184. Engaging Students

As faculty we don’t always have the opportunity to talk to students about their overall learning experience and what has worked well for them as students. In this episode, Christine Harrington joins us to discuss what keeps students engaged, from their perspective, and how that ties to research on teaching and learning.

Christine is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at New Jersey City University and the author of Keeping Us Engaged (and several other books related to teaching, learning, and student success). Christine has been the Executive Director of the Student Success Center at the NJ Council of County Colleges.

Show Notes

Coming soon!

Transcript

Coming Soon!

183. Student Workload

College students throughout the country have reported substantial increases in their workload during the 2020-21 academic year.  Few faculty members, though, intentionally increased student workloads during this challenging year. In this episode,  Dr. Betsy Barre joins us to explore some reasons for student perceptions of increased workload.

Betsy is the Executive Director of the Center for Advancement of Teaching at Wake Forest University. In 2017 she won with Justin Esarey, the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education’s Innovation Award for their Course Workload Estimator.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: College students throughout the country have reported substantial increases in their workload during the 2020-21 academic year. Few faculty members, though, intentionally increased student workloads during this challenging year. In this episode, we explore some reasons for student perceptions of increased workload.

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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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Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Betsy Barre. Betsy is the Executive Director of the Center for Advancement of Teaching at Wake Forest University. In 2017 she won with Justin Esarey, the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education’s Innovation Award for their Course Workload Estimator. Welcome back, Betsy.

Betsy: Thanks. It’s great to be back.

John: It’s great to talk to you again. Our teas today are:

Betsy: So, I’m not drinking tea. I’m having many cups of coffee today. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Well, it’s still warm&hellip

Betsy: Yes, that’s right.

Rebecca: &hellipstill warm, and still caffeinated. [LAUGHTER] I’m drinking Irish breakfast today.

John: And I have ginger peach green tea.

Betsy: Nice.

Rebecca: &hellipan old favorite. So we’ve invited here today to talk about your recent blog post that addresses the impact of pandemic instruction on student workload. Can you talk a little bit about how the pandemic has affected student perceptions of their workload?

Betsy: Yeah, sure. So this issue has cropped up for many of us. I’m sure anyone who’s listening to this podcast has&hellip maybe in the spring, but particularly in the fall… and I think that’s really interesting to that in fall it became an even bigger issue than it was last spring&hellip that we started to hear from students in our online courses, and in our blended courses&hellip not just online&hellip that workload was overwhelming, perhaps even double. And we heard it at Wake Forest. We started hearing it anecdotally. And then I would talk to my colleagues at other institutions who, of their own initiative would bring it up, that they had heard it anecdotally as well, we saw on Twitter folks talking about this. And then we at Wake Forest did an all student survey where we didn’t ask about workload&hellip we probably should have. But it was the number one thing that came up in their open ended comments when we coded those. And so it just reinforced this idea that clearly this is a universal challenge. And it was a challenge across our schools to, so it wasn’t just our undergraduate students, We were hearing in our Divinity School and our law school and our business school. And so something was going on. And it was really intriguing to me, because clearly students felt like the workload was overwhelming. But, and this is what we’ve all said. It’s not as if all of us just sat down and said, “We want to give students a lot more work this semester.” So I was fascinated by it, talked to a bunch of people about it, was thinking about it. I know you all have been thinking about it, and just decided to write some of my thoughts in a blog post. One of the great things in the response to that blog post is lots of folks have come up with other ideas that I think are just as plausible too.

Rebecca: Do you think faculty believe that they’re giving more work to their students?

Betsy: That’s actually a really interesting question, because that sort of premise of my blog post is that, and this was Jody Greene said “No one sat down to give more work to students.” But since I’ve written it and talked to some faculty, there are some faculty who are like, “Yeah, maybe I did, maybe I did give a little bit too much work.” And that’s worth noting. But there are just as many faculty, maybe more faculty who say “Actually I have given less work this semester, and I’ve tried to dial it back and lower the stakes than I have in the past.” And so the fact that there’s that large body of faculty that think they’re doing the opposite, and then the student perception is something different. It’s really interesting.

Rebecca: One thing that you just said, Betsy, about the lower stakes piece, raises an interesting question, because a lot of professional development about going online and using effective teaching practices talks a lot about low-stakes assignments and the ability to check in on things more often. But maybe they’re smaller assignments. Do you think that’s happening more?

Betsy: Well, I think it’s a good thing that it is. And my guess is, that’s part of what’s causing the problem or the challenge&hellip maybe it’s not a problem, but just is causing this sort of disconnect… is that our faculty, particularly many of our institutions, in the summer did a lot of professional development around good online teaching practices, and just good teaching practices in general. And also really emphasized&hellip at least at Wake Forest&hellip we really emphasize this is a pandemic, our students are struggling, let’s lower the stakes on things, let’s be understanding. And so one way to do that is by having smaller low-stakes assignments, so instead of a big midterm, you have multiple weekly check-ins. But of course, our students can interpret that as, “more work,” because if you’re just counting work by counting the number of assignments, then it is, by definition, more work. So, instead of one midterm, you now have five short assignments, that’s five times the amount of work. And so instead of counting in terms of how much time the assignments take, they could be counting and just the overwhelming number of assignments seems like more work. And I think that’s what’s going on, or at least part of what’s going on. And I’ve said to some people that this is actually a good sign that change did happen over the summer, because we didn’t hear as much about this in the spring. People kept their one midterm and their final&hellip at least I didn’t hear about it as much, maybe you two did, but I didn’t hear as much about it in the spring. But then they redesigned their courses in the fall. And the fact that we’re all hearing about this suggests that people actually did things differently. Now, again, it still could be better, but that’s kind of a good sign to me. Now, the question is, how do you dial that back? And how do we communicate with students about it&hellip all really complex, but I do think it’s that breaking big assignments into smaller assignments is part of a contributing factor here.

John: . And we know that students tend to do a lot of cramming, they tend to do mass practice, but we know that spaced practice is more helpful and that we know the benefits of retrieval practice. And that’s something I think that most faculty development centers emphasized with faculty. And I know at our campus, we had more faculty participate than we’ve ever seen. We had more people participate in professional development workshops than we generally see over a four- or five-year period. For the people who were resistant to professional development in the past, they were learning about the benefits of retrieval practice and space practiced, and learning about the benefits of using low- stakes exams, as you were just talking about, and I agree that that’s a good thing. But we know that the practices that students use to study tend to be mass practice, they tend to do repeated rereading, and now they’re being asked to retrieve information. And we know that students believe that that’s less effective, and it’s certainly more work for students.

Betsy: So your point about retrieval practice, and we know students believe it’s less effective to be engaging in this continual retrieval practice, I think is really interesting. And I think that’s what we’re seeing when our students say, “We have more busy work.” So it’s not just that there’s more work, but that’s actually more busy work. And part of what’s going on there is that they think that that practice that they’re engaged in is not valuable, if you are giving assignments that are about practice. And as students see it as busy work, that’s part of us communicating the value of this work, and helping our students understand how they actually learn, and how it will help them on the later exams, I think is really important. That’s not the only challenge. I think busy work isn’t the only kind of challenge. It’s also, I think, for those of us in the humanities, I think what we’re seeing is that the new tools we have available to us make it easier for us to hold our students accountable for doing all the reading, when typically, they wouldn’t do all the reading. And typically students wouldn’t say it’s busy work, but there’s more reading that they have to do than they ever had to do before. And so that’s one hypothesis as well. But I think another point about the busy work and the retrieval practice, moving one exam to 10 short assignments is, and I talk about this in the post as well, is that there is a sense in which that could be adding to your work, in that they have to keep track of it all. And I think our students are not used to having to keep track of so many assignments. So typically, as a faculty developer leading a teaching center, I may have a faculty member come to me that wants to redesign their course. And I make all these suggestions, and they do it and it’s fine. And the reason it’s fine is because, yes, it’s a little bit more work and a little bit more stressful for the students. But it’s only one course. But I think what we saw is that all of a sudden, our students were moving from five courses where there were three assignments to five courses where there are 15 to 20 assignments or more. And that was even more compounding the exponential growth that they felt. So I teach with lots of small assignments, I always have. Students would sometimes say this is more work than in a typical class, but they weren’t upset about it. They didn’t feel overwhelmed by it. That’s because again, it wasn’t five of their courses that were doing it. So it is a really interesting question of when we go back post-pandemic, do we want all of our courses to work this way? And how do we help our students readjust to this is the new workload? or this is going to be the new experience of the new workload? Or do we not want to do that? And I think that’s an interesting conversation for all of us to have moving forward.

Rebecca: I know one of the things that I’ve had in conversations with students, just anecdotally, but also in some of the formal research that I’ve been working on related to students with disabilities, is the time management piece and just trying to manage and organize all the moving parts that are on all these different platforms is complex, but also that moving with more materials online has resulted in more reading and writing&hellip

Betsy: interesting.

Rebecca: &helliprather than other modalities that we might typically use in a face-to-face class like face-to-face conversation, which to them seems really much more time consuming. And it may actually be more time consuming, especially if you have a particular kind of disability.

Betsy: Right. So there are a couple of things to say there. So I did say one of the things I noticed is when you read student concerns about this, they will often say things like “It took me this much time to do a discussion post.” And that’s, I think, really revealing for all of us to understand. We often think, “Okay, the discussion posts are going to take the place of the discussion in class.” But right now, I’m just talking to you two, and I’m not thinking very hard about what I’m saying. And in fact, if you created a transcript of this, which you guys probably will, I’ll be embarrassed to read it, because I don’t think it’s as coherent as I want it to be. And if I were writing a discussion post, I would think very carefully about how I formulate my thoughts and my arguments, and even proofread. And it’s gonna take a lot more time, if I’m actually writing it out. And I think that’s really important for us to acknowledge that discussion posts and a discussion are not a one-to-one replacement. Or if we want it to be a one-to-one replacement, then we need to tell our students, we expect you to treat it as if you’re not actually writing something that’s meant to be thoughtful, we just want to hear your opinions about this. So that’s one piece. But then in terms of your point about disabilities, I think it’s really interesting in that all the best practices for Universal Design for Learning, we can revisit, and I didn’t talk about this in my post, but I should have, so thank you, Rebecca, for sharing this wrrinkle. Because I think it’s an important part of it is that giving students options for how they can do this work will also empower them to do things that they think are most efficient for their time. So if they can do a VoiceThread or make a video, or one of the activities that some of our faculty have found very successful as an asynchronous replacement for discussion, is to just put students in groups and tell them, in your own time, you get together, have a Zoom discussion about the material, record it and send it to me ,that you’ve had that discussion. So they actually have a discussion. It’s just sort of asynchronously done. But in general, giving students options, it’s not going to solve every problem, but it does empower them to have choice, because there will be some students who prefer to write than to speak. But there may be something like “I’m tired of writing, I want to actually just speak.” And then in terms of the material, I think there was this recent meta analysis that just came out like last week about video versus text, which was really interesting. And as a humanist, I’m sad to see this, but it’s not surprising that sometimes video can be better for student learning than a text can be. Because I often think, “Oh, I’ll just give them something to read, and that will be the replacement for a lecture.” But maybe sometimes there’s a way in which they’d rather watch somebody talk about that material, rather than read about it.

Rebecca: Or by extension, just listen to the material, like in a podcast or something.

Betsy: Yeah, podcasts are a great opportunity. And we’ve heard students say, when I’m walking around campus, or when I’m working out, and it allows them again, to expand their schedule where they have more time to do things and no screen time, which is something they really appreciate because there’s so much Zoom fatigue, that being able to listen to something where they don’t read online and then have to watch online, they can just listen to it is a real relief for them. Absolutely. Unsurprising you all like podcasts.

Rebecca: Anything that gets us off the screen, actually, is something that I work a lot to do with my design students, because whether it’s a pandemic or not, we spent a lot of time on the screen.

Betsy: Yeah, fair enough. So you’re an expert at this. Yeah. You’ve thought about this. That’s great. Yeah, for sure and I think we need to think about that more.

John: But I know even for people who are teaching asynchronously before, some people have started using new tools. On our campus, for example, people who used to give students readings as a basis for discussions now are having students use hypothesis for the discussions, which means students actually have to open the reading [LAUGHTER] and actually respond to the text, which can take a lot more time than just skimming over the abstract and responding to it. And similarly, I’ve been posting videos for 20 some years in my classes, but now I’m doing it where there’s questions embedded in it, which means they actually have to watch them now for a small portion of their grade. So I think some of the tools that people are using may provide more learning, may provide more engagement, but also is going to take a lot more time than how people use them before. And you noted in your blog post that many students would be able to get by and coast to get the grade they want without doing a lot of the things faculty assume that they did. [LAUGHTER] But again, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. But it does require more time on average.

Betsy: Yeah, it’s a complicated question. It’s a self report, so it could be even lower than this, but just general self report on how much time students spend each week studying, it’s about 15 hours a week, on average, prior to pandemic, and that is for a full-time student. So imagining 15 credit hours they’re studying, it’s one to one, and many faculty assume or hope that it’s more than one to one. [LAUGHTER] But students are very strategic, they’re learning an important skill and figuring out what does need to get done and what doesn’t need to get done to be able to be successful in a course. And so certainly I appreciate that. But I think recognizing this disconnect is important because it helps us understand why faculty didn’t think they were giving more work, but students actually did have more work because faculty were mistakenly assuming that students were spending 30 hours a week studying when really they were only spending 15. And so being aware of that now helps us have a much more honest conversation about well, what do we expect the standards to be for students, and there are differences across different institutions and different programs. So our graduate professional programs are for folks who are working full time, have different sorts of informal expectations, I think, than others. And so it’s worth it for all of us to come together and to talk about that. But I will say I do think it’s just important to say&hellip I probably said this in the post… but we do know that the more time students spend on a task, the more they will learn. So it’s not just like we’re piling on the hours because we want to punish them or we think that’s just really what rigorous teaching is. It’s that actually we know you’ll learn more if you spend more time thinking about a text or practicing the problems, as you said, John, that this will help you learn more. So you obviously don’t want to expect so much that they can’t do other things they have to do in their life. So that’s the tension. I think my recommendation always be if you have to have a full-time job, you shouldn’t be a full time student, because that’s like too much work. So thinking about how do we calibrate the courses that students taketo how much time they’re actually able to put into it is really important. So yeah, I do think that that’s happening. It’s not the only thing. Again, I also think there are faculty who probably expect too much as well, because we’re not good at estimating how much time it takes for students to do things. I think Hypothesis is a great example. I use Hypothesis in my class, I love it. If you’re a humanist and you haven’t used, or if you have assigned readings and you haven’t used Hypothesis or Perusall go look it up and find it. It’s pretty amazing. But I think that remembering that, yes, it will make them read. So that’s extra time because they’re actually gonna have to read and they’re gonna have to read carefully enough to have good questions. [LAUGHTER] So they can’t skim it, as you said, John, but then all the time it takes to actually read everybody else’s comments, really remembering that and that’s where I as a newbie to online, that was like an aha moment for me when one of my colleagues who’s an expert in online teaching was like, “It’s not just the time it takes for them to write their own discussion posts, it’s also they have to read everybody else’s. There’s extra reading that’s involved.” It’s not just the text itself, but it’s also reading everybody else’s responses and so putting them in groups where they’re responding to fewer people or reading fewer people is a really useful tool. Again, I think probably all of these hypotheses are going on. And it’s worth us being honest about all of them, instead of saying, “Oh, it’s definitely the students,” or “it’s definitely the faculty,” it’s like we’re all in this together, and let’s figure out how we move forward.

John: A nice thing, perhaps, would be to give students information about how much time these tasks take. And it would be nice if there was a tool for that, [LAUGHTER] which I believe that you have created.

Betsy: So yes, we have a tool that actually we made pre-pandemic. But one thing I want to say, because a lot of people have used this tool, and I think sometimes people use it in ways that are asking you to do more than it was intended to do. And that it is very much an estimator. It is not meant to be a calculator, that is the exact amount of time that your students are going to spend on something. And it’s very broad. It was essentially just something that I was interested in creating as I was thinking about how much work I assign students in terms of reading and writing. And the original version of it is very much tilted towards reading and writing. So oftentimes, we hear from STEM folks like “What about problem sets?” And that’s and that’s just the Wild West in terms of how much time students spend on that, it’s much harder to get a handle on it, so it’s not there. But there are places in this estimator where you can add a new assignment that isn’t captured by reading and writing and just give your own estimates for how much time you think students will spend. And the main value of this estimator, I think, is that I found that many of my colleagues, myself included, are just not good at the head math required, we just keep adding these assignments, and we think we have a good sense, but literally sitting down and writing out like “Okay, they have to go to the library to get the source.” Well, it’s gonna take him some time to walk to the library and walk back&hellip like literally things like that, realizing how much time you’re asking your students, and then adding it up can be really valuable. And I would do it sometimes on the back of an envelope, but it was chaos. And so I thought, why can’t we just have a calculator that does that, So we have an old version of the calculator, we have a new version that my colleagues in online education at Wake Forest, Allen Brown, helped us work on to add in discussion posts and video lectures and other things so that it’s a little bit closer to what asynchronous online courses might involve. And it can be a tool for overall assessment, but also individual assignment assessment of like, how much time might it spend for them to do this type of reading or to do these types of videos. And if you disagree with what the estimator says, my favorite feature of the estimator is, you can manually adjust it. So you don’t have to get in arguments with us. Whatever your own assumptions are, you can go in there and put that in, and you’ll still be surprised with what the total amount is probably, at least I often am, that I’m giving more than I realized and I have to go back and make some hard choices. So hopefully, it’s a useful tool for everyone. But as John, you said, one of the best things about it is that allows us to better communicate with our students about what we’re expecting as well. And we’ve heard from so many students who have found it super helpful in the courses that have done this, both students who are struggling, but also students who are crazy overachievers, and who will spend 20 hours on a one-page paper. It’s a real relief to them. Even if they only spend four hours when they’re supposed to spend one, at least it’s four, and not 20. So it helps them manage their time as well.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve done, at least on longer term projects, that has worked really well for me and my students is having them keep a timesheet and asking them to divide out tasks. And I pose it to them so that we’re in the design field. So it’s to help them think about how they might price something in the future, so they know how long it takes them. So that’s how you get the buy in. But what it helps me do is see how long it takes them to do certain things. And realize it’s like, “Why did you spend this amount of time doing this thing that was really not important, as other thing was much more important?” And then you can coach the group on those sorts of things, which can be helpful. And along those same lines, one of the things that I run into, and this may fit more into the idea of problem sets or things like this is how much time students will try to problem solve a technical issue that they just aren’t problem solving in the right way at all. And so they could spend hours trying to do something that if they just asked a question… [LAUGHTER] &hellipit would have taken two minutes.

Betsy: Like ask for directions…. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah, so I’ve been reminding my students, especially since the fall, when we’ve been doing much more online,that, if you’re spending more than 15 minutes trying to solve this technical problem, A. take a break, you’re just going in circles, maybe come back and try again. But if you’re spending much more time than that, then that’s a good clue that you need to ask for help.

Betsy: That’s really smart. And really, I think, super helpful. And I think getting feedback from our students about how much time they’re spending is not just good at the individual level of coaching. It also is great formative feedback for adjusting our own expectations. Again, and it corrects the estimator, maybe you put it in the estimator, and has happened to me too. And I realized&hellip because one of the things about the estimator, it’s best about reading, usually, in terms of its reading estimates, but one of the central insights from the reading literature is that the difficulty of a text is just as much about students’ vocabulary as it is about the text itself. So I would guess “this is a pretty easy text for my second year students at Wake Forest.” And then if they’re all taking a lot longer, what I realized is that actually, I misjudged their familiarity with these concepts that would be in this book. That this book is actually harder than I thought it would be. So I need to up it in terms of the estimator to say “Actually, there are more new concepts than I realized that the students are engaging with and it’s going to take more time.” So asking the students is just as important as you communicating with them. It’s a two-way street for sure to get that formative feedback. I also think telling them about time management and struggling with time management. I’ve seen some really good strategies. I know our learning assistant center, who works with students, has some good counseling that they do with students about how do they create a master syllabus or kind of a calendar for when they’re going to do things. And I also saw somebody, I think, shared it on the POD listserv, but a strategy of creating a Google calendar with basically time slots for all of your activities in your course. And then students import it into their Google Calendar and move those around. So you would set it up like two hours for reading this text. And then they could move it in their calendar. And so that works for them. But they basically see the blocks of time that they need to set aside. And if they did that for every class, it would be even better, they could see “Oh, wow, this is 40 hours in a week, I need to set aside time to do this work.” And frankly, we should be doing that even before the pandemic. But we’re learning this lesson now of how to help our students manage time and due dates, and all of that, because it is a little bit more. And again, I also want to emphasize too, not just all the cognitive load of multiple assignments, but learning new tools also takes time. This is kind of your point about troubleshooting, Rebecca, like, if a student has never used the video function on Canvas, they may find themselves spending 45 minutes trying to get the video function to work, when that’s not in any of our calculations of their assignment. We’re assuming they’re just going to record the video and upload it. So being mindful of the time it takes them to learn a new tool in this scenario is also really important.

John: You mentioned the issue of reading tied to students prior knowledge and vocabulary. But that’s going to vary a lot across students. So I know a lot of people, when they include estimates from the calculator, will say this is an estimate of what this is, your mileage may vary and keep track of how long it takes you to do these things, and use that to adjust your future estimates of the time requirements for these tasks.

Betsy: That’s a nice idea too, to say you students adjust. So that’s really smart. I like that a lot. For sure, it varies across students. And especially, I mean, even thinking about students with disabilities is an even more interesting challenge. And there is an interesting question, I’ve had some good conversations about to what extent, if we’re putting that estimate… the average&hellip in the syllabus does that create problems for students who may be slower, they think that there’s a deficit. So you need to be thinking about how you frame it, I think is really important. And to be up front that saying it is expected and that is the normal course of things that we’ll all have different rates and this is a ballpark average. You can even put a range&hellip might be an idea too&hellip of ballparks there, but recognizing and saying it’s totally understandable that there’ll be jeans taking a different amount of time, because again, prior knowledge, not just ability, it’s all sorts of other things. How often have you read in the past? How often have you worked with technology in the past? Any of these things, they’re gonna make a difference.

Rebecca: One of the things that conversations about perceptions of workload lead me to is I wonder what the perceptions of learning are?

Betsy: Yeah, I think this is a great question. Because when we think about how students got “got by” in the past by doing less work, what they meant by “get by” was successfully complete the course and get the grade that they desired. If we actually ask them about how much they learn, I don’t know. I mean, that’s a really interesting question, would they say, “Oh, well, it takes more to get my A now&hellip” so that’s duplicating the workload&hellip “But, oh, by the way, I’m also learning more.” It’d be interesting to see. I mean, it depends on f the primary issue here is that students doing less work before and now they’re doing all the work we expected of them, then I think you would expect a lot more learning. But there could also be these issues of the pandemic, I’m in crisis, I can’t work as quickly. If those are the issues, or I’m overwhelmed by the multiple assignments, and I can’t keep track, then there may not be as much learning happening. So my guess is there’s probably equal levels of learning, it’s totally a guess. But in other words, that there are challenges to this moment that students learn less. But there are also things that we’re doing better than we have in the past that make up for that. But I hope that we get some good empirical data on some of this and think through it, because I do think that these strategies, while they are more work, are also probably likely to lead to deeper and lasting learning as well, if the students are able to do it. There’s also the challenge of students who just give up, and then get overwhelmed, and they’re just completely behind. And then they have no motivation to even do a little bit. And so we want to be mindful of that too. But if they’re able to keep up, I’m hopeful at least, that these things should, at least from the research, they should lead to more learning, but who knows.

John: In terms of student reaction, though, student perceptions of what’s most effective is often passive learning and repeated reading. Fluency illusion makes it seem that you’ve mastered the material without being confronted with some type of evidence that you really don’t know this stuff quite as well. And that all the techniques that we’re actively encouraging in teaching centers are giving students more feedback more regularly about what they know, and what they don’t know. And that doesn’t feel as good. And there was a study at Harvard about a year and a half or so ago, where they surveyed students on how they perceived their learning, relative to the actual learning gains they receive across both lecture-based classes and classes that relied on active learning. And there have been a lot of such studies where in general, the students believe that active learning is not as effective yet the learning gains tend to be significantly greater. So there is a bit of a disconnect between what students perceive as being effective and what actually is effective, which also can lead to that perception of busy work that you mentioned before?

Betsy: Yeah, I absolutely agree with that. I think, and this would be a whole other podcast you probably all have done all these podcasts thinking about this issue of student perceptions about learning. I think part of it is what they’re used to. There’s a lot of things that are going into helping all of us understand how we learn and what works and what doesn’t work. And so I think there is a hope for us to try to sort of bring them along with us, I guess I would say, I guess the valuable insight from the studies is that we shouldn’t take for granted that if students say they’re not learning, and if they aren’t learning, that we need to recognize that they may be. And so part of our job is to help them understand, with hopefully concrete evidence that we can show them, “Look, you’re actually learning here in significant ways” &hellipto help them understand why we are choosing these approaches. And it’s not just because we don’t want to teach or we’re lazy, or what are other stories people tell about active learning, moving forward. So I think part of the way we bring them along is to also acknowledge that sometimes there may be assignments that are not useful, and that there may be sometimes things that are overly burdensome in terms of time. And so instead of just always being “You’re wrong, students, you’re wrong here, let us tell you how it is,” to say, “Okay, let’s listen to our students” and say, “Actually, that assignment, it took more time than it was worth. And so we’re going to think creatively together about things that will work for you.” But also acknowledging that there’s a long literature on how people learn that should inform it, and not just perceptions that make a difference.

Rebecca: I think when I’ve even asked students about some of those things like “What do you wish you had more of?” &hellipthey do realize that when you have those little assignments to hold them accountable, and help them practice, I had students asking for more. In the fall, I had students saying “We had a few of those, those were helpful. We wish we had more of those.”

Betsy: Yeah, there’s no question. We saw that in our survey, too. And that’s the reality of anytime you do a study, it’s an average. On average, students think they’re learning less, but they’re always going to be students who, “Oh, I’m aware, I’ve seen this happening.” And they’ll be students who sort of totally missed the boat. But yeah, we saw that for sure. We saw students who appreciated the check-ins, but the number one thing that we saw from our students on various questions was that they wanted more opportunities to work with each other, which, normally, they don’t like that. And there’s literature, right? It’s like, “Oh, I want to be taught by a teacher and not my peer.” But in the pandemic moment when they don’t get to connect with their peers, like socially. So our students are back on campus at Wake Forest. But there’s lots of restrictions on what they’re allowed to do with each other socially. So especially for some of our first-year students who hadn’t made friends yet, this was their opportunity. Classroom collaboration was their opportunity to make friends. And so yes, it was tied to their learning. But they also really just appreciated it and said, “I want to be able to work more, they helped me understand the material more.” So they were calling out both the sort of friendship aspect, the social aspect, and saying, “Oh, it helped me feel more confident in the material, because I could ask questions.” So I certainly think it’s not a universal story, that students are upset about these kinds of active learning and small stakes things. But it’s more universal. I think that they feel like there’s a lot more work. And so that’s what’s so interesting. Rarely do you have a finding or experience where so many people are in an agreement about this. And so it’s just such an interesting thing that I have not met a person who said, “I felt like I had less work.” That’s kind of interesting. But there was one student in our survey, I think I quoted this in our blog post, that was really interesting, where she said, “The courses are easier, but they’re emotionally more difficult.” So the online courses are easier, but it’s emotionally more difficult and more difficult to try hard for. One of my hypotheses was that being in a pandemic makes our capacity to work lower. And so I think that’s part of what that person was getting at. Everything feels like more work, even if it’s the same amount of work. And I am guessing that it’s both that and also maybe a little bit more work too, that’s going on, I’m going to be curious to see what happens in the spring. We’re gonna do our survey again. And we did have some interventions where we talked about this, but there’s no mandates about what people are going to do. So we’re going to ask our faculty, again, what they’re doing. And then we’re going to ask our students and see if things got better. And hopefully, that’ll make us understand maybe which hypotheses are more or less likely to be true? Who knows?

Rebecca: If anything, at least, this is something faculty and students all have in common. We all feel like we have more work.

Betsy: Yeah, well, [LAUGHTER] and actually, we didn’t even mention this. And I didn’t mention in my blog post, because it was already too long, is some of this switch to low-stakes assignments also increases the workload for faculty. You don’t have to assess it all, but many of us are just used to that, so we look at everything and grade everything. And so certainly, we heard a lot on our faculty survey of “I cannot sustain this for another semester.” So, this semester, we may find that many of them have shifted back to fewer, larger assignments. So I’m not sure. We just heard some anecdotes, but I could see that happening too, for their own workload sake as well.

John: In addition to the trauma of the pandemic and all the issues associated with that, I believe you also mentioned the fact that many students signed up for face-to-face classes and just being in an online environment is going to make them less happy. And if you’re not as happy in that environment, it’s going to seem like more work.

