140. Pedagogies of Care: Nerd Edition

This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, Dr. Jessamyn Neuhaus joins us to discuss the myth of the super teacher and the importance of focusing on self-efficacy, being human, and being reasonable with ourselves and each other. Jessamyn is the Interim Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is a recipient of the State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She is also the author of Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, we discuss the myth of the super teacher and the importance of focusing on self-efficacy, being human, and being reasonable with ourselves and each other.

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

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

John: &hellipand Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guest today is Dr. Jessamyn Neuhaus. Jessamyn is the Interim Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is a recipient of the State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She is also the author of Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers, which she talked about on one of our earlier podcasts. Welcome back, Jessamyn.

Jessamyn: Thank you for having me. I’m really happy to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Jessamyn: I am drinking anything and everything with caffeine all day long, every day since March. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Fair.

John: And I am drinking a ginger peach green tea which is, I think, my fifth or sixth cup of tea today.

Rebecca: I’ve got the Irish breakfast going today. You notice, my caffeine choices are definitely on the higher end lately, too. [LAUGHTER] The powerhouses of tea.

John: Caffeine has been extremely helpful in the last couple of months. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: What’s in your teaching tool belt? Some caffeine. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: Yeah.

John: We’ve invited you here today to talk about your contribution to the Pedagogies of Care Project, which we’ve talked about in the last couple of podcasts. Could you tell us a little bit about your contribution to this project?

Jessamyn: Sure. It’s called Pedagogy Nerds Assemble: Battling Big Teaching Myths during Troubled Times. And it’s really about encouraging faculty teaching self-efficacy in the face of so much uncertainty, and trauma, and loss, and struggle now and in the foreseeable future. It also takes the kind of little bit of the snarky tone that I enjoy adding to the scholarship of teaching and learning, kind of real talk to empower faculty to not buy into certain myths that can really interfere with our ability to appreciate our unique ability, our unique contributions to student learning and student success. And mine is in the form of a recorded PowerPoint presentation. I know the project has taken different kinds of format to try to be as accessible as possible. So, I’m very comfortable with PowerPoint, I definitely do not like recording a video of myself. I just did the first one yesterday, because I have a feeling I’m gonna need to do it more often in the semester to come and it was just as awful as I imagined it could be. [LAUGHTER] For the PowerPoint, I have a little picture of myself on the slide, but just my voice.

Rebecca: It sounds like something that we really need. Like self efficacy is something that, in a time when we’re really stressed, is something that we all need more, but also it’s hard to feel like you can empower people to feel like they can empower themselves. Do you have any tips that you can share with faculty about things that they can be thinking about?

Jessamyn: Well, I don’t want to give away all the myths, so I can build interest in the project. But, one of the myths of the three that I tackle in the presentation is the super teacher myth. And fighting that super teacher myth, the impossible ideals of the incredibly charismatic professor who magically helps students learn just by being entertaining. That myth is really, really persistent. And I think the more we can encourage people to recognize that that exists, even maybe at an unconscious level, but to really call it out and recognize it. And that goes a long way towards seeing: “Oh, so here are the ways I can help students keep learning even in these traumatic and troubled times.” I had a crisis pretty early in the shift to emergency remote instruction because I had not taught online before. And I was really struggling with being present to students and communicating to students because, as an introvert who had retreated to her house to replenish her teaching energy, I suddenly found myself needing to open up communication to students at home, while my beloved family (who I wanted to throttle) was humming and buzzing around me. And I had to be more accessible and communicate and present to students, all things I’d learned how to do in person pretty well as part of my teaching persona and to be effective, but I didn’t know how to do it online. And I was lamenting on Twitter: “I suck at this. I’m never going to be good,” and Flower Darby, a scholar of online teaching and learning, reminded me “It took you a long time, like it does for everybody, to learn how to teach effectively in person. The same is true for this new format, this new platform.” And it’s that super teacher myth, “I should be able to do it suddenly, even though I’d never done it before.” So, fighting the super teacher myth would be one of my top pieces of advice. I think.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that you’re pointing out that’s important to remind everybody, as we’re planning for fall in new platforms is there’s a learning curve to anything that’s new. And so if you’re having to learn the LMS, or a new piece of technology, or whatever, the faculty member needs to do that, but so do our students. So, [LAUGHTER] we need to build in some of the time and space to allow ourselves to do that as well as our students and they know when we’re not comfortable or we haven’t built up those skill sets to so being real with students about where we’re comfortable and when we’re not is also not a bad thing being human is important.

Jessamyn: No, and actually it can model for students having a growth mindset, and that learning takes time and it requires making mistakes and, as hard as it is, as difficult as learning is, especially in crisis conditions, especially in the context of trauma and loss, learning is also why we academic nerds and scholarly geeks got here in the first place. I know it’s helped me a lot this semester, in the midst of the struggle and this pain, to be able to look for things that I’m learning about teaching, and I’m learning about my students, and maintaining a growth mindset about my own pedagogical practices, remembering that it always takes a lot of practice, takes experience, takes reflection, but feeling like I was able to learn something… that always makes things better, that makes my nerdy heart happier. [LAUGHTER]

John: I think a lot of faculty have experienced learning in ways that many people hadn’t learned since grad school in terms of making an adjustment. Some people found it easy. The people who are ready teaching online generally found the transition at least smoother than it was for other people. But, for people who were used to only teaching in the classroom, this was a pretty traumatic experience, as it was for many of the students. I was just looking through some comments I got from my students this semester. And some of them said, “I didn’t sign up for an online class, because I really didn’t like it,” and they said the same thing in class right before we made that transition. So, it’s been a learning experience for all of us and maintaining that growth mindset, I think, is really helpful. How can we help students do that? I know you talked about that in your book as well as in your project.

Jessamyn: Well, kind of what I was just saying before, one thing I’ve found helpful is really the modeling portion, especially with the online aspect. And it was helpful with my students, first of all, to clarify this semester. This is not an online class. This is emergency remote instruction, and we’re looking to finish the semester the only ways we can in this crisis condition. And then, just liike we were mentioning before, I also was very clear and upfront about things I was learning how to do. And I’ve mentioned it a couple places now, so it’s getting a little less embarrassing, but I’ll admit it’s still embarrassing. One thing that I was forced to learn how to do was have students submit assignments electronically. I was still making them print out a hard copy of their paper and turn it in, even though for years, I knew I should not be doing that. I knew it made more sense to have them submitted online because I like to scaffold it. So, I always said, so I have to see my previous comments. It totally made sense. Plus, they didn’t have to pay for the printout, which was a real hardship for some of my students. So, I was finally forced to learn how to do it. And I told students, because I made a big deal at the beginning of the semester, I know this is old school and I am being an old Gen X lady here, but can you please print out your assignments? I’m really sorry about the extra step. And then halfway through I said, “Okay, Well, we’re all gonna do this together, and I’m gonna learn how to use the Moodle Dropbox” and I messed it up several times, the settings were wrong and students couldn’t submit. And they were so understanding. A couple of students said this to me, “I know you’re just learning how to do this.” So, it’s okay and it was kind of like modeling that and being clear about this was the technology that was new to me, and trying to be flexible with it. It kind of forced me to also rethink things like I have this really harsh and firm deadline. Well, yeah, except you messed up the Moodle dropbox parameters, so you can’t do that anymore.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that your story illustrates, to some extent, is that breaking down that one myth that you had just talked about, the super teacher, that by showing that we’re learning and that we make mistakes, it also shows students that the learning process includes making mistakes and so it’s not a terrible thing to have that occur. I know that when I’ve struggled with things in class before the students really respond to knowing like, “Oh, I don’t know the answer to that, like, let’s see if we can figure it out.” And the more you can indicate that you’re not some encyclopedia, [LAUGHTER] the more helpful it is.

Jessamyn: Yeah, I had a lot of students clearly very hesitant and fearful about going online. So, helping to demystify that a little bit, I think was helpful.

Rebecca: What are some of your takeaways from this semester moving into the fall?

Jessamyn: For me personally, definitely, kind of building on what I was just saying, being able to better utilize some of our learning management systems to achieve the pedagogical goals that I’ve always wanted to do. There are some very effective tools that I just had not utilized much before because I was doing face to face. One example I can think of is I live for discussion. That’s my favorite part of class and having students discuss, I’ve tried to keep my own piehole shut as much as possible and there are ways to structure, at least some discussion. Even if you’re doing a face-to-face class, you can also include some discussion in your learning management system that’s more inclusive, that will encourage what I hear from faculty lived experiences. And what I’m starting to read about is that there’s ways a good online discussion can increase student participation from people who, for whatever reason, are hesitant to participate in face-to-face discussions. Somebody I know who works with students with English as a second language said when they were forced to switch to online discussions, they started to hear so much more from students who had been hesitant about participating in face-topface discussions. So, my personal takeaway is definitely, when it helps me achieve the pedagogical goal that I would have in any format, I should be able to use some of the online learning tools that are out there. For faculty at large, I guess, I would say two things: One, I saw a lot of pain and struggle, as people were forced to give up things that had worked really effectively for them in the classroom. There’s a real loss there. That’s just one of many, many losses that faculty themselves were experiencing, and of course, in our personal lives during this crisis, but also as teachers, the switch was pretty traumatic in many ways. So, that kind of emotional component and being aware of what we lost and ways that the uncertainties that we’re facing really are going to take a toll day to day, class to class. And the other big takeaway, I think, I saw a lot of faculty and read about a lot of faculty really reflecting for the first time: What are we grading? How are we going to assess student learning? That really rose to the top among the faculty here. How can we possibly assess student learning? They’re just gonna cheat if they’re at home with their book and having it shoved in your face. Well, what do you want them to learn? What are they trying to learn? And how are you going to be able to assess that? So, really deep and difficult reflections on assessing student learning,

John: That type of reflection can result in improved practice, no matter how we’re teaching in the future, I think.

Jessamyn: Yeah, for sure. I just want to give one little shout out here to that term “Pedagogies of Care,” because I do think there’s some misunderstanding about it or assumptions that it means just being completely and utterly touchy feely and a lessening of academic rigor. And that’s not the case, as I talk about in Geeky Pedagogy and have talked about a lot in my own personal experience. You can express care for student learning and a wide range of ways you don’t have to be the extroverted, extra warm, motherly, fatherly professor. I am not that person. I’m very intellectual. And with students, I keep it really professional. But, I’m always getting feedback that she cares a lot, Professor Neuhaus cares so much, because I’m totally fascinated with their ideas and their learning and I do everything I can to help them learn. So, Pedagogy of Care, first for students, means clearly conveying to students that you want them to succeed. And that can take all kinds of different forms. The other thing in my contribution to the project that I emphasize about the Pedagogy of Care is that extends to faculty as well. And we really could all stand to be a little bit kinder and gentler to ourselves and to each other in these extraordinarily difficult times. The Pedagogy of Care extends to our own learning, and not “I flunked. I flunked the semester of teaching. I suck.” No, be as kind to yourself. I’ve repeated this to a number of people for the past four months, like just talk to yourself the way you would to a struggling student that you want to succeed, you know, you’re trying&hellip keep going&hellip you can do it. Don’t give up. This is an obstacle and it’s hard, but you’re learning. talk that way to yourselves too, and try to extend it to colleagues if you can.

Rebecca: I think that one thing that I heard a lot of faculty talking about in relationship to this idea is what they need for self care, and what they actually need and be able to kind of articulate it on a day-to-day basis beyond just the crisis, but there’s competing interests of like family and work and home space and workspace and what have you. And I think people are realizing what kind of time they need for different things to feel balanced, because everything got so out of balance, [LAUGHTER] going from one extreme to another.

Jessamyn: Oh my gosh, yes. I wrote about that. I had an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and it was talking about being an introvert working from home and contrary to this kind of knee jerk: “Oh, introverts have it so great now, because they get to be at home.” Well, except that there could be other people there as well. [LAUGHTER] And demanding, finding, wresting out some solitude when you’re working from home was to me really vital, and it was not easy at all… it was stressful.

Rebecca: Yes, I remember reading that article and thinking, “Yes, all of these things.” [LAUGHTER] We have a system at my house now and that system is really helpful.

Jessamyn: That’s good. Yeah. structure. Yeah. And I live with two off-the-charts extroverts, like off the charts. And normally that works pretty well for us as a family. But, during this situation&hellip no&hellip social isolating. Like our needs were diametrically opposed. I need more time alone. I need more human contact. Yeah, it’s been rough. It’s been rough. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ll include a link to your article in the show notes as well.

Jessamyn: Thank you.

John: So, you’ve picked a great time to be taking over a teaching center. [LAUGHTER].

Jessamyn: &hellip just the status quo, same old, same old, nothing really big going on.

John: So could you talk a little bit about what you’re planning to help prepare faculty for the uncertainty of the fall semester?

