176. Critical Thinking

“I want my students to think more critically” is a familiar statement in higher education, especially when we mix in conspiracy theories, pseudoscience and fake news. In this episode, Dr. Linda Nilson joins us to discuss practical techniques faculty can use to help students develop the skills necessary to become critical thinkers. Now Director Emeritus, Linda was the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She is the author of Infusing Critical Thinking Into Your Course: A Concrete, Practical Guide as well as many other superb books, book chapters, and articles on teaching and learning.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: “I want my students to think more critically” is a familiar statement in higher education, especially in a social media environment filled with conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and fake news. In this episode, we discuss practical techniques that faculty can use to help students develop the skills necessary to become critical thinkers.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

John: Our guest today is Dr. Linda Nielson. Now Director Emeritus, Linda was the Founding Director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She is the author of Infusing Critical Thinking into your Course: a Concrete, Practical Guide, as well as many other superb books, book chapters and articles on teaching and learning. Welcome back, Linda.

Linda: Thank you very much for having me back, John.

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

Linda: I certainly am. And this is Twinings Berry, multiple berries.

Rebecca: Oh, yum.

Linda: Yeah. It’s delish. And I’m so glad you’ve helped to get me back into tea. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: As everybody should be,

Linda: Yes, yes, yes. It’s a wonderful thing.

John: I had some of the Twinings mixed berries early today. But I’ve got a chocolate mint black tea, which is really good.

Linda: Ooh, chocolate.

Rebecca: Chocolate anytime of day is excellent.

Linda: Yeah, really.

Rebecca: It’s an important food group. [LAUGHTER] Just like tea. I’m drinking that palm court blend that I have recently started making pots of. It’s pretty decent.

Linda: Great.

John: We just saw a note that you have this forthcoming book on critical thinking. What motivated you to write this book, now that everyone has this universal agreement on facts and reasoning and logic…

Linda: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

John: …and we don’t have a lot of disputes on these things anymore? [LAUGHTER}

Linda: Ha hah… Ah, yes. Actually, politics had nothing to do with it, if you can believe that. Originally, I got interested in critical thinking in the 90s. I decided to give a talk on it for some conference. And I got into the literature. And I said, “Okay, as soon as I get this talk over with, I am never, ever, ever going to do anything having to do with critical thinking, again, because the literature, it’s just a siloed mess.” So anyway, I just put that away. Well, then I guess it was something like eight years ago or so, Clemson University, in its infinite wisdom, decided to select critical thinking for its QEP, its Quality Enhancement Plan. And I thought, “Oh, no, do you know what you’re doing? Do you have any idea how difficult this is going to be?” And of course, I figured, like, I’m going to be doing workshops, so I got to get back into this literature. And I realized what I had to do was synthesize it for the faculty, because why should I inflict a literature’s flaws and warts on them. So that’s what I decided to do. Well, then, as it turned out, Clemson wasn’t the only university picking critical thinking for a QEP, and so I started getting invitations to do workshops, so I got on the road, and that’s always fun to do. I was back into it, but trying to make it as practical and as easy to implement for faculty as possible. So that was my goal, is always to make the faculty member’s job easier. So, I was comfortable with that. Well, a couple of years ago, David Brightman from Stylus contacted me, asking me to write a book on critical thinking. And I thought, “Well, I’m kind of enjoying being semi-lazy and just traveling around, oh, what fun.” And then I thought, “Well, look, I don’t know about this. But let me just start outlining the book and see how it feels.” Well, it felt really good. I was amazed. [LAUGHTER] And I thought, “Okay, lazy is not so interesting to me anymore. I’m going to write this book.” Well, he was happy. I was happy. And so I immediately started writing it, and because I had these workshops to work off of… updated by reading of the literature, of course… but other than that, it was probably the easiest book I’ve ever written. And so, this is fun, this is neat, this is great. And so I finished it really very quickly. And I was glad to do it. I finished it in four months or so… four to five months, the whole….

Rebecca: Wow..

Linda: Yeah, I know. Well, I was a house afire and I had nothing better to do. [LAUGHTER] So anyway, that’s how I was inspired to do it. It was really David Brightman ‘s idea. And if he was excited about it, that kind of got me excited about it. And I knew the need was out there. I knew the need because there were still universities crazy enough to adapt critical thinking as a QEP. I had also acquired some friends in the critical thinking community by then and so “Okay, this is fine. This is great. I’m going to do this.” And so I did it. And so now it’s due out March, maybe April, because you never know about these things. So it’s really happened. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I found that a lot of faculty really believe in the idea of critical thinking, but have no idea how to define it or explain it to students.

Linda: Yes. And that’s a perfectly reasonable reaction for them to have, because of the massive literature out there. And it’s just the idea of critical thinking, it’s such an abstract, squishy, ephemeral idea. And we’re like, “What is it?” …and of course all faculty think they’re teaching it, right? But they’re not ,unless you make critical thinking, an outcome, a specific outcome that makes sense in your course. And you tell your students about it, and you call it what it is, that you’re not teaching critical thinking. It’s not going to happen by osmosis. It’s not going to happen by happy accident. Critical Thinking just doesn’t do that, it has to be a very, very conscious effort. And there’s a lot of literature to back this up.

Rebecca: So what is it? [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Oh, that’s a good follow up question. Well, I’m not going to go through the litany of definitions that you can find out there in the literature. But what I was able to glean from that literature is this: it’s interpretation, analysis, and/or evaluation, for the purpose of making some sort of decision or solving some sort of problem. And that’s it. But you could get definitions out there that go on for a couple of paragraphs, you can get definitions that seem to change color from one chapter to the next. I mean, they’re all there. And I just found it very confusing myself. But again, it was all about synthesis to me… all about synthesis, taking the best from these different silos, these different frameworks, and try to put them together into something that’s easiest, into a pocket definition: interpretation, analysis, evaluation. Now, you can put that in your pocket. And so can students.

Rebecca: I’m sold. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Alright. That’s wonderful. That’s wonderful.

John: I remember when we introduced a critical thinking Gen Ed requirement here at Oswego, that everyone agreed that that was something that was desperately needed. It’s just everybody had a different idea of what it was. [LAUGHTER] And so eventually, it became infused within the disciplines. But I still think that that discussion of what exactly it is was never really resolved. It was kind of a way of sublimating that whole discussion and debate. So is critical thinking the same across disciplines? Or is it really going to be different depending on your disciplinary context or lens?

Linda: Okay, well, when you’re talking about interpretation, analysis, evaluation, yeah, that goes across the disciplines. But that’s not of much help to faculty. And so I put it in the disciplines, or I should say, in disciplinary clusters, because let’s face it, chemistry shares a lot with biology, right? …just in terms of general approach to observation, its approach to testing, just the general scientific thinking. And the humanities, there are a lot in common. And by the way, sometimes the social sciences pretend to be humanities, when you’re talking about the theories and things like that. Now, the social sciences, I look at them as sciences. So I put them in that scientific cluster. And then they’re the arts. Well, they’re off somewhere else entirely. They’ve got all….

Rebecca: Hey! [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Ah… oh, I’m sorry. You’re in it. But the arts are in a beautiful place. And they’re far more beautiful than the other disciplines. And then there are the, what I call the Applied Sciences, they’re different still. Oh yes, they share some overlap with the sciences. But so what I do is, there’s one chapter where I talk all about critical thinking outcomes by these disciplinary clusters. And now I have a list of different outcomes for each cluster. So take your pick, add more, but it’ll sound familiar to faculty. It’s using their vocabulary, it’s addressing their concerns, the sort of things that they strive to teach, the sort of things that they want their students to be able to do. And so I like to put it in the, at least, disciplinary clusters. Now it’s still you know, yes, you have to bring it down to your particular discipline, and then your particular course. But other than that, there are all kinds of tremendous overlap. But it’s such a different context. Sometimes you’re not even using the same verbs, and you’re certainly not using the same direct objects. I can assure you of that.

Rebecca: Why do faculty think it’s so hard to teach?

Linda: Oh, well, they’ve sure got good reasons. And I have a whole chapter on 10 reasons why teaching critical thinking is so challenging, and it’s got all kinds of reasons. First, there’s the literature, okay, that’s reason zero, okay. And so, I’m sort of, in a sense, telling faculty “Don’t read the literature, just don’t worry about that, or pick one and have fun” … whatever, but that’s not going to help you a lot. And that’s what’s different about my book, that mine’s, again, practical, concrete… here’s what you do… connect the dots. But reason number one is critical thinking about certain kinds of thinking, like that definition I gave you, but also a certain kind of subject matter. And there are courses out there that don’t have that subject matter. There has to be, in this subject matter, it has to be content containing claims, statements that may or may not be complete, valid, or at least the most valid, or the most viable, and for perfectly good reasons as well. For instance, there might be other respectable competing claims, the evidence supporting a claim may be weak or ambiguous, the data may be suspect, the source may have a lack of legitimacy or conflict of interest. So anyway, there are some courses that just seem to just be teaching undisputed facts. Now, if you’re teaching disputed facts, that’s fine, then you could talk about critical thinking. But there has to be some sort of dispute, some sort of competition, something among different claims. And again, there are, unfortunately, some courses that don’t have that… now you can add them in. Another thing about teaching critical thinking… It’s difficult for people to do, for students to do and it’s unnatural for students, for learners, for people to do, because we all want our current beliefs and values and ways of thinking confirmed. That’s what we are usually going for. And then there’s the whole struggle of learning. Learning is struggle, learning is effort. And students don’t seem to accept that. It’s like we’re supposed to make learning so easy. As easy as it was in elementary and high school. Isn’t that our job? …to make learning easy and effortless? No. But in any case, they might fight that: “Well, this is hard. So you’re not a good teacher. And anyway, students also bring biases and misconceptions into the classes that interfere with critical thinking. They’re not aware of these, and so you have to make them aware of them. And students don’t necessarily like that. Critical thinking requires self regulation, or metacognition. If you’re not observing your thinking, there’s no way you can think critically, I’m sorry, you have to question yourself all the time. But you’ve got to be aware of what that thinking is to even talk about it. Here’s another one and it’s nasty. Critical thinking requires the traits of good character. So virtues like integrity and determination and morality and inner strength. And some of our students just don’t have those virtues. Now, there are ways, there really are ways, that you can teach them about good character and bad character. And just the way good character is portrayed in our media and our literature, in movies, television, whatever, it makes good character look good, makes it look more attractive. But students don’t necessarily know what even good character is. And they can’t do self-regulated learning without having some intellectual virtues, like perseverance, like wanting to pursue truth, intellectual integrity, intellectual humility, certain dispositions that are absolutely essential. Otherwise, why bother to do critical thinking? Why put yourself through this? Here’s another thing that critical thinking requires: mental health, emotional health. Now, on the level that you can start increasing students’ mental health is on the level of defense mechanisms. But if you’ve got students out there, and I bet you do, who have personality disorders, they’re narcissists, they;re sociopaths, they’re psychopaths, so they might murder you someday. Forget about them, don’t even have hope for them. They have no interest in pursuing truth at all. That’s why they don’t wind up in the psychiatrist’s office. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing’s wrong,” right? And so what’s wrong with my thinking? Nothing’s wrong with my thinking. So they’re not into this, forget about them. Critical Thinking also requires students to respond to questions. And students don’t always like to respond to questions. They don’t mind telling you what day of the week it is. But beyond that, if they’re going to have to think, they might not be eager to do this. Now, if everybody else is doing it in the class, that helps. It really does. So yeah, there are all kinds of reasons why critical thinking is very difficult to teach, but it’s not impossible, and it’s not mystical.