Betsy: That’s right. Yeah. And this is where I had a throwback to my own time tracking that I did. Maybe five or six years ago, I did time tracking of my own time and I was fascinated because I wasn’t very good at predicting what I was spending my time on. If I didn’t like being in a meeting, I felt like it dragged on and on and on. If I was reading a book that was really exciting. I thought it was like this [finger snap]. But actually, if I went back, “Oh, I was actually spending a lot of time” or even just working on a design project, I would just lose hours staying up till however many hours in the night because it’s exciting to me, it doesn’t feel like work. And so my guess is that there’s some of that going on, too. And I will say in our survey, there was a group of students who were really unhappy with online learning in general, not specific teachers, not specific strategies&hellip that they did not want online. And so those students, obviously, if they had that much anger and sadness about being online, I can’t imagine that they would be excited and enjoying&hellip like, just another 15 minutes of online would be a slog for them, you know, and so I’m sure that things are slower, because they’re not enjoying it, because they didn’t choose it. And I think that’s a really important thing for all of us in higher ed to be thinking about is that, just because there are some students who are unhappy with online right now doesn’t mean that online itself is the problem. It’s partially giving our students autonomy and choice of how they experience their courses. And there are some of our students who just really want to be in person. And those students are probably also the people who really want to be socializing with their friends. And they aren’t getting any of that right now. And so they’re doubly upset, triply upset, like many of us, and that’s not a good position to be in to enjoy your work&hellip the work is really work. I’m sure that some of that’s going on.

John: I spent a decade working on our faculty assembly one semester. [LAUGHTER]

Betsy: I like that. Yeah, there you go. That’s true, right. Sometimes there’s something that just drags on. Time is tricky like that. Some of our students also commented on just sitting in their dorm rooms all day on their computer screen all day, and leaving to get takeout food and coming back. And they’re in singles, often&hellip a lot of them are in singles, because we de-densified our dorms, like it’s just not a great mode of existence. And so anything they can do to get away from the screen, as Rebecca, as you said, that I think is a really valuable strategy for all of us to try to incorporate into our courses.

Rebecca: I’ve noticed this semester, in my classes, I have really good engagement. They’re synchronous online, I can see people contributing. But there’s a lot less camera use this semester than there was even last semester with some of the same students. And maybe it’s the winter slog, “Oh, the winter won’t end.” But it’s just also just being on screen and feeling almost like you’re in performing mode. I think it’s some of that, too. I’d like to turn my screen off sometimes.

Betsy: I was just gonna say that for those of us that are in committee meetings all the time with our colleagues, like we’re still with screens on all day. And yeah, I absolutely think that there’s just an exhaustion and awareness that there’s another semester of this, we don’t know when it’s going to end. &hellipreally tough, certainly.

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

Betsy: Well, if I knew what was next for the fall, I’d be a millionaire right now. Who knows what’s next for the fall? I think that’s the biggest challenge for all of us, as we’re thinking about higher ed, in the near term, at least is what’s going to happen in the fall. But I do think with respect to the topic of this podcast, we often talk about when the pandemic ends. It’s going to be like a trickle, I think. There’s not going to be a sharp ending to it. But whenever we start talking about the future of higher ed in a serious way, I do think there’s going to be a very interesting question about how much do we expect of our students outside of class? And what is an appropriate workload? What is the nature of a credit hour? All of those kinds of questions should be on the table because I know for a fact that many of my faculty, even when they go back to in-person are going to want to keep using the strategies. They’ve read the research that we presented to them this summer, and they see that it’s valuable and that their students are learning and so it’s not as if the workload is going to decrease dramatically, I’m guessing, when we go back to in person, so we may need to have larger conversations about that in higher ed.

Rebecca: Thanks so much for joining us, Betsy. It’s always a pleasure.

Betsy: It was great to be back. I love this podcast. Thanks so much.

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

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

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179. It’s Been a Year

A year ago, our campus announced that it was shutting down for a two-week pause so that the COVID-19 pandemic could be brought under control. To help faculty prepare for remote instruction, we released our first episode of many on March 19, 2020, with Flower Darby. We thought this would be a good moment to pause and reflect on this journey.

Show Notes

  • Flower Darby (2020). “Pandemic Related Remote Learning.” Tea for Teaching Podcast. Episode 126. March 19.
  • Todd, E. M., Watts, L. L., Mulhearn, T. J., Torrence, B. S., Turner, M. R., Connelly, S., & Mumford, M. D. (2017). A meta-analytic comparison of face-to-face and online delivery in ethics instruction: the case for a hybrid approach. Science and Engineering Ethics, 23(6), 1719-1754.
  • Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies.
  • Lang, J. M. (2020). Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do about It. Basic Books.
  • Linda Nilson (2019). “Specifications Grading.” Tea for Teaching Podcast. Episode 86. August 21.
  • Susan Blum (2020). “Peagogies of Care: Upgrading.” Tea for Teaching Podcast. Episode 145.  July 22.

Transcript

Rebecca: A year ago, our campus announced that it was shutting down for a two-week pause so that the COVID-19 pandemic could be brought under control. To help faculty prepare for remote instruction, we released our first episode of many on March 19, 2020, with Flower Darby We thought this would be a good moment to pause and reflect on this journey.

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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 teas today are:

Rebecca: I’m drinking English Afternoon for the first time in about a year. Because I’ve been home, and working from home, I’ve been drinking pots of loose leaf tea instead of bag teas. And so I’m bringing back the comfort of a year ago.

John: And we still have in the office several boxes of English A fternoon tea, but they are wrapped in plastic. So I’m hoping they’ll still be in good shape when we finally get back there …once this two week pause that we started about a year ago, ends.

Rebecca: Yeah, when we recorded that Flower Darby episode was the last time we saw each other in person.

John: Well, there was one other time…

Rebecca: Oh, when you dropped off equipment.

John: I dropped off a microphone and a mixer for you so that we could continue with this podcast. Actually, I think we saw each other from a distance because I left it on the porch because I had just come back from Long Island where infection rates were very high.

Rebecca: Are you drinking tea, John?

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

Rebecca: A good favorite. So John, can you talk a little bit about where you were at mentally and just even conceptually, in terms of online teaching and things,when the pandemic started a year ago,

John: We were starting to hear about some school closings in other countries and in some cities in the US where COVID infection rates were starting to pick up and it started to look more and more likely that we’d be moving into a shutdown, in the week before we were to go to spring break. I was teaching at the time one fully asynchronous online class and two face-to-face classes. When it was looking more and more like we’d shut down I talked to my face-to-face classes about what options we’d have should we go online for some period of time. And I shared with them how we could use Zoom for this. And we had already used Zoom a few times for student presentations when students were out sick or had car trouble and couldn’t make it into class. Because they were actively using computers or mobile devices every day in class, anyway, they all had either computers or smartphones with them. And I had them download Zoom and test it out, asking them to mute their mics. And very quickly, they learned why I asked them to do that. I wasn’t very concerned because we’ve been doing workshops at our teaching center for many years now with remote participants. And we’ve been using Zoom for at least five years or so now. So I wasn’t really that concerned about the possibilities for this. And I thought the online class would go very much like it had and the face-to-face classes would work in a very similar way… for the short period that we were expecting to be shut down. I think even at the time, many of us thought that this would be somewhat longer, but I wasn’t terribly concerned at the time, because infection rates were still pretty low. And I think we were all hopeful that this would be a short-run experience.

Rebecca: And also maybe the fact that you’ve taught online before didn’t hurt.

John: Yeah, I’ve been teaching online since 1997, I believe. And so I was pretty comfortable with that and I wasn’t concerned at all about the fully online class, I was a little more concerned about the students who were used to the face-to-face experience adapting to a Zoom environment.

Rebecca: I had a really different experience because I was on sabbatical in the spring working on some research projects related to accessibility. Because of that, I was able to quickly adapt and be able to help some communities that I’m a part of, related to professional development. So I stepped in and helped a little bit with our center and did a couple workshops and helped on a couple of days with that. And I also helped with our SUNY-wide training too, and offered some workshops related to accessibility and inclusive teaching at that time. And the professional association for design locally, we had a couple of little support groups for design faculty.

John: I wasn’t too concerned about my classes, but I was a little bit more concerned about all the faculty that we had who had never taught online. And so, as you just said, we put together a series of workshops for about a week and a half over our spring break helping faculty to get ready for the transition to what we’re now calling remote instruction.

Rebecca: At that time, too. I had no experience teaching online, I’d used Blackboard and things like that before, but not to fully teach online. So for me, it was a really different experience. And I was helping and coaching faculty through some of those transitions too, not really having had much experience myself. So I had the benefit, perhaps, of seeing where people stumbled before I had to teach in the fall. But I also didn’t get any practice prior to fall like some people did with some forgiveness factors built into the emergency nature of the spring.

John: I think for most faculty, it was a very rapid learning process in the spring and instruction wasn’t quite at the level I think anyone was used to, but I think institutions throughout the country were encouraging faculty to do the best that they could, knowing that this was an emergency situation, and I’m amazed at how quickly faculty adapted to this environment overall.

Rebecca: One of the things that I thought was gonna be really interesting to ask you about today, John, was about online instruction, because you have such a rich history teaching online, and there are so many new faculty teaching online, although in a different format than perhaps online education research talks about. Many people taught asynchronously for the first time, but there’s also a lot of faculty teaching online in a synchronous fashion. There’s a lot less research around that. How do you see this experience impacting online education long term.

John: I don’t think this is going to have much of a dramatic impact on asynchronous online instruction in the long term. Online instruction is not new, it’s been going on for several decades now. There’s a very large body of literature on what works effectively in online instruction. And under normal circumstances, when students are online and faculty are online because they choose to be, online instruction works really well. And there’s a lot of research that suggests that when asynchronous courses are well designed, building on what we know about effective online teaching strategies, they’re just as effective as well designed face-to-face classes. However, a lot of people are trying to draw lessons from what we’re observing today. And what we’re observing today, for the most part, does not resemble what online education normally is, primarily because the students who are there, and many faculty who are there, are there not by choice, but by necessity. And one of the things that has come up in some recent Twitter conversations, as well as conversations that we’ve had earlier, is that many online students in asynchronous classes have been asking for synchronous meetings. In several decades of teaching online, I’ve never seen that happen before, and now it’s very routine. And I think a lot of the issue there is that, in the past, most online students were there for very specific reasons. So they may have had work schedules that would not allow them to sign up for synchronous classes. Some of them are in shift work, some of them were on rotating shifts where they couldn’t have fixed times of availability. Some of them would have large distances to commute and it just wasn’t feasible, or they were taking care of family members who were ill, or as part of their job, they were required to travel. In most of the online classes I’ve had in the past, there were some students who were out of state or out of the country. I had students during the Gulf War who were on a ship, the only time they missed a deadline was when their ship went on radio silence before some of the attacks down there. They simply would not have been able to participate in synchronous instruction in any way. And I think a lot of the people who are now taking asynchronous classes, strongly prefer a synchronous modality and are disappointed that they’re not in that. And I think a lot of what we’re seeing is a response to that and I think we shouldn’t ignore all the research that has come out about effective online techniques in light of the current pandemic, because this is not how online instruction normally has occurred. And people are in very different circumstances now in terms of their physical wellbeing in terms of their emotional well being and just general stress.

Rebecca: Yeah, during the pandemic, many more people are in isolation, and might really be craving some of that social interaction that they might not expect out of an online class traditionally, especially if it’s an asynchronous class. But if you’re just alone, and you’re not going out of your house, there might be more of a desire during this one moment of time …this one really long moment of time. [LAUGHTER]

John: During this two-week pause? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah. One other thing, I guess, is important to note as we’re talking about research and what evidence shows is that hybrid can be really effective with the combination of in-person instruction complementing some asynchronous online instruction. And of course, in that traditional research, hybrid really means this in- person and then asynchronous online, this synchronous online thing wasn’t really a thing prior to the pandemic. [LAUGHTER]

John: Right. And we can’t really draw too many conclusions about this giant worldwide experiment that’s being done in less than optimal conditions without really having a control of normal instruction to compare it to. And yeah, several meta-analyses have found that while face-to-face and asynchronous online instruction are equally effective, hybrid instruction often has come out ahead in terms of the learning gains that students have experienced. Certainly, we know a lot about hybrid instruction, face-to-face instruction, and asynchronous online, but not the modality that larger of our students are in. One other factor is that when people signed up for online classes before, they did it knowing that they had solid internet connections, they knew they had computers that were capable of supporting online instructional environments. They had good bandwidth and so forth. That’s not the situation In which many of our students and faculty are working right now, because faculty and students often do not have any of those things. And they’re often working in suboptimal environments that are crowded, where there’s other people in the household sharing the same space. And it makes it really difficult to engage in remote asynchronous or synchronous work as they might have when they chose to be in that modality.

Rebecca: I do think that, during this time, though, into kind of forced online instruction, although there are certainly people who don’t like that they’ve been forced to be online, and they prefer to be synchronous or in person, I think there’s a cohort of people who thought online education wasn’t for them, both faculty and students, who have discovered that it actually really does work for them. And even me, although I teach web design and do things online, you’d think online education would seem obvious to me. But in the past, it hadn’t really occurred to me. Our education tends to be in person, and you tend to replicate what you’ve experienced. [LAUGHTER] And although I have taken some online courses related to design and technology and coding in the past, it hadn’t really occurred to me to consider some options. And I think what we’ve discovered is some of our courses work well in this modality and some don’t. Some of our courses are better positioned to be potentially online or work well in that format, and could help with some collaboration pieces, or some other things that we might be doing. It might support the work that we were already trying to do in person.

John: And I think now, all faculty have gotten much more comfortable with a wider variety of teaching techniques and teaching tools than they would have experienced before. For many faculty, just having dropboxes in the learning management system was something new, moving away from paper assignments was something very new. And suddenly, faculty were asked to use a wide variety of instructional tools that they had been very careful to avoid doing in the past. And one of the things that struck me is how many of the people in our workshops who’ve said that they were perfectly comfortable teaching in a face-to-face environment, and they just didn’t see the need for, or they didn’t think that online instruction could work for them. And now that they’ve tried all these new tools and these new approaches, they’re never going to go back to the traditional way in which they were teaching. So I think there are going to be a lot of things that people have learned during this that they’ll take back into their future instruction, even if it is primarily in a face-to-face environment.

Rebecca: It may also be some changes in technology policies in the classroom as well related to just seeing how helpful technology can be for learning, but also where it can be distracting. So I think there’s some reconsideration of what that might mean.

John: While there haven’t been so many things that I’ve enjoyed during the pandemic, one of them is that this whole issue of technology bans have pretty much fallen to the wayside. I’m not hearing faculty complaining about students using computers during their class time now. And that’s a nice feature, and perhaps faculty can appreciate how mobile devices can be an effective learning tool. And yes, there will have to be more discussions such as one we’re having in our reading group this semester, where we’re reading Jim Lang’s Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What We Can Do About It. There’s a lot of discussion about when technology is appropriate, and when it’s not in those meetings. But I think faculty have come to recognize how ed tech can be useful in some ways, at least in their instruction, whether it’s in person or whether it’s remote.

Rebecca: I think it’s also important to note that how some of the synchronous technology, video conferencing technology like Zoom, has some advantages, even if our class is not synchronous online. It could just be an in person class in the future. We’ve seen the power of being able to bring guests in easily without having to deal with logistics of traveling and the scheduling considerations that are often involved with that. We don’t have the disruptions and education related to snow days and illness, both on the faculty and student side. Obviously, that depends on how severe the illness is, right? [LAUGHTER] Professional development has worked out really well online, although we’ve done online or had a Zoom component where you can kind of Zoom and being all on the same platform at the same time has been really great, being able to take advantage of breakout rooms and things like that. We’ve seen record numbers attend, and then also with advisement and office hours. It can be really intimidating to have to find an advisor’s or a faculty member’s office and you have to physically go there. And then it’s kind of intimidating. What if the door’s shut? What if they’re look like they’re busy? [LAUGHTER] There’s all these things that can get in the way that online or Zoom calls can just remove some of those barriers and also allow for more flexibility because now you don’t have to plan for walking across campus which might take some time. Or you might be able to squeeze in something at a time you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

John: And a lot of our commuting students are commuting from 30 to 60 miles away, and it was not terribly convenient for them to have to drive up to campus at a time that was convenient for their professors just for the chance of sitting there and talking to them for a few minutes. So, the access is much easier using Zoom or other remote tools.

Rebecca: We should also get real. Zoom fatigue is a real, real, thing. It’s about 4:30 right now that we’re recording. We’ve both been on Zoom calls since early this morning. And kind of constant. Our students have been as well. There’s no let up, there’s no breaks. We don’t get the little stroll across campus to the next meeting. [LAUGHTER] There’s none of that. One of the things that I am experiencing, as someone who’s definitely introverted, is this performative nature of being on camera all the time. And I know our students are too. And John and I were talking about this a little earlier today, that, in the fall, I had tons of students participating with their cameras on and their microphones on, and even in the beginning of the spring, but there’s something about the dead of winter in Oswego, that kind of Doomsday nature of it, it’s gray here. And then the black boxes just kind of emphasize it further. And they’re not as visible as they had been before. And I think it’s partly because it’s so performative, and you’re being watched all the time. And it’s not necessarily not wanting to participate or feel like you’re present. But really, it’s just a little much.

John: And neither of us pressure our students to turn their cameras on. We welcome that, we invite them to do that, but we know there are some really sound reasons not to, because people are often working in environments that they don’t want to share with their classmates or with their faculty members. And they may have bandwidth issues and so forth. But it is really tedious to be talking to those black boxes. And as Rebecca and I talked about earlier, both of us are also creating videos. So, we get to talk to our web cameras a lot, and then we go to class, and we talk to our students. Most of our students, I think, turn their microphones on. So we get to hear them one at a time. But it’s challenging to be talking to people you can’t see all day long.

Rebecca: I think it’s particularly challenging for faculty, because there’s more of an expectation for faculty to have their cameras on both in class and in meetings than students. So I think there’s an extra level of fatigue that’s happening with faculty and staff, because it’s more performance more of the time. Some days, I really feel like I wish I could be a student and I could just turn my camera off.

John: I have a night class that meets for about three hours. And typically when we met face-to-face, we’d take a 7 to 10 minute break in the middle of that. I asked the students if they wanted to do that the first two weeks, and each time they said “No.” I said, “Well, if you need to get up, use a restroom, or walk around, please do it. But what I wasn’t considering is the fact that, while they were doing that, I was still here interacting with them the whole time. And that three-hour session can be a bit challenging by the end of it, particularly if you’ve been drinking a lot of tea.

Rebecca: That’s actually important to note that, kind of unusually, John and I are both teaching three-hour classes, that’s probably not the norm for most faculty. I’m teaching studio classes. So for one class, it’s three hours of time, two times a week, and you’re teaching a seminar class, right, John, that’s three hours?

John: Yes, that meets once a week.

Rebecca: These longer sessions, we can break up by physically moving around the classroom and things when we’re in person, it becomes more of a challenge online. And I know that I’ve been thinking more about the orchestra of it all and changing it up in my classes. So we might do something in small groups then may do something as a big group, we participate in a whiteboard activity, then we might do something else, then we take a break, then we try to do something that’s off screen for a little bit and then come back. And so I’ve tried to build in some opportunities for myself as well to be able to turn my camera off at least for a few minutes during that three-hour time or take a little bit of that time during breakout sessions or whatever, because I need a break too. Our good friend Jessamyn Neuhaus has mentioned this to us many times before, that we’re not superheroes, and we should stop trying to be superheroes. And this seems like a good moment to remind ourselves of this as well. I know for me, it’s like I need a snack, I need to go to the bathroom, I need a drink. I would do that in a physical class. I take breaks then. So I’ve been making sure we build it in, and actually even padding it a little bit and giving people longer breaks than I would in person.

John: And our campus, recognizing the challenges that faculty faced with this last fall, put in two wellness days where no classes were held, and people were encouraged to engage in activities to give them that sort of break. I’m not sure about you, but I ended up spending about seven and a half hours of that day in meetings that were scheduled by various people on campus.

Rebecca: Yeah, and students also said that they ended up really needing that time to just catch up, because the workload in terms of student work hasn’t reduced, but being on screen has increased for most people, and you just need some time away. So, it ends up taking more hours of the day, just in terms of logistics, if you actually going to give your eyes a break and things. I did a little survey of my classes and they said they spent a lot of that time kind of catching up, although maybe the pace of the day was a little slower.

John: Going back to the issue of cameras being on, one of our colleagues on campus did a survey of the students in her class asking why they chose not to have their cameras on. And the response seemed to indicate that a lot of it was peer pressure, that as more and more students turn the cameras off, they became odd to leave them on. So I think many of us have experienced the gradual darkening of our screens from the fall to the spring,

Rebecca: I found that there’s some strategies to help with that as well. One of the things I did last week was invite students to participate in a whiteboard activity online indicating what they expected their peers to do so that they felt like they were engaged or part of a community. What should they do in a breakout? And what does participation look like in an online synchronous class? And they want all the things we wanted them too. They said, like, “Oh, I want people to engage.” And we talked about what that means, that it might mean participating in chat, it might mean having the cameras on, and things like that. And that day, right after that conversation, so many people during that conversation turn their cameras on. So in part, it’s about reminding, or just pointing out that it’s not very welcoming to have not even a picture up.

John: And this is something you’ve suggested in previous podcasts to that, while we’re not going to ask students to leave their cameras on to create a more inclusive environment, you could encourage students to put pictures up.

Rebecca: Yeah, we feel as humans more connected when we see human faces. So we feel much more connected than looking at black boxes. [LAUGHTER] So I’ve definitely encouraged my students. On the first day, I gave instructions to all the students about how to do that. And then when we had our conversation the other day, when I was starting to feel the darkening of the classroom and more cameras came on, I also just invited and encouraged everyone else. If you can’t have your camera on, or you have a tendency not to be able to put your camera on, that’s not a problem, but we would really welcome seeing your face or some representation of you as an image.

John: What are some of the positive takeaways faculty will take from this into the future?

Rebecca: It’s been interesting, because we’ve had far more faculty participating in professional development opportunities, initially out of complete necessity, like “I don’t know how to use Blackboard” and starting with digital tools and technologies, and then asking bigger and more complicated questions about quality instruction online as they gained some confidence in the technical skills. So there’s some competency there that I think is really great. And that’s leading to faculty wanting to use some of these tools in classes, it might mean just using Blackboard so that the assignments are there, and the due dates are more present, and just kind of some logistical things to help students keep organized. But also, there’s a lot of really great tools that, as we mentioned earlier, that faculty have discovered that they want to use in their classes. So maybe it’s polling and doing low-stakes testing in their classes during the class. I’ve discovered using these virtual whiteboards, which actually logistically work better than physical whiteboards in a lot of cases in the things that we’re doing, because everyone can see what their collaborators are doing better. So there’s a lot of tools that I think faculty are going to incorporate throughout the work that they’re doing. But also they’ve learned a lot more evidence-based practices. And maybe you want to talk a little bit about that, John,

John: At the start of the pandemic, the initial workshops, were mostly “How do I use Zoom?” But very quickly, even back in March, we also talked a little bit about how we can use evidence-based practices that build on what we know about teaching and learning. In the spring, there wasn’t much faculty could do in the last couple of months to change their courses. But we did encourage them to move from high-stakes exams to lower-stakes assessments to encourage students to engage more regularly with material, to space out their practice, and so forth. And at the start of the summer, we put together a mini workshop for faculty on how to redesign their courses for whatever was going to happen in the fall. And it was basically a course redevelopment workshop, where we focused primarily on what research shows about how we learn and how we can build our courses in ways that would foster an environment where students might learn more effectively. Our morning sessions were based primarily on pedagogy and then in the afternoon, we’d go over some sessions on how you can implement that in a remote or an asynchronous environment, giving people a choice of different ways of implementing it. By the start of the summer, people were starting to think about doing things like polling, about doing low-stakes testing, or mastery learning quizzing, and so forth. And people started to implement that in the fall. And then we had another series of workshops in January. We normally have really good participation, but we had, I believe, over 2000 attendees at sessions during our January sessions. And during those sessions, we had faculty presenting on all the things that they’d learned and how they were able to implement new teaching techniques. And it was one of the most productive set of workshops we’ve ever had here, I believe. And what really struck me is how smoothly faculty had transitioned to a remote environment. At the start of the pandemic and during spring break, we were encouraging people to attend remotely and yet faculty mostly wanted to sit in the classroom with us, and we wanted to stay as far away from those people as we could. But about half the people attended virtually. Butwhat’s been happening as people were getting more and more comfortable attending remotely and we’ve been offering the option of people attending virtually since I took over as the Director of the teaching center back in 2008, I believe. However, we rarely had more than a few people attending remotely. And it was always a challenge for people to be participating fully when they were remote while other people were in the same room, which gave us some concerns about how this was going to work in the reduced capacity classrooms that many colleges, including ours, were going to implement in the fall. And we knew we didn’t really have the microphones in the rooms that would allow remote participants to hear everyone in the room and vice versa. Once we switched entirely online, where all the participants in the workshops were in Zoom, it’s been much more effective to have everyone attending in the same way, so that we didn’t have some people participating in the classroom and others attending remotely. And I think that, combined with faculty becoming more comfortable with using Zoom, has allowed us to reach more faculty more effectively.

Rebecca: One of the things that I saw so powerful this January, in our experience on our campus, was all of the faculty who volunteered to do sessions and talk about their experiences and support other faculty experimenting with things. And I think it was just this jolt that caused us all to have to try something new, that was really, really powerful. We all get stuck. Even those of us that know evidence-based techniques, we get stuck in our routines, and sometimes just allow inertia to move us forward and replicate what we’ve done before because it’s easier, it saves time, and we have a lot on our plates. And it’s really about being efficient, because we just have too much to do. So it was nice, in a weird way, to have that jolt to try some new things. I heard some great things from faculty that I’ve never heard from before I learned some things from some other faculty. And it was really exciting. And the personal place in my heart that I get most excited about, of course, is how many faculty got really excited about things related to inclusive pedagogy, and equity, and accessibility. We offered, on our campus a 10-day accessibility challenge that we opened up to faculty, staff, and students as part of our winter conference sessions. And we had record accessibility attendance… never seen so many people interested in accessibility before. But that came out of the experience of the spring and the fall, and people really seeing equity issues and experiencing it with their students. They witnessed it in a way that it was easy to ignore previously. And so I think that faculty, throughout this whole time, have cared about the experience that students have and want students to have equity. They just didn’t realize the disparity that existed amongst our students. And the students saw the disparity that existed amongst students, which was a really powerful moment, really disturbing for some students who had to share that moment with other people, but also a really useful experience for faculty to really buy into some of these practices about building community, about making sure their materials were accessible. And all of that has resulted in a much higher quality education for our students.

John: It was really easy for faculty to ignore a lot of these inequities before, because the computer labs, the Wi Fi, the food services, and library services, and lending of equipment provided by institutions, compensated for a lot of those issues, so that disparities in income and wealth were somewhat hidden in the classroom. But once people moved home, many of those supports disappeared, despite the best efforts of campuses in providing students with WiFi access with hotspots or providing them with loaner computers. And those issues just became so much more visible. It’s going to be very hard for faculty to ignore those issues, I think, in the future, because it has impacted our ability to reach a lot of our students. And it has affected the ability of many of our students to fully participate in a remote environment. But going back to that point about people sharing, I also was really amazed by how willing people were to volunteer and share what they’ve learned in their experiences. Typically, when we put our January workshop schedule together, we call for workshop proposals from people. And we typically get 5 to 12 of those, and they’re often from our technical support people on campus. And it’s rare that we get faculty to volunteer. And normally we have to spend a few months getting faculty to volunteer so that we get maybe 20 or 30 faculty to talk about their experiences. We had about 50 people just volunteer without anything other than an initial request, and then a few more with a little nudging, so that we ended up with 107 workshops that were all very well attended. And there were some really great discussions there because, as you said, people were put in an environment where the old ways of doing things just didn’t work anymore, and it opened people up to change. We’ve been encouraging active learning and we’ve been encouraging changes in teaching practices. But this pretty much has reached just about everybody this time in ways that it would have been really difficult to reach all of our faculty before.

Rebecca: It’s easy during a time like a pandemic to just feel like the world’s tumbling down. And there’s no doubt about that. But it’s a time where I’ve also been really grateful to have such great colleagues. Because not only have we seen faculty supporting each other and using new technology, the advocacy that they’ve demonstrated on behalf of students who really had needs has been incredible. Likewise, for faculty, we’ve witnessed some really interesting conversations amongst faculty about ways to reduce their own repetitive stress injuries and other accessibility issues that faculty are also experiencing, equity issues that faculty are experiencing, caregiving responsibilities that are making things really challenging for faculty. But there’s a really strong network of support amongst each other to help everyone through and there’s no word to describe what that means other than being grateful for it, because people have been so supportive of each other. And that, to me, is pretty amazing.