Jessamyn: Sure, It’s a great question. It’s definitely a uniquely challenging time to be trying to revitalize a teaching and learning center on a small rural campus with very limited resources and, like most state schools, facing some really severe financial and student enrollment problems, like maybe forever altering some structures. So, it’s tough. There’s a lot of managing of expectations and emotions. I think the advice that I’ve gotten by far the most, and makes the most sense as well, is the importance of building connections and building communities on campus and reaching out to a wide variety of stakeholders, including students, and really trying to foster pedagogical communities of practice on campus. So not trying to, again with the superhero theme, not trying to fly in and say I’m going to fix everything, but instead trying to encourage sharing of ideas, sharing of resources, support for each other, at this difficult time. We have a very small technology enhanced learning unit that has one instructional designer but we are collaborating on summer programming and working together and just trying to help everyone, I guess, really cultivate that growth mindset we were talking about, and try to approach this as an opportunity for learning. I won’t say silvered lining. That’s not how we want to frame it. But there is this opportunity because every campus has a small group of people who are bought into faculty development from day one, and they’re at every workshop and they want to take every offering and they’re your biggest fans. Then there’s a small group who are going to actively oppose faculty development in any way shape or form and will never ever come to your stupid pointless workshops for any reason, not for love or money. But, then there’s this whole middle population who you could maybe attract them, they could go to one workshop and find it useful and maybe go to another one. Well, that population, in the past three months, has just shot into a whole new world. And I have had, just in the past couple months I’ve been the Teaching Fellow for the CTE and then just starting this gig as the interim director. So I was doing some things with the CTE, and I saw more faces and heard from more people who had never darkened the door of the Center for Teaching Excellence appear and ask me questions and show up. Because, I think it’s not just personally “I don’t know what to do,” but suddenly everywhere, like literally everywhere are professors saying, “I could use some assistance with this. I’m not sure what to do.” Like for the first time in ever, there’s this like cultural acknowledgement that “I don’t know everything.” Like, that’s a major leap for academics to be like, “Well, yeah, maybe I don’t know everything here and I could use some assistance,” but everybody was saying it, everybody was doing it. So, there’s this opportunity to keep building on that and to offer assistance and encourage that growth mindset about their own pedagogical practices to a whole group of people who have never thought about it that way before. So it’s this precious opportunity. I hope I don’t blow it. [LAUGHTER]

John: I think we all share those thoughts about hoping we don’t blow it in getting ready for this.

Rebecca: Now, let’s not put unreasonable expectations upon ourselves.

Jessamyn: I know. [LAUGHTER]

John: But this is true not just for teaching. As human beings, we tend to do things as we’ve always done them unless there’s some compelling need to change. And when things don’t work the way they used to, it forces us to reevaluate how we’re doing anything. And then it’s a great growth opportunity. And it opens a lot of potential. It can be really difficult, as we’ve all been noticing.

Jessamyn: I do think it’s also, not to slam my beloved academic geeks, but I think it can be especially hard for scholarly experts. I mean, we were trained in graduate school: “You don’t reveal your vulnerable underbelly to the alpha academic or you’ll get your throat ripped out.” You always have to be the smartest person in the room. Like that’s the goal of getting your PhD and to back up and admit, “Well wait, I could use some help with this&hellip that’s a big leap for a smarty pants who’s used to their classroom kingdom where nobody ever questions their expertise and authority, which by the way, is not every professor,it depends on your embodied identity. That is a big caveat there. But, you do have this professorial authority and saying “I need help” or saying, “Wow, what worked before isn’t going to work here.” That’s a major leap. That’s a big ask for many academics.

John: And it can help break down that super teacher myth that you mentioned earlier.

Jessamyn: For sure. Yeah.

Rebecca: I think, along those same lines, too, it’s like that same group of people is recognizing all kinds of barriers that students face that weren’t so visible before.

Jessamyn: That’s very, very true.

Rebecca: So really, like transitioning the perception of the ivory tower to something a bit different, and I actually really hope it sticks.

Jessamyn: Yeah, me too. And that’s been amazing, actually, the way I’ve seen that on my campus as well. And it was interesting because I was doing a department-based needs assessment before the emergency pivot. So, I’d been talking to faculty about what they saw as teaching challenges and the student population. And then, within a few weeks after our shift, I saw some of those same professors saying very different things about their students and seeing them in a very different way. Like straight up saying, “My students lives are so hard…” like the obstacles and the lack of access to WiFi, for example, that’s a serious issue. Yeah. And it always has been. So, yeah, it really did. It humanized, I think is the term I hear some people saying is it humanized our teaching in new ways, for sure. And that could be a reach sometimes. Like I was saying, I am very intellectual, I don’t have a lot of personal discussions with my students. But, in these crisis situations, I was very clear about being worried about them and being concerned and hoping they were safe. And all my students appreciated it, but I knew some of them were like, “This is Professor Neuhaus saying, ‘Oh, I’m worried about you. Stay safe.’ Professor Neuhaus, really?” So, yeah, humanizing our interactions is important.

John: I hope that’s a message or a lesson that continues through into the future.

Jessamyn: Me too.

John: And I think it’s worked both ways, that I think a lot of students have seen some of the challenges their professors have faced, not just in terms of using the technology or teaching in a new format, but in terms of having children or pets or other things, or having technology issues, or having access issues themselves, where someone might be using a video game or something similar, cutting into the bandwidth. Many faculty have reported to us that their students have expressed concern, asking if they’re okay, and encouraging them to stay safe and so forth.

Rebecca: I think it’s also along those same lines brought to light some of the invisible barriers that contingent faculty have, being at multiple institutions or the incredible workload that they’ve been asked to bear without really any compensation for the time and effort and energy that’s gone into it.

Jessamyn: Yeah, for sure.

John: Our institution has provided loaner computers and other types of technology to both students and faculty. And an interesting phenomena was that there were more faculty who requested computing equipment and other tools than there were students even. They provided a good deal of it to both, but some of those barriers are not just for students, especially are adjuncts who often are struggling to get by.

Jessamyn: For sure. I was just going to reference and you can put this in the notes to Cate Denial, a historian who wrote a very well known essay, I’m hoping she’ll write a book, advocating a pedagogy of kindness. And I definitely saw how effective that can be this semester for me personally, but I also saw with a lot of other faculty for the first time really seeing what a little bit of flexibility and a little bit of kindness&hellip again, not lessening academic rigor, but bringing in, specifically, some of that humanizing kindness&helliphow effective that can be. And actually, on a similar note, the advocates of ungrading have gotten a big boost as well, because I’ve seen and read a lot of faculty saying, “Wow, you know, once I told my students pass-fail, for example&hellip Wow, their final projects were so great, like they actually did what I want them to do and learn what I want them to learn once the stress and anxiety and kind of false dichotomies, I guess, of grading were taken off the table.” So there’s some real possibilities there.

John: We’ve talked quite a bit about things that we should be focusing on in terms of getting ready for the fall. But what are some things we should probably avoid as either faculty or professional developers in preparing for the fall semester?

Jessamyn: I think a big one is to not ignore or try to just sort of skip over the trauma and the loss that people experienced and also not play like “Who had the worst trauma?” or “Who had the worst loss?” In all kinds of ways we experienced loss as we experienced trauma&hellip and the way trauma works, the weight loss and grieving works is even a small loss can be very difficult because your brain and your heart and your soul are trying to process all your losses and all previous grief and loss. I know I always love graduation. And even though I sit there&hellip it’s very long… it’s very hot… [LAUGHTER] and it can feel like a chore at times. But, the commencement ceremony is so meaningful for everybody, but especially for first-generation students and their families. And we tried to fill in a little bit with some online messages and some online rituals. And I started watching it and just started crying. And I’m like, “What is this? What is happening here?” &hellipand it’s a loss to not be able to engage in that ritual. It’s not the world-ending loss, but it’s a loss and it’s a trauma and people are going to arrive to classes in late August, whatever format it is, with all those things having really just happened to them&hellip faculty, students, administrators, I mean, everybody’s gotten a really raw deal this semester. And that’s not just going to be magically fixed, even if somehow we’re back to exactly where we were. And if all the face-to-face classes are in session as they were planned, and everything’s fine again, but what happened this semester is still gonna be there.

Rebecca: I think that’s a really good reminder. Our students are going to be changed and will be different. And I think in the moment of this semester, a lot of students weren’t able to process what was happening. So, you might really have a really different experience with students in the fall, when they’ve also had a little space to process what that experience was like and the things that they missed out on and are missing out on if they’re online in the fall.

Jessamyn: Yeah, the first chapter in Geeky Pedagogy, advocates for practicing awareness, and really just being as fully mindfully present to the reality of what’s happening around you. And I think that’s always important. But, I think it’s going to be especially important in the fall. And it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to change things that are bad, but to first really be cognizant and aware of what is happening, what is going on here. And the state of all our mental, emotional, and physical states is going to be something that we really have to pay attention to.

Rebecca: I think that’ll really shift what first days of classes look like in the fall.

Jessamyn: Yeah, for sure. The uncertainty remains. We don’t know what’s going to happen. And we can put plans in place, but we just don’t know. And that’s…

Rebecca: &hellipterrifying.

Jessamyn: Yeah. [LAUGHTER] For people who love to plan, and I had really fooled myself, you could see it in my book, too. I’ve attained a new enlightened state where I can roll with the changes and you got to be aware of stuff but then as soon as my world was severely disrupted, no, it was all gone. Just zip… gone. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Emotions do have a lot to do with how we learn and process things.

Jessamyn: Yeah! [LAUGHTER] Come on, emotional learning… yeah.

John: As you know, we always end with the question: What’s next? A question that we’re all thinking about pretty much all the time.

Rebecca: Please tell us.

Jessamyn: Yeah. Wow, that’s crazy&hellip ‘cause I have been working on a project, an anthology of insights into effective teaching from women, marginalized, and underrepresented faculty. It hasn’t been suspended, but I extended the deadline, not having the bandwidth and assuming potential contributors also just utterly overwhelmed. And then I guess it’s like day by day&hellip What could maybe help a few people on campus teach effectively? And, of course, how am I going to prepare my own class to be as resilient and flexible as possible for the fall&hellip and just on a personal note, what about my child? He just finished his first year of college. It was not a overwhelming success. I mentioned last time I was here that he is a lackadaisical student. And he had many of the challenges that first-year college students face. And then, of course, this semester has been a disaster. He was one of those students who said, “I don’t want to do an online class.” He’s an extrovert. He’s very social. So, we’re not sure what’s going to happen for him in the fall. So, those are all the uncertainties awaiting us.

John: I first heard about the Pedagogies of Care project when one of the people participating posted a picture of the Zoom screen with all those people in it. [LAUGHTER] And I recognized all of them, and many of them had been guests on our podcast. So, the initial image didn’t talk about what it was for, it just said a gathering of present and future authors from West Virginia University Press, and it looked like a really impressive group of people. So, we’re very much looking forward to this project. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes.

Jessamyn: They’re really some of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and definitely the best collaborators I’ve ever had. It’s a unique experience being part of that series. I’ve never had a group of scholars who’ve kind of come together and really formed a supportive and encouraging community. It’s just amazing. I’ve never experienced anything like it. And this project, I think, is a good example of how the series at West Virginia University Press edited by Jim Lange is unique to not just the scholarship of teaching and learning but to scholarship period, because I’ve been in various series and journals and stuff, but there’s never been a sense like, this is a real pedagogical community of practice where ideas are debated and shared, and each scholar is really supported and I’m really incredibly grateful and proud to be part of it.

John: And that also shows up in the Twitter conversations that take place. For those who don’t follow the authors there, we strongly encourage that.

Jessamyn: Absolutely. Yes.

Rebecca: Definitely, that’s how we found out about this project.

Jessamyn: Thank you so much for having me.

John: Thank you.

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

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

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131. Trauma-informed Pedagogy

The global COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in serious disruptions in everyone’s lives. Traumatic experiences reduce our ability to focus, to learn, and to be productive. While this has always been true, it is an issue that has often been ignored by higher ed faculty. In this episode, Karen Costa joins us to discuss how trauma-informed pedagogy can be used to help our students on their educational journey in stressful times.

Karen is an adjunct faculty member teaching college success strategies to online students and a faculty professional development facilitator at Faculty Guild. She is a staff writer for Women in Higher Education. She writes regularly about higher education, and her new book 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos was just released by Stylus Publishing. In addition to her education degrees, Karen holds a professional certification in Trauma and Resilience from Florida State University and will complete her certificate in Neuroscience Learning and Online Instruction from Drexel this spring. She’s also a certified yoga teacher. Karen has been working to support diverse learners with trauma-aware practices since 2002.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: The global COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in serious disruptions in everyone’s lives. Traumatic experiences reduce our ability to focus, to learn, and to be productive. While this has always been true, it is an issue that has often been ignored by higher ed faculty. In this episode, we examine how trauma-informed pedagogy can be used to help our students on their educational journey in stressful times.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guest today is Karen Costa. Karen is an adjunct faculty member teaching college success strategies to online students and a faculty professional development facilitator at Faculty Guild. She is a staff writer for Women in Higher Education. She writes regularly about higher education, and her new book 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos was just released by Stylus Publishing, and I just got my copy a couple of days ago. In addition to her education degrees, Karen holds a professional certification in Trauma and Resilience from Florida State University and will complete her certificate in Neuroscience Learning and Online Instruction from Drexel this spring. She’s also a certified yoga teacher. Karen has been working to support diverse learners with trauma aware practices since 2002. Welcome back, Karen.

Karen: Thank you both for having me back. I didn’t expect to be back quite so soon, but I’m happy to be here.

John: There have been lots of things happening that people haven’t expected recently.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

Karen: I have a big bottle of water next to me because hydration is one of my healthy practices these days for mind and body, and I have been getting a little tickle in my throat, which is not ideal for podcast interviews. So I’m going with the old fashioned option today.

John: And I am drinking honey green iced tea.

Rebecca: And I’m sticking with my nice and comforting English afternoon tea.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss trauma-informed teaching. In a recent podcast Josh Eyler talked about trauma-informed teaching and he referred to you, so we thought it would be good to have you back to talk about it. Could you tell us a little bit about this approach and why it’s important, especially right now?

