90. Blackish Mirror

First-year students are often enrolled in survey and introductory courses that offer limited interactions with full-time faculty. In this episode, Mya Brown and Ajsa Mehmedovic join us to discuss a model in which students have the opportunity to explore interesting and complex issues in a more intimate setting in their very first semester.

Mya is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at SUNY Oswego who developed the Blackish Mirror first-year seminar course. Ajsa was one of Mya’s students in this class.

Transcript

John: First-year students are often enrolled in survey and introductory courses that offer limited interactions with full-time faculty. In this episode we discuss a model in which students have the opportunity to explore interesting and complex issues in a more intimate setting in their very first semester.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guests today are Mya Brown, an Assistant Professor of Theatre at SUNY Oswego, and Ajsa Mehmedovic, one of Mya’s students. Welcome.

Mya: Hello.

Ajsa: Hello there.

John: Our teas today are….

Mya: I actually am not drinking tea. I have coffee and water.

John: Okay.

Ajsa: I’m drinking chocolate mint. It’s a great experience. I definitely recommend

Rebecca: Yumm. I think I’m leaning on my old favorite of English afternoon tea.

John: And I have blackberry green tea.

Rebecca: You’re both here today to discuss your first-year signature course, Blackish Mirror. Mya, can you talk a little bit about the class and then Ajsa, maybe you can talk a little bit about your experience in the class?

Ajsa: Of course.

Mya: Absolutely. I was really excited when I heard about the opportunity to create a first-year signature course. I’m on the task force for this new pilot program that we brought in here to SUNY Oswego. It was started by our Provost Scott Furlong… and Julie Pretzat, the Dean of the School of Communication, Media, and the Arts, reached out to me as a potential professor for a course, as well as someone to sit on that task force to help develop this pilot program. The thing that really drew me to it was the opportunity to get in with brand new students to the university and help them discover how much Oswego can be their home and also discover who they are as individuals so that they can contribute to society in a positive and impactful way. When it was presented to us instructors, it was presented as an opportunity to teach students how to be students. But, obviously, we don’t want to condescend students, right, or make them feel like they just absolutely have no idea of what they’re doing… what choice they made to come here… So we wanted to empower them through this course. And you know, they say a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. We thought, let’s teach how to be a student through something that the instructors are really passionate about and something that students would potentially be really passionate about. And I always, as a theater instructor, am trying to focus on social justice issues through plays that I read and introduce in my courses. Also, I’m on the play reading task force here. So I’m contributing to the season that we choose at Oswego. And I’m constantly looking for content that speaks to social issues that we find in the community. I looked at this as an opportunity for me to incorporate some social justice issues, specifically in relation to the African-American community in the classroom, while also teaching students how to be successful in college. So, I really wanted to focus on the evolution of the black character on television. So in the course, we went all the way back to Ethel Waters, which is the very first African-American character that’s seen on television. And what we were reflecting on was things like how much screen time our minority actors getting on television. Also, what kind of occupations are we seeing them in? What kinds of relationships are they engaging in? So we went all the way back from the 30s to present day. And I think the discoveries that we made in class were some really awesome discoveries. And we saw this trend in television where it was really kind of kid gloves with the character and introducing this new kind of character to the general public. And then we saw the gloves come right off, and we saw lots of “in your face” when we got to about the 1970s, the 80s, the 90s. Then we noticed this trend of kind of going away from taking the gloves off and putting them back on and we thought that that was actually quite interesting. Kind of early 2000s is where we saw this character almost regressing.

Rebecca: Like whitewashed

Ajsa: Yeah…

Mya: Yeah, definitely getting whitewashed and regressing back to what we saw

Ajsa: the norm…

Mya: …originally, right, with what was appropriate, what was inappropriate content for these characters. It was a great opportunity for us to have open discussions about what we were seeing, these trends we were seeing. And I think one of the major questions that I asked the class… you help me with this Ajsa… “Are the images that we see in the media influential in our thinking about a specific group of people?” That was the major question we wanted to answer over the course of the semester. And I think we all agreed…

Ajsa: Yeah, we came to a conclusion, and we definitely agree with that statement. And we got to see how the social norms are first ever made with the first ever character presented and then going into the gloves. And that whole aspect is really interesting to see that whole give and take aspect.

Mya: Even I was shocked and surprised by this trend that we saw in the evolution of the character. I think when I came up with this concept in my mind, I thought that it would be this very clear upward trajectory. But I found that it was not, it was definitely this kind of roller coaster ride that we went on with some really great highs, but also some really kind of low lows. And yeah, the most, shocking thing was discovering that some of those low lows are occurring now and in the most present time that we have. In this time where we think that we’re so progressive right now, and “we’ve come such a long way” since segregation and things like that. I don’t know how far we have actually come when we reflect truthfully on society, the images we’re seeing. We also ask things like, what’s the responsibility of media to tell truthful stories, to tell diverse stories to uplift the community through their outlet? What is that responsibility? Is there a responsibility also with the creators? …so we talked about that as well with the directors. Should they be checking their biases, because this is being presented to the community as a whole.

