144. Pedagogies of Care: Evidence Based Practices

This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, Dr. Michelle Miller joins us to discuss how the use of evidence-based teaching practices can be an effective way of demonstrating that you care about your students and their success.

Michelle is a Professor of Psychological Sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. Michelle is the author of Mind’s Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general interest publications. She’s currently working on her newest book, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: What the Science of Memory Tells Us about Teaching, Learning, and Thriving in a Wired World, scheduled as part of the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning, edited by Jim Lang. The tentative release date is 2021. She is also a contributor to the Pedagogies of Care project created by authors in this series.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, we discuss how the use of evidence-based teaching practices can be an effective way of demonstrating that you care about your students and their success.

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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. Michelle Miller. Michelle is a Professor of Psychological Sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. Michelle is the author of Mind’s Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general interest publications. She’s currently working on her newest book, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: What the Science of Memory Tells Us about Teaching, Learning, and Thriving in a Wired World, scheduled as part of the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning, edited by Jim Lang. The tentative release date is 2021. She is also a contributor to the Pedagogies of Care project created by authors in this series. Welcome back, Michelle.

Michelle: Hi. It’s great to be here.

Rebecca: Great to have you back. Today’s teas are:

Michelle: I am drinking fresh mint and hot water, which I think is my favorite summer tea of all when the mint is thriving all around here at the house.

Rebecca: Sounds nice and refreshing. How about you, John?

John: I’m drinking Tea Forte black currant tea.

Rebecca: And I’m drinking Scottish Afternoon. I haven’t quite run out of that yet.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about your contribution to the Pedagogies of Care project and your forthcoming book. Could you start by talking about your contribution to the Pedagogies of Care project?

Michelle: Right towards the end of the spring semester for many of us, as you know, we in the teaching and learning community and professional development and scholarship of teaching and learning space, were in just vibrant discussion with one another, just talking each other through the experiences that we were having as part of the pivot to emergency remote instruction, which I think for most of us in higher education, that was a big part of what we did in March all the way through May of 2020. So we’d been talking about these and there’s this very vibrant group of authors that have come together under the West Virginia University Press’s project, as you mentioned, edited by Jim Lang. And so we had this group, which was already exchanging very rich sets of advice and ideas about where we were going and really talking about how to help. And so under the leadership of Tori Mondelli, who conceived of this whole project, and also Tom Tobin, who has also been a real leader as part of this group, we talked about how can we put together some resources that grow out of the work that we’re doing, that capitalize on some of the rich conversation and collaboration that’s already happening, and whatever format that takes, put that out there into the world, so that people can use that and there’s all different ways that it could be utilized. We’re not prescribing that but we really had envisioned something that was open, that was helpful, and that was really contextualized within this moment of real upheaval and crisis and new directions that many of us are involved in.

John: We’ve gotten some really good feedback. I shared that with the faculty at our campus just a few days ago and I got about a dozen responses within a couple of hours saying “These resources are really useful. Thanks for sharing.” We’ll include a link to that in the show notes. So, we went through this traumatic switch that was a bit of a struggle for everyone, students and faculty, what can we do now to better prepare for the fall?

Michelle: At the time that we’re recording this, we are, for me, about midway through the summer. So, it really is starting to get real, for many of us, what we are going to do in the fall. And we’re seeing more and more institutions who are firming up and starting to commit to real plans for what the format of instruction is going to be like, what enrollments are going to be like, and all those kind of locally specific pieces of information that are so important for determining what we’re going to be able to do. So, what can we do differently to better prepare for the fall semester? First of all, let’s honor that what the vast majority of faculty that I’ve talked to, what we accomplished in such a short space of time in spring, providing instructional continuity. This was amazing. I mean, we really enabled students who, in some cases, they were set to graduate, they were earning their degree in maybe a month or two, and we made it possible for them to get to that finish line through a tremendous amount of ingenuity and hard work on everybody’s part. So, let’s not sell ourselves short. That said, we are headed into a very different environment. And so what I’ve really suggested in some other things that I’ve written about and definitely in my Pedagogies of Care project is a focus on what does quality really look like? And for me, being a cognitive psychologist, social scientist, totally acknowledging that that’s my perspective… forr me that comes down to aligning with the best of what learning science has to offer. And the neat thing is that we are in an era right now when number one, we really have converged on a set of principles that are fairly non controversial, and if not always easy to implement, it’s fairly clear what we can be doing. And we have technologies, in some cases, that map onto them very well. They don’t do the work for us. But they can really help implement things and make things concrete that we’ve known in theory for a long time were very, very important. So, that’s one of the things that I think that we can focus on. So, there is that. I’ve also really emphasized the reevaluation that we won’t be able to simply do what we’ve always done. I think those of us who work in this space are always quite adamant that teaching, say online or teaching a hybrid course, is not a matter of just sort of capturing a lecture. If that were the case, this would be very, very straightforward. We should just lecture all summer, record it and post it, but that’s not what it’s really about. So, what I think that we can focus on as we do reevaluate, in our teaching, what are we trying to accomplish? We can step back and say, “Well, what do students want to get out of this?” And that I think can help us winnow down from all the things that we could potentially do. It will help us let go of some things that we will not be able to do. And help us find, if not an easy path forward, a more clear one that will allow us to serve our students and also take good care of ourselves during this time.

Rebecca: I think anything that helps us figure out what our priority can be, in terms of content or goals that we have for students, but then also methodologies that we’ll use and why, I think is key because I think we all need to scale back and be reasonable with ourselves because there is so much to accomplish if we want to do it perfectly. But we just don’t have that kind of time. You just said it was halfway through the summer and I almost had a panic attack.

Michelle: Right. Not that I’m counting but it is actually just about the midway through the summer. And you, know, when I started reflecting even more on this Pedagogies of Care concept, which is the kind of overarching ideal that we eventually rallied under as a group, it’s occurring to me that that applies to faculty as well. I mean, self care is a kind of a term that’s very cliched, and it gets kicked around, but I think that we also really do at this time need to be recognizing that, again, what we did, what we accomplished as faculty in the spring was tremendous, that it did require people working weeks and weeks and weeks, sometimes months without a break. And although summers are not really traditionally a break,or vacation for faculty in any conventional sense of the word, they are a time to recharge and for many of us were also taking care of research obligations and other things that went completely by the wayside for a while out of necessity. So we really do have to balance that too. What’s the degree of faculty burnout at this point? What’s the degree of faculty receptivity to brand new things. So, the things that we are looking at also need to be kind to ourselves. We need really good communication and collaboration more than ever before, I think, in university communities. I think that’s really also the thing that’s going to make this fall successful, is being able to recognize what faculty have been through and work with that. So yeah, I think that we should recognize this effort. And with that, I also think that evidence-based teaching, incorporating learning science and those principles… that ideally shouldn’t be yet another thing on the to-do list. I think that if that’s the way it’s coming across, then we’re going about it the wrong way. I mean, to me, frameworks are always a way to simplify. Again, we have this infinite landscape of things that we could do in any given class, all these different decisions to make and choices. We do have a framework for whether it’s learning principles or another framework… that should help and simplify. So I think it kind of fits in that big landscape of possibilities as well. That’s how I see it. It should help; it shouldn’t add to what’s becoming a pretty serious burden for faculty.

John: One of the things I’ve really liked in your discussion, as an economist, is you sounded at times, like an economist, when you were describing that, in terms of this is the most efficient way of helping students reach their goals… that if we use evidence-based methods of teaching, we can let students learn skills more efficiently without wasting as much time and getting closer to that point, making it a form of caring, I think, as you referred to it. That one way of demonstrating your care for students is by using techniques that are more efficient, that provide the largest return on students’ time… there’s the economics part coming in. So I really appreciated that. And I thought it was a really good argument that we tried to emphasize ourselves in our workshops.

Michelle: Oh, thank you. And you said it better than I possibly could have as a non-economist, but that’s exactly the core of that idea, that it is kind to students and perhaps it’s kind to faculty as well. We can pre-select some of these avenues and techniques that, if you’ve got an hour to study (and for many of our students, that hour of study might be fractured and jammed in among all kinds of caregiving tasks) that you’re going to get more from that. If, as a faculty member, you’ve got four hours that you can devote today to preparing for the fall… and as well, that’s going to be divided up among other tasks among your caregiving responsibilities… how can we cut to the chase for faculty so that they can make those choices? So I’m glad that that comes across.

Rebecca: I think it’s important when we are planning for the fall that we are getting down to those essential elements. Can you talk us through some of the steps that faculty might take to focus in on those essential items and the evidence-based practices so they can have a good framework moving forward, not just for the fall when they might be teaching remotely, and that’s what they’re not familiar with, but all the time?

Michelle: Coming down to essentials, and here too, I think, that that has really resonated with many faculty and also with instructional designers and others tasked with making all of this work. That’s what’s really resonated, like what are some of the essentials, and I’ll never claim to be able to I Identify the complete and exhaustive list of exactly what to do. But here’s what comes to my mind. I think that perhaps returning even to those learning objectives, which we may have put in a syllabus long ago, and they can be sometimes kind of abstract, but coming back to those and saying, alright, what does it really look like when students have achieved these? Are there any that need to be perhaps modified, or dropped altogether? So if we are going to have a semester of really focusing on essentials, this might be a good time to do that. Naturally, we will want to think about the content. And oftentimes we talk about in pedagogy and developing pedagogy, we talk about re-focusing away from just coverage of content, that’s something that a lot of us get behind. And it’s okay to be thinking about well what content is going to be in the course. But then really pivoting to look at what’s the engagement with that content? How are the students going to engage with the content and how are they going to engage with you? So that’s a piece of it, asking yourself that question. And I think then, starting to bring in those really concrete logistics. Now, again, typically those of us who talk about pedagogy a lot, we kind of discourage people from talking about very specific tools or technologies, until they’re really, really clear on some of those high-flown ideals of what they and their students want to get out of the course. But I think in this case, we probably want to hold off on th.t, we are going to have to say, “Well, are you going to be expected to teach online but synchronously? And if you want an example of that, the Zoom meetings, which we’re all pretty familiar with, at this point, where we’re in at the same time, but maybe you’re in a different place? So is that going to be a part of what you do with students? Because that is pretty new to many of us. And if so, there’s certain considerations you’re gonna have to have in mind say, ‘Well, how is that going to work?’” Especially, if you’re expected to also be teaching say, a face-to-face course at the same exact time, which I think is going to present challenges. And I think for many of us, it’s going to depend on your local institutional context, but I think you can’t go wrong right now with setting up a robust online component to your course. I think that with the level of uncertainty we have, or even with individual students… if they’re going to need to say quarantine or take care of an ill relative or something like that… having some asynchronous, so different time activities and materials online, is going to be essential. So I think taking those concerns and saying, “Alright, what is this physically going to look like?” I wouldn’t typically push that as much but I think that that’s important now. And I think in the preparation for this, too, another kind of bare essential point that I talk about in my resource for our project is media creation. So in some cases, people are going to want to create, say, a set of videos, or let’s say they’re demonstrating a process. Let’s say they’re teaching studio art. They might want to have some pretty involved videos or other kinds of demonstrations, or perhaps there’s not good written material out there that might replace a series of face-to-face lectures. Maybe they’re going to be wanting to write a fair amount of content or maybe record, even, podcast-style materials. That stuff eats up a lot of time. So I think really being real about what you absolutely need to do in that department and getting started now, that’s sort of the wisdom of experience that I would share with folks as well.

Rebecca: I think that’s really good advice, Michelle. As I’m thinking towards the fall, I made a list of “this is absolutely essential… if I don’t have this content made, we’re screwed if we’re online,” versus like, “this stuff does exist out there that I could use…if maybe isn’t my favorite.” And then there’s well established stuff that’s fine or whatever. Because it does take a lot of time to write, produce and plan some of that stuff… even if you’re using methods that aren’t burdensome, where you’re not worried about production quality and those kinds of details. It still takes time. You need quiet space. There’s a lot of constraints, especially if you’re like me and you have kids at home. [LAUGHTER] You got to find the quiet time to record the thing. [LAUGHTER] So I appreciate the balance there… really thinking logistically a little bit. Because if you have a finite amount of time, then you have to prioritize what can get done ahead of time.

Michelle: Right. And you know, it may not be the way to go. And I though I’d share with you an experience that I had, well, right in the thick of the great pivot, the transition to remote instruction. I was talking to a faculty member who does happen to teach studio art. They teach drawing and painting in a small-class atmosphere, a very intimate atmosphere that’s very hands on… and not somebody who works at my institution. I happen to know them. And she called me up partway through the great pivot week and was distraught. She was really on the verge of tears. And she was saying, “Well, this goes live next week, I need to somehow carry my course forward, my studio art course. And I just learned that my colleague, the guy down the hall, what he’s doing is he’s got these videos that come down from the ceiling, and then we have these close ups on drawing and these techniques and he’s doing all this. I can’t do this. I’m a single parent. I’m at home. I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know what to do.” And I said “Alright, it doesn’t have to look like that. Your colleague may be doing that. It doesn’t have to look like that.” And I said alright, what is working in your course? That’s another thing you can use to kind of cut to those essentials. So what is the strongest thing? What do your students need right now?” She said “Well, they’re absolutely overwhelmed and I think they need a lot of support.” And “Well, is there any kind of social peer-to-peer support?” And she said “Oh, well, we have since the beginning of the semester, I put them into these pods of three. And so they’ve been developing these social structures where they consult with each other every week. And so they have ways of communicating with each other in these pre-existing social groups. Do you think that could be useful? And I said “Yes, go with that.” So what your course is accomplishing really well right now is setting an atmosphere where students are talking to each other and I said, “Well, maybe you can kind of divide and conquer. You can hand off this project to where students are critiquing each other’s work in these groups. So, definitely kind of double down on that arrangement that you’ve already put into place. Your colleague down the hall, maybe multimedia is his thing and this is easy for him. But he may be struggling to say how do we get students to socially support each other form connections and feel connected to the class, even though it’s now in a remote format.” To me, that’s something to really capitalize on. So I took away a lot from that and I’ll be reflecting a lot on that as well. Your “solution” to the challenges we face is going to look different and it really should go with whatever is strongest for you. I think as academics, we kind of say, “Well, if it’s easy, that must be the wrong way to go about things.” But sometimes the path of least resistance maps well and aligns well onto what your strengths happened to be and what your students needs are.

John: Going back to that point, though, about creating media. If you create materials for an online format, you can always use that to support face-to-face if by some miracle things return to some sense of normalcy, it’s probably not going to, but that material will still be there and will be useful. So, a focus on that, I think, is really helpful. And that’s what we’ve been strongly advocating for our faculty as well.

Rebecca: Just as long as you don’t have specific deadlines… don’t put deadlines, dates or anything like that in them.

Michelle: Right? See, that’s just a practice that is so important to create reusable media. And it’s a seemingly small thing, but until you really get into this and get practice, you don’t realize how important that is… that yeah, if you are going to sink the time into that, make it reusable. And that’s an important point for reusability.

John: And going back there, I’d like to once again, we’ve done this many times, recommend Karen Costa’s book on 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Videos. It’s a really nice resource. And it does focus on keeping it simple. Don’t do the fancy transitions. Don’t do something where a half an hour video is going to take you 30 hours of production time. Keep it so that it’s easy for you so that you can keep doing it without imposing a burden that’s going to make you stop doing this.

Michelle: Absolutely. And I’m so glad for that recommendation. I went out and got the book myself. I think I’m on Tip Number 80 as of this morning, so I’m almost there and I’m finding these wonderful… everything from very specific guidelines to much more conceptual things about why you want video in a course to begin with. So yeah, I’m with you on that. It’s definitely worth a read and definitely this summer. But maybe also, to kind of put this into a different focus as well with the focus on creating media and doing so purposefully in a way that is sustainable, let’s not lose sight of the active learning component. So that’s something that I’ve really kind of watched with some concern and definitely some interest as this conversation evolves. So active learning at this point, I mean, people sometimes perceive it as a buzzword, but it is such a robust concept. And I think it’s easy, at a point where we are kind of saying, “Well, how can we make all this work in some different formats” to lose sight of that. And so we may be creating wonderful videos, instructional videos, or all kinds of things and just merrily perking along with that, but we do need to remember how are students interacting with it, which is why a beautiful film of somebody demonstrating a drawing technique might, in some context, not even be as valuable as somebody who’s having students talk to each other because of that engagement. So I think that too, this is going to be so critical as we see more schools pushing for things like recordings of lectures, or even synchronously bringing students in during a live session you’re having with other students, I think that we do need to remind people who are in charge of these things, that education is just never something you watch, it is something that you do. So it is really tempting to say, let’s record everything we can, that’ll be equivalent, but active learning is not a luxury that we can just put on hold for a while. It really isn’t. And so I’m hoping that we don’t see that happen. I think there’s a very similar story that’s going on with Universal Design for Learning. Another concept I know you’ve engaged with so much on this podcast and is so important. And I think you’re too, it’s easy to say, “Well, you know, given all this going on, maybe we won’t have multiple ways of engaging with these great media that we’re creating, or maybe we’re going to kind of shut down this avenue over here for a little while.” And I really hope that doesn’t happen. So that’s another aspect of this balance between the quality and ambitiousness of what we’re doing and the feasibility and protecting ourselves as we face another very challenging semester.

Rebecca: I think that’s a really good reminder about focusing on the learning as the essential element as opposed to the teaching. It’s really about setting up the framework and the possibilities for students to learn, and designing those activities and making sure that we’re spending the time on that, rather than all the time on just delivering something.

John: But having those videos can free up time so that if you do meet synchronously, you can engage in more active learning activities rather than just lecturing to students online, which is probably one of the worst ways of structuring synchronous meetings. And if you really want to do a little bit more work, you could use something like PlayPosit where you embed questions in the middle of a video that could be somewhat open ended and that you could even grade. If you happen to have an institutional license you can embed it directly in your LMS. So the videos themselves can be made, with a bit of work, a little more interactive, and they can serve as a replacement for lecture that allows for more active learning, I think.

Michelle: Absolutely, and I too. I’ve seen some wonderful examples in practice of that technology, and there’s a couple of different ways to do this. So there’s multiple tools that allow you to put a retrieval practice or comprehension questions somewhere in the midst of this online lecture, presentation or video and what better way to help ensure that students are attentive to them, to give yourself some opportunities on the other end to say what’s the actual level of comprehension that’s going on out there. And for students to really solidify and practice the material. That’s all bedrock learning science stuff, right? Retrieval, active practice, and so on. And it just takes a little bit of ingenuity to take that one extra step to say, alright, what’s the level of interactivity here. And that’s something that I hear too, from faculty, it’s quite reasonable. They have taught purely face-to-face and don’t have that level of first-hand experience with something like online teaching. It’s just like, “Well, how do I know what’s going on out there?” And, again, there’s not a technology that’s going to just magically replace the experience of looking at the sea of faces that we experience in a face-to-face class. But think about it. That’s one way to do it. Having something like an online gamified quiz, like Kahoot!, which is currently my favorite quizzing app that’s out there. I ran this just the other day quite successfully in a remote synchronous environment. So, there are two that could help give you that information right away about what concepts are they struggling with. And having other ways of reaching out to students, if not talking to them individually in something like a meeting, a phone call, or even a text chat, having some other ways to kind of figure out on the ground what’s the mood level of the course? How are we feeling about things and are there individual students who are struggling for one reason or another who we can reach out to?

John: One way in which I saw interactive videos being used was several years ago, I took a MOOC on behavioral economics that Dan Ariely had put together and he’d often discuss experiments, but he set up the experiment and describe what the experiment did. But then the video pauses, and you’re asked to predict what the outcome would be. And that type of prediction is a really useful evidence-based technique that you can even do with videos if you can embed the questions in the middle of them. And I thought that was really useful. And it’s something I’m going to be trying to do a bit this fall. But in terms of evidence-based learning, could you talk a little bit about some of the main principles that people should be using to design their fall classes? What should people be focusing on?