Karen: Sure. So I do want to start by just reminding listeners that talking about trauma, learning about trauma, can bring up some feelings, which is a very normal reaction to that. So I just want to remind people, if you notice that, that it’s okay to take a rain check on listening and engaging in this conversation. I also do recommend that even if you feel okay to engage with a discussion about trauma that it’s recommended that you do so in small doses, especially during these very challenging times. And I do think, we talked in the show notes, we’re going to make sure that we share additional resources for folks who might need some support during this challenging time. I’ve got some great links for folks if they would like to check out resources, but just a reminder, it’s very normal to have some of our own emotional experiences come up during this conversation. So I wanted to make sure that that was really clear as we get started. Also, thanks to Josh for giving me a shout out and connecting us, he’s wonderful and he’s doing a lot of great advocacy work, and I look forward to his tweets every day, very grateful for Twitter for keeping us all connected. So, why should we be learning about trauma in the context of higher education and pedagogy in this remote teaching, emergency teaching movement? Well, hopefully, we should have been engaging with it already, we know that trauma is not new. Most of our students, most of our faculty, most of our staff do have trauma histories to varying degrees, and those trauma histories do impact not only our relationships with students or colleagues, but they also impact how we learn, which is how I come to this conversation. So, my interest is in trauma, toxic stress, general stress, and how those all impact teaching and learning in higher education, specifically in the online learning environment, though I’m obviously engaged in that conversation across higher ed. We are all suddenly online now, so that’s where my interest comes in, so helping faculty and staff to utilize our knowledge about trauma and its impacts on the body and the mind and the brain to look at how students are learning and then look at how we’re teaching.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about how it impacts students’ ability to learn?

Karen: Let me back up a bit and let me define trauma for us. And there’s varying definitions, of course, if you ask 10 different people who work with trauma for their definitions of trauma, you’re going to get 10 definitions. I have some notes next to me because my brain is not quite working the way I want it to these days. One of the places that I refer to is the SAMHSA definition which talks about trauma resulting from an event, or a series of events, or a set of circumstances, an adverse experience that has significant negative results in terms of an individual’s functioning across the various areas, mental, physical, social, emotional, all of those areas. In other words, trauma is when something really bad happens and it impacts us in a negative way. Another definition that is pretty straightforward, one of the foremost researchers in the trauma field is Bessel Van Der Kolk. He wrote a book called The Body Keeps the Score. His short version is trauma is unbearable and intolerable, so when something really challenging happens to us and we have persistent effects from that experience. It’s also important to bring up toxic stress and stress, I think, which are very much related to trauma. So toxic stress is when we sort of reach that point where we’re beyond our healthy limits of stress, we’re going into that area where it’s starting to have significant negative effects in our lives, and then there’s just run-of-the-mill stress that we all experience every day. So, just a few definitions that might help folks and those are not new, those have been around as long as we have, they were here with us before this COVID-19 crisis, and trauma, toxic stress, and stress will continue with us. In terms of how they impact learning, things that we might experience would be difficulty concentrating. I’m sure some folks who are listening to this have experienced that in the past two weeks, certainly before, but very much so in the past two weeks. A disinterest in things that might have previously excited us or interested us, a feeling like we sort of can’t mentally organize it all, that there’s just things swimming in our brain and we can’t really get a hold on it, difficulty making decisions, delaying gratification are all pretty common impacts of trauma on the learning experience… executive function skills I should say. Sometimes you see these referred to as soft skills, which I don’t love that term, but I have to use it because it’s what most people use. Our ability to communicate with people, to maintain relationships can be impacted, our time management, think about things like test taking, which require really intensive focus and our higher-order thinking skills. All of those we know are disrupted when we experience trauma or toxic stress.

Rebecca: What are things that faculty can do to help students learn and mitigate some of that stress, or at least manage things so that they can feel like they can move forward? I know a lot of faculty will also say like, “I’m not a trained psychologist, so this isn’t for me, and I don’t really want to know that my students have had trauma or know their stories and I want to keep this professional distance away from them.” Can you talk through a little bit about the relationship between faculty and students related to trauma, and then also, what are some things that faculty can do to help students when they’re experiencing trauma? [LAUGHTER]

Karen: There’s so much in that question. I’m going to try to tease that out, it was such a great question. We know that most students in your class have a trauma history, we know that. Public health research shows us that around 70% of people have trauma histories, and with what we’re going through now, which I’m looking at as a global trauma that we’re all experiencing to varying degrees, certainly, but at the same time, we can assume that this is impacting all of your students. So first of all, it’s not appropriate for us to expect our students to disclose their trauma to us but whether or not they do, we can absolutely safely assume that the majority of students in your class have a trauma history that is impacting their ability to learn. What’s interesting is that we sometimes don’t go to the next step, which is that this is also true for our educators. So when you get your college diploma you don’t lose your trauma history. The research on rates of trauma in our population holds true across educational levels. So most of our educators also experience trauma. So I do hear that idea of “I don’t want to know about this,” or “I shouldn’t have to deal with this.” This is the reality, this is part of the human condition. So I think it’s important that people know that whether or not you want to deal with it, that it is there. That said, I think the really important thing is to remember something called scope of practice, and this is not a phrase I hear often used in education, but you hear it in social work, in the counseling field, in the medical field. An example of that was something I learned about as a yoga teacher. So just an example, I would have students come to me and say, “Karen, I have a stomach issue. What should I do?” It would not be appropriate for me as a yoga teacher to say, “Oh, you should try this medicine,” or “Have you taken this?” or “Have you done this?” Absolutely outside of my scope of practice as a yoga teacher. Would it be appropriate for me to say “Keep coming to class, keep taking care of yourself, keep your practice up, and listen to your body, and talk to your doctor?” Sure, that is within my scope of practice as a yoga teacher. So absolutely, it is outside of your scope of practice as an educator to offer counseling to your students, to inquire about their trauma histories, to offer any sort of medical or mental health advice, it is appropriate for us to refer. So posting links and resources to internal or external mental health resources and hotlines is absolutely within our scope of practice. Empathy is in everybody’s scope of practice, so that is a great place to start. We can all practice empathy, we can recognize that everyone is coming to this with a lot of challenges and previous challenges as well, not just the new ones that we’re all facing, so we can all practice empathy. An example of something that an educator could do would be, what I’m recommending, is to balance structure with flexibility, so having very, very flexible deadlines. I’m keeping deadlines, but I’m being very flexible with them, and I’m letting students know, “Hey, if this isn’t working for you let me know.” Some students need the structure, and they appreciate the structure and it’s a nice distraction, but I’ve got students emailing me that their kids are sick, or their parents are sick, or they just lost their job. So letting them know, “Hey, take a few days off, and let’s talk on Wednesday. How about nine o’clock? Can we exchange an email or a phone call then?” is absolutely within my scope of practice and balancing structure with flexibility is a trauma-aware teaching practice, I don’t need to be a counselor to do that. So that’s just one example of very many that are being shared. To me, that’s been my guiding paradigm recently. Certainly things change by the hour but balancing structure with flexibility is helping me do what I feel is the best job to keep students on track toward their goals, to be present, to give them a distraction and a focus, but also to honor that they have other survival issues at play right now. Deadlines are not always appropriate in those instances.

John: Would it be helpful to bring up the current circumstances in our class either as it connects to our content areas or just to give students a chance to talk about it with their peers and with their instructors?

Karen: Yes, 110% is my answer on that one. So we also have some good data that a sense of meaning and a sense of purpose is really important to our mental and physical health. So I think within an appropriate context without overloading students, focusing on what we can control rather than what we can’t, is a really appropriate way to discuss this challenge. So perhaps sharing with students one small thing that you’ve done to support people in your community would be an appropriate example of that, sharing a resource for ways that they can contribute, reminding students that the act of staying home and flattening the curve is a contribution, though it can feel small and insignificant at times, it does make a difference, so that they have a sense of meaning and purpose and contribution. For those of us that have the luxury of staying home, one of the things I’ve noticed personally is there is that sense of a lack of purpose and a lack of focus. I was just tweeting about how much I love my students and my faculty that I work with, and when I have those moments of challenge, without pushing myself beyond my limits, to just see how I can help them… so how I can help somebody else really does give me a little boost. So I think it’s appropriate to talk to students about what’s going on in terms of helping them see that they can serve a greater good. And, certainly within the context of our subject areas or content areas, it makes a lot of sense to me. If you teach journalism, for example, my neighbor teaches journalism at a community college. Hi, Sue. How could you not be talking about the coverage of the crisis in the media right now as part of your class? I also do think we need to give students breaks from it though, and not overload them too much, because we’re all a bit overloaded. Most of the mental health professionals that I’m hearing from are encouraging people to be mindful and to limit their consumption. So if students are trying to do that, and they come into our class and we’re overloading them, that would be problematic, but I think gently, mindfully, making sure students know they can take breaks as needed from that content makes a lot of sense.

John: In my seminar class we were talking about, some other issues were scheduled for discussion, but somehow that discussion got shifted over to talking about the economic consequences of this and what types of adjustment policies might be helpful and possible paths for getting through this and resolving it. And we were doing some face-to-face discussions as well as some online ones, and students opened up quite a bit about it, and it seemed to be really productive, and they seemed to really enjoy that opportunity to connect with each other.

Karen: That makes a lot of sense. The other thing that comes to mind is a future orientation, looking toward the future with hope and possibility even though things are extremely challenging and dire and dark right now, remembering that there is hope in the future and having that mindset of looking forward and “What can I do to make things better in the future?” does seem to have positive effects on our mental health and our ability to move forward and take action in our daily lives. So there’s a lot of good research to support that. I love that idea of students being able to engage in that way, with that future orientation. The other thing I’ll add, though, is that I’ve reminded folks, if you have time with your students and you use all that time to talk about “Where are people finding toilet paper?” and “What are you doing with your kids?” and “How are you just moving throughout the day or taking walks in your neighborhood?” I had a friend do that, and she said, “I hope I did okay,” and I said, “You did perfect.” So talking about the crisis in the context of just getting through the day is okay, too. I think, really let the students kind of guide that conversation and see what they need, and then let them take the lead on that a bit makes a lot of sense.

John: That did become a non-trivial portion of those conversations.

Karen: Yeah.

Rebecca: I think an interesting conversation that bubbled up in the pandemic pedagogy Facebook group was about having students do reflections of their COVID-19 experience, but then some faculty really pushing back on that and saying, “Yeah, that’s really good. Some students might really need that, but some students might really need an escape from it as well, and so pushing it or requiring an engagement in that conversation could also be really problematic.” What are your thoughts on that, Karen?

Karen: Yes, it is problematic to require that, that’s my feeling. This is, for many folks, a trauma and we’re all experiencing that to varying degrees. We all come to this with different amounts of privilege, with different protective factors in our lives, but I can’t think of a context where I would require someone to talk about their trauma, that would need to be up to them. I’m certainly writing about it. I write in my journal every day. I had a journaling practice before and journaling is a positive coping mechanism, and we have data that that works really well, but it’s not really somebody else’s place to require that. I would probably give students a choice, let them know that you can talk about this, but here are some other options that are not related to the crisis that you could talk about as well. Choice is always good in our assignments, I think so, and that certainly holds true in this situation as well. I wouldn’t force that conversation. That could certainly cause some additional stress in an already very stressful time.

Rebecca: What are some things that faculty can do, thinking forward to the fall, in being trauma aware in their practices, given that there might be some space for some folks in their relationship to the pandemic, but then for others , it might still be really very prime key thing that they’re still really dealing with?

Karen: I don’t know enough at this point to know what the fall is going to bring. The words that I’m using with faculty and in my own work is, number one, prioritize caring and support above all else, and number two, focus on being adaptable to whatever comes. I can imagine a scenario where we’re brought back out into the world for a couple weeks, and then we go back home for a couple weeks, so I think the ability to adapt is going to be really important. I shared a blog post today from my friend Janice Carello. She’s been writing about trauma-informed pedagogy for years. She’s brilliant, and a real gift to this field in higher education, and one of the things she shared was write everything down. So I just think of that as an example of how we can prepare for this possibility of things changing on the dime throughout the fall and possibly longer, is just being really clear in our communications with students, with our colleagues, and with ourselves by writing everything down, recognizing that our brains aren’t going to quite hold information as well as they used to, and just little things like that, I think. There’s so much outside of our control. We are not, as individuals, able to always do much to make an impact on something of this size, but I can make sure that I’m putting communications to students in writing. So I would encourage people to just look at those seemingly small choices in how they communicate with students, how they plan their courses, how they manage their time and communicate with colleagues and to plan for the possibility of things changing on the dime and, of course, again to prioritize caring and support above all else.

John: Following up on Rebecca’s question, though, when we do come back in the fall, there’s going to be a lot of people who will have lost family members, who will have lost friends, and will be facing potentially a much more uncertain economic future, and so I think this issue of trauma is one that we probably always should be paying more attention to, but it’s going to be something that’s going to be affecting, I suspect, a very large share of our students, as well as many faculty in the fall.

Karen: Yeah, I’ve been talking about that, and it’s tough to wrap my head around, and to really engage with that, because we’ve always had that in higher education. We’ve had students who have lost multiple family members during their college education. We’ve had students who live with poverty and racism, this is not new. What’s new is that we can no longer deny that in the same way that we were before, but I think a lot of us were begging higher education to notice that and to take it seriously and to adapt our teaching and our advising and our institutions to become more trauma aware, and eventually to become trauma-informed, and there was resistance to that, and now, I don’t know if that resistance will continue. I don’t know if people will realize how widespread this is, because of this challenge. It’s a little tough to wrap my head around that, but number one, I would say K through 12 is quite a bit ahead of us in higher education. So for those in higher education who are ready to look at this in a meaningful way, K through 12 has done a bit more work than higher ed has done and we have a lot of models and tools that we can use. So you’ve heard me use the terms trauma aware and trauma informed. One of the models out there, it’s called the Missouri Model. It has four stages that an organization can move through to ultimately become a trauma-informed organization. The first step is to become trauma aware, and that’s kind of how I’ve been engaging with people lately, which is just to start talking about trauma, to recognize what it is and to recognize that it is widespread, that most students and most faculty have experienced trauma and to talk about what that does to our minds and our brains and our bodies and how it might impact learning. So that’s how I’ve been engaging with people. And I expect that because of the widespread nature of this crisis, most institutions will hopefully start to develop more trauma awareness in the coming months, which will ultimately lead to more sustained widespread solutions down the road.