John: Faculty have often existed in the silos of their departments. But this transition has broken down those silos. It’s built a sense of community in a lot of ways that we generally didn’t see extending as far beyond the department borders. There were always a lot of people who supported each other, but the extent to that is so much greater.

Rebecca: So we’ve been talking a lot about this faculty support. John, can you give a couple of examples of things that faculty have shared that have worked really well in their classes that they weren’t doing before?

John: One of the things that more and more faculty have been doing is introducing active learning activities and more group activities within their classes in either a synchronous or asynchronous environment. And that’s something that’s really helpful. And as we’ve encouraged faculty to move away from high-stakes assessment, and many faculty have worked much more carefully about scaffolding their assignments, so that large projects are broken up into smaller chunks that are more manageable, and students are getting more feedback regularly. Faculty, in general, I think, have been providing students with more support, because when in a classroom, you were just expecting students to ask any questions about something they didn’t understand. And sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t. But I think faculty realize that in a remote environment, all those instructions have to be there for students. So in general, I think faculty are providing students with more support, more detailed instructions, and often creating videos to help explain some of the more challenging parts that they might normally have expected students to ask about during a face-to-face class meeting.

Rebecca: I think previously, although faculty want to be supportive, they may not have been aware of some of the mental and emotional health challenges that students face generally, but have been amplified during the pandemic. Students who might experience anxiety or depression and how that impacts their ability to focus, their ability to organize themselves and organize their time, all of those things have become much more visible, just like those equity issues. And so I think that faculty are becoming more aware of that emotional piece of education and making sure that people feel supported so that they can be successful. And even just that kind of warm language piece of it, and being welcoming, and just indicating, like, “Hey, how are you doing? I really do care about what’s going on with you.” And having those chit chat moments sometimes even in a synchronous online class, open up that discussion and help students feel like they’re part of the community and really help address some of those issues that students are facing.

John: And I think a lot of the discussion is how can we build this class community when we move away from a physical classroom. So there have been many discussions, and many productive discussions, on ways of building this class community and helping to maintain instructor presence in asynchronous classes, as well as helping to maintain human connections when we’re all distanced, somehow.

Rebecca: I think that also points out the nature of some of our in-person classes and the assumptions that we made, that there were human connections being made in class when maybe they weren’t, or maybe there wasn’t really a community being built, because students may also not know each other there. So I think some of the lessons of feeling isolated maybe themselves, or seeing their students feel isolated, has led faculty to develop and take the time to do more community-building activities. So that there is that support network in place sp that students are able to learn, the more supported they feel, the more confident they feel, the more willing or open they’re going to be to learning and having that growth mindset.

John: And we’re hoping that all these new skills that faculty have acquired, will transition very nicely when we move to a more traditional face-to-face environment in the fall.

Rebecca: …or sometime ever… [LAUGHTER]

John: At some point, yes. [LAUGHTER] But one thing we probably should talk about is something I know we both have experienced is the impact on faculty workloads.

Rebecca: It’s maybe grown just a little, John, I don’t know about you, but there’s some of it that has to do with just working in a different modality than you’re used to. So there’s some startup costs of just learning new techniques. Then there’s also the implementation of using certain kinds of technology that are a little more time consuming to set up than in person. So, the example I was giving to someone the other day was, I might do a whiteboard activity in person that requires me to grab some markers and some sticky notes. That’s my setup. But in an online environment, I need to have that organized and have designated areas for small groups. And I need to have prompts put up. And there’s a lot of structural things that need to be in place for that same activity to happen online, it can happen very seamlessly online, but there’s some time required to set it up. So there’s that. We’ve also all learned how low-stakes is so great, and how scaffolding is so great, but now there’s more grading. And somehow, I think there’s more meetings.

John: Yes, but in terms of that scaffolding, we’re assessing student work more regularly, we’re providing them with more feedback. And also going back to the issue of support materials, many of us are creating new videos. And when I first started teaching, it was very much the norm for people to lecture. And basically, my preparation was going into the cabinet and grabbing a couple of pieces of chalk and going down to the classroom and just discussing the topic, trying to keep it interactive by asking students questions, giving them problems on the board, having them work on them in groups. But I didn’t have to spend a lot of time creating graphs with all the images on my computer. I didn’t have to create these detailed videos and these transcripts and so forth, that I’d share with all my students now. And there’s a lot of fixed costs of moving to this environment, however, we’re doing it. That has taken its toll, I think, on all of us, as well as the emotional stress that we’re all going through during a pandemic.

Rebecca: I know one of the things that I’m concerned about is the ongoing expectation of time commitments that are not sustainable… period.

John: It’s one thing to deal with this during an emergency crisis. But this has been a really long emergency crisis.

Rebecca: And I think we’ve all seen the gains that students have had or felt like it’s worth the time and effort to support students. But it’s also time to think about how to support faculty and staff who have been doing all of that supporting and we need a reprieve… like, winter break wasn’t a break, summer break wasn’t a break, there isn’t a spring break, wellness days weren’t a break. Everybody just needs a vacation.

John: Yeah, I feel like I haven’t had a day off now since the middle of March of 2020.

Rebecca: I think one of the next things we need to be thinking about is: we created a lot of things that we could probably recycle and reuse in our classes, and so there were some costs over the course of the year. But perhaps they’re not costs in the future because we’ve learned some things. There may also be some strategizing that we need to do about when we give feedback or how detailed that feedback is with these scaffolded and smaller assignments so that we can be more efficient with grading. We’ve talked in the past on the podcast about specifications grading and some other strategies and ungrading. So maybe it’s time to think a little more or more deeply about some of these things now that we have them in place. How can we be more efficient with our time and work together to brainstorm ways to save ourselves time and effort and energy and still provide a really good learning environment?

John: Specifications grading is one way of doing it. But having students provide more peer feedback to each other is another really effective way of doing that. We’ve talked about that in several past podcasts, but that is one way of helping to leverage some of that feedback in a way that also enhances student learning. So it’s not just shifting the burden of assessing work to students, it’s actually providing them with really rich learning opportunities that tend to deepen their learning.

Rebecca: I know one strategy that I’ve implemented this semester, that definitely has saved time, although I just need to get more comfortable with my setup, but just I need to practice it, is doing light grading and the idea of having a shortlist of criteria. And then that criteria is either met, its approached or it doesn’t meet. And it’s a simple check box. And essentially, the basic rubric is what it looks like to meet it. And either you’ve met it or you haven’t. And that’s a much more efficient way of…

John:…either you’ve met it, you’ve almost met it, or you haven’t…

Rebecca: Yeah. And so that’s worked pretty well for me this semester. And I think it’s helping me be a little more efficient. And then I say like, “Okay, and ‘A’ is if you have met all of the criteria, ‘B’ is if you’ve met a certain percentage of the criteria, and approach the rest,” that kind of thing. The biggest thing for me is just getting used to my new rubrics and not having to like “Wait, what was that again?” when you go to grade it. But, I think, with practice, next time I go to use them, it’s gonna be a lot faster.

John: Going back to the point you made before, a lot of people have developed a whole series of videos that can be used to support their classes. Those can be used to support a flipped face-to-face class just as nicely as they do in a synchronous course, or a remote synchronous course. So a lot of the materials that faculty have developed, I think, while it won’t lighten the workload of faculty, can provide more support for students in the future without increasing f aculty workload as much as it has, during the sudden transition when people are switching all their classes at once to this new environment we’re facing. I know in the past, when I’ve normally done a major revision of my class, it’s normally one class that I’m doing a major revision on. And then the others will get major revisions at a later semester or a year. But when you try to dramatically change your instruction in all of your classes at once, it’s a tremendous amount of work.

Rebecca: I think another place where we’ve seen a lot of workload increase is also an advisement. There’s a lot of students that are struggling, many more students have questions about what to do if they’re close to failing, whether or not they could withdraw. what it means to leave school or come back to school, we’ve had the pass/fail option. So that raises a lot of questions. There’s a lot of those conversations that certainly we have, but they’re just more of them right now. And I would hope that as the pandemic eventually goes away, then some of that additional advisement will also start to fade away as well. We’re just drained. We imagine that you’re all drained too.

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

Rebecca: God, I hope there’s a vacation involved. Our household is dreaming about places we can go, even if it’s just to a different town nearby, as things start to lighten up, just to feel like we’re doing something… anything.

John: The vaccines look promising, and the rollout is accelerating. And we’re hoping that continues. And let’s hope that a year from now we can talk about all the things we’ve learned that has improved our instruction in a more traditional face-to-face environment.

Rebecca: The last thing I want to say is I hope everyone has, at some point, a restful moment in the summer, and we find the next academic year a little more revitalizing.

John: I think we could all use a restful and revitalizing summer to come back refreshed and energized for the fall semester.

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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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178. Teaching for Learning

As we again begin planning for the uncertainties of the fall semester, it is helpful to have a rich toolkit of evidence-based teaching practices that can work in multiple modalities. In this episode,  Claire Howell Major, Michael S. Harris, and Todd Zakrajsek join us to discuss a variety of these practices that can be effectively matched with your course learning objectives.

Claire is a Professor of Higher Education Administration at the University of Alabama. Michael is a Professor of Higher Education and Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Southern Methodist university. Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of Fellowship Programs in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Claire, Michael, and Todd are the authors of many superb books and articles on teaching and learning in higher education. In June, they are releasing a second edition of Teaching for Learning: 101 Intentionally Designed Educational Activities to Put Students on the Path to Success.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: As we again begin planning for the uncertainties of the fall semester, it is helpful to have a rich toolkit of evidence-based teaching practices that can work in multiple modalities. In this episode, we discuss a variety of these practices that can be effectively matched with your course learning objectives.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guests today are Claire Howell Major, Michael S. Harris, and Todd Zakrajsek. Claire is a Professor of Higher Education Administration at the University of Alabama. Michael is a Professor of Higher Education and Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Southern Methodist university. Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of Fellowship Programs in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Claire, Michael, and Todd are the authors of many superb books and articles on teaching and learning in higher education.

Rebecca: Welcome, Claire and Michael and welcome back, Todd.

Todd: Thank you, Rebecca.

Michael: Good to be here.

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

Todd: I got myself a nice hibiscus tea, in my favorite little mug.

Rebecca: Awesome.

Michael: And I have a nice regular Co’ Cola.

Claire: Chocolate milk, signing in here. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I think that might be a podcast first, Claire. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: I’m 12, basically. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m drinking Scottish afternoon.

John: And I’m drinking ginger peach green tea. We’ve invited here today to discuss the forthcoming second edition of Teaching for Learning: 101 Intentionally Designed Educational Activities to Put Students on the Path to Success, which forms a nice acronym of IDEAS. The first edition provided faculty with a large variety of evidence-based learning activities that faculty can adopt to enhance student learning. These were grouped into eight categories of teaching approaches, lecture, discussion, reciprocal peer teaching, academic games, reading strategies, writing to learn, graphic organizers, and metacognitive reflection. What will be new in the second edition?

Michael: Thanks, John, for the overview and also for having us here today to talk about this. We’re very excited about the second edition. I think we’ve got a great team here, I so enjoy working with Todd and Michael on it. Basically, we’ve kept the same structure that you mentioned before, we have the same eight categories. We have the same structure within each chapter where we move from research to practical tips and specific ideas that people can use in their own classes. The idea is that it is a very broad kind of technique that we include when we include the techniques and when we talk about the research. So it is something that people from all disciplines and fields could in theory use for their own classes. Now, in practice, people have to make decisions about what will work best for their learners at their institutions and their disciplines and fields. So that part has stayed the same. We have updated the research from the first edition to the second. So it’s five years later. So we have included many new research studies to support the message and what the research shows us about what works well in higher education, what has been shown to change educational outcomes of learners, what can faculty do in particular that will help student learning. Another thing that is new in this edition, and I think this is really timely right now, is a focus on online learning. So in the first edition, we talked a lot about how these would work in in-class or onsite settings. In this edition, we go that next step and say, “Here’s some of the theory about what it means to do this online and here are some techniques.” And then within each specific idea, we say specifically, here are some tools that you can use to implement this in an online environment. So we have spent a lot of time working through that. We know how many people have shifted from onsite to online or hybrid courses and how important this is for successful teaching right now. So there’s a big focus on that.

Michael: One of the things as we were going through working on the online elements of this. that’s only become that much more important in light of the pandemic, is understanding the ways to blend the in-person technique and technology together. And that’s something, I think, as we’ve certainly gone through the last year everyone has done that in a much more detailed way. But I think what we’ve in part set out to do here, because we started working on this before the pandemic, is there elements of technology and teaching that faculty should be including afterwards after the pandemic is over? …And so one of the things I think readers will be able to take away. This is not a book written in response to the pandemic… that we can take these various techniques, take technology, take the understanding of your learners and context, as Claire mentioned, and then together figure out what is the best activity in your setting. Think that’s, as we set out identifying the various techniques throughout the book, is understanding that no class, no instructor is going to be comfortable with everything. So we’ve tried to give what I like to think of as a broad menu for faculty under each of the broad topics but also in terms of individual strategies and techniques that faculty can use in their setting. And the hope is, if you need an idea to use in your class that day, you can pick this book off the shelf, and somewhere in there, it’s going to be something that’s gonna work.

Rebecca: I think we really love the mix of both the research and the practical aspects of the book. I think sometimes either it’s just practical, or it’s just the research, and it’s hard to bring them together. So having everything in one place is very handy. [LAUGHTER] Faculty like that. We like convenience for sure. One of the things that I’ve been doing some research on recently is some students complaining about this online environment being so text heavy. And so I’m kind of curious if you could talk a little bit about maybe some of the research on graphic organizers and some of the strategies because that’s a visual way of handling some information in a time where students are feeling really bogged down by text.

Michael: I think to your first point, this is critically important. As we first started talking about this book in the very, very early days, one of the things we wanted to do was to bring together both the research literature, what do we know from the scholarship, but also what are the practical things that faculty need to know how to implement these ideas. And so we very much kept that. That DNA was part of our very early conversations, and is still part of the second edition. And I think one of the things that we found in terms of writing the book, and I think, as we’ve heard from folks who’ve read it, subsequently, is to be able to have access to the research for faculty, those of us who are in teaching centers, and faculty developers, we live this stuff every day, we know where the research is, and what the most recent findings are. For most faculty, whether at an institution focused on teaching, or even researchers, that access is much more difficult to find, right? It’s spread out in hundreds of journals, most of which just folks in the disciplines don’t necessarily read. And so trying to bring that out, and also insights from related disciplines. This is very difficult to access all this literature, because it’s spread out in so many different outlets, it’s in books, it’s in journals, it’s in places like podcasts, there’s all these places to get the information. It’s really difficult, I think, for a faculty member with a limited amount of time to dedicate to course planning and preparation to find all these resources. So that’s what we wanted to do was bring that together, but also remembering that faculty need to be able to take all that information, I think it’s all of us have worked with faculty, we found that they want to know that it’s researched-based, and what those research findings are, but then they want to quickly get to: “Now, what do I do with this information?” And so that’s the way we’ve set up the book is we’re going to go through the literature, if you want to do a deep dive there, all of that information is there. But then we also want to be able to provide some really tangible tactical things for a faculty member to do. And so as we designed all the ideas and thought about the updated literature, that’s still the core tenet of what we want to do.

Todd: Next. I think the second part of the question,you said, Rebecca, was the visual aspects, specifically. So, I thought Michael covered it really, really well. But there’s a whole section in the book with graphics, of course, and just so many different ways you can use the tools that are out there: concept mapping right now, and doing word clouds, and setting up different ways for people to share a space and to drop in photos and images. And there’s a lot of them in there. And I like what Michael said in terms of there’s so much information, it becomes really overwhelming. So my educational technology list is 118 different educational solutions right now that are being used. And so what we try to do in the book was spread out not all 118 of them, but we spread them out. So if you’re interested in concept mapping, here’s a program called Cacoo. And if you want to do word clouds, there’s the traditional WordClouds. But there’s also AnswerGarden, which gives you a little bit more opportunity to put some text in there. But. lots of things on graphics.

John: Going back to that division of teaching and research and practical tips . The research is not just on the general principle of how these things work, but specific studies of how the individual tools or the individual approaches have been used, and that I found really helpful. In the new addition, is this most appropriate for people teaching synchronous courses, or you mentioned that there’s the addition of online components, are the online components primarily asynchronous online, or synchronous online, or some combination of those.

Todd: Actually, that’s great, because this was a really exciting project to do. And one of the things we did to update the book was we went in, and actually, there’s not 101. The title of the book is 101 Intentionally Designed Activities. I would challenge anybody who wants to sit down and rattle off 101, I want to hear you do it. Because when Claire and Michael and I got together we did, we said yeah, 101 sounds great. And we got up to 100. And then everything started to sound like a variation on something we’ve already done. So the hundred and first one is actually a do it yourself intentional. Isn’t that great?

Rebecca: It’s perfect.

Todd: Take your information and apply it. And the reason I bring this up is that means there are 100 in there, 100 different suggestions we have of how to engage your students. For this second edition we went through and we came up with one synchronous and one asynchronous way of doing each one of those. So this book actually has 200 different ways to engage your students in synchronous and asynchronous classes. And I got to tell you that I was really impressed with the team here. To be able to pull that off is really, really challenging. Some of them are very easy. If you want to basically do a small group discussion or post something, you use Padlet or something is really easy. Some of them became really interesting. So for instance, Kahoot! is a great adaptation to something like a Jeopardy type of thing. But then how do you do something like Jeopardy in an asynchronous course, where it’s going across time? So we’re digging through and Kahoot! It turns out has a way of doing that. So, really excited about having different ways of doing this in both synchronous and asynchronous class.

Claire: John, you mentioned how much research there is about the individual techniques. And I just want to share that there is so much research being done in education right now. It’s just blossomed as a field of study, and that’s wonderful. But I think Michael alluded to the fact that faculty members don’t have time to sit down and read 1000 studies, but we do, right? We did. And so we’re sharing that information. We’ve synthesized and collated and culled out what didn’t look like such a good study, or trying to make it into something that’s accessible for faculty who are busy and may not want to read that much educational research… I don’t know, hypothetically. So we are trying to say, “Okay, here’s what it says,” and then definitely apply it to practice. You also mentioned the distinction between onsite and online. I think that distinction is becoming a little more blurred than it used to be. When I teach an onsite class anymore, I’m still having my learning management system set up, there’s still stuff that I’m doing through the learning management system, there’s still stuff I’m doing online. When I teach online, I still have, maybe not face-to-face meetings, but I have Zoom meetings, I have these synchronous ones. And it just is not such a hard and fast distinction, I think. It’s like “I do this with people in the room in real time, or I do this through the technology.” And I think we can use things in all kinds of settings, and that’s what we’ve tried to share a little bit. And I do want to give a shout out, or a special credit to Todd on this. Because there are some things that, like he said, just one technique, how would you do it on every one? I’m like, “Oh, well, that’s an assignment, you submit that through your LMS.” And Todd’s like, “No, here’s 47 different other ways you can do that.” [LAUGHTER] And it’s like, there are some really creative ideas, I think, in there about different tools that you can use to do things in different ways. And so it’s not all just submitted as an assignment through your LMS. There are a lot of really cool tools out there, and to go back to Rebecca’s point, can make things more visual and more creative. And I think that involves students in ways that producing more text may not. It’s like “Oh, wow, I get to make this beautiful, professional looking product and share that with others.” And that causes or at least creates an opportunity for engagement in ways that others can’t. So yeah, we tried to share some good ideas about how to use technology. And that technology might be in an online class, or it might be in a hybrid or hyflex class, or it might be in an onsite class where you use technology in a way that supports onsite learning.

Rebecca: I really need to know what strategies were the most difficult to come up with across platforms or cross modalities. I must know. [LAUGHTER] You have to share.

Todd: There was one that took me about four days to get to and so here’s one for you. One of our onsite ones that we did was Pictionary, you know, drawing. So you divide your class into two teams, and somebody takes a marker and starts to draw. And then of course, everyone has to yell out an answer. Do that in an asynchronous class, that becomes challenging. But I stumbled across a program… actually, I shouldn’t say stumbled across, I’ve used it a couple times. But as I was thinking about this, after a couple days, I was thinking, “No, you got to turn that a little bit.” So there’s a program on there called Formative. And Formative is something that you basically come up with an image that you start and you draw like a circle or something and you present that to the class, And then each class member draws what they see of that, and then you can get feedback on that. And it suddenly occurred to me as instead of having people guessing back and forth real time that way, what you could do is provide the basic image for the class and then say, “Okay, I want everybody to draw something and submit it on this date. And then the first person who can figure out what it is, you basically write in.” And so it’s a way to do kind of Pictionary in an asynchronous way. But that was one of the trickiest ones.

Rebecca: That’s funny that you mentioned that particular thing, Todd, because I’m teaching a class this spring, a new class for me, where I was trying to come up with a way of doing Exquisite Corpse, which is a folded paper drawing, where one person would draw a head and then you try to do the body and then the next person does legs or something… something like that with my class. And I came across an example of having different boxes, essentially in a whiteboard app, for each student. And I’m going to do pet robots. And so everybody draws one part of the robot, the nose, and then you pass it to the next person. And then you say, like, “Oh, draw the head,” or whatever. So it’s a way of doing that. But that took me a good few days to come up with a solution.” [LAUGHTER]

Todd: Yeah, it does.

Michael: Well, I thought I knew a lot about technology. And as Claire said, Todd would pull something out that never ever heard of before or heard of, but I never thought to use it in that way. And I think that was one of those challenges is, anytime you’re writing a book, you don’t want to be obsolete by the time it comes out. And so it’s always tricky with technology, because websites change and services change and the ability to do different things change. But I think what we were able to do in the end was, even though it may reference a particular website or software, the underlying design principle will hold even as we get different technology over time. And I think that was one of the things we struggled with five years ago, because I’m just not sure technology across all 100 ideas was there. But I think now we’re at the place where you could at least have some semblance of how you would do this, even if that particular service was no longer available.

Todd: I really liked that you said that because the one that I’ll have to admit, one of the very first times I did exactly what you’re thinking of here is I love doing gallery walks in classes, the traditional gallery walk. And I’m sure the listeners know, but you set up four or five flip charts, you put students in groups, smaller groups, each groups in front of a flip chart, they respond to a prompt, different prompts for each flip chart, and then you rotate and you keep rotating until you come back essentially to the first one. and I thought about it for a little while and thought this would work out really well on a Jamboard. So you go to Google Jamboard, and you set up five boards and people go through it. But just like Mike was just saying, if Jamboard goes away, alright, let’s do it with Padlet. And if Padlet goes away, alright, we’ll do it with something else. So once you think this is a way through technology to do this, then it becomes actually fairly easy to find other ways to do it.

John: For faculty who are reading this for the first time, and they see now 200 techniques, maybe only 100 of which might apply for their courses, they might be tempted to try a lot of those. Would you recommend that people who are redesigning their courses or restructuring their courses try doing many new things all at once? Or should perhaps they use a more gradual approach?

Claire: I think the answer to that question depends a lot on who the faculty member is. I think some faculty members want to go all in and try a lot of new things. I think some might do well trying one new thing, and seeing how that works, and then trying another use thing. I also think that again, it depends on who your students are, what your discipline is. A lot of our techniques, though, are things that can be done in addition to other things. Like you might lecture for 10 or 15 minutes, and then do a think-pair-share. Or you might do a punctuated lecture where you stop and say “What are you thinking about right now?” …or something like that. So these are ones that can be incorporated into what faculty are already doing for the most part. So I really think it depends on what the faculty member wants to accomplish and what works best for their particular situation.

Michael: I agree with Claire, I think there’s a notion of, depending on how many times you’ve taught the class, for example, there may be a different freedom to innovate in different ways. I think the other part though, is we have to be careful if we talk about teaching innovation in this way, is beginning with the end in mind. Changing something for the sake of changing something is not a good idea to use one of these techniques. The idea is: know what you’re trying to get the students to learn. What is the content you’re trying to get them to learn? And then look for a technique that best gets you there. Certainly, as I talk to faculty, and think about ways they might do something different in class, you’ve got to start at that point, then decide what is the most effective way to get your students there. Now as much as I love all of the ideas in the book, they’re not all going to work in every situation, even if you were game to try them all. And that would probably not be an effective way to teach class. But if you know what you want your students to learn… and then we always preach backwards design, there’s a reason we do that. We start there and get them to “what we want to know” and then figure out what’s the best way to do that. And I think that’s, to me, when I think about using these activities in my own classes and as I talk to other faculty, is if I know what I’m trying to convey, I can then say, “Well, now I need to go look for a game because this might be content that’s a little dry, or I know from the past that students don’t enjoy it as much. So maybe a game would be a good thing to spice it up a little bit.” Or if I know this is really important content, and they need to understand it in a very specific way. Well, now let me look for a lecture activity that I can convey that content. So I think that, if you know what you’re doing, then you can use the book and we’ve got the full menu available to you. But if you don’t know what type of restaurant you’re going to, the menu is going to be gibberish.

Claire: I absolutely agree with that. I do want to follow up with one thing though. I would say for the person who is, and surely nobody’s still doing this, lecturing for 50 minutes without a break. Even if you don’t know why you’re going to stop every 15 minutes to do a short thing, like maybe an interpreted lecture or pause procedure or something like that. Even if you don’t know why, go ahead and do it, [LAUGHTER] because it will help your students learn better is why. That’s the answer. We all know about human attention span and all that good stuff, but also just varying the activity a little bit and giving them something to reset their attention span will be really, really helpful to their long-term learning. So even if you don’t have the perfect learning goal crafted out, if you could just stop every 10 or 15 minutes and give them something to do, something short to reset their attention span and get them back on track, they’re going to be able to listen to you more in that next lecture segment. So I absolutely agree with Michael, the one caveat is just stop every 10 or 15 minutes and do something different.

Todd: I love what you just said there, Claire, but I’m not even sure its attention span. I don’t think it’s attention span. And I mean, that is part of it. But cognitive load.

Claire: Well, that’s part of it, too. Yeah.

Todd: Anytime you’re trying to learn something new, how many times have you start to watch a video, a YouTube clip on how to do a change your carburetor on your lawnmower or whatever, that you have to stop after about three steps and say, “Whoops, wait a minute, what was that stop again? We’re the experts and we start spewing all this information. And I love that Claire said that. And I live by backward design. So, I love that one too. But the one thing we know from all the research, that’s the most clear thing out there is that putting something with a lecture always enhances learning. If you’re only doing the lecturing, and then you put something with it, it always does better. My biggest fight over the last three or four years, the research doesn’t actually really say it’s lecture versus active learning. If you read the research, the titles will say that at times… people argue that all the time. It’s not lecture versus active learning. The research is lecture alone versus lecturing with active learning, and lecturing with active learning kicks butt all the time. So I love that.

Rebecca: There’s a lot of faculty who are now teaching online synchronously, which is, you know, a newer modality that’s not written about quite as much. And John and I’ve been talking about that a bit the past few months on our podcasts.

John: …certainly, since March.

Rebecca: Yeah, I guess it’s coming up on a year. But I know one of the things that faculty are struggling with is ways to do some of these activities and build community online as part of that and get students connecting with their peers. Can you talk about some strategies that might be in your book that we could point faculty to looking into more?

Michael: You know, it’s such a great question, because I think if I think about all the way back in the beginning of March, when we had faculty on our campus that have never heard of Zoome before, we’d had Zoom for a while, but most people had never had a reason to really use it. This is the single biggest challenge I think our faculty have faced. For some getting in the learning management system was a struggle, but we could get past that fairly easily, at least to a threshold to be successful. Learning what to do… and I think to some extent, it gets to Claire’s answer about lecturing, we still have a number of faculty that do lecture almost exclusively. And so, as soon as the pandemic took hold and we moved online, we had faculty that were just lecturing the entire time. And particularly, I think this is somewhat better at least for some student populations, you know, the internet capabilities and things. We were all just overloaded, right? Yeah, and nobody could get on and constantly got the messages about connectivity problems, and Zoom and all the rest. And so faculty started recording lectures, then what happened, at least with our students, there was no reason to go to class anymore, I can watch that lecture and put it on two-times speed. And I can get out of class in half the time I used to. We’ve had a lot of conversations with faculty about how to make that time important. And especially for some faculty who are concerned about, “Well, once I record all my lectures, you don’t need me anymore.” Well, if all you’re doing is doing those recorded lectures, we probably don’t need you anymore. But do the thing that faculty are best at. It is building communities. It’s encouraging curiosity and creativity and all those things that get those of us in teaching, really jazzed to get up in the morning and go to class, be it in-person or online. And so I think for me, and as we’re thinking about some of the techniques, the more complicated the modality gets, whether we’re talking about something like hyflex or synchronous online, I think in some ways, that’s where getting back to the basics can be helpful. So using some of the lecture and discussion techniques, where you take a break and change as we were talking about just a minute ago. I also think breakout rooms… and I know this is something I think Claire’s talked about before… breakout rooms can sometimes be an extra layer of complication we may not need. And so thinking about the ways that small group discussions can be had in Zoom, or any online platform, but I think that at the end of the day, for me, it’s when we’re using complicated technology, and it may not be complicated technology wise, right, but different modalities that we’re not always comfortable teaching in, and none of us would have designed in an ideal setting. We’re clearly far from ideal. But if we can take some of those basic ideas… think-pair-share as an example. That’s one that we’ve been using for forever. Can we use that in an online platform in a way that you’re not trying to do too much technology. We had faculty early on who were trying to use every piece of technology in every class session, and they couldn’t remember which login, and then this would crash and that would crash. It was just too much. So using the basic functionalities, some of the discussion techniques where you can use the chat window, I think many faculty are probably not using some of those basic functionalities as much. So I think that’s, to me, as you’re looking at the various techniques, if you can make it easier, the more complicated the student situation is. If you know you’ve got students that are working all day and come into class at night, then maybe being super technical in different software packages… that may not be the time to do that. If you’re working with traditional 18-year olds who are savvy using a lot different technology than maybe you could. And I think that’s for me been one of the lessons of the last almost year now is can we get back to basics, and then let the technology help us to reach our students, build a community, build their engagement, use Zoom to access office hours and some of those kinds of things in which I think we’re finding our students are having much more engagement with, if we can get them to show up. So that’s to me, if we can get back to the basics, then it would be helpful, I think, for both faculty and student learning.