Michelle: So, when I talk about bringing down just a vast literature of learning science and I’m going to necessarily boil this down to what I think are my favorites and the most applicable… So, of course, retrieval practice,I think if there’s one success story that our field has had, I mean it goes back even over 20 years that we got the data, determined how this principle works and started flowing it out to practitioners in the field, it’s this one. So that is, of course, the principle that when we actively pull something out of memory, it increases our ability to remember it in the future. And of course, we’d naturally think of tests, exams, and assessments as the avenue for this, but there’s lots of other ways that it can take place. So I always love to direct people to the website retrievalpractice.org. I’m not affiliated with it, but I think they have a wonderful compendium of ideas for how to bring this into classrooms at all different levels, all different disciplines, and so on. So if you don’t have retrieval practice, quizzing, students actively talking about what they remember, great time to bring that in. So you can’t go wrong with retrieval practice. Then, of course, the principle of what’s the timing of your study. So, spaced study, and pretty much by any measure, when we spread out student engagement with material… again, whether it’s through quizzing or solving problems, you name it, you’re going to get more out of that… efficiency… when it is spread over time. And I think that this is one of the real unsung benefits of online and technology assisted learning, even among people who are saying, “Oh, I’m just using the basic learning management shell to organize some materials and students turn their stuff in online. I mean, let’s not sell that short for how powerful that is, for being able to stagger deadlines, change the timing of when we are getting students to be working on different aspects of the course and so on. So while we don’t necessarily always want to bombard students with deadline after deadline, we do have to be mindful and help them kind of organize multiple deadlines. This is something that we could definitely build in as a design principle. So just to be very blunt about it, we always discourage people from the two midterms and a final course design. That’s something that a lot of us have experienced. It could work of course, like that can be fine. But from a memory and learning standpoint, that’s really not ideal. We want students engaging quite frequently. And then the practice… so the practice of this skill. So that advice, bring that up again, about it’s not all about content coverage. It’s about practicing the application of the content knowledge that they’re getting. We can almost always stand to build in more of these, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a course where I’ve said, “You know, you really need to present more content to the students. Don’t have them solving problems so often…” I have never seen that in practice, I will just go on the record and say that. So, if we want students to be doing X,Y, and Z. And again, go back to the front page of your syllabus and remind yourself what you’re hoping they’d be able to do at the end of the course. We want them to do that, what are the opportunities for them to actually try, and try in small bites? In my contribution to the Pedagogies of Care project, I give a very brief example of this in my own courses. So one of the things you have to do… bread and butter skills as a psychologist… is you have to be able to look at a psychology research study and kind of break down the structure of it. So no matter what’s being studied, there’s probably… we call them independent variables and dependent variables. So, things that are being manipulated, things that are being measured, and students have to develop that as a thinking skill and it’s really not easy. So I will oftentimes have them in, say a research methods course, very frequently, as part of whatever we happen to be doing, I’ll say, “Okay, here’s a really short description of a study. Maybe it’s an abstract or just a description, you pull out from me, before we talk about anything else about this study, you tell me, what are the independent variables? What are the dependent variables?” So it’s something that traditionally we’d always put on an exam. But, we didn’t always have students repeatedly practicing. So knowing that students absolutely had to master this before they got out of my research methods course. That’s what I did. So practice, and that kind of segues back into that active learning principle, which…yeah, you cannot go wrong with students getting involved. Once again, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a course where I said “You, the professor, need to get out there front and center, don’t emphasize the students so much.” So, they need to be doing the thinking, the practicing, and quite frankly, the work. That’s where the benefits come from. So with those: the retrieval practice, spaced study, practice of higher-order thinking skills, and a real active learning orientation, I think that that’s something you can take to the bank as a faculty member. You could build on that, but if you start with those, you’re probably going down the right path.

John: And I remember reading this really good book that talked about how using computer mediated instruction or using the tools within the LMS allows you to provide students with lots of feedback and lots of retrieval practice without necessarily increasing the burden on you, as the instructor. I think that book was called Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah. I feel like I might know that author, I’m not sure.

Michelle: Yes. [LAUGHTER] And thank you very much. That’s what I was trying to go for. So, thank you. It is wonderful that people are finding many of those points really relevant right now. So, yes, thank you so much for pointing that out. I think it’s great. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I think one thing that I’ve been thinking about in terms of having more remote time then maybe in-person time is that I often provide a lot of structured activities around retrieval practice and spaced practice in my face-to-face class and if students are working more independently when they’re working remotely, I’m not there to [LAUGHTER] facilitate it synchronously, that structure needs to really be in place, maybe even more so than when you’re in face-to-face class, that they have that structure and that they know they should be doing those things on a regular basis. Of course, we should be reminding them to do these things on their own as well. But, I think focusing a little bit more on having that structure or those reminders in our courses, when they might be remote is actually really, really imperative,

Michelle: Right? And those are learning skills and abilities and principles that are going to serve our students well, no matter what they study or what they may do after they leave a course. And it’s kind of neat. There’s some indication from the research literature that particularly for students who come in who are not from advantaged backgrounds, that when they’re exposed to courses, which as you say, they remind them, “Okay, do this kind of practice. Here’s what you should be doing. Here’s why you should be doing that” …that benefit really does extend not just into that course, but into future ones because students can pick these things up on their own. So, if we do really want to be thinking about how can we set our students up for success no matter what the future holds, I think that’s a pretty high ideal that we can work towards. So yet another reason to incorporate these powerful practices and perhaps, yeah, to talk about how students can adopt them, no matter what.

John: For those faculty who are struggling to prepare their courses, what are some heuristics they could be using in terms of focusing their time where it would give the most benefit.

Michelle: This is something that has definitely been on my mind, both for my own preparation and to share with others. So heuristics, shortcuts, and helpful hints and approaches. So, I talked earlier about looking at what you consider to be your strongest points as an instructor and kind of the highlights of the course… the things that you know, are memorable, that advance learning that you feel really strong and competent with, with the caveat that, yeah, we do want to make sure that those do align with student learning. I think that that’s a great place to start. Say: “Okay, what’s the great parts of my course? Forget about what anybody else is doing. What do I really want to use?” And putting those front and center. If you have a short activity that’s working great, maybe that’s something that could be done every week, or somehow extend it. But the flip side of that is this, and this is another that I didn’t invent this… This is something you’ll see repeated time and again, in teaching advice, which is the pinchpoint heuristic, flipping it around and saying, “Oh my gosh, if there is one thing that students are struggling with conceptually, or it’s something that I know they should be doing, and they don’t do it to the level that they need to,” that you focus your efforts, kind of train your sights on that piece of it. Especially in the discipline. I teach, psychology. I mean, there’s so many fun things we could talk about with psychology, and it’s easy to kind of spend a whole lot of time and effort shooting the videos or setting up the learning activities online and making a quiz that’s about something that’s just cool to learn about. But that can’t squeeze out “Oh my gosh, everybody gets unconditioned stimulus and conditioned stimulus wrong and they do it every single year, and I know it’s going to happen.” So I need to be pulling out those things. You know what, if I’m going to spend the hours on a video or an extra module or creating an interactive quiz with multimedia, spend the time on the places where students are struggling. People who work with UDL, also talk about, “Well, here’s where you want to be especially conscientious to ensure that you do have the multiple means of representation and expression is around these areas that are really, really tough for students.” So what’s working great, where’s the point where you just say, if I could wave a wand and make one thing happen, that’s what I would do. So really looking at those two tracks. So that’s one heuristic. I think, as well, I’ll share with you something that I’m working on for my own courses… big caveat, that this is my courses. I will probably not be teaching a very large set of classes just because of the vagaries of course assignments. So I know I have that a little bit easier. But, here’s what I’m going to do as a framework. I’m kind of thinking of splitting it up so each week, students have a set of kind of general categories that they have to meet, they have to do some type of work or meet some kind of expectations in that area. So, I might, for example, have a column that corresponds to engaging with classmates about the topics for the week, and then a set of options for that week. So maybe you came to a face-to-face class, maybe you participated in an online discussion. And maybe there’s even a third option that I haven’t thought about yet. So just to really simplify things, I say, “Okay, check off in that area, what’s another column or category that you have to participate in, you have to do some type of demonstrating mastery of material” or I’m not quite sure what I’ll call it yet, but that could correspond to taking a quiz or maybe playing a Kahoot! in class or playing a Kahoot! remotely online. And I’ll probably also have a column that constitutes working towards whatever the term project is, and I’ll give them a set of choices again of what that term project can be like. But I am a very big believer in if you’re going to have a big project that there’s lots and lots of formative steps to that. So I tend to take that to extremes. And every week or so, students are doing something to show that they are moving towards and making progress in that area. So it is still a little bit general around the edges. But, to me, that really helped me feel like I had a handle on how am I going to manage choices? How am I going to manage multiple formats, and manage uncertainty with that focus on the purpose? Why do we have this do this week? Well, because it falls into these different categories, all of which are important for your learning in this class. So, those are a couple of the shortcuts that I would share.

John: One of the other things you talked about in your contribution to the Pedagogies of Care is the importance of getting help when you need it or where you need it. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Michelle: So this whole idea of getting help, I mean, it’s very simple on the face of it. I’m a faculty member, I want to do this thing in my class. I don’t know how… I call somebody… magic happens. And in reality, in higher education, what I’ve seen over and over at different institutions is that that is not a direct path at all between support, assistance, and collaboration, and the faculty member and the time and place when they need that. And so I think that this is going to be an issue that, if it’s not on people’s minds now, in leadership and pedagogy circles, if it’s not on their minds, now, it will be in six months to a year, I think that this is going to be one of the differences between institutions that make it through this fall in good shape and those that really struggle is what are those processes? So for faculty members, I’m really encouraging them to say, “Alright, where are the points, in this process, where you could get some kind of assistance that either you invest some time and you get the capacity to do something very efficiently in the future, say, like a workshop on how to do sustainable videos, or how do you actually find somebody to share the load? …actually delegate some of the work? For faculty, they should be reflecting on that, but at that point, that’s where things are going to get complicated depending on what the systems are in place at their institutions. So first of all, I think that institutions don’t always, and faculty ourselves, we don’t always make that distinction. When I say I want help, do I mean, I want you to point me to a great website or a book I can read? Do you want me to spend half a week coming to a workshop series? Or are you going to get in there and say, “Okay, you have the content, I can build these quizzes, you have a script for what you want to do for a complex video, I can shoot that for you, caption it, and put it online.” So what kind of help are we talking about here? And then figuring out how do you approach your institution to do that? So I’ve just really been continually surprised as I do visit different institutions. I mean, almost universally there are these amazing instructional designers and other people who just devote their professional lives to teaching and learning. They’re up on all the new technology. They know what was the great new video editing software that just came out last week? You know, they’re the ones who have that. And oftentimes there’s a disconnect there. People don’t know how, they feel inhibited, or maybe they’ve been actively inhibited. Some institutions, they say, “Well, there’s a process, and we’re going to put a lot of strings on how we’re going to divvy up these resources.” Others actually discourage instructional design and similar staff from even talking to faculty. And there’s a little kind of social piece to it as well, I think, just because we haven’t yet fully incorporated this into what we do… that it’s almost like, well, who makes the first move? If I’m an instructional designer and I know, here’s these courses over here that I could be helpful with, you know, just email people out of the blue… and likewise, faculty, they say, well, should I call the support line for this more complex project that I need help with or not? So I think that institutions will hopefully be sorting that out, but presuming that there isn’t a giant revolution in how we have collaboration between instructional designers and faculty, being aware of that and at least having something very clear in your mind for what you’re asking for, the worst that can happen usually is that somebody says no, but to have any chance you at least have to know what specifically do you want.

Rebecca: I think knowing that’s really helpful too. Because if you start talking to faculty, for example, in other disciplines, they might have a similar goal or they need similar structure in place, you could actually work with those faculty to put the structure in place and share the structure, swap out the content or whatever too. Sometimes we don’t think about those kinds of collaboration.

Michelle: Right, and what you’re describing, that’s something that is kind of non-traditional and new. We come into this with a very strong tradition of “my class is my class” and a kind of an ethos as academics that you do things the hard way, and you do them by yourself. But maybe this can be an impetus for us to really be getting creative with swapping, even things like a syllabus. You say, “Well, you know, maybe the way that I’ve gone about this, you can actually springboard this even if it is, as you said, in a different discipline.” Maybe we’ll even see faculty putting together some more unconventional team teaching arrangements. Traditionally, we know a team teaching is we’ve we’re experts in the same subject. And we’re going to create this class that sort of articulates, or we’re going to pass it back and forth. But maybe I should be collaborating with somebody from another area of psychology. Do they have to be in my sub discipline to just come in and say, help me with discussion forums, if I’m not very good at that, and then I can come into their class and help them with synchronous video, if they need help with that. Maybe if we have to, we will do it that way. So if that comes out of all of this, I think that would be a great benefit. And I want to say I have been really hesitant and cautious about engaging in this narrative of the silver linings and “Oh, isn’t this a wonderful experience? We’ll learn all these new methodologies of teaching will come out of this and we’ll all love online teaching and be fluent with it.” I don’t think that that’s an appropriate message for faculty right now. I think we do need to recognize that this has been somewhere between disruptive and catastrophic for most of us career wise, and not imply that we should all just constantly be thrilled to be learning new things. There are so many new things that we could be learning right now. But fall is coming. And we only have so much time. So I do want to put that out there, and that’s something that I think is an important thread that needs to be, and I hope it will be, talked about more as the dialogue unfolds. But even without saying, “Hey, this is a great time to do new things,” we can recognize that there will be innovation that happens, and it’s already happened. We’ve seen it happen.

John: And while this may not be a silver lining, I know in our teaching center, we’ve seen a lot of faculty who I didn’t even know existed on our campus, because as Jessamyn Neuhaus has talked about, people have broken down some of those barriers where they think they have to do everything themselves, and they’re more willing to request help when they desperately need help in ways that they weren’t willing to do before.

Michelle: Absolutely. I think that Jessamyn Neuhaus has been such a clear and fresh voice on some of these development issues. She’s absolutely right. She talks about it in her own style, which is totally unique to her, but it really gets it across, that we’re Professor SmartyPants, and we are not used to collaborating, working together, or just saying, “I don’t know.” So I guess we can also say, even if we don’t formally work in a teaching and learning center, if there’s something that you know, that your colleague does not, and you can help with, get out there, volunteer it, and let’s all really do this in perhaps a new spirit, where it’s not all just about, “Well, here’s what I know and you don’t know it, and I’m gonna feel uncomfortable coming in,” let’s have a real reset in terms of really open sharing. It’s not about playing the game of who knows more, or who figured out the latest thing. It’s really about serving the students and doing so in a way that we can sustain what promises to be a pretty challenging semester.

Rebecca: These have all been really great tips and things to think about as we move towards the fall, as the fall moves towards us… maybe that’s a better way of thinking about it. [LAUGHTER]

Michelle: I think that’s a frighteningly accurate turn of phrase there. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I want to make sure that we get to talk a little bit about your new book, though, can you share a little sneak preview?

Michelle: Oh, sure. And this book, of course, well predates the era that we’re in. But it’s been something that I’ve wanted to write about for a very long time. And then when I was able to make the connection to James Lang and to his series, I think it was really meant to be. So, it is about memory and technology. So, much has been written in the popular press, and a little bit in the scholarly press as well, about cognitive processes and how those change or not in the presence of technology and with a frame for teachers, of course, so those of us who want to make up even just very specific policies, like should I allow note taking in class on laptops or not, to people who are really interested in this broader sense of teaching and learning in our contemporary era. So what I’ll be talking about in the book are issues such as well, first of all, what do we need to know about how memory works in the first place as a teacher or a person who is really into learning. So what do we now know about how memory works and how it can be improved? I also talk about why anybody should even care about memory, because that’s one of the angles of technology as well… this question of “Well, do you really need to know anything in the age of Google?” And there are people on both ends of that spectrum… probably no surprise that I come in somewhere in the middle of saying, on the one hand, it’s really important to be able to find information when you need it. And yes, we absolutely should be de-emphasizing memorization for its own sake. However, we also know from current research that memory in a subject area helps us think in that area. So there’ll be something for everybody in that section of the book as well. And then we will talk about what is the effect of having something like a smartphone, always at our fingertips? Does that create any kind of global change in memory? Does it change our memory for specific things that we might be doing or thinking about what we’re using that technology? And how, again, can we turn this to our advantage as lifelong learners ourselves and also for our students. Now, of course, you can’t talk about any of this without talking about attention itself. And so while it’s not a book about attention and distraction, per se, we’ll talk about “Alright, well, what’s the flip side of that?” And so how, basically, can we take all the advantages that technology has to offer for building memory and de-emphasize all the things that it does to offset and degrade our memories, and come out of this with the best of both worlds? I will get into a little bit at the end of the book as well into some of these bigger questions of how is memory itself changed when we live in a technological era when so much of our lives are recorded? And what does that say about things like generational differences, or what memory might look like decades from now? So I’m absolutely loving exploring all those themes, and I think they’ll be interesting for anybody who’s in the arena of teaching and learning but also with a lot of practical tips about again, how we can reap all the benefits that technology can offer for memory and for learning.

Rebecca: You’ll have a lot of disappointed listeners to know that that doesn’t come out until 2021. Right?

Michelle: Good things take time. And yes, we will see. It is a work in progress. And although we definitely have all the themes and all the ideas nailed down, it’s something I’m working on as we speak. So that’s part of why I’m so excited about the project. But yes, I got to finish it first.

Rebecca: We’re definitely excited for it to come. We always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Michelle: I am, as many of your listeners probably are, when this comes out, absolutely in the thick of redesigning my own courses for fall. Without getting into too many of the specifics, my institution has kind of laid out a set of parameters that they want us to meet. And so I’ll be re-envisioning my courses and to practice what I preach. I’m going to try to flow that out as much as possible to my colleagues, both locally in my own department, my own college, at my institution, and also nationally. So I’m kind of looking at some different ways that I can continue to engage people in this and share out what I’m learning as we go along. And I’m also pretty excited to be preparing some even more in-depth materials for some institutions who are looking for help in exactly this type of thing, how to get faculty interested in this whole topic of flexible teaching, some specific techniques that are useful for what I’ll call flexible teaching, key resources, things to do and not to do, and so on. So I’m excited to be coming back at it on all cylinders in the fall, and looking forward to engaging students in all the different formats that we now have and seeing where it takes us. So that’s what’s next for me.

John: Well, thank you. This has been wonderful talking to you again. We’ve always enjoyed these conversations, and our listeners have very much appreciated them.

Michelle: Oh, thank you.

Rebecca: It’s always really helpful to know too, that you’re not alone. We’re all going through the same kinds of contemplations, and so thanks for sharing some of your own stories about developing and planning for the fall too.

Michelle: Thank you as well.

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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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116. Simple Sustainable Videos

Faculty are often reluctant to create video content for their classes because of concerns over technical expertise, the demands on their time, and discomfort being on camera. In this episode, Karen Costa joins us to discuss how videos can easily be created, save time, and improve connections with students.

Karen is an adjunct faculty member teaching college success strategies to online students and a faculty professional development facilitator at faculty Guild. She’s a staff writer for Women in Higher Education. She writes regularly about higher education and her new book, 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos, will be released from Stylus in the spring.

Show Notes

  • Faculty Guild
  • Costa, Karen (2020). 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos. Stylus Publishing (forthcoming, April 2020).
  • Podcast listeners can receive a 15% discount + free shipping and handling by using the discount code: TEA99 on the order form for 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos.
  • Karen Costa’s YouTube site to accompany 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos.
  • Powtoon
  • Screencast-O-Matic

Transcript

Rebecca: Faculty are often reluctant to create video content for their classes because of concerns over technical expertise, the demands on their time, and discomfort being on camera. In this episode, we focus on how videos can easily be created, save time, and improve connections with students.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guest today is Karen Costa. Karen is an adjunct faculty member teaching college success strategies to online students and a faculty professional development facilitator at faculty Guild. She’s a staff writer for Women in Higher Education. She writes regularly about higher education and her new book, 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos, will be released from Stylus in the spring.

Welcome!

John: Welcome!

Karen: Thank you.

John: Our teas today are:

Karen: I love tea. I feel like I need to take a stance on tea in this podcast. [LAUGHTER] I go through phases with tea. I was in a huge tea phase a couple years ago, I had a holiday tea and had some ladies over for tea. It was really fun. And I’m not in a tea phase right now. So, I’m not drinking tea.

Rebecca: Well, maybe this episode will get you back into the tea phase.

Karen: I’m certainly going to re enter a tea phase at some point. It’s just a matter of time. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m drinking English Afternoon. I almost feel guilty saying that.

John: You should.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: And I’m drinking Bing Cherry Black tea, a Harry and David tea. We’ve invited you here to talk about your forthcoming book: 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos. Could you tell us a little bit about the origin of this project?