John: You mentioned self regulation, what are some techniques that we can use in our classes to help students become more self regulated in terms of developing critical thinking skills that let them analyze evidence more effectively and interpret arguments more effectively?

Linda: Yes, well, again, awareness is where you start. So the first thing you want to do, the first habit that you want to develop in your class is whenever you have students give a statement… I don’t mean an undisputed definition, okay, I mean something that’s addressing a claim or making a claim in some way? And you’ve got to just keep asking them: “Well, how did you arrive at that response?” Now, you’re going to sound like a broken record the first couple of weeks, and then students will realize, “Okay, I’m not going to talk unless I have an answer to that question, because I know that Professor so and so is going to ask me this question.” So they start to think about this on their own, and they’re ready to answer it, or they’ll keep their mouth shut. But it’s not so impossible to look into your head as to how you came up with a certain answer. And initially, students will have to say, like, “I don’t know,” and you know what, that’s okay. Because now you have their attention. If they don’t know that that’s a perfectly fine answer, you need to start thinking about that, you need to start observing your thinking. And that’s the first thing you get them to do. Now, in terms of like, with readings, or if you’re having them watch videos and these sorts of things, you can give them reflective assignments to accompany those readings, and for that matter accompany any other kind of assignment. But what you want them to do is you want them to reflect on perhaps their affective reactions to the reading, or what they found particularly important, or what they found particularly surprising when they do a reading and then they have to answer this question or couple of questions at the end. And again, there are no wrong answers. This is like no stress, folks, just I want at least 100 words from you, that students start looking over what they just read and thinking about it from their own viewpoint. What did they find most important? How did they react emotionally? What connections did they make to what they already knew. So it’s making them more aware of what kind of impact that reading had. And those are just the simplest things in the world with substantial assignments, writing assignments, what you want your students to do is sort of a meta assignment at the same time. And again, you can’t go wrong, folks. And all you’ve got to do as a faculty member is just to check these in, just make sure that they did it and if you want 200 words, perhaps, “Okay, describe your reasoning in solving this problem.” or ”How did you reason through this case, in debriefing this case? What questions did you ask yourself along the way? What skills did you improve in the course of doing this assignment?” There’s so many different possibilities. And so, yeah, self awareness, self awareness. And then, of course, after a test when they get a graded exam back, make them aware of how they prepared or how they didn’t prepare. And so it’s making them face the music about, “Okay, what did you expect to get on this exam? And what did you get?” Gee whiz, how do you feel about that? Now, “A” students are gonna “Oh, yeah, I thought I got an A,” or I thought I’d get a “B” but I got an “A,” and so I feel whoopee.” Okay, don’t worry about them. They’re already self regulating, they self regulate to the point of paranoia, they’re the least of your worries. [LAUGHTER] But other students need to become aware of, “Okay, so how did you study? Did you study the way I told you too, which is quizzing yourself? Or do you just reread, reread, reread, reread the way I told you not to, because that’s a waste of time? How many hours did you study? Was this enough? What are you going to do differently on the next exam to do better?” And so students have to think about a strategy, they’re meta-studying in a way. And so they’re thinking about their learning strategies. And they really need to do a lot more of that. Any kinds of like, experiential activities… there are all kinds of questions that they can ask themselves, or you can ask them to write about, “Well, what were your goals originally? And how did they change through the simulation or the game or the role playing?” And this would be true of like service learning or field work or any of these things. “How did you respond to other people involved in the interactions? And why would you respond differently next time?” So there’s a lot of self assessment going on. And this is a good place to start with self assessment. It’s a safe place to start with self assessment, because usually everybody changes their strategy from the beginning through the middle to the end. And that’s good. That’s what they’re supposed to be doing. That’s called learning. [LAUGHTER] But it makes them aware of that learning. That’s how you do it. Yeah.

John: It sounds like there’s quite a bit of overlap between improving students’ critical thinking skills and improving students’ metacognition,

Linda: Absolutely.

John: Is it effectively the same type of strategy used in both cases? Or is it essentially the same process In both cases?

Linda: What’s different about it is with critical thinking, you’re dealing with real disciplinary content. And you’re not necessarily doing that with metacognition. Yes, self awareness is definitely a part of critical thinking. But that’s not all. I mean, you’re actually trying to come to some sort of conclusion or solve some sort of problem, maybe even decide to take some sort of action. You’re examining claims, you’re examining data, you’re examining sources, you’re examining a lot of different things along the way that you’re not necessarily doing in metacognition, but metacognition, it precedes critical thinking. I mean, if you’re not aware of how you’re thinking, how in the world, are you going to come up with a well reasoned approach to a problem? So there’s a lot more. You’re using metacognition, to extend reasoning into something that is disciplinary based.

Rebecca: I’m so glad we’re having this conversation today. Because I’m working on a new class where practicing thinking moving into higher-level classes is the goal of the class. And so I was working on a lot of reflection assignments. So I was just doing a little editing while we were chatting. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Oh. alright, See, I’m glad this is useful, and that’s the whole thing. I want that book to be useful. And that’s what makes it, I think, different from the other books out there and critical thinking, because most of them are in a particular silo, they’re coming from a particular silo, they’re may be extending that silo in some way. And I was looking for common ground across multiple silos, and then maybe not all of them, but multiple silos, I tell you one thing that they all have in common, they all say that critical thinking involves metacognition or self regulation.

John: And I remember reading a really good book on creating self-regulated learning.

Linda: Oh yeah, that one, yeah.

John: That might be something we’d recommend to faculty.

Linda: Yes.

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

Linda: Okay, good. Yes, indeed, I’m glad I wrote that book beforehand. I really am. [LAUGHTER]

John: And it ties in nicely with a lot of your discussion in the book. In this new book, you’re also addressing how specifications grading could be used. And I know there’s a really nice book on that as well.

Linda: Oh yeah, yeah.I remember that one.

John: You mentioned that when you grade things, that it doesn’t necessarily require a lot of work for the faculty member. Could you just talk a little bit about how specifications grading could be used to evaluate these types of activities?

Linda: Sure, absolutely. First of all, all assignments, not courses, all assignments are graded pass/fail, and for that matter tests, but you don’t pass either a test or an assignment at a C level, you raise your expectations to a B level. But guess what, you’ve got to know what components in that essay or that paper or whatever that design that you want to see to achieve a B level. Now, if you already have rubrics, fine, you can start looking at the top level of the rubric and maybe take a few from the next one down. But those are the things that have to be in the piece of work for it to pass. And by the way, you explain this to students. Now the stakes suddenly become higher for students. So guess what? They read the directions? Isn’t it wonderful? They do, they want to pass. Now, initially, they don’t believe that they could possibly fail at anything because of partial credit. Well, guess what, there is no partial credit here. But they won’t believe it till they fail something. So you always want to give them some get out of jail free cards, so they can maybe fail a couple of times, and then redo the assignment the correct way, because they realize, “Oh, he or she is really serious about this. Oh, goodness. Okay.” So yeah, they really start reading the directions and doing what you asked them to do. And you know what? If they’re worried that they’re not doing it, they visit you, they call you, they email you, they actually ask for clarification, because this means something. And we’ve been lowering the stakes and lowering the stakes and lowering the stakes for years now, because we don’t want to cause them any stress. Well, you know what? We’re going to have to cause some stress. Learning is stressful, sorry. It’s just the way life is. So anyway, when you know what you want to see there, and this is where the thinking is… this thinking it might be before the course starts. So once the course starts, you’re on easy street, because all you have to do is look for those elements in the piece of work that the student hands in. Something missing? You mark which element is missing. If you want to make other comments, hey, far be it for me to tell you not to write comments. But you don’t have to, you don’t have to, and relatively short assignments. You don’t have to, unless you want to. I mean, if you’ve got a student, they had all the elements in that, you want to draw a happy face, knock yourself out. [LAUGHTER]

John: Or at least for the artists, among us. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Exactly. Now, if you want to go specs grading… because we’re talking about specs, we’re talking about specifications, like in a computer program, essentially… but you really have to look in the mirror and say, “What do I want my students to be able to demonstrate that they can do in this assignment, or on this test, or in this particular essay?” And that can be hard, because we’ve never had to be so specific, but this is what students love about specs grading. We get specific, we tell them what we want, they know what our expectations are, and they haven’t known, this might be the first time they’ve ever really known, what we wanted, because we have to be specific. And if we left out a specs that we wish we’d put in, well, better luck next semester, right? Just remember to put those in. But you can’t change those once you give students your list of specs. And then there’s bundling. With specs grading, you can also bundle assignments and tests together for various grades where students decide, “Oh, you know, you have to do so much work for an A, and it looks very difficult. I’m not going to go for an A. How about if I go for a B and that way this isn’t that important of a course to me. It’s alright.” And they might decide to go for a C. And you know what? what should you care? This is their decision, and if they’re going to be happy with a C, you can respect that. And otherwise, we look at C students like, well they were lazy and didn’t care and this and that. No, no, no. Students choose it for themselves. Fine. No problem. We don’t look down on our C students, as we unfortunately will kind of do sometimes. Anyway, but that specs grading. We’re on critical thinking and critical thinking, if you have the specs for something written, or a presentation for that matter, but if you know what you want students to show that they can do in terms of critical thinking, this is an easy way to grade, it really is. All the work is upfront.

Rebecca: Yep. It’s very time consuming upfront with what I’m doing right now. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: And it’s stressful. It’s stressful for us, because we “Oh, should I give this five points or six points?” Forget it. Don’t worry about that. And you know, students will go to you and argue for a half a point, they don’t mess with that with specs grading at all. They don’t do that. So it saves you a lot of wear and tear. And it’s better for your relationship with your students.

John: In large classes, how can you help students develop critical thinking skills if you don’t want to read lots of written work?