Ajsa: We actually had a moment where we talked about modern-day society, we talked about different things that are arising during Halloween and the whole cultural appropriation. And it was really exciting because we could see how the course was outlined. But there were definitely moments where we would stop and talk about real-world applications. Definitely reflecting what you’re talking about how it still matches society now. And it was just a whole experience that we all as a whole were learning together. Because this was like her first pilot having this class and it was just a really over the board genuine class.

Mya: Yeah, thank you, Ajsa. I was hoping that that’s what the students would get from it. So it’s really great. And I knew that you did.

Ajsa: Yeah

Mya: But it’s always great to hear that reflected and see it reflected in what you’re doing now. So one of the major components of this class is community and making sure that the students feel a sense of home here at Oswego. We did a scavenger hunt…

Ajsa: Yeah.

Mya: …in the very beginning in small groups so that they were able to get to know each other a little bit better before we dive into this really deep kind of content and subject matter and I think that was useful. Also…

Ajsa: We had check-ins.

Mya: We had regular check-ins.

Ajsa: Yeah, during the semester we’d talk about like our applications with that, or in the sense like how you’re going to college, and different relations with the dynamic of having a roommate, the dynamic of coming from home. And it was just so interesting because we had this setup of the class, we were able to get into deeper content and not just say, “We’re good. We’re having a good time. This class is boring.” We actually had reflections on how we feel emotionally and how we feel like biased in a sense. And it was a really great experience.

Mya: It was also nice too, they had an opportunity to reflect on “how’s it going in the dorm?” What are maybe some things that you could do? What are some problem-solving skills that you could develop, and we just shared openly. So it was great to hear these varying opinions on how to address situations and people would say, “Oh, I never even thought about that. I’m going to try that next time.” So they were teaching each other, as well as me teaching them, as well as them teaching me.

Rebecca: So, it sounds like you had a really authentic experience and around some really tough issues. Both personal issues of that transition to college, but also about some really interesting questions around race, which is never an easy conversation to have really. So how do you each think that the class was set up that really supported the ability to have those authentic, deep, real conversations that everyone felt trusted and safe?

Mya: Yeah, I think that’s a really great question. And I do this in all of my classes, I really try to set it up in the beginning, I let them know that, “Hey, I was once in your seat and I am an advocate for you. I am an ally for you. And this is a safe place.” So I really try to reinforce that through my actions and I model that behavior in the classroom. Would you agree Ajsa?

Ajsa: Mm-hmm. I feel like Mya is actually one of those professors that actually cared, has such this in depth interest in how you’re going as a person. She was always easy to find outside the classroom or have independent conversations with the content was affecting their lives. It was just so interesting to have that bond with her because she is a Director. So sometimes students don’t always have that connection. So, I definitely see her as such a genuine authentic person, it really reflected in the course

Mya: Yeah, I think it’s really important. If you are transparent with the students then they will buy in, you know. I mean, and honestly, there’s nothing to buy into. It’s just more of they’re comfortable and they’re confident that they can be who they are because they see you being who you are. It is empowering.

Ajsa: I think we’re definitely lucky that our class was 19 people. And we had such a diverse group. In the first day we had discussion, we went around the room saying, Why did you take this course? And it was so interesting seeing everyone be so raw, because you never get asked that question like, “Why are you in this Gen Ed? …but this course was so different, because no one expected it to be so in depth and be such a good scan of society. And I always said when I came to this course. I was like that general expectation of college, like “I’m in college now, I’ll talk about politics and this whole aspect.” I was like, “This is this course.” And I think it was great that everyone was so diverse and so willing to be open and we all came to class… our favorite class. We also sat in a circle…

Mya: It was really important to me for us to sit in a circle and typically in a lecture-style course that’s not the way we handle things. However, in theater courses, we are constantly in circles. So I think I took that for granted because it’s just the nature of what I do. But once I incorporated it in this course, I realized how powerful it is to be in a circle. And not only would the students sit in a circle, but I would join the circle as well. I think it’s very important that they saw me as someone who was a part of the whole, not someone who was this outside force who was like regulating what they were doing, but as someone who was engaging with them. So in order to do that, I sat in a circle with them as well. And this idea of the circle, it allowed us to have eye contact, there was definitely more unity that was already just… it’s implicit in this format. Also, and I didn’t realize that this was happening at the time, I’m not sure if you realize this, but Jen Knapp, our Associate Dean, she came in and she observed the course and one of her reflections… that I was like, “Oh, wow, I totally take that for granted, I didn’t even think about that…” was how we were able to have this civil discourse in class and she noticed that students always said their names when they were referring to what someone else in the course said. If they were reflecting on or responding to something that Ajsa said they would say, “Oh, well, when Ajsa this thing…” and that was commonplace in the classroom, did you even notice that? It’s not something we planned it just organically….