Claire: I’d like to pick up on this too. And that’s in part, I’m a mom, I have a 10th grader, the 10th grader is in the room right next to mine, I can’t help but overhear sometimes. I try to stay focused on my work and not pay attention, but the house is only so big. And so I’m just hearing things, and some of his teachers…..well, they’re all wonderful people… they’re lovely, lovely people doing excellent work and a pandemic. But some of them will talk for the full 60 minutes of the class. And I’m going to tell you, my kid who is a wonderful, lovely person and a really, really good student, like you might expect… both of his parents are profs, we’re nerds, we’re a nerdy family. So he does well in school, he is not managing to stay focused for those 60 minutes. I will see him get up and go to the kitchen, maybe walk through, there may be a little pacing. It’s just not happening. And then there are other teachers who will do some of the things that are in our book to mix it up. And he is in there. He’s engaged. He’s talking to the screen, talking to the teacher, he goes into breakout rooms, they’ll ask a question like, “What did we talk about last week,” like “Today, I learned…” “What did we talk about last week? And why is that important today?” Or they’ll say “Okay, so what do you think is gonna happen in this experiment that we’re about to do in chemistry?” …so like an anticipation or taking a guess kind of thing. They might occasionally go into breakout rooms to work a problem or to compare their notes for the session. They might break out and do some kind of jigsaw activity where they work together and then they teach each other. They might even do just a quick prewriting, they’ll say, “Write for a minute, and then we’ll take their responses.” And it is like night and day, he doesn’t leave the room, he is focused the whole time, he is able to maintain that attention and engagement. It’s not just attention, like Todd said, it’s more than that. It’s the ability to hang on, to concentrate, to process, for his working memory to really be able to stay with the whole thing. And so I think that what we can do is use some of these techniques when we’re teaching these synchronous things. So we’re not just giving everybody Zoom fatigue. So we are giving them good educational experiences, and not just 60 minutes wall of sound from the teacher, because that’s just not the best way. They’re not going to learn the best in that kind of situation.

Todd: Well, I heard a learner recently put it in the way that really helped me out. She said “I think about classes as to whether or not I could spend the entire class period ironing or not.” [LAUGHTER] And she said, “If I could stand up and iron an entire load of clothes while class is going on.” And all I could conceptualize in my head is “Oh, that’d be the same as like watching a soap opera or a television program while you’re ironing.” And she said, “Yep, if I can do that, I don’t need to be in class, I can just look at the recording later.” But just like what Claire was just saying, if you’re doing all those things, my goodness, it’d be interrupting your ironing all the time. [LAUGHTER] Make them do something. One of the things so fascinating about teaching is that you’re constantly straddling a line that has cut points of boredom and frustration. You got to be above boredom, you got to be interesting enough or present information in an interesting enough way that people will attend to it. But you can’t do it in such a complex way that they’re frustrated by it, because they just can’t get it. And so how can you take a learner and engage them, but not frustrate them? And that’s what you have to always be looking for techniques or ways to do that.

Michael: You know, it’s funny you say that Todd, because right before we started recording, I went out, and I’ve got a sixth grader and he was in the kitchen and getting some peanut butter cookies my daughter made this weekend. And I said, “What are you doing?” And he said, “I’m getting some peanut butter cookies.” I said, “Okay, what are you supposed to be doing?” Oh, I’m in class.” The laptop’s upstairs. He’s downstairs in the kitchen. And he had his headset on and was listening. But I contrast that with other times when, like Claire, I go past and he’s in class and when he’s got a notebook out and he’s working. His art teacher right now… because I think in some ways, certain disciplines are kind of naturally inclined to go this way…. With art, he’s got different media out, he’s got his markers, and his crayons and colored pencils and different type of paper, and he’s doing this stuff. And then he’ll be in another class, and he can go to the kitchen and get cookies and not miss a thing. And while yes, we’re all doing the best we can, I do hope when we come out of this, there’s going to be some lessons we take away from it. And one of those being: if we can just hit record and walk away, that’s maybe not the best thing for an hour class or even longer for those who have longer classes. But if we can engage students, if we can stop for a minute, if we can make them think, if we make them do something, the combination of those two things. It’s hard right now. If somebody was trying to do active learning for an entire 60 minute class, that also would be really hard to do right now given everything. But this blend, as Todd said earlier, the research shows when we can put lecture and active learning together and put some of these different techniques together, that’s where I think we’re gonna see some benefit. And I think that’s true whatever we were teaching, if we were talking about K-12, or higher education, or anything in which you are trying to communicate.

Todd: And that made me think of something else too, real quick, that I just heard a session done by someone who works at Zoom. And keeping in mind, Zoom is not static. For those of you who are using Zoom, it’s changing all the time. So they have now changed how the reaction buttons are used. They’ve got them set up in a much more easy format, they have some things that stay there until you take them off, some things that don’t, there’s all these other techniques too. Closed captioning, Zoom has finally got it, it just was launched, I believe, yesterday, or the day before it came out. I got students who have babies, they can’t have the sound on. I mean, that’s a new thing that’s good. They’ve got another one now and they blur out the background. And here’s what I really love about this with the guy who was explaining it, he said, “We’re now gonna have the capability instead of virtual backgrounds to blur the background, we did that for a more equitable situation for students who are uncomfortable with their housing situation. I was blown away that that’s the reason the guy said they did it, not because “Oh, here’s another thing that people would like.” So again, the technologies keep changing. But we as teachers, it’s what Michael and Claire both said too is we as teachers have to decide what to do and why, again, back to backward design.

Claire: And I’d like to pick up on the point too that, I think right now, making connections with other human beings is really, really important. And that’s not just watching your teacher on TV, that is actually having some kind of meaningful exchange where you get to talk to another human being. And a lot of people haven’t left their houses not much since March, or they’re not in class, they’re still online, just making that human connection is absolutely essential. And some of our techniques allow for that. They’re putting people together where they’re connecting, either through discussion or group work or something else. And I think those things, even if they’re just for a brief period of time, are probably some of the most important things we can do right now.. is give them that space and time for exchanging ideas and sharing and making that contact.

Todd: My gosh, and I know we got to move on.. this question we’ve been on it for a while, but Claire, that was such a great concept. I remember, a student in one of my classes from almost 30 years ago, and it was a night class, she kept dozing off. And I kept walking by her desk and saying, you know, “Maybe you better go splash some water on your face,” and I walked by again, and “Maybe you should just like walk around the building once real quickly.” And at the end of the class I talked to her real quickly and I said “How are you doing? I’m really concerned about you.” She said, “I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry. I almost didn’t come to class tonight, because I just worked a double shift and I’m absolutely exhausted. But this class is the only time during the week that I feel like a real valued human being.” You know, what Claire said, even without the pandemic, a lot of individuals are in home/life situations. They’re in jobs where they’re not appreciated by their colleagues. I mean, it’s one time during the day that students can feel like they mean something. And so even more so in the pandemic, but yeah,Claire. I’m glad you said that. I hadn’t thought about her for a long time.

Claire: Nice. Yeah, it is connections. It’s very important and very meaningful. And students, I truly believe they really appreciate those opportunities all the time, but especially right now when their opportunities are more constrained than they might normally be.

Rebecca: Not just students as faculty…. [LAUGHTER]… the interactions too. I remember last semester there were times when I had some really nice deep conversations with some of my students and it was like, “Wow, alright, this is the first time I’ve had a conversation with someone who’s older than three.” [LAUGHTER]

Claire: …outside the immediate family… it’s lovely.

John: We thought we’d ask each of you to share one of your favorite techniques that are in this book,

Rebecca: …or most impactful for you

Todd: …comes down to a lot of different things. But sometimes I’m actually gonna jump in and say it’s kind of a combination. It was one that I didn’t actually do, but it was one I just saw, but a technique… these techniques are so cool. Having a person open a Google form. We’ve mentioned Google forms several times in the book, but asking a quick question for the Google form of “What do you think about this?” The learners then typed what they thought, the individual was able to take those very quickly, download those into a word cloud, and then presented the word cloud. Now we’ve got AnswerGarden as a word cloud that we mentioned on a couple of the IDEAS, and Google forms is something else we use in it. But the ability to capture that information and turn it into a visual that quickly was just one that I thought was really amazing.

Michael: I think my favorite is one, it’s called “Houston, we have a problem.” And it’s taken from Apollo 13, of course. And it’s that great scene in the movie where the engineers have to figure out how to get the oxygen thing working on the spaceship. And so they have all this stuff. And you can’t give them new supplies and new tools, because they’re halfway to the moon. And there’s this great line: “you have to make this fit into that using just this.” And so what I love about this is it’s fundamentally problem solving, but it brings together knowledge and skills. And so you give students, and it can be different depending on whatever class of course, it can be a set of terms or methodologies or equipment or whatever it might be, but the students have to take these things and figure out how to use them. And I love the notion of that. I use versions of it in my own classes, the notion of having students take something, even things that might be out of the context of the class, or even the discipline, and figure out how to make it work. Because I do think fundamentally, to me, it gets to what you do when you leave us. The academy’s this great place where we can play with ideas and information and learn skills, but it’s somewhat sanitized, it’s hard to really get to the messiness of what students are going to face when they leave us. And that, to me, is such a great activity where you’ve got to figure out how to get to a solution, and you don’t have all the information, you may not have everything you need to solve it. But you collectively as a group have to come. So I think we called it a game, I’m not sure if it’s entirely a game, there’s probably a game element to it. But I just love the notion of students having to work together and kind of fight to a solution.

Rebecca: Michael, did you say that you do this in some of your classes?

Michael: I have,yes. Probably my favorite way to do it is for research design, actually, and give students a variety of different data sources and analytic techniques, and a question they’re trying to solve. And so they have to decide if I’m going to use this quantitative data or I’m going to use this qualitative method or I’m gonna use a survey, and they’ve got to figure out how to do it. Amd I usually do it in a fairly compressed amount of time, because what I’m trying to do is quickly think about the tradeoffs in making methods decisions and research develop. And so they can’t do everything they want to do. But they have to figure out how am I going to be able to answer this research question. And so it’s real simple where I usually give them like index cards with terms in them, but then they have to work through and figure out the way they would do it. And what’s often is impactful is to see how the other groups, for the same question, how they got to a different way to get to the answer, then it opens up some great conversations about the methods and rigor and validity and trade offs in research. And it’s kind of a fun way to learn about those ideas.

Claire: I like a lot of those. And it’s really hard for me to choose. But I’m gonna say jigsaw, just to pick one out of a hat, really. And I think jigsaw… I mentioned it earlier, it’s where you create base groups, and students work in base groups to study something and learn about it, and to decide how to teach each other. And then you recombine groups, one person from each base group joins the team. So they then teach each other what they learned in their base groups in their jigsaw. And I think it’s a wonderful technique to encourage collaboration. And it involves students. It engages them. I have a story about it. I teach a college teaching course. And I remember one year early in my teaching of this course, I wanted them to know about the history of college teaching, I thought it was important to have them understand where we come from and how we’ve gotten to where we are. So I created this lecture. It was so long ago, y’all, that it was on overhead. Remember the clear overhead slide you put on the overhead projector, it was like that. And when I teach, one of the things that I do that’s pretty useful is, at the end of every class, I take notes on how things went, and then I put it away, and I pull it out the next year I’m teaching or the next time I’m teaching the course. And so I had created this lecture about the history of college teaching, about pedagogy in higher education. And I gave it, and the next year I came back and I looked at my notes and it said “This was bad. [LAUGHTER] This was really bad. This was bad for you. This was bad for them. [LAUGHTER] Don’t do it.” I had no memory of that at all. I thought, “Oh, good, I’m gonna give my lecture. I’ve already got it done and everything.” And so I… [LAUGHTER] …I pulled back and said, “Alright, what I’m gonna do is a jigsaw with this.” So I gave each group a period of time: y’all got the colonial period, y’all got the antebellum period,” and so forth. So there were four or five periods, I don’t remember how many I divided it into, and they got together and then they taught each other. And they broke out into their new groups, taught each other. They were using games to teach each other. I think they busted out like Jeopardy and Pictionary and all these great things. They were so engaged and into it. And they learned so much more, I promise, through that jigsaw than they ever would have through my lecture. And it was just a really good and useful activity. So that remains one of my favorites for that reason. But I also want to add that I like a lot of the metacognitive activities. It’s one of the best ways to improve the learning, right? But I think it’s something that we don’t always think about doing. And so things like wrappers or even opinion polls, or the “today I’ve learned…” “what’s the most important thing you learn today?” They take so little time and can really, really deepen learning

Rebecca: And that’s only three or four out of 200. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: Well, I gotta say, while we were chatting about that, and Claire was talking about, I just pulled up the chapter that we just finished. And if I have it right here, there’s 14,000 words in that chapter. That was the metacognitive chapter. So this is a pretty dense book in the sense of there’s tons of stuff, but if anybody’s interested, we have 14,000 words on metacognitive strategies, [LAUGHTER] the research behind it, and how to apply it.

John: And that’s something that most faculty tend to ignore. So, including that I think is really, really helpful. The evidence on that’s overwhelming.

Claire: It really is. And I would say maybe not dense, like I don’t think it’s a real dense read. I think it’s chocked full of goodness, right? Here’s a lot of… [LAUGHTER]

Todd: Well, that’s a good point.

Claire: …rich… information rich, yeah.

Todd: I’m actually curious to see how the new books gonna look, though, because when I was looking to the as we were going through updating everything, the standard out there is you’re supposed to change 20% of the material, I think we added something like 30% new material over and there was nothing to take out, because there was nothing in there that was outdated. Nothing we’d written from the first edition was no longer valuable. So the previous book plus about 30% new. So it’s gonna be a very meaty book. But it’s a good resource… not meant to be read from cover to cover. It’s just meant to open it up to what you need.

Rebecca: So when can we start reading this book? Exactly.

Todd: The book will be available in the latter part of June.

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

Todd: In the universe, or…

Rebecca: However you really want to address this, because there’s a lot…

Michael: Todd, do you wanna go first?

Todd: Sure. I think what’s next is just to get through spring. Michael brought it up too, and we’ve kind of touched on it. This is really hard…. the pandemic, with everybody shifting to everybody, we know months and months and months ahead of time that we’re going to do this…” We all want to get back together. So for many of us, UNC Chapel Hill was right at the lead of this one, is students arrived on campus, and seven days later, they shut it down. And then spring came along. And it’s like, “Okay, but now we’re going to be able to be face to face, right?” And we’re still doing either online teaching or emergency remote teaching. The differentiation, of course, the online teaching is a very thoughtful process where people put together this whole package of how you deliver education and emergency remote is we just do the best we can with the time we got. So I think the “what’s next” is to get through the spring, take the summer, I wholeheartedly believe in the fall we’ll be closer to being back together in classrooms. And then I think it’s coming back to what both Clair and Michael have said, is pulling the essence of some of the really cool things we’ve learned and embed those into classes for faculty members who have never even considered teaching online a year and a half ago or a year ago, to now implement those strategies. And so I think that’s what’s next is: how do we find some good out of all of the garbage that’s been happening? And that’s what I’m looking for. Pathological levels of optimism. I think we’re going to get through it and then we’re going to be better off in the future than we were in the past. I’ll use one quick example of this because I work in a medical school, flu rates are almost non existent this year. And I knew that was going to happen six months ago, because nobody took flu that serious… I shouldn’t say nobody, a lot of people didn’t… 30 to 50 thousand… it’s hard to get these numbers, sometimes 30 to 50 thousand people a year die from the flu. And now what we’ve got is a whole population that knows we should wash our hands, stay home when you’re sick, and don’t be in each other’s space all too much and wear masks when you need to and because of that I think next flu season is going to roll around and I think people are going to put their masks and stand back, and we’re going to see flu rates with maybe 20-30 thousand people less dying every year. So with teaching, with health, I think down the road is putting new practices into place.

Rebecca: Sounds like a lot of metacognition might be going on.

Todd: I’m a metacognition nerd. [LAUGHTER]

Michael: So I agree with Todd, I think there’s a lot of lessons to be learned from the pandemic, and what’s going to happen afterwards. I think the other really negative implication of the pandemic is that this moment of equity and inclusion has been too easily forgotten, I think, in corners of higher ed, myself included at times. We’re so trying to get through the day that this reckoning that’s happened, I worry that those of us in higher ed have forgotten it. And so we absolutely need to take some lessons from the pandemic for teaching. But I also think we’ve got to continue to work on the inclusion in our classrooms, be it an in-person classroom or an online classroom. That work is gonna take a lot longer than the pandemic, I suspect, but is equally as important.

Todd: Boy, Michael,I’m really glad you just said that, because this whole thing has shown a huge light on the inequities in our systems. I think the inequities are huge. And I really do hope we can, at least with the big flashlight on there, maybe we can sort a few things out. But I’m really glad you said that.

John: Those inequities became much more visible to faculty with the shift to remote teaching, it was really easy to ignore these differences when everyone has access to the same computer labs, the same wireless network, the same study facilities and some degree of food security with meal plans on campus. But when students dispersed and went home, all that broke down, and faculty suddenly had to become aware of that, and faculty are attending workshops at rates I’ve never seen before. Our attendance has just skyrocketed. And a lot of people have come to appreciate backwards design and building new things into their classes. So I’m really optimistic about many of these things. But we certainly need to do a whole lot more work on equity and inclusion issues.

Claire: I think one thing I’ll say is that faculty aren’t typically taught how to teach, it’s not something we usually take classes on in graduate school, it’s not something that we receive a lot of training before doing it. Most of us have to learn through trial by fire, or we have learned by watching our own teachers, growing up, going through grade school and high school and college, we figure out what works by being participants in it. So I think the result of this is a lot of us haven’t had, again, that formal education in how to teach. We don’t have the research grounding, the theoretical background, and a lot of times when we’re just starting, we don’t even have the practice. So what this pandemic has done has changed that, because we’ve shifted to a new modality that most of us have never engaged with before. Most of us hadn’t taught an online course, or an emergency remote course, and so we’ve had to figure it out on the fly. But what I think this is done is put it in the forefront. All of a sudden teaching is something we really have to think about is something we really have to figure out because I’m doing it in this whole new way, and I can’t just bank on what I suspect works, I have to figure out this new system. And so I think we do have a lot more people thinking about it. I think we also have more institutions investing in professional development in ways that we haven’t before. And we have more faculty participating in professional development than we have before. And so I think it has highlighted teaching in a way that it hasn’t been for everyone for a while. And I think that’s good. If we’re looking for some kind of silver lining here, I think we can say that, all of a sudden, people are at least more often really aware of teaching and thinking about what makes good teaching. And when you have to plan out an online course, it really makes you think through the process. I know we went in March to emergency remote teaching, but a lot of us were teaching online in the fall. And so when you have to think through a whole course in this new way, you really have to think through the process from start to finish. And I think it changes the way you think about teaching, to teach online. And I hope in good ways, like Michael’s saying, I hope that we can learn from what we’ve done and figure out, “Hey, this is stuff that works really well” or “This is stuff that maybe doesn’t work as well,” and that we can take that back into whatever teaching mode we are in in the future. So I do think that there has been a big shift, and I think that’s going to stay with us. I expect we’re gonna see more things done online going forward. And I don’t want to say completely online. I am absolutely not saying higher ed is going online. I’m saying people may use some of the pieces of online activities that worked well for them. They may do an online assignment if they never did before, or they may have a Z oom virtual office hour or something like that. So I think there are going to be some things that we take from this experience.

John: And I think Todd has a book coming out on that, which we discussed in a podcast that was released on January 27.

Todd: Oh, Creating Equity-Based Digital Learning Environments. Oh yeah, I remember that.

Rebecca: Maybe that one? Yeah.

Claire: I want to add too that, I think faculty… I want to believe this… have become more aware of the need for compassion in their classes. I mean, it’s easier when everybody seems healthy and well to say, “You know, no late assignments,” or whatever, and “it’s in the syllabus,” and my late policy is this. But I want to think that people understand that people are sick, or caring for sick people, and that life circumstances are changed, maybe they have their little kids at home with them. I think it’s important to be compassionate for students and to understand their needs. And I think this is highlighted, in addition to equity and inclusion, just some more issues, that people have lives. And they’re different when they’re not on campuses, and that we can be compassionate and kind to people. And that doesn’t make us any less rigorous or whatever. It just means that we’re kind and compassionate, and I think our students will learn more when we are more aware of them as humans.

Todd: we’re seeing that in the POD network, and the Lilly conferences, the stuff you just brought up, Claire, anything dealing with mindfulness and compassion, those types of things. People are just swarming to those sessions, they just love those things. Because it’s vital right now.

Claire: You know, sometimes students will, when I send out something, and I’ll say… I just sent out a note to a student today, and said, “Oh, your assignment didn’t come through, I think you didn’t respond to a peer, so it didn’t come up in the gradebook. I just want you to know, I’m not going to count off late, please just get it done.” It’s just like, “Oh, my gosh, thank you so much for reaching out. I so appreciate it.” It’s like: “who hurt you?” You know… [LAUGHTER] This should not be like this. And this has happened time after time, where I’m just like being a nice human being to say, “hey, you missed this,” or, “hey, don’t forget this,” or whatever. And it’s just this overwhelming response. And I don’t think it needs to be that way. I think we need to show students that we do care about them and understand their situations and just want them to learn. And that doesn’t mean I’m a softy, I don’t want to say that we don’t need to expect them to work hard and do the work and show up and all that. We absolutely do. We just need to understand their circumstances as well.

Rebecca: And not assuming that mal intent. I think sometimes that’s what was happening before the assumption that “they did it on purpose”, or they’re skipping out or something rather than just being like a reasonable human being who made a mistake or forgot something.

Claire: Or you hear the thing, “Oh, their grandmother died. How many grandmothers do you have?” Well, it doesn’t matter how many grandmothers you have, you know, it’s like stop being that way. Maybe they do actually have three grandmothers or maybe they have situations that they don’t want to tell you about. Give them the benefit of the doubt until you can’t, I think. But that’s me. That’s me. Not everybody feels that way.

Todd: Here’s the quick teaching tip on this one I’ve just stumbled in this years ago, and it worked out really well. For me, I will have eight to 10 kind of general “rules.” Just don’t lie to me. Just be honest about stuff. And when I ask you a question and for those types of things, I’ll just say, “Here’s 10 things.” And I did this with face-to-face classes a lot. And I’d say now get into groups of four and come up with two or three things for each group that you’d like me to consider. What are some additional things you’d like me to consider. And the reason I brought this up is because of what you just said, Claire with the “who has hurt you.” The very first time I did this, I just thought this would be a neat way of showing them. It’s a communal organization. I have expectations. So do you. One of my students started out by saying, “If another student starts to attack me, don’t come to my defense. But please moderate the conversation. I can fend for myself if you’ll control the situation.” I thought, well, that’s a really good one. The next one was “If we provide an answer, and it’s wrong, please don’t call us stupid.”

Claire: Oh my gosh.

Todd: And I thought to myself, they’re not making this up. They’re saying things that have happened to them. And so again, the quick teaching tip is on your first day of class, it can be online or it could be face to face, is just “Here are some of my expectations. And now I’d like to hear what are your expectations.” And that’s where you find out who’s hurt them and you address it.

Claire: I’ve also heard of people doing like “life happens” passes the you get one assignment or two assignments or whatever, it is no questions asked. Use the card when you need it. And I don’t need to see your doctor’s note. I don’t need to see anything. Just you have your passes and use them as you will. And I think that’s a fine way to handle it. Or you can just listen to them and say, “Okay, you can have an extension.”

John: Well, thank you. This has been a fascinating conversation and it was great talking to you. And we’re looking forward to the new edition of your book. Your first edition was invaluable as a resource. And this sounds like it’s going to be even more.

Rebecca: It’s like next setting, level up. It sounds like.

Claire: Thank you.

Todd: Yes. Thank you both.

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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.

[MUSIC]

168. Synchronous Online Learning

The pandemic forced many faculty to experiment in different modalities in 2020. In this episode, we reflect on our own teaching experiences with synchronous online courses this year.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: As we approach the end of a really challenging year, we’d like to thank all of our guests who provided so much help and support to us and all of our listeners, and we’d like to thank you, our listeners, for hanging in there with us. We’ve all learned a lot in 2020 and we’re looking forward to a chance to apply what we’ve learned in circumstances in which there are fewer external threats.

…and now we return to our regularly scheduled podcast.

The pandemic forced many faculty to experiment in different modalities in 2020. In this episode, we reflect on our own teaching experiences with synchronous online courses this year.

[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: Over the past few months, we’ve talked a lot about the pandemic and ways to adjust our teaching. And we’ve talked a lot about online learning, but we haven’t really focused on synchronous learning. John and I both taught synchronously this semester. So we decided that in this episode, we would focus a little bit more on synchronous learning and what we’ve learned about it in our own experiments in our classes.

John: Our teas today are:

Rebecca: I have Scottish breakfast once again.

John: …and I have a blend of spearmint and peppermint tea.

Rebecca: That sounds much healthier than my choice.

John: It’s not my first tea of the day.

Rebecca: This is not mine, either.

John: This is my first herbal tea of the day.

Rebecca: This is my second pot of the day. [LAUGHTER]

John: So, Rebecca, what classes were you teaching this fall?

Rebecca: I was teaching two design classes that are smaller. So I had one web design course that was stacked. So, it had beginning, intermediate and advanced students in it, 25 students, and we met synchronously, but also had asynchronous classes, it’s considered a studio course. So for a three credit course, we have six hours of class time, and three hours of outside work, which is a different balance than maybe other folks. And then the other class I was teaching was a special topics design course, which was smaller, it was about 10 students. And that class was also synchronous, but it was a project-based class, and we worked on two community design projects: one for a project called Vote Oswego, which was a get-out-the-vote initiative on campus, and the second is a project called “Recollection,” which is a storytelling project with adult care facilities.

John: And we do have an earlier podcast on an earlier iteration of Vote Oswego. So we’ll include a link to that in the show notes.

Rebecca: So John, what kind of classes are you teaching? We obviously don’t teach the same thing.

John: I was teaching two classes this fall. One was a large synchronous session with 288 students. And the other was a fully asynchronous section with 60 students this semester,

Rebecca: At what level were the students in both of your classes?

John: These were both introductory economics classes. So most students in the class were freshmen, and it was their first economics course.

Rebecca: So, your classes are much larger than mine, you’re teaching much more younger students or newer students, and my classes are smaller, project-based, and usually junior or senior students.

John: Yes. And there’s certainly some differences in the disciplines as well.

Rebecca: No, that they’re the same. [LAUGHTER]

John: Why did you choose a synchronous mode of delivery rather than an asynchronous mode, or a face-to-face option this fall?

Rebecca: So I chose not to do face-to-face delivery for my own health reasons, I chose to not be on campus for my own safety, because I have a chronic illness. So I chose specifically to have strong synchronous components, because a lot of our students are used to working in a studio together and having a community around each other and kind of feed off of each other’s work and work collaboratively. And I wanted, because of the classes I was teaching, to continue to have collaboration as a key part of my class. And I was really concerned that if I didn’t have a strong synchronous component, my students wouldn’t be able to effectively collaborate with each other, because there would be too much scheduling issues and what have you. So it’s a little bit of a carryover from the way that I would run my classes in person in that I give a lot of class time to project-based learning and team-based work and do a lot of lectures and things like that asynchronously in like a flipped classroom style. How about you, John?