Linda: Ah, okay. Well, this is the beauty of groups. There are two methods that are particularly important in teaching critical thinking, there’s discussion, and that includes, by the way, debate…. debate’s really good, but discussion, debate. And you might have to do that in terms of just teaching in small groups. And that’s okay. Because the whole idea is that students are getting different points of view on a claim or a statement or something like that and then they have to defend it. But that’s all something that you can have students do in groups, those sorts of activities. Another thing that’s very important are some kinds of problems to solve. And I don’t mean the cookbook types. I’m talking about complex problems, fuzzy problems, if you will. And again, usually we have students work in groups for that, anyway. So that’s how you can teach it in large classes. It’s lovely if you have a small class, and everybody can hear everybody else’s statements and discussions and things like that. But if you don’t have that luxury, you can still teach critical thinking in large classes. And again, this is where spec grading can really, really shine. Because your grading time is cut to a fraction, an absolute fraction. Let me say one other thing. I talked about methods, but really the key to teaching critical thinking is questions, the questions that you ask your students, whether it be in class, or whether it be a writing assignment, or a paper or for a design or presentations, whatever it is, the key is questions. And each silo, each framework offers certain questions, that here you should have your students do this or answer these questions. So what I did was I put all of those together, synthesized them into a list of 45 critical thinking questions. Take your pick. Now, of course, you can look at your outcomes, and they make excellent assignments and questions and things like that. But these are general questions that make students think critically. And of course, you always follow up with “Well, gee, how did you come to that response? How did you arrive at that?” So anyway, there are certain questions that guarantee students are doing critical thinking and you have to adapt it to your particular class, but a lot of them, they go across the disciplines. And this is where you can see some of the similarities, like asking about the source of a claim, for instance, can you trust this source?”

Rebecca: How do we help students that come in with biases, preconceptions and things?

Linda: Oh, yes, absolutely.

Rebecca: …resisting facts. How do we start to overcome that?

Linda: Well, I think what you need to do is you start your course… you might have to start your course anyway… with selling critical thinking to your students. Because first of all, critical thinking is a skill that employers want. And I start my book with that, just so much evidence of that, say analytical thinking and that’s the same sort of thing. But there’s also beyond employment, there’s a quality of life. Now, if your students do not want to be suckers and fools, and if they don’t learn to think critically, that’s exactly what they’re going to be, suckers and fools. For instance, it takes critical thinking to avoid scams and shams. And if you google “scams,” you get billions of hits. It’s horrifying. Questioning and other things like they don’t know how to make sense out of popularized research studies. Well, a critical thinker knows enough to check those things. Advertising, that’s another place where you have to be very discriminating. And you have to critically think about “Well, what did that mean that such and such is twice as effective? Twice as effective as what? And what does ‘twice as effective’ mean?” There’s propaganda, fake news, disinformation, demagoguery, doublespeak, all this stuff to cover up the truth. And what students don’t know… a lot of people just don’t know… is there are fact-checking sites out there, there are quite a few of them. I talked about eight of them in my book, and how to get there and where it’s from, who puts this together. But it’s a good idea, I would say to give students an early exercise. And it could be, if you’re teaching chemistry, make it chemistry, if you’re teaching political science, make it political science, politics, to give them some fact-checking assignments. And if you’re worried about the politics, like all of these sites will call both sides of the political debate down on their lies or their distortion. So they’re fair that way. And so, if you want to get students to question their own politics, it’s great if you can get some good examples of things that they can go research where there’re lies on both sides, and that shows them that. But then they start realizing, “Oh, my god, there are lies. Oh, goodness, I’ve been believing all this.” There is Politifact.com. There is FactCheck. There is FlackCheck. There is OpenSecrets, Media Bias / Fact Check. There’s apnews.com/apfactcheck. There’s Snopes. There’s Truthorfiction.com. I mean, there’re all these sites. There’s so many of them, and that’s just the few that I talked about, because they tend to be better known. And they’re put out by like AP or something or Annenberg Foundation. And so that will teach them how much is garbage out there. Again, from both sides. Both sides in the political debate are full of garbage. But you also have debates going on in biology or in medicine. Remember, I’m sure you do, when they were saying, “Oh, coffee is terribly bad for you.” And then three years later, “Oh, it’s very good for you.” So it really hits all fields. Some of my very favorite ones is doublespeak. And I don’t know if students are aware of doublespeak like “servicing the target.” That’s military talk for bombing, to service a target. Yeah. “Neutralize” that means to kill. “Downsizing” means firing employees, “misconduct,” white-collar crimes committed by politicians, business leaders, military professionals, the police, that’s misconduct versus crime. “Detainee” is a prisoner of war. I mean, I could go on and on and on. And I do in my book.

John: You mentioned how important critical thinking skills are to employers. What does the evidence show about how effective colleges are in terms of helping students improve their critical thinking skills?

Linda: we’re not so hot, but it’s just put it that way. According to Academically Adrift, we improve the critical thinking skills of about one third of our students. Now, I don’t think that’s anything to celebrate myself. But I mean, at least we do that. But, these are often the students who came in with some critical thinking skills to begin with. The ones who need the help the most to critically think are not getting that help. They’re just not getting it. And so we’ve got to go out of our way to reach them. Again, most faculty think they’re teaching critical thinking when they’re not because they’re not consciously doing it. So there’s a sense in which we haven’t even scratched the surface of what we can teach in terms of critical thinking. And again, with all the different definitions out there, and all the different silos, I don’t blame faculty at all.

John: We can hope that your book will help reach more faculty and help us be more effective in this task.

Linda: Let me add one other thing that you can sell students on. Critical thinkers, and there’s research on this, tend to experience fewer difficulties in life than others do, whether they be health difficulties, financial, personal, legal, they just lead less troublesome lives. So if you kind of want to be happy, it’s a good idea to think critically, because it’ll keep you out of difficulty.

Rebecca: A good selling point, a good selling point.

Linda: Yes, it is a good selling point. [LAUGHTER] It is. And that’s just it. You might have to sell students on it. And you’re going to have to explain what critical thinking is to students, but they can take that pocket definition. It’s not negative thinking. It’s not just criticizing things. It’s nothing like that at all. And it’s not leftist, that’s not it at all. But they need that clarification because they’re coming in with misconceptions about what critical thinking is. And what the words sound like. Maybe it’s not a really good name for it, but that’s what we’ve been calling it. So we’re stuck with it.

Rebecca: It also seems like faculty make a lot of assumptions about students knowing how to analyze or how to interpret and what the question focus that you’ve indicated we should pay attention to, is really getting at that by asking the questions to get them to do the activity that we want them to do, when they might not know what that word actually means. Because it’s not been modeled.

Linda: Exactly, we should stop and model and then say, “You know, this is an analysis question that I’m asking you or that I just asked you.” We need to label things, so students get to understand what these cognitive operations are. And unfortunately, we make assumptions and studentsmight say, “Oh, analysis, that something a shrink does.” No, no, no, no, no, no. Interpretation. “Well, that’s something that people who read novels do.” No, we are all doing it all the time. So even chemists do interpretation. You interpret the data, and you can come up with different things.

Rebecca: And a lot of students get stuck right on describe, they don’t go much past that, and they don’t know that that’s what they’re doing

Linda: …or summarize. Yeah.

Rebecca: I’ve had conversations with students about those kinds of words before and it was really productive.

Linda: Yeah, yeah. because nobody’s really told them what these words mean.

John: It seems that higher ed is not doing quite as well as we’dlike in terms of increasing students critical thinking skills. Should this be an important focus for higher ed?

Linda: First of all, the buck stops with us. Otherwise, they go out into the world. And they could be adrift in general, without our teaching them critical thinking. They’re not likely to learn this in K through 12. I’m sorry. Oh, yes, they will in prep schools, but we don’t worry about those kids. So we have to keep people who are in power, and people with money honest, and the only people who really have ever wound up doing that are fairly well educated people. That’s why higher education is so important. And unfortunately, over the years… certainly, from when I was in college to now… the whole reason people go to college, and what they want out of college has changed. Now they want a job. Well, I hate to use this phrase. Back in my day, we wanted to develop a sound, sophisticated philosophy of life. Now that fits right in with critical thinking, critical thinking was very much a part of it. But now, that’s kind of like out the window. Well, to keep a job, you need to become a critical thinker. This is what employers need. This is what the world needs. And we can’t do good production without it. But even more important than that, we talk about freedom, for this society, any society, our freedom lies in our awareness of our patterns of human cognition, how they can be exploited, these patterns. And just, in general, our awareness of this worldwide pandemic of dishonesty in the pursuit of money and power, and it’s almost considered okay, because it’s all around us, we see it. Well guess what? It’s not okay unless we say it’s okay. So if we want to preserve freedom, we absolutely need this awareness. And it’s not like we’re doing something that hasn’t been done before. Because really, this awareness and this watchdog-type thinking really gave rise to a lot of successful movements, the environmental protection movement, the conservation movement, sustainability, recycling, stronger vehicle safety standards, and that’s just to name a few. And they all came out of critical thinking and awareness of where our weaknesses as human beings are. We all have a mind… well, almost all of us have a mind… and we need to know how it works so we can protect ourselves from all the advertising and scams and shams of demagoguery… which by the way, appeals to emotions… to all these different trips that individual institutions, organizations, corporations are trying to lay on us. And they are, because, hey, its profitable to lay the sawdust if we buy into it, we can’t afford to. We should not.

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

Linda: Ah, yes. What’s next? Well, first of all, I hope getting back to travel.

Rebecca: Me too.

JON: Me too.

Linda: Yeah, exactly, exactly. Doing workshops and keynotes instead of this virtual nonsense where you’re talking into a screen. To see an audience tells me everything about what I need to do next in the workshop or in the keynote. But aside from that, I’m just finishing up another book: Online Teaching at its Best, the second edition. And in the second edition I talk about the kinds of teaching we’ve been doing lately, like remote teaching, hyflex teaching, Well, hybrid, we’ve been doing, but talking about it in another way. And in addition to the fully online learning that we talked about… Ludie Goodson and I talked about in the first edition… but the second edition has a lot more about what we’ve been doing lately because it’s possible universities and colleges might decide to keep some of this remote stuff. Hyflex is very much a disaster when you’re dealing with this pandemic and masks and all that. But, anyway, universities might say, “Hey, you know, it’s cheaper to do remote, we don’t have to build any more buildings, students can learn at home, hey, students might like that.” But again, they might not. But I’m afraid they’re going to do this with conferences, and it just makes me want to cry. Let’s do virtual conferences. We don’t have to pay hotel bills. And people don’t have to worry about getting travel funding. But in any case, it worries me that we’re going to get too accustomed to and accepting of, this virtual communication, which we all know, deep inside of our hearts, that’s not as good as human face-to-face contact. So anyway, but that’s next, that book will be coming out, I think, in the summer. And right now Ludie and I have the manuscript in but we’re still doing some pre-production stuff having to do with author queries, proofs, all that nonsense that makes you wish you didn’t write the book. [LAUGHTER] Writing is the fun part. This isn’t. But I’ll do it. I promise.

John: More information on effective online teaching, I think, is especially important these days. And I think we’re gonna see a lot more people doing it even when the pandemic is over, now that people have learned that it can work.

Linda: Yeah, it can work. But we just started doing these things, not knowing how to make it work. And learning has suffered, grades have suffered, and rigor has suffered. So far, no real good has come out of the switch. It can, it can, and that’s what the second edition will hopefully begin to do.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us again, and having such a rich conversation.

Linda: Well, thank you for this opportunity. This has been great. Thank you.

John: And our faculty very much appreciates all the work you did with ACUE as well, because they keep bringing up some of the things they learned watching some of your videos in that course.