John: I’m hoping that this does make all of us a bit more aware of those issues. For those faculty who are interested in learning more about the impacts of trauma and dealing with their students’ trauma, what resources would you suggest to help them learn more?

Karen: As I mentioned, K through 12 is a little bit ahead of us in higher ed, so we’ve got some great content out there in that K through 12 world. I follow a heck of a lot of K through 12 educators on social media and learn so much from them. So I would encourage folks to really recognize and respect the expertise of our K through 12 educators, folks who have already been doing this work. I don’t want to imply that this hasn’t been happening in higher ed, but it happens in pockets. So we see things like a school of social work within a college or university will have really developed a lot of trauma awareness and maybe even advanced to some trauma-informed practices across that department or that division, but it kind of remains within that pocket. Most institutions probably have some pockets of this going on. Find those people who are doing that work and who’ve been asking for folks to take it seriously for years. This is for all of us. One of the things that I talk about is how we sometimes say “Oh, trauma, stress, anxiety, that’s for Karen in room 312. She’s the college counselor.” That’s how we’ve sometimes approached it. This is not the sole responsibility of the college counselor, the one that maybe we have for 6000 students. She’s already being asked to do far too much with too little. This is the responsibility of all of us. It’s a human issue, it’s a pedagogical issue. This is something that a Vice President of Academic Affairs, deans, faculty, academic advisors should all be educated about and bringing to their staff and their team and educating folks about and learning more about. The other resource I’ll mention is I know we’re higher educators, we like to read. I mentioned before, I’ll remind folks again, The Body Keeps the Score. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, he’s out of the trauma center in Boston. He has done some groundbreaking work in this area. It’s a very intense read, know that going in, don’t read it in one sitting, but it really gives a good overview of trauma and its impact on people and how they can learn and grow. And the other thing I haven’t mentioned, I’m realizing now that I usually mention up front but my brain isn’t on full capacity, is what Dr. Van Der Kolk does. He’s so good at talking about resilience, and when we talk about trauma, we always do want to make sure that people’s resilience is part of that conversation. I was just listening to him earlier on a podcast, he talks about how trauma really brings out the best of us and the worst of us. It’s important to remember that people are extraordinarily resilient, and that people who’ve experienced trauma have so many assets and so many skills and so much brilliance. Trauma is treatable. There are countless resources out there that will help people through this. As we talk about this idea of widespread trauma and coming back to campus in the fall having gone through this, whatever that looks like, it’s important to remember that resilience should always be part of that conversation.

John: One of the things I’ve been in getting lots of emails from faculty is questions about how to deal with things like students submitting their work an hour or two late or something similar, and I’ve never had to send out so many emails just suggesting maybe this is a good time to give students the benefit of the doubt. It’s a difficult adjustment for many faculty, perhaps, being a little more compassionate and it’s something that we should be doing all the time.

Karen: Yeah, I do want to speak to that and I’ll be transparent and I’m noticing all kinds of emotions coming up in myself there. I like to think of myself as a very big advocate of faculty success. I see faculty and student success as interdependent. I do want to recognize that the faculty that I work with are hardworking, creative, empathetic, and I was just talking to some faculty earlier today… what they’re doing for their students is so inspirational, so powerful. They’re just going above and beyond. I know that there are some faculty who do have a more rigid approach, and if I want faculty to give students the benefit of the doubt, I feel like I have to give faculty the benefit of the doubt too. And I think sometimes we teach how we were taught, and that is just kind of our instinct. I was held to these really tough standards, so I’m going to do that for my students. I’ve also heard this idea, “I’m preparing students for the real world.” This is the real world… right now. This is the real world that we’re living in, with people getting really sick, with our students out there working on the frontlines and just really struggling, people at home with their kids while working, all kinds of things, this is the real world. And I have not ever seen any data that shows that holding students to a rigid deadline improves student success in learning. If anybody sees that please feel free to share it to me, but every ounce of research and data that I know of shows that flexibility within structure works really well for student success in learning, particularly recognizing that, again, most of our students, and just as we do, experience trauma, toxic stress that can impact our ability to learn. So, I know people struggle with that and say, “Well, aren’t I teaching them a bad habit?” I have been utilizing that strategy with first-generation first year students for the past 15 years. What I have found is that students still get it to me, they still have a positive learning experience. When appropriate, I’ll remind students and say, “Next week, I want you to try to meet that deadline.” Am I doing that now? No, but I have in the past, but I always err on the side of flexibility, and it has served me and my students very well. I don’t feel like my students have taken advantage of that. I think it’s built trust in our classroom and not everybody learns at the same pace. At the same time, I want to recognize also that I think sometimes faculty feel that’s going to make more work for them to have things coming in at varying deadlines. Faculty are bombarded and overloaded. So then cut the amount of content down. I’ve mentioned Janice Carello earlier, one of her recommendations is cut the content in half, if that’s what you need to do right now to simplify things for yourself and your students. I’d rather faculty do that. I think that’s a smarter practice in terms of teaching and learning than to hold students to rigid deadlines.

John: What would you suggest for faculty experiencing trauma and just dealing with the everyday stress? What techniques might be helpful in helping us all get through this?

Karen: Hopefully, one of the things I’ve already conveyed is that any conversation about trauma-aware practices in higher education needs to recognize faculty and staff as part of that equation. So, sometimes I hear us talk about student trauma and stress, but then it’s like, apparently, we’re all magically immune to it. That’s just not the case. So a good place to start is for educators, administrators, leaders to recognize that faculty, just like students, have already experienced trauma before this and are experiencing trauma and likely toxic stress now, and to name that and to begin to get educated about that. In terms of individual faculty, again, let’s focus on resilience, let’s focus on what we call protective factors. So, one of the things that’s really interesting in the research on trauma is that one caring adult can make a difference in the life of a child who’s experienced trauma. One caring adult can make a difference. So we do look at things like protective factors, so community support, a caring adult who reaches out, those are really important. What’s interesting that I’ve noticed about those protective factors is that they often come from another person, so I think our connections are really important. We’re hearing people talk about physical distancing versus social distancing. So, making sure that you talk to a few people each day, whether it’s over the phone or over text or in Animal Crossing on your Nintendo Switch, on Twitter, whatever the case may be, I do think hearing someone’s voice can make a difference for me, but just finding some way to connect. Loneliness, there’s a lot of data about the negative impacts of loneliness that was before this, and now we’re all being asked to stay home. That’s obviously creating some additional challenges there. So I would say it’s really important to connect with somebody else, whether it’s a friend, family member, and to stay connected on a daily basis. That goes on my to do list every morning, text my niece, text my nephews, call this person, those are priorities. Other things that I’m doing, movement is really important, I try to stay away from the word exercise because it brings up a lot of junk for people, [LAUGHTER] because a lot of junk has been shoved down our throats about what exercise should be. So, I encourage people to embrace movement, even if that’s pacing in your house. In the book that I mentioned before, The Body Keeps the Score, movement and bodywork is really an important part of managing trauma, so anything that you can do to move. I am getting out in my neighborhood, I’m able to safely walk in my neighborhood and maintain that physical distancing. That does a lot to help me, so movement is really important. Hydration is important. For me, reading is a great option, and again, connecting is just the number on e for me right now to keep myself grounded, and remember that we’re all in this together. But those social connections are incredibly important when dealing with stress.

John: A lot of students and faculty both have reported that they’ve been having Zoom gatherings, social hours, happy hours, and so forth, and also, I think, Netflix Party, the plugin for Chrome is getting a lot of action too, where people watch movies together from wherever they are, and then they chat with each other as if they were in the same place.

Karen: I haven’t heard of the Netflix one, so I’m gonna have to check that out.

John: It’s just a Chrome plugin.

Karen: That’s very cool.

John: My students talked about it, and some faculty talked about that in an informal gathering we had just yesterday.

Karen: And that’s a great example of one of my favorite reminders, which is that students know things, and we can ask them [LAUGHTER] and they will tell us things that we don’t know, so we all just learned something there as well.

Rebecca: It seems like likewise, it might also be important to remember, you know, as you’re saying that students know things… hey, Ada, [LAUGHTER] Just one second. Can you hang on for just one second?

ADA: No!

Rebecca: No? Well, I guess Ada will be on this podcast. [LAUGHTER]

John: And that was our guest host Ada Mushtare joining us for the first time on one of our podcast recordings, and now we return to our regularly scheduled podcast.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that students have been really understanding of the circumstances that faculty can be in. When I’ve talked to other faculty, they’ve talked about how the students have been asking how they’re doing. And I know in my own case, I’ve fallen, in one class, a couple weeks behind in grading, and I said, I’ve been doing eight to 10 hours of faculty meetings every day trying to help people move online, and they’ve been really understanding about all of that in ways that surprised me, because I’d be disappointed if my instructor had fallen that far behind in grading. So in general, I think in some ways, this may have helped both students and faculty connect in ways that they might not otherwise have done.

Karen: What I would classify that conversation under is this idea of humanizing learning. So Michelle Pacansky-Brock is an amazing educator, she has kind of taken the lead on this humanizing online learning movement, and we sometimes also talk about it as humanizing higher education in general. This idea that we can appropriately reveal challenges, failures, interests to our students as a way to build a sense of connection between students and faculty, again, is not new, and many of us have been doing that for a long time, and I think because of this challenge, maybe because more folks are working from home and might have kids running around and pets running around, and not really as much of a choice about distinguishing the personal from the professional, that maybe they are diving into that humanizing teaching and learning movement, and I am glad about that. We know, particularly in the online learning environment, that that can have some really positive effects on teaching and learning. What I would remind people is that we find that when we can build those connections with our students, they’re more likely to persist and to succeed, so find whatever way you’re comfortable with to do that. I don’t think it’s appropriate to reveal the depths of your soul, perhaps, but could you remind students that you’re feeling anxious? Absolutely. Could you let students know that you’re worried about a sick family member? Absolutely. Could you let students know you’re challenged by having kids at home? Absolutely. Do what’s comfortable for you. I always tell folks, if even that makes you nervous, some faculty feel more comfortable just engaging around their content area. So, I tell folks, this is a chance to maybe talk about why you got into your field of study and perhaps how this crisis is causing you to reflect on that choice and what you love about your discipline. That’s an okay place to start too, for some faculty that’s what they’re comfortable with. But, certainly if you’re open to sharing more details, sharing more challenges, I send regular emails to my students. This morning I said, “We’re all still here, we’re hunkered down. We’re saying home. We’re really thinking about those health care workers and frontline workers and we’re so grateful for them.” And then I moved on to some course topics, but it was an appropriate sharing about challenges we’re facing without getting too in depth and it is one of the ways that I connect with my students.

John: Is there any other advice you’d like to share with our listeners?

Karen: I think I just want to emphasize again, the importance of hope, something that we grasp for when we’re desperate, but hope is really a powerful cognitive strategy. The work of Martin Seligman, he writes about something called the Hope Circuit, which is the idea that in the face of just devastating impossible circumstances, if we can find a way to look toward the future with any little bit of hope, that it can help us get through those challenges. So I would just emphasize to people that, for me, hope is a really important research-based strategy that I try to apply in my life. One of the things I’ve been doing at night when I fall asleep, I was perseverating, about all of the scary stuff, and I was projecting into some really dark places and one of the things that I’ve been doing is tried to at that point in my day, to think about a hopeful future and what’s it gonna be like to hug loved ones again, and get to go to a bookstore or the library, which are two of my favorite things to do? And that is one of my practices, and certainly do I go into those other places at other times? Absolutely. But I just want to remind people, I think we can respect and honor the challenges that we’re facing, and also remember hope and resilience, and keep practicing those as well.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca: Apparently, you should talk all the time because Ada is incredibly attentive to you, Karen. [LAUGHTER]

Karen: Oh, hi, honey! [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: She’s listening to you.

Karen: Oh, I love that.

John: And until you can go to the bookstore, [LAUGHTER] you can order 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos. It’s a wonderful book, and for those who are creating videos, either for the first time, or who’d like to do it more efficiently, it’s a really great resource and you can get that from Amazon or directly from the publisher. In fact, there’s a discount code that we’ll list in the show notes as well.

Karen: Great. Thank you.

John: Also, we just discovered we had a mutual friend in common, Leighanne Penna, who I worked with at Duke many years ago, and you went to grad school with.

Karen: Leighanne and I were at UMass Amherst back in 2004 together, and we recently reconnected. She’s in Greece, and I’m going to help her campus do some work with transitioning from land-based to online education. It’s really interesting. They’ve made that shift, and now they’re interested in helping faculty develop those emotional connections online, which I’m really excited about, and I hope others will recognize the importance of doing that as well. But it was great to reconnect with her and to find out about that small-world connection.

John: We always end with the question, “What’s next?” which I think is a question we all have in mind these days.

Karen: So, what’s next for me is [LAUGHTER] some puzzles, watching the Masked Singer with my 11 year old and my husband who are home with me, walking my dog, those are part of my daily routine. And in terms of higher ed, I’m hoping to continue to do more to share this message of the importance of becoming trauma aware in our teaching, whether it’s online or possibly land- based in the future, and just reminding folks that empathy is within all of our scope of practice, no matter what our background and expertise, we can always practice empathy, and hoping to help as many folks as possible. That’s something I enjoy doing, it helps me to stay well, and hoping to just keep serving in whatever way I can.

Rebecca: Thanks so much for taking us on a journey from trauma all the way to hope. [LAUGHTER] It was a really nice conversation.

Karen: Oh, well, yeah, I appreciate that. And it is tough to talk about sometimes. And I know I think that’s one of the reasons that we avoid it, and I have a lot of empathy for folks that sometimes they’re just not ready to come to that conversation, but it is important. I think, that those of us who are ready and prepared to engage in that conversation and to start educating others.

John: Thanks again, especially for joining us on such short notice and it was great to talk to you again.

Karen: Thanks, everyone.