Karen: I can. [LAUGHTER] I have to say I just submitted the second round of edits and redid the index for the book. And I’ve been working on it for about a year now. And I feel like everyone already has it, and it’s wild… the entire book creation process. [LAUGHTER] If I can go back a bit… I fell in love with making videos in high school. So, I took a media class… junior and senior year… with one of my favorite teachers, Mrs. Bestwick. She was my English teacher as well. And a couple of my best friends were in the class. So, it was just a ton of fun. And when I think about what we got to do in that class, I’m still pretty amazed. Mrs. Bestwick… she was amazing. She gave us just this incredible opportunity to create. So, we hosted our own radio show junior year, and then senior year, the high school installed televisions in all the classrooms This was in the 90s, so that was like a big deal. And the media class, we did a morning “news show” where we read the announcements about the school and sometimes hard-hitting news like interviewing the star of the field hockey team and stuff like that. The show was called The Morning Minute, and I got to be a part of that. And I fell in love with being on camera and creating videos. I am an introvert, so I haven’t figured that out quite yet. But, I really loved the energy of doing that work. I know y’all are in Oswego. I went to Syracuse for undergrad, so I was right down the road. And I know how winters are up there. I went to Syracuse for broadcast journalism. That was my plan. I wanted to be a news anchor. And freshman year of college, I went to my advisor and I said, I want to change from broadcast journalism to undecided and he said “No, you can’t do that. No one does that.” He said, “everyone wants to change from undecided into broadcast journalism.” So I said, “Well, I’ll be the first.” And so I did. [LAUGHTER] I don’t know if that was a smart decision or not. But, I didn’t really do much with video for a while after that, and then sort of flash forward to around 2006, 2007 when I started teaching online, I was working in higher ed and I was teaching a college success course online. And I immediately was trying to figure out how to make that online course more engaging and to create a sense of classroom community and to connect with my students. And I thought, why not make more videos for my online classes, and I just went down the rabbit hole. And I’ve been there ever since. And trying to figure out ways to make videos and make them engaging and efficient and effective. And I hadn’t really thought about it much. And then a couple years into it, I was talking to somebody about it, and I said, “Oh my gosh, I circled back to something that I really loved a long time ago, and it just found a different expression.” I thought I was going to be on the news, which would have been a terrible fit for me because it’s a really intense environment [LAUGHTER} and I kinda like peace and quiet… and teaching in higher ed as a much better fit for me. And I figured out a way to bring videos into that. So, through that experience, I just fell in love with videos, and I’ve been figuring out ways to bring them into my teaching. And then I started talking about it to everybody who would listen, and started sharing that with faculty. So, the book was born of that experience.

Rebecca: What a great journey.

Karen: Yes, a full-circle journey. [LAUGHTER]

John: One of the nice things about your book is that you have some QR codes in the book that give you examples of the things you’re talking about.

Karen: Yes. So, this is funny, I can take zero credit for the QR codes. Those were the idea of my editor, John von Knorring, at Stylus. We were going back and forth on a couple of things and he said, “Karen, what do you think about using QR codes in the book?” And I was like, “Ooh, QR codes…” because the last exposure I had to QR codes was probably 10 years ago when they first came out… and remember you have get the QR code reader app on your phone. They were cool, but they were also a little clunky. And I am pretty intense about keeping things as simple and sustainable as possible, which is in the title of the book. So, I was really a little hesitant about that, like “Are faculty going to have to download an app and remember their app store password to get to these videos.” And John said, “No, QR codes are different now.” So, what I learned is you just open the camera on your phone and hold it over the QR code and you’re brought right to the video. So I said, “Okay, let’s give this a try.” And I’m so, so glad that he had this idea. Because, obviously, a book about videos is enhanced by giving people easy access to some of those videos. So when I was editing the book, and I kept coming across those QR codes, I was just so excited about the chance that faculty would have to access those videos easily. And the last thing I want to say about those I hope when people see the videos that they say “Oh, this is kind of basic, this is nothing special.” That would be the greatest compliment if they see a video and say this is nothing special, because my hope is they see them and think this is something I can do. I’ve been thinking about doing more on YouTube, and I found this site, this higher educator created and the videos were amazing. And I was floored. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m so impressed by this.” And at the same time, I was like, “This is not in my power right now to do this…” like I could, but I just don’t have the time and energy. They were sort of hyper-produced polished professional videos, and I think it’s awesome that he did them and there’s a space for that. But, I’m here to advocate for a different type of video that any faculty will feel empowered to create. So, hopefully, when people see the videos, they think this is something I could do.

Rebecca: I really like to focus on being authentic and not doing something that’s overproduced because I think you’re right, that really does intimidate faculty. And sets them back like, “Oh, I can’t do that. I don’t have the time.”

Karen: Yep.

Rebecca: So if we’re doing something that is a little less polished, a little more authentic, a little bit more of in the moment, what are the benefits of doing it that way?

Karen: There’s a lot of benefits. And you mentioned time. So I’m going to start there. I don’t want to exaggerate, but I think we’re all sort of being bombarded. And I know I feel like I’m constantly working to protect my time, and that there’s so many external elements that are seeking to fill my time up. And I know the faculty that I work with are wearing multiple hats. They are teaching, they are department chairs, they are on committees, they come home and grade and prep, under really immense time challenges. So, one of the big philosophies in this book is that videos will make your life easier, and we’ll save you time. I couldn’t rationalize putting something else on faculty’s plate right now because they just have so much. My sense is that this is a system that will ultimately help faculty to be more efficient and to save them time. And the other piece of that that’s really important is that the types of videos that we’re talking about here humanize the online learning experience and the learning experience in general, whether you’re teaching online or land based. So, when you look at a really hyper-produced video, it can be visually stimulating and exciting and really cool to look at. But, it can sometimes make you feel separated and a bit distant. And there’s something special about creating a really basic simple video on the fly… just talking to your students… that helps create that connection. I get to say now… I’ve been excited to start talking about this… the woman who wrote the foreword to the book is just a force in higher education and online learning and the movement to humanize online learning. Her name is Michelle Pacansky-Brock, some of you might know her as Brocansky. That’s her Twitter handle and her website, and she was kind enough to write the foreword for the book and she’s done amazing work with this movement to humanize online learning. And that is a big part of these types of videos is to help students realize that you are a real person and not a robot. So, those are some of the benefits: saving time, not putting a ton of time into creating these videos, and building that human connection with students

John: Ane modeling that should make faculty feel more comfortable too, which makes it more likely they’ll actually start doing this.

Rebecca: Karen, can you elaborate a little bit more on ways that you save time… so, saving time by not making it hyper produced, but I think you were alluding to other ways you might save time as well.

Karen: Yeah, so one of the biggest realizations for me… I didn’t start making videos to save time… I talk about that there was sort of a creative passion for me and I wanted to connect with my students. I actually did a lot of not smart things in my video creation process early on, and I’m now able to share those stories with faculty to save them time. There’s a lot of like, “don’t do this” in the book. I would, for example, add lots of telling details to my first videos. So, I would be like “look at the snow outside of my house” and “can you believe it’s already snowing in November” or I’d say “Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody.” I did things like that. So, immediately, as soon as I did that, that video was something I couldn’t use again. And I would also mention specific dates like “the discussion post this week is due on March 27.” And so then that video was dead, I couldn’t use it again. So, one of the things I learned was how to make videos reusable so that I could reuse them from term to term… really just a simple strategy of staying general. So, instead of saying a specific deadline, say “I posted the deadlines for this assignment in the announcements, so please look there.” So, now I can use that video, in a lot of cases, in future terms. And the other thing is that I use videos for frequently asked questions. So, that was a huge realization for me when I would get all these repetitive questions from students term after term after term. Rather than always emailing every student and answering those questions, I could create videos that would be more proactive. So, that was a big shift I noticed in my online classrooms when I started creating videos was that students were more likely to accurately complete the assignments and to be putting forth great work and I didn’t get as many of those repetitive type questions because they were getting those answers in the videos. And that saved me a ton of time. Just, I think, a lot of folks realize that those emails, they seem like, “Oh, it’s just 30 seconds here or there answering them” but they really do add up. So, anything we can do to be proactive there and to still support students and student learning and to get those questions answered. But, to do it in a way that’s more reasonable, I think, is a really powerful shift and videos can help us do that.

John: So, you’ve talked a little bit about how videos can create more of a sense of instructor presence in online classes. And you’ve talked about how it can be used to reduce the workload on faculty by not having to treat an online courses, perhaps a set of independent study for each student were working one-on-one with them by email, but might videos also be useful in face-to-face classes to help flip the classroom?

Karen: That is another track that the book takes and I taught land-based classes before I started teaching online and then for quite a while I was teaching both at the same time. And what’s funny is that my online teaching started to influence my land-based teaching. So, I started to realize that I could use videos in my land-based classes. And that was inspired by my online teaching. That’s something I think we’re starting to talk more about how online courses were sort of originally seen as like second best, like, “Oh, if you can’t take classes in person, you could take them online if you have to.” And I’m an advocate for there’s tons of benefits to online learning, and many of us learn better and more effectively online. And I think we’re now starting to talk about how online teaching can influence land-based teaching. So, that option to bring videos into the land based-classroom is there. It’s something I write about in the book. I think there’s two aspects: the flipped learning mode, for folks who are interested in sort of taking more of the passive learning elements (and I know passive learning some people say is an oxymoron), but, if you’re going to bring students into a land-based classroom and do a lecture, why not record a lecture, send that out, and then do some more interactive stuff in the classroom. So, that’s kind of the flipped-learning model in a nutshell. So, I talk in the book about how you can do that. And I think people are interested in doing that. But a big obstacle is how do I even make those videos? So, I want to make that accessible to people. But, even if you’re not thinking about the flipped learning model specifically, you can send out a welcome video to your land-based students before class starts, to just say, “Hey, I’m looking forward to seeing you. Here’s what you could do to prepare for the first day of classes.” That’s like such a simple 10-minute strategy that gets students prepared to come in and get ready to learn and get going right from the start on that first day. So, that’s just a really simple thing that a land-based professor could do. I talk about when canceling classes or you’re traveling for a conference or we just had a bunch of snow days last week, there’s a lot of opportunities to bring videos into land-based teaching as well.

John: In fact, I had just done that. I was at the OLC conference with Rebecca and quite a few other people, and because I was teaching a large face-to-face class, I created a couple of videos…

Karen: Yay!

John: …inserted some questions, uploaded them as SCORM objects, so that way my students could still do some online quizzing like they would have done if they were in class with clickers. So, videos can have lots of useful purposes in classes.

Karen: Absolutely.

Rebecca: How would you recommend faculty get started?

Karen: Well, I guess the kind of cheeky answer is to buy my book. [LAUGHTER] But in the meantime, certainly folks can check out the videos that I created to accompany the book are posted on my YouTube page. Those are open to anybody and you’re welcome to see those. The way that I learned was through trial and error. The simplest recommendation I have is to record a welcome video on your phone in the YouTube app. That’s just the most basic, simplest type of video I think you can create and welcome students to your class, introduce yourself, tell them what they’re going to learn, why you’re excited about teaching, and share that either with your land-based class or in your online classroom. And what I would also add to that is there’s a lot of anxiety for faculty, and for people in general, about being on camera. And I think this is a challenge. We live in a society where we think, “Oh my gosh, everybody’s putting all of their lives online, what do you mean people are anxious to be on camera?” It’s very different. Facetiming your best friend is very different than recording a video for your students. And a lot of folks are very nervous to do that for a lot of reasons. So, I would just say that to be human, to be nervous, is okay. And I think we’re learning there’s actually a benefit to that. Your students are also nervous, they’re terrified of starting college or a new class. So to see you say, “I’m creating my first video and I’m a little nervous about doing this, but I’m going to give it a try…” that can have such a huge impact on your students and to help normalize fear and frustration which is really important, particularly for our first-generation college students. So, know that that’s not a negative, if you’re nervous to be on camera… that it actually might really be a positive thing for you and your students. This is another thing I get kind of passionate about. There’s a lot of energy out there about you have to create these hyper-produced perfect videos using this very complicated technology. Just shut that out. And if that comes to you down the road… and there is a place for that… I don’t want to knock that… but, it’s okay to keep it really, really simple… a two-minute welcome video, no bells and whistles, just you speaking from the heart is a wonderful place to start.

John: What are some of the most common mistakes that faculty make when they create videos? When should faculty think about trying to avoid?

Karen: Okay, this one is, I think, controversial is a strong word… but I know that I differ from some folks here… I don’t like when people use a script. And here’s why. When people are nervous about being on camera, I think it’s a very logical response to think “I’m going to create a script because if I get nervous, I’ll just read off the script.” And [LAUGHTER] I say this in the book. There’s a very specific population of folks who can read off a script and still be engaging and they are professional broadcasts. Most folks reading off a script… and I’m sure there’s exceptions to this rule… but, if you’re new to being on camera and recording videos, reading off a script can come off as very robotic, and, actually, sort of disengaging, and what we’re looking to do in these types of videos is to be very human and to connect and to reveal ourselves, not in an inappropriately personal level, but to just show our humanity… and reading off a script, I think, can be an obstacle to doing that. So, that’s one of the biggest mistakes I see is that when people are just clearly reading from a screen, it just kind of falls flat. So, my recommendation would be, have an idea of what you want to say and then just speak from the heart. And if you stumble over a few words, amazing, perfect, you get the chance now to show students here’s how to make a mistake and keep going. What could be a more powerful lesson to share with our students then how to make a mistake and keep going? So, that’s actually a good thing. I think the other big thing I see that I talk about is this idea that the camera eats your energy. [LAUGHTER] So, you can take someone who’s pretty engaging in a traditional land-based learning experience and put them on camera and the camera takes some of that energy out of you. So, you do have to be a little bit peppier on camera than you might be in a traditional setting. So, I just remind folks to just add a little bit of pep. I know that can feel weird at first, but to smile and be a little animated… you’ll think that you’re looking a little bit goofy, and you won’t, because the camera will take some of the energy out of that. So, just put a little pep and energy into your videos… to smile… to look like you’re having fun. And you know, fake it till you make it. If you pretend that you’re just loving being on camera and be a little silly, you’ll be surprised how quickly you just do start having fun with it.

John: I had students do some podcasts this semester, and that same issue came up about whether they should use a script, and what I suggested is before they record it they should try it three ways. One is they should try just doing it freeform, then they could record it when they reading from a script, and then they could record it where they’re using an outline to structure it. And I said, record all of those, listen to it and see which sounds more natural. And then that’s what you should go with when you record it. And, maybe that might be a good approach for faculty ,because some people might be better with a script; others might be better when they just have an outline; and others might be better just improvising things.

Karen: I like that, and obviously experience is a great teacher, right? So, one of my philosophies of teaching is that I want to help my students in any setting, whether they’re students or faculty, to become their own best teacher. So, absolutely try out different things. I also think… be a consumer of videos. A funny thing happens when you start making videos, you start to notice a lot about other people’s videos. So, notice the videos that you love that are really engaging and notice the ones that aren’t as engaging and that can give you some clues about your own video creation strategies. Absolutely. But, try out different things. I think that’s great.

Rebecca: A really similar conversation that I just had with my students about web design. they were telling me that they don’t use browsers on their phones. They use mostly apps, and they don’t know what websites look like.

Karen: Oh, wow.

Rebecca: And it’s like, “you might not know what a welcome video looks like if you’ve never seen one, or you never experienced something like that. So, it’s better to seek them out and find out what they’re like and what the genre is even like before making any judgment.”

Karen: Yeah, and you can learn so much. I learn as much from things that I love as from things that don’t seem to work for me. Like, “Oh my gosh, that’s fantastic to know that, for me, a script doesn’t work because I’ve seen a lot of videos where folks are obviously reading off a script.” So, that’s great knowledge. Just start to be a savvy video content consumer and notice what speaks to you. For me, what really speaks to me are just personal, no nonsense, no frills, speaking-from-the-heart types of videos. And again, I think there’s a place for all kinds of videos, but I noticed that there’s a strong contingent out there for the more hyper-produced videos. So, I want to be a voice for these more simple and sustainable videos for sure.

Rebecca: I think the key, like what you’re talking about, is finding whatever feels really authentic to you.

Karen: Yeah, absolutely.

John: One of the most common things that faculty do is create screencasts pf slideshows or other things. What’s your take on whether or not there should be a talking head on those videos? I’ve seen a lot of arguments in many directions there.

Karen: Yeah. So again, there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer there. So, I’ve tried to give people a bunch of options. If you have creative videos, where you’re on camera, and you are just incredibly uncomfortable, and that’s translating into the quality of the video that you’re creating. I really want to encourage people to try and practice and I do think most people will come around and start to feel more comfortable and create engaging content being on camera. But if eventually you’re at a point where you’re like “This is just not working for me. It’s not authentic for me.” Then maybe it’s time to set it aside at least for a time, and you can still make really engaging simple, sustainable videos for your students in a lot of other ways, and one of those is to create screencasts, where you’re not on camera, and you’re just recording the content on your screen. So, that’s a really big benefit. That said, I love being on camera. But there are days when I don’t want to be on camera, or I don’t feel that I’m camera ready, per se. I work from home and if just all heck has broken loose that day, but I still need to make a video for my students, I will just sometimes opt to not be on camera. So, it’s just a good option to be able to do screencasts. The other thing I do say is to think about attention and cognitive load, and I almost always add my headshot to a screencast. But if you have already established that relationship with your students and built that connection, and you feel like being that little thumbnail of you being on camera might be a little bit distracting, If you’re perhaps presenting a complicated concept to them in the screencast, then maybe you want to stay off camera so that they can use all of their attention and mental resources to focus on the screencasts itself and not on you. And there’s a benefit to that. I talk a lot about thinking about your instructional goals and meeting your students needs and your needs when you decide what type of video to create.

Rebecca: I like that emphasis on: there’s two audiences here that you need to address: yourself and your own humaness [sic] and time and whatever as well as the student.

Karen: I’m really glad you said that, that ended up becoming a really big theme of the book. I set out to write this book about videos and one of the big themes became faculty success. And I’ve written and talked about this before. We often talk about faculty success only in relation to student success. And faculty are sometimes treated as a means to an end. And I don’t think that works, and I don’t think it’s going to work. I think that we need to talk about faculty success as being worthy in its own right. And I really try to look for, and advocate for, those spaces of mutuality, where both faculty and students are benefiting. I think with our limited time and energy and resources that those are the spaces that we really should be investing our attention to support this work we do in higher education. I’ll bring staff in there as well, all the wonderful staff that work in higher education. We can’t create cultures of care that are only focused on caring for students, [LAUGHTER] and that sacrifice faculty and staff. That’s not what a culture of care is. So, I think it’s really important for faculty to think about, “Yes, this is what I want to teach students and I care about student learning and success, and how is this going to impact me…” and it’s okay to take that into consideration and to look for perhaps a compromise where you’re able to do both.

Rebecca: I really like your emphasis on sustainability as well. One of the things that I’ve done in the past because I teach such a technical area that changes so frequently, is that I had a lot of technical screencast videos that were really helpful to students, they really love that it was me talking to them for all those reasons about having established a relationship and it was familiar. When I screwed up, It was like they liked that, but then they would get out of date so quickly.

Karen: Yeah.

Rebecca: So, I moved away from that for a while, but I’ve actually moved back to doing it again. But, on a much smaller scale that’s more manageable, where it’s something that I think it’s going to last a long time rather than some of the things that are changing or a little more nuanced, or that there’s a lot more conversation that might have to happen around those topics.

Karen: I just had a huge smile on my face as you’re describing that journey and the evolution of your system because that really describes my video [LAUGHTER] creation evolution as well. I had so many videos… just all in with videos, and I set myself up in a way that wasn’t sustainable and then I got a little bit burned out with making them. I had a room in my house with lighting and a screen and every time I wanted to create a video, it became this huge thing. And I had so many videos that they weren’t always reusable, and I didn’t want to do it anymore. I was still making them but my production level just went down pretty drastically. And now, for me, the priorities are making sure students are able to navigate my online courses, [LAUGHTER] because I don’t think we realize how scary that is to go into an online course. We’re in there all the time, we know it like the back of our hand, and for a student who’s new to college or new to online learning to go into an online course, is incredibly overwhelming. So, I always want to have videos that kind of show them around, welcoming them into our classroom, and then building those connections with my students: speaking from the heart, reaching out to say thank you, and to connect with them. And since I’ve gone back to those basics, I’m in a much better place with my system. So, I think we need to talk about sustainability and teaching, not only with videos, but with teaching in general. So, that’s another big theme of the book.

John: I think you had, in one of your videos, a discussion of Powtoons and using similar tools. Am I correct on that?