Ajsa: Yeah.

Mya: …happened.

Ajsa: We never said like, “Okay, if we talk to someone make sure we say ‘Tom’” …it just happened. And I always say this course actually made friends in this course… after I see a lot of them… We’ve been in shows together or in general, we say “hi,” and I’ve never had a course especially not a Gen Ed. You’re like, “Oh, there’s Mike Gold in the back.” It’s like, “Oh, I know, his beliefs. I know his values.” And it was just so exciting having that circle because you could hear and see everyone’s voice, you could see the distinction. And it was just really great having that connection with different students because everyone had different opinions on different topics. So I think that was definitely a strength of the course.

Mya: I actually was really concerned with whether we would be able to have a civil discourse on these kinds of topics and I was so impressed with the class because there were definitely some differences in opinions and some very strong conflicts that happened in the course. But they handled them very well. It was always respectful. And there was always an acknowledgement of the other and their perspective and then just a “Yeah, but I think … and the reason why is because of my experiences…” and we all were open to listening to each other in a way that I’ve not seen in a classroom before.

John: Did you have a class discussion on ground rules for the discussion before the discussions commenced?

MYSA: We did but it was really brief. Honestly, it was like “Respect each other. This is a free space. It is very comfortable, that kind of like general basis…” but I think it happened naturally. Because once a professor sets the tone, you kind of realize what the course can be… what’s appropriate. And I always say there’s some professors who just teach by the book, they don’t really look at the subject material, but I feel like Mya was always ever changing. Always you could tell she had her heart in the class. She always tells her own experiences, but the episode she chose… or next semester she’s going to take this episode out…. And I think it was really genuine having that reflection with the teacher and having her have her own opinions in there, too. It was just really ongoing.

Mya: I think it’s important that students understand that professors are not infallible. And it’s important for professors to present that as well. And again, just be transparent. But if they understand that their opinions matter, which is what I made sure I implemented from day one, then I think they feel more free to voice their opinions.

John: Did it help that you were looking at this through the lens of fictional media, rather than dealing with circumstances that people were directly involved in?

Mya: I think so. I think it creates a sense of distance that makes it…

Ajsa: …comfortable, yeah…

Mya: …a little easier to approach. Yeah, but with all of that subject matter, even though it was fictional, it’s all based in reality, due to the nature of it. And so everyone could relate in some way or form to at least one character in each episode. And it’s like, “Oh, I know that girl,” or “Oh…”

Ajsa: “I am that girl.”

Mya: …”that is me.”

Ajsa: Yeah. I think it was also a great experience because while we had media, we also had our own personal reflections. So it was like a mix. The episode set the tone. So, it wouldn’t be anything to touching… nothing like triggering that we have to like vocally say our experience first. And then after, naturally, people would speak up, and it got to a point that at the end of the semester we all raise our hands. And we all want to talk at the same time because we were just so into it and really involved. And it always felt comfortable to just talk in that class about whatever the subject material was.

Mya: And if for some reason an opposing idea didn’t come up, I would play devil’s advocate. And I really find it important that students are able to form some kind of sense of empathy so that they can put themselves in someone else’s shoes, see it from someone else’s perspective. And I always say listen for understanding, not to rebut. So I think they really absorbed all of those lessons and they use them really well in the class.

John: You mentioned that people came in with some strong opinions. Did you see those opinions evolve in response to the dialogue?

Mya: Yes, actually.

Ajsa: Yeah, I did.

Mya: Yeah, that happened a lot.

Ajsa: Yeah, people would vocally say, like, “I never thought about that before. Okay, you’re right. Or they would say, “That’s not my personal view. But I understand where you’re coming from now.” And it was just great, because there’s not many times people will take theirselves out of that out-of-body experience and listen to the other end. So… just a really good experience going through that.

Mya: Yeah, I agree.

Rebecca: I was just re-listening to an episode of Freakonomics about where great ideas come from. And they were talking about some research related to dissonance or people that disagree. And that when you have a room where someone feels comfortable enough to disagree, the ideas and the depth of a conversation or a deliberation like in a jury, considers much more evidence. And so, I think it’s kind of interesting, if you were playing devil’s advocate, if no one had brought up a different point of view, and you brought it up, then that was always present in your classroom. So I wonder if that helped the conversation evolve.

Mya: I think it absolutely helped.

Ajsa: It did.

