161. Relationship-Rich Education

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

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

Show Notes

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

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare , a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

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

John: Welcome

Peter: Thanks, John. Thanks, Rebecca.

Leo: Thank you. Great to be here.

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

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

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

Peter: Right on the Great Lake

Rebecca: Just cold,

Leo: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: And what is Red Sun Tea?

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

John: Very good.

Rebecca: I’m switching it up, John.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leo: Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leo: Thank you

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

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

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159. Nurturing a Growth Mindset

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

Show Notes

  • Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
  • Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Institutional Impediments to Effective Training”. Learning, remembering, believing: Enhancing human performance.
  • Bjork, R.A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe & A. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing (pp. 185-205). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Yue, C. L., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2013). Reducing verbal redundancy in multimedia learning: An undesired desirable difficulty?. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), 266.

Transcript

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

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

Kelly: Thanks for having me.

John: Our teas today are:

Kelly: I have Earl Grey today.

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

Kelly: Oh, that sounds good.

John: Where did you get that?

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

John: Oh, I haven’t seen that one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kelly: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kelly: Yeah.

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

Kelly: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Sounds like good research project.

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

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

Kelly: Thanks for having me.

Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you very much.

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

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

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158. Distracted

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

Jim: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

John: Good to see you again.

Jim: Yes.

John: Our teas today are:

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

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds good.

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

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

Jim: Yeah, it’s great stuff.

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

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

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

Jim: [LAUGHTER] Yeah, exactly.

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

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

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

Jim: Yeah.

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

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

Rebecca: That sounds good.

Jim: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim: Yes, I know. Right? Exactly.

Rebecca: That’s amazing. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

Jim: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

Jim: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim: Exactly.

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

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

John: And it reduces cognitive load…

Jim: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Jim: Well done.

John: …so they can focus more attention.

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

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

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

Jim: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

John: Thank you.

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

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

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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.