[MUSIC]

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

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

[MUSIC]

103. Commitment Devices

Students, and faculty, generally have good intentions when planning to work toward long-run objectives. It’s always easier, though, to start those projects tomorrow instead of today. In this episode, Dr. Dean Karlan joins us to discuss how commitment devices may be used to align our short-term incentives with our long-run goals.

Dean is a Professor of Economics and Finance at Northwestern University, Co-Director of the Global Poverty Research Lab at the Kellogg School of Management, President and Founder of Innovations for Poverty Action, co-founder of Stickk.com and Impact Matters, and a member of the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dean is the author of many scholarly articles and several books related to economics, including my favorite introductory economics textbook.

Show Notes

  • Dean Karlan
  • Innovations for Poverty Action
  • Stickk.com
  • Impact Matters
  • Global Policy Research Lab – at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern
  • University
  • Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab
  • Karlan, Dean and Jonathan Morduch (2018). Economics. McGraw-Hill.
  • Giné, X., Karlan, D., & Zinman, J. (2010). Put your money where your butt is: a commitment contract for smoking cessation. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 2(4), 213-35.
  • McGuire, S. Y. (2015). Teach students how to learn: Strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Momentum – the app for targeted giving that Dean mentioned
  • The following study, referenced in the podcast, examines the problem of suboptimal fertilizer use of fertilizer in Kenya. Both were just cited in the Nobel statement on the 2019 award to Abhijit Bannerjee, Esther Dulfo, and Michael Kremer. Bannerjee, Duflo, and Kremer were Dean’s professors at MIT. Bannerjee and Duflo were on this thesis committee. (The Nobel announcement came after the podcast was recorded but two days before its release.)
    • Duflo, E., Kremer, M., & Robinson, J. (2011). Nudging farmers to use fertilizer: Theory and experimental evidence from Kenya. American Economic Review, 101(6), 2350-90.
  • Artz, Benjamin and Johnson, Marianne and Robson, Denise and Taengnoi, Sarinda, Note-Taking in the Digital Age: Evidence from Classroom Random Control Trials (September 13, 2017) – the study about note-taking that John mentioned.

Transcript

John: Students, and faculty, generally have good intentions when planning to work
toward long-run objectives. It’s always easier, though, to start those projects tomorrow instead of today. In
this episode, we examine how commitment devices may be used to align our short-term incentives with our long-run
goals.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

John: Today’s guest is Dr. Dean Karlan. Dean is a Professor of Economics and Finance
at Northwestern University, Co-Director of the Global Poverty Research Lab at the Kellogg School of Management,
President and Founder of Innovations for Poverty Action, co-founder of Stickk.com and Impact Matters, and a
member of the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dean is the author of many scholarly articles and several books related
to economics, including my favorite introductory economics textbook. Welcome, Dean.

Dean: Thank you. Thanks for having me here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Dean: A vanilla expresso. I’ve said it as “expresso” for the sake of our mutual
friend Matthew. [LAUGHTER] So we can show this to him and he will be very upset. [LAUGHTER]

John: …and I am drinking Bing Cherry black tea.

Rebecca: …and I have the Sally Lunn… Disclaimer: I’m not sure if that’s how you
say it… house blend tea from the UK. [LAUGHTER]

John: We invited here primarily to talk about some of the work you’ve done related
to behavioral economics. We know that students learn more when they engage in spaced practice, yet students tend
to procrastinate, as do most faculty. So we want to talk to you a little bit about why people tend to focus on
immediate gratification at the expense of long-run goals.

Dean: So, you know, the heart of it is human nature to some extent. And I think the
thing to realize, though, is that it’s not a universal truth, right? There’s many situations, and many people
who are more patient than others… that are patient in one domain, not in another. There’s a general sense, of
course, that we value things more today than we do tomorrow. This is kind of at the heart of economics, but a
lot of the issues that we’re doing research on, and some of the active policies that we’re working on, aren’t so
much about whether people are patient or not. It’s about whether they succumb to temptation, and there is a
difference. And the difference is this. When we talk about succumbing to temptation, what we’re saying is, if
you ask me what I want to do in a month, I tell you, I want to eat healthfully. I want to exercise. I want to
train for a marathon. And then when a month comes, and now a month from now is now today, and you say, what are
you doing today? And I go, “Oh, yeah, that chocolate cake looks really good. [LAUGHTER] And I ran out of time,
I’m not going to go to the gym today.” And I go, “I’m too tired. I prefer to go to the movies. And that
marathon? Yeah, kind of cold. I guess I kind of knew that a month ago. But I was out of mind. And so I’ll train
for that later.” And so the point is, my preferences change. And that’s something that economists historically
did not handle very well, this idea of preferences changing. And yet that is what behavioral economics has
done… is basically trying to build better models that take into account that reality of preferences
changing… and whether we call it preference and changing or not, is kind of a technical jargon thing. But the
basic idea that you can say you want A over B in a month, and then when a month comes, you say actually I prefer
B over A. And that’s a fundamental change in a lot of the ways that economists were thinking about things and
this applies in many domains. And the reality is, I might be really well disciplined when it comes to spending
money on one thing, for instance, like clothing, I have like almost zero temptations on clothing. But yet for
peanut M&Ms, I have a real big problem. [LAUGHTER] And I know there’s lots of people that are exactly the other
way around, right? And so it’s not something that we can attribute to someone as an individual characteristic
and saying, “You succumb to temptations, and you don’t.” Everybody has their different areas where they’re
strong, and they’re weak.

Rebecca: So when we want to accomplish something in our academic field, or we want
our students to accomplish something in what they’re studying, how do we get them to not succumb to that
temptation of doing the thing that seems immediately desirable.

Dean: So I think the absolute single most important thing is to help someone become
self aware. Once you do that, then there’s a few different paths that might work. And people are different. So
that path might be different. But the first step, that in most situations, is important for that kind of
weakness is to help people become self aware. And by self aware, I mean aware of the fact that if they don’t
change something about their environment, that they’re on a certain path, and they’re likely to engage in that
temptation behavior, and even though they say now they don’t want to do it, if they don’t change something or do
something different, they’re more likely to do it. And so what is that path that they could go down? Well, one
example, which is what you mentioned earlier, Stickk.com, which is a website that I started, that allows people
to write commitment contracts. So if I want to, let’s put it in the school work or the work context, suppose I
have a partnership with a co-author, and I am being derelict in my duty to write the introduction, we agreed I’m
supposed to take first stab at, and every week there’s something else comes up and I don’t get to it. So I go on
Stickk and I write a contract to my friend, my co-author, and I say if I don’t deliver it to you by next Friday,
I owe you $500. It’s still not a perfect contract, right? I mean, I could hand them a piece of crap that’s not a
very well written document, and he could say, “This isn’t good.” So there’s lots of wiggle room there, but there
has to be some level of trust with my collaborator… it’s a contract that the collaborator can call me out on
and say, “Look, we both know this is not what you said you would do,” so you still need some element of trust in
that agreement to make that work. But that’s the kind of thing you can do. And by making that concrete plan and
actually making it even more costly, beyond just continued shame, and scathing emails from your friends, it
makes you more likely to engage in the behavior you say you want to engage in. The punch line we use is it
increases the price of vice. Whatever your vice is, it’s a way of increasing that price.

John: So the goal is basically to align the short-term incentives with the long-run
goals.

Dean: That’s exactly right, to make it so that the prices you’re facing now are
aligned, are going to drive you to the behavior that you say in the long run you want to engage in.

John: So you’re changing the costs or benefits of the activity immediately through
some mechanisms such as Stickk.com.

Dean: Exactly. And of course, you know, I could write a contract with you just on
the side… just by emails and say, “Hey, if I don’t do X, I owe you Y. So, Stickk is a vehicle for making it
easy for people to do this. One of the popular options on Stickk is actually where I don’t give money to you,
but I give money to a charity that I hate. This might work really well if we disagreed on some political issue,
which I doubt we do. But I suspect over the years, we’ve talked about things we would have identified some
disagreement if we had one [LAUGHTER] that was stark enough on the extremes. But if we did, it would work out
really well. Because I could say, “Hey, I’ll send money to the charity on the other side of the political
spectrum, which you like, and I hate, and then you’re happy to enforce that. [LAUGHTER]

John: So anti-charities seem to be really effective.

Dean: Yes.

John: For example, I think you recommend for liberals, I haven’t checked recently,
but for liberals, you recommend the NRA or a Republican super PAC. And for Republicans. I think you recommended
the ACLU or a Democrat super PAC.

Dean: That’s exactly right. And we also have gun control, abortion, gay rights, and
super PACs on the two sides… and for the religious people in England, we offer up different football teams
[LAUGHTER] so you can support Arsenal or Chelsea or Fulham, and the money goes off to the team that you hate in
England.

John: What types of commitments do people make on Stickk.com.?

Dean: The single most common, it shouldn’t be a surprise, which is weight loss. I
mean, that is the biggest issue where this is highly relevant where everybody can think of someone who says they
want to lose weight, and somehow doesn’t do it. And every day, it’s like “Tomorrow I’ll do it.” Smoking
cessation is another very common one. And we have seen several randomized trials done not via the Stickk
website, but outside, but with the same exact contract structure that show that it became very effective for
helping people stop smoking if they agree to sign up for this contract. So smoking cessation is common…
exercise is common. There’s also a very large set of interesting contracts that people come up with on their
own, that are everything from dating… to marital relations… to work… to getting work done… So, flossing
your teeth…. Speaking more slowly to foreigners in New York City was one of my favorites. Another one of
my favorites just said “I will not date any more losers.” And the punch line that I really liked in particular
was that this person named a friend as the referee. The website allows you to name a friend who gets to
adjudicate whether you succeed or fail. So this person said that I will not date anymore losers, and Susie gets
to decide if any of my dates are losers or not. That was awesome. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Have you seen good success with people using Stickk.com?

Dean: Yes. But as a social scientist, I want to caution my “Yes.” So it’s very
pleasing to get emails… and I do get them fairly periodically from people telling me some story about
Stickk or I meet someone and they told me about how they used it to achieve a goal and wasn’t this great. And
that makes me very happy. In the back of my mind, as a social scientist, I’m always like, “Well, that’s great.
But did we cause that to happen? Or were you just the kind of person who was going to achieve that goal anyhow
and you used Stickk as your vehicle, but had Stickk not existed, you would have found some other way? Because
you were just a really driven person dedicated to overcoming your temptation problem. Now, that’s the whole
reason why we do run randomized trials, because we want to know, did we cause that to happen or are we just the
stepping stone along the path that was going to be taken anyhow. And there have been randomized trials done on
commitment contracts. And we do find very strong consistent evidence that for those who signed up, it is a very
strong tool that does lead to behavior change that would not otherwise happen. Having said that, take an example
of a study I did in the Philippines on smoking cessation doing a contract that was almost exactly like Stickk.
The difference was the money, if they failed, went to a local orphanage. It didn’t go to a charity they hate.
And there, we had a very large effect on likelihood of stopping smoking… about a 30 percentage point shift in
the likelihood they stopped. That’s a big, big treatment effect. But only one out of nine people said “Yes” to
opening the contract. Eight out of nine said, “Huh? Yeah, I know I told you I want to stop smoking. But I guess
I don’t really want to stop that badly… or I don’t think I can and so I’m not going to sign this contract
because I think that’ll just end up costing me money. And I’ll still spend money on cigarettes. And so I won’t
sign the contract.” So, eight of nine did not… but one out of nine did. And the idea was that they were taking
money they were spending on their cigarettes, and instead they’re putting in an account. So even if they kind of
stopped smoking some and went back, we don’t think of that as a bad thing even if they lose the money, because
they did smoke fewer cigarettes in the meanwhile… failed to stop… So it didn’t work. But they did smoke less
and the charity got some money. So one of the things that this makes me realize that goes back to the question
you asked earlier, which is helping people be self aware. How do you move the needle on that one out of nine?
Why is it only one out of nine? Is it that people don’t realize that if they don’t do something like this,
they’re going to probably just continue smoking, and they need to engage in some sort of change in their
environment? Change in the prices they face? Change in some peer influence? Change in something to help them
stop smoking… That it’s not going to just happen because they wake up one day and decide to do it.

John: You mentioned randomized controlled experiments. And I know that’s one of the
things you’ve done extensively with IPA (Innovations for Poverty Action). One of the things I’ve noticed in much
of the research in teaching and learning is often people do an intervention and they look at how it works for
the students who actually use that intervention, but they don’t get evidence on the counterfactual. So, you
don’t know how it would have worked in the absence of that intervention. So how might, perhaps, we think about
doing more randomized controlled experiments in educational research.

