look for those spaces, and understand that they’re there, that by their absence is a really effective way to get at some of this larger work.

Cyndi: Yeah, that’s part of what I meant about bringing it into classes where you might not think it fits or whatever, because you don’t normally talk about it. But, you can look at the field in a meta way and say, like, who’s in this field and who’s not who’s being published and who’s not. And over the weekend, there was a great series of tweets, I forget the hash tag on it, but it was like, people were comparing their book advances, you guys might have seen this. And so it was like this comparison of white authors and black authors. And you know, the discrepancies were very large. And usually people don’t talk about what their book advances are. And so this might be a way let’s say, if you’re teaching literature, where you could show like here, look at this field, look at whose voices are being heard, who’s being published, in a meta way. And again, what that does, and the research is pretty clear on this, is by pointing out those discrepancies, you’re often validating the students of color in your class who know that there’s this discrimination there, but they maybe don’t have the data or the information and then by providing it, you’re validating that experience for them and helping them to feel seen and belong in the class. So yeah, that can be super useful.

Rebecca: I think it’s also sometimes faculty don’t know how to find out about other scholars in their field. And I think that at one point, I felt that way, too. I didn’t know who they were, they weren’t in my community, because I wasn’t including them in my community, right? [LAUGHTER] And my community wasn’t including, but finding a couple of voices, you only need a couple, follow them on social media, and then follow the people who respond. All of a sudden your social network and the people that you follow and the voices that you hear expand greatly, and it can really help in terms of just knowing what’s going on in a bigger picture. Something as simple as that can actually expand your knowledge really quickly.

Kevin: Yeah. What are you consuming in terms of your intellectual work? And asking yourself that question, and then what am I consuming and where am I getting it from? And what is the production of that intellectual work look like? Then making changes accordingly. As white scholars, it’s very easy for us. In fact, almost always, we default into communities of white scholars, given the structures of inequity that are in place. This isn’t something that will happen by accident. It’s the diversification of our intellectual work and our intellectual world, the consumption of knowledge and the production of knowledge. We have to make the mindful effort to do that. It’s not something that’s just going to happen because social media is a thing. It’s how we’re using these platforms and tools, it’s so important.

John: One of the things you emphasize in your Pedagogies of Care project is that it’s more important to focus on learners rather than content. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Kevin: The mantra that I always use is covering content is what instructors do, not what students do. So, if your strategy is revolving around, I’m going to cover X. Okay, great. I know what you’re gonna do in this course, but what are your students going to do? And when we think about it that way, then we start asking some of the questions that’ll lead us to, I think, more effective choices.

Cyndi: Yeah, that’s what I love so much about your book. Kevin, and what was so great about it was like, I already felt like I was focused a lot on the relationship because I don’t think a lot of learning can happen without the relationships, but your book really helps to like flip that lens to think about that piece of it… like, what are the students doing? Because if it’s just about content, it gets into that classrooms of death concept that you talk about really nicely in the first chapter. Because, yeah, it’s not there.

Kevin: Yeah. And it’s not to say that content isn’t important…

CYNDI… Oh, yeah.

Kevin: …that we should just get rid of, but everything in a balance. And right now, a lot of the classes that we teach don’t have that balance. And it comes down to what do we want our students to be able to get out of these courses? They’re not going to remember all the content within a year. So, that seems like an enormous waste of time, if that’s our exclusive focus.

Rebecca: I think one lesson that I’ve noticed faculty have taken away from this spring. And of course, I’ve been mostly an innocent bystander, because I was on sabbatical, is that faculty were slashing content as a way to pivot and recognizing that maybe all this isn’t necessary… so that you can focus on some of these bigger ideas, like the way that a discipline works, or ways that we connect or work together as scholars in a particular field.

Kevin: Yeah, and nothing exploded… [LAUGHTER]

Cyndi: Right.

Kevin: You know, the world didn;t end. Although it does seem like it did end on some days. [LAUGHTER]

Cyndi: A little bit.

Kevin: But, all of a sudden we realize what’s been possible that we had thought wasn’t the case. And I think those are really important lessons for us to take from this spring going forward.