Mya: Yes.

Ajsa: It was like throwing a wrench… it was so exciting.

Mya: Yeah, and then they had to deal with it, right? Instead of just everybody could pile on… they had to actually deal with the opposing side of things. And we couldn’t just ignore it because we all felt the same way.

Ajsa: Yeah, it’s like a whole theme of the class was once an opinion is said you can’t ignore it. You have to have reaction to it. It just happened naturally. But the whole experience… listening to other people and always valuing everyone’s input… which is such an interesting things in modern society now. I feel like people just talk over each other or don’t really have the time to think about actually what’s going on. So I think it was great having everyone’s voice heard in that class.

Rebecca: So a key learning point was listening?

Ajsa: Yeah.

Mya: Active listening.

Ajsa: Active Listening.

MYSA: Right? Yeah, it was very clear that listening is not just “You hear it.” [Overtalking] but “You hear it, you process it, you form an opinion on it.” So actively listening to the other… again, for understanding and not just so that you can rebut or prove them wrong or something, but to actually get in their shoes and see it from their point of view, so that I can maybe soften your heart a little bit or expose you to something brand new that you had absolutely no idea about. And that’s why I think the diversity in the class was something that really helped as well. I do wish we would have had more diversity of gender, it was a pretty female heavy course. And there were no non-binary students in the class either. So maybe a little more diversity in that area would be nice. So that we could address some of those topics as well. [Overtalking]

Ajsa: We had a lot of different majors. because it was a gen ed course. There wasn’t any one that was all theater or anything in that sense.

Mya: …and I think it definitely served its purpose. I’m excited to teach it again next fall.,

John: What would you do differently?

MYSA: I feel like I might have missed the boat a little bit on the opportunity to introduce some time-management skills. We did a little bit of that, but I think we could have done a lot more, so I would incorporate more of that. But the biggest change that I have for this next fall coming up, is I’m going to have a TA which I’m really excited about. Yeah, so I recruited someone from the course to assist. I’m actually going to call her a peer mentor instead of a teaching assistant… But I think to have that element of someone who’s sat in that exact same seat, and not too long ago, will really be helpful for the students. Even though I’m pretty good at getting students to feel comfortable with me and open up to me and use me as a resource for absolutely anything, I feel like it is easier for you to talk to someone in your own age, who has a more recent and current experience with the class, the subject matter… the transition into the university. So having that peer mentor component, I think it’s going to really enhance the course and I’m excited about that.

Ajsa: I also feel like you mentioned resources. This course was really heavy in depth of resources on campus. She taught us Blackboard… I never knew about that… That was so in depth learning about that because we had our first journal that was due. We had journals with personal reflections in them. And also we had this whole experience going to the Writing Center, your reflection, one of them was going to an involvement fair. They’re having extra credit if you go to these are in musicals or different productions. It was just really great having that full over the board experience, because I feel like I’ve never had a course taught me the resources on campus, but this one did. And it was really good for freshman.

Mya: Yeah, I think the scavenger hunt really helped with that, would you say?

Ajsa: Um hmm.

Mya: So I sent them to places like the Women’s Center, the library, the Writing Center,

Ajsa: Cooper…

Mya: …literally just everywhere on campus you could think of that has a support component to it for the students. I made sure that they went to those places, just so that they knew there are so many resources on campus. I remember when I was a freshman, first semester and I was just completely overwhelmed. Like “What is this new world?” …because university… it’s very much of a bubble of its own world. And the rules are totally different than what we’re accustomed to from high school. They’re also different than what you’ll experience in the real world….

Ajsa: Yeah.

MYSA: …just to let you know.

John: …unless you choose to stay….

Mya: Unless you stay? That’s true.

John: Which many of us have done.

Mya: Yeah, but just introducing them to all of the awesome opportunities here. And I’m so proud to see them take advantage of those opportunities beyond the classroom Ajsa was just in the main stage production of Fun Home that we did here. She also is in directing scenes, she did them last semester. She’s also doing them this semester. Another one of our students was in Fun Home. Yeah, from that course. Two of the students from that course actually traveled with me to London. So they really are getting exposed to the university. And these great resources and opportunities that we have here, in a way that they wouldn’t have been exposed had they not taken this course.

Ajsa: Just in general, I see them involved in different things. One of them is my Psych class. I just think it’s so exciting having that connection, because it’s not like a regular class… you just had calm… it’s like you actually had to hear each other, so it’s like, these are my friends even if we weren’t close. You just know who they are as people.

Rebecca: Mya, can you talk a little bit about what you learned teaching this course that you’re applying in some of your other courses?