Linda: Oh, good. I’m glad to hear that. Well, thank you ever so much for this chance to talk about a book that isn’t even out yet but that I’m truly in love with.

[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.

[MUSIC]

173. Pseudoscience

In an era of conspiracy theories and fake news, our students come into our classes with misconceptions and misunderstandings about our disciplines. In this episode, Kristin Croyle and Paul Tomascak join us to discuss how a first-year science seminar class confronts pseudoscience. Kristin is a Psychologist and Paul is a Geochemist. Kristin is the Dean and Paul is the Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY-Oswego.

Show Notes

  • Shermer, M. (2014). Why People Believe Weird Things. Naturalist.
  • Zener cards – American Psychological Association
  • Huff, D. (1993). How to lie with statistics. WW Norton & Company.
  • Van Der Kroon, C. (1996). The Golden Fountain: The Complete Guide to Urine Therapy. Wishland Incorporated.

Transcript

John: In an era of conspiracy theories and fake news, our students come into our classes with misconceptions and misunderstandings about our disciplines. In this episode, we discuss how a first-year science seminar class confronts pseudoscience.

[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 Kristin Croyle and Paul Tomascak. Kristin is a Psychologist and Paul is a Geochemist. Kristin is the Dean and Paul is the Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY-Oswego. Paul also had been the Associate Director here at our teaching center at SUNY Oswego before he entered the Dean’s office and Rebecca joined us as Associate Director.

Kristin: Thank you.

Paul: Hi, John. Hi, Rebecca.

Kristin: We’re happy to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Paul: I have a special tea for you. I have a tea that has a best buy date of March 2000. A special tea.

Kristin: Does it have flavor still?

Paul: In a way… Yeah, It’s got a special flavor. [LAUGHTER]

John: A vintage tea…

Paul: Yeah.

John: …a good year.

Kristin: And I have coffee in a Christmas mug because the Christmas mugs are still out.

Rebecca: Mine are out year round.

John: And I have Prince of Wales tea.

Rebecca: And I have Big Red Sun.

John: …for a change.

Rebecca: Ah, it’s a little switch up. It seems sciency… It’s what I had open.

John: We’ve invited here today to discuss the first- year seminar course you both offered on “How to Think about Weird Things: science confronts pseudoscience.” First, could you remind our listeners a little bit about what the first-year seminar courses are here. We’ve done some past podcasts on them, but it’s been a while since we talked about that program.

Kristin: The first-year seminar course at SUNY Oswego is a relatively new initiative started just before I came here in 2018. But that’s before I came to SUNY Oswego, so I’m allowed to be wrong on dates before I started. It was initiated by our Provost, Scott Furlong. And the first-year seminar courses, the way that we envisioned them, is partially as passion topic courses for faculty, but also as a transitional experience for new freshmen so that they can have an experience in which they have both some social bonding, some interesting and challenging and really fascinating materials to talk about in course, but also some built-in experiences to help them connect to their new university and transition into kind of the college student way of functioning and being in a supportive atmosphere. So both academic challenge and excitement along with kind of the adjustment to the new university culture… Oh, and those are all taught in classes of 19 or less, so that there can be a strong peer-to-peer experience. And they also have writing intensive experiences involved.

John: What are some examples of pseudoscience that you address in your classes?

Paul: I’ve been teaching this course prior to the first-year seminar series for some years in a variety of different places: as an upper-level Gen Ed course for non majors, as a honors course, because the topic just transcends level, and it’s something that everyone can get something out of. And every time I’ve taught it, I’ve ended up emphasizing different things. And that persists. At one time, I was adamantly avoiding talking about conspiracy theories, because conspiracy theories are just bollocks. It’s a zero-sum proposition, there’s really no way out of it. There’s no good dealing with the topic. But given the fact that conspiracy theory is something that we all really need to be talking about nowadays, it’s something that I’ve brought in little by little, but it’s still dicey. You can talk about creationism, and have some strong things that you can bring up as, this is why this really is not tenable in there, lots of things you can talk about in terms of cryptozoology or psychical ability, or persistence of life after death, consciousness after death. And there are scientific things that you can point to with these. But with conspiracy theories, it’s always going to be “Oh, well…” there is always an “Oh, well” out of it. And so that’s a hard one to grapple with in any real constructive way.

Kristin: Well, one of the things that attracted me to the course…. Actually, let me tell you about how I got into it. As Dean, I wanted to get a stronger connection to the students. It’s good to have the experience in the classroom, especially at a new university for me, because I can see what faculty were going through in terms of: setup your course shell… What are the policies that you have to include? What are the students like in the classroom? How do you submit your grades? …all those kind of technical aspects also that Deans know. I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen Fall 2020 if I had perfect foresight about what that would have been like, but still… not necessarily as my first experience teaching at Oswego. But I still think it was valuable. But one thing that attracted me to the courses when I was thinking about what courses to teach, intro psych was actually my first choice because I enjoy hanging out with freshmen. It was my field. But then I thought… these freshman seminar courses, and I got a chance to talk with Paul on a regular basis in previous years, he was teaching a bit about all the interesting things we were talking about. And I think that course is fascinating, but as a psychologist, some of the things that really attracted me are pseudoscientific beliefs, particularly about interventions and treatments and the way people are scammed the way that having an understanding of how the brain and body actually work, and what evidence for treatment looks like versus people who are charlatans who are taking advantage of people who are in vulnerable positions. That’s the part that really hooks me into pseudoscience and why it’s so important to teach students about it. But with that, as a hook, you’ve got all kinds of possibilities, because it’s many of the same thinking errors and misunderstandings that open you up to paying thousands and thousands of dollars for getting your future read repeatedly. It’s the same kind of thinking errors that opening you up to those and some other things that are not necessarily mainstream.

Rebecca: So how do you overcome some of those thinking errors, or help students overcome their thinking errors?

Paul: I’m going to say “um” a lot and I’m going to pause a lot, because I know that it’s something that John enjoys editing out.

Kristin: But you should totally leave that…

Rebecca: Um….what do we think about that? [LAUGHTER]

Paul: When I teach this class, there are a number of things that I emphasize. But I emphasize that we are on some level, all scientists, we are all critical thinkers. And in order to get through life successfully, you have to be able to do these things. And I like to draw the horizontal line on the board on the first day and say, on this end is complete gullibility, complete credulousness, you’ll accept anything as truth. And on the other side is complete dismissiveness, complete cynicism, and you won’t accept anything, regardless of how well it’s shown to be acceptable or true. And that it’s important that you understand that there is a spectrum. And that being skeptical doesn’t mean being dismissive. It means that you ask questions, it means that you don’t accept things at face value, especially if they don’t really smell right. And if something has the taint of, “Well, this is too good to be true” …it probably is. And you’d be doing yourself a favor by looking more closely at things, getting some more information. So I try to disabuse students of preconceptions by asking questions and by forcing them to ask questions. And even with things that seem to be “Well, that makes sense, so yeah, I’m going to buy into it.” Well, why does that make sense? What’s the physical reality that underlies that, that makes you think that that is the way it should be, the way it might be? And where do you get your information? And that is a very productive line of inquiry, where you start to break down the “Well, I heard it from this person…” Well, what does this person know? “Well, I heard it from this website.” Well, let’s go to that website and look and see if there’s anything that we can connect to. And is this someone who’s just manufacturing information? Or do they have links to somewhere where you can say, “Wes, this is verifiable on some level.” So it’s good regardless of whether you’re talking about something that’s way out there or something that’s not so way out there. It’s good, basic, critical thinking.

Kristin: And one of the things that I think is very helpful is repetition. I went through a lot of topics, but in each case, there is this harking back to what kind of thinking errors might be present, what kind of scientific errors might be present. And as they start to do that over and over, they get better. For example, one of the early topics that I talked about was alien abduction. When we talked about alien abduction, we talked about how does memory formation work, we talked about sleep, the sleep cycle, hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations and sleep paralysis. We talked about false memories, and how false memories are formed, and that they are experienced in the same way as real memories. If you have a false memory, it’s not like a different thing for your experience. We talked about all of those kinds of normal processes, as well as, unfortunately, the role of hypnosis in creation of false memories, which has a lot to do with beliefs and induction. I say, unfortunately, as a psychologist, it’s horribly embarrassing for the field. it really is a terrible thing. So we talk about all of the scientific contributions, and then we talk about “Okay, now the experience of alien abduction.” How does hypnosis fit in there? How do sleep paralysis, and hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations, fit in here? Those are hallucinations as you’re falling asleep or waking up…it feels very real, but are actually more like a dreamlike state. How do all of this fit in? And then we look at an account of alien abduction and say, “Okay, what do you see here?” And then they can identify some of the thinking errors, like “Okay, here’s this part… looks like a false memory.” But sure, they’re really upset because it feels real. This part here, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. There’s no extraordinary evidence, so they can start to identify both how do we separate the science from the non-science and then where can we start to identify thinking errors. And as we do that topic after topic, they get better and better and better at it.

John: In all of our classes, following up what Paul said, students come in with models of the world and those models aren’t always accurate… or we often have better models that we’d like to share with our students. But it’s important to break them down. And you’ve talked a little bit about how you can provide them with evidence to help them perhaps modify their models of how the world works. But, what do you do with those students who are really resistant, who really deeply believe in some of those pseudo science principles?

Paul: Yeah, this is something that Michael Shermer talks about in one of the books that I’ve used as a quasi textbook has been Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things. And in the later editions of the book, he has a specific chapter, that is “Why Smart People Believe Weird Things.” Because, again, early on in the class, there’s something of an inclination to think of, “Well, I don’t think crazy things like that, and it’s only the gap-toothed yokels that believe in alien abductions or that believe in whatever it is.” But it’s important to understand that this is not something that’s limited to people who aren’t smart. There are plenty of people who are genius-level smarties who believe, not just weird things, but things that are patently out there. And so getting students to accept that, “Okay, we can talk about this as a group, because we’re not just pointing out that you’re a dummy, these are things that lots of people believe, and there are reasons why they believe them other than just being morons.” So the idea that preconceived notions are things that aren’t necessarily rooted in ignorance, or rooted in stupidity, but they’re rooted in misinformation, they’re rooted in being told something by someone you trust at some point, and not questioning it. So I think creating an atmosphere that people can feel good about talking about these things, and not just sitting there going, “Oh, I hope he doesn’t talk to me about this, because I actually believe in ghosts,” is useful. And I’ve had students in class who are ghost hunters. And we’ve gone through an entire lesson on why some of the classical ghost hunting techniques really don’t make sense when you analyze them. And I’ve had a student say, at that point, “Well, we don’t really do that, what we do is this,” and everyone in the class looks nervously at one another, that “Oh, that’s interesting. I didn’t realize that they were among us.” But, they are among us, because we are them. They are us, we all have an equal opportunity for believing weird things.