John: Basically, I tried to preserve something as close as possible to what was originally scheduled or what was originally planned. And my large class is typically about 400 to 420 students, and I just couldn’t imagine taking that class and doing it in a completely asynchronous manner, because when I teach a class asynchronously, I give students lots of individual feedback, and it would be really challenging providing individual feedback to several hundred students. I just didn’t really have the time to do it in that sort of mode. So I thought it was better to work in a mode where I could give students feedback in a group setting using some interactive tools, where they’re all getting feedback at once. It was the only way I could see handling a group that large. If I was trying to do it as an online class, it would be effectively more in the form of a MOOC with very little interaction, either among the students or between me and the students.

Rebecca: One of the things that we both talked about before we started recording was how we both used a flipped classroom model to help with our synchronous session. So can you talk a little bit about how you did that and what students were doing outside of class.

John: This is actually, in many ways, similar to what I had done in a face-to-face class. Before each class, students would have some readings to work through. And I use the Lumen Learning Waymaker package, which is basically taking materials from a textbook, combining it with interactive multimedia, where they got to shift demand and supply curves and other curves around and see how they responded when they change parameters. And they read a bit in that online text and then they would work through some problems on it where they were allowed multiple attempts at those problems. I also created some videos with embedded questions that were at a somewhat higher level than the textbook readings, which was a little bit more challenging. And they were given unlimited attempts to work through those videos with the questions. And they also, outside of class, participated in discussion boards, where I asked them to relate what they were learning to things in the world around them, in their own lives and their own experiences.

Rebecca: …nice little inclusive teaching practice right there, right? …connecting students with their experience and making it relevant to them.

John: Right, because we know that students learn things most effectively when it has some salience, when they see the relevance to their life.

Rebecca: And the waymaker package, if I remember correctly, had some quizzing and stuff associated with that, and unlimited attempts, a version of retrieval practice there.

John: It’s a mix of things with unlimited attempts and limited attempts. So, the microeconomics Waymaker package is designed, and all of their Waymaker packages, for that matter, are designed, is that they start with a list of broad learning objectives. And they break it down at each module level to sub objectives. And they break those down into sub modules. So, in what would have been the equivalent of a chapter of a textbook, there’s usually two to four sub modules on particular aspects of that. And students work through that. And embedded in it, they have some review questions, some practice questions. And those they can take an unlimited number of times at any point in the course. Once they complete the module, they have a module quiz where they are limited to only two attempts at it. But they’re getting feedback on what they did well. And what they didn’t do well. It’s automatically color coded to indicate whether they mastered the material in one of the blocks of content in there. And then, if they take the module quiz, it will give them feedback on what areas they did well, and what areas they need to work at more. And they’re being directed back to the areas that they need to review. And there, they do have unlimited practice opportunities. And the other thing I did is I created my own videos that focused primarily on the topics that students generally find the most challenging. And in economics, that’s generally with either applications involving math or involving graphs. It was one module a week, and I would take the topics that I know, from past experience, they were likely to have the most problems with, I’d create my own videos with that. And I was using PlayPosit, which allows you to embed questions in there. Most of those videos I created were between five and 12 minutes in length. They would watch the videos and answer questions as they were going. And if they got one of the questions wrong, they could go back and replay that portion of the video and then try it again. And they were given unlimited opportunities for that.

Rebecca: I think you mentioned students really loved those opportunities.

John: At the end of the class, I gave them a Jamboard, which I know is something you’ve used more regularly, asking them what worked well. And there was very much universal agreement on the PlayPosit, as well as on the Waymaker aspects of the course. They really liked the fact that there were practice activities embedded right in their textbook, and that they could go back and try things over and over again until they mastered it. And it was giving them feedback on whether they had, in fact, attained mastery at every step. And it was a nice visual indication of what they’ve learned and what they still needed to work on more.

Rebecca: Excellent.

John: What did you do in your asynchronous components of your class?

Rebecca: Well, the balance of my classes, as I mentioned before, is a little wonky in that we’re supposed to spend more time in class and less time out. So asynchronously, I did a lot of independent stuff that students were not necessarily doing collaboratively. So this is where I had lecture videos that are recorded that were about the topics that they were going to be working on or introduce the component of the project that they were going to be doing. And then they also were completing things like LinkedIn Learning tutorials. And we also have access to D-Q University, which is a set of tutorials for accessibility, and teaches accessibility. So I took advantage of that package as well. And largely they were completing those kinds of tutorials, both of those have exercise files and that kind of thing that they can follow along with. They get little certificates. When they’re done completing there’s little quiz questions and stuff. So they were doing a lot of that kind of work asynchronously. They were also using Slack to communicate with their teams for independent things that they were working on that they needed to communicate out to teams when they were working on projects together. And I also use Slack as a place to have discussion. So like you, I had discussion questions that tried to make what we were talking about relevant. We were exploring design, specifically like web design and how they interacted as a consumer versus how they would interact as a maker and did a lot of observational studies. We also did some discussion boards that were really about design activities and things that got students off the computer. So they were just documenting what they did off-screen, offline. So things like listening to a podcast so that they didn’t have to be staring at a screen and what their takeaways were. They attended virtual conferences, which I guess was still on-screen, and did some sketching, like paper prototyping and some other methods that we like to encourage our students to do, just to kind of help balance the screen time a little bit for students. So that’s largely what they were doing asynchronously.

John: Were you having them submit some copies of that work in some way, or were they just reflecting on the work that they had done?

Rebecca: The little non screen activities were documented in a discussion, essentially, that we were holding on Slack, and then tutorials and things, they were just submitting their completed certificates. And so I broke down those LinkedIn Learning courses and things over multiple weeks. So they didn’t really submit those certificates until they were completed. But they were doing a little bit by little bit, but if they didn’t do the tutorials, they wouldn’t be able to do the projects or the actual work that we were doing of the class. So it was pretty important that they were doing those components outside of class.

John: Once your students were in class, what did you have them do in a typical class session?

Rebecca: The two classes I was teaching I handled a bit differently because of just the sheer volume of students in the bigger class, which was 25 students that were working on projects. They were working on collaborative projects, in teams of three, for the most part. And so what we would often do is show-and-tell’s or critiques in small groups. So let’s say there was two or three teams together that we would do a little critique with in a breakout room, while other teams were meeting and collaborating. We would also do things like come together to answer questions about things that they were working on, troubleshoot or whatever, and then go work on projects in breakouts for a bit. And then we’ll come back at a scheduled time. I also did one-on-one meetings with students during class time. So I’d set up things like a quiet work breakout room or the chatty breakout room. And students would pick the place that they wanted to go while they were working on projects. And then I would meet with them individually for critique, and often a lot of code troubleshooting is a lot of what I spend synchronous time doing. And students sometimes met with my TA to do the same thing, and with our small groups. I also did a lot of design challenges. And students really liked those and would like to do more to hold them accountable for the kind of material that they were learning outside of class or being introduced to outside of class in a low-stakes environment to test it out with some peers and troubleshoot. So I would pose a little design problem. And then they’d work in a small group to work on that problem in a very tight amount of time. They might spend 30 minutes… my classes are three hours long… or an hour, and then we’d come back and show them off or talk about different things. And I tried to make those design challenges fun and entertaining. So one of the first things we did, which worked really well to start gelling their teams that they were with the whole semester was designing an emoji for Slack that they used for their team. And they loved that assignment. It was partly about working at a small size, and so it was tied to some of the curriculum that we were doing, but it was fun. So they did that in a small team and then had to implement it. Later on in the semester, we did things like a 404 error page for their projects, which were just kind of entertaining. We tried to make them amusing, so that if you landed on a page, it was a good user experience. So things that maybe wouldn’t typically work on in one of my classes that were a little bit more fun, but really were emphasizing the technical and conceptual things that we were working on. The other thing that we use synchronous time for is I took advantage of our virtual platform, and I brought in alumni multiple times, and local designers multiple times and did little Q and A’s with them. Not every week, but every few weeks, or every couple weeks, I would bring in a designer for a 30-minute session. They’d introduce their work. And then students did a Q&A with them, which students really loved. And it broke up our time a bit and really gave them something special that maybe we didn’t always do in a face-to-face class that made the synchronous environment kind of special.

John: Excellent. That is a nice opportunity provided by Zoom that actually could work in the classroom too. But I think many of us just hadn’t really considered it so much. It doesn’t really matter where you are when you’re teaching in this sort of synchronous environment. So it’s very easy to bring in guest speakers and it’s something we’ve probably should have been doing more of in the past, but I think many of us will be doing more in the future.

Rebecca: So John, how did you use your synchronous time?

John: I had told students before each class session, what specific topics we’d be working on. And then most of the class time was spent asking him a series of problems of progressively higher levels of challenge. I basically adopted Eric Mazur’s clicker strategy of trying to find challenging questions where roughly half the class will get it wrong the first time and then letting them meet (in this case, I had the meet in breakout rooms), discussing it and coming back and voting again on it. And generally, you’d see a fairly significant increase in the performance after they’ve had that chance to engage in peer discussion. And that’s where a lot of the learning seems to happen when clickers are being used. I used iClicker. The only difference is students could not use a physical radio frequency clicker because they have a range of a couple 100 meters and students were spread out all over the world, I had one student in Egypt, I had students in South America and students spread throughout the country this time. So they needed to use either their laptop or a mobile device in order to do that. We discussed it as a whole class after they come back from the breakout rooms. And then I’d asked them to explain their choices. I generally have them use chat, and then I’d go through and correct any misperceptions they’d have. And I try to guide them to the correct answer by asking them questions, and letting them see for themselves why some of the answers were right, and some of them were wrong. And generally, that’s how we spent many of our classes. Initially, I was also using Kahoot! from time to time. They enjoyed Kahoot!, but I noticed a bit of a drop off when we were doing the Kahoot! sessions, because those were not graded. And with the clicker questions, they were being graded, and that tended to receive a somewhat higher level of interest. It was very low stakes, they got a certain number of points for an incorrect answer on either attempt, and they got a bit more points when they answered the question correctly. And initially, I was giving him three points for an incorrect answer, and five for a correct one. And they asked it perhaps that could be bumped up, because some of the questions were so challenging. And I did raise it. So they ended up getting four points for any answer, and five points for a correct answer. So it is extremely low stakes. So I tried to do a lot of retrieval practice in the class, where it started from essentially no stakes with the embedded questions in the reading, then it ramped up to in class applications of this, where they still get 80%, even if they got it wrong, but they had another chance to get it correct. And then they took that module quiz, and even there, they had two attempts at it. So if they made mistakes, they had lots of resources they could go back to and work on it. So I tried to set it up and provide them with many pathways to attain mastery of the content, and to encourage a growth mindset and to encourage them to recognize that people make mistakes when they’re learning and that there’s a lot of benefit from having those mistakes as part of your learning process. There’s a lot of research that shows that we learn things much more deepl if we get them wrong, when we first try it, we’re much more likely to remember it later on, then if we happen to get it correct, initially. In that case, we’re much more likely to forget it a bit later. And that was a bit of a challenge for students. But I think they eventually appreciated the fact that everything was fairly low stakes.

Rebecca: I think I’m seeing some themes in the things that, although we’re teaching very different classes in very different contexts, there’s some real big themes about how we’re using our synchronous time, and even how we’re using our asynchronous time. And so there’s an emphasis on peer interaction and establishing those peer networks, really enforcing or reinforcing things and dealing with muddy points. And then also just providing the encouragement and support like that low-stakes environment or trying to foster a growth mindset. So in my classes, I did the same thing. I was doing peer group work and trying to really get them to collaborate and troubleshoot together and they love that that… that was really valuable. I spent time doing live demos and troubleshooting, when there was a really troublesome technical component or something that they were trying to do that a lot of them were having trouble with, that they could ask me live questions. So that same muddy point kind of thing that you were getting to in what you were discussing. And then, finally, the growth mindset that you started bringing up, I’d also tried to do and, although I didn’t have a lot of low-stakes testing, or something like that, I set my projects up so they were done in sprints. So a long full-semester project was broken into multiple two-week sprints, where they would work on something, get feedback, and then could revisit whatever they did, and then add a new component to it. And so I did that throughout the whole semester. So there was a bit of retrieval practice, a bit of spaced practice in there, and certainly some fostering a growth mindset and the idea that you make mistakes and that’s how you learn. And I spent a lot of time… I don’t know if you experienced this too, John… but I experienced a lot of time in synchronous and saying like, “You can do this. It’ll be okay. And this is how the learning experience works.”

John: And I did have to do a lot of that, especially in the first few weeks of the semester, because they were not used to a flipped class environment. And they were not used to this notion of making mistakes and learning from mistakes as part of your learning process. Because most of them have come up through their elementary and secondary school system thinking that they need to memorize some things and reproduce it on exams. And they do well if they get high scores, and they don’t make mistakes. And that’s just not how we learn in general. And it was important, I think, to help remind them of that. Another aspect of the flipped class environment that we’re both using is that we let students learn some of the basic skills, the easy things that they can learn pretty easily on their own, from other resources. And we’re trying to focus our class time using essentially a just-in-time teaching approach where you focus on the things that students always have trouble. In a traditional classroom environment, what normally happens is students will learn the easy stuff in class where faculty will lecture them on basic definitions and basic concepts. And then it all makes a lot of sense until students try to apply it. And they try to apply it typically in assignments outside of class, or in high-stakes exams. And it’s much more productive if the students use the time outside of class to master those basic concepts. And then we hold them accountable for having done that somehow in class. And then we give them assistance on the things that they find challenging when they need it. Not after they’ve had that experience of a more high-stakes assessment in some way.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think what I found or that students really shared with me that was something that they really appreciated was that there was a lot of structured time to work on those difficult problems in class. This is true of my face-to-face classes too, but even maybe more so in this online environment where students were having a really hard time managing their time. I would allow time to work on a project during class… it was scheduled, but then there was a check in point later on in the day. You wouldn’t want to spend three hours staring at a screen on Zoom, like this makes no sense. So I certainly did not do that. And I don’t want anyone to think that I did that. But, I would do things like “Okay, we’re going to check in at 9:30. And then we’re going to do a little activity together. And then you’re going to have some work time to work on X. And then we’re going to come back at 11. And you’re going to show me what you did. And then we’re going to have a little discussion or do another little activity, and then we’re gonna come back again at 12.” And we would have a schedule where there was time to kind of come back. What I found is, over time, students often wouldn’t actually get off of Zoom. They would just turn their cameras off and their microphones off. And I would do the same if it was like a work time. And then when we all came back on, a lot of students would turn the media back on. That said, I, of course did not require that depending on where students were, I certainly had students that were in environments where they couldn’t turn their cameras on, or had really poor internet connections, we adjusted as necessary there, and we had a way to communicate in a much more low-tech fashion using Slack during class time. So if something happened with someone’s internet connection, or whatever, they could still stay connected with us and what we’re doing.

John: How did you assess student learning in your class?

Rebecca: My classes are all project based. So the majority of grades are built on projects, not entirely, we had discussion boards, and I had some collaboration things that they were doing, and they were evaluated on those things as well. But projects were the significant piece of the puzzle. And the way that I graded them was really just providing feedback about the kinds of things I was going to ultimately grade very regularly throughout the semester. So every couple of weeks, they were getting feedback on their code for my web class, for example, feedback on their design, feedback on their writing, not a specific grade, necessarily, but feedback on all of those elements that were going to go into the final project. And then the ability to revise all of those again and again and again and continue to get feedback on those.

John: Did you have your students engaged in any reflective tasks?

Rebecca: Yeah, that’s a really great question, John. I had reflection built in two ways. So at the end of each sprint, or kind of module in my class, they were working on two projects at the same time throughout the semester, so they’d work kind of two weeks on one project, two weeks on the next project and cycle back… that was so that I had time to give them feedback regularly. So that was part of my structure. But at the end of one of those modules, I had a reflection activity that I implemented using a Google form. So a few different prompts to think about what they got out of that sprint, goals for their next sprint, that kind of thing. And then I also had some big group reflections at different moments during the semester, I had one at the beginning, and a couple in the middle and one at the end. And I use Jamboard for that, which is a Google suite tool that has sticky notes, and is the same kind of way that you might brainstorm. So I use it as a way to collect reflections in sticky note form, essentially, virtually. And I would have a reflection question for folks to respond to or a couple of different boards with different kinds of questions. In the beginning, we did something called “hopes and fears,” which is something I’ve talked about before… setting up the class like, what are they hopeful that they’re going to get out of a collaborative project? What are they scared about? We find out that like, all the teams have the same hopes and fears. During the middle of the semester, what are some of the big takeaways that you’ve had? What are some things that you want to work on? What are some things that you’d like to see changed about the class and various themes bubble up on that. And then at the end of the semester, I asked questions like, “What was your biggest takeaway? What was the thing you were surprised that you learned? What is one recommendation of something you would change in this semester?” and “What is something that you want to continue learning?” and I got really useful feedback on what to change about the class but also, some really great themes bubbled up across the class, which really results in like kind of three or four things for each of those questions, which was a nice way to wrap up the end of the class and summarize for students after they completed that task. And one thing that I like about the Jamboard is that it actually ends up being anonymous. You can see people while they’re working on it, but it doesn’t keep a name with a sticky, ultimately.

John: So you can see who’s active in the board, but you don’t see who is writing which note.

Rebecca: Yeah, exactly. So that worked really well for me. How about you, John, were you able to build in reflection? I know you have such a big class. So it can be tricky.

John: I wasn’t able to do as much of that with my large section. But I did have them do that, to some extent in their discussions. For one discussion forum in both classes, I had them use a tool called Packback, which uses artificial intelligence to give students some feedback as they’re writing their prompts. And each week, students had to post a question related to that week’s material and they had to respond to at least a couple other people. But one of the nice things about Packback is it will check the cognitive level of the posts, it will give them some feedback in terms of grammar, it will also do a little bit of checking to see if the material has previously been posted. And it gives students some feedback, encouraging them to say more than “I agree.” And it also encourages them to document sources and to provide resources or references for the arguments they provide. And they get a score on that. So it takes a lot of the evaluation of that away. And so I monitored all of that. But it was something that seemed to function pretty well, just by the interaction between the users and that system. I haven’t really mentioned much about what I did in my online class. My online class uses many of the tools, but obviously, I couldn’t do synchronous, because that class is fully asynchronous. I couldn’t do the same type of instruction. But I had students do two other things in that class that provided opportunities for reflection, one of which was I had them work in a metacognitive cafe, low-stakes discussion forum, where they reflected on what they were learning and the learning process. And that gave them another way of making connections to their learning and reflecting on how well they were learning materials and what barriers they were facing, and also sharing effective learning strategies with each other. They were given some readings each week, generally on research-based learning practices as a primer for many of those discussions… others, they were just reflecting on what they’ve learned and how it might be useful in their life to tie it back to themselves. But the other thing I had students do is work on two podcast projects in that class. And in those they were taking what they were learning and making reflections about how that connected to the world around them. Many of them ended up being related to COVID and pandemics, but they were making some really good connections, and they were getting a chance to see how the material they were learning had some relevance in their own lives. And a lot of that came out in some of the things they were discussing in their podcasts. And they also did use Jamboard once at the very end of the term. But I also use Google forms a few times to have them reflect on the process of what was working, what wasn’t working in the class and what was working and what was not working in their own learning processes and what I can do and what they could do to help them learn more effectively.

Rebecca: I don’t know about you, but I was really surprised at how well synchronous learning actually went for me. I had some technical difficulties early on with my internet connection. It took me a while, but I got around to fixing that problem by hardwiring my internet and resolving some of those things. But I felt just as connected to my students as I would normally. I had a lot of interactions. And in some ways, I was able to facilitate those interactions a little more equitably online, because it wasn’t just the person who came to nudge me and stand in line and be the next person. Instead, I could really coordinate using waiting rooms and breakout rooms and really give everybody a chance to have one-on-one interactions with me, which I really appreciated. And I really did get to know all of my students quite well, which I was a little bit surprised about. And then, in an area where it’s really technicalaAnd we’re doing a lot of coding and things on screen, being able to share screens and take control of another person’s computer to fix things or show them how to do something was incredibly valuable. We use some of those kinds of tools in person. But it actually was, I think, in some cases more effective using this particular tool. So I was kind of surprised at how well some things worked. And I think that even when things go back to face to face, there’s definitely some components here that I would keep.

John: I’d agree. And I think students were amazed at how well some of those tools work. When in breakout rooms, they would be using the whiteboard features, they would be sharing screens, they’d be making the case, they’d be drawing on the screens, and that was something that would be much harder to do in a face-to-face environment. Initially, at the beginning of the class, I had some issues with chat being kind of flooded with irrelevant material, and I had to clamp down on that a little bit. But within a couple of weeks, they started actually using it very productively, and it provided a voice for all students, even those quiet students who would have otherwise sat in the back of this large lecture hall. They were able to type something in chat, after thinking about what they wanted to say before doing it, without being concerned about interrupting the discussion that was going on. And I think that was really helpful. And when I taught large classes with three to 400 students, there’s almost always 3 to 10 Students who have trouble not having side conversations when there’s other activities going on. And that mute option is kind of a nice feature and the ability to set their microphones so they’re all muted unless they choose to unmute… to have the default being muted until people click the unmute option… made it really easy. And I was amazed at how quickly they adjusted to muting and unmuting. By the end of the term there was maybe only once or twice a class where a family member or someone else would walk into the room and start talking. And then they’d remember, they had to mute their mics, and it was very rare. In a class that large, I was impressed by it… and working with students one on one, during office hours, it was so much easier to have students just share the screen and show you exactly what their problems were then to correspond with them with email, or even have them boot up their computer or you try to find what they were talking about when they came to your office. It was just much more efficient.

Rebecca: Yeah, I could actually see it. You can Zoom in, you can see what they’re talking about. I also found, and I was really floored, in this last week of classes, students were doing their final presentations,at how well they did develop facility with these tools. They’ve developed a lot of fluency in the kinds of tools that are actually very relevant to my particular discipline. It’s relevant to many disciplines. But designers use these tools all the time when they’re working with clients. And so it was amazing to me that we got through 15 presentations so efficiently. We didn’t wait for anybody to share their screen. They just knew what they needed to prepare, had it ready, they started developing slide decks really effectively, and could just do the things that they needed to do really efficiently. One of the last things I said to my class was like “I’m so proud of you just being able to do that. We didn’t have to wait for anybody today. That was amazing.” And so maybe a little bit of a blessing in disguise, you hate saying like, “Oh, the plague is such a great thing.” But they really did develop some useful skills and tools and they became more effective communicators. That was something that a lot of students reflected on and things that they didn’t expect to learn is how much better they became collaborators and just communicators generally… not just in person, like through Zoom or in text… like through chat in Slack.

John: Video conferencing is likely to be a part of their lives in the foreseeable future, especially now that everyone has adapted tp this mode, it’s very useful for them to learn how to use that efficiently. The one thing I do miss though, is seeing their faces in person and recognizing them. One concern that I have is, I’m hoping to be back on campus in the fall, there may be students that I work with who interact with me regularly, whose voice I would recognize or whose name I would recognize on the screen, but whose face I just wouldn’t recognize because a very large proportion of students just didn’t feel comfortable having their cameras on regularly, and I understand that. We’ve got a lot of students living in crowded living quarters or working with very poor network connections. But I do miss actually physically seeing them. And I had my last class session earlier today. And I encouraged them to stop by in the fall and just say hello.

Rebecca: Yeah, I mean, I agree that the physicality is certainly something that’s missing. But it was amazing to me how connected I still felt to all of the students at the end of the semester. And I think that they felt connected to each other too and they verbalized that, and also wrote that in their Jamboard reflection. So although there’s much to be improved, given this was the first time out and an experiment in many ways. I’m really thankful that I read Flower Darby’s book about Small Teaching Online because that actually informed a lot of my practices, even though it was synchronous, and a lot of her material was about asynchronous learning. It really did help me remind myself of things that I already knew that I needed to do, but to kind of make a checklist of things that I definitely needed to do as I was rethinking my classes for the fall. So thanks for chatting with me, John.

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

Rebecca: I am sitting down to reflect on what worked and what didn’t work, to try to troubleshoot some things for the spring. And I’m teaching a class that’s brand new to our curriculum for the first time in the spring. And so we’re developing it for online synchronous, although ultimately, it’ll probably be a face-to-face class. We’ve had to re-conceptualize some of the things that we were going to do because of the technology limitations that students may have. If they’re online, we’re expecting that we might have a lot of students who are relying on their phones versus software and having access to high-end software packages or computers that can run them. So we’ve had to rethink things. But I’m pretty excited about being able to experiment with my students with all kinds of technology in the spring, but it’s definitely a puzzle that I’m currently starting to work on. How about you, John?

John: Well, I still have a lot of grading to do. But once that is done, one of the things I’m going to be doing is converting a textbook I had written in econometrics to a Pressbooks site, which will be a lot of conversion because it’s originally in LaTex, a typesetting language used for mathematical typing and I’m planning to create a lot of videos, I’m hoping to get many of them done over the break so that I’m not spending 15 or 20 hours a week creating videos as I was all fall. And I’m hoping to get a little bit further ahead of the semester this time, so I’m not doing as much preparation at the last moment. And we’re both going to be working on putting together a series of workshops in January for our faculty to help people prepare for whatever comes at them this spring

Rebecca: We’re just going to be really busy.[LAUGHTER]

John: I’ve never spent as many hours working on my classes as I have this semester.

Rebecca: I agree. There was a lot of startup costs converting to this modality, but I’m hoping a lot of that stuff I’ll be able to keep and reuse moving forward. Thanks, John. Always nice talking to you, John. We chat all the time. But it’s nice to sometimes hear about some of the thought process and things behind some of the decisions that you’ve made in your classes. So it was really nice to actually hear about how you did some of that stuff this semester. So thanks.

John: And I also appreciate hearing more about what you’ve been doing in your classes. We spend most of our time on podcasts talking to our guests and only mentioning little snippets of what we’ve been doing ourselves.

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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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167. Supporting Persistence

Some students thrive in online courses and some students struggle. In this episode, Dr. Becky Cottrell joins us discuss the impact of student characteristics and circumstances on their success in online courses. We also discuss strategies that we can employ in our online classes to help all of our students be more successful. Becky is the online and hybrid course development analyst in the social work department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Show Notes

  • Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Tinto, V. (1997). Classrooms as communities: Exploring the educational character of student persistence. The Journal of Higher Education, 68(6), 599–623.

Transcript

John: Some students thrive in online courses and some students struggle. In this episode, we discuss the impact of student characteristics and circumstances on their success in online courses. We also examine strategies that we can employ in our online classes to help all of our students be more successful.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guest today is Dr. Becky Cottrell. Becky is the online and hybrid course development analyst in the social work department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Welcome, Becky.

Becky: Thanks for having me.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Becky: I’m drinking water today.

John: And I am drinking ginger peach green tea.

Rebecca: And I’ve gotten seasonal with my Christmas tea today.

John: I’ve got to bring that back. I’ve got a lot of it up in the office, along with some cinnamon sticks.

Rebecca: I beat you, John, I beat you this time. [LAUGHTER]

John: I saw your presentation at the OLC Accelerate conference, where you were talking about the research you’ve done on student outcomes in online and face-to-face classes at an Hispanic serving institution. Could you give us an overview of what prompted your interest in the topic, first?

Becky: Absolutely. I have been teaching online for more than six years. And I started working with a number of colleagues who really didn’t think that you could teach Spanish online. And I took that as a challenge and really wanted to teach a really great online Spanish class. And from there, it got me wondering who is taking online classes? I noticed a really big difference between my face-to-face students and my online students. And I wanted to know more about who they were and how they were doing in those classes. And combining that with the fact that we have seen an increase in student enrollments in online classes at our institution and around the country over the last many years, even before COVID, it really seemed important to me to know how students are doing in their online classes and what their grades are and what their outcomes were.

John: And that research becomes even more important when we put it in the context of COVID with the rapid shift online. Many people who were avoiding online instruction like the plague, have suddenly been forced to change their teaching modality.

Rebecca: …due to the plague. [LAUGHTER]

John: So, we can no longer say “avoiding it like the plague” anymore.

Becky: And students are complaining now and you hear students who don’t want to pay Harvard tuition rates for a substandard educational experience in an online class. But, are those experiences really substandard? I really want to know that.

Rebecca: That’s definitely a great question and a really relevant one right now.

John: So, this was your dissertation research?

Becky: It was. So, I just finished my PhD in Curriculum and Instruction. So I did a lot of research about what are student outcomes and what do they look like with different types of curriculum?

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about where your study was done?

Becky: Absolutely. So we use a pseudonym for the site. So, Russell University. It’s an urban university in the Mountain West and a very non-traditional population. So, lots of older students, lots of first generation students, veterans, working students, more students who are married… helping raise families. So, not your typical just-out-of-high-school students. It’s an Hispanic serving institution, and has been for the last few years.

John: How large was the sample that you worked with?