Mya: Yes, absolutely. The major change that I’m making in my other courses is to the syllabus. I’ve learned how important a tool it is, I think before I just kind of looked at it as a necessary evil or something. And the style of my syllabus was totally archaic. I mean, it was literally nothing but words, white piece of paper with black words on it, there’s nothing. But now for this one, I actually incorporated pictures… there’s color… I used a graph to do the grading breakdown. So for my rubric before it was just columns, and these are the assignments these are the points that are allotted, this is what you need to get. But this time I used to color and I put it in a pie graph and I tried to state things as questions. I’ve added a lot more personality to the syllabus than I ever had before. Before, it was just pure facts. This is what you need to do for this. But this time I engaged it in question formatting, so that they would have to think about things that were on the syllabus versus “Oh, this is a bunch of information. I hear it all on the first day. I forget about it. I don’t ever look at it again.” But it was an actual tool that they were able to use in class. And I placed things on there, like little tips for success in the classroom, that they could apply to any class, not just this class. And so hopefully they could use it in their other classes. I also had a form that we use that kind of guided them when they did their reflections on the shows that we watched in class. And I heard from an advisor that one of my students shared it with them and said, I’m using this in my other courses. So that made me say, “Oh, I’ve got to use in my other courses.”

So definitely changing the syllabus to make it a little more welcoming… opening… add a little more of my personality to it… adding some color… some pictures… some visuals… so that it’s exciting. It should excite them instead of make them feel like “Oh, here’s another syllabus, recycle this thing.”

Ajsa: That was our one requirement: to have the syllabus on us. The first day, we went through the whole syllabus and she was teaching us this is what a college syllabus is. And these are the dates. And it was actually so useful because in high school, you have a syllabus that doesn’t mean anything but in college, it’s like yes, this date, that’s your paper, no changing. But this one obviously was ongoing, but it was really exciting having to learn that tool in the course because as freshmen you don’t really realize how important it is. And it was just really great seeing those tips reflecting on it. And I think that’s something that definitely taught me the importance of syllabus.

Mya: Another thing Rebecca… you will be excited about this. I’m going to work on this this summer… is making my syllabi accessible.

Rebecca: Big smiles on my side.

Mya: I know. I knew you would love it. Now, I’m going to come to you for assistance with that as well, because I’m not well versed in how to do that. But I think it is absolutely necessary. And that’s the next steps that I would like to take with all of my classes.

Rebecca: Thumbs up. Ajsa, can you talk a little bit about what you got from the course that you’re using in your other classes?

Ajsa: I definitely understand the whole perspective of hearing everyone’s voice and definitely seeing the other side to any issue… any conflict. I think that’s definitely useful in the real world. And in general, any communication you ever have with any other person… and I think definitely getting involved. Not many courses tell you “These are the resources, please go to them.” And I think this course like Maya was saying definitely gave us all the foot in the right direction and made us all student leaders in a way… and confidence. I think it definitely made us feel comfortable talking and feel comfortable with our values.. our morals, I think it’s definitely something that has taught us growing up in maturity I feel like personally. And of course tools in my other classes like Blackboard and the Writing Center.

Mya: Another element of the entire program, the pilot program was that we do attend these outside of class activities. And so some professors and I got together. These other professors were also teaching first-year signature courses. And we thought, “Okay, how can we combine our courses in one single event?” So we had the Luke Cage event. Do you remember that one?

Ajsa: Yeah, I went. I had a free t shirt… it was great.

Mya: Yeah, it was really great. That was Allison Rank. Jessica Reehar, Margaret Schmull, Amy Bidwell. We all got together and we were like, “Okay, how can we incorporate social justice and the black character on TV and comic books from yours and gender identity from yours and health from yours?” And so we came up with a viewing of an episode of Luke Cage and then a talkback afterwards. And the students in my class all reflected on the event and said, “We felt so prepared for it.” What I noticed is that my students were the ones who were the most engaged in that talk back. And I think it is because it was a very similar format to our class. So they felt empowered. But what was really awesome is that through them speaking up so freely and confidently, you literally saw it trickle off to other people and other students within that audience. And they all started to feel empowered to speak up and quite confident to do so. And it was really a great event and an awesome opportunity for me as a faculty member to engage with other faculty members from other departments that I would never typically get a chance to do something like this. And also for the students to engage with other faculty members from other departments, especially at this young time in their careers here at Oswego. They were introduced to some faculty who now it’s like, “Oh, well, Allison Rank is awesome, I think I’m going to take a class with her.” So it was a really great opportunity for us to introduce these students to some of the other opportunities on campus outside of theater, and outside of these resource and support services, but also these academic opportunities that they could have with fellow faculty members. I really appreciated that we were able to do that. And we’ll do much more of that in the future.