Kristin: One of the things that I also talk about is different ways of knowing. And that when you say science proves X, Y, Z, it has to meet a scientific standard. But if you say, for example, my faith tells me X, Y, Z, that’s a different way of knowing. And it’s not subject to the same kinds of proofs, it’s subject to different proofs. An example that we explicitly talked about is angelic visitations: are angels real? If you say science proves that angels are real, it has to stand up to scientific scrutiny. And in many religions, that would not only be a weird thing to say, it would be antithetical to their religious perspective. As soon as you start saying science proves my religion is correct, it becomes in some ways, a non-religious argument, and that it’s perfectly fine to have different ways of knowing different aspects about the world. But if you say science says this, this is the way the world works, because scientists have proved it, then you can subject it to scientific scrutiny. Another example is intuition and personal experience, that there are aspects of intuition and personal experience that may tell you certain truths about yourself or your relationships with others or whatever. And you don’t have to have the kind of scientific scrutiny in order to believe that you understand the way that your relationships work. But that’s a different way of knowing, it’s a different aspect of the world, and we do talk about that explicitly. And it’s fine with me if students choose to hold two ideas in their mind at the same time, they say, “Well, perhaps this idea that I have doesn’t actually make any scientific sense. I still believe it right now.” But I have some faith that if they continue this process to continue to analyze different ideas using the same skill sets: How does this make sense? What are their thinking errors? Is there an underlying explanation that makes some scientific sense that fits with the way that we know the world works. If they continue to do this, that eventually some of those closely held beliefs, which are scientifically disprovable, that they will start to kind of chip away at the edges there.

Rebecca: I know both of you are big advocates of active learning. Can you talk a little bit about some of the activities or exercises or things that you have students do as part of this course.

Paul: One of the classics, when we talk about psychical ability is pairing students up and having them basically test each other and their clairvoyant skills. So you give them the set of five Zener cards with the star and the squiggly lines and the square and you have them run through a series of “Okay, I’m projecting an image to you, you write down what it is.” And that’s good from a couple of standpoints. One is that it’s active and people are taking part in it, two is that people can understand: “Okay, if I really wanted to do something to show that there is something viable here, what would I have to do differently? Why is this test flawed?” And we talk about the development of good scientific tests. And that’s very productive, because there’s a lot of situations where you can say, “Well, you know, you’re still not controlling for this…” Okay, and the series of sort of nested tests that you have to go through in order to get to something that everyone would say, “Okay, I will accept the results of this” gets to be pretty complex. The other thing that’s good about this on a basic level is that it regresses to the mean. And regardless of the number of students, the number of tests, occasionally students will cheat and you can talk about that. But aside from cheating, you end up with a bunch of people that score exactly what statistics would say you should get and you can talk about one of the big things that I like to emphasize is not to let people use numbers to try to prove something to you that isn’t accurate, basically lying with statistics. A former student in the class sent me a book at some point, this little book called How to Lie with Statistics. And it’s a great medium to talk to students about things that are mathematical in a world where people are fearful of math, and they hate math. And this is a good application of mathematics, sort of basic mathematics to show something that is easy to wrap your head around. And it’s something as well in Shermer’s book, he talks about going to Edgar Cayce’s Institute, and doing this sort of mental ability test or psychical ability test. And he does the same thing. And he tries to convince people that “Well, just because you got 5 right out of 25 doesn’t mean that you’ve got some exceptional ability,” and he draws a bell curve, and they talk about it. And in the end, the person still doesn’t accept it. But it’s a good experiment to run, it gets people thinking about something that is not necessarily easy to think about otherwise.

Kristin: I’ll start by saying that I have huge sympathy for all the new faculty that started in Fall 2020 and were trying to build new courses while coming up with different teaching techniques. I was challenged this semester, this last semester, to build the course while trying to adapt to what was an unfamiliar form of teaching for me. Paul was very gracious in sharing materials. But, you know, when you teach the course yourself has to be rebuilt because it’s your own thinking, and your own style. Just for disclosure, though, I had intended the course to be a hybrid course in which we met with our faces, at least, three times a week, sometimes in the classroom altogether, and sometimes all online together. But as the semester went on, it did not work that way. I ended up having some students that always want to come face to face (a small number), and some that always ended up being online. So it was not the course I anticipated. But that’s okay. I know that we all experienced that. What my students responded to the most enthusiastically ended up being analysis of web comments. So I would often bring in slightly adapted web comments, I would correct for grammar and, you know, readability …say here is this diatribe this person and removing their identity and things because it’s about analysis of argument and they would go to town on it. Here’s this diatribe about astrology, it runs from how scientists are paid to debunk astrology all the way down to how you should stop being sheep and see the truth in front of you and everything in between, with all kinds of false analogies that don’t make any sense in the middle, all that good stuff. They loved that. And I loved it too. We all loved it, because that’s what I really want them to be able to walk out doing, to be able to see kind of something that looks like a well argued and well written diatribe against the world who doesn’t understand and to be able to look at it and say, “Oh, wrong, wrong. wrong, thinking errors, misstatement, false analogy, ripples in a pan have nothing to do with how stars move, and all kinds of different things. [LAUGHTER] So we ended up doing a lot of those kinds of similar things. I think one of the last things I did in the last homework that we worked on together was on a manifestation website service, you sign up for $1,000, you get these courses, and you can manifest wealth in your life and their analysis there was really excellent. It was excellent about why this might appeal to people. What is wrong with all of these arguments? It doesn’t matter how many incredibly well done video anecdotes you get from individuals who have manifested wealth in their life, that that’s not gonna transfer to other people. So lots of analysis of web comments.

John: With social media, there’s a very rich source of data that could be used for this.

Kristin: Exactly.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about the course structure and what you’re doing in these classes?

Kristin: I have avoided student presentations in class for 10 years, because I usually find them to not be a good use of course time, let’s just say that. But Paul was using student presentations, and I put them in for this course and they were awesome. So, I have completely changed my opinion. But part of it is also that I was teaching larger classes in the past. So figuring out how to integrate student presentations in a way that is a useful use of everyone’s time, but the student presentations in this class were fantastic. They were typically on a specific pseudoscience topic that we wouldn’t have spent a lot of time in class on. But it gave them an opportunity to again, have this kind of repeated, “Here’s a thing that you think is really different.” Like. maybe… maybe not… Chromotherapy, you know, does exposing yourself to different colors of light effect different organ functions beyond jaundice, and beyond seasonal affective disorder where there’s clear evidence… if you look at blue light, or red light, or whatever. People go “Hmmm, I’ve seen videos on this on TikTok… well, wait a minute, doesn’t make any sense.” And here are the arguments, a little scaffolding from a student presenter, here are the arguments about why this doesn’t make any sense, then students popping up with other arguments. And having that experience repeatedly, of student presentation after student presentation, I have worked them like you know, three or four weeks, it gave them more experienced practicing. And honestly, some of those topics are fabulous to talk about in class. Although I allowed students to select their topic out of a menu so that they didn’t have to know what was pseudoscience right at the beginning of classes. No one selected urine therapy, though, I was hoping given how much success Paul has had in his classes with that.

Paul: Urine therapy is number one.

John: Could you elaborate on that a little bit, Paul?

Paul: The student response to the class has been really good historically. And I will occasionally, and sometimes out of the blue, receive a book in the mail from a student. This person that I had never heard from after the class, student says: “I was in a bookstore, I saw this and I thought of our class, and I thought you might like it.” So that’s always really nice. But it’s especially nice when the person sends you the definitive book on urine therapy, because my library was not inclusive enough of that topic. So now I have something that when a student chooses, or pulls the short straw, on urine therapy, I have something I can give them as a resource for this topic.

Rebecca: A whole book….

Paul: A whole book. I think it’s called the Golden Fountain. I’m not kidding. When I do the course and I have students do some sort of presentation, I will, so that I don’t run into the problem of a student doing something that they already know a ton about, I’ll have them draw them at random. And from the start, I’ve got the little hat with pieces of paper in it, and I’m telling them: “Who’s going to draw urine therapy?” …and it’s hotly contested. And it’s great when the student comes in to give their presentation that day, and starts out with a long pause and says, “This really makes me sick.” [LAUGHTER]

John: I’m not sure if I should ask, but what is urine therapy?

Paul: Well, I’m surprised being a man of the world that you are not well aware of this, John, but by consuming your own urine, you’re able to tap into a great deal of vitality and essential nutrients, etc, perhaps some reparations to your chakras as well, through consuming your urine. There are people out there who will attempt to get you to pay them money to teach you how you should be doing this. But it comes down to drinking your own urine and having that basically cure any disease. And you can take it purely internally, you can rub it on your skin to produce a healthy skin tone, you can use it in your hair. There are certainly people out there who will claim that it is a cure for cancer. And that’s sort of the bar for all pseudo-medicine is when are we going to get to the end, this cures cancer. And sure enough, there are people out there. It’s usually a sad case where the person had cancer, they went through a number of different treatments, nothing was working, and they hit on this and suddenly they’re cancer free. And it’s a good place to talk about correlation and causation. It’s a good place to talk about how we design clinical tests for medications, vaccinations, whatever. When an agency says “Yes, this is demonstrated efficacious or this is demonstrated safe…” what does that actually mean? Well, it has to go through a certain process, which is not some random process that someone hands over some money and “Okay, yeah, you’re good to go,” that these are real things. So that, I think, is another area in which I’ve significantly improved over. I think I started teaching this in 2006. I talk more about anti-vax. I talk more about clinical trials. I talk about the placebo effect, and Kristin has actually helped me a lot with that. Because she knows about things that I didn’t know about when it came to placebo effects. So there’s a lot of good stuff there that, again, it’s science, but it’s not something that you need to have a degree in something to understand and to be able to then apply in your own life.

John: In terms of the placebo effect, there’s two things that just really struck me in terms of fairly recent research. One is that the strength of the placebo effect seems to be growing over time. And secondly, that the placebo effect still seems to exist, even when people know they’re taking a placebo. Any explanations of why that’s happening?

Kristin: Isn’t that fascinating? I just think that’s amazing. No, no explanations. I have great admiration for the power of the mind.

John: Mystical powers? [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: Well, for example, there is excellent research that says that people who have even late-stage cancer will survive longer, if they have social support. That’s not placebo. That’s because your mind and body are constantly one system and that we survive in a social environment… just one reason the pandemic has been so difficult… and that people survive and thrive better when they’re in a supportive social environment. Totally not placebo. But it is, in some ways, our traditional Western medical approach would see that as a psychological or mental intervention. It’s amazing. Although the early psychoanalysts, they did some strange stuff, and claimed some strange things, Freud and his students, some of that early work, it really does demonstrate if you believe that something is going to be very different. Hysterical pregnancy is a great example. People who believe that they are pregnant strongly believe that they are pregnant who are not actually pregnant, show many physical signs of pregnancy, including abdominal distension and ending of periods. Sso there’s a lot of different things that the mind can do. Unfortunately, only that only takes you so far. But that is definitely something that I talk about in class, as well as the waxing and waning nature of many illnesses, and how that opens people up for charlatans to take advantage of them. Multiple Sclerosis is a great example, where there’s unpredictable often waxing and waning symptoms. And people with MS have been targeted for many, many, many, many years for completely wacky, expensive, invasive, painful treatments because of the waxing and waning nature. And if their experience is that it has healed them, it’s hard to say that’s not your experience. But it is easy to say there isn’t any scientific evidence that this would help anybody else. They’re taking your money, unfortunately. And I also talk about how parents with children with significant developmental disability are often also at a point of desperation, where they’re sometimes ripe for this kind of thing too. One of the students in my class presented on hyperbaric oxygen chamber treatment, which of course is a great treatment if you have the bends after scuba diving, but is not effective for autism, though there is a market to sell people, these chambers for $20,000 to have a chamber in their homes so that they can put their child who has autism in the chamber on a daily basis, which for one thing is expensive and not effective in any way. But it’s also potentially also really scary for a child who doesn’t understand what is going on being shut up in the chamber every day. So, beyond the improved understanding of how the world works, there is, also real harm being done by some of these things. And we’re talking with students about the importance of a control group. Why does having a control group make all the difference? And talking about that repeatedly as these other examples come up, I really believe will help them to understand the world better, and become better consumers and self advocates.