Karen: Yes. Powtoons are another alternative I talk about. I like to give people options. So, we’re not all going to feel comfortable being on camera, Powtoons are something I discovered a few years ago, and it’s a great website. It’s like a lot of our tech tools. There’s a free version, and a paid version. And with the free version you can create really adorable [LAUGHTER] little videos for your students. Powtoons are animated videos, and they give you a template, so you can just pop in a few different elements. And you can have a little avatar of yourself or you can bring in a picture of yourself. And they’re a great option for faculty who don’t want to be on camera, but still want to create really fun and cool videos for their students. So, a little bit more complicated than creating a screencast, in my experience, but if you are artsy, you’re creative, and that’s something that’s a really important part of your teaching practice, Powtoon’s a great option.

Rebecca: Do you address accessibility at all of your books?

Karen: Yes. Accessibility is something I’m learning a lot about in the past couple of years, making that shift from an accommodations mindset, which was where I think I was, and I think a lot of us were and still are, to a model of accessibility. So, I’m not an expert on it. There’s a lot of great folks out there who are. But, what I know is that I have a lot to learn and that for me, sort of a basic strategy is to add captions to our videos, and to make sure that we’re not just relying on the auto-generated captions that we get in YouTube, which aren’t always accurate, and to make sure that all of our students can access our videos and enjoy our videos. So, there’s a lot of talk about captions in higher education right now. So, they do add some time to your video creation process. What I recommend is that you start where you are, and if you already created videos and you need to go back (I’m doing this myself), start adding captions. And when you create a new video, just take the time. It seems like it’s more time… Once you get the hang of it. It usually takes about, depending on the length of the video, but if you’ve got a five-minute video, it shouldn’t take you more than five or six minutes to add captions, and it’s worth its weight in gold for what it will do for our students. So, start there, and my hope is that we’re going to see some more tools that support faculty in creating accurate captions for their videos. And we’re not quite there yet. It’s still requires some manual labor. But, the important thing is to keep that in mind, and to have that accessibility mindset, and to keep learning. I think we’re all learning every day about accessibility.

REBCCA: The cognitive load is a great reason for a short video, but so is accessibility. [LAUGHTER] …for the captions.

Karen: Yeah, absolutely.

John: For people who are getting started, are there any recommendations you have for either hardware or software?

Karen: I keep it really, really simple. So, I think most of us have a built-in webcam on their computers. And I say go with that. Some folks like to purchase an external webcam that is a little bit better quality. You do not need to do that. You can work with the webcam that’s built into your computer. You used to be able to record videos on your desktop in YouTube and you can’t do that anymore. So, that sort of added an additional layer, I record using a tool called Screencast-O-Matic, which I talk about quite a bit in the book [LAUGHTER], and I hope it’s around for a very long time. It is right now, in my opinion… I’ve tried a bunch of different options… it’s the most intuitive tool that we have. And I record in Screencast-O-Matic. I can record my headshot-type videos, I can record screencasts, or a combination of both. And then right through screencasts, I can upload my videos onto YouTube, and it takes me… for a five-minute video… the entire process takes me about 10 minutes. So, I would absolutely recommend… I use the free version. There is a paid version… I use the free version. I upload into YouTube also free. I do my captions in YouTube. And then I share with my students. The only other thing that I have invested in, which came with my phone, are earbuds and that’s what I use. I used to have a bunch of different microphones, and I just stick with my basic earbuds now and they get the job done. So, I keep it that simple.

Rebecca: And when you keep it that simple. It’s a portable studio.

Karen: Yeah, absolutely.

John: And your smartphone can also make it even more portable when you’re doing something in the field or on-site somewhere,

Karen: Yeah, a lot of folks are using their smartphones and I think that’s fantastic. And I talk a lot about it in the book, I’m kind of embarrassed to say this… I’m always in front of my computer working. So we have kind of a good relationship, my computer and I. [LAUGHTER] But for a lot of folks, they’re going to feel more comfortable on their smartphone. It’s a different energy for me. I don’t know what it is, I feel like I have my professional energy on my computer. And when I do record sometimes on my smartphone that feels like a more personal space for me. So, I don’t feel like my best video creation self when I’m recording on my smartphone. But, I know a lot of folks who do it, and as you said, it can go with you anywhere. So, if you’re out and about in the world and you see a teachable moment that you can share with your students, you can pull it out and record right on the spot. And I should mention through the YouTube app on your phone, you can record, which you can’t do on your desktop. So, for some folks if they don’t want to use Screencast-O-Matic, that would be a really simple option to record through the YouTube app on their phone,

John: Why might including videos be especially important in online classes?

Karen: I guess I just want to emphasize that I think we’re learning more and more about the importance of faculty-student relationships and connections, particularly in the online learning environment. And I would say that we’re talking a lot about online course design, which is fantastic. I am trying to get out there as a voice to talk about online teaching. And I saw on Twitter the other day, someone said, “Well, course design and teaching are two sides of the same coin.” And I think that makes a lot of sense. But I really want to get out there that just designing an excellent course is obviously an important place to start. And we also need to think about how we’re teaching and facilitating those online courses. And for me, it always comes back to relationships and building a positive classroom community. And what I’ve heard from my students over the years is that videos help them to feel connected to me. So, I cannot tell you the number of times in my course evaluations that students will say, “I thought that I was not going to know my online teacher, I thought that I would never see my online teacher, I didn’t know what to expect. And I feel like I really know Karen through the videos that she created for us.” And a lot of them… students are real smart… a lot of the comments will say, “The videos were really helpful for my understanding of course, assignments and learning and I really love that Karen took the time to make them.” So, they see that videos are not only a tool for teaching, but they’re an expression of caring… of my care for them. And I think that really impacts their learning experience. So, I really want to emphasize that relationships, human relationships, are important to online teaching and I hope we’ll continue to focus more on that in the future. And I think videos are going to be a big part of that.

John: When is your book scheduled for release?

Karen: Well, I just submitted the second round of edits and the index and we’re going to be seeing it… Deadlines come and go and shift, but we’ll be seeing it hopefully in early 2020. I’m sure I’ll be updating everyone on the specific date when I have it. [LAUGHTER]

John: And you’ve shared with us a link to a discount code for our listeners. So, we’ll include that in the show notes.

Karen: Awesome. Thank you. Folks can pre-order the book now if they’re interested as well.

Rebecca: We always wrap up by asking: “What’s next?”

Karen: [LAUGHTER] I have to share this. There’s a woman I follow online. She’s an author. She’s an activist. Her name is Glennon Doyle Melton. She wrote a book that was one of Oprah’s selections, so she gains a huge audience through that. And she shared a story online recently. She was interviewed for a podcast, and they asked her that and she said something like, “Well, I’m gonna go pick up my kids from school…” and the interviewer said, “No, I mean, like in your career and your future…” and she said, “Oh, I don’t really think about that. I just think about doing the next best thing.” So, I really love that, [LAUGHTER] because I do try to focus on just doing the next best thing, which for me is wrapping up this term, this semester, in a really positive way. I think my sense is we’re all really sort of feeling it right now. And this is a tough time of year in higher education. And at the same time, I really want to end on a positive note with my students and my faculty, even though I’m tired, and I’m ready to wrap things up. I don’t want that to negatively impact my students or faculty in any way, I just really want to finish strong and honor all the work they’ve done this term. So, I’m focused on taking care of myself and having a positive end to the semester for all parties. This book journey has been pretty wild and it’s been going for a while now. So, I’m really excited to actually see it come out into the world and to share it with faculty and… I love working with higher ed faculty so much and they’re doing such good work in the world. So, I hope that this can be a tool to help them be happier, healthier, and to feel empowered in their work.

Rebecca: I think it will.

John: I’m looking forward to receiving a copy of the book.

Rebecca: I think at the end of the book when it finally is released, then it’s time to have the tea party.

Karen:I will need to do something to celebrate that. [LAUGHTER] I described the process as like, “I’ve never run a marathon, but I imagine writing a book and publishing is like running four marathons.” So, I don’t know where I am in that process, but…

Rebecca: …you just know you’ll be really tired when it’s done. [LAUGHTER]

Karen: Yeah, tired and grateful. Yeah, absolutely.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for joining us today.

John: Thank you.

Karen: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

[MUSIC]

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

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

110. Fostering a Growth Mindset

Some students with fixed mindsets enter our classes expecting to be unsuccessful while others believe that they have a natural talent in the discipline. In either case, these students often get discouraged when they experience challenging tasks. In this episode, Sarah Hanusch and John Myers join us to discuss how they have revised their classes and used metacognitive exercises to help students develop a growth mindset and to recognize the benefit of learning from mistakes. Sarah and John are both Assistant Professors in the Department of Mathematics at SUNY Oswego.

Show Notes

Transcript

John K.: Some students with fixed mindsets enter our classes expecting to be unsuccessful while others believe that they have a natural talent in the discipline. In either case, these students often get discouraged when they experience challenging tasks. In this episode, we examine how two faculty members have revised their classes and used metacognitive exercises to help students develop a growth mindset and to recognize the benefit of learning from mistakes.

[MUSIC]

John K.: 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 K.: …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 Sarah Hanusch and John Myers. Sarah and John are both Assistant Professors in the Department of Mathematics at SUNY-Oswego. Welcome, John and welcome back, Sarah.

Sarah: Thank you.

John M.: Thank you.

John K.: Our teas today are?

Sarah: None today

John M.: Yeah, imaginary tea. No tea for me.

Rebecca: The imaginary tea…that’s what my daughter likes to drink. That kind.

John M.: Yeah, I’m in good company there&hellp;

Rebecca: I have English afternoon.

John K.: And I have a ginger tea.

Rebecca: We invited you here today to talk a little bit about how you’ve introduced a project on metacognition in some of your mathematics courses. Can you tell us a little bit about the project?

John M.: Sure, this began, I believe, in the spring of 2018 in a Calculus I course. And the idea was that, Calculus I is known across, basically the entire country…every school in the country…as being a very difficult course. So, you have a lot of students who are coming in, especially in the spring semester, who had bad experiences with calculus in the past. And in particular, I’ve been told by some colleagues that there’s going to be some students in there that more support than I suppose you would imagine. The situation was that on the very first day of class, I had students coming in who have had bad experiences with it in the past. And then at the same time, I have the students that are typically high performing. And they have difficult times also with perfection, you know, being obsessed with 4.0s and grades and that type of stuff. So the idea was that I wanted to simultaneously address failure with the students and perfection at the same time. And I was sort of led to think about this metacognition project, actually, funnily enough, on a flight back from San Diego. I was at what are called the joint meetings for mathematicians, and a lot of progressive newer teaching techniques are talked about at this conference. And I’m flying back from the conference on the airplane and I’m getting really introspective and I’m thinking like, I really need to do something to talk to my kids about failure and perfection. And then it occurred to me that there was this blog post that I had just read a couple weeks before by a mathematician by the name of Matt Boelkins at Grand Valley State University. And he had this idea for a metacognitive project that addressed all sorts of things like growth mindset, fixed mindset, productive failure, and all these different things. And I decided about a week before classes started that this is what I was going to do.

Rebecca: That’s when all the best ideas happen.

John M.: I know…right before class and on an airplane. I get really introspective when I’m on airplanes and staring out the window and thinking of all the big things in life and stuff.

Sarah: And essentially, John came to me and said, “I’m thinking about doing this project.” And I said “Well, that sounds cool. And let’s see if we can measure if it has any positive effect or not.” So, I sort of came in on the research side of it…of “let’s see if this is effective for changing attitudes towards mathematics.” And since then, I’ve stolen the project to use in my own classes. But, it really started as I came in sort of more on the research side of things

John M.: I think stolen might have been a strong word, but…

Sarah: I didn’t ask…I just took it. [LAUGHTER]

John K.: For the research project did you do pre- and post-tests on attitudes?

Sarah: We did a pre- and post-test, we use an assessment called MAPS which is the Mathematics Attitudes and Perceptions Survey. It’s a 31-item survey. It assesses, I think, it’s seven different dimensions. Some of them are growth mindset. Do they view mathematics as being answer focused or process focused? The categories were growth mindset, the applicability of mathematics to the real world, their confidence in mathematics, their interest in mathematics, their persistence in mathematics, their ability to make sense of mathematics, and do they view mathematics as being answer focused or process focused?

John K.: Sounds like a good instrument. Before we talk about the results, let’s talk a little bit more about how you implemented it. How was the project structured in terms of what activities did the students do during the class?

John M.: So the idea was that over the entire semester, they would have a selection of articles online to read, they would have a selection of YouTube videos to watch and it was essentially experts that are addressing these various topics. So, like for example, there is a clip by Carol Dweck, one of the originators of the theory of growth and fixed mindsets, and they were to watch these clips and read these articles across the semester. And then I think it was probably with two weeks or three weeks left in the semester, they’d have to write a reflective essay. It was an attempt to sort of shift the culture in the classroom towards viewing mistakes and failure as productive and as opportunities for learning. Because I think in wider culture, everybody believes that math is just about the right answer. And that if you can’t get the right answer, then there’s no worth in whatever effort it was that you put in to get to that point. And I wanted to provide sort of a counterpoint to that, so a counter narrative. Being honest about how many times per day mathematicians actually do fail, you know, that type of thing. So yeah, the main component was this essay that was reflecting on the stuff that they read and watched over the semester, and then there was sort of like daily conversations.

John K.: Were the conversations online or were they in class conversations?

John M.: In class…in office hours, just kind of whenever they popped up. I remember a couple conversations that happened after I gave back exams, for example, or rather right before I gave back exams. So for example, I would say, you know, I’m about to hand back exams. And I want you when you see the score, when you put the paper over and see your score, I want you to immediately think how are you going to frame this result in your mind. Are you going to look at that score and be happy with it and chalk it up to just your natural talents? Or are you going to say, “Oh, this is a result of hard work?” And then if you’re not happy with your score, are you going to put it away and never look at again, or are you going to engage with your mistakes and make them productive mistakes? It was sort of intervention through conversation that happened on an almost daily basis.

Rebecca: Did you notice a difference in the kinds of conversations you were having in class because they were doing these readings and watching these videos, maybe conversations you hadn’t experienced before in the classroom?

John M.: Yes. In particular, I had students come into office hours and they were relentless with trying to understand the material because they knew that they were going to have another shot to get it right. And I had never experienced that before. In fact, in one of my student’s essays, I had a student tell me that when she’s not done well on exams in the past, she would just take the exam and stuff it into her book bag and never look at it again. And she told me that just because of because of how I was structuring the course that she doesn’t do that anymore. She actually pulls it out and engages with the mistakes and the comments that I put on the exam and comes and talks to me about the exam and everything. So I did see a change in the students.

John K.: Was some of it based on the reflections or was it also partly based on a restructuring of a course to give students more opportunities to redo things or to try things again?

John M.: I believe the latter had something to do with it. Because the idea was that I could say these things out loud to them. But I wanted to actually build components into the course in addition to the essay that sort of reflect the themes that I’m trying to communicate to them.

John K.: Telling them that they can learn from mistakes, if you don’t give them the opportunity…

John M.: Right.

John K.: …to learn from mistakes might not be as productive. I think both components are really valuable. I just want to make sure we were clear on that, too.

John M.: I think that you risk sounding like a cliche motivational poster, if you don’t actually put some meat on the bones with it.

Rebecca: Can you talk about some ways that you actually built that into the course?

John M.: I did test corrections. I don’t remember exactly, I think it was get back half the credit they missed or something like that. So, the idea was that they had to engage with the mistakes on their exams and correct them. And it had to be perfect. So they had a week to turn in their test corrections, and then I would re-grade them. This was very time consuming, as you might imagine, but the students I believe, really responded to it. It really sort of hooked in with the theme that I was trying to send.

Sarah: And since then, we’ve both moved to more mastery based grading. John before I did, but a system where students keep trying things until they get it right. And that really helps sort of drive that “learn from your mistakes” message home.

John K.: Are you able to do some of that in an automated way? Or is this all involving more grading on your part?

Sarah: The way I’m doing it, unfortunately, it’s more grading on my part. Although I will say this semester I’m doing these mastery based quizzes, but I’m not collecting homework. So, it’s kind of a toss up in terms of how much…it isn’t really extra grading. I’m just grading more things in another category.

John M.: Right, I would not do test corrections again. Not only was it a lot of time to grade, but then I had issues with academic honesty. The mastery based thing I have found is, I believe, much more effective.

John K.: Another thing you may want to consider that we’ve talked about in a couple of past podcasts is having a two-stage exam, where in the first stage, they do it themselves. And then you have them break up into groups and do either all the questions or a subset of those as a group. So, you’ve got some peer instruction going on as well…and that way it’s done right in class and it can be done, if the exam is short enough or the class period is long enough you can do both of it. A common practice is to do two-thirds say individual and then one-third for the group activity, which has many of the same things. They don’t know what they’ve gotten wrong, but when they’re sharing with their peers, they’re talking it over and it means you only have to grade the group exams on the second stage, which makes it a whole lot easier than individual ones.

John M.: Right. Yeah, I have a friend I believe he has done that stuff like that. So yeah,

John K.: The Carl Wieman Science Education Institute, I believe, has a lot of information on that. I’ve been doing it the last couple of years, and it’s been working really well. Doug Mckee was a guest on an earlier podcast, we talked about that as well. Are there other things we want to talk about in terms of what you’ve done in the courses?

Sarah: One thing that we’ve both done since this initial project is we’ve taken some of the ideas of this project, but interspersed it more throughout the course. One thing I know at the time that John observed was that he felt like a lot of the students started the projects in the last week, right? And so what I’ve done instead of doing a big project of these topics is I’ve taken these articles and done the second week of class, you have to read one of them and respond on it. And then the fourth week, you have to do another one, and so on. So it’s a little bit of it throughout the whole course instead of all loaded at the end. I think it helps having some of those conversations with the students as well because they’re not just seeing the ideas in the conversations. They’re not just seeing the ideas in the paper. They’re kind of seeing both and it just helps intersperse it a little bit throughout the semester. I know I’ve done that a couple times now. I think you’ve done that since as well.

John M.: I did a pre-semester sort of essay and then I did a post-semester essay. But it was in response to the first time we did that, which is referred into the paper, and one of my students actually told me in their essay, he was like, ‘Hey, I wish I had this at the beginning of the semester.” So yeah, it’s definitely like a “duh” moment. Like, I probably should have done something earlier in the semester, instead of waiting all until the end. But, you learn as you do these things, so. But the essays that the students wrote… I provided them with prompts just to alleviate any sort of writer’s block that they may have. But, the students who basically ignored my prompts and told me their personal stories were the essays essentially that I still remember. I had students that were straight A students that were telling me exactly what I thought was going to happen: that they’ve been the smart person their entire life, and they kind of feel trapped by being a smart person. They don’t want to take any risks because if they risk something and fail, then that’s their identity as a smart person, right? They’re not smart anymore. I’ve had students from the other end of the grading spectrum who basically told me that the first day they walked into the class before I even said anything, they were already convinced that they were going to fail the class. I had students tell me about mental health problems. I had adult learners talking about balancing life and school issues. I mean, it’s just absolutely amazing what they told me, they opened up basically. That made a big impression on me.

John K.: Tying into an earlier podcast, Judie Littlejohn and I had introduced something really similar where we have weekly discussion forums. And I also noticed the same sort of thing, that I got to know the students much better because when they were talking about some of the barriers or the issues they face, they were sharing a lot of details about their life. And you get to know them better and they also seem to form a little bit more of a tighter classroom community because they also got to know each other a little bit more.

Rebecca: It is kind of interesting how when students are talking about their process or who they are as learners, is very different than talking about the subject matter. And it does get them to open up and may be engaged with faculty in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise.

John M.: And I have found being honest about my own failures in the past has been a catalyst for conversation, right? Because they view us as professors, they view us as the authority figures, the experts in that we never fail. And basically telling them how many times I fail on a daily basis in my own mathematical research. It goes a long way, I think… finding common ground with them. And acknowledging how difficult the subject material is. I mean, there’s a reason that calculus has a high failure rate because it’s a hard course, among other reasons. Yeah, just having the humility with the students and kind of stepping down off of the pedestal in front of them, I think that it helps.

Rebecca: So do you want to share some of the results that you got from your study?