Ajsa: It was actually pretty funny. I sat next to this girl who’s in one of the other courses and she was like, “Oh, my God, I don’t know how to do this. I have to do a paper for this course, with what we’re doing a reflection on. And I was like, “My Professor, she’s right up there.” And I was like, “We do this all the time.” And she’s like “That’s your Professor?” And I was like, “Yeah,“ and she’s like, “Wow, that seems like a great course.” And we’re just having this whole” discussion and I sat a little bit away from my class so I could see all of them. And I was like, “Yeah, all those people talking like in the second row, that’s my whole class.” And I actually saw it trickle down to everyone else. And in the event we also had trail mix being passed around for the health and wellness and there was on it, how you can make this trail mix in the dining hall and how accessible it would be. And it was just such a good experience. You could just tell everyone was like genuinely involved. It’s so authentic and really just good experience all around.

Mya: Yeah, that was Amy Bidwell. She’s “Okay. How do I use my nutrition course in relation to this Luke Cage thing?” and she had that idea of “Oh, we can provide a healthy snack…” and it was a great opportunity to teach the students how you yourself can go make this healthy snack just right here in your residence hall.

John: It also saved on the budget too

Mya: It did. [LAUGHTER]

Ajsa:I just know that personally, in my own life, I always talk about this course and tell everyone and all the theatre students come up to me and they’re like, “I really wanted to take that class with Mya. It sounds great.” And this is my first ever experience with Mya. I never had a theatre course with her it was just this. So I think my experience with her was so different than other theatre students because I saw her more discussion wise and more about like her own values. So, It was such a good experience to see a professor like that. And also my regular students that I tell this course about always like, “That’s a great course. I wish I was a freshman so I could take that course.” So I would love to one day, see it open to everyone. But I also think it’s a really good application for freshmen. It does its job.

Mya: Yeah, I actually had lots of students who were like, “Hey, I want to get in that course… that Blackish Mirror course that I heard about. And I’m like, “Oh, sorry. Only first semester freshman.” …which I think is a necessary part of that formatting because of what it is exactly that we would like them to leave the course with what the…

Ajsa: course objectives

Mya: …course objectives are.

Rebecca: I just heard a student say course objectives

Ajsa: Mya Brown taught me that… that’s how I know what course objectives are.

Mya: Yes, Julie and Scott will love that. [LAUGHTER]

But, see, I think those are the things that you take for granted that are they actually absorbing these kinds of things? So using that first semester to make it very clear and very plain to them… the importance of those things is changing for your experience in university.

Ajsa: Yeah, when I took this course, on the first day, when I said, “Why are you in this course?“ I had a friend in theater department recommend… like, Oh, I was “Do you know anything about this course? I’m just a freshman.” And they were like, “Mya Brown’s teaching that course” and I was like, “Yeah…” and they were like “I didn’t know she had the course… she’s an amazing teacher… take anything Mya Brown has.”

Mya: Aww.

Ajsa: …and I just remember being able to feel like “Yeah, this is a great experience. I don’t know what she’s like in her other classes, but this one was a great experience… always recommend. So I think it’s just nice having such a beloved and caring teacher teach this course because it makes a whole welcome and friendly setting in a….

Mya: I think that’s an absolute necessity in whichever faculty member is teaching, they must have a passion for it. We actually initially started calling this program “passion courses” In the beginning, but then it was like,”Mmmm, I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s appropriate, let’s maybe go away from that.” But it is true that you have to have a passion for the subject matter. And you have to have a passion for reaching young people, and helping them to discover who they are as people so that they can optimize their potential, and then give back to society. If you’re not interested in doing that, you’re just interested in the subject matter, you’re probably not the right person to teach this kind of course. I think you definitely have to have a full investment in the student as a person, not just as a student in your course. Can I help them discover who they are?

Ajsa: It was a really good experience because while she does theater, she was also involved in everyone else also. There were students that were like, “Oh, I’m doing this I’m doing a civil service trip or I just got involved in this position on campus.” And typical “Oh My God, tell me more about it. That sounds great”. It was never just like a focus on a theater driven students it was always focused on everything all across the board, just really inspirational and just really supportive. And I think we can all relate that Maya was our like mom and like support system on campus when we came here and no other professor cares about what you’re doing on campus or how is your dorm life. She always cared.

Mya: Oh, thank you. They made it easy, though. I mean, I just loved this class.

Ajsa: We’re so lovable, yeah.

Mya: And I think if all freshmen could have this kind of experience coming in, it just will increase their chances of graduating… of being successful at the university level… and then taking it beyond university.

Ajsa: Student leaders… the whole aspect.

Mya: I do have an idea for a new course as well, which my rough working title is Revenge of the American Pie. And for this one, I would like to do a survey of films, specifically 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. And the way they are approaching some issues and relationships and what’s appropriate… how that is affecting society. And we’re seeing the results of it now with the “Me too” movement. Women feel like they have to protect themselves and they have to dress a certain way. And they’re taught these things based off of what they see in media. It’s your fault is

Ajsa: …how sexualized they are.