John: One of the things you just mentioned is the importance of a strong social network and of human connections. How did you nurture that in this somewhat challenging circumstance of fall 2020 during the pandemic?

Kristin: That was really hard, because it’s something that I have never struggled with in class before. And it was a real struggle this semester. I don’t know if that was the case for you too, Paul, or Rebecca. But this is something that I consider to be an easy and normal thing in my teaching. But this semester, it was really a challenge to have students make peer-to-peer connections. I feel fairly comfortable that they felt a connection with me. And I certainly felt a connection with them. But getting them to connect peer to peer was a challenge. And I attribute that to first, not ever having done it this way before. I think if I had another chance I could do it better. Just like any kind of teaching, the second time around is usually better than the first. But part of it was that I was so responsive to students who felt like they needed the face-to-face interaction that I continued to meet face to face every day with them with a chunk of students on Zoom. And it would have been, given my teaching style, it would have been a better experience, I think, for all of us if we’d stayed in one together format more often, if that makes sense.

John: I think this is a problem we all faced, that student peer-to-peer connections were challenging, both because of the modality and because of the circumstances in which we’re all living right now. Paul?

Paul: This past fall, I taught a different course. And it was an upper-level honors course. So these are students who… they’re high achieving, they had figured college out. And it was, for me the easiest of all scenarios, because they were on task, and not that they weren’t necessarily happy with the way that the world was going, but from an academic standpoint, it was a fairly easy scenario to adapt to.

Rebecca: I wanted to circle back for a minute about the diversity of topics that you addressed in class, and what you’re using as hooks, and the value of the different kinds of topics as hooks for students. So there’s some that I think fit in the category of very outlandish, which are probably really easy for some students to really get into… find fun… and then there’s also some of the medical things that you’re talking about that I think students might relate to more directly, and they can see how it fits into their lives. Can you talk a little bit about how you chose the topics and how your students may be related to those topics?

Paul: Certainly, when you’re just talking about science, it is harder with a mixed audience of students who aren’t necessarily buying in from the start. In previous incarnations of this class, it was nominally a natural science course, but realistically, it was being taken by everybody. When I taught it as a first-year seminar course, there was a fair number of psych majors. But really, it was a complete mixture. So, I felt obligated to present a certain amount of science. Here’s a big idea in science, why do we think this? What’s the evidence for this? Why is this important? Why should you care? So I was able to get to things like creationism through the door of “Well, how is it that we know that the earth is as old as it is? And why is it that this is not just something that was handed to us, and we believe it, but it’s something that’s objectively demonstratable?” And beyond that, when you start talking about biological evolution? And okay, why is it that we believe that this is at least a reasonable description of what’s going on in nature? Okay, here’s some stuff that’s a little bit dry. But the end goal is being able to say, “Yeah, I can accept this beyond just having it handed to me.” Evolution is a good one, in that it integrates a lot of different things. So you can bring in the purely biological, you can bring in populational, you can bring in geological and physics, and you don’t have to dwell in any one particular spot to try to make the point. But nevertheless, there are portions of the class that are somewhat more pure sciency, and I try to front load those in the course to keep the carrot out there of “Oh, we’re going to be talking about psychical abilities soon, and we’re going to be talking about UFOs soon,” because that’s fun stuff and ghost hunting and all that. But yeah, the science is a critical underpinning for the course and trying to get it so that it’s not just: “Here’s the scientific method, memorize this,” …to have it be science is a process that we all are invested in, and when you stop investing in it, then there’s trouble. And I think that the past year has really underscored the fact that that’s something that everyone should be… certainly every college educated person… but really everyone, should be understanding of the fact that science is a critical tool. And it’s not just the sacred tablets that have been handed down from the clouds, it is something that has objectivity, and there are processes… and what makes a scientific paper. We keep talking about, “Well, this vaccine test was done, and it was published in The Lancet, or it was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Why do we care? Is it just we paid more to get our article in this journal that people quote? No, it’s that these journals actually have a high bar for what they accept as publishable. And if it’s published in there, it means something. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be true a week from now. I think in dealing with science, it’s good to emphasize that it’s not just something that is dusty books sitting on shelves. But by the same token, there’s an inherent danger when you expose the fact that we don’t know anything for certain. And it’s nice and comfortable to think that when you drop the apple, it’s going to fall at a certain rate. And when you get up tomorrow morning, the sun is going to be rising in the east. But when it comes to it, the more contentious the scientific question comes, perhaps, the bigger the scientific question becomes, the greater the likelihood that we’re going to continue to develop our understanding of things and rooting out the question of “Well, that’s just a theory.” Well, it’s not just a theory. If it’s a theory in science, it means something. It doesn’t mean that it’s a hunch. It means that this is something that we’ve put an awful lot of effort into, and awful lot of thought into. A lot of people have had their eyes on this. It’s not just one really smart person saying, “Okay, this is the deal.” …just the process by which we have to go in order to get to the point of saying, “Yes, we accept this as the way things work, whether it’s biological evolution, or whether it’s the verifiability of vaccine, or whether it’s anything.”

Kristin: And one of the things that you’re touching on there, I think, is also an important theme that comes out: that science is a continuing investigation, that it’s very comfortable for students, especially in K through 12, to think about scientists having answers instead of being an ongoing investigation. And typically the things that are taught in K-12 are the things science has answers for, not the things that are continually being investigated. So it can be scary for students who have that background to be confronted with news that our understanding of a virus is changing over time, because that’s the way understanding works. It changes over time as we learn more and more. This theme keeps coming up throughout the semester as well saying, “Hey, this is what we understand now. The state of our knowledge is this. The door isn’t closed to the state of our knowledge to be different in the future. It also gives us a good opportunity to bring in the importance of diverse voices as scientists. So one of the things that I talk about in my class is the roots of psychological assessment and intelligence testing, and how some of those roots have explicitly racist foundations among people who were explicitly racist and some probably unintentionally racist, but having racist impacts. And some of that is clearly because there were only white men doing work at that time in that area. And when you have only one perspective, it leads to one group of answers, that if you have a more diverse group of scientists who are studying a question, they expand the definition of the question, they expand the definition of what is possible evidence, the answers that they come up with are different and better answers because of the nature of scientific investigation. That it’s not just we have a question, and here’s the answer. It’s we have this question about the world, what does the question mean? Is that the right question? Is there a bigger question? How can we investigate it? Let’s look at different evidence, let’s expand our understanding. As part of that, we also talked about the foundations of photography, and what happens when you have only white people creating photographic film and processing. And what happens when you expand that into a more diverse group of people on a more diverse group of images, the same kind of idea. Although I have to say the horoscope and astrology stuff was the stuff that got the most excited,

Paul: Ah ha, the fallacy of personal validation. [LAUGHTER]

John: But I think we can also generalize what you were just talking about in that all of our disciplines involve in ongoing investigation, and that students come into our classes, thinking of them as these defined bodies of knowledge that they just have to memorize. And it is a bit of a shock and adjustment to students to see that there are many things we don’t know. And that takes a while to get them comfortable with that idea and accepting that idea.

Kristin: And that it’s not a flaw in the scientific process or the state of knowledge, the fact that it’s changing. That’s not a flaw, that’s actually a feature. Yeah, that’s a tough one.

Paul: And one of the things that I specifically talk about in the whole science, you know, what is science? What is pseudoscience? …is where things go wrong. And we talk about fraud. There are a number of times during the course where we’ll talk about “Well, this was published in this journal, and it was wrong.” And let’s see what happened later. And we talked about retraction and things like that. So the self- policing nature of science, when it’s working, right, it’s the best way to get to the point of feeling good about an explanation for something. It doesn’t necessarily mean that something is proved or something is fact. But we have this process in place, and as long as it’s a topic that people feel is important enough to have lots of eyes on it… well, there’s going to be no way of hiding that one set of results that doesn’t seem to agree with everybody else’s. And those things get found out, they get basically debunked, and the science moves on. So the idea that science is fallible, the idea that science isn’t perfect, it’s something that has to be embedded in that. But by the same token, because of the nature of the process, we can say that science is about as good as we can do when it comes to understanding and this was Carl Sagan… all that.

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

Kristin: What’s next? What’s next… I’m looking forward to spring semester. I’m looking forward even more to the next fall semester. I think we all are in that position. I really do appreciate the experience that I have with my students and I’ll teach again next year, but since the universe is paying me to be Dean, I have to do that work as well this spring.

Paul: Well, my life has been leading up to this podcast. So really after this, there’s not a heck of a lot left for me. Now, it’s nice to know that CELT wasn’t destroyed by my being part of it once upon a time, and it actually seems to have improved since then. That’s a nice job.

John: Thank you. I think this is a fascinating course. And teaching students to more critically analyze what they read and hear in social media and in their social network is a really valuable skill. So I’m glad you’re working on that

Rebecca: It really does seem like what college is all about.

Kristin: Well, thank you. It was a lot of fun. And throughout the whole semester, I was grateful to Paul for the scaffolding that he gave me. He was able to answer all kinds of questions and gave me interesting materials to work off of. So thank you, Paul.

[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.

[MUSIC]

128. Cultural Acclimation

International students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities often face a multitude of challenges related to cultural differences and language barriers. These challenges can have an adverse impact on their academic performance during their adjustment process. In this episode, Don Donelsen joins us to discuss how the graduate business program at the University of Miami is working to ease this transition.

Don is a lecturer in the Miami Herbert Business School at the University of Miami. He is a recipient of a Spring 2016 University of Miami Excellence in Teaching Award.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: International students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities often face a multitude of challenges related to cultural differences and language barriers. These challenges can have an adverse impact on their academic performance during their adjustment process. In this episode, we discuss how one graduate program is working to ease this transition.

[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, 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]

Fiona: My name is Fiona Coll. I teach in the Department of English and Creative Writing here at SUNY Oswego and this is my turn to sit in as a guest host.

John: We should note that this podcast was recorded in the third week of February 2020. Many of the plans that are discussed here have been altered as a result of the nationwide shutdown of institutions of higher education since the onset of the global pandemic.