Dean: So I think there’s a lot of settings in which one can do them in education.
They do need large classrooms, or multiple classrooms or collaboration across universities in order to have a
sufficient sample size, but there’s lots of ways that one could do it. I’ll give you an example. We have a
Principles of Economics textbook that you mentioned earlier. And our theme very much in this book is kind of two
prong: one is it’s a very much a theme about economics is a good thing… that if you use it can help you
actually improve your own life and also help improve public policies. We’re trying to get away from this bad
image of being a dismal science and instead point out that economics really can be a path towards better lives.
But the other part is trying to be very grounded in empirical analysis and examples that are real, that provide
data and a crisp understanding of how these economic theories actually play out in real life. And one of the
things that we wanted to do in this is trying to understand, “Well, does reading the book help learning?” Kind
of a dangerous question for us to ask… a little scared… We haven’t done this yet, but we started a pilot of
it, where we wanted to get professors at different universities who are using the book to basically offer
students a little bit of like a raffle, where there’s a quiz that’s online that we can organize at the end of
the chapter. That’s where students have a bit of an incentive to read those chapters. And we can randomize which
students in which week get that incentive and they’re told, read chapter four, and go online, and there’s going
to be 10 questions on this website that the authors of the book set up and you just answer those 10 questions.
And if you answer them correctly, or eight out of 10 or something like this, then you get entered into a raffle
for an Amazon gift card. And what this allows us to do, because of all the electronic homework and problem sets
and things of this nature, is actually run a test of whether, assuming that that prize leads to an increase in
reading of the actual textbook, we can actually see the impact of reading the textbook on test outcomes. And so
this is an example of the kind of research that one can do. Why might we do this? Because imagine instead within
the alternative, which is just to take a final exam, and ask people ahead of the final exam, “Hey, by the way,
we just want to know who really read the book and who didn’t.” Suppose we got a list.. …we got, you know,
two-thirds of the class read it, one-third did not… and then we looked at the grades, and we said “Ah,
the two thirds of the class that read the book did better on the final exams and one-third did not…” That
would be a really bad analysis, that would be a really horrible thing to conclude and say, “Aha, that’s our
book, causing that change to happen, and improve test scores…” because anybody who was reasonable would look
at us and say, “Well, wait a second, the two-thirds that read the book, they sound like better students. They’re
more diligent, they’re more disciplined, they do their assignments, and so they probably just studied harder in
general and invested more time in the course. They maybe even went to the lectures when the other third didn’t
even bother going to lectures, all sorts of things are different.” And so you cannot just look at the difference
in test scores and say that’s caused by reading the book. And so that’s why we set up randomized trials in that
way, is to try to get at the causality question, not the correlation question.

Rebecca: So do you have any research or advice about motivating the students who
wouldn’t be those one of nine to sign a contract in the first place… to actually get them to commit to doing
better? Have you done any research in that area to think about that?

Dean: For it’s worth, we’re actually in the middle of setting up studies on this and
part of the idea is a little bit of a two stage process: let it play out a little bit without and see whether
they succeed or fail, ask people to make predictions upfront: “Will you succeed or fail?” Ask them upfront
say, “You know what? If you don’t succeed, how about in the future writing and commitment contract?” Because a
lot of people might say, “I don’t need to do a commitment contract, I’ll do it.” And then you say, “Okay, but
just in case, though… just in case. How about in a month, if you haven’t done it, then do a contract?”
They’ll go “Yeah, fine…. that’s fine, because I’ll do it. So it’s okay.” And then a month comes, and they
haven’t done it ad then you go: “You remember that thing you said… a month ago… you said you’d do it. You
didn’t. But you said If you didn’t do it, you’d write a contract. So here we are. [LAUGHTER] You want to do the
contract?” So we’re actually testing that out in a couple different domains to see if that’s a good way of
helping people become self aware. And it might be actually a really nice way of doing it. Because some people
will actually succeed in that first month. That’s good, that’s great. We want that. But we want to be there to
kind of clean up afterwards and pick up and help the people that are not able to achieve that goal.

John: One of the things we’re doing on our campus this semester is we have a reading
group of Saundra McGuire’s Teach Students How to Learn. And one of the things she suggests is that very sort of
intervention, that the best time to encourage students to commit to trying new strategies is after they’ve tried
their existing strategies, and they’ve been unsuccessful. So they’re primed to at least consider it.

Dean: That sounds great. I agree.

John: You talked a little bit about stick calm. Are there other types of commitment
devices that students might use to encourage behavior consistent with their long-run objectives.

Dean: So I think there are some in the social side. As an example, there’s studying
is the obvious… that we talked about, but there’s a lot of things that are the kinds of things that we all say
we want to do. But when the time comes, maybe is time consuming, or costly, like donating money to charity.
Right? There might be some cause… call it climate change… call it poverty in developing
countries… call it poverty in America, whatever the case is, and it’s something that is troubling to us.
Something that we feel like even if we contribute a little bit… it’s important, we can contribute a
little bit. That little bit can make a difference. And we want to be a part of that. But yet, when it comes time
at the end of the month, or worse yet, at the end of the year, when a lot of people do think about writing
checks and providing support to charities, they’re left with whatever is in their bank account. And why is less
in than their bank account than they expected? Well, let’s go back to the earlier conversation. Because they
were in a mall, and that shirt looked interesting, and they went out to one more dinner than they had planned to
in their budget, or they were at dinner and they had one more Margarita than they had planned to. These things
slip through, and they’re never thought about when you’re thinking about your overall budget and the end of the
month comes and you don’t have the money… or the end of the year comes and the money’s not there… And the
idea is, again, thinking about well, “What proportion of income do you want to be spending on charitable goods
and supporting other people and helping align those things you say you care about with your actual behavior of
what you’re actually doing with your money after paying for the things you really, really need, like rent and
electricity. So there are various tools for trying to do that… locking in automatic payments every month,
for instance, so that it just happens automatically. There’s a new app that I’m helping to do research with them
to help figure out how to promote called Momentum, which tags giving towards behaviors in your life or behaviors
in other people’s lives. So you can say everything I go to Starbucks, I want to donate 10% of my spending at
Starbucks to clean water in developing countries. Or you can say every time I buy clothing, I want to send money
to a homeless shelter in America. Or you can tack things to other people’s behavior. Every time Trump tweets, I
want to send money to the ACLU… [LAUGHTER]

John: That could get really expensive.

Dean: Well, you control how much. [LAUGHTER] …and It can do things on both sides
of the political spectrum. That’s just one example.

John: That discussion reminds me of a study I think you were involved… a
study on fertilizer and Sub-Saharan Africa?

Dean: Yes, this is research that was conducted under the umbrella of Innovations for
Poverty Action, but it’s not my personal research. And it was a striking example of how these issues of
temptation in financial management and planning for the future versus dealing with things today. This is germane
to people, whether they’re rich or poor. And in the case of using fertilizer, this is one of those cases where
if you go to most for farmers low income farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, most farmers do know that using more
fertilizer is better for them in the long run in terms of them earning more money. But if you go at planting
season when they need the fertilizer and you say, “Well, why aren’t using fertilizer?” The most common answer is
not that I don’t know to do it, but just that “Well, I ran out of money, cuz I just had three or four months of
the hungry season where I used up all my money.” And so what the researchers did is went to them at harvest when
they’re flush with cash and said, “Would you like to buy a voucher now, that is good for some fertilizer, and
you just come back in three months, and you use the voucher to get you fertilizer? And by the way, if you change
your mind, you feel free, you can cash this voucher back in for cash.” So it’s not actually a very strong
commitment. And farmers said, “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.” …and sol they did that. And then
fertilizer use went way up.

John: So the notion is pre-committing to things and locking that in somehow becomes
the new status quo, and then it forces that change in behavior, it makes it more likely that you’ll persist with
that change in behavior.

Dean: Exactly right. And one of the other lessons we learned is that soft
commitments are usually probably better at than hard ones. If it’s too binding, it goes back to we talked about
earlier… if it’s too hard of a commitment, then people might be reluctant to agree to the commitment in the
first place. So you need for to be a little bit of wiggle room and some trust with whoever’s on the other side
of that commitment to say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I hear you. The circumstances are a bit tough. That’s okay. Don’t
worry about it.” Depending on who you’re doing this contract with and what the context is, you do need that kind
of wiggle room usually, for reasonable exceptions to apply.

John: And you mentioned the social aspect of it. One thing I was thinking when you
mentioned that was that I know some people who made commitments to go to a gym regularly. And then if one of
them didn’t show up, say Rebecca, the others would post a picture on Facebook saying “We’re all here. Where are
you?”

Dean: That’s awesome.

John: Can students perhaps sometimes leverage peer pressure to encourage behavior
consistent with their long-run goals?

Rebecca: Let’s note that when they backed off on that, I stopped going to the gym.
[LAUGHTER]

Dean: That is absolutely a hundred percent consistent and actually, thank you for
bringing this up. Because I should have said this earlier. When I say “increase the price of vice,” that doesn’t
necessarily mean cash price. That’s a good example of increasing the social price, the social cost of failing to
go to the gym. It’s a different form of payment, so to speak, is reputation and peer influence. But it’s very
much exactly in the heart of what we mean. And a lot of people in the Stickk website actually do not put money
at stake. They do put their reputation, they name a referee, and supporters who get informed whether they
succeed or fail. And that’s it, there’s no money. And we still get thank you emails from people about how it
helped them. You’ve got to know your type, and maybe that’s going to drive you more than 100 bucks. And so do
that instead of 100 bucks… .or both.

Rebecca: Just going back to the fertilizer example and I’m wondering if you could
set up something very similar in a classroom where students commit to something early on that has a little bit
of wiggle room to it, but might actually get them to follow through by the end of the semester.

Dean: There have been studies on things of this nature, getting students to give
them flexibility for when to do assignments versus getting them to commit to when their assignments are… and
when students are committed to when the assignments are rather than giving them flexibility,. performance tends
to be better.

John: And it doesn’t matter whether the commitments are imposed by the instructor or
whether they were self imposed. As long as there are deadlines with a penalty, students tend to do things. And I
think that’s true for us too… that if we have an abstract that needs to be submitted for a conference, I
suspect there’s a lot of them submitted right before that midnight deadline. So deadlines can be helpful, I
think, too.

Rebecca: I know I don’t do anything unless it has a deadline. [LAUGHTER]

John: I have deadlines every day.

Dean: I remember being told by a few different admissions panels in a few different
instances that you can definitely see, if you look at the likelihood of acceptance…. you see a strong
correlation between submitting the application early and last minute. These are two kind of difficult to get
into schools. And if you look at people who submitted a week to a month early, before the deadline… that’s not
a factor that’s used in decision making… but they do end up with a higher likelihood of getting admitted…
that these are students that have their act together… have everything in order and are stronger students
overall than students who submit at the last minute. So it’s not saying submit early and you increase your odds
of getting it. Just to be clear, this is not a causal mechanism, this is a correlation. [LAUGHTER]

John: That reminds me of another study we referred to. I don’t remember the exact
citation, but there had been all these studies (and we’ve talked about this in an earlier podcast)… there had
been a lot of studies suggesting that students who took notes by hand did better than students who took notes on
a computer or mobile device. And there was a randomized controlled experiment done maybe a year and a half or so
ago, where half the class used computers for half of the class. the other half took notes by hand, and they
found there was no significant difference depending on how any individual student took the notes. The difference
was, those students who chose to take notes by hand generally tended to be more successful, no matter what way
in which they took their notes. So it’s that self-selection issue that we see in a lot of these studies that can
be problematic in interpreting the results.

We always end our podcast by asking what’s next?

Dean: What’s next for us is coming October/November, we’re going to be releasing
over 1000 ratings of charities in America at Impact Matters, which is the other charity which I started, which
you mentioned briefly. Impact Matters is providing guidance to donors to help them choose good charities,
because there’s sadly no real good venue for doing this en masse right now. There’s way too many groups that are
focused strictly on accounting data and accounting data can be very, very misleading. But we are focused on what
matters: impact. Hence, our name: Impact Matters. And we’re going to be releasing 1000 ratings October/November.
I don’t know when the podcast comes out, but it comes up before then, great. Help us get this out there. We also
want to form student groups that help communicate and learn from what we’re doing so they can understand what do
we mean by impact. So it’s something that we want to form student groups on campuses about. So please do reach
out if you have any interest in getting involved or getting students involved

John: We’ll include a link to that in the show notes as well as contact information.

Dean: Awesome.

John: Thank you, Dean. It’s always a pleasure.

Rebecca: Thanks so much.

Dean: Thank you both. It’s great to talk to you.

[MUSIC]

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

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

97. Emotions and Learning

As faculty, we often don’t take emotions into account when planning our courses or curricula. In this episode, Dr. Sarah Rose Cavanagh joins us to discuss the powerful role emotions play in student learning. Sarah is the author of The Spark of Learning: Energizing Education with the Science of Emotion and of Hivemind: the New Science of Tribalism in our Divided World and numerous scholarly publications. She is the Associate Director for Grants and Research at the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, the Co-Director of the Laboratory for Cognitive and Affective Science, and also Research Affiliate at the Emotion, Brain, and Behavior Laboratory at Tufts University.

Show Notes

  • Sarah Rose Cavanagh – websitetwitter
  • Caulfield, M. (2017). Web literacy for student fact‐checkers. Pressbooks.
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. West Virginia University Press.
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2019). Hivemind: The New Science of Tribalism in our Divided World. Grand Central Publishing.
  • Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college (K-12). John Wiley & Sons.
  • Lemov, D. (2012). Teach like a champion field guide: A practical resource to make the 49 techniques your own. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Lemov, D. (2015). Teach like a champion 2.0: 62 techniques that put students on the path to college. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Parker, P. (2018). The art of gathering: How we meet and why it matters. Penguin.
  • Harrington, Christine. “61. A Motivational Syllabus,” Tea for Teaching podcast, December 25, 2018
  • Bain, K. (2011). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press.
  • Lang, J. M. (2006). The promising syllabus. Chronicle of Higher Education, 53(2), C2.
  • Knapp, Jennifer, “41. Instructional Communication,” Tea for Teaching podcast, August 8, 2018
  • Pekrun, R. (2006). The control-value theory of achievement emotions: Assumptions, corollaries, and implications for educational research and practice. Educational psychology review, 18(4), 315-341.
  • Pekrun, R., Frenzel, A. C., Goetz, T., & Perry, R. P. (2007). The control-value theory of achievement emotions: An integrative approach to emotions in education. In Emotion in education (pp. 13-36). Academic Press.
  • Smith, Kentina (2017). Stimulating Curiosity Using Hooks. Noba Blog. June 7

Transcript

John: Before we get to our regularly scheduled program we have a small request. Our 100th episode is around the corner and we’re collecting stories from our listeners about episodes, guests, or ideas that have influenced or impacted you, your colleagues, and your students. Please share your stories on teaforteaching.com.
We now return to the regularly scheduled podcast.