Sarah: We saw some very significant quantitative results. I mentioned the MAPS instrument is what we use. It’s a 31-point scale. Its reliability and validity has been established pretty well, especially in calculus classes. One of the things that they did was they looked to see if the items were consistent with expert consensus…. So, with how mathematicians view it and all of the items were valid with the attitudes of mathematicians except some of the growth mindset scales. Research says that that’s an important scale as well. And on this 31-point scale, we saw an almost 4-point improvement from pre-test to post-test…of the students becoming more aligned with the expert opinions, which is a really significant amount…I mean, almost 10% improvement, which is even more remarkable, because when this assessment was first validated, they found that there was usually a negative result from taking a Calculus I class. So, the attitudes get worse pre-post in a calculus class and ours had statistically significant improvement. In addition, we saw statistically significant improvement among all of the sub scales. Now some of them were better than others. Some were just barely below .05 in terms of significance and others were much more significant. I mean, we really saw that over the course of this semester, they really did change their attitudes. We also had some evidence, as John’s already talked about, from their essays…where they said how they started to view mistakes as productive, and they started to feel like there was value in making mistakes and learning from them.

John K.: You mentioned alignment with an expert scale, can you explain that for our listeners?

Sarah: Essentially, what the original authors and it was Code et. al. that did this paper and develop this instrument. They gave this survey to students and they gave it to mathematicians and looked for alignment. Particularly they were looking for whether or not the mathematicians agreed on the items. And the idea was our goal is to get math students to have attitudes more like mathematicians, because that’s our goal, right? …is to develop future mathematicians. And so we would like those attitudes to get closer to how mathematicians view mathematics. They had high agreement among the mathematicians on every item, like I said, except one or two of the growth mindset questions. So, in other words, this survey reflects how mathematicians view mathematics. And that was how they determined the right answers on the survey, whether a particular item is something you should agree with or something you should disagree with. They went with the expert consensus.

John K.: So now, I may be misconstruing this, but are you suggesting that perhaps a lot of mathematicians had adopted a fixed mindset? So, there was a bit more variance there on that?

Sarah: I will say that was what the results of their validation showed.

John K.: Okay.

Sarah: And leave it at that. [LAUGHTER]

John K.: It does remind me of that study a few months ago, that found that when instructors had a growth mindset, the achievement gap narrowed and the drop-fail-withdrawal rate was much lower in courses, then for those instructors who had a fixed mindset. I think that maybe even more of an issue in the STEM fields than it is in humanities and social sciences, but I think it’s not uncommon everywhere.

Rebecca: I say it’s a common problem everywhere.

John M.: I’ll say it…mathematicians suffer from fixed mindsets. I’ll just say it, right? [LAUGHTER]

John K.: Many academics do.

Sarah: Yeah.

John M.: Yes, of course.

Sarah: I mean, the people who choose to become academics are often the people that were successful in school and they decide to continue with it. I mean, it is less likely that people who felt unsuccessful decide to keep going and to go into academia.

John K.: Selectivity bias there and that reinforces a belief in a fixed mindset, perhaps.

Sarah: Precisely.

Rebecca: What kind of response have you seen from students from…I mean, it sounds to me like this one study lead to good results, and then that changed many classes in that you’ve taught or the way that you’re teaching, how have students responded?

Sarah: Generally positively. I think doing the projects at the end of the semester wasn’t the best idea because they just feel so overwhelmed at the end of the semester with exams and projects and everything coming due. So, I did get some responses of “W hy do I have to do this now.” But generally, I think they appreciated learning about learning.

John M.: I think that given the opportunity to talk about their past experiences, I think they appreciated that. For the most part, I’ll agree with Sarah. I think that the message landed with an awful lot of students like I wanted it to. Some of my favorite essays were students who told me that they thought I was crazy on the first day. I mean, you go into a math class to learn math, you don’t go into a math class to study metacognition, or whatever it may be. I had one student the first time around, who basically told me it was all a load of crap, like why this is not working at all. And I had a student the last time that I did this, she was very skeptical towards the end even. Basically, aliken it to just some cheesy self-help stuff. I think that most students responded positively.

Rebecca: Have you seen the response impact other faculty in your area? For example, if they really liked having those techniques and things introduced in your class, have they asked other math faculty to do that in future classes or are you finding that its not many math students who were actually in that particular class?

Sarah: We haven’t done any tracking, so I don’t know where his students have gone. I mean, I’m sure some of them went on to Calc II…I’m sure some of them did not. Right. I mean, I guess most of them would have had Jess the following semester, right? Did she say anything?

John M.: No, she didn’t say anything. I’m teaching Calc III right now, and I have some of my former calculus students that were in this and they’re doing well.[LAUGHTER] Small sample size, but yeah, they’re doing well.

John K.: That could be an interesting follow up though to see how successful they were in the subsequent classes.

Sarah: Yeah.

Rebecca: Sometimes we’ve heard anecdotes, of departments and things when there’s been change that if students really respond well to whatever the techniques are, that they will demand it of other faculty members, and John’s talked about this before in economics.

John K.: Yeah, when you can show results…

Rebecca: Yeah.

John K.: …that there’s been some gain, and especially if it comes from students at the same time, it often puts pressure on other people in the department because if you’re able to show people that your technique has been successful and students are coming in and saying, “G ee, I wish you would consider doing this. I did this in my intro classes, and it was really helpful.” That sometimes helps make change much easier.

Sarah: Yeah, so one of the things that we did look at was we compared the final exam scores of John’s sections to the other sections of calculus that semester. Now, there was some other issues that clouded that data a little bit. His scores were a little bit lower than the other instructors. But what was really surprising, essentially, if you look at, I don’t remember if it were just the final exams or the semester grades. The DF rates were the same among the sections, but the withdrawal rates were significantly different. And that almost no one withdrew from John’s sections. I think there were two if I remember the data correctly, whereas there was like five or six on average from the other sections. And so the DFW rates were different, but the DF rates weren’t. So I just thought that was an unusual circumstance. So, it seems like the students were sticking with his class… and pushing through.

John K.: And if there is a larger portion of students staying with the class, then perhaps a slightly lower average grade is not necessarily a bad sign…

Sarah: Exactly.

John K.: …because student success is partly measured for persistence to completing the course.

Sarah: Exactly. I think because there were more students who stuck it through to the final exam, then his final exam scores ended up being a little bit lower. But again, if you looked at like overall course grades, they ended up being pretty consistent, other than the W rates. I wanted to make sure that there weren’t significant differences in the rates and I think it was just shy of being statistically significant. Like, if you had one more student that would’ve been significant. But just to make sure that, especially like adding the test corrections in wasn’t substantially making the class too easy, right? Because that’s often a critique that, you know, “Well you make these changes, but is that just making the class too easy and people who aren’t really prepared, are they passing?” And so I just did this analysis of the, like I said, it was really just a t-test analysis, but just to see whether or not it was significantly lower and it wasn’t significant. It was lower, right, just not significantly. And then like I said, I looked at retention rates just more as an explanation for why the average was lower.

John K.: In a lot of studies of interventions, the dependent variable is the drop-fail-withdrawal rates, because that’s a measure of success in completing the course. That by itself could be an interesting focus of a study. I’ve been running this metacognitive cafe in my online classes for a while and I did have a student in the class who wrote a few times about the metacognitive development that was introduced in one of your classes. They didn’t specify who but they said, we’re also doing some work on metacognition in the math class, and they said it was really useful and it was nice to see it in two classes.

Sarah: Yay!!

John M.: Good.

John K.: So there’s at least one positive data point there or one additional data point there. So are you going to continue this in the future? And if so, what might you do differently?

Sarah: Well, I think we’ve mentioned already that we’ve worked on including some of the ideas at the beginning of the semester and throughout the semester, rather than one project at the end. For the reason that it really benefits them most at the beginning of the semester when things are getting started. I think we’ve also both changed different things about our grading systems to incorporate more opportunities for growth.

John M.: The last time I did this, I introduced some articles that were a little bit more rigorous with the data and the science, because I sort of wanted to counter that kind of criticism that all this “Oh this is just a bunch of TED Talks…” that kind of thing. So, I really wanted the students to see some of the science behind it, the science of learning, because I really wanted to send that message that “No, this is not me just standing up here saying, ‘Oh, this is going to help you or anything, right?’ This is actually stuff that researchers have thought about before.”

John K.: I had a very similar response the first time I did this. I had a video I posted which was a TED talk by a cognitive scientist who talked about research that showed that learning styles were a myth. And some students had come to believe in the existence of learning styles because they’ve heard of them and often been tested, multiple times in multiple years, on their learning styles. Sometimes even through college and that’s rather troubling. The students said, “Well, this is just one researcher, I’m sure there’s lots of other studies. I don’t believe it because it’s not consistent with what I’ve always been told or what I’ve heard.” So I decided to modify it then and I added to that discussion, five or six research studies. In case you don’t believe this TED talk by someone who’s done a lot of research on this, here’s a number of studies, including some meta analyses of several hundred studies of this issue, and that has cut much of that discussion. They’re less likely to argue against it when it’s not just a talking head or not just a video when they can actually see a study even if they don’t understand all the aspects of it.

Sarah: Yeah. So I think that’s one thing we’ve tweaked what articles and what videos are we showing. I know the semester I gave my students a article that had just come out this September, that students perceive active learning as being less efficient, even when they’re learning more. In some physics classes at Harvard, they gave two weeks at each thing… two weeks of active and two weeks of lecture, and then they had them switch. And the students learned more with the active learning, but felt they learned less. And my students have been feeling frustrated because they feel like they’re not learning enough and that I’m not telling them what to do.

Rebecca: You’re not “teaching” them.

Sarah: I’m not teaching them. And we spend the class period, letting them vent. So all their feelings were out in the open. But, then I sort of countered with this article saying, “Look, I promise you really are learning things. You just don’t feel like you are. But you really, really are. And you’re actually learning it better than if I were using a different style.” So, that’s one way that we’re tweaking the articles because sometimes the research comes out that’s pertinent.

John K.: We refer to that Harvard study in a few past podcasts. We touched on it in a podcast that will release on October 9th. I haven’t shared it with my class yet, but I’ve been tempted to.

Rebecca: What was the discussion like talking about that particular article? Given that they were frustrated?

Sarah: I mostly was just trying to acknowledge that I understand their frustrations…and that, yes, the way I’m teaching this class can be frustrating. I agree. Sometimes I get frustrated about it. But I know that ultimately, they are learning things and that they are going to be stronger writers and stronger students of mathematics by using this structure. And so I kind of use it as evidence of I’m not changing.

Rebecca: So I hear you…

Sarah: Yeah.

Rebecca: …nut…

Sarah: I hear you, but…

John K.: I had this very conversation with my class today. They’re coming up for an exam very shortly. And I asked them, how did they review before an exam and the most common answer was they like to reread the material over and over again. And I mentioned some of the research on that. And I said, the best way to review is to work on problems with this. And I gave them several ways in which they could do that, that are built into the course structure. And I said, “But that doesn’t feel as effective. Why?” And one of the students said, “Well, I get things wrong.” And I said, “And when would you rather get things wrong, when you’re reviewing for an exam, or when you’re taking exams?” And I think some of them got that message. So I’m hoping we’ll see when they take the test next week.

John M.: Right? It seems like anytime you do anything that’s just not a standard straight lecture, there’s a certain amount of buy in that you need to get from the students. And sometimes that can be very difficult. There’s almost a salesmanship that you have to do throughout the semester to make sure that everybody’s on the same page and to kind of fight those feelings where the students give you a lot of pushback. Yeah, that’s the great fear is that when you innovate or you experiment that’s going to go horribly wrong. And sometimes it does, but, you know, we still keep going.

John K.: Because students are creatures of habit. They’ve learned certain things and they want to keep doing things the same way. And anything new can seem troubling, especially if they’re getting feedback along the way that says they need to work more on things…that’s not as pleasant as rereading things and having everything look familiar.

John M.: Right

Rebecca: Passively sitting in a lecture when things all seem like it makes perfect sense to you, because an expert is describing it who knows what they’re talking about, right? Always feels easier than trying to apply it yourself. And I think that students, even though the lecture might feel better, and learning is hard…over time…at the end, when they’ve seen how much they’ve accomplished, and you do have them reflect…many of them appreciate or come around. Sometimes, it’s not in that same semester, sometimes it’s emails, months or years later.

John K.: Yes.

John M.: Right. Right, right.

Sarah: If only if we could do course evals, you know, a whole year later,

John K.: Or five years later. That may not work too well in my tenure process, though.

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

Sarah: Well, the first thing is we’re hoping our article gets published. It’s been submitted. We’re waiting for reviewers. I’m going on maternity leave next semester…that’s really what’s next.

Rebecca: Sounds like a new adventure.

Sarah: It is a brand new adventure.

John M.: Wow, I don’t think that far ahead, I guess. Yeah, I guess I’m that unoriginal, huh. But, yeah, no I’m just trying to…

Sarah: We’re moving to a new building.

John M.: Yeah, moving to a new building, and getting a new department chair. Yeah, that’s right.

John K.: A new desk to go with the chair?

John M.: No. Ah… Yeah, funny, funny, funny.

Sarah: if only…

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for joining us, this has been really interesting.

[MUSIC]

John K.: 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.

John K.: Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Kiara Montero.

98. Developing Metacognition

Many students arrive in our classes with relatively little understanding of how they learn. In this episode, Dr. Judith Boettcher joins us to discuss how well structured project-based or problem-based learning activities can help students develop their metacognitive skills so that they become more successful as learners.

Dr. Boettcher is the author of many books and articles on higher education and has long been a leader in the field of online education. The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips, co-authored by Judith has been an important resource for faculty transitioning to online teaching. At Oswego (and many other institutions), many faculty have been using materials that Judith has developed for ACUE (the Association of College and University Educators).

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Many students arrive in our classes with relatively little understanding of how they learn. In this episode, we examine how well structured project-based or problem-based learning activities can help students develop their metacognitive skills so that they become more successful as learners.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Today our guest is Dr. Judith Boettcher. She is the author of many books and articles on higher education and has long been a leader in the field of online education. The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips, co-authored by Judith has been an important resource for faculty transitioning to online teaching. At Oswego many of our faculty have been using materials that Judith has developed for ACUE (the Association of College and University Educators). Welcome Judith.

Judith: Thank you very much, Rebecca and John, it’s great to be here.

John: We’re really pleased to have you here. Our teas today are… are you drinking tea?

Judith: I actually… yes, made a special point. Here’s my cup, which you can’t see. But I chose one of my favorite teas, which is a lemon and ginger tea from England, of course,

John: the Twinings version.

Judith: No, this is a Hamptons tea from London.

John: We have the Twinings version of that in our tea collection.

Rebecca: I’m drinking Jasmine green tea today.

John: And I’m drinking oolong tea today.

Judith: Sounds good.

Rebecca: Judith, your mug looks really interesting. Is it abstract art. Is that what was on it?

Judith: It’s actually pears.

Rebecca: Okay, I only saw the bottom part of it. I can see it now.

Judith: Yeah, right. Well, I will confess that at some point, I finally decided to clear every vendor cup out of my cupboard.

Rebecca: That sounds refreshing.

Judith: Yes.

John: I have vendor cups all over… in my vehicles… in my offices, everywhere.

Judith: Well, that was part of my retirement process that I went through. I said, “Okay, that’s it.”

John: One of the things we had trouble with is picking a topic because you’ve worked on so many topics, but we settled on having you talk a little bit about how students can work to improve their metacognition using project-based or problem-based learning. But before we do that, could you talk a little bit about what metacognition means?

Judith: I would really like to John, partially because I had this book with the title of metacognition that I was reading when I was with a family event. And one of my relatives said, “What in the world is this? Meta what?” [LAUGHTER] So, an easy way I like to think about metacognition is the definition of just it’s thinking about thinking. It’s a definition, I think. that we can all just really grab on to and we can really use. But then I kind of like to expand that definition into one that’s in the How People Learn report that I go back to pretty regularly and that is that “metacognition is the process of reflecting on and directing our own learning.” And I really like that one, because it’s got the two steps, I think, what we want to really kind of focus on with metacognition, and that is reflection… really stopping thinking, pausing… and then actually directing our own thinking, because that leads to action. So then we have reflection and action, which I think is the core of metacognition skills.

Rebecca: One of the things I think we often talk about in education context is this reflection piece. And we always tell students to reflect, but we don’t always give them the time and space to do that.

Judith: Yeah. [LAUGHTER] Very much.

Rebecca: So can you talk a little bit about project-based and problem-based learning and how metacognition connects to those rather than standard ways of operating in the classroom?

Judith: Yes, I would love to do that. In fact, that was one of the first things when we’ve got into online learning, was that there was a real struggle as to how do we maintain the security and everything of people taking tests. And so it turned out that we decided that one of the best ways of gathering evidence of student learning was not by doing these tests… that we would actually have the students do projects. And that kind of evolved into the following process. And that is that in some of the work I’ve done for ACUE, and also in the book, I’ve mentioned that I really like to design a course that starts with the students selecting and doing a project, actually in week one or two of the course. And then that students actually focus on that project throughout the entire course. And that’s the mechanism by which we gather evidence of student learning. It kind of also avoids this whole process of buying papers and buying other kinds of things. Because you really have milestones along the way.

I’m going to stop and talk about the first step for just a moment. And that is choosing a project. One of the wonderful things about choosing a project is that then students actually have to stop and then think about the kind of project that they want to do. It gives them an opportunity to actually customize a course to their interests, which starts getting past that big motivation problem that sometimes teachers might say, “Well, how do I motivate them?” Well, we give them the opportunity to choose something that is of interest to them. So they choose a project, and then they actually write up what that project is that they want to do. But that’s not the end of selecting the project. Before the project is really kind of finalized that they’re going to be working on, they actually then sit down and talk with some of their other students and the other peers. They switch and swap their proposed project descriptions, so that they actually talk out loud about the project. And then hopefully, by talking to their peers about it, they get some additional ideas, and they refine it a bit. And then it goes to the faculty member. So the faculty member doesn’t get it right away, but it goes through this first the individual students thinking about it, and then the other students thinking about it, and then the faculty member can take a look at it. And that’s only milestone one that can take up to about the third week of a course. But by then, hopefully, that gives them a real focus of the course rather than having just the topics thrown at them from week one through week 16… that they’ve got a real focus of: “Oh, how is this going to affect my project?” We can come back to that I just want to mention briefly then there’s like four other milestones, five other milestones for every project throughout the course. And the first is that project description, then the second one would be planning how do I plan to do it, which is a really important metacognitive skill. And then another milestone would be some type of other “Just checking in, how are you doing?” …kind of a thing. And then there’s two final things. One is where they actually share their project with the other students, like in a mini conference, whatever. And then the final thing is the actual final thing, which might not be a paper, it might be a video or an interview, it could be one of a number of things that would go into their student portfolio then. But, that gives the student a focus throughout the entire course that way. That’s a lot, isn’t it?

Rebecca: It is a lot. [LAUGHTER]

John: When you have them give feedback to each other, do you recommend that that’s done synchronously or asynchronously If it’s an online course?

Judith: You know it’s actually best, I think, that the students do it somewhat like a brainstorming event. What you and I are doing right now here with Zoom, students can do with FaceTime, they can do it with just an online gathering chat, whatever. If they’re really, really busy online students, and they have to do it asynchronously, that can be done too with email. I mean, that works too. But it’s often really great for the students themselves to talk out loud. We don’t have them talking enough, I think. They read passively, and they kind of think and everything else, but we don’t have ways for them to use their voice to talk about what they’re thinking.

John: It sounds like the project’s really nicely scaffoldied. But how do you bring in the metacognitive development? How do you get students to improve their metacognitive skills? Is that something they’re explicitly thinking about? Or is it something that’s done as part of the structure of the project?

Judith: Well, of course, it depends on how the faculty member wants to do it. As I had the chance to go back and look more intensely at the metacognitive skills, it occurs to me that thinking metacognitively is such a basic intellectual skill in many respects, particularly now in our 21st century. It’s as fundamental as reading and writing. And, you know, I think we need to look at our entire curriculum from pre-K through whatever as to really how do we explicitly teach and model and coach metacognition skills, which includes with that initial project proposal, we can talk about the fact that what they need to do is think and be sure to build on their interest to give them the criteria and coaching as to how that’s going to really work for them. It’s really a problem when they have to select a project. So what are the constraints on that problem? What are the features or benefits that they’re going to get from this? …and to build that into the assignment and actually writing out the initial proposal and then meeting with their colleagues and peer students, that’s all part of the coaching and the modeling of the metacognitive process.