Our guest today is Don Donelson. Don is a lecturer in the Miami Herbert Business School at the University of Miami. He is a recipient of a Spring 2016 University of Miami Excellence in Teaching Award. Welcome, Don.

Don: Hi. Glad to be on.

Fiona: Today’s teas are… sweet cinnamon spice.

John: Are you drinking tea?

Don: I’m not drinking tea, but I do actually have a gift from a former student.

Fiona: Oh.

Don: I was told it was Chinese tea, but then other Chinese students said this is not Chinese.

Fiona: [LAUGHTER] Well, you can say we’re drinking tea and you’re looking at tea. I guess that counts.

Don: I am looking at Green tea.

John: And I am drinking a ginger tea. We’ve invited you here to discuss a program that you have proposed and are working on at your institution to help students from China adjust to cultural differences in how classes in the U.S. are taught. What prompted your interest in this issue?

Don: We’ve had a large influx of Chinese students at the University. That’s probably the main impetus on what prompted this. I asked our institutional people for some data, and just in the graduate business program, we had our Chinese population double just in the last year. So we’re up to about 400 and something in the graduate business program, and undergrads, we have about 1500. And we’re not a large school, that’s about 15% or so of the entire population. So I’ve seen noticeable increases in Chinese students in classrooms, especially in the STEM specialized master’s programs, which they’re very attracted to, for some visa reasons, and perhaps other reasons. And so I actually had a section, there were 16 students, 15 of whom were from China, not by design, just this is how many Chinese students we have and sometimes that’s how it worked out. And I started noticing some differences in how the Chinese students were interacting in that class when they were mostly surrounded by their peers from China than the Chinese students who in the past there was one or two Chinese students in a section of 19 or 20, but now there’s four or five. This semester, actually, I have more than half in every single section from China. And so I started noticing that in that one section, it was all Chinese students except for one from South America, the interactions were a bit different. And then discussions with colleagues, how to improve teaching… The courses that I teach are classes on critical thinking, and problem solving and communication. And so the class participation is an enormous component of the class, we teach critical thinking by forcing people to do critical thinking. And so the trope, I guess you might say, not just the Chinese students, but a lot of international students in general, is that their language barriers are most pronounced in a class like that, and they participate less in class discussion, and they have difficulties with communication. Most of them, in my experience, have been difficulties that only they perceive, difficulties that aren’t actually barriers. But all of those issues I found true with the Chinese students but amplified to a much greater degree, and that’s the general consensus among colleagues. And so, as the numbers started to grow, we actually created a course, a different numbered course from the core course that I teach in the graduate program, exclusively for non-native English speakers, because putting them on the same curve is really problematic to their grades when there’s a heavy written component. But at the same time, we have academic standards that matter, I can’t just give them a separate session, so we created a separate course. And so it’s different numbered, and it’s essentially the same course title except for non-native English speakers. And so as I had the accidental almost all Chinese student class last semester, I said, “Hey, I should probably take advantage of this opportunity to test run in the spring semester,” which is now, when I’m going to have by design a class of all Chinese students. So I started really trying to identify “Why would they participate when they did participate? Why didn’t they participate?” Trying to break down what it was that caused these issues that most faculty here observe with their reticence to participate and lack of comfort with speaking up.

Fiona: Can you talk a little more about the general differences between classroom interactions that you’ve observed in students from China as opposed to perhaps students who are mostly American?

Don: So it’s actually changing now, because of some of the stuff we’re doing. Where we were at to begin all this was they pretty much do not participate in class discussions. It’s very rare that they do. If you go full Socratic method and just start calling on people, some of them will participate when called on, but it’s clear that they’re uncomfortable with it, they don’t quite know what to do, and some will just refuse, even when called on. There will just be a minute or two of silence while they try to think of something or they kind of punt. And so with class participation in most of our courses in the graduate program is 20 to 30% of the grade, it’s a significant problem that inhibits their success.

Fiona: And I think you’re suggesting that there are multiple factors involved in this reticence. So, it’s not simply a language-based issue, but also a cultural issue that expectations around classroom culture differ so much that students really do feel unable to participate in a culture that feels so different from the one they’ve just come from.

Don: Exactly. So I started talking to students, one of the things I noted that was interesting was they’re very comfortable speaking after class, one-on-one, very frequent after class. And as I started having more Chinese students in my classes, it began to be a problem, actually, because I didn’t have enough time in between classes to field all of their questions. And so I thought that was interesting. And then in the few instances in which they had to give presentations, so an assigned presentation, like a stock pitch or something, they did remarkably well, mostly. And in fact, if I went and correlated my grades based on nationality, I strongly suspect it would be zero on the presentations, whereas on class participation it was a very strong correlation, so that got me curious. And I started asking them, “Why are you comfortable speaking to me outside of class?” which I’m very appreciative of. The Chinese students in particular here, some of them… I could put a cot in my office because of how frequently they would come to my office hours. And so it was clear to me that it wasn’t an unwillingness or a lack of care, which made me even more curious because some faculty misinterpret their classroom behavior as an unwillingness or lack of care. And so I started engaging and asking questions about participation, and the conversation just kind of grew, and I learned that the way that they do education in China, and there was some various experiences described, but pretty much all of them described an educational environment that they were brought up in, in which there is no mandatory participation as part of the grade. When participation is expected in class it is almost always in the form of a show of hands, and in no instance did any student describe a situation in which they had an open class environment where they would, without being prompted, speak up and make a point or something. In fact, the word that was consistently used by students, when I asked them what they think about speaking up in class, is “rude.” They think it’s rude. They look down, because looking up at someone is considered to be a sign of disrespect in many aspects of their culture. And so some faculty misinterpret it as they’re disengaged or they’re on their cell phone, but they’re actually fully engaged. They just think that that’s what the expectations are. So they think it’s rude to interrupt the class, they think it’s disrespectful to make eye contact. And so there’s a signaling problem, essentially, the normal ways that we would evaluate students to assess understanding, to assess engagement, don’t really work well without some explicit addressessing of these issues with the Chinese students. In addition, one major cause that we found was that their education is, perhaps not surprising to some people, but their education is designed around the idea that there are black and white answers to everything, there is very little gray area, their evaluation metrics appear to be almost exclusively objective, multiple choice, or true and false. Even in their English language classes it’s objective metrics… which of course, we all know the English language, for good or for bad, there are no objectively correct things, but they believe that there is a single correct way to make a statement in English, and so that causes a lot of hesitation in class because some students, they want to participate, but they spend time trying to figure out the right way for me to say this. Some other issues related to these issues with they’ve been taught that everything’s black and white… and even the English language is… they fear embarrassment if they mispronounce a word. They tend to be self conscious of their accent in ways that I don’t find as common with Latin American students or Indian students, who also are prone to having some self conscious issues with accents and like but not to the same degree as to Chinese students. I think it’s because they think there is one way to say it. And so there is a fear of embarrassment wherein it’s hard for them to grasp that they can’t be embarrassed because there’s really no bad answer when we’re having a Socratic discussion. And so fear of embarrassment was a contributor to these issues as well and a lack of specific directions. And so one thing that I found most startling, as I was going through these informal focus groups with Chinese students, is the number of them who could not articulate what class participation means in any way that aligns with what we know class participation to mean. Many of them thought that class participation simply meant showing up and that they would get their points from that. About half of them actually had no idea that their grade would be impacted by class participation, and the frequency and quality of that participation. I spoke with one second-year MBA student who I’d had in class last year for some insights from him, and he expressed that he was in that path, and he had no idea that class participation points mattered. And it pretty much put him in the bottom quarter of the class for his first semester, and then he eventually figured it out, and now he’s in the top quarter of the class, but that was just very upsetting to me. That was the point at which I said, “Okay, we are failing these students. It is not incumbent on them. We are not putting them in a position to succeed.” And that was the real fuel to the fire… to actually do some programming and create some initiatives to try and prepare these students for success better.

Fiona: There is so much about academic culture that feels straightforward and self explanatory until an experience just like this, when you realize how much of what we expect goes unexpressed, or unexplained, or is invisible in one way or another. So how did you begin tackling this enormous and multifaceted issue?

Don: I just made a checklist of all the things that we identified as causing these problems, and it was clear to me that we needed to be active. This was a significant enough problem with deep roots that it wasn’t as simple as just changing the way that we introduce our syllabus, and adding a five-minute spiel or something, it was much deeper than this. And so I proposed that we need to teach them how to be a student in an American classroom, especially in a program that requires Socratic discussion in most classes and is going to be 20 to 30% of their grade. So I proposed that we add a course to the orientation program that we have on how to be a student.

Fiona: And how detailed do you get in terms of approaching this from a metacognitive perspective? You explain to students the larger purpose of this kind of Socratic discussion, or do you simply dive in and have them start practicing? What approach are you imagining taking?

Don: My thoughts were kind of a two-half approach, wherein we first start off by teaching them what the expectations are. And so, exactly as you said, explaining to them things like “we value wrong answers.” John and I taught for many years at the Duke TIP program, and those students… very, very academically gifted… are younger, and so they can be very intimidated by Socratic discussion. And so I would always tell them that our jobs would actually be very boring if, every time we asked a question, the first student who answered gave a perfect and correct answer, and I don’t think that students would learn very much if that was the case. And so the idea is that we’re going to have discussions like that, kind of half teaching and half selling the importance and value to them in participating, accepting that there isn’t really wrong and right answers, we are moving a discussion forward. And when they successfully complete our program in a year or two, they’re going to be holders of a master’s degree in business and going to work in the business world, in which it will be expected that they put forward ideas that they don’t even think are necessarily going to work. Jeff Bezos at Amazon demands people put forward any idea they have, whether they think it’s going to work or not, and so we’re going to use case studies like that, a company they know, Amazon, a person they know, Jeff Bezos, and say, “This is who makes it to Vice President at Amazon, the person who’s willing to speak up in class and give a wrong answer.” So we’re going to educate and sell, really, participation and show them how to do it with some modeling. And so ideally, we will get some second-year grad students in their cohort who, through faculty recommendations, can be good role models and we’ll do some roleplay interacting with those students and demonstrate “Here’s what it looks like after extolling the virtues of it and demonstrating how we want to do it,” and then have them actually just do it, a mock class, and after that we would slowly morph from lecture into Socratic discussion.

John: And you’re planning to start this off with some type of bootcamp at the start of their year when they arrive, correct?

Don: So that’s actually complicated because we have lots of different programs. In business academia there’s been a seismic shift… really, like two years. It’s kind of startling, but there’s a major shift away from MBA degrees and a major shift towards specialized master’s programs. And so we went from having the MBA as our bread and butter, that was our main graduate degree program with I think we have like eight or nine specialized master’s programs now. And so there’s some logistics that have to be worked out because, you know, some of them have their own schedules, and there’s some departmental autonomy. Some of them are coming in July, some are coming in August. So they have a boot camp and then orientation, so those are separate. The idea is that as part of that boot camp, there will be a mandatory required course that is communicated to them, and it’s probably going to be two sessions. So I mentioned you haveb two halves, we’re thinking the best version of this would be overnight with a break in between those two halves with a case to go home with and prepare for this Socratic discussion.