Rebecca: As faculty, we often don’t take emotions into account when planning our courses or curricula. In this episode, we discuss the powerful role emotions play in student learning.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Today our guest is Dr. Sarah Rose Cavanagh. She’s the author of The Spark of Learning: Energizing Education with the Science of Emotion and of Hivemind: the New Science of Tribalism in our Divided World and numerous scholarly publications. Sarah is the Associate Director for Grants and Research at the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, the Co-Director of the Laboratory for Cognitive and Affective Science, and also Research Affiliate at the Emotion, Brain, and Behavior Laboratory at Tufts University. Welcome, Sarah.

John: Welcome.

Sarah: Oh, thank you.

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

Sarah: I am not. I am a coffee drinker. And I just had a very large coffee and I’m moving on to water now.

Rebecca: So many coffee drinkers on this show.

Sarah: Yup. It’s important. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m drinking English breakfast, despite the fact that it’s no longer morning.

John: I’m drinking Tea Forte Black Currant tea.

Sarah: Mmmm. That sounds tasty

John: It’s very good.

Rebecca: So Sarah, we asked you to join us today to talk a little bit about The Spark of Learning. In that book, you argue that faculty should design all aspects of the course to target student emotions. Yet as teachers, we don’t really think about emotions, necessarily. So she can talk a little bit about why considering emotions is so important.

Sarah: Sure. Well, I think when you look at what’s required for learning in the classroom, you’ll see that there’s numerous cognitive resources that are required for learning. They have to pay attention to the material, you have to be willing to work on the material and your working memory, you have to be motivated to put effort and energy into that work both in the class, but then also outside of the class when you’re working on assignments. And all of these cognitive resources are limited, there’s only so much of them to go around. You can only pay attention to so much at once, you can only work on so many bits of information in your working memory. So we have to think about how can we motivate students to direct those cognitive resources towards the class material, toward the work of the class. And I believe that emotions are a critical ingredient in doing so because emotions attract attention. They were motivated to pay attention to work on emotional material, things that are self relevant. And we think that emotions evolved in the first place in order to motivate behavior: to push us toward things that are good for us, to pull us away from things that are dangerous or irrelevant, and also to tag information as important to remember. …and thinking a little bit about the emotional design of a presentation style, of the assignments that we choose, of the class activities, and even of how we assess students. All of these are strategies by which we can get students more motivated and more engaged.

John: One of the things you talk about in your book is the importance of first impressions. Could you tell us a little bit about why that’s so important to open the class with something that engages students’ emotions?

Sarah: Mm hmm. Great. Well, I think that students come to the class, they have busy lives… lots of things pulling them from work of the class… and when they first come into the class, we need to spark their curiosity, we need to get them engaged, and to focus them on the work of the class. I had a speaking engagement in Tennessee on the subject of learning and their planning committee was reading Priya Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering. So I picked it up in the airport, and I was reading it and she talks not about classrooms, but any gathering or meeting space. And one thing that she said that I love that I thought was very consistent with this idea of first impressions is you shouldn’t start with logistics. She says, “Don’t start a funeral with logistics.” Don’t stand up and say, “here’s the parking information.” And I think that we can use that lesson in the classroom. Like why start a class with “Oh, here’s the learning management system.” And “here’s what happens if you plagiarize” and all of these logistics that are kind of boring, and kind of ugly. [LAUGHTER] Why not start with the idea that we’re watching this intellectual journey together? Here’s what drew me to psychology or literature, chemistry, here’s what I think that you’re going to take from this class, here are the things you’re going to learn… to start with that passion. That’s going to form student feelings about the entire semester. And so I think that first impressions are important.

John: So perhaps going over the syllabus, interminably, on the first day may not be the best strategy. [LAUGHTER]

Sarah: Right.

Rebecca: To follow up on that a little bit, though, syllabi have all these policies and things… is there a way that we can tap into this emotional connection in a document like that, that can feel very policy oriented and rules oriented?

Sarah: Well, I think…a couple things. One, I wish I could remember the person’s name, but probably five years ago now, I saw some person’s blog posts on Twitter or something. She was a historian. And she had redone all of her syllabi, with images and famous quotes and made them really beautiful and kind of exciting to look at. And even though it was late in the summer, and I was already a little stressed about everything that was going on, I was inspired to redo all my syllabi similarly. And so I think just putting a little design into your syllabus can make it a more attractive document. I think my colleague, James Lang has a Chronicle post about starting syllabi with kind of what we were saying about Priya Parker and the Art of Gathering with a promise, “here are the exciting things that we’re going to be covering” instead of, “we’re going to read these books and cover these principles.” So in that section, when you say what the course is about, I think is powerful. And then in terms of policies, certain policies are a good idea to include on the syllabus. But I think the language that you choose matters quite a lot. And back in the day, I think I had a section on issues of courtesy. You know, “don’t pack up your bags while I’m still talking,” “don’t use your cell phones,” all these things. Now that section on my syllabi talks about “Let’s respect each other, and here’s my commitment to you: that I will start and end the class promptly on time that I will return your assignments to you within a reasonable time frame, but I will respect all of your contributions. And in return, I would ask that you not pack up your bags, while I’m still speaking and these kind of things.” And so I think framing some of the policies in terms of both what’s exciting that’s going to happen, but then also in the sort of communal language rather than punitive language, I think can go a long way to make this a little bit more inviting.

John: I’ll throw in a reference to a past podcast… we had Christine Harrington, who talked about her book: Designing a Motivational Syllabus. And also, Ken Bain had written about the “promising syllabus” way back. And I think that’s inspired a lot of these discussions. And I think they’re all very good suggestions. We should all do more of that, I suspect.

Rebecca: So we talked a little bit about the setup in the beginning of the class. Some of it is also just deciding what assessments there’s going to be and what the assignments are going to be. So can you talk a little bit about how we can plan for emotion in those kinds of design aspects as well?

Sarah: Sure. And here, I’m going to cite Reinhard Pekrun, the researcher and psychologist, and he has an entire theory of academic emotion. So he was having a lot of respect before I ever did. And his theory of academic emotions, he calls the control value theory of academic emotions. And by control, he means autonomy. So giving students choices, giving them flexibility, and the sense that they’re crafting their own intellectual journey, not just that they’re submitting themselves to yours. [LAUGHTER] And then value really being about some of these things that we’re talking about in terms of emotional engagement, but also the whole idea of relevance . So the students see the relevance of the assignments and the assessment. And relevance is multifaceted, it can be relevant for their personal lives, or their future careers… It could be some transcendent purpose, here’s why we should be evaluating this topic in order to improve society at large… that the students should see the value. And so kind of the opposite of busy work. We’re not just doing this for no reason, there’s a purpose, there’s a relevance. And so I think, using his framework, and thinking about ways that we can help students shape their own intellectual journey, and which assignments they’re going to do with the topics, you’re giving them choices of topics… on exams, giving them choices of essays, things like that. And then value, always illustrating the relevance and the importance of the work that they’re doing, I think are ways that we can think about assignments and assessments.

John: You also talk a little bit about using emotional contagion in classes to help build motivation. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Sarah: Sure. That whole topic really engaged me in reading and researching and writing… kind of turned into my second book project. But I think that we are incredibly social beings, we’re individuals, but also have this collective aspects to our psychology and how our brains work. I think that in the classroom, we’re in a social setting. And there’s certainly lots of research evidence showing that emotions, in particular, are contagious, that they kind of spread from one to another. I think one of the ways that that topic is relevant in the classroom is from instructor to students. And so putting a little bit of thought into your presence and the kinds of emotions that you’re showing: are you showing passion? Are you showing enthusiasm? Are you engaged yourself? Are you interested and present yourself? …that level of curiosity and passion can spread through the class. There’s student to student emotional contagion. And I’m sure anyone who’s taught a while has had these experiences both positive and negative ways… the ways in which enthusiasm and motivation can kind of spread among the class and the ways that negative emotions can spread throughout a class. And there’s a big literature on the topic of reactance, which is a term that refers to when the students sort of collectively decide that you, the instructor, are unfair, or uninteresting, or something else, [LAUGHTER] and kind of bands together and bond over that. And so thinking strategically about how to minimize those occurrences, are also ways to think about emotional contagion in the class.

John: So, on those days when you’re not feeling as energetic and enthusiastic, what can we do to help create that emotional contagion effect?

Sarah: Yeah, coffee. [LAUGHTER]

John: …or tea.

Sarah: Yes, or tea… coffee or tea. But, that’s a fascinating question, and one that’s a little under studied. And so I looked at the research literature, and there are a couple of research studies on the whole phenomenon of faking it, and doing emotional labor. So putting on a happy face, and an enthusiastic face, even when you’re not there. And it’s mixed. There’s a power in authenticity. But sometimes we also have to engender some enthusiasm that we might not necessarily be feeling. I think that prior preparation can also go a long way. Some of these ways of being more emotionally engaging, I think, can be in your choice of activities in the class and videos that you’re showing. And so thinking ahead of time, if it’s kind of a dead time of semester for you, thinking of things you can do in the classroom to mix it up, because you know that your energy might not bring that energy.

John: And you also suggest that mindfulness training might be useful in helping faculty become more focused or more present in the classroom.

Sarah: Yeah, mindfulness is super interesting. I think it’s one of those topics that are so multifaceted that they’re hard to break down and study from a psychology perspective, because mindfulness itself has attentional components it has components of acceptance. But research shows that mindfulness is really good at bringing people to the present moment. And I think that some of these present and performance related topics… a lot of it is “are you there with the students,” instead of off in your own mind, creating your shopping list or thinking about your manuscript that’s overdue. [LAUGHTER] And so I think bringing yourself back to that present moment, and reconnecting with the students… making eye contact, thinking carefully about what you’re going to say. That is the essence of mindfulness training, bringing yourself back to the present moment, and so it may benefit your work in the classroom.

Rebecca: Can we talk a little bit about those negative emotions.

Rebecca: You know, sometimes that happens… you’re having a bad semester or something goes wrong. And then perhaps that contagion effect really does happen in your class, and you need to bring it back.

Sarah: Yeah.

Rebecca: Do you have some strategies on how to bring it back.

Sarah: I think that those emotions tend to build within the class itself, when students aren’t feeling heard, when they are not feeling that autonomy, and they’re not feeling that control. And I think a lot of those emotions are just around perceptions of unfairness and status and authority. So some of the ways do work on that, I think, are being transparent and having open conversations with the students doing mid semester check ins… you know, giving them a voice, and a way for them to.. Instead of telling each other what they don’t like about your class… to tell you. And then that, in demonstrating that you care… that you want to know what their feedback is, especially if you’re able to make slight changes, because they might have a point… and none of us are perfect. But having that open conversation and valuing their voice, I think, is a way to try to alleviate some of that reactance. The literature on reactance shows that the best defense is a good offense… preventing it in the first place. Some of the ways that the research suggests to prevent it is, again, that presence and immediately… this whole concept of immediacy cues, things like eye contact, using inclusive language, varied vocal tone, things like that that shows students that you’re there with them, have been some of the best variables that predict lower reactants and lower negative emotions over the semester.

Rebecca: There’s some really great tips on immediacy in the episode we had with Jennifer Knapp.

Sarah: Oh, good. I’ll check that out.

John: You also talk a little bit about self disclosure as a way to building more immediacy. Could you talk to us a little bit about how self disclosure might be done productively? And when does it go too far?

Sarah: Yeah, I think self disclosure does two things that explain why it’s effective. One, it’s a way of being present. And secondly, it’s also a way of using storytelling in the classroom. And we know that stories are kind of cognitively privileged… that they work… they’re effective in the classroom. I read a couple of qualitative studies in which they had a sort of student think tank somewhere asking them about instructor self disclosure, and the times that they felt that it was very effective, and the times that they felt that was less effective. What students reported was that it was most effective when instructors shared stories about their own intellectual journeys, especially times that they had trouble with this material and how they worked their way around it. I always tell my students that I failed to get into a single graduate school the first time around and they love to hear that. Because it shows that when you look toward your goal, it’s not always smooth sailing, we all hit bumps in the road and have to re-strategize. Some degree of personal one-on-one disclosure is also effective… talking about the game you were at with your kids over the weekend, or your favorite movie, and things like that… just because it makes you a person instead of just an authority figure at the front of the room.

Rebecca: I thought we were all robots at the front of the room. [LAUGHTER] I didn’t understand that we weren’t that.

Sarah: Yeah, it always surprises me when my students perk up whenever I share something personal. And I’m like, I’m this old fogie, like… It surprises me that they’re interested. But they are, I think, for those reasons. I think reasonable boundaries, they don’t need to know about… [LAUGHTER] what they don’t need to know that. They don’t need to know everything.

Rebecca: We’ve talked a little bit about design and thinking about getting students motivated together, and us helping them get motivated and them motivating each other. But you also talked a little bit about the strength of emotion in being able to just process and remember things. Can you talk a little bit about that, and maybe some strategies that we can incorporate into our classes related to that?

Sarah: Sure. and I think primarily, the first thing that I always think of with emotions, in that sense, is grabbing attention. And we have lots of literature showing that, on a very basic neurological level, emotional stimuli arrests attention. And I ran into a blog post after writing the book that I wish I had run into before writing the book by Kentina Smith, and she talks about using emotional hooks in the classroom. And I love that term. And what she means by that is kind of sectioning up your class into whatever makes sense for your length of your class and for your material. And then beginning each segment of your class, of your material, with an emotional hook… that they hook them in. And that can be using videos… stories, again, are really great… reading passages that are emotionally interesting. Again, demonstrating relevance for career or for something else. I was running a workshop at Northern Illinois University and one of the professors shared what she did… she was in a nursing program… and in one of her freshman classes that were really a lot of work… and students often got discouraged… she would have the students who had just graduated and now were in their internships come back and talk about how the material that they learned in that class… how they were using it in the field at this moment… and how they were so grateful to have those skills. And I thought that was amazing. That was a really powerful way of hooking students attention and saying, “Okay, this material might be a little boring, but it’s really important.” That isn’t too flashy. I think sometimes people worry that what I’m talking about means that we’re just purely entertaining the students. And I don’t think that’s the case… and so using those emotional hook.