Becky: I started looking at every class that had online and face-to-face enrollments over two academic years, and at a large institution that ended up with 156,000 total course enrollments. But the statistical method that I was using doesn’t let one student be in the treatment group and the control group. So we had to aggregate students. And so I aggregated them down. There ended up being 28,000 students in the study. And from there, I just wanted to look at the ones who were taking mostly online classes, or mostly face-to-face classes. So those who were in that top 25% or bottom 25%, in terms of online enrollment, ended up being 7765 students over the course of two years.

John: That’s a nice sized sample. In many institutions, you have some students who are only online students, some students are only face-to-face. It sounds like there was a bit of a continuum there.

Becky: Certainly there were some who were all online or all face-to-face. It wasn’t something that I specifically looked at in my study, so I can’t pull out specific numbers of that. But yes, we definitely had students in the study who were entirely online and entirely face-to-face.

John: In terms of the online classes, were they developed with the assistance of instructional designers?

Becky: That’s a really interesting question. And the answer basically, is I have no idea. It wasn’t one of the things that I looked at in the study, I was looking more at student characteristics than course characteristics. That said, Russell University has a really robust online offering. Over the last 20 years, they have increased their online course offerings a great deal, and particularly in the last five years have really ramped up their efforts to develop courses and have really excellent quality matters certified courses at the university. That doesn’t mean that all of our courses meet that standard. But it has been an institutional goal and one of the things that they’ve worked on. but I was just looking at student demographics when I was looking at the study. Partly that’s hard because we have students who are taking maybe 20 different classes, and so they could have had one or two that were developed through an instructional designer, but the others may not have been. So, no real way of knowing.

John: The outcome you were looking at specifically was student success in the course?

Becky: Yes, so I measured student success in two different ways. The first way was looking at student grades, which we measured by course GPAs that was aggregated based on their course enrollments. And the other one was withdrawal rate. So, what was their percentage of withdrawals during the courses that they were taking during the two-year sample?

John: One of the things I found really interesting about your study is that you use a methodology that took into account sample selection in a way that so many education studies don’t. And you suggested the reason for that, I think, when you said that your online students were quite a bit different than your face-to-face students. Could we talk a little bit about that issue of sample selection in studies of this nature?

Becky: Absolutely. This is a really common problem in educational research, that you have something called selection bias. And I think that those of us who teach are aware that our students who enroll in 8 am classes are really different than the students who enroll in 2 pm classes. And we see some of those similar things with online classes versus face-to-face classes. It’s just a really different group and personality of those students. And what happens is students get to sign up for their own classes. There’s nobody randomly controlling them into different classes. They pick the ones that they want with the teachers that they want at the times that they want and in the course modality that they want. And we don’t know why. So that’s part of what I wanted to look at in this research is: what students are enrolling in online classes and what students are enrolling in face-to-face and why? Is there a balance between the groups? Are they really similar? Or are they really different? And so what I found was that there are different students who are enrolling in online classes versus face-to-face classes, which is not unexpected. As an example here, we found that students who are working full time were more likely to take online classes, which makes sense, they need to take the online classes because it fits better with their schedule and has greater flexibility to match their work schedule. But at the same time, what impact does that have on course outcomes? Does it mean that they are really motivated because they have a full-time job, so they’re going to get better course grades? Or does it mean that they are working full time and they’re managing a family and if something comes up, they’re going to put their schoolwork to the side because other things are more important. So selection bias, and the way that students self selected to classes, really changes how they might perform in those classes. Which brings us to that question of are those student course outcomes based on the online course modality? Or are they based on the characteristics that made students choose the online course modality?

John: When you didn’t control for student characteristics, what did you find in terms of comparing the outcomes in online classes with face-to-face classes?

Becky: One of the things that was really interesting here is that those students who were taking 75%, or more online classes actually had significantly better grades in their online classes than they did in face-to-face classes. So the online course GPA for those students taking 75% or more online classes was 2.55. And for those taking face-to-face classes was only 2.34. So definitely a significant difference and higher grades in online classes, which is not what I was expecting. Then, with regard to withdrawal rates, we had totally different results, which is that there was no significant difference in withdrawal rates among the two groups before balancing for those 15 different student characteristics.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what those 15 characteristics were and how you chose those?

Becky: Absolutely. I used Tinto’s student integration model to look at what characteristics he felt contributed to student success and persistence in the institution. So, I ended up with 15, different personal characteristics related to students. So, a lot of demographic characteristics: age, race, gender, those sorts of issues. We tried to get academic performance through GPA, transfer status, transfer GPA, ACT scores, SAT scores, those sorts of things. We also tried to determine institutional commitment through if they had a declared major. And the one area that we would have liked to have more, but wasn’t available in an institutional data set, was something related to like computer literacy and other skills that were related to performance in an online class, but it just wasn’t something that was available. So 15 different characteristics, including those demographics, academics, and just connection to the institution.

John: So you were using a nearest neighbor matching with, I believe, a two-to-one ratio?

Becky: Yeah.

John: Could you describe that, perhaps, for our listeners?

Becky: Absolutely.

Rebecca: …for people like me that have no idea what that even means? [LAUGHTER]

Becky: So the methodology that I used was kind of an interesting statistical method called the propensity score analysis. And basically what a propensity score analysis does is matches people who are in the treatment group with people who are in the control group. So it creates kind of an artificial match to say this is now one person and what would have happened if they’d been in treatment or if they’d been in control. So it takes all of those characteristics and assigns them a score, and from there can divvy them up and say they are likely to be in treatment or control and it recreates those groups. And that matching allows them to determine the probability of them being in treatment or control groups, which essentially controls for the characteristics that you’ve loaded into the model.

John: To simplify it a bit, you’re comparing people who are similar in characteristics and examining the outcomes when adjusting for those characteristics.?

Becky: That is a great explanation… very concise. And the idea of the nearest neighbor two-to-one matching is basically that for each person who’s in the online class, we found two matching people in the control group. So we tried to keep as many students as possible in the final outcome.

John: And there have been at least some studies that are found one-to-one or two-to-one gives you the best estimates with the least amount of bias from that procedure..

Becky: Absolutely, yes. When there’s a one-to-one match, you get a lot better balance, because you can obviously find a matching student in the online or the face-to-face class that is the best fit. But when you start matching more students, it’s not quite as good of a fit, so you don’t deal with balance quite as well. And speaking of balance, I’m going to jump in and tell you about this right now, just because I think that’s interesting, and one of the great parts about propensity scores is this idea that the first thing that a propensity score model does is say, “Are these groups the same? Are your online groups the same as the face-to-face group?” And what we found out is that they aren’t. And I thought this was a really interesting piece of my research. So they were totally different, different enrollment patterns. and there were about eight characteristics that were significantly different. And this is where I think it’s so fascinating. So we had more part-time students in the online classes… not surprising… but they had higher ACT scores, more transfer students, more credits taken, they were more experienced students, they had higher GPAs, they were more likely to have a declared major and they were all older. So the better students were taking online classes, which is so fascinating to me, and explains ultimately, why we had higher course grades in our baseline data. Students who are better students were taking online classes, where those beginning students who were younger, who had less experience, were taking the face-to-face classes. So I just thought that was fascinating, that it was imbalanced. But it really gave a good picture as to why we were getting the outcomes we were at the institution.

Rebecca: It’ll be interesting to have some follow up studies related to COVID-19 around those ideas, because just anecdotally, students who are newer to being online, or just newer college students, have struggled quite a bit with online learning or complained about it, or just don’t know how to manage their time and those kinds of things. And it seems related to the kinds of findings that you’ve had.

Becky: Absolutely. And I think across the country, we’re seeing that those upperclassmen stay enrolled and are succeeding through these COVID transition. But it’s the underclassmen who are taking a gap year or who are failing out of classes. So I think that these results speak to that, that those students maybe aren’t prepared for an online class,

John: What happened to your results in terms of student success, when you corrected for the sample selection?

Becky: This is so fascinating. After controlling for that balance, we had originally had, in our baseline data, better scores, better course grades in online classes, and after controlling for those characteristics, there was no significant difference in course grades between online and face-to-face courses, which is awesome, it’s really exciting to know that maybe we’re doing something right. And so that was really exciting. But, at the same time, our baseline data had said that there was a non-significant difference in withdrawal rates. But after controlling, we found that there was a significant increase in withdrawal rates, and online classes had higher withdrawal rates, by about 2%, than face-to-face classes.

John: I think that’s a fairly common result, that online students often have much higher withdrawal rates than face-to-face classes.

Becky: Right. The grades are really promising. And I’m glad to know that those course outcomes are doing well. But when we start looking at withdrawal rates, it brings up some really interesting questions about how are we engaging students and why do we have bigger withdrawal rates in those online classes.

Rebecca: I was just going to ask if your research led you to believe anything about those results? If it was this particular characteristic or a teaching method? Or are those just new questions that we need to continue asking? [LAUGHTER]

Becky: I think they are mostly new questions that we need to continue asking. But there are some implications in the literature that I think lead us to some possibilities here. One of the big ones is that sense of community and connection in online classes, students really want to feel that, and if they don’t, they’re more likely to drop out from those classes. And so it’s definitely a consideration as we’re looking at more online classes is how are we building community? And how are we engaging with our students in that online space to make sure that they’re able to connect with their instructor and connect with other students in the class? I think that another factor that we see is who are taking these online classes: so students who are more engaged with families, they’re older, they’re working full time, therefore taking fewer classes. I think that those factors can contribute to their persistence or not in these online spaces. So, definitely some of those issues are there and we know what some of those reasons are. And I would love to do some future follow up research on what really is happening at this particular institution.

Rebecca: I know you had also mentioned high-impact practices and trying to incorporate more of those, like inviting students to do research and things. I’m wondering if we have any data on how prevalent that might actually be in online learning compared to face-to-face learning. How often are those opportunities actually there?

Becky: I totally agree. It would be so interesting to look at what are those impacts? And what is the prevalence of those high-impact practices? I think there’s a lot of research about what we can do to do better. And I think that even from this research that for my dissertation was almost obsolete by the time I defended my dissertation, because COVID happened, but one of the things that we can be doing better, and I think we have started is providing greater access to student services in those online spaces that students maybe before didn’t have access to advising, registration… they didn’t have a good way to connect with people who are on campus. And I think so many of our institutions have had to move towards a much better practice with that. When we went online for months, they had to figure out how to do that. And I think that we’ll keep that around and providing better services to students. And that will definitely help keep them enrolled in classes and keep them from stopping out and persisting at the institution.

Rebecca: Nothing like a pandemic to really force some innovation, right? [LAUGHTER]

Becky: It’s true, but it’s been so much fun. I love seeing that innovation and how we’re benefiting our students. I also love seeing a little more attention towards online teaching, We were the ugly stepchild before and now everyone is excited to learn about this new thing and how they can do it better.

John: It’s gone from being an ugly stepchild to a savior in some way.

Becky: Yeah, absolutely. Think about the last pandemic with the Spanish flu. What happened to their education at that point? We didn’t have online learning. Did they have distance education? What even happened with that?

John: If this has happened 20 years ago, it would have been a completely different experience with a lot of colleges just completely shutting down or moving to some type of correspondence class instruction.

Rebecca: Which I don’t think would have gone well. [LAUGHTER]

John: Which would not have gone very well.

Becky: No, definitely 20 years ago, I think that right now we can say we have similar course outcomes in online and face-to-face classes. But 20 years ago, I would have been one of those students who was protesting at Harvard about paying tuition for a substandard educational experience, [LAUGHTER]

John: What are some of the things that you would recommend doing to help build class community?

Becky: I’m so glad that you asked about this, because this is one of the other personal interests that I have. I’ve been working with a faculty learning community for the last two and a half years around developing instructor presence in an online class. And so I love talking about this, I think that there are a lot of ways that we can really develop connections among instructors and students, and also among students. So one of the best practices that I’ve seen is making sure that teachers have an opportunity to connect one-on-one with their students, whether that’s sending out an email a time or two during the semester, or requiring students to meet with them, at the beginning of the semester or at midterms, throughout the semester, to be able to develop that one-on-one Zoom connection to just be able to have a little bit of face time with students. But I think that works really well. So making sure that there is an opportunity to connect on a human level. When we teach online, we tend to be really text heavy and dry. And taking that human element that we love in a face-to-face class and pulling it out in an online space is so valuable for students, and really helps them to connect with each other and with their instructor. It’s one of those inclusive teaching practices that we do really well face-to-face, but is a little bit harder to do online, and if we’re intentional about it, it can happen. In terms of developing community among students, I think that as much as there’s resistance towards group work, I think that you can intentionally use it to develop community in your classes. And this isn’t just a “Hey, you should write a paper together and divide up the work,” it’s intentionally using that as a community building opportunity. And letting students know that that’s your intention is you want that to be community building. So one of the things I’ve always done in my Spanish classes is have students meet in small conversation groups once a week to have conversation practice with each other. And there’s always a little bit of resistance, and students aren’t so sure that they want to do it. But I have them fill out a survey to let me know what time they’re available. And it’s just a group of three students. They meet every week, and they have a great time talking with each other and get that oral communication practice they need. It also ends up being one of their favorite parts of the class. They develop connections with other students. And I hear all the time about students who actually meet in person and go out for coffee. I had one student who was taking a class from Florida and another student who was in Denver, and the Denver student had to go to Florida for something and stopped and went to go visit the Florida student in person, they went and hung out together. So I think there are just really interesting human personal connections that can be made. And leaving space for that to happen is so important. I think we get too focused on academics and lose those moments at the beginning or the end of a class where we spend a few minutes talking about nothing or the weather or the football game last weekend. And leaving that space in an online class and making sure that you have some space for that, really helps to develop those connections.

Rebecca: I definitely have experienced that this semester with my students who have had persistent groups all semester. They have said multiple times how helpful that has been for them, and they just did a reflection activity and almost every single student said “Oh, being in those groups was the best part…” which we never hear about group work, right? [LAUGHTER]. But they got to know each other and they had support through the class and used that as a way to help each other out with the course material.

Becky: Absolutely. I love that. It’s so amazing when students can get that connection and really work together.

John: I had a similar experience in my online class where I had students work on podcasts. And the first time they met, generally, is when they met in small groups to have these conversations and recorded them using Zoom. And they were supposed to be 5- to 10-minute podcasts, but many of them ended up being dramatically longer because, essentially, they were getting to know each other. It was kind of nice to see that sort of engagement and that interaction where they were getting to form this community. It would have been nice if they had recorded just a shorter segment of it. But I did get to listen in on some of those initial meetings. And it was an interesting experience.

Becky: And I agree, I signed my students to only speak for 30 minutes, and they only had to record 15 minutes of that. But the timer would tell me how long they’d been in and many of them would be in there for 45 minutes to an hour, sometimes an hour and a half… that they would just spend that time together, practicing and talking. And it was great. It was just fun to see that connection, that they went above and beyond what we’d asked them to do.

Rebecca: So drop out rates for something that you mentioned that your research pointed to this was one of the biggest issues that we needed to be thinking about in terms of online education. So in addition to instructor presence and helping students formulate community, do you have any other recommendations for faculty or instructors to help mitigate that or get students to stay? …to retain students?

Becky: Absolutely. So we’ve talked about access to student support services, building a community, some of those high-impact practices that we don’t always think about in online spaces is making sure that students have the ability to collaborate with faculty, like on a research project, especially at a Hispanic serving institution. It’s a culture where those connections are really important. And making sure to provide those to students so that there’s an opportunity to connect with faculty on working on something meaningful is really important. So as faculty, we can make sure that we’re selecting students, when we’re thinking about TAs, research assistants, make sure that we’re thinking about some of our online students as well and see if that might be a good fit for them. And one of the things that I also think about in terms of improving retention is this connection and relationship between the faculty and the student is so important. But in order to do that, we know our faculty are overworked and underpaid, and to make sure that there’s institutional support for faculty, is really important. And so making sure that there’s access to instructional design and pedagogical training through some of the resources available at the institution is a big deal, making sure that there is a collaborative opportunity for faculty to work together and share best practices and generally just supporting faculty. As we hold on to faculty, it gives them more bandwidth to hold on to their students. So institutional support is a really big deal to benefit our students as well.

Rebecca: And one that we can’t underscore enough when faculty are feeling really strained. [LAUGHTER]

Becky: No, absolutely not, not in 2020. And here we are. I don’t know about other institutions, but we’re being furloughed. And so we’re asked to do more and have fewer resources.

John: …while being at further risk in terms of employment risk, as well as all the health risks out there.

Becky: Oh, there’s so much going on.

John: You mentioned forming connections between faculty and students, and one way of certainly selecting students to be TAs, and so forth. But, what are some of the things instructors can do in their courses to help form those connections within online classes,

Becky: One of the things that we’ve really found that is helpful is moving away from a really static discussion board. We see a lot of classes where instructors say, ‘Tell me three things that you learned from this reading,” or “What are three of the five methods that are used to do whatever it is”. And those are really boring discussion boards and do not foster community, but asking questions that really encourage students to engage in a debate, in a conversation, and teaching them how to engage with each other appropriately and respectfully in an online space is really important. So asking them to solve problems together, asking them to work together, not shying away from difficult conversations. This election year has had a lot of challenges, and engaging with those in a student class in a way that allows them to bring in their own unique perspectives helps them to connect. Some of that might be through a discussion board. Some of it might be through a tool like Flipgrid that allows you to have students have a video discussion where they get to record a short video and then reply to each other. That really fosters that sense of connection and community in an online space. So allowing for that to happen is really important. We can move away from a boring discussion board to either a better discussion board or some of these other tools that foster community.

John: Flipgrid or VoiceThread or other similar tools offer a lot more possibilities for connection and hearing each other’s voices and hearing their instructor’s voice I think should help to create that sense of community more so than just reading text on a screen.

Becky: …and videos also. That, if we are recording videos, we can see the instructor, we can see the other students… having a face to put to a name. And having just a little bit of personal information… knowing that I smile and laugh, and I am an engaging person, I think, helps to connect with the course.

John: Humanizing the instructor is a phrase that’s often used, letting them hear you, hear your voice and your sense of humor, letting people know you as a person rather than just as the author of these words that show up on the screen all over the place is helpful.

Rebecca: …and humanizing the other students in the class. If it’s just a name, it’s really easy to not really think of that name as a person, the more you see and hear, not only as an instructor, but also fellow students, I think, can be really beneficial. So I think that students eat up the media when it’s available to them.

Becky: Absolutely.

John: And helping them make connections to their own life in their discussion. If they’re going to have discussion boards, one way of doing it effectively might be to have them make connections, where they draw on what they’re learning and make connections from their own life and experiences and share them, which also is a nice way of forming that sense of human presence in the classroom.

Becky: Absolutely. With a PhD in curriculum, I feel like I hold in my two hands two different things. So on the one hand, I have the curriculum and the course objectives and the aligned assessments and all of those things, and I think they’re so important. In my other hand, I’m holding on to the importance of people like bell hooks and Paulo Freire, and that reminder that we need to be transgressing some of these lines of our existing education and decolonizing our educational experience and humanizing it to make sure that we’re making real personal connections with the content, with the instructor. And so those are the two things that I carry with me as I’m working in my own classes in this and I’m helping faculty develop their courses is, “How do you balance those two things?” That is so hard, and I think in online classes, we do really well with the alignment and the course objectives and the assessments. And sometimes that humanizing part feels like it falls by the wayside.

John: But they’re not necessarily substitutes, they could be complementary. If you design assignments well, where they’re engaging in these authentic interactions, while achieving the learning objectives, it’s more work trying to design that, but there are some things you can do that can work fairly well.

Becky: I think there are wonderful faculty out there who are doing really great things, those are just the two things I try to always carry with me to make sure that I don’t leave one of them behind.

Rebecca: I think it’s really important to think about those two. So, it’s a nice reminder. And I think actually a nice way to wrap up the conversation, because it’s the two things to keep in mind as you move forward. Having those little takeaways at the end is always helpful. So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Becky: For me, I am really excited to dig into some of this qualitative side of things that we’ve talked about today. As I said, I love that hard quantitative research, but I’m also really interested in the humanizing element of it and that instructor presence. So I’ve been working with this faculty learning community for the last two and a half years, and we have developed an online instructor presence self-evaluation tool that we are presenting at OLC in the spring. So we’re really excited to be able to share that with some other people about how you connect with people and how we engage in our classes. So we’re excited to move forward with some of that. And just see what is happening with COVID? How has that changed things? And how might we rethink how we’re teaching online?

John: It’s just something that people would be using on a longitudinal basis to track how their classes evolved? Or is it just used in general as an instrument to share with faculty?

Becky: What we’ve intended it as is a way for people to self assess. So we didn’t want it to be a rubric. We don’t want it to be point based. We wanted it to be conversational, and a way to go in and reflect on your own teaching and consider ways that you could improve. And so absolutely, the way that we’ve designed the tool is it has a “What are my strengths? and ”What could be improved?” area on each of it. And so it would be really interesting to come back and say, you know, I did this last semester, what does that look like this semester? What am I changing? How am I improving? S o I think it absolutely could be used longitudinally.

Rebecca: That tool that you’re talking about sounds really great. So I hope we can have you back so we can talk about that in the future.

Becky: I would love to… only if I can invite a part of our faculty learning community

Rebecca: Of course.

Becky: It was a group effort. It’s one of those things that we couldn’t have done it without each other. We’ve just been in each other’s support system. And when we first found out that our institution was going online, we had a meeting scheduled for that Friday, and we talked about canceling and everyone’s like, “No, these are the people that I need.” And so we all met that Friday that we were moving online, and we haven’t seen each other since in person, but we were just that group. We’re like, “No, I need my support group.” So, I would come back and talk about it, but only if I can bring my FLC with me.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] It sounds important to do so. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a great conversation and we look forward to hearing more research from you, Becky.

Becky: Well, awesome. Thanks so much. It’s been a pleasure to visit with both of you.

John: Thanks for joining us. We’re looking forward to talking to you again.

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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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153. Structured for Inclusion

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

Show Notes

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

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

Kelly: Thank you.

Viji: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Kelly: I’m drinking LaCroix… seltzer.

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

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

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

Rebecca: Nice…

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

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

Rebecca: I have “Special” English Breakfast tea.

Kelly: What makes it special?

Rebecca: The package? [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kelly: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

Viji: Yeah, I love that idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kelly: Thank you.

Viji: Thank you.

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

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

John: It could be.

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

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

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

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

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

Viji: Thank you.

Kelly: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

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

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

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148. Active Learning: 6 Feet of Separation

During the fall 2020 semester, many faculty will be working in a classroom environment in which they will be in a classroom using a video conferencing tool to work simultaneously with a mix of remote students online and masked and physically distanced face-to-face students. There are significant challenges in using active learning techniques in this environment. In this episode, Dr. Derek Bruff joins us to explore some active learning strategies that may work under these very unusual circumstances.

Derek is the Director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a Principal Senior Lecturer in the Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics. He is the author of Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments, as well as his most recent book on Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching. Derek is also a host of the Leading Lines podcast.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: During the fall 2020 semester, many faculty will be working in a classroom environment in which they will be in a classroom using a video conferencing tool to work simultaneously with a mix of remote students online and masked and physically distanced face-to-face students. There are significant challenges in using active learning techniques in this environment. In this episode, we explore some active learning strategies that may work under these very unusual circumstances.

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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: , 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. Derek Bruff. Derek is the Director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a Principal Senior Lecturer in the Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics. He is the author of Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments, as well as his most recent book on Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching, which we talked about in an earlier podcast. Derek is also a host of the Leading Lines podcast. Welcome back, Derek.

Derek: Thanks. I’m glad to be here. I’m glad to be back on the podcast. And I just want to say I’ve been very impressed at the work you two have been doing these past several months. I used to say Leading Lines comes out on the first and third Monday of every month. And now I say Leading Lines comes out when it comes out. [LAUGHTER] And so, keeping up the schedule that you guys have had with this podcast and bringing in so many great guests and having so many great interviews, it’s just been a really rich resource for me. And as someone who can’t keep up a regular podcasting schedule right now, I’m just very impressed at what you guys have been doing.

Rebecca: It’s all John.

John: We’ve gotten a lot of help from so many people, such as you, who have agreed to join us and share their thoughts in a really challenging time. And it’s been a really great resource for our faculty too, who are faced with all this uncertainty about the fall.

Rebecca: Me too, because I’m not teaching until the fall. I haven’t taught this spring. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Now’s a good time to be on sabbatical.

Rebecca: So, today’s teas are. Are you drinking tea, Derek?

Derek: No, I have some dark roast coffee.

Rebecca: Caffeine. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Yeah.

John: And I have ginger peach green tea today.

Rebecca: I have a summer berry green tea. See, I’m mixing it up, John.

John: That’s a new one.

Rebecca: I gotcha. I gotcha.

Derek: Yeah, sounds lovely.

Rebecca: Actually, you’d be very happy to know, John, that last time I was in Epcot. I got it. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’re recording this in July. It’ll be released probably in early August. And there’s a lot of uncertainty about the fall. Right now, probably most colleges and universities in the country, with a few notable exceptions, have announced that they’re planning to bring students back to campus for face-to-face instruction with reduced seating, with some students coming in remotely (typically through Zoom or some other video conference app), and you recently released a blog post that discuss options for maintaining active learning in this environment where some students will be there in the classroom, spread out to make it hard for them to be in contact with each other, as well as online with a video conference. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that sort of framework in terms of what possibilities there are for people to interact.

Derek: Sure. I wrote this blog post because I’ve been getting so many questions from my faculty at Vanderbilt, trying to imagine what the fall semester will be like. And I gave a presentation based on the blog post at a Vanderbilt faculty town hall the other week, and one of my slides said, “No one has ever done this before.” And I think that’s really important. So, what I’m imagining that a number of faculty will face this fall, and again, different campuses are making different decisions… and even within a single campus, there’s going to be a lot of different configurations… some faculty will be teaching fully online, some faculty will not… and so this is kind of what we’re trying to imagine is that if I’m teaching a class this fall and I’m back on campus, I’m in a classroom, I have some students there in the room with me, but because of social distancing requirements, they’re six feet apart from each other. Maybe we’re all wearing masks, maybe I have a face shield instead of a mask. There’s going to be some variability here. But some students will not be able to come to the classroom, either because the social distancing requirements mean that you can’t hold as many students in the classroom, or maybe they are unable to travel back to get on campus. A lot of our international students are not planning to come back on campus this fall for a variety of reasons. Or maybe you have a student who’s in quarantine, right? They’ve been exposed to COVID and they’re in quarantine for 14 days, and so they can’t come to the classroom. A lot of us teaching this fall. I don’t know how many, but a lot of us, are likely to have these classes where some of the students are in the classroom, but physically distanced and masked, and some students are participating at the same time, but virtually, perhaps through video conferencing tool like Zoom. And you may have some students who actually can’t do either of those. If they’re 12 time zones away, they may have to participate in your class asynchronously in some fashion. That’s a whole ‘nother level of challenge. In my blog post, I just focused on those first two groups of students, the in-person but physically distanced, and then the virtual students may be participating via Zoom. And I’ve been really careful in my terminology of how I describe this, and so I’m calling this a hybrid classroom, because hybrid is sufficiently generic [LAUGHTER] that it would apply to a situation like this. Hybrid typically means some combination of face-to-face and online activities. It’s not quite hyflex. So there’s this term you may have heard, hyflex, which I think means something more specific, where students really have a choice to participate in person, synchronously online, asynchronously online, and they may actually shift from those modalities over the length of the semester. The flex in Hyflex is the kind of student choice and the student autonomy piece and I’m not expecting we’re gonna have a lot of student autonomy this fall. We have some, certainly. Students are electing to be remote-only students or on-campus students, but it doesn’t feel like it’s quite hyflex in terms of the classic model there. That said, though, the folks who teach in a hyflex environment have developed teaching strategies that can work when you have students participating in the classroom and students participating online at the same time. That said, they haven’t had to deal with the physical distancing and the masks. That’s the part that really is novel, and I think it’s going to be important that we as instructors give ourselves a little bit of grace, knowing that literally no one has taught under these conditions in the past, this is new for us, it’s new for our colleagues at other institutions, it’s new for our students. This is going to be really weird and really challenging for them. And frankly, there are a lot who would argue that it might be easier to just teach fully online; that trying to kind of juggle the constraints in this kind of classroom is going to be really challenging for a lot of faculty. And I’ve talked to a lot of faculty who are like, I would just rather teach fully online this fall. And so I don’t want to speak too much into that choice. There’s a lot of factors that go into university decisions about kind of bringing folks back to campus this fall. Our work at the Center for Teaching, we’re trying to help faculty teach as well as they can in whatever conditions they find themselves. We don’t usually get to pick those conditions, right? And so, I just wanted to try to be helpful and so I wrote the blog posts because using technology to foster active learning in the classroom, that’s my jam. That’s what I’ve been writing about and speaking about for a decade and a half now. I wrote my book on teaching with classroom response systems back in 2009…. clickers and polling software… we have tools, actually. This classroom setup sounds really hard, and it will be hard. And there’s stuff about it that I can’t predict in terms of how hard it will be. But we do have some tools and technologies that can help foster more active learning in these types of environments. And so that’s what I wanted to lay out for my faculty colleagues, who couldn’t imagine how this could work at all. And I could see a few ways actually… a few tools that could make it functional. And so I wanted to share those strategies.