Rebecca: I think your emphasis on talking about things is really interesting. Because I find that students often will passively write something, and it makes no sense to anybody. But as soon as they try to explain it out loud, they realize it makes no sense. Because when it’s in writing, or they’re just reading in their head, they don’t often have that realization. But as soon as you try to say it out loud as a sentence, it’s not structured in a way that makes sense. They catch themselves or they realize, “Wait, there’s a big hole in what I’m talking about here… nobody knows what I’m talking about.” You can tell it by other people’s faces looking blankly back at you.

Judith: And then they realize that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Judith: So yes, in fact, that’s apart of the power of talking with their peers about the project, because the peers would most likely say, “Well, wait a minute, why did you choose this? Why are you interested in this?” And so that’s when they have to dig more deeply. It almost goes back to that Socratic questioning, “Why do you think that? Why is that important to you? Do you think this is going to make any difference in your life?” One of the things I really recommend in online learning is that the students, when they read and look at the objectives for a course, to stop… and in the first week, actually, to have the students process those learning objectives, and then personalize one or two of them and say, “This is what I really want to make certain I know when I finish this course. This is how I’m going to be a different person.” Thinking “What skill am I going to be able to do when I finish this course?” They kind of set that goal and set those expectations early on. Hopefully, students setting those goals and objectives become again, more personal to them, and something that they can check themselves. And then as they go through the course, “What progress am I making on this particular goal? How is this coming?” …kind of fun.

Rebecca: Are there ways that you would suggest a faculty member model metacognition early on in an online course?

Judith: Well, I think a really easy way for faculty to model meta cognitive skills is… say, for example, in biology or one of sciences, one of the things I love to look at is the biography of a scientist and looking at, “Well, how did they come to this point? What made them think X, Y, or Z as opposed to A, B, or C?” and we find it’s really rooted in their personal lives and their thinking that they’ve been doing. So faculty member can somewhat do the same thing, in fact, very early on in their introduction to the course. Now, what do you teach Rebecca?

Rebecca: I teach web design.

Judith: You teach web design, okay. So in your introduction, then, to your students, you can say the reason I love web design is as follows. And you can go back into your life and your experiences and say, This is what happened to me… and this is what I was thinking… this is how I got to this point. So you really speak out loud, and you share your processes by which you arrived at that point. And we can do that for any kind of thinking… as we’re talking about an experiment. We do want faculty to share their expertise and their dissertation, for example, they say, “Wow, you know, this is why I’m interested in this. And you know, after 25-30 years, I’m still interested in this because of this.” So they share their thinking processes. Another really easy time is when students ask them a question. And obviously, this can happen online in the synchronous activities. And the students might ask them a question about, “Well, gee, Professor, so and so what does this really mean in this instance, or in this context?” And the faculty member can say, “You know, I really am not sure about that. And I would like to, before I answer that, I would like to do a little more research and thinking, and I will get back to you on that.” So it sends the message that the process of thinking is something that we keep doing all the time.

Rebecca: I think that moment of admitting that you’re not always the expert in everything in the moment, is always a good thing for students. And they respond really positively to that.

Judith: That’s right. It also gives them the opportunity to say, “You know, Professor, I would like a little more time to think about that. Let me get back to you on that.”

John: How can we tell that students have improved their metacognitive skills? I like the idea of having the peer instruction do that. Or to work with students to help them recognize what they know and what they don’t know. But how can we measure that? Or how can students know that they’re more metacognitively aware? How can they observe improvement?

Judith: Well, one of the things I did as I was thinking about this was, you know, I was kind of preparing for you asking me the question, “What are the actual metacognitive skills?” and I came up with five thinking skills that we really want to encourage and model for students. The first one is an easy one. And that is, number one, we really want to encourage students to think. I know that sounds somewhat simplistic, but oftentimes think about in the online environment, we give them an assignment and students, they don’t even read it, really, they kind of scan it. And they kind of assume without thinking that that’s what that assignment is going to give back. And so one metacognitive skill is to pause and stop to really take some time to think and process. In fact, I kind of like to think about the assignment as a briefing. You know, we use briefings in business and politics and detective crime solving and all the rest of it we use briefings. Maybe as a faculty member, you want to encourage the students to think of an assignment as a briefing and a briefing is, “Well, this is what we know now, what do we want to know about next? How are we going to find out what that next is? And when you finish this assignment, what do you expect to know or think about or become clear about?” So step number one is really pausing and thinking. There’s a book out recently called, was it Kahneman? It’s that Thinking Fast and Slow or Slow and Fast?

John: Yes, Thinking Fast and Slow. It’s a great book.

Judith: Thinking Fast and Slow, right. Well, you know, he makes the point that we live in such a fast-paced world that our first response to anything is that, “Oh, I know the answer to that.” It’s like Jeopardy, and you really don’t stop and pause and think. And so, because it’s really easy, that’s the short-term memory, we don’t have to think about it. We know that in order for learning to occur, that we really have to stop and give time for information going into our short-term memory to get into the long-term memory. The only way anything goes from the short-term to the long-term memory is for us to connect what we know already with the new information coming in. And you know what? …that takes time. So that’s the one thing for all of us. Time is so seriously, we don’t want to take the time. But if we don’t take the time, the only way learning occurs, you know, if we grow dendrites in our brain, and so if we don’t take the time the dendrites don’t grow, and nothing lasts. It’s kind of a fast bullet shot, so to speak. And then we forget it. As soon as we use it in a sentence, it’s gone. So the idea that we have to really discipline ourselves to stop and think and process, what is it that I’m needing to do? What is it that I want to learn? What do I want to get out of this? And when I finish this assignment, how will I know that I’ve really finished the assignment. Which brings us to the next thinking skills. One of the things I really liked, I use myself a great deal. And this is kind of a hard won practice of my own. And that is that, whenever I was given an assignment whether it was at work or wherever, whenever I had a hard time getting started… you know, getting started is sometimes one of the most difficult parts of anything, right? So anyhow, I finally figured out that one of the reasons it was hard getting started was that I didn’t quite know what it was I was going to do. I finally realized that my best practice is that I visualize what it is going to be when I finish. I get requests to review articles for journals, etc, etc. Well, I know now that my visualization works is that I’ll be done when I finish answering all those questions, you know, read the article, finish answering all the questions, I compose my response back to the editor. And that’s when I’m done, okay? So with any kind of a project, we want to encourage the students to say, “Okay, what is my assignment going to look like when I’m really done? When I have finished reading this article, or reading this core seminal research project? When will I really be done? Will I be done when I can explain the research to someone else? Will I be done when I can actually implement these ideas in a web design project? Is that when I’m going to be done? Just what is that project going to look like when I’m really done?” So we just celebrated the Apollo landing on the moon, in July. I just had the recent opportunity to see the Apollo 11 program that they created out of the original footage from everything that was happening at Cape Kennedy and Houston… the pictures, it showed like, literally, a room full… it almost look like 100 guys, and they were all guys at that time… 100 guys sitting at computer terminals, and you think when they worked on that project, how did they envision success? They had to envision success as actually a man being on the moon. How did he get to the moon? What did he land on the moon in? And then how are we going to get him back from the moon safely? I mean, think of all the things that had to be planned and worked on and everything had to be coordinated to make that thing happen.

So thinking skills, we have to think, we have to visualize, and then we have to plan. Once we know what that final vision is, we need to then plan each of those steps along the way. And again, we can model some of that and coach that by building the planning into the assignments for the project. We definitely want the students to give me a plan with the date, the milestones, the resources they’re going to be needing,]… if they need to make appointments or interviews when that’s going to happen. So we help them realize that projects just don’t happen. They happen after all of these various steps. And then, of course, we build in step number four, evaluating and pausing to then debrief each step along the way: How am I doing? Do I need more time? What else might I need? What else do I really want to know, if I do have enough time? I mean, this really does happen with web design, right? We get to a certain point, we think of it’d be great if I did this. Great if I did that. Do I have enough time to do that? Do I have the knowledge to do that? Or do I need to learn a new skill to insert that into that. So those are all questions that we want to ask encourage the students to plan for and to ask along the way. And then of course, the final one is the final debriefing. When you hand something in, you get feedback both from your peers and from the faculty member. And in many online courses, you do have these little mini conferences where you invite alumni or experts or just friends in to say take a look at this and see what you think.

Rebecca: I like your framework of the briefing. And it’s actually one that I use in my classes pretty regularly.

Judith: Oh, great.

Rebecca: When I’m doing long term projects, I have students on a weekly basis do basically a little briefing of what did they do? What do they need to do? What are the planning steps? So not just like that big scope of the whole project, but on a very routine basis, checking in with their schedule and checking in with their plan and what they’re struggling with to demonstrate what they’re doing, and what their thought processes is as they’re working on it. So I asked them, “What were the big design decisions you made this week? And what did you base those on?”

Judith: Wonderful. In fact, I sometimes like to use the example of Mark Harmon, the actor in NCIS. I love those programs, actually. Like every morning, he kind of just drives into the office and says, “Okay, what do we have.” And each one of his team members have to then report “Okay, since we saw you yesterday, this is what we’ve done. And this is what we know.” And then from that briefing, decide on their next steps, “Okay, we need to do X, Y, or Z.” It’s a really kind of a nice example of planning.

John: Building it into the project just seems to make an awful lot of sense. If you want students to improve their skills, have them apply those skills and structuring it so that they’re doing it is a very reasonable way of doing this.

Judith: And I love the fact that, Rebecca, as you were saying is to ask the students to say what have you been thinking for? And what made you arrive at the decision that you’d like to do something a little different there? So yeah, again, verbalizing the thought processes, is part of the metacognitive abilities.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that surprises students with that assignment is that they don’t realize that they’ve made decisions.

Judith: Oh, interesting.

Rebecca: That happens in projects. But also, if they’re writing a paper, whatever, they’ve made decisions, but they don’t necessarily think of it like they’ve made a decision. They’ve just kind of moved forward. So it causes them to stop and pause and do that first thing that you were talking about, and think for a second before they move forward.

Judith: Yeah.

Rebecca: I do have to say, that since I instituted that, my students are far more articulate when they’re talking about their projects. [LAUGHTER]

Judith: When they’re doing their own projects, they get their passions involved. There was another thing I wrote recently on curiosity, how important curiosity is and how we want to really build that in. In fact, one of the things when I was doing a workshop, I suggested to faculty, I said, “You know, let’s get the students to stop answering questions. Let’s get them posing questions. And let’s give them problems that, in our discipline, we don’t know the answers to, because what fun is that? Ok, so we set up the situation that we the faculty know the answers, and then they have to figure it out. So switch it around a little bit and say, here are some problems and we don’t know the answers, how am I to approach this? And then we’ll give them the challenge.” And that really, particularly John, I’m sure you’ve seen this with the TIP program, the students come up with things that you never would have expected.

John: It’s one of the reasons I enjoy it so much.

Judith: Yeah.

Rebecca: So one of the things that I think can be a challenge is if you’re doing a big project throughout the semester, we don’t want it to end up being just one big high-stakes assignment. Are there methods or ways or strategies that we can manage bigger assignments to have some lower-stakes moments or ways so that there’s not so much pressure, and that they’re allowed to make mistakes and improve and learn?

Judith: Yes, and I’m glad you asked that. Actually, somewhere in a couple of tips online that I wanted to refer to. It’s, I think, tip… is it 38 and 60, that talk about project-based learning online… that’s something to think about. But I also have a chart that recommends the grading process for an online course. And so you assign points to each of the milestones in the project. So you assign points with the project proposal and selection, but you also then have smaller team-based events where it’s worth a little bit. Also, the discussion board is a really important aspect of online learning. But it’s hard. How do you evaluate and grade that? So I recommend that about 15%, even 20% on the discussion board. And it’s pretty much a given like the classroom discussion is… so long as students are reasonably consistent about following the rubric for the discussion boards. So you’ve got a little bit there, you have also shorter essays and shorter leadership opportunities in an online course where they might summarize a week’s discussion. So there’s other kinds of activities within an online course. At no point is everything dependent on that one big project, but it does require the students to invest time and energy in that.

John: Many people often think of a need to develop metacognitive skills most for our less able students, thinking of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and so forth… that those who know the least often overestimate their learning by the most. But I think those issues may apply for students at all levels.

Judith: Yeah, we assume that great kids, actually, automatically have these skills and think that way, and they don’t.

Rebecca: Which I think is also a really great thing to talk about, too, because we often talk about metacognition, and helping students who are struggling, do better. But it’s also a great way to challenge students who are already doing well, to do better.

Judith: Absolutely, a great point.

John: For the last 32 summers, I’ve been teaching in the Talent Identification Program (or TIP) at Duke University. And one of the things I’ve observed is that many of the students there have generally been able to breeze through their regular classes without ever having to really learn how to learn. So they sometimes face a little bit of a challenge when they arrive at TIP, and suddenly they’re faced with a challenge. But a really nice part about this is that it’s an ungraded program, so that they can develop their learning skills without worrying about what sort of grades they’re going to get in their classes. And it’s much better to do it there than it would be at some future point, perhaps in a physical chemistry class, or a differential equations class, or some other class later in the career, when they haven’t really had to develop those metacognitive skills that are going to be useful in their future. Developing metacognitive skills really are important for students all along the spectrum.

Judith: That’s a really good example too, John, it’s an interesting phenomenon to talk about, really.

John: How can we tell whether students have higher levels of metacognition? Or how can we tell when students have not developed their metacognitive skills?

Judith: Well, you know, this is obviously a great question. And so let me share just a little bit about my thoughts on the students. How do we know when the students are totally clueless about their thinking processes? And I think one really red flag, particularly in online courses, that these are the students who rather consistently post comments on the discussion board: “What are we doing now? What was the assignment about? When is this? Oh, there’s a rubric, I didn’t know that.” These comments often are the ones from students that they really haven’t taken the time to really read the assignment and to make plans on that. These are also the students that we know for online students that they’re trying to do too many things. They’ve got 1000 things going on with their families, and work, very likely. And they just simply don’t take the time. So I think… just simple reminders all the way along the way in an online course from the faculty member. In the assignment, to be really clear about the assignment and to say, “Be sure to think about the following.” For example, if an article has been assigned, that you as a faculty member say, “Okay, this is why I’ve selected this article. Here are some of the core concepts that are really important in this” and guide the reading to say, “Why do you think the person did this? Be sure to be able to answer these kinds of questions?” And then also to be clear about maybe what you want to do when you finish this reading assignment, to talk about it. If necessary, explain it to your 12-year old. See if you can explain it to that person. So being really clear in the assignment would be, I think, super helpful for all students in an online course, because again, it’s the kind of thing a faculty member would do in the classroom, you’d say, “Okay, I want you to read this article. And you know, this is one of my favorite articles. This is why I want you to do it” …and all the rest of it.” I think we need to do more of that in the assignments in the online course. That’s one thing.

The other students that are clueless are the ones that keep thinking that all they have to do is passively read and reread and reread. We hear that all the time from students that “Oh, well, I read it 15 times. I don’t know why I don’t understand it.” Without saying, while giving help and modeling, as you’re reading this, think about the following.

Just as an aside, I signed up to take a course on brain, dendrites, and synapses from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and oh, my gosh, lesson three, they said, “Well, you know, if you’re not familiar with the electrical circuits, you probably need to go into the Wikipedia and get all this information.” I’m thinking, “Oh, I’m lost right here.” But the idea was that there was some foundational content that I didn’t have. And so again, if in an online course, if some of their content is dependent on some of those other core concepts that they might not have, to remind students that, “hey, this is a difficult reading. And you may want to get some further help in X, Y, or Z.” So again, going back to that whole briefing, and using the assignment as a briefing and giving them clues how to do well in the reading. Some of those comments really have to do with whether students are struggling or not. Because we want to emphasize more clearly the reasons for why we make choices. When we design a course, we really make lots and lots of design decisions and selections as to why I want my students to read X, Y, or Z. And I think sharing that rationale and sharing those reasons, I think, really helps give insight into the metacognitive thinking of the faculty member as well.

Then John, you ask the question, where we talked about little bit about how even when students are doing well, they may not be thinking metacognitively. And I think that it’s important to recognize that these explicit thinking skills about thinking, about visualizing, and about planning, etc, that it would be a good idea to build those visualization and planning into the assignments.

Now, one of the challenges with online courses, and I’ve seen this for years, is the fact that some students don’t have good places to study, they can be living in very busy environments, they don’t have an office, they don’t have a really quiet place to go. And so one of the things that we can do is actually ask the students to post a picture of where they’re going to be doing their studying. It kind of gets them thinking, “Okay, where am I going to be doing my studying? Is it going to be a place that I can really concentrate?” There was one study hint… that I actually just pulled it out, because I gave it my granddaughters…. and it was called “How to study” …and the little hint in there was that when you are sitting down to study, what you do is you find, select or design, some kind of a flamboyant little hat… think Cat in the Hat kind of thing, you know… just flamboyant things, design some kind of a flamboyant hat so that when you put that hat on, you tell your brain and you tell the other people around you that you’re going internal now… you’re really going to think… you’re going to work, you’re going to study. We almost do that nowadays… when I go into my Starbucks, or my local coffee shop… that’s where I do my writing, by the way… I put on my Bose headphones, because again, that signals to the people around me that, “Hey, I’m working, I’m really concentrating.” So if we asked the students to really stop and think, “where am I going to study?” If I’m a family person, and I’m working, “When am I going to study?” That I have to schedule my week, and the times and places that I’m going to do my work and do my studying. And oh, by the way, I kind of have to get my family and my friends on board to say “Yes, John or Rebecca, they’re studying now I can tell they’re studying, you got to leave them alone, give them the time and the space to leave them alone.” For online students I think this is super important for them to build a schedule ahead of time. And again, it recognizes the fact that metacognitively takes time and it takes space in order to do it well.

John: That reminds me of a couple of our previous podcasts, a few episodes back Mathew Ouelett from Cornell, when we were recording, he mentioned that he has a drawing or a painting, I think he did of a tomato, I don’t remember if it was a painting or if he colored it, but he has a big poster with a tomato on his door that he puts up as a signal for faculty to leave him alone because he’s engaged in a pomodoro technique, and he wants to be just focused on this. In a much earlier podcasts, our very second one, Judie LittleJohn was here and we talked about a metacognitive cafe online discussion forum she and I had both used. And one of the things she uses in it, and Rebecca has introduced that in her classes too, is exactly what you suggested, having students describe their study space and perhaps post a picture of it. And then to address all those issues about how well it works, how they deal with distractions, and so on. This ties in nicely to some of our earlier discussions,

Judith: Well great, actually as I was in my Lucky Goat local coffee shop, actually getting ready for this podcast a couple weeks ago, it turns out this young business person came in and he had a briefcase and all the rest of it and I could tell he was kind of settling in… a little too close to me… but that’s okay, there weren’t many seats available. But anyhow, he was talking pretty loudly. And I thought, “Oh, he’s on his phone.” You know, there’s everybody who talks to themselves these days is on the phone, right? And anyhow, we ended up talking to each other partially because he was talking. He said, you know, what he was doing was he was talking to himself about what he was going to do during his time there. And obviously setting his own personal goal. And then he had learned that from his mother. [LAUGHTER] But that does remind me of something else I do want to share. And that is when I do sit down… my own metacognitive practice… when I sit down to do a task… say, I go to the coffee shop, and I got a couple of things I need to do, I write out a mini plan. And list the time I’m starting… list my first subtask, the second sub tasks with approximate time to completion, and everything else. And of course, it doesn’t happen exactly like that. But I do get done, and I do manage to check the pieces off. But then another really important metacognitive practice that I’d like to share is that when I finish that task, I say “What is my next important step?” In fact, David Allen and his book Getting Things Done on Stress Free productivity, thee whole environment, even in business. His primary question is, “What is your next step?” So before you stop where you are, particularly in a writing project, you write down what your next step is. Because it’s totally short circuits, that transition. Because when you sit down, “Yeah, what was I doing now? What do I have to do? What is my next step?” Hey, I can’t tell you the number of hours that that particular little hint has saved me in terms of really making progress and stuff. So that’s another little hint to build into all that project planning. “What is my next step? What do I have to have next?” And sometimes for online learners, particularly, it’s not sitting down and studying, they have to get a resource, or they have to get a book or they have to make an appointment or they have to do something. But then that’s something that doesn’t have to necessarily be done exactly in order. To kind of almost wanting to build a little calligraphy thing, saying “What is my next step?” is a really, really great little hint.