Memory is interesting, it’s a little trickier. Because there is some evidence, I shouldn’t admit this. But when you do something really emotional, that students remember the emotion, and then not what comes next. Because they’re so caught up in the emotion. But I don’t think much of what we’re doing in the classroom is making students super emotional, but just like giving them a little bit of a prime, we’re more likely to remember things that are novel, that are interesting that would get us a little outraged, that get us a little passionate. And so I think that at a very basic level, emotions benefit these cognitive resources.

John: One of the emotions you talk a little bit about is frustration, and that it can be useful sometimes to confuse students a bit. Could you talk a little bit about?

Sarah: Sure. When I talk to people about ideas in the book, they sometimes think that I’m advocating that students should be happy all the time, that it should be nothing but positive. And I don’t think that. I think that some frustration is a natural part of the process of learning. There’s experience-sampling studies where students are learning new skills from computerized tutorials, and also reporting on their emotions, like on a dial at the same time. And it shows that, as the students learn new skills, it’s a repeated dynamic cycle between initial confusion because they don’t know this yet… they start strategizing and start trying things… working on it… and then they’re frustrated. Then they solve that level or skill or problem and they achieve learning, and then they have this flash of pleasure. And then the tutorial system brings them to the next level and they’re confused again. And that learning seems to be that repeated dynamic cycle. I think that that’s very true. I think helping them navigate that through self disclosure… through transparency… saying, “Hey, you’re going to get frustrated and that means you’re learning. That means that this is something you haven’t encountered before.” I think this can help navigate them through because you don’t want them to get so frustrated that they get anxious and worried. So normalizing and acknowledging that that’s part of the process… But I think it is, I think it is part of the process of learning.

John: We often have students from very diverse backgrounds, though, in terms of their prior knowledge. How can we design activities that will provide an optimal amount of challenge for students, when students come in with so different backgrounds?

Sarah: That’s really tricky. [LAUGHTER] I think that’s one of the trickiest things about our job. And I think routinely assessing where your students are at, can be a strategy. I mean, it’s still going to tell you a lot about the average, which is not going to tell you as much about the diversity of experiences, but having kind of your finger on the pulse of where your students are, either through quick quizzes, online check-ins, but even through the questions that you ask. I read Doug Lemov’s book, I’m forgetting the title, [Teach Like a Champion] but he worked in high school and studied star teachers who were having with amazing outcomes, even in high schools that had low resources. And one of the recommendations that comes out of his analysis of those teachers was asking questions in ways that really reveal the student level of knowledge. Instead of saying “Everybody’s got that?” or “Does everyone understand? …asking those questions so that you can have a gauge of where all of your students are. Smaller classes… you can do more personalized, focused things. One of the works that I read had talked about getting progress feedback, as well as discrepancy feedback. So having papers be due in segments, and not only showing students where they needed to improve, but also telling them where they have improved. I think that sort of personalized attention we can’t all do when we’re teaching classes of 500. But, if you’re teaching a smaller class, some of that personalized stuff can help.

John: Can peer instruction, perhaps, help leverage some of that when you ask questions that are challenging for some and easier for others.

Sarah: Yes, I love that.

Rebecca: Sometimes students may get too frustrated and give up. How do you get them back to a place where it can be productive again?

Sarah: Again, being transparent, kind of my go to, and talking about the fact that that’s likely to happen at different points in the semester for different students and helping them do that. I think, knowing your college’s resources in terms of student mental health, in terms of academic support, and being able to refer students out to those, I think is important. And I think even just small things like sending an email. And again, they realize that I have this bias because I teach small classes, relatively. But you know that a student is struggling and you can observe that they’re hitting kind of a rough point… sending them a personalized email and saying, “Hey, do you want to drop by office hours, this is when they are…” and feeling seen by the professor and knowing that there are resources, I think, can be very helpful.

Rebecca: One of the things you mentioned up front was the idea that we want them to get curious and engaged and own their learning. Can you talk a little bit about ways other than just the choose your own adventure kind of opportunities where they have choice, that we can leverage students curiosity and get them really hooked?

Sarah: Yeah, I think asking questions, kind of the idea of puzzles and mysteries. Every field has their unsolved mysteries. And I find that students really respond when I present debates that are ongoing in the field. And I think that works on two levels. There’s not a set answer and so they’re curious, because we’re always most curious about things that we’re not quite sure about. And they also feel the freedom to contribute, because they know they’re not going to get it wrong, because no one knows. But also putting them in this position where they feel like they too could join this quest. And they might be able to push knowledge, if they were to go on to graduate school. So, putting them in the shoes of a contemporary psychologist or biologist and here are the things that people are yelling at each other about on Twitter, because no one can agree. “What is your opinion?” is a way to get students curious.

John: We’re recording that in mid-August, but will be releasing it shortly after your new book, Hivemind comes out? Could you tell us a little bit about Hivemind?

Sarah: Sure, it’s a complicated book. I see it as having three layers. On it’s base layer, it’s really a contemporary overview of social neuroscience, the current state of knowledge in terms of how we are, as I was saying before, not just an individualistic species, but we also have this collective aspect. That as Jon Haidt says, we can be hive-ish. And that’s why the title Hivemind. And so at its base level, it’s kind of like a bird’s eye overview of what’s going on in social neuroscience: How do our brains relate to each other? How do we engage in this sometimes almost collective consciousness and things like that. And then the second layer is how smartphones and social media, the invention of those devices and technologies, are amplifying our social natures, both in good ways and in bad ways… on evaluating that evidence. And then the third layer is sort of our current political polarization moment, and what we can learn from social neuroscience and social media as to what’s going on in the world.

John: How have the changes in technology led to the changes in polarization that we’ve been observing?

Sarah: Yeah, it’s a fascinating question and one that would be a great question for a class because I don’t think we know for sure. But anyone who has a smartphone or is on social media, I think, has seen evidence of this polarization and felt like it has become more extreme. And certainly, there’s some polling about in the States, Republicans and Democrats and how comfortable you would or wouldn’t be if your child married someone of the opposing political party. And those sorts of studies are definitely showing greater polarization. And there’s a lot of principles in terms of when you get together with a group, and you begin discussing your opinions and you’re sharing your opinions, that your opinions become more extreme, because you’re hearing it echoes back… the whole phenomenon of good polarization and echo chambers. So there’s evidence that that’s making all of that worse. I think that there is also evidence, though, that we may be paying too much attention to the polarization and that talking so much about the polarization, in some ways gives us permission to be polarized. And I think that there’s evidence from social psychology that we form much more extreme “us versus thems” when we feel under perceived threat. And certainly we are under numerous threats. But I think that also we are kind of buying into a collective panic and fear. Ironically, in part, one of those panics, I think is about smartphones and social media. And I think we’re overly panicked. It’s really, really complicated. And I think it’s really, really fascinating. And I think we’re not sure quite yet.

Rebecca: I know that a lot of faculty have talked about how the polarization, the spread of misinformation through social media, is impacting conversations and things that are happening in their classes.

Sarah: um hmm.

Rebecca: Do you have any suggestions for how to navigate that, using some of this emotional research that you’ve been focused on?

Sarah: Sure, I think that, I’m going to go back to my transparency again. But having ground rules, especially if your class is focused on a topic that is likely to generate some of this heat, starting the semester with ground rules about respect, about open dialogue, and then also with the tapping back to control and then autonomy, giving students some power over that. So, on Twitter, people are sharing stories about how to charge the class to sit down and develop, with an agreement about how we’re going to debate things together. And students would make suggestions and some of this is done on Wikis… that’s really interesting work. So I think acknowledging that, and I think this is going to vary a lot on different campuses. And I’ve seen that… I do some traveling around doing workshops and talks, and I see that variability. Different campuses very politically in terms of whether they’re left leaning or right leaning… The students vary in their degree to which they’re politically active or interested. On my campus, I find that students are reluctant to debate some of these issues, and that we have to bring them to the table. Whereas I talked to people in some other campuses where they have to cool down the whole class because everybody’s jumping in. So I think the strategies will vary a lot based on your student body and the topic that you’re teaching. But I think ground rules about respect, especially collectively sourced, can be very powerful… and getting students some say,

Rebecca: It sounds like maybe this book is coming out just in time, so we can all prepare for 2020. [LAUGHTER]

Sarah: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

I was at Wellesley College, I think, a year ago. They were asking me about the topic of the book, Hivemind, and they were saying the same thing. They were like, “Oh, this is so timely.” And one of the women, as she looked at me with such dismay, and she was like, “I really hope it’s not still timely by the time the book comes out.” …that we resolve some of these issues. But now it’s coming out in a few weeks and I don’t think we’ve solved much.

John: Is some of it, though, a shift from national media, where the major newspapers and TV stations and so forth had to appeal to a broader audience, so they aimed at the middle of the spectrum? And now we’ve diversified, as has happened in many other areas with music and arts as well, so that now any particular point of view can develop its own hive, and extreme views can spread perhaps more easily,

Rebecca: …like the long tail idea?

Sarah: Yes, I definitely think there’s a lot to that. And I think that some of those things are, when we’re not looking politically, necessarily are really positive. It allows social media and has allowed people of like mind to find other people of like mind in terms of like hobbies or interests, or people who share their life experiences. I interviewed some people in the book who have had those experiences: there’s no one that understood them, or if they were disconnected from their heritage, and they were able through social media to connect. But I think that it is more dangerous when it’s news sources and politics.

John: One of the issues I’ve seen in my classes in the last several years is that people used to disagree about policy outcomes, but they generally didn’t disagree about basic facts and evidence. And now I’m seeing a lot of that in classes in ways I’ve never seen until the last few years. How can we deal with that type of an issue?

Sarah: Yeah, there’s some great people working on this issue. Mike Caulfield has a whole fact checking literacy. It’s a free online PDF, a book, and he has what he calls “Four Moves to Fact Checking.” And what I really love about this is it ties into the emotional piece and understanding how humans work. Because other approaches to fact checking in media literacy are really laborious. There are 12 steps… and I think unrealistic for how we engage with information. And he has, I don’t know each one of his moves. But there four moves for checking facts in which students can quickly advocate for certain information and look for the background… look for actual scholarly sources on it and get to a better place of is this actually information that’s true. And I do it with my own students, my intro Psych students, we do a little fact check on a couple different memes [LAUGHTER] to get them used to that sort of thing. Because if we can’t agree on facts, then we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.

Rebecca: It sounds to me like talking about emotions in general, no matter what your class ia, could be a benefit in helping students understand and sort through the difference between an emotional response to something versus a cognitive response to something,

Sarah: Right, I think so too. My research background is in emotion regulation. And in the book, I advocate for using cognitive reappraisal, which is an emotion regulatory technique in which you reinterpret the situation or the emotion that you’re having. And there’s some really fascinating work being done using cognitive reappraisal to people on two sides of intractable conflicts, and it is effective… and I think, using emotion regulation and regulating our own information, especially as it intersects with facts, especially facts that are political. I absolutely agree it’s going to be a critical strategy.

Rebecca: Do you have like a Cliff notes version of that, that you could share with folks who are maybe not in your field, that we could share that information with students?

Sarah: Yes. Sure. I think that’s one of the basic examples that I give for cognitive reappraisal is, you know, if you’re fired, you got a pink slip at work. And you could interpret that on the one hand as “You are a failure, you’re never going to have another job, that this is a devastating loss.” And that’s going to lead you down a directory of a certain emotional response. Or you could rephrase it as “You know, the company is downsizing and it’s nothing personal, that you would always want to just shift careers to these and this is an opportunity to do that.” And that set of appraisals or interpretations is going to set you on a very different emotional path. I think that reappraising some of these “us versus them…” You talk to people on either side of the political spectrum and about the opposing political side… and there’s also a lot of dehumanizing speech: they’re monsters, they’re evil. I think when we engage in those appraisals, it’s just going to drive us further and further apart. And so reappraising those, yes, disagree with this person on this policy, but trying to see their perspective… going to have that conversation, framing them as a human being who has different opinions than you, rather than a monster or a creature, I think, are powerful ways of trying to step back from some of the heat of this polarization.

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

Sarah: I want to answer it on two levels. One on the like Spark education level. With my colleague, James Lang, we’re focusing our attention and have some grants out the door on grading. And so you think about emotions in the classroom, emotional moments in the classroom, I think being graded and handing back a grade… students’ reactions to grades as one of the most emotional moments. There’s a lot of literature showing that students find receiving grades demotivating. Sometimes if they get a lower grades than they expected, they won’t read any of that careful feedback. And it can be unreliable, from professor to professor, from student to student, there are biases… gender biases… racial biases… in grading. And so I think we kind of need to fix grading, and that’s what we’re turning our attention towards next. On the writing side, I’m working on a book proposal that’s going to remain mostly secret, but it’s gonna be something fun. [LAUGHTER] I don’t want to think about politics anymore. I sometimes joke that writing Hivemind, it’s like I sat down and developed, like, “How many hate lists can I get on? “ And that’s like the farewell to the chapter outlines.

Rebecca: So now you need balance, you need to get on the good list, right?

Sarah: So I might do something like a little fun. It will still be psychology and neuroscience, personal anecdotes, and interviews and things like that, but one that has nothing to do with politics.

Rebecca: Sounds like a nice place to be.

Sarah: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been really interesting and I think faculty as they’re getting started in the new semester will take advantage of some of this information as they move forward.

Sarah: Awesome. Thank you. This has been such a pleasure,

John: Thank you. And I’m looking forward to the arrival of Hivemind which should be in early September, I believe.

Sarah: Yep. September 3,

John: it will be out by the time this podcast is released.

Rebecca: Yeah, September 4.

Sarah: Oh, that’s so cool. my publicist will be so pleased.

[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.