John: Before we talk about the specific strategies, maybe we could talk about some of the mechanics. One of the things you suggest is that you’re assuming that the people who are in the classroom will be able to see and hear the people speaking from outside over Zoom or some other videoconference tool, but what about voice going from the classroom to remote participants. Since the in-class students won’t be able to use their own microphones (to avoid possible feedback effects), how will students who are participating remotely be able to hear what other students say in the classroom?

Derek: Right? And that’s where I don’t know that there’s going to be a good answer to that. The audio piece is one of the more challenging pieces of this classroom environment… the students in the classroom getting to hear each other when they’re sitting far apart and wearing masks… but, even more so, the students who are participating virtually. How can they hear the students in the classroom? Presumably, the instructor will be running Zoom off of the classroom computer or their laptop, and they’ll have a webcam and a microphone. If I’m close to my computer when I’m running Zoom, people on the Zoom call can hear me. So, having the virtual students hear the instructor seems fairly straightforward, but the students in the classroom, they’re not going to come anywhere near that microphone. Now we have a few classrooms at Vanderbilt that have some ceiling mounted microphones that are going to help with that, and that will have some capability to pick up the student voices in the room. But, I’m anticipating that’s going to be a real challenge, actually. And so, again, I don’t have a silver bullet, but it does speak to the use of something like a backchannel tool. So like a text chat in a Zoom room or using a third party tool like Twitter, or GroupMe, or Slack, or Discord… a place where you can have a text conversation with all of your students during class. This is often called the backchannel. The front channel, it’s kind of you at the front of the room talking and having conversations with your students. But the backchannel is the text chat that kind of supplements that. And I’ve been doing stuff with backchannel for years. It’s a really interesting way to build community in the classroom, to give voices to more students to kind of create an on-the-fly closed captioning almost or documentation of the discussion that’s happening. It can be really powerful to have a good backchannel. It can also be really challenging. I think a lot of instructors who’ve dabbled with this have realized that when they are at the front of the room leading class, they don’t have the bandwidth to also pay attention to the text chat and see what’s happening there. And so what I’ve recommended is what I learned from Steve Gilbert and Steve Ehrmann years ago, doing webinars to have someone called the “voice of the chat.” Designate someone, maybe it’s a teaching assistant if you’ve got one of those, but it could be a student in the room, and it could rotate among students over time. Their job is to pay attention to the text chat, the backchannel, and then you as the instructor every so often, you would pause and turn it over to the voice of the chat and say, “What’s been happening in the chat? What are the questions that are emerging there? What are some ideas or comments that are really valuable?” Maybe the voice of the chat is someone on your Zoom call, one of your virtual students, because everyone will be able to hear that student. But that way the students who are in the room and the students who are participating virtually can engage in conversation during class, but in the text chat, and then you have these moments where you pull that conversation from the back channel to the front channel, using the voice of the chat. I’ve done this in a lot of online activities, and it works really well. [LAUGHTER] When I’m going to do an online webinar of some sort, I want to have a voice of the chat, someone who can play that role. And so this is actually a pretty proven technique. And I think it’s going to be fairly practical for our classes this fall. I’m glad you asked about this because class discussion. as we think of it in the generic sense, may be the hardest thing to do in this hybrid environment. For me to stand at the front of the room and show them how PowerPoint slides and lecture to my students, that’ll be relatively easy. That’s also something that you could do without students in the room, right? If you’re just gonna lecture then maybe that’s a pre-recorded something that you share with your students. That doesn’t have to be a live interaction of some sort. But the class discussion, the kind of student-to-student piece is going to be really challenging. And so back channel is one way to try to foster some of that in the classroom.

John: So, the students in the room would be encouraged to bring a mobile device to participate in the text chat and to avoid the feedback loop that would result if they were participating in the video chat using audio. That sounds like a really effective solution.

Rebecca: I think one of the other things that you had some interesting ideas about too was group work. One of the reasons why being in class could be appealing to someone is the idea of being able to collaborate or work on something together. But again, same problem as discussions.

Derek: Right. Yeah. So here’s where I’ve done this a couple of times, just because it was fun in my regular classes, is to use a Google sheet as a way to structure groups and their work and their reporting out. And so, years ago, in my stats course, we had an infographics project. So they had to do some data visualization. And so to get them ready for that, I had them look at some sample infographics. And I invited them to essentially crowdsource the rubric that we would use for the infographics they created. I set up a Google sheet that had across the top, it was kind of levels of quality from poor, acceptable, good, to excellent, and each row was blank. And the idea was that the students would work in small groups, they would look at these sample infographics and they would start to identify what are the components of a really good infographic, and each group would pick a different row on the Google spreadsheet and start to flesh out that component and how you would assess it from kind of poor to excellent. I think I had 100 students in the room when I was doing this. And they were working in groups of two or three, and there were all of these anonymous aardvarks all over the Google sheet, adding their ideas for the rubric and it was a little chaotic, but what I wanted from them was more than just a polling question, this wasn’t a multiple choice question. I wanted them to produce something. It was free response, but not just free response, it was a kind of structured free response. And so the Google sheet was a really nice tool for doing this. And so this is what I’m imagining doing thi fall. You can do this in a fully online, kind of a Zoom session, class. Or if you’ve got this kind of hybrid situation, imagine giving your students three questions to discuss in their small groups. You set up a Google sheet, put those questions at the top, one in each column, share that Google sheet with your students, and then send them off to do their small group discussion. As students in the room…. hopefully, this is part of the unknown… if you have two or three students in the classroom, six feet apart from each other wearing masks, will they be able to have a useful discussion as a small group? I hope so. Again, that’s part of the reason for being in the same place at the same time is to have that kind of student-to-student interaction. I don’t know that I would try groups of size six this fall, I might do groups of size two or size three. And the idea is, they would work in small groups. Meanwhile, on Zoom, your students are probably in breakout rooms, again in groups of size two or three, and they’re talking about the questions that you’ve given them, and they are reporting out, each group on a different row of the Google spreadsheet. Now this does a few things. One is you can monitor the Google spreadsheet as students are putting their responses in there. And that allows you to get a sense of how fast they’re moving through the work, when they’re starting to wrap up…. Oh, most of the students have answered questions one and two, but they’re really slowing down on question three. This is helpful information. You can also start to preview their responses and see what ideas are they bringing to the conversation, and that’ll set you up for whatever you do after the group work, to have a sense of what they’re saying. But, I’m also imagining, it’s a nice structured way for the groups to report out, to share, maybe even to focus. It may be that in the classroom, it’s hard for students to hear each other a little bit. And so you could even imagine, if we’ve got three people in our group and three questions, that each of us will draft a response to one question, and then we’ll rotate and revise each other’s drafts. And you can do that right there in the Google doc. This will take some creativity, it may take a little more coordination than you’re used to needing to do for in-class group work. But it’s also nice that, in this case, the Google sheet as a reporting structure would be the same structure for both your in-person and your online students. And so that simplifies things a little bit. And so, I can imagine that kind of technique working pretty well. Again, there’s a bit of an unknown about the students in the classroom and how well they’ll be able to hear each other. But, that would enable a form of group work that I think would be pretty functional. And it wouldn’t have to be a Google sheet. There’s lots of other online collaborative tools that you could use to have students report out in some fashion. There’s these kind of Whiteboard apps where you’ve kind of put sticky notes all over the board. So it could be something more like that. Or maybe they create a PowerPoint or a Google slides, each group has a different slide where they’re gonna put their answers, they’re gonna put their deliverable of some sort. Again, this is not maybe how we want to do group work, but I think it would be functional in the settings that we’re looking at this fall.

Rebecca: I think one thing that you mentioned in your article, which I also strongly advocate for is if you’re going to use some group work techniques, if you establish something that’s consistent so that you don’t have so much startup cost every time you do group work, that that might help too, for that consistency, and then you might get better responses I would imagine over the course of the semester when there’s less cost in terms of figuring out how to do the thing.

Derek: Absolutely. The first couple of times you do it, it’ll be awkward and hard and slow. But after your students have done it a few times, then it’ll be a lot easier to just kind of slide into this mode with your students.

John: You mentioned the use of polling. And when we moved to remote instruction, I continued that using Zoom, but we were completely remote. The way I did it, and I think this was something you recommended, something Erik Mazur had done, is you poll students with challenging questions, and then you have them work in small groups. In Zoom, that’s pretty easy. You send them into breakout rooms with groups of two (or maybe three, if you have an odd number of students.) How would you do that same type of thing in a classroom setting where you want people to engage in active discussions? Might that be a little challenging in the physical room where everyone can hear everyone else, given that they’re spread equidistant apart somehow?

Derek: Yeah. And so you know, I can imagine doing a polling question, having all of your students respond using the same polling tool. And again, this would assume that your in-person students have a device with them that they’re going to use to participate. Now it may be hard for them to do that via Zoom. You’d have to make sure everyone in the room had their microphones turned off and their audio muted because otherwise you’d have too much audio feedback. But if the students in the room were also in Zoom, but kind of silenced and muted, they could participate in the Zoom polling questions. Or you could go to another tool like TopHat or Poll Everywhere, something that lives outside of Zoom and do all of your polling there in parallel to your Zoom session. Either way, this does not seem to be the semester where you want to put a laptop ban in your classroom, we’re gonna need those tools. And you guys know, I’ve been advocating for years for effective intentional use of digital devices in the classroom. [LAUGHTER] So, we’re gonna need it, we’re not gonna have a choice. But now, let’s say you want to have your students turn to their neighbor and chat about the question. Again, in a normal classroom situation, that’s one of the easiest things you can do to build some active learning into your classroom. Give them a good hard question, have them answer it via the poll, then turn to their neighbor and talk it out together, see if they can put their heads together and get the right answer, and then maybe do a second round on the poll and see where things have shifted. It’s a great pedagogical structure. In the hybrid classroom, the turn to your neighbor and chat is going to be challenging, and so you could try to send your online students to breakout rooms and have them talk there and your in-person students pair up and talk to each other six feet apart. Again, until we do some more testing, I don’t know how practical that’s going to be in the classroom, I’m hopeful that it’ll kind of work. It may be that, what in a normal classroom, you might have them turn to their neighbor and talk for 60 seconds, and then move on, that may be too hard to do. And so if you’re going to have them do group work, you’re going to have them spend 10 minutes doing group work because they’re moving to a Google sheet or they’re doing something kind of bigger and more structured. The kind of quick informal pair work may be too challenging. One option that someone suggested to me that I thought was kind of interesting, though, was to have your students in the room, if you have paired them up with your virtual students, you can have the student in the room pull out their phone, put in their earbuds, and FaceTime with their virtual student partner to talk about the question. Again, the first time you do it, there’s a matching problem there, there’s logistics, there’s audio to figure out. The third or fourth time you do it, this may be a lot more fluid and an easier way to have students chat about the question at hand. It also has the added benefit of connecting your virtual students with your in-person students in more intentional ways. And so that could be really helpful for social presence and things like that. Again, a lot of this is going to be trial and error this fall and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.

John: Since you won’t necessarily have the same number of students online or remote, and it may be difficult to do that pairing, the pairing could work no matter where the other student was. If you’re in a lecture hall that seats 400, and you’ve got 100 people there or 80 people there, they might call someone 100 feet away… 200 feet away…

Derek: Sure. [LAUGHTER]

John: …which could work in the same way as if they were calling someone remotely.

Derek: Yeah. Right. [LAUGHTER] I’m in the southwest corner of the room and my partner is in the northeast corner. Sure. That could work.

Rebecca: We’re far away.

Derek: Right. I want to circle back to this question of why aren’t we just teaching online to begin with? And I think that’s a legitimate question. And I think it’s something that faculty and administrators have to really struggle with. What’s the value pedagogically of classrooms like this? Because a lot of it’s going to be really hard and awkward and, shall we say, sub-optimal. These are not the ways that we want to foster active learning and, like I said, the folks who aren’t fostering active learning, the folks who were just kind of, as the literature says, practicing continuous exposition by the teacher…. That, actually, is going to work no matter what you do this fall. If you’re fully online, if you’re hybrid, if you’re just going to do that, I would argue that that kind of instruction can work just fine online. And maybe that’s not a reason to have people in the room. So, why would you have people in the room? What is the kind of value added there? And one piece, I think, is that we’re all in this together, that this is challenging. I think we’re going to find some students this fall, who don’t want to be in the classroom, taking a health risk of some sort, encountering their instructors or fellow peers, and they’re going to really embrace the online option. I think you’re going to have some students who don’t want to have to stay where they are this fall, they need to come back to campus where they have reliable internet access and laptops that they can access and a library that they can access. We have a lot of students who, when they’re home, are not in conditions that are really conducive to teaching and learning. And so for some students, they’re going to actually welcome the chance to be back on campus and to be a part of that learning community again. And this is hard to talk about, because I think a lot of faculty have very strong reactions and opinions about what the fall is, and being required to teach online or being required to teach in person. But, I just want to put it out there, that I think our students are going to come at this from different perspectives. And so for some students that chance to come into class and awkwardly communicate a little bit with some peers may actually help them feel like they’re more engaged and more part of the learning community. I would also argue that, if we look at not just the individual class session, which may have this weird hybrid, physically distanced quality to it, but if you look at the semester, this fall, a lot of universities are announcing different calendars for the fall, they’re starting later, or they’re starting earlier. They’re finishing by Thanksgiving, they’re not doing fall breaks. We don’t really know what’s going to come this fall. And there’s pretty good odds that at some point, some campuses may need to pivot back fully online. And so if you think about designing a course for this fall, where you’ll have some virtual students, you may have students in vastly different time zones, you may have to pack the whole thing up and move it online at some point during the fall semester. Maybe you’re not assigned to teach the course online, but it’s still, I think, helpful to think about it as an online course, if you could design the course to really function well as a fully online course, and then treat your face-to-face component as a kind of add on, as a supplement, almost like a recitation section. So, there’s a little bit of this in a big lecture hall where you don’t have a lot of kind of student-faculty interaction, anyway. The recitation section is the kind of smaller space where you get to actually engage with peers more and talk about the stuff. And so if you’ve got a course that functions well, so that your assignments are online, a lot of your course communication is online, your key learning activities are online, but the face-to-face components, in this weird hybrid modality, are useful to that and supplemental to that, but if you had to give them up the course wouldn’t fall apart. I think that’s the way to think about this fall: as kind of online first, and then using the face to face to enhance what you can of the learning experience. Build the learning community, have that social interaction, give students a chance to practice and reflect on what they’re learning That’s still super useful. The other way to think about it, I would say, is maybe you’re not willing to kind of think about your entire course moving online right now. But, are there some key elements of your course that you can go ahead and move online at the start of the semester, so that if you have to move the rest of it online later, you’re in a better position. So, I think it was on your podcast that Jessamyn Neuhaus talked about having to learn how to do online assignment submission this spring; that she’d actually never gotten around to learning how to do that, which is fine. It was fine to have paper assignment submission up until the spring but then it became a requirement to do online. So this fall, make sure that you know how to use the assignment submission tool in your course management system and go ahead and plan on having students submit assignments that way. Make sure that you’ve got a good communication pathway with your students using email or the course management system or another tool like Slack or GroupMe, something where you can connect with students, maybe more informally. Go ahead and start using those tools from the beginning, so that if you do have to pivot fully online this fall, you’ve already got some essential components there.

John: That’s basically the approach we taken with our workshops here, and we’ve tried to help sell that to faculty, because it’s a bit of a lift for people who’ve only taught face to face before, by saying anything you create now is going to be something that you can use as a basis for future semesters of your course; that if you have these elements there, you can do a more flipped environment in your classroom, you can use your classroom for more active learning activities, and to the extent to which it results in more possibilities for active learning in the future, I think that’s going to be helpful.

Derek: Yeah, and I’ll add, we’ve been running an Online Course Design Institute at my teaching center all summer… every two weeks, all summer. We’re up over 300 participants in it at this point. A lot of faculty this spring figured out that online wasn’t necessarily as terrible as they thought it might be. They were able to connect with their students in meaningful ways and continue teaching in spite of the circumstance. And so we had a lot of faculty who woke up to some of the possibilities of online teaching this spring and then we’ve been working with faculty. he’ll spend two weeks with us in a pretty intensive institute, learning how to teach online, and a lot of them have a big shift in their opinion about online instruction over the course of those two weeks. They were initially skeptical that it could work nearly as well as face-to-face instruction. and they end the institute thinking, “Okay, this could be pretty exciting, actually, I see a lot of potential here.” And so that’s the other thing that I would suggest, that faculty keep an open mind about really the potential of online teaching. A really well designed online course can work just as well, sometimes even better, than a really well designed face-to-face course. And so it’s okay to kind of lean into that. And to let that be a bigger part of your kind of teaching toolbox this fall.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that you mentioned a little bit earlier in our conversation is like, why are you in person in the first place? What motivates being in person, I think you’re right about the social connection. even seeing other people who are also dedicating time to learning a particular thing could be useful, even if they’re not interacting with each other, and just in the same space at the same time. But also just if you’re there for equipment or other reasons, there might be ways of teaching using a lot of online techniques with the opportunity to have access to tools that they might not have otherwise. And it might be down to like access to a laptop or higher end technology or something that is in a lab or… I teach in a design studio, so some of the more expensive software, faster computers or things like that. So, we’re thinking through the ways that, maybe we don’t really need to be teaching so much, like there could be a lot of learning happening in the classroom at that time and not necessarily a lot of teaching… maybe some coaching and some interactions. But those interactions might actually be happening virtually,

Derek: Right. And you can imagine more of a kind of flipped model where some of the heavy lifting in terms of the teaching, the first exposure to the content is going to happen fully online through pre-recorded lectures or videos of some sort or other resources. And then that class time, as awkward as it is, is still an important part of having students apply things, practice things, get some feedback from someone else. That’s going to be a good model for the fall, I think.

John: Going back to something else you said earlier, the issue of the students who can’t be physically present during class time, there’s also the related issue of students who may not be able to be present virtually during class time if they become ill, or are remote and have limited computer access or bandwidth, or are in a different time zone. Would you recommend that faculty also start thinking about what types of asynchronous activities they can use to provide equivalent learning experiences for those students?

Derek: Yeah, that’s a good question. And again, I think this is the other thing that we’ve seen our faculty, most of our faculty don’t teach online. Our school of nursing has a really robust online program, but outside of that school, most of our faculty don’t have a ton of experience teaching online. So this has been kind of new territory for them. And one of the takeaways that many of them have from our Online Course Design Institute is realizing that you can do a lot of really valuable learning asynchronously online. For a lot of faculty this spring, online meant they had Zoom sessions with their students that essentially replicated what they would have done in the classroom face to face. But if you look at the last 20 years of online higher education, most of that work in higher ed has been asynchronous online learning. You build your course to work well asynchronously. And it’s only in the last couple of years that we’ve had the video conferencing technology that would make a synchronous online component something that you could really lean into in an online course And so thinking about some of your major learning activities and assignments and assessments, not just being online, but being asynchronous online, that’s a really good model to think about. I think one of the impulses is to say, “Well, I’m going to teach in this weird hybrid modality this fall, I’m going to have students in the room, I’m going to have students on Zoom at the same time, some of my students can’t make it during that time, so we’re going to record the Zoom session, and they can watch it later.” And that’s better than nothing, certainly, but watching someone else participate in class is not nearly as effective as participating in class yourself. And so I wouldn’t want faculty to just do that. That’s fine to do. But, I would want them to add something else intentionally to help those asynchronous students engage with the material. And it could be as simple as saying, “I want you to watch this Zoom session. And here are three questions I want you to answer by the end of that 50 minutes.” It could be a different set of questions than the students in the classroom are given to discuss… something a little more active to help them draw out some learning from those recordings. But again, it’s also fine to say, you know what, for this piece of learning, for this module, for this unit, the core learning is going to happen online asynchronously first. And for those who can attend the synchronous session, either in person or via Zoom we’ll do this supplemental piece. And so that’s okay, too. I just keep giving lots of options here. And I’m hoping that helpful. Faculty are gonna have to figure out what’s going to work for them and their students and their comfort zone. I also think faculty are going to have to learn to do new things this fall. During my town hall, I said, “This is going to be an exceptional semester. And so we are going to make some exceptional teaching choices. And that’s okay.” I think for most of us, 2020 has been suboptimal. There’s been massive disappointments in lots of ways and life has gotten harder in so many ways. And yet, we can either stay in bed and not try, or we can get out and try to make it a little bit better somehow. It’s this growth mindset. I think we need to approach the fall semester with a growth mindset to say: “This is gonna be hard. This is gonna be challenging. I’m gonna have to learn some new skills as a teacher. I may have to learn some new technologies. I’m going to try to do that in a way that doesn’t overwhelm me.” Don’t try to take on too much, too fast. But you’ll have to take on some new stuff this fall. And whether that’s active learning with technology in a hybrid classroom, or that’s designing an online course, or using some part of your course management system that you’ve never touched before, but might actually be helpful this fall, we’re all going to be stretching out of our comfort zones this fall. And that’s okay. It’s going to be hard work, but I think if we collaborate and lean on each other a little bit, we’ll be fine.

Rebecca: And it won’t be perfect. And that’ll be fine, too.

Derek: Right. It’s never perfect the first time out.

John: But with all these new tools, it can improve teaching effectiveness in the future. And that’s something we keep reminding people, that, yes, this is a challenge, but you’re learning a lot of new tools that have value beyond this. It’s not just for this one-time emergency, that this could result in some significant improvements in the effectiveness of your teaching later, even though it will be tough.

Derek: Yes, so one of the tools that we’ve been showing people this summer in our online course design institute is a social annotation tool like Hypothesis or Perusall. And it’s mostly our humanities faculty, but they love it. They are just over the moon with what they can do with these social annotation tools. And most of them just haven’t seen it before. It wasn’t on their radar. And it’s super useful in an online course. But, a lot of them are saying, “Oh, I’m just gonna make this a regular part of my courses going forward no matter how I’m teaching, because having students engaged with the text this way, where they’re annotating collaboratively and discussing it in the sidebar, that’s just a really useful learning process that I want to build into all of my courses no matter how I teach them.” So, we’re finding lots of things that we didn’t know were there that we’re going to make use of in 2021, and 21-22. These are going to be permanent parts of our teaching toolbox.

John: In our course redesign workshop for faculty, we included some samples and documents with Hypothesis, and people have been really impressed by the ability to engage and share and give feedback to each other. And I think we’ve got quite a few people who plan to be using it this fall. It’s a great tool. One of the things you recommend in this document is the use of a fishbowl technique. Could you talk a little bit about how that might work in this sort of hybrid environment.

Derek: Sure. And this is a technique that’s been in the literature for a long time, a way to foster discussion in the classroom. And someone mentioned this as a possibility for the hybrid classroom. And I was like, “Oh, yes, actually, that’s a perfect match.” The fishbowl technique classically works like this. You have a small group of students who have a discussion about whatever the topic is. They’re in the fishbowl. The rest of the students are observing from the outside and they’re quiet during the discussion. They’re taking notes, they’re observing. And then after the discussion, you then ask something of the observers, ask them to summarize what they heard or reflect on what they heard. And it can be really helpful if everyone in the fishbowl is advocating for one point of view. And then the folks who are observing have to then kind of summarize that, even if they don’t agree with it. It can really foster intentional listening. There’s lots of things you could do with the fishbowl, but when I thought about the audio context of these hybrid classrooms this fall, having some of your virtual students be in the fishbowl is totally practical. They’re the ones that are going to be easiest to hear across the entire class. You can have five or six students on Zoom, be the fishbowl, have the conversation, the rest of your virtual students and all of your in-person students are then the observers. They’re listening. They’re taking notes. They’re summarizing. I think that’s gonna work really well, actually. And as I’ve shared that idea with a number of faculty here, they’ve been excited to say, “Oh, yeah, that actually fits this context quite well as a structure for discussion.” And especially on some campuses, the virtual students and the face-to-face students are going to flip flop from day to day, there’ll be some students who come to class on Mondays and they do virtual on Wednesdays and the rest of the students are vice versa. And so you could have most of your students have an opportunity to be in the fishbowl at one point or another with this technique. And that way, you get to have some of the richness of that student-to-student discussion. It wouldn’t involve everyone at the same time. But, if you’re really intentional about what you ask the observing students to do with the discussion, I think it can be really productive. Because frankly, if you’ve got 40 students in the classroom, it’s hard to hear from all of them, anyway. You’re only going to hear from five to eight students in a typical discussion. This just centers them in a way and then guides the other students to participate well, in that type of small-group discussion.

Rebecca: I think what you’re pointing out here is the different ways people can participate in speaking isn’t the only way to participate.

Derek: Yeah, or like collaborative notetaking. This is something that a lot of faculty do as a matter of course, anyway, is have students have some shared document where some of the students in the classroom are taking notes on the class discussion. So their role in the discussion is different. They are not there to participate verbally, they are there to do the note taking piece. And that’s an important role. And that would work just fine in this hybrid classroom as well. And so part of this is thinking intentionally about how you want different groups of students to participate in the learning activities, and it’s okay to give them different roles and guide them to different ways to be meaningful participants.

John: You did mention collaborative note taking, wondering how that might be structured in a class of three or four or 500 students. Would it be reasonable perhaps to do that within your LMS using a groups tool to create that, having a shared google doc or something where you share it with a copy link?

Derek: I think if you’ve got 400 students in your class, that’s just a very different teaching context, and it is something about moving online. So I would say that having 75 students in a classroom and 300 students in the classroom, pedagogically, you’re going to use very similar techniques. If you want to foster active learning, then you’re going to have a lot of think-pair-share, a lot of peer instruction, you’ll have some polling. Anything over 50 is going to kind of look the same, pedagogically at least. Some of the logistics change when you have hundreds of students in the room. But, the kind of pedagogical moves that you’re making, I think are somewhat similar. Once you move online, I think there’s a much bigger difference between 50 students online and 300 students online. And so there’s almost a bit of the kind of MOOC mania that may be useful here. Right. So when we had massively open online courses that had thousands of students, there’s less difference between 300 students and 1000 students. And so we might even look to the MOOCs to see what are some techniques that work well at that kind of scale. And that’s where I think having an asynchronously design course makes a lot of sense. If you’ve got 400 students in the course getting them all together on Zoom is going to be a technical nightmare anyway. Let’s just make this course work well as an asynchronous course. The other piece that I would say that if you’ve got a big class and this gets to your point about collaborative note taking or other group structures that you might use, is that social presence is going to be really challenging. When you’ve got that many students, it’s going to be hard for students to feel connected. In the physical classroom, if you’ve got 400 students, at the very least, a given student has the five or six students they sit near every day to form a bit of a local learning community. And even if you don’t ask them to talk to their neighbor about something, they’re still going to talk to each other after class. And so there’s a bit of social presence, social identity, that comes just by virtue of the seating arrangements. In the online class, you’re not going to have that to fall back on. And I would advise instructors that have big classes to really think intentionally about permanent small groups, and to build in some learning activities and maybe even some assessment activities that leverage those permanent small groups. If you put students in groups of five or six students each and they’re going to meet with that same group every week, doing something useful during the semester, they’re gonna feel connected to the course a lot more than if they didn’t have that small group to lean on. We’ve seen this even in our Online Course Design Institute where we have 70 or 75 faculty participate over a two-week period, but we put them all in cohorts of size five or six. And you really get to know your cohort members, and what their courses are, what they’re teaching. And so that would be my recommendation for the bigger classes. And it could be collaborative notetaking. It could be every time you do a small group activity in class, you send them to the same groups so that they begin to develop working relationships with those group members, those are going to be really important for online classes that are large.

John: And you can always create Zoom rooms that have the same groups that you have within your LMS. So that way, the same students would be working together in both environments, synchronously and asynchronously.

Derek: Yeah, absolutely. You will have to learn how to do that. And again, we’re all going to be learning new tools this fall. I totally know that’s a thing you can do. I don’t know how to do that myself yet, but I would have to figure it out.

John: I haven’t done it yet, either. But I am preparing for one of those large classes in the fall. There’s a lot of questions I still have. One of the things I’ve been wondering about is perhaps the use of peer evaluation. I had done some of that earlier, but we had another tool that was specific for that. I’m not quite sure how well that will work within the LMS. And it’s a little scary at this point. But it’s something I am going to explore.

Derek: Yeah.

Rebecca: That’s something when I’ve taken a MOOC, even if I don’t feel overly connected to other people, there’s still some sort of peer evaluation piece where you feel like you’re getting peer-to-peer feedback, at least, even if it’s anonymous feedback, essentially, because you don’t know those individuals. And that can be effective in at least feeling like you’re learning with other people who are also learning. It’s not as effective as some other things, but it still does it a little.