Rebecca: I think experience certainly teaches us that, but it’s something that students who have less experience don’t explicitly know to do. Because we all know that we’ve tried to cut corners and hurry through something. And then if we don’t do that… I know I’ve spent hours figuring out now what was I doing? Like it’s been a while since I’ve worked on this project. Now, where was that? What was my filing system?

Judith: Yes. And what was I thinking? And oh, dear, I wish I bought that along with this other thing with me. Yeah, exactly.

Rebecca: I also wanted to circle back a little bit to the workspaces too. One thing that I found with asking students to talk about their workspace is also to show them professional workspaces. And to talk about the different kinds of environments and how space can help facilitate certain kinds of activities, but also can short circuit certain kinds of activities as well.

Judith: I think that’s really, really helpful. I know, I can’t tell you the number of conversations I had with people when I was in a work environment, and management was making all kinds of decisions that were not conducive to good collaborative work or good independent work. I mean, it’s a real discipline to think about.

John: And you need both spaces, but you will often only have something that’s better for one or the other.

Judith: Exactly, exactly. For any kind of a course, as we’re talking about metacognition, we get overly focused on “what” the students are learning as opposed to the “how.” So just in a capsule comment, that as we are designing online our classroom based courses that we really include in our assignments.. in the design and the various activities… that we include both the “what” of the content and the “how…” How do I get there? And I think we started getting there when they start setting those personal goals. Because some of the courses now are starting to include a goal or a learning outcome that they want their students to think like a scientist. You’re not just learning biology, we want you to think like a scientist. Or we want you to think like an engineer, or an entrepreneur, or whatever. But getting this… it’s a different mindset. You just don’t want to learn what biology is and learn about the content of biology, but I love finding out about the biographies of like Einstein and a few other folks. It’s just fascinating to get into their heads as to the process that they use to do that. Eric Kandle, by the way, is another Nobel Prize winner. He’s got some fabulous book out about his thinking and his processes by which he actually investigated and learned about memory. So… fun.

Rebecca: I think that using biographies is a great way to introduce students to that a little bit.

Judith: Yes.

John: A number of software packages, such as Lumen Learning’s Waymaker package, Norton’s Inquiszitive, and some of McGraw-Hill’s and CENGAGE’s products include attempts at building student metacognition in their products. For example, they’ll ask students questions and they’ll also ask them about their confidence in their responses. The Norton Inquizitive package, in particular, sets it up in a somewhat game-like situation, where they get to bet points on how confident they are. And then it gives them feedback on how they did versus how they perceived they were doing. Do you think this type of approach might be useful?

Judith: I was just reading a research study about that, John, and the students… Who was that by? I would have to go back and find it, I’ll have to email it to you. But the results showed that the students who were less confident…

John: …did better.

Judith: Yeah. Who was that?

John: I don’t remember. I think it was on the POD list, but maybe not, it might have been on an economics list. Consistent with the Dunning-Kruger effect, the students who did relatively poorly, had relatively high self perceptions of how well they did that were not reflected in their test scores.

Judith: …So important to be asking the question: “What do I know?” and “What don’t I know?” Because that’s a core, isn’t it? If we can answer that question. In fact, one hint that’s in that book called Make It Stick… which is a real good one… one of the key things I took away from that was the technique or practice of having in a textbook, taking the heading and turning it into a question and then seeing if you can answer that when you finish reading something. So again, “What do I know when I start? What do I know when I finish? And am I able to answer that question? Or am I able to pose another good question based on that?” So explaining to ourselves what I know and what I don’t know, I wanted to go back to that study that we were just both talking about, because my question that occurred to me as I was reading this is that, you know, the problem, I think, is that the study really didn’t really give the students an opportunity to verbalize why they felt confident or less confident, which is, I think, a whole missing piece of that. And I don’t know how they obviously would make designing a study… actually, my dissertation, in fact, I will bore you with the title of it is “Fluent Readers’ Strategies for Assigning Meaning to Unknown Words in Context.” And the thing is that, half the time, they didn’t know that was an unknown word, they just assumed they knew the word. So again, if we don’t know we don’t know something, we can be very confident. [LAUGHTER] But anyway, in order to get the answers to that question of the study, I actually had the students talk out loud to me, they verbalized and I would go back and ask them about the word and say, “What were you thinking when you came to that?” …and all the rest of it. So they had to verbalize their thinking. For me, it was a good study, it really worked. So again, going back to the value of verbalizing,”What do I know?” and “What don’t I know?” and “What do I think I know?” And Rebecca, we got that when you said, “Well, you started talking about what to do, and then you realized you didn’t know anything.”

John: As you suggested before, a really good thing with any project is to think about where you’re going next. And we always end our podcast with the question, “What are you doing next?”

Judith: What a great question. Okay, what am I working on next? I did mention that I just finished a little video for the Distance Learning Conference in Madison in early August. On my back burner, and I’ve been saying this for a couple of years, I would really like to write a book on concepts. What I’d like to do is… I mentioned I love working with faculty, and when we design courses it so often on a topic-to-topic basis. And yet, as I started working with faculty towards the last 10 years or so, I started asking faculty to tell me what their core concepts of a course is. And, you know, faculty, that’ve been teaching for 10,15, 20, even 30 years, they would pause and they’d say, “Uhhhh, [LAUGHTER] you know, we just teach topics,…” as opposed to core concepts. And we think about core concepts are what stay with us when we finish a course, hopefully. So the question really is, what do you expect your students to know, five years, 10 years down the road from what you have been spending all this time and energy on? So I’d like to write a book about thinking about concepts and how to design a course, and focus on problems and concepts rather than topics.

Rebecca: I like that, I think that would be really helpful. Can’t wait to read it.

Judith: [LAUGHTER] I can’t either.

Rebecca: You gotta visualize, you gotta visualize. [LAUGHTER]

Judith: Thank you. You can give it right back to me.

John: We talk a lot about backwards design. But a lot of the classes that many of us teach were not designed in that way. They did not start with those major course learning objectives, and then work backwards to get to that point. And they’re just series of topics taught in the same way that they were taught to them when they were students. And they were taught in the same way as their previous generation taught them. And there’s not always a lot of thought going into that. And that sounds like a really good project.

Judith: Well, thank you, I may call you and see. I’ll need faculty to work with on that project. So I may contact you for that.

Rebecca: I’ll sign up.

John: Be happy to.

Judith: I’d be willing, God be willing that I get going on that. [LAUGHTER]

John: I think we all have a few projects like that. But eventually they often happen.

Rebecca: Eventually.

Judith: Yes, well, actually talking about it is a good thing. Because the more things we write down, and the more things we actually talk about are more likely to happen.

Rebecca: And I have just told the world so it’s gonna have to happen, right?

Judith: Oh, dear. [LAUGHTER]

John: Although if you change your mind, we can edit it out.

Judith: Scratch that…

John: I know I come up with some things after a podcast where I say I want to do this in my class next semester. And once it’s in a recording now, I pretty much have to do it. [LAUGHTER]

Judith: Well, John, before we break up here, when you do go to Duke, what do you teach?

John: I teach economics, introductory micro and macro economics.

Judith: Okay. Sounds great.

John: It’s been a lot of fun. I love doing it. The kids are just so amazing.

Judith: Well, kids are amazing at that age. They really are. It’s wonderful to see them evolving to young men and women. You know, I’ve got eight grandchildren. My oldest is now 19 and a half. In fact, she did microeconomics online, both one and two this summer.

John: Thank you for joining us.

Judith: Well, thank you very much. I really enjoyed being here.

Rebecca: This is a lot of fun. Thank you so much.

[MUSIC]

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

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

95. Specifications Grading

Faculty often find that grading student work is a stressful and time-consuming activity. Students sometimes see grades as a subject of negotiation rather than as an assessment of their learning. In this episode, Dr. Linda Nilson joins us to explore how specifications grading can save faculty time while motivating students to achieve the course learning outcomes.

Linda is the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She is the author of Specifications Grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time as well as many other superb books, book chapters, and articles on teaching and learning.

Show Notes

  • Linda Nilson – Director Emeritus of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation (OTEI) at Clemson University
  • Nilson, L. (2015). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Nilson, L. “80. Self-Regulated Learning.” Tea for Teaching podcast. May 8, 2019.

Transcript

John: Faculty often find that grading student work is a stressful and time-consuming activity. Students sometimes see grades as a subject of negotiation rather than as an assessment of their learning. In this episode, we explore how the use of specifications grading can save faculty time while motivating students to achieve the course learning outcomes.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

John: Today our guest is Dr. Linda Nilson. She is the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She is the author of many superb books, book chapters, and articles on teaching and learning.

Rebecca: Welcome, Linda.

John: Welcome.

Linda: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.

Rebecca: I think it’s more of a welcome back, right?

John: Yes. Welcome back.

Linda: Welcome back. Yes, yes, yes. Good to be here again.

Rebecca: Are you drinking any tea today?

Linda: As a matter of fact, I am. Yes, yes, yes. Of course I had coffee this morning as well. But I am drinking tea. I am drinking a berry tea, but it also has black tea in it. So it’s still a bit of a stimulant anyway, but it tastes really good.

Rebecca: Sounds good.

John: I have ginger peach green tea.

Rebecca: And I have English breakfast.

John: In an earlier podcast we talked with you about your work with self-regulated learning and one of the topics that came up with that was specifications grading.

Linda: Yes.

John: So we’d like you to tell us a little bit about your book, Specifications Grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time… especially that last part. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Yes, saving faculty time. Yeah, I figured that would help sell the book. But it’s true. It does save faculty time. And one of the things that inspired this book was just my hearing so many complaints from so many faculty over the years, about grading and the aftermath of grading and returning grading material to students. And the constant steady stream of students trying to get another half a point, just arguing… just conflict… constant conflict… students being stressed… faculty being stressed… faculty getting larger and larger classes with less and less help… fewer and fewer TAs, if there ever any TAs. And I got tired of it. But there was a part of this that I did not invent. I heard it from a faculty member in the School of Management. And she was doing that pass-fail grading. It was saving her tons of time. She had huge classes, online classes. And she just invented this and she was also sick and tired… getting complaints from students and students not paying attention to her feedback, which of course, took her hours and hours and hours to write and return. So I took some ideas from her. But I also wanted to tie grades somehow to outcomes. And this is where another aspect of specs grading comes in. And that is with respect to bundling assignments, or turning them into modules or whatever. But I prefer the term bundles because it’s much more universal. So anyway, this was a solution to a problem. And that’s what a lot of my work has had to do with, making the faculty members job easier and more rewarding.

Rebecca: I think that you’ve been spying on me for the last many years. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Yes I have. Yes I have. [LAUGHTER] I’ll admit it.

Rebecca: I knew it. I knew it. So I think John and I are both really interested in the idea of saving time, as are many faculty. But you also talked about, in your book, the history of grading… how its evolved… the 4.0 system. How is this different? And how does this relate to the history of grading?

Linda: Well, let’s look at the history of grading first. Grade started, well everywhere, in 1783. It was Yale’s idea. And what they started doing in that year was an achievement-based student classification system. They were not using As and Bs, what they were using were Latin designations of like optimi outstanding and pejores for failing, like as in pejorative, right? Anyway, then in 1800, Yale dropped the Latin designations and started using numbers 0 to 4. Sound familiar? But that was Yale doing that now. In 1850, the University of Michigan initiated grades, but for them, it was strictly pass/fail, and it only took 50% to pass. So we talk about grade inflation now… look backwards. [LAUGHTER] Mount Holyoke, though, just a few years later set passing at 75%. Harvard, also a little bit later, invented the A to F system, but passing was only 26%. So if you were wealthy enough, you had to know less, right? Okay. But anyway, that’s where ultimately grades came from before 1783. This was in Europe. And this started hundreds of years before our notion of grades. There was something… it was like a Jeopardy game, where graduates… or graduates to be… the hopeful graduates… were answering questions in a tournament style, but the stakes were really high. And so yes, if you are winning throughout, you were really showered with honors. But if you were at the bottom, you lived years in shame. It was terrible. We talk about high stakes. Oh my. So anyway, grades were invented after universities. Socrates didn’t talk about grades, right? It’s a relatively new invention for sorting students.

Rebecca: How does the specification grading relate to this letter system or this 4.0 system?

Linda: Well, it kind of takes a break away. Because first of all, all this grades that I was talking about was with respect to courses, there have been pass/fail courses. Sometimes they worked well, sometimes they didn’t work so well. They work pretty well in medical school ‘cause we’re dealing with a highly motivated students who really understand the need to know. But other than that, most students would do the absolute minimum to get their C-… whatever, it didn’t work very well in terms of like motivating students to learn, they learned the absolute minimum. With specs grading, the pass/fail is within the course, the assignments and tests in the course. But, you don’t pass with a C or C-. You set the passing level at what you would regard as a B level. And this is what restores the rigor. I think we have been sold a poor bill of goods, when we don’t set our students to high standards. We say, “Well, maybe they can’t do it, and then they’ll get…” They can do it. Come on. They’re just not doing it because of our partial credit system and our point system ‘cause they can always get another half a point, right? …just by wearing you down. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Really, they do and they know it works, it worked in high school, so it works now. Now it may have worked the previous semester, these students aren’t stupid. And they can do what we ask them to do for “B” work… certainly at the undergraduate level, or actually at the graduate level as well. They could do it. But they choose not to, because they can survive otherwise. They could do well enough to pass or get their “B” or even get their “A.” So why should they sweat it, they can always get the partial credit. And students get partial credit. It’s almost like going back to the University of Michigan 50% passing for assignments and tests. I mean, we pretty much lowered the bar, because we want so many people to get over it. Well, people are getting over it without preparing… without doing a decent job. And they’ll spend 10 minutes… 20 minutes… the night before on an assignment knowing that no matter what they do, they will get partial credit and they will pass. So again, they’re not stupid, it’s just that, for them, college is a game that doesn’t have much to do with learning. That’s not where the focus is, and at least with specs grading, there is a lot more focus on learning, because you are tying the assignments and tests to student learning outcomes. And that’s a really nice part of the system in that those grades, the ABC, mean something in terms of outcomes achievement, and these, in turn, might be tied to program outcomes as well. So all of a sudden, you’ve gotten rid of an entire step at the departmental level of having to measure program outcomes. And why do you have to do this? Because accrediting agencies know that our grades don’t mean much of anything, as far as learning is concerned, as far as what they’re interested in, which is outcomes achievement. And outcomes achievement, it’s an up-or-out sort of thing. You can either do something or you can’t, and as long as there are standards set for that, and certainly the accrediting agencies want standards set for that. So let’s say “Okay, so your goal is a student can write a good quality, maybe not great quality, but a good quality business proposal.” Okay, fine. So if that is your outcome, what really does that entail? What exactly are you looking for in terms of a very good business plan? And that should be incorporated in your directions to students. But we don’t articulate that, do we? We really don’t. We speak very vaguely, “Well a business plan should have this and here’s your rubric.” Well, first of all, students often don’t understand the language, but is simply not detailed enough such that all students can understand the directions and actually follow them. We need to put more detail. Usually what we assigned undergraduates is some sort of a template or a formula to do this. And we’re not talking about that. We’re not sharing this template or formula with our students. And that’s what we need to do… not to say that you can’t allow for creative work. Matter of fact, with this system, you can and you don’t have to worry about tearing your hair out in different ways. “Well, I don’t know how to grade a movie.” Well, no, but you can talk about certain qualities of that movie, as in just simple things like the length, or perhaps the number of scenes that you want to see. And certainly they’ll be a learning goal and a communication goal connected to it. And that’s pretty much all you have to do. For most of our assignments, they are formulaic, but students don’t know the formula. And we need to tell them, and those are what you would call our specs for an assignment. So that’s really what we need to do. So all our work is up front and laying out what those specs are. It’s like a one-level rubric. But we don’t have to worry about different levels of the rubric, where there are four-level rubrics and five-level rubrics. We don’t have to worry about that. All we need is one. So we can afford the time to actually specify what we’re looking for… what that template involves.

John: And then the focus is helping students reach the standard, rather than negotiating with them over the grades for what they’ve received.

Linda: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, forget negotiation. There’s some things that ought to be non-negotiable. I mean, we’re not sloppy when we grade, I know, we get sick and tired of it. But we are so diligent in our grading. And then we have a line of students outside our office saying, “I deserve another two points on this because Susie said the same thing. She got 12 points, I only got 10.” …like write an essay about it… justifying it.

John: One thing I really like about it, though, is that right now we have these two levels of assessing students’ learning, we have these complex assessment plans for each department. And then we have a grading system, which often bears little resemblance to the assessment. And this is making the assessment transparent and obvious to students. And it’s forcing both faculty and students to focus on the learning objectives for the course.

Linda: Yes, as we should be, you think about it, what does it mean, when a student gets an A? Does that mean that that student has achieved all the objectives? all the outcomes at the level we want to see? Well, maybe for some of the students who get an A. What does a “B” mean? Now we’re starting to get into really ambiguous territory. Does that mean that the students sort of achieved or barely achieved all the outcomes or maybe achieved some really well and then didn’t achieve others? And a “C,” forget it. You can’t tell what’s going on there, especially given the way we give out “Cs” these days. So maybe the “C” student achieved one outcome well, but which one? Yeah, I mean, no wonder accrediting agencies pay no attention to our grades. They don’t even want to know them. And I can understand why, if they’re focused on learning outcomes. And so yeah, we’ve got this whole extra level of work that we have to do and the department chairs have to do and the Provosts have to do. I mean, who needs it?

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between specs grading and contract grading, because it seems like they have some things in common?

Linda: Yes, they do have something in common. With contract grading, students individually work it out with a faculty member as to exactly what they’re going to do. And if they do all those things that they will get there “A” because I’ve never heard of a student contracting or a ”B,” it just doesn’t happen. Now, contract rating goes back to the 60s, and the first half of the 70s. And what was happening was since there was this individual relationship, first of all, faculty didn’t specify enough about what they wanted… what constituted “A” work… same problem we have had up to now… and faculty weren’t all that much different then, in fact, they probably gave less guidance. But in any case, there were the specifications. And then faculty and students would develop this relationship, this individual relationship. And it became particularly difficult for the faculty member to give anything but an “A” to the student. And the student would have thought, “Well, why didn’t you tell me to do this to get my ‘A,’ because that’s what I contracted for.” So contract rating was: 1. sloppy, but 2. highly individualized. With our class sizes, we can’t even talk about contract grading. And because it was something that was mutually established, between the faculty and the students, and specs grading is nothing like that. This is all in the faculty members’ hands. Well, at least, setting out what is required to get the “As” and “Bs” and “Cs” and “Ds” . But students choose what grade they’re going to go for. And according to what grade they believe that they need, but also according to what kind of a workload they want to shoulder for this particular course. And you know, maybe all they need is a “C.” And you know what, that’s okay. And we don’t look down on that student if the student says: “Well, all I need is a ‘C.’ We do otherwise. We say “Wow, this is a lazy student.” That’s what we’re thinking in the back of our heads. We have negative thoughts about students who settle for low grades. But with specs grading, you don’t have to feel that way. This student chose a seat for whatever reason, I don’t care. My course is not in that student’s major. So I’m not going to take it personally. So, that’s nice. But the fact that that’s making that choice, gets rid of all kinds of grading complaints, or that thing at the end of the semester: “What can I do to bring up my grade?” Well, it’s very clear what you could have been doing. If you went for a “C” now you could have done these additional assignments, or taking this additional test to get a “B.” But you didn’t do that. Now, you’ve got a week left, maybe you want to try to do that. But don’t ask me, I laid out the contract, I laid out the terms, I laid out the specs at the beginning of the semester, and you make your choices. This whole thing makes students feel a lot more responsible for their grades. They made the choice. And we respect that.

Rebecca: So I think a question that would come up for many faculty is you’ve laid out that certain assignments need to be accomplished to get even a “C…”

Linda: Yes.

Rebecca: …and what the specifications are. What happens when a student struggles to meet those specs?