Rebecca: I think the language that you use in your book, Kevin is about being an ally for students, can you talk a little bit more about ways that we can be better allies and what we shouldn’t be doing?

Kevin: So, I’ll use an example actually, from a conversation that probably happened in a lot of places this past spring with our online pivot, and it certainly happened at my institution, and that comes with online proctoring for exams. All of a sudden, as students are taking tests online, we need to proctor them, and if you look at the way that these proctoring services work, Shea Swauger wrote a really good critique of that in Hybrid Pedagogy several weeks ago, but this is surveillance tech. This is really kind of creepy stuff, and just objectively speaking, and it costs a lot of money for resource-poor institutions like mine, this is a significant investment if we’re going to do these things. And I think what happens as we immediately went into this place where we assumed that given any opportunity to game the system, that that’s exactly what students would do; that that would be their default reaction. I think if you look a lot of the rhetoric about, well, how do we make sure they’re not cheating? And how do we make sure that we’re fair to everybody? And how do we prevent this? And how do we prevent that? That’s an adversarial position, we’re assuming that our students are adversaries by default, and they know that. They hear us when we treat them like that. And students want the same things that we want out of our courses. They want meaningful learning, they want the course to be a good experience, they want to get something out of it, even if it’s a course they’re taking to check a box as they see it. Students want their courses to not suck, as opposed to suck, and I want my courses to not suck as opposed to suck. So, we have a confluence of goals. So, I think we need to be really careful about the narrative that we construct of students because it is very easy to default into this adversarial outlook. And as we’re really grappling with all sorts of sort of new questions and materials and tools in online teaching and learning, this is a real problem. So, we need to really think about the choices that we’re making institutionally as well as in our own class at what those choices are saying, either implicitly or explicitly, to our students.

Rebecca: The first prompt of the semester: How do we all make this not suck?

Kevin: Yeah.

John: We should have said that explicitly in that workshop we gave to faculty for the last couple of weeks. [LAUGHTER] It’s really good advice.

Kevin: I mean, I hate to use all sorts of technical language there, but sometimes you gotta chime in. [LAUGHTER]

John: We always end with the question: What’s next? …which is something we’re all thinking about these days.

Cyndi: I think two things for me. One is, like I said, I really want to make sure that I’m teaching about racism and prejudice online as strongly as possible, because that is new and I’m going to be doing that again. So, that I think is going to be one focus. The other focus is going to be the brand new Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning that we have at River Falls, which I’m very excited about. But boy, the timing is strange. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Impeccable, really.

Cyndi: It’s amazing. So, I accepted that position, like at the very end of February, beginning of March. And then of course, the world sort of changed and upended and ended and so figuring out how to help my campus instructors as much as possible. So, that’s gonna keep me busy.

Kevin: Yeah, about the same for me, we’re working a lot of intensive training this summer in particular with HyFlex course design and teaching as well as everything, sort of the nuts and bolts of here’s how to use this particular tool to the larger kind of bigger sessions on things like course design and integrated course design and things like that. So, I’m getting good at a lot of tools that I had sort of known about, but hadn’t used before, because I’m field testing a lot of things for faculty and making tutorial videos. So, that’s what’s next is the next module in this training I’m building. But also, I’m currently teaching a course on teaching African-American History online. And so that course is in a much different place now than it was even when it started earlier in the summer. It is the first time my institution has offered a course in African-American history. Our curriculum needs to be decolonized in many ways. And so what’s next for me is building on what so far has been a really, I think, kind of powerful set of experiences with the students who are enrolled in this class and thinking about how we take that work and sustain it as opposed to have it just be a summer course that goes away.

Rebecca: No shortage of big tall demands. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: None whatsoever and it definitely keeps me off the streets and out of trouble.

John: Well, thank you both. The last time we talked to each of you things were a little more calm. I think Kevin was the last podcast we had when this was just getting underway, and before most campuses closed, and it’s nice to follow you and to see how things are going and all the great things that you’re doing and thank you for your wonderful work.

Cyndi: Thank you.

Kevin: and thanks for having us.

Rebecca: Thanks for having us.

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

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

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