Derek: Yeah, it does.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next? [LAUGHTER] …and I don’t know, John seems to have me asking that question more frequently, because it feels really stressful to ask someone that right now. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Well, I keep making the joke that it feels like March 97th. [LAUGHTER] Like, this has just been one long March. There was life before March, and now there’s life now… and time and space have no meaning anymore. So, next is a little ambiguous. What’s next? August…. August is next, right? [LAUGHTER] I can predict that. I think we’re going to have an August this year. [LAUGHTER] It’s really hard to kind of look beyond that. I would say, we’re focusing at my center on getting our faculty ready for the start of the fall semester. And what’s going to happen in the first three weeks of this fall semester, like, we don’t have that figured out yet. We don’t know what kind of programming we’re going to offer. We don’t know what kind of responsiveness we’re going to need. It’s been a lot this summer just to kind of do what we’re doing. And so it’s really hard to look very far out. I will say that, among many other complexities in the year 2020, it’s an election year in the United States, and more generally, we have a lot of protests that happened across the United States and across the world earlier this spring. There’s a lot of hard conversations that people are having right now, whether they’re pandemic related or not. And I don’t think that’s going to go away. I’ve been in triage mode all summer, trying to get faculty ready to teach online or hybrid. And so its been hard to think about all the things that may be challenging about this fall semester, but I do think the hard conversations that we need to have with our students and to help our students have productive hard conversations. That’s something that we’re going to spend at least a little time on in my teaching center in August, trying to help faculty get ready for what will likely be a contentious semester, regardless of the kind of modalities, the online, the hybrid, all that kind of stuff. Just the kinds of conversations that we want to have our students are going to be really challenging this fall. And so I think getting ready to do that well, it’s going to be an important component of what’s next for us.

Rebecca: And I don’t think any of us will be bored. There will be an August, and we will not be bored. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Yes, those seem like certainties.

John: Well, thank you. It’s been wonderful talking to you and, we really appreciated the blog post as well as all the very many resources that you share on your website.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much.

Derek: You’re quite welcome. We have a great team at the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching and I’m glad to be the Director and to get to share all the great work that my staff do all the time. So, thanks for that.

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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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147. OSCQR

Many faculty are finding themselves teaching a fully online course for the first time this fall. In this episode Alexandra Pickett joins us to discuss how faculty can use the research-based SUNY Online Course Quality Review rubric, known as OSCQR, to help them design more effective online courses.

Alex is the SUNY Online Director of Online Teaching and an adjunct professor in the Education Department at SUNY-Albany. Previously, she was the Director of the Open SUNY Center for Online Teaching, and prior to that the Associate Director of the SUNY Learning Network for over 12 years and has directly supported and coordinated the professional development of over 5000 Online SUNY faculty.

Transcript

John: Many faculty are finding themselves teaching a fully online course for the first time this fall. In this episode we discuss how faculty can use the research-based SUNY Online Course Quality Review rubric, known as OSCQR, to help them design more effective online courses.

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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 Alexandra Pickett. Alex is the SUNY Online Director of Online Teaching and an adjunct professor in the Education Department at SUNY-Albany. Previously, she was the Director of the Open SUNY Center for Online Teaching, and prior to that the Associate Director of the SUNY Learning Network for over 12 years and has directly supported and coordinated the professional development of over 5000 Online SUNY faculty.

John: Welcome back, Alex.

Alex: Hey, John. Hi, Rebecca. Nice to see you again.

Rebecca: Good to see you too. Today’s teas are:

Alex: As you may know, I only drink Darjeeling tea, always organic. And I just love my Darjeeling tea. It’s delicious.

John: Ginger peach green tea.

Alex: Sounds good.

John: It’s delicious. It’s from the Republic of Tea.

Rebecca: I now have iced tea.

John: I had that earlier today, a few times.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s getting a little warm in my studio. It needs to be cold now. [LAUGHTER]

Alex: I know, it’s warm right now. I’m getting warm too. Iced tea sounds good.

Rebecca: We invited you here today to discuss OSCQR, the SUNY Online Course Quality Review rubric designed by SUNY Online to support quality in online courses. Can you tell us a little bit about OSCQR?

Alex: Sure, I’d love to. So, OSCQR was developed, sort of with the advent of Open SUNY when we were developing the Open SUNY Plus programs and wanted a way to help campuses do a real systematic review of the courses in those Open SUNY Plus programs. Open SUNY launched in January of 2014. And so we began while we had the decision to develop OSCQR, and there were many reasons that went into that decision. We’ve been using rubrics and checklists pretty much from the first day, but over the years we evolved and ultimately bought into Quality Matters in order to have a branded solution for online course quality and course design tools. And so when we evolved into SUNY Online, we decided to develop OSCQR and kind of put aside Quality Matters for a variety of reasons. We needed to be able to use it in a way that was formative and Quality Matters started having more and more sort of restrictions on us. And the financial model changed. And so it just made more sense for us to develop our own rubric. And so in June 2014, we launched the first OSCQR interactive dashboard and rubric. Actually, that was June 14, when we started the design of it, and then in September 2014, we launched OSCQR 1.0. And we had 50 instructional design standards and 50 accessibility standards. And we used that rubric for the launch of the first Open SUNY Plus programs. And so we had cohorts of faculty in SUNY that were reviewing and refreshing online degree programs that were identified for participation in that Open SUNY Plus program. In October 2014, so that’s like the next month, we launched Wave II of Open SUNY Plus and added programs and campuses to the Open SUNY Plus cohort of campuses. And so we launched them with OSCQR 2.0, which improved the interactive dashboard and rubric. And then we started winning some awards. We won the OLC Effective Practice award in November 2015. In June 2016, we launched the third edition. So we’re currently in OSCQR 3.1. And so the third edition was actually launched in June 2016. And that edition consolidated the standards into 50 standards that integrated the accessibility and instructional design standards. So that’s where we are today, we have a set of 50 instructional design course quality standards. We have won a number of additional awards after the first OLC Effective Practice award. We won a Newton award for innovation in 2016. We won the WCET WOW award for it in 2018. And we partnered with OLC in 2016 when they adopted OSCQR as their online course quality scorecard and we were thrilled that OLC wanted to adopt OSCQR, to give OSCQR a national home and take them under their wing. So, we’re just thrilled with that partnership and with that umbrella and have continued to improve and evolve OSCQR for the benefit of all of us in terms of course quality review and refreshes, formative online course design, summative course reviews, in a variety of modes. The flexibility we were able to design into it, everything that was missing from previous quality checklists or rubrics that we had used. So we were able to really think about what we wanted the tool to do, what we needed it to do, why we were using it, who was using it, when they were using it. And we designed all of that in there in terms of flexibility.

Rebecca: Can you talk about some of the ways that OSCQR is different than some of these other tools. You mentioned, the formative feedback, and I know it’s also Creative Commons licensed, Are there features that make it unique?

Alex: Yeah, I think that flexibility that I mentioned, was intentionally designed into the tools and it’s actually a set of tools. It’s not just one thing. And so, technically, there is a PDF version of the rubric that is kind of a standalone thing and that’s the thing that OLC has adopted and distributes through their website. And that is intended as a tool that anyone can download. And so anyone, whether you’re a member of OLC or not, you can go there and download the tool, the PDF, and they just ask for your name and your email address so that they can send you the PDF. It’s low barrier, no commitment. So, it’s just a PDF, an online faculty person can use that as a self-assessment tool. So, after you’ve taught your course, the first time, or if you’ve been teaching for a long time, you can take that checklist, that PDF, that rubric, and do a self assessment. Just reflect on your own design of your own course and answer the questions based on your course. And then you can either take the results of that to an instructional designer and work with them to improve your course or you can use the companion website that sort of is bundled in with OSCQR and mine it for ideas to improve your own online course and there’s lots of information on that companion website to help you think through how to address each particular standard. So, that’s one way to use OSCQR. I mentioned that it was a set of tools or like a collection of tools. So the PDF is one. There’s an interactive online rubric. And there’s an interactive online dashboard that can be used together or can be used independently. So, as an instructor, you can use the interactive online rubric, an instructional designer can use the standalone interactive rubric, and you can even use that in a variety of ways. So, an individual instructor could use the interactive version, instructional designers could use the interactive version summatively, as part of their course review process, to preflight a course to say “Yes, it’s okay to go up online and be live.” You could use it in sort of an initiative kind of a way where you have peers in biology review all of the biology online courses in the department or in a program. You could use it In a way where you have different experts. So, you could have the instructor, you could have a librarian, you could have a technologist, you could have a student, you could have an instructional designer, as a group, review the course with all their different lenses. And the interactive version of the rubric actually supports that model because it’s essentially designed in a Google sheet. And so each reviewer has their own tab or their own sheet within that Google Sheet. There’s tons of code behind the actual rubric and the way that it’s designed, it actually will aggregate the ratings and the comments from each of the reviewers into an action plan. And that action plan then has a point of view based on what the inputs have been, and it will categorize the things that need improvement based on priority. So, it’ll tell you these things are important, and these things are essential. And then it also will categorize based on amount of time to fix. So, there are things that might take half an hour to fix things that might take an hour or more to fix or things that might take more than two hours to fix. And so the purpose behind this is to help whoever is going to refresh the course to prioritize. So, it’s a point of view. It’s our point of view. Because it’s an openly licensed open-source tool, if you have a different point of view, you can change that. So, it’s entirely customizable and changeable by whoever is implementing it. Now, of course, the average bear is not going to be able to make those changes because there is code involved, but those tools, when you adopt them and want to adapt them… that’s more at the campus level or the institutional level, so that they can customize it for the particular use. So, of course, there might be an instructor out there who has these Google coding skills who could do that, but it’s more intended to be used as is if you’re an individual instructor. Everything in it you can change. If you don’t like the standards, you can change the standards. You can add standards. You can create different standards for different disciplines. So, for example, if you have a dental assisting program that has certification by the American Dental Association, they might have very specific criteria for their courses that might be different from your Psych 101 course. And so you can create different rubrics for different programs or disciplines or you can customize them to meet the needs of whatever courses you are reviewing and whatever model you’re going to review. So, you can use those sort of team collaborative models, you can use a peer-review process, you can have an instructional designer conduct a formal review of an online course summatively before a course goes live. You can have an individual instructor self assess, and you can have instructors and instructional designers collaborate in a professional development activity, formatively. So, one of the differences with some of the other rubrics is that those rubrics are intended to be used summatively on courses that have been delivered a number of times by faculty who have some experience. OSCQR was intentionally developed to be used formatively with online faculty. So, as they design their course, they know what the standards are, so that by the time they’re done, it’s not like they’re going to get a whole page of stuff that they have to change or fix. If they are following the standards, the review at the end (if there is one) is just going to be clean-up stuff. I would say that OSCQR is focused on instructional design, it says nothing about the teaching of the course. So, it is intentionally that way. It is focused on the instructional design of the course to assist and scaffold quality in the design of the course. It’s not to say that we don’t know what makes effective teaching, but we just haven’t designed that aspect of the rubric yet. And also, there’s some challenges and issues and sensitivity that we want to have when we’re talking about the teaching of a course. But the reason I’m belaboring this point is that there is sometimes the tendency to forget that a course is both the design and the teaching that impact quality. And you can have a course that is stamped with Quality Matters and stamped with OSCQR and stamped with the Chico rubric and is gold, but then it’s not taught in a way that is effective and so it’s not a good course. So, you need both halves. And so OSCQR addresses the instructional design of the course. So that’s one of the things I think that makes it unique is that it’s designed to be flexible, to be used in a variety of models, and to be customizable and adaptable to the distinct uses, the distinct disciplines, the distinct campuses. Like you said, Rebecca it is openly licensed. The interactive rubric and the interactive dashboard are built in Google Sheets and are available to be customized if people want to for use. I talked a little bit about the interactive rubric. And I wanted to mention the interactive dashboard, which works with the interactive rubric and the dashboard also built in Google Sheets, also openly licensed, and also equally flexible and customizable. It’s intended for larger scale online course quality initiatives, and typically at the institutional level. So, if you have a department or an institution where you’re trying to do a larger course quality initiative, so you’re trying to review all of the online courses on the campus or you’re trying to review all of the online courses in a program, you might want to adopt the dashboard to facilitate that. So, as an instructional designer or manager of the process, a project manager, you might want to use the tool to generate a bunch of rubrics, associate them with specific courses, assign the people who are going to review them in whatever mode you’re going to do the review. So, whether it’s an individual instructional designer or a team of people, you can assign them from the rubric. And because these are Google Sheets, this stuff is automated, so people will be notified that they’ve been assigned the rubric. And then from the dashboard, you can coordinate that and view that. So, the dashboard gives you some tools that will let you know what percentage of the course review is complete. So you can track it all in one place. It gives you some tools to do some analytics so you can, across all of the courses that you’re reviewing, you can see, for example, trends, and if everybody is doing very poorly on standard 3B, you can see that and then maybe address that with some professional development. And it gives you sort of quick access to your notes, a single place where you can track and link and generate the different rubrics that are necessary in whatever your initiative is. Whether you’re doing general course quality reviews, or whether you’re targeting a particular thing, like I’ve seen some campuses say, “Okay, this year, or in this group of years, we’re going to target accessibility,” for example, and so they will have an initiative that is at the foundation of the review activities. It might be that they want to improve instructor presence, teaching presence in the course, so they could potentially have a targeted focus for the reviews and have a multi-year plan for that. It could just be that you have 15 courses in a degree program that you want to have refreshed in time for the spring semester or next fall. And so you plan that out. And you can have rubrics generated for all of those courses in that program and you can track the progress of the reviews from the dashboard. So, that’s another thing I think that makes OSCQR unique is that it’s really taking the perspective of both the faculty, the instructional designer, and the campus and making it maximally flexible for the different use cases that different scenarios might bring. I think that was the intention behind the design. The other part of it, I think, that is unique is that we don’t score faculty. This is not an evaluation of their course, we don’t give you a passing grade or you don’t get points. It really is, and always was intended as, a professional development tool to open conversations with faculty, between faculty, and with instructional designers on the best practices in online course design. And so the assumption is not that you will have nothing to fix in your course when you’re done. Because, as I’ve mentioned before, online course design is iterative. It is an ongoing process that you are continuously improving. This tool assists in the continuous improvement of the design of the online course, assuming that it can always be better. Technology changes, understanding of how people teach well online changes, and so every time you teach online, you can review and improve the design of your course and your teaching practices. So, I think using it as a professional development tool allows all of us who are involved in an interested in online course quality to focus on the best practices and to focus on the conversation around best practices and instructional design, toward the continuous improvement rather than on evaluation of a course, or evaluation of an instructor and the design of their course. So, I think that’s a fundamental difference. And for people who are used to having to score 80 percent in order to get the stamp of approval or whatever, it’s a little weird. And I’ve seen people actually change OSCQR to have points. I would always argue against that. Althougdo whatever you want because it’s openly licensed. To me, ih you know, you can t is much more important to think innovatively about the design of a course, to have faculty and instructional designers have positive and incremental progress toward quality. I think of quality kind of like a Socratic ideal, you are always striving for it, you don’t hope or anticipate that your course is going to suck, [LAUGHTER] you want it to be of high quality, and OSCQR can help you do that. And they are research- based standards. We have organized them in a way that I think makes sense as an instructor or as an instructional designer in how you approach this. Another thing that I think is unique about OSCQR, it really is thinking about how you do a course review and what you look at first and then help people to focus in on the standards to really think about what’s going on in the course, and then give some substantive feedback to the instructor or the instructional designer, whoever is going to be making the changes in the course, to be able to help move that course, in that particular standard, incrementally forward. The companion resource that I mentioned earlier is important in this process, because it addresses each standard individually and looks at what the standard means, examples and suggestions on how to improve each standard, some additional resources that are sort of background or additional resources that you can refer to. There’s citations from the research that support each standard. And then there’s the option and opportunity to leave a comment on a standard if you want to talk about a particular standard or have a question about it. And there’s also the opportunity to make a suggestion for an improvement to the standard, or an addition of a suggestion or example for each standard. And we really invite and encourage folks to interact with the rubric in that way, to have influence on the standards and have developed and are in the process of developing additional standards based on community suggestions. So, I think those are some of the things that are unique about it.

John: You mentioned that the goal is to have courses iteratively improve, and you’ve talked a little bit about how the OSCQR revision process takes place. Could you tell us a little bit more about how it evolves and the process of evaluating the standards and making OSCQR better all the time.

Alex: Sure. We’re in version 3.1 of OSCQR currently, and we are in the process of thinking through what the next iteration is going to be of OSCQR and have tons of ideas about how we can continuously improve, both from our communities who are using it, as well as from our internal plans, and we’ve always envisioned OSCQR to be something that iterates; we want to practice what we preach. And for example, we have a set of standards that address mobile learning that we have been working on for a while. And I think you were part of the FACT2 task group, John, that helped us work on these mobile standards. So, we’ve been working with entities, groups within SUNY, to think about things like accessibility, mobile standards, courses with labs, language courses, and thinking about standards that we might be able to add on to OSCQR to make it a more customized experience based on the type of course, not all courses are going to have mobile learning necessarily specifically highlighted. My daughter who’s 18, just had her first year of college, I found her last year writing a paper on her phone, and I was like, “Are you kidding me?” and then I started talking to some researchers who were making some suggestions for OSCQR for the mobile standards. And there is ample evidence to suggest that she is not the only one. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I think that was especially true with the sudden pivot back in March when many people who chose not to engage in online learning because they didn’t have the computer resources to do that effectively in their homes, ended up adopting their phone as a primary means of interaction. And that was a challenge for many people, because mobile platforms are really good for many things, but, perhaps, writing papers may not be their optimal use… or taking extended essay exams and so forth in a mobile device… may not be the best way or the most efficient way of doing that.

Alex: You know, if that’s the only device that the student has from home, because they only have one computer and their parent is working at home and they have limited access, that might be their only device. So, yeah, it’s very, very surprising some of the things that we learned as a result of the COVID pivot, and beyond, even in researching the standards, the pitfall of assumptions. It’s really hard to see around assumptions because that’s the nature of them, you don’t know. It’s only when they kind of hit you smack in the head that you realize. So, you were asking about how OSCQR has evolved. One of the things that we changed between version 2.1 and 3.0, was we collapsed the instructional design and the accessibility standards together. There were some redundancies and we wanted to integrate them, rather than have them be two separate processes, for ease of use. What we found was, it was too much work, and so they were doing one review or the other. By removing the redundancies and integrating the accessibility standards from the get go, we were able to get down to 50 standards, which was much more doable. And then the other thing that we did was we organized the standards into categories. And so we have a course overview and information category, and those are all the typical things that you would want to see at the start of a course review. And that sort of set the stage for the online course. So, all of your syllabus and information documents are in that area. And whenever I do a course review, those are the first things I look at. I want to see what the expectations are, what the assignments are, how the students are going to be evaluated, what the learning activities are, what the percentages of the grade things are, those kinds of things. And so that gives you a good overall snapshot of the course. And it’s also super, super important to start the course off in these areas really well, so that students are not confused, so that expectations are crystal clear, so that things are findable. So, that’s the first category. Tools and technology is the second category and you want to really focus in on what additional tools or what tools and technology students are going to be asked to use during a particular course. What skills are required? What prerequisites there might be? Accessibility figures in here a little bit. The third category is design and layout. And I think a lot of the accessibility standards are in this section, and it really talks about how you chunk a course, how you lay out the different components of the course. It talks very specifically about some of the accessibility things like font size, and flashing text colors, using tables, slideshows, and all of those things. It gives specific suggestions about all of those different ways of presenting content. The next category is the content and the activities, helping faculty and instructional designers think about activities that are learner centered, that are targeting Bloom’s in the correct space, depending on the discipline and level of the course. Again, there’s some accessibility standards in this one, and thinking about the variety of ways that you can engage students in an online environment. Then interaction is the next category, and that’s more specifically about the design of the learning activities, the expectations for feedback, any kind of netiquette expectations you might have, how you develop community, how you develop a sense of presence, both from the instructor and the student perspective, how that’s actually scaffolded in the design of the course, how you break the ice, how you answer questions, how you facilitate interaction, and any kind of collaborations, and so forth. The last category is assessment and feedback. And this has to do with your grading policies, the methods that you use to assess mastery or learning, giving students opportunities to self assess or to check their understanding, the grade book and how that is set up and pointed to by the instructor in the course, and then how you solicit feedback from the students in the course to help you to improve the design of the course… to understand what’s working well from their perspective and what could be improved. So, that’s kind of the overall sort of buckets of standards. Like I said, there’s 50 of them. And they fall into each of those six standards. And so that was one of the things that we did when we moved to version 3.0. Version 3.1 that we’re currently in, was one when we developed the companion resource that goes with it. And so if you go to OSCQR.SUNY.edu, you’ll find sort of the other half of the coin through the rubric and the dashboard. It’s just a simple website that has a page for each of the standards. And each of the pages, as I described, has information in a consistent way that addresses an explanation, and there’s a little video on each of the standards that has people from our community talking about how they have implemented this particular standard, why it’s important, and any thoughts they have about the particular standard… which I think is super cool, because it’s folks from our own community, and citations, and all of those other things that I mentioned earlier, are consistently on each of the pages.

John: As we’re moving into a fall semester during a pandemic, where most institutions in SUNY and many throughout the country are engaged in this magical thinking that we’re all going to somehow go back and despite the fact that the virus is spreading, especially in college age groups right now, as people have started going back to parties and other things, many institutions are going to try to imagine that that problem will somehow go away by the start of the fall in August. In case that magic doesn’t occur and we move online, how might the OSCQR rubric be helpful for those faculty who have to transition to online teaching? How might they use that to make their transition perhaps more effective for students?

Alex: Great question. OSCQR was designed way before COVID with not a glimmer of COVID anywhere near it. So, it was intended to be a tool used by faculty and instructional designers to support fully online instruction, and perhaps blended instruction, but targeting the online component of blended instruction. And so it really does not have anything to say about any synchronous online or any primarily synchronous online courses. But, I would say that any course that will be offered in the fall during this pivot that we’re all doing, could be informed and influenced positively by faculty taking a look at the standards for the online components of the course. As I’ve said other times, this stuff is not necessarily intuitive and in fact, it’s different from a face-to-face class. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different and you’re use different tools. You have different options and different limitations in an online teaching and learning environment than you do in a face-to-face teaching environment. And so some of these things are not necessarily intuitive and may actually be a feeling of resistance on some of them because you don’t either understand them or they just may not make sense because you haven’t actually experienced it yet yourself, either as a student or as an instructor. And so I think anything that helps people understand the unique aspects of an online teaching and learning environment are going to help you better prepare. So, when new or novice online faculty are faced with moving all are some of their instruction or content online, these standards are going to help you understand that better and help you understand what are the things to think about, what are the things to target and how. And I think the rubric in conjunction with the companion website would be a really good tool to use formatively. So, as you are reconceptualizing, as you are thinking about what you’re going to do in the fall, how you’re going to do it, for the pieces that are going to be primarily online, the rubric can give you some signposts, some goal lines, some suggestions for how to do that as best as possible, given the nature of the online asynchronous teaching and learning and learning. And I think that by learning more, by looking through and understanding the standards and what they’re suggesting, and what they’re trying to address, that will deepen your understanding of how to present your content most effectively online, how to facilitate collaboration and interaction, either online asynchronously or even online synchronously, a little bit. And it’ll certainly help you think through issues regarding providing asynchronous feedback and thinking about authentic online assessment and doing that asynchronously. So, I think anything that helps one in a formative way to understand what are the standards that exist, that are research based, that we understand to positively and significantly affect the experiences of faculty and the learning of students, will be a good tool to explore and to leverage and to use. These are open and available to anyone. It’s a website. But, I would suggest taking advantage of instructional designers to help you and of any professional development that might be offered by your campus, by your instructional designer, by SUNY, in addition to looking at the freely available resources that are provided to help walk you through a process, to guide you through a process, and I would look around your campus to to see what faculty might be in your department, or even outside of your department, who have experience teaching online. We have faculty across the SUNY landscape who have been teaching online for 20 plus years with vast amounts of knowledge and information in every discipline conceivable, and who have already made all of the mistakes and who have already developed all of the stuff and understanding that are willing to share. And we have an amazing community of faculty and instructional designers and people who have expertise in online learning within SUNY. It’s so unique because we are such a large system. And we have been doing this for a long time in some areas. And so I would really encourage folks to see what’s going on on their campus and what resources and supports are available on your campus to help you. You are not alone. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel and if anyone is sitting there in front of a blank course management shell thinking “What the heck am I supposed to do with this?” just know that you don’t have to start there. I have publicly posted in my self-paced and self-serve resources area, downloadable templates that will quickstart you into any learning mode, any design of course, whether it’s primarily synchronous, I have one that’s using Zoom, one that’s using Ultra Collaborate, I have one that is intended for a blended instruction. I have one that is fully online. We’re working on getting Moodle, Canvas, and Brightspace templates up. The common cartridges are posted already. So if someone wants to take the common cartridge and put it into their own system they can. So, you don’t have to start from scratch. We have ways to quick start you, all OSCQR infused, following our OSCQR standards. And that’s my worst fear, that we have some lone instructor who is out there, just really struggling and having to recreate wheels, that there’s no need to duplicate those wheels when there are tools and resources and people out here who can help you and guide you to find exactly what you need. I’m hoping that anyone who’s listening to this and feeling a little overwhelmed can know that they’re not alone and can know that there are places to turn and people who are willing to work with you, with your campus, with your instructional designer, to make sure that you have what you need in your hand to help you get past those beginning stages of staring at this blank shell and not knowing what you’re going to do next. I wake up at night thinking about those faculty. I’ve heard stories from faculty that have put hours and hours and hours of work into stuff that has nothing to do with their discipline, who are leaving their husbands and their children and their life on the side because 100% of their time is focused on climbing the learning curve of the learning management system, because they’re trying to do a good job and they’re just struggling because there’s so much to know, and so much to do, and so much stuff out there. I can imagine how confusing and overwhelming It would be and I’ve talked to some of these instructors. And so I just want them to know that they’re not alone and that there are people who can help them and we can help point them to the resources that can get them started more quickly, be more efficient, more effective, and ultimately happier at the end of the day and more successful, and their students too. That’s the goal, is to have everyone be able to do what we’re being asked to do as well as possible without killing ourselves in the fall. [LAUGHTER]

John: We always end, as you know, with the question, what’s next? So, what’s next for OSCQR?

Alex: What’s next for OSCQR? We’re in a bit of a struggle right now because there are so many other competing priorities. But we do have next plans for OSCQR. Like I mentioned, the mobile standards are pretty much ready to go. We are thinking about the next set of standards and wanting to work with folks like the FACT2 task groups to help us inform and influence next types of standards. We’re thinking about courses with labs, language courses, courses with synchronous components, now in COVID land. And so we always envisioned OSCQR as a tool that would continuously evolve, continuously change. In my dream, like I’ve had this tool designed for 20 years. In my dream, when you begin to generate your OSCQR rubric, you would be presented with a wizard that would ask you certain questions about the type of course or the nature of the program that you’re about to review. And then you would select from a menu: will it have labs? will it have hands-on activities? will it have whatever… the different types of things? and then you make your selections and then it will generate a rubric customized on your input. That’s a ways off. But right now, we’re going to potentially work on getting the mobile standards in there. [LAUGHTER] One step at a time, and I also need some technical resources to help assist. So, we’re working on developing that capacity. So yeah, stay tuned because OSCQR is a living, breathing being and is kind of a toddler, I would say, right now and we’ll be growing up over time and being improved along with the rest of us. As we continue to learn more about how people teach and learn well online, we will continue to enhance and expand what OSCQR does and how it does it, all for the purpose of helping faculty and instructional designers address the issue of quality online. John, I wanted to mention that we have this amazing community in SUNY and what I’d like to do in the links for this podcast is ask folks to join our online networking community so that we can continue the conversation. We have the SUNY Online Teaching Fellows role that allows us to collect people’s names and send information out to them periodically when we have new tools and resources and supports. And so I’d love to invite everyone to become a SUNY Online Fellow, and then to join the online networking community so that we can join the OSCQR user group if you want and continue to have conversations around online course quality and OSCQR if folks are interested.

John: And you mentioned that OSCQR is a toddler, but it’s a toddler that has become pretty well known. I remember the early days when it was just under discussion to now it’s being discussed internationally.

Alex:Yes, and there’s research on it, too. Like I have a link on the OSCQR website for all of the times I found it in the media and all of the research that I’ve seen done with it. And if anyone has any additions to those lists, I’d love to have them added. So, yeah, it is internationally used. There are hundreds and hundreds of institutions outside of SUNY that are using it at the institutional level and at the individual level, both in the United States and outside of the United States. I think of OSCQR as affectionately as a toddler, but maybe it’s more of a teenager. I don’t really know… maybe that metaphor doesn’t work. It’s certainly is well established, I agree. …well known and certainly when the OLC adopted it in 2016 really elevated the standing of that tool nationally. And so I am grateful for the OLC for giving us that recognition.

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

Alex: Anytime.

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

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

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