Linda: Oh gee. Well, now when you say struggle, you can struggle before the assignment, or you can be disappointed and angry after the assignment. So if you’re talking about struggling before and say, “Professor, I don’t understand these two specs. I don’t even know if I can do it. Could you give me some more guidance?” No problem, and then because the stakes are higher, you get credit or no credit whatsoever… doesn’t count towards your bundle… doesn’t count towards whatever grade you’re doing. So you’d better figure this out. Now, afterwards, don’t meet the specs. Okay. And obviously, you didn’t come to see me in advance, did you or otherwise, we would have hashed this out. Anyway… so you didn’t pass? So you missed these two specs. All right, well gee, that’s most unfortunate. But there’s this system called tokens… or I call them tokens, but you can call them… I don’t know, you can call them pigs in a blanket for all I care, it doesn’t matter. They’re like get out of jail free cards. I’ve seen them called hail Mary cards. In a geography course, they were called globes, but anyway, they are opportunities to either redo an assignment that didn’t meet the specs, or to get a 24-hour extension. And there might be some other things that you make up along the way if absence counts against you in your course, you can get out of absence. But let’s say it’s for redoing this assignment, which is really important early in the semester, because students are not going to believe that you’re going to grade them pass/fail, because this is all new for them. And they go, “Well, how can this be…” and “There must be some sort of partial credit or something…” They won’t believe you. So there will be a number of students who will need this token or get out of jail free card to redo the assignment. It’s up to you, as a faculty member, as to how many get out of jail free cards or tokens that they might have. Three is a nice number. I like it, but some people give five. Some people give two. But I think it behooves you to have some reasonable number of tokens with specs grading, because that takes the pressure off of students; it allows them to screw up at least a few times. So this is something that students can get second chances out of this because the stakes are higher than typical. But the thing is, when you’re grading these assignments, all you’ve got to do is check the specs that weren’t met, and say, “This is why your assignment failed.” Now, if you want to give additional feedback, by all means, I’m not going to stop you. But I want you to have a life. That’s the only thing. And you can give positive feedback as well. And then you know what, you’ve passed something, then you get positive feedback from your instructor that you figure, “Wow, the instructor gave me this positive feedback out of the kindness of her heart, because she really cares about me and my success… told me how I could maybe do better in the future.” First of all, I’m going to read this, because this is meaningful feedback. This is not justification for having taken off points, because that’s what most of our feedback is about: why you didn’t get full credit. And now this is actual substantive learning feedback. So, it decouples feedback from evaluation in a way, but students get the chance to do it over and now that you have their attention, that let’s say they didn’t pass a certain assignment, that they can come to you and say, “Okay, how should I do this better?” Oh, okay. Isn’t this lovely? So the worst that will happen is you’ll have a conversation with a student about how to improve his or her work, that’s the worst that will happen. Isn’t that wonderful? [LAUGHTER] And sometimes students know, they just got lazy.

Rebecca: How would you suggest structuring specification grading for a class that’s more project based or even collaborative work?

Linda: Oh, sure. Whether it’s projects, or papers or whatever, again, it’s a matter of specs. Oftentimes, with our projects, that we might allow our projects different media, what we have to do is lay out specs for each media. Or say, if you can think of a different media, you can do a film, you can do a play, you can write pamphlets, you can write a paper if you want to, or you can do any of, let’s say, a half a dozen things. And let’s say if you want to do something else that’s not on the list, come talk to me, and we’ll work it out, we’ll work out some specs for it, too. So what you have to do is you have to lay out specs, but oftentimes the specs that you have to lay out, and students love creative assignments, is you have to lay out, let’s say, length, and so you might say, “Okay, if you’re going to go with a film or video, I want 20-mintues of that. Going to go with pamphlets? I want at least four pamphlets, I want each pamphlet to have at least 250-words in it. If you’re going to go with writing a play and performing a play for your peers, I mean, wow. But I do want it to be a half an hour long. And I want it to involve everybody in the group, everybody’s acting. And if you’re going to write a paper, I want it to be at least, let’s say, 2000-words long… or maybe that’s too long, whatever… and you lay it out, and I want it to follow this kind of an outline.” You can lay out specs for different kinds of media, and let students run with the project. Now a design project, what you might allow students to choose is exactly, let’s say, in architecture, what kind of a building they’re going to design. Let’s say, “Okay, you can design a residence, single family, a separate dwelling, but I want it to be at least four bedrooms, I want to be two stories, this and that. And you could do an office building too. But I want this to be at least two stories, and I want it to be so many thousands of square feet.” And then you let them run with it. And you know what, we know from our history, and from a lot of publications, that students run with this sort of thing. So I’ll give a little guidance and off they go, it’s a beautiful thing. Now in terms of projects having to do with group work, I don’t know that that specs grading will make group work smoother. [LAUGHTER] And I’ve talking about out-of-class group work. If you want to play marriage counselor, you just go right on ahead. But you don’t have to. I mean, there are some people who say, “Hey, you guys work it out on your own, I don’t want to hear about it and you can fire freeloaders. And if you are doing all the work, you can resign from your group and any other group will be happy to pick you up. But all this has to be done by the end of the fifth week,” whatever. So I don’t know that we’re going to get rid of those problems. [LAUGHTER]

REBBECCA: I think my question was more about the high-stakes nature or the long-term nature of projects.

Linda: Yes.

Rebecca: So would you recommend doing scaffolded specs or something like that to help make sure they’re on track?

Linda: Well, yes, what you need to do, as with any major project, you need to divide it up into smaller tasks that students can be at accountable for along the way, and maybe even get feedback for. Now, you can give feedback… your peers… people in other groups… can give feedback. Because after all, we’re doing criteria referenced grading, we’re not grading on the curve. So there are different ways for students to get feedback. But in any case, this divides a massive task into little pieces. So maybe starting out with, “Okay, by the end of the third week, we want your group to have a literature review put together.” And we put specs for the literature review. “And we want so many references. And we want so many of them in the last five-years,” And what have you. So we can even put the specs, I even specify specs for the format that we want: APA format, or ASA format, or Chicago, whatever it is that we want. That’s something that we can put in the specs if we want to, and that way students will actually proofread. Now I think we ought to be somewhat tolerant with respect to format anyway, we ought to allow three little errors in format. Because you know what, when we submit a paper to a journal, they’re tolerant of us, right? [LAUGHTER] I mean, you can’t be sloppy, but if we put a period instead of a comma, hey, we are forgiven. And we’ll catch it later on the proofs. So we need to allow some errors on something like that. But anyway, yeah, we divide up a big task into pieces. And then students get feedback on the pieces. And that’s also a good way to find out early about who are your freeloaders, who’s not doing the work early, so they can get rid of the freeloaders if they need to. Here’s another thing that you can do with specs grading, when you do bundles, you know, the project, the big project, you can make that big project required for an A, period. And then you will only have groups with students who are going for As. So it depends on the size of your class, of course. You might wind up with only, let’s say, three groups who are going for As. Or you know, the number of students that will fall into three groups. Well, guess what, you’re going to get some really fine projects, you’re not going to have to worry about it, and they might not be freeloaders. But anyway, in the examples in my book that a lot of faculty members and I recommended as well, that group projects be reserved for getting an A, for the A bundle. And other assignments be in the B bundle and C and the D bundle for that matter, which might be very minimal. But hey, if you want to a D, far be it for me to stop you. So, anyway, that’s another way to solve the problem, you just put those projects in just for the students are going for an A.

John: You’ve mentioned bundling a few times in terms of grades, could you talk a little bit about that and how you can go from the specs grading to the course grades that are assigned in the course.

Linda: Okay, there are two ways and the first way I’m going to just mention and not recommend. But you can keep your point system, and you might have some haggling over grades. But in any case, you can keep the point system and say, “Okay, my course is 100 points and if you get 91 points or more, you’ll get an A.” And okay, fine, but the bundling system allows students to choose their grade. So what you do is, you set up clusters of assignments and tests that students have to pass at that B level to get credit for their bundle. So you set those up. And the easiest way to do this, so you got a D bundle, is pretty minimal. And you can tell students, “Look for your D, here are the only outcomes that you will be able to achieve if you go for the D.” Some students say, “Hey, I don’t care, not in my major.” Fine. So it’s minimal work, maybe it involved just passing tests at let’s say, a 70% level, and maybe doing a couple of little written assignments along the way. But, they all have to meet whatever the specs might be. Whatever specs you set out for those assignments… And C bundle, “Okay, you got to do everything that you do in that D bundle, plus there are extra assignments as well.” And so maybe what you are having students do, and I’m just making this up as an example, is the students have to turn in 15 out of the 18 reading assignments that you have, they have to turn in a typed up outline on a particular reading. This way, at least your C students are going to do the readings, right? Because at least most of the readings, almost all the readings, and you’d give your teeth for almost all your students to do almost all the readings, right? But that’s all they’ve got to do. Maybe for a B you have to do all the requirements for a C, maybe even more of those reading notes, or something different. Perhaps keep learning journal, keep a journal on how you are learning, what you’re having trouble learning, the different strategies you are trying to learn the material, and it’s going to be collected. But you really have to specify what questions you want students to answer. So that will be collected maybe four times during the semester, and you might collect some every week or so and look at a few of them. But again, you’re just looking for the answers to the questions. That’s what you have to do for a B. You’re going to get a good handle on those readings and you’re going to find out how to best learn this material. For the A, you got to do everything for the B, but you have to do some sort of a group project where you’re going to learn, let’s say application, analysis, evaluation, what have you, whatever higher thinking levels that you have in there. At the C level, that’s pretty low. But good lord, at least they’re understanding the readings, at least they’re reading the readings and presumably understanding it. And you know, you can spot check some of them to see that they are understanding and if they’re not, you can help them with that. And as soon as they’re learning how to learn for that B, but students are learning how to analyze the material, even higher-level learning outcomes for that A. Now if your student learning outcomes are dictated by a professional accrediting agency, then you’ve got to put all of those outcomes in what’s required for a C, or maybe your institution considers D passing, some institutions don’t. Whatever you consider passing, that’s where all of those outcomes have to go. B students and the A students, they will achieve even more outcomes. If you’ve got an outside accrediting agency telling you what your students have to be able to do, then guess what? All the students that pass the course have to be able to do these things. And you’ve got to set out the specs accordingly. There are some accrediting agencies that layout good outcomes with active verbs. And other accrediting agencies, they give you crummy outcomes where you’ve got to essentially rewrite them so you can assess them. But I’m not going to get into that. [LAUGHTER] Did I answer your question, I hope?

Rebecca: Yeah, I think a lot of your examples focus on a more traditional class and not necessarily a lab or a studio kind of class where there’s a lot of class work that happens inside of class. What might a bundle look like in a situation like that? Where a lot of the learning activities are happening in person rather than for homework. So, for example, I teach studio classes that meet for six hours a week, and they presumably do about three hours outside of class. Versus the reverse, which many people have and labs are similar.

Linda: What area are you in?

Rebecca: I teach graphic design.

Linda: Okay.

Rebecca: But it would be similar to something that would happen in the sciences too and having to do lab.

Linda: Yeah, to an extent, it depends on whether it’s a decent lab or not. [LAUGHTER] Some labs are a waste of everybody’s time. But anyway, what you have to do there is, you’ve got projects, right? …throughout the semester, different things that students are doing. but how many projects do you have in a semester?

Rebecca: Usually, it’s like four big projects, or three.

Linda: Okay, well, now this sounds very, very radical. But what if for a D, you only had to do one project? …and I mean, at that B-level that you set to pass. What if for a C, as a student, I only have to do two. Now, for the first two, because I presume this is somewhat cumulative. For a B, I only have to do three projects. But an A, of course, I have to do all four, if there are four projects. Now, what does this mean? Oh, by the way, do you have tests?

Rebecca: No.

Linda: Just curious. Okay, it means that assuming your D student does passable work, that first project, you can say bye bye after that first project is done. If the person wants to sit in… you can’t, you know… it’s a free country, right? Well, not really. But they can sit in if you want them to, that’s fine. For a C student again, you can say bye bye after the second project, assuming they do it at that passable level. And by the end of the semester, you have only you the most motivated and committed students that you have to be concerned with. And you can give them some very challenging work. Now, I don’t know how you feel about that. But that’s the way you could do that. Now, you could also bundle it differently. You can expand the number of projects that you have as well and simply make them shorter if that’s what you would be required. But I don’t know how you react to that.

Rebecca:I think my accrediting agency would react to that in that they have to put a certain number of hours in. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Okay, okay, so your accrediting agency is time focused.

Rebecca: It’s part of it. Because presumably with more practice, you get better.

Linda: Well, presumably. [LAIUGHTER] …practice with feedback, you get better. But yeah, if we are committed to this hours business, that makes things very unruly, everybody’s got to put in the same amount of time…

Rebecca: In class anyway.

Linda: Oh, in class, okay. That’s very unruly, with respects to specs grading because specs grading isn’t about time. I mean, you can recommend that such and such assignment should take you at least three hours for it to be passable. But other than that, that’s your recommendation for a certain given assignment. But yeah, that makes it very unruly when your accrediting agency says, “Okay, they’ve got to spend so many hours in class and not just looking at their phone.”

Rebecca: Yeah, I mean, we do critiques and things like that. We provide a lot of feedback. But yeah.

Linda: Yeah. Okay. You do critiques?

Rebecca: Yeah lots of critiques.

Linda: Yeah, like art classes and things like that?

Rebecca: Yeah.

Linda: Okay. Well, that’s nice. But now, you could hold your B and C students to doing critiques on all the assignments, just so they can put in their hours. But they don’t necessarily have to do the assignments, at least they can see models. But again, I don’t know if your accrediting agency would be happy with that either.

John: This may not exactly be specs grading, but could you give, say, different levels of activity in each of the assignments? If you have four-projects, you could have one bundle in that project that would give a C, another that would give a B, and another that would give an A, changing the scope of the projects and it would be specs grading within that scope.

Linda: Yes, that has been done and I’m not sure about what kind of projects you’re doing. But yes, you could do that. And you could set different specs for each level. So D students, lets say, have to do a D-level project, which is not nearly as time consuming and not nearly as high a level cognitively, it doesn’t demand that much, doesn’t demand much time, it doesn’t demand that much thinking. And so you could do that and that way students would put in their time, and as long as you can set out the specs for those levels. Yes, absolutely you could do it that way.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Linda: But yeah, accrediting agencies can really get in the way of flexibility. Rebecca, would your accrediting agency go along with that?

Rebecca: With scope, probably. Yeah.

Linda: Yeah. Okay, good. I want to tell you about a course that does this, it’s in computer science, they have students writing programs, and there are six projects that students have to do, they do these individually. If you are going for a C, you get some pretty easy projects to do, pretty easy problems to solve. If you’re going for a B, well you get sort of intermediate-level problem, you don’t do the C one. Because if can do the B ones, you can do the C ones. Now for an A you get some much more sophisticated ones. But still, for every level, you only get six. So there is that, that as long as you can designate level of difficulty, or for that matter, breadth of knowledge, if you can designate that… of course, usually people can do that… that you can make levels out that you can make different bundles out of that. This is another little interesting take, in this particular course, if you are late handing in your projects, that you’ve got to do two more projects at that level. So in other words, you are penalized for lateness by having to do more work. Now that really hits students where it hurts. And if you’re like super late, you got to do yet two more. So any way that keeps students on their toes. [LAUGHTER] Anyway, so in this particular course students are rarely late. So yes, there are ways that you can do that just in terms of level of complexity or level of cognitive operations demanded.

John: How do you explain this to students, if you’re going to introduce a specs grading system?

Linda: First of all, you’ve got to sell specs grading, because they’ll look at you like, “Huh?,” which is fine. And you should explain this, but you can tell them, “You know, I’m going to hold you to higher expectations.” And we know that holding students to higher expectations feeds into student success, student learning, but also student success in general. You could explain to them the concept of andragogy. In other words, that pedagogy really has to do with little kids. Andragogy has to do with adults. Saying, “I’m going to treat you like an adult.” And students like that kind of thing, you might be choosing the kind of project you’re doing. It’s easy to build choices into this. “This will be a safe but a challenging environment because you know exactly what you’re supposed to do. I’m going to give you the descriptions of what you have to do for the assignment to pass in advance and in detail. So you almost can’t screw this up unless you don’t read the directions or pay attention to the directions.” So you want to emphasize the choice and control over their grade that they’re going to have. You want to tell them about tokens, we’ve got some wiggle room, if you will. Now these tokens, by the way, are not physical, you make them physical students will develop a black market, [LAUGHTER] believe me, but virtual and you keep track, or you can ask for an extension, but you don’t ask me for an extension. You’re late, I just take a token away. That’s all. We don’t have to talk about it. I don’t care why you’re late, this is just the way it’s going to be. Just like your boss won’t care why you are late or why you are absent, it counts as like a holiday. Now we’re going to tie what your grades is to what you are learning. If they look at the syllabus at all, everybody’s going to know what you have learned in this course. So that’s how you sell it to students. Now students will need to be reminded about how the system works, because this will strike them. “This is so weird.” Even if they initially like the idea, they still need to be reminded a few times because it is really strange. According to my research, students way prefer this system to traditional grading. And one of the reasons why they do is because we give better direction, we tell them what we want, we give them the formula, we give them the template. or we give them tons and tons of freedom to meet the specs. Especially with students when we talk about length or whatever, length means depth to the students. It doesn’t mean that necessarily to us. Students really like this because they feel way more secure in it. And they do like the element of choices that are built in, that’s motivating for them. And they do learn more. And if they are more motivated, they’re likely to do more of the work at a higher level, they are more likely to excel. And the A students are going to do A work anyway, because they don’t know any better. All they know is A work. And there’s a sense in which they want us to love them. I mean, really, so they’ve got this strong sense of loyalty towards us and they really want us to respect them. And they’re used to feeding off of that they’ve been doing it all their lives. Don’t worry about them getting sloppy, they’ll never get sloppy on you. [LAUGHTER]

John: If someone wanted to transition to specs grading, how should they get started?

Linda: What you might want to do if you’re switching, transitioning to specs grading, you want to look at your assignments, and for that matter, look at your tests, like what you have in your tests. You want to look to see what can be transferred into pass/fail. You also want to look at your tests, if your tests are very objective, and you’re relying on a test bank, remember, it’s so much easier for you to grade with the specs that you can start assigning more written work or design work on tests, what have you. But definitely higher-order thinking types of questions and you will have the time to grade them, because you’re going to lay out the specs and without giving away the farm, you will tell your students the specs of your essay questions in advance, and they will study accordingly. But anyway, you want to look at your outcomes and then you want to identify the cognitive level of your assignments and your test questions which again, you might want to change. You want to be able to group your assignments and tests by that cognitive level so you can develop bundles. It’s kind of a radical way to do it, but it makes your life so much easier once you have those bundles. Because all you’ve got to do is say, “Okay, let’s see. So I had four assignments in this bundle, this student passed them all, hey B. It’s so much easier, you just have to be sure that you set out the deadlines for the different assignments in the bundles. You don’t want everything being submitted to you in the last week or two. So you still have to have your deadlines along the way. Just warning you about that. I want to refer people to my book for examples of courses, and not just my courses either, that have been specs graded. And they cover a range of over a dozen different disciplines. So they can see all kinds of examples.

John: That’s a great resource for those who are considering moving to specs grading.

Linda: Yes.

Rebecca: And it also sounded to me like a couple of cautionary tales that you have about transitioning are about time and making sure that you spread things out…

Linda: Yes.

Rebecca: …but also being very clear in what the specs are, and then following through with whatever you said.

Linda: Yep, yep. And if you didn’t lay out enough detail, well, there’s always next semester. [LAUGHTER] But you can’t change those specs in midstream. “Oh, I wish I thought of this and then start grading students.” No, no, no, no, no. But again, we live and learn, right? We’ll get better the second time.

John: We always end with the question. What are you doing next?

Linda: Oh, what am I doing next? Well, what I’ve been doing is I’ve been doing a lot of traveling, doing keynotes and workshops… oftentimes on self-regulated learning, sometimes on specs grading, and sometimes on any number of different topics having to do with either teaching or academic writing, or something like that. So I’m going to be taking a little bit of a break from that until the end of, or late, July anyway and then things start up again. But that’s kind of nice. I don’t mind that because this keeps me semi-retired and that’s the way I want to be. A semi-retirement is Nirvana, just letting y’all know. [LAUGHTER] So, that’s what’s next for me, that and to finish my tea.

Rebecca: Sounds like the key to semi-retirement is the semi not retired part. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Yes, it is, it is. Your brain is still working and you still got your thumb in the pie so to speak. And it feels good because you’re not under that same 60 hour a week pressure that you otherwise have with a regular job and then doing these other extra things on the side and it doesn’t work real well.

Rebecca: Thank you so much for joining us.

Linda: Well, thank you for this opportunity. I normally say… autograph books and things like that… happy teaching, but I want to wish everybody happy grading. [LAUGHTER] An odd phrase right? Happy grading. [LAUGHTER] What an odd phrase, right? Happy grading!

John: Thank you.

Rebecca: Thanks, Linda.

Linda: Bye bye.

[MUSIC]

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

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