Mya: …if something happens to you… Right, how sexualized they are. And then men are kind of empowered to, or embolden to feel like they can do whatever they want with a woman because of some of these films that we saw early on. And I call it Revenge of the American Pie, because Revenge of the Nerds, and American Pie kind of inspired this look and this survey. So I always try to do a little play on words with the titles. But I really feel like we’re seeing the results now, of those harmful images that we saw in films from the 80s and 90s and early 2000s. We’re seeing the results and the effects of those images. And that messaging that was in some of those movies, we’re seeing that now Again, this Me Too movement era. And I think it’s important that we address that and we have to address it with young impressionable minds because that’s where the change happens. This is why I thought Blackish Mirror was so important. And why I would love to, maybe in the future, do the Revenge of the American Pie. I definitely think that’s really important because a lot of people notice the 80s 90s, mid 2000s are very raunchy and modern days very PC and every once in a while… I don’t get it like back then it was appropriate when it’s like the question is, was it appropriate or was it too much? People don’t ever know the line. Allso, I would love to say about Blackish Mirror was that we never just focused on the black minority, we focused on everything. One of the things we said right off the bat was “You know, you can always notice sexism… you can always notice anything in there… any kind of bias… any kind of minority… feel comfortable talking about it and definitely like the African American everything in a whole sense was a big focus, but we’re always open to anything you want to discuss… always like social norms and social constructs. I definitely feel like this course was over the board just inclusive.

Mya: Yeah, there were several things that we picked up on that were social thinking issues. There was a episode of Benson that we watched…

Ajsa: That’s what I was thinking about.

Mya: Is that the one you’re thinking about?

Ajsa: Yeah.

Mya: And there was lots going on there with gender inequality. Also with some immigration issues that came up… and Blackish Mirror, we used it as this opening to discuss any biases that we saw or social injustices that were present, and how we can reflect on them today. And it was not just “Can you identify these things?” And “Can we reflect on these things?” We took it further and said, “What can you do about these things to impact society?” So the final project was a public service announcement. They had small groups and they identified issues from the episodes that we viewed and discussed throughout the semester. And they then had to choose something as a group that they wanted to address and create a public service announcement to hopefully inspire some change towards that issue. And how do you think that assignment went?

Ajsa: It was so interesting because we had to get cameras from the library. And a lot of us are not media majors, not cinema. So, we’re just like, “How do you wear a camera? Is she like for real?” And it was just such a cool experience, because the product and results were actually really good. They’re great content… we watched them in class. And it was just really interesting where everyone took it and how we didn’t choose our groups… we were put into the groups… so it was like universal thought. It wasn’t one person was leader. You had your friends saying “I’m interested in this.” So are you. This is our group. We had to sit there and kind of spit ball and talk about like, “What do we collectively want?” And that was just a great experience having, and I think it was appropriately challenged. It was definitely something that is intimidating at first and then you do and you’re like, this is doable. This was really great.

Mya: I think that’s what university is. It’s intimidating at first. But then once you get into it, it’s like I can do this. I can totally handle this. I think that that’s like the broader message that they were able to leave the course with is “Yes it might be difficult, but there are support systems… reach out… be confident… and also allow yourself to make mistakes. No one’s perfect. So allow yourself to make some mistakes and understand that you’re not alone in this. I think that’s another thing that was helpful with all of the group work. Nearly everything we did was group work.

Ajsa: Yeah. And also something that I remembered a student said was “Once you have this course, I can never look at media the same. It rewires your brain… You thought to look at it as like a whole inclusive thing because while we look at the episode and expect a minority then we would notice different things of sexism, etc, in it that we would never even pick up on naturally before this course. And I think it really helps open your mind and just makes you better human beings.

John: We always end with the question: What are you doing next? You’ve already addressed some of this, but what are some of your next projects for each of you?

Mya: Well, I am actually going to the University of Michigan for the Fredrickson intensive on rapier dagger training. I’m prepping for next season… I’m directing She Kills Monsters, which is this excellent play about this girl who finds herself in a position where in order to get to know her little sister, who unfortunately passed away, she plays her D&D module, her Dungeons and Dragons module. So she meets her sister in this D&D world. They fight all these monsters… they bond… and it’s this really great look at grief, and how we can overcome it.

Ajsa: Personally, for me, I’m really involved on campus. I’m hoping to be a summer RA this summer. And also I am really involved in the civil service trips. I did one for Alabama. And I built a house in, Alabama and it was great and I’m really getting involved and would love to do another one. So I’m planning that and, in general, I’m just doing all these different aspects that I am involved in on campus and just having this whole touch on campus life. I certainly love that whole aspect.