Fiona: I’m wondering how you might incentivize an openness to failure or to wrong answers. Let’s say you’re not Jeff Bezos, don’t have someone’s employment in your hands. Have you experimented with, or thought about, or planned for ways to not just encourage students to take these sorts of risks in the classroom, but to actively acknowledge and perhaps even reward that sort of wrongful, rightful risk taking?

Don: Right, so, yes, and a couple of things I already tried out this semester with that all-Chinese section that I mentioned, I started off that class by saying “Nǐ hǎo, huānyíng lái dào wǒ bān,” which is a surely butchered way of saying “Hello, welcome to my class.” And then I asked them how many of them think I’m stupid because I butchered this phrase in Chinese, and, of course, none of them said that, and I said, “Well, that’s because you have context, and so the same thing is true for you all.” If there’s a student who’s born in Washington, DC, and has lived their entire life in the United States, and now they’re in a master’s program and they’re making grammar mistakes, I should rightfully judge them as having a lack of effort or some kind of problem. But for someone who is not a native English speaker, inductive reasoning does not allow the same kind of leap, and it would be illogical to assess someone on a personal level because they mispronounce a word or something. And so I said, “Just as you did not think lowly of me, or assess me to be incompetent or something because I butchered this Chinese greeting, you will receive the same benefits in your interactions with people.” And so they all laughed, there was a lot of laughter, and I think that kind of worked a decent amount, and then, and this might be unpalatable to some faculty members, but I have found with the Chinese students, they are extremely conscious of the opinions that their professors and peers have of them. And so it is very important to pat them on the back, especially early on. And so I started off with a low-stakes presentation, you know, one minute, because again, I found that when they’re provided with directions, and it’s required, and there’s a grade, they knock it out of the park, and then intentionally pointing out to good things that making them feel kind of safe, and that they’re not going to be embarrassed. Someone will mess something up, they’ll mispronounce a word or something and we’ll point out that it didn’t matter, and no one laughed at them, and that sort of thing. And so I found that doing that early on has helped in this section. And then in addition to that, the other main incentive that we’re playing with is changing class participation grades to more periodic updates, rather than what we typically do, which is just one of the last things that’s entered into our Excel spreadsheet probably after we’ve already gone on spring break, and because the updating of it in the feedback. And, John, I’m sure some of the other episodes I listened to that coincides with the importance of feedback on making better choices, and so not making it a surprise.

John: Letting students know that their lack of adjustment to American culture is actually harming their grades early on makes it much easier to adjust than when they find that out after the fact. So this will require some adjustments, not just from the students to adjust to American institutions, but also from faculty.

Don: Absolutely. If you’re a faculty member at an institution that wants to be a global institution, you have to think globally, and you can’t just expect every student to show up in your classroom Americanized. I think it’s kind of silly thinking really to just demand that the students Americanize themselves or westernize themselves and sink or swim because we’re not setting them up to have good outcomes, and that’s what we’re here to do.

John: We face some similar issues here. We’ve tried to focus on working on faculty to change the way they teach classes, but that only reaches the faculty who actually attend those workshops and students need to adjust to a wide range. And so I think there’s a lot of merit to this approach of working with students to help them get acclimated, especially perhaps in a business school where many of the students may want to go and work in firms where that type of participation and that type of activity is expected. So it’s also partly an introduction to American culture, as well as just American educational systems, which in a master’s program in business, would seem to be really appropriate.

Don: Absolutely. One of the drivers of the growth in specialized master’s programs for international students is STEM degrees get an automatic two-year work visa, which is very attractive. And so it’s pretty clear that, especially in those STEM credentialed degree programs, that their goal is to take advantage of that automatic to get employment, and it will impact them very quickly if they don’t acclimate to the classroom environment, which as you said, we do model business environments. And so I tell my students that we’re going to behave as though we’re in a consultancy meeting in class. You’re absolutely right. It’s beyond just a procedure for how to get grades, it is training for bigger things beyond the classroom.

Fiona: You mentioned that this program is focusing on masters level students, but the university also has a large number of undergraduate students. Do you think that this is a model that could be expanded to address that slightly different student population?

Don: I think so. Logistics would be an issue, of course, we’d probably have to recruit more help. But scaling aside, I don’t see much difference at all. I do teach a handful of undergrad sections every once in a while and the issues thinking back are identical.

Fiona: I have a slightly random question. Do students from China come to America with a pre-existing idea of what college is going to be like, what graduate study might be like? Is there any access they have to set up any horizon of expectations for them?

Don: This is not information that I got from our focus groups, but my observations, I strongly suspect that it’s something they don’t even think about. It’s kind of like you don’t know what you don’t know, and they’re startled to find that it’s not just what they have been doing for the last 12-15 years of education.

John: When they’ve been adjusting to a school system for over a decade, it’s pretty easy to base your expectations on what you’ve observed in the past.

Don: Right.

Fiona: I, too, interact with international students in a slightly different context, in an English literature department.

Don: Oh, that’s got to be tough.

Fiona: And many of the issues, especially that black and white thinking you’re describing, are amplified in my discipline, but I always do ask them partially by way of getting them to think about their own expectations, you know, “What were you imagining this class might look like?” And often they do have some sort of pop cultural version of what school might be like that emerges in a fascinating way. They have particular reasons for wanting to come to America in the first place to study, so I was just curious as to whether or not you had any insight into that version of things for Masters of Business students?

Don: No, I think they just value an American degree in business. Some of them do come from American undergrad institutions, and those students generally have already acclimated, but most of them are coming straight from China. Many of them, the day before orientation was their first day ever in the United States. That’s really scary, and so they show up at the airport and realize that they’re not nearly as good at speaking English as they were led to believe. And so I think there’s a lot of just very understandable ignorance of what they don’t know. We’re using a lot of social media, and we’re encouraging a lot of social media use, our Chinese students to communicate with their peers back in China, both as we find it’s a very good recruitment tool, and also to help with that kind of expectation.

Fiona: One of the other things I hear from the students I interact with who have come from China is their shock at how quickly Americans speak English, how fast professors speak in the classroom, and that’s a tougher one to handle in a boot camp class, I suppose. And I find myself simply trying to reassure them that they will be surprised at how quickly they adjust and they just need to give it some time and some practice, but it’s a very real source of anxiety for them in those first weeks of the semester.

Don: Yes, absolutely. And I’m glad you mentioned that because that is such a common… I mentioned before that students frequently will come up to me after class to engage and the mode interaction is asking for clarification on something that was said an hour prior in the middle of class that they didn’t understand. And in some cases, that’s fine. I can clarify, and it works, but in some cases, it’s like, “Okay, well, everything after that for the last hour, you didn’t get either if you didn’t understand that, and that’s really disappointing as well.” And so I make it a point, whether it’s an all Chinese class or not, I tell them that I want them to stop me if I’m speaking too fast, or I say something they don’t understand, that I want them to stop me and let me know that, and that I don’t think it’s rude. And in fact, I would be very upset to later learn that I wasn’t communicating effectively enough for them to gain understanding, and so that has helped a lot. It usually takes more than once of saying that for it to set in, but by the second or third class this semester, I’ve had pretty much every class someone stopped me and said, “I didn’t understand that” or, “my translator is not registering that word. What is that?” But yes, that’s an enormous issue.

John: Is lecture capture used there at all?

Don: I don’t use it.

John: Many of us use it. And I know in my econometrics class, before I flipped the class, I used to do some interactive lectures, and one of the things that mostly Korean students and occasionally Japanese or Chinese students noted was that if there were parts they didn’t understand that well, they could go back and play it back at half speed to make it easier to understand things, and that’s a nice accessibility feature for anyone who’s not a native English speaker. Another option might be to let students record things too, and then they could go back and play it back at a reduced speed until their understanding was able to keep up with the actual rate at which we speak.

Don: Interesting that you mention that because one thing that came from the Chinese students themselves in these focus groups was a pretty surprising number of them who said that we should ban electronic devices completely, because they said that they’re… so much more than American culture… they’re wed to their electronic devices. And they pretty much admitted that you are going to have some engagement issues unless you just forbid the electronic devices.

Fiona: It’s interesting that they can recognize [LAUGHTER] a certain sort of problem and are asking for help, I suppose.

Don: Well, they asked for help after the semester was done, and they made me promise to not name them if I implemented a ban. So there was some strategy involved, so that’s critical thinking.

John: But there is also the capability of a recorder which would not be that much fun to interact with. So…

Don: Right.

John: …there are devices that could work that would not be distracting.

Fiona: I’m really struck by the way in which you’re paying attention to a very specific cultural group here and you’re adjusting to very specific problems that that group has. You mentioned your checklist of things you know are happening and your desire to find the source of those things, but I can’t help but think that the adjustments you’re making are, in fact, adjustments that might benefit all sorts of students, all sorts of students for whom academic norms are a little bit hard to penetrate, or to understand, students who might have cognitive differences and struggle in discussion situations in particular. And so your particular intervention here seems to open out into a larger issue of what inclusive teaching might look like.

Don: Absolutely, and I’ve actually had that same thought. We’re singling out Chinese students, but boot camp, is there a problem with that? And is there some perception bias on our end that we don’t recognize these same issues with some other groups? But I think it’s very institutional, it’s not just culture by culture, it’s institution by institution. What we ended up finding is, because of our very, very heavy South American roots, our Latin American students are non-native English speakers who are native Spanish speakers, I think they feel more comfortable here than they might in many other institutions, and so you could have these same exact kinds of problems rearing their head, even maybe 100 miles north of here at another institution where there’s not a critical mass and those kinds of deep connections. We even offer some of our core courses in Spanish, and so I think they feel very comfortable. But it struck us that it wouldn’t take many changes in our circumstances for them to be in the same boat, perhaps, as we found the Chinese students. So you’re absolutely right.

Fiona: We do usually finish up by asking “What’s next?”

Don: What’s next is interesting, because the virus issues and so we are probably facing deferment of admissions to Spring 2020. And so what’s immediately next is adjusting on the fly as those things develop. But as far as the specific issue with helping students acclimate, where I would like to go next is just keep learning, keep having these discussions with students. So I had 20 something odd students participate in a pretty lengthy focus group session with me, that’s not enough, and so keep learning, start implementing some evaluation methods on ourselves. As John mentioned, sometimes it’s difficult to get faculty to cooperate with things but ideally, we would mandate standard language on class participation in all graduate syllabi, we would mandate periodic updating of their score on that. And we would even add in our reporting metrics, how the scores are changing in those classes that are doing that. Are they improving after we give them the first update, and so learning more about the students and the issues that they face so that we can better serve them I think is what’s next and really probably what always should be next.

Fiona: That’s great.

John: Sounds really good.

Fiona: Good luck with all of it.

Don: Thank you.

Fiona: Sounds like a very worthy intervention.

John: Thank you, Don. It’s always good talking to you.

Don: Thanks for having me, so much.

[MUSIC]

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

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

[MUSIC]