Rebecca: Great.

John: Thank you for joining us. This was a fun conversation and I’m looking forward to hearing about more iterations of the course in the future.

Mya: Thank you.

Ajsa: Thank you.

Rebecca: 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.

86. Attention Matters

Our smartphones, smart watches, and other mobile devices provide us with a growing number of convenient distractions that can interfere with our productivity and learning. In this episode, Dr. Michelle Miller joins us to discuss one approach to help students better understand how to focus their attention.

Michelle is the Director of the First-Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and the President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. She co-curated the First-Year Learning Initiative at Northern Arizona University and is active in course redesign, serving as a redesign scholar for the National Center for Academic Transformation. She’s the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general interest publications.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Our smartphones, smart watches, and other mobile devices provide us with a growing number of convenient distractions that can interfere with our productivity and learning. In this episode, we examine one approach to help students better understand how to focus their attention.

[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 Dr. Michelle Miller. Michelle is the Director of the First-Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and the President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. She co-curated the First-Year Learning Initiative at Northern Arizona University and is active in course redesign, serving as a redesign scholar for the National Center for Academic Transformation. She’s the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general interest publications. Welcome back, Michelle.

Michelle: Hi, it’s so great to be here.

John: We’re happy to talk to you again. Our teas today are:

Michelle: Well, it is still technically morning here in Arizona where I’m speaking from so I am going with home-brewed coffee today with a whole lot of sugar and a little bit of cream.

Rebecca: I have an Orange Cylon tea today.

John: Cylon? Weren’t they on Battlestar Galactica?

Rebecca: How do you say it?

John: I believe it’s Ceylon, and I have Ginger Peach Black tea.

Rebecca: So we invited you here to talk about your Attention Matters project, Michelle. Could you tell us a little bit about the project?

Michelle: This is one of my favorite projects and really the most unique one that I’ve worked on, really going back to as long as I’ve been at Northern Arizona University. Attention Matters came about like this. After I wrapped up writing Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, I was really just still so engaged in this interest in disseminating cognitive psychology and cognitive science, and pulling out those key principles that we can all use in our lives and can make human wellbeing better and have all these great applications, and especially applications in teaching and learning environments. So you can probably guess that it has to do with attention and attentional processes in the mind and in the brain and how those play out in some different situations, especially with teaching and learning. Basically, the idea is that we do need to raise student awareness—and really raise all of our awareness—about how things like digital distraction—the smartphones, the alerts, the temptations that are always there when we’re online—all those can impact teaching and learning and things like memory as well. I had been really interested in finding ways to get that stuff out to students. So there were some people at my institution (at NAU), who knew that I was interested in that and that I really liked talking to students really directly about what they knew about attention, how things like attention and memory really work, addressing some myths and misconceptions that people tend to have about their own attention. So, I was interested in getting that out to students and faculty who knew that I did that would come to me and say, “Hey, can you come and talk to my students about this?” And I had kind of put together this PowerPoint presentation, and really interactive stuff where I could pull down some video clips and interactive demonstrations off the web and we could actually really get a discussion rolling about this. And so that was my idea. I was kind of going around with my little traveling show from class to class to get this out to students. And it’s obviously not terribly scalable for me to do that. I mean, how many students can I really reach that way? But I still really like doing it. So I was talking about some of these ideas with colleagues at one of our teaching day events at NAU—a lot of institutions have days like these and they’re just wonderful. They’re days when projects like this really get started—and I was talking to one of my most dynamic and really respected colleagues that I have at NAU, and that’s John Doherty. He is a brilliant instructional designer, who now works with the library at our institution but has held these roles for years at NAU. And he said, “You know, have you thought about putting this online? Have you thought about finding a way to make this an accessible online resource so that instead of you having to take your show out to different classes every semester, they can drop in and complete some of these?” and we started talking about what would that look like? How would we do it? Let’s put this together. We had no funding, there was no official initiative behind this. We just jumped in and decided to do this and he looped in some other really generous colleagues, who contributed from our e-Learning Center, and we put this together. I guess we’ll be talking some more about exactly how it’s configured, but we created this project and we’ve kept it going to this day. So this exists as an online resource at Northern Arizona University. I’ve also shared it with dozens of other institutions around the country and a few around the world, and at least one has turned it into their own module that works in their learning management system. It did win an Effective Practice Award from the Online Learning Consortium in 2015—and we were really, really proud of that—and I’ve written about it in a couple of other articles and publications, including one that came out a few years ago in Inside Higher Ed that got some nice feedback. So that’s how it started.

John: So how long does it take for students to complete this module?

Michelle: Well, it’s a module that self-enrolls so they don’t have to pay, there’s no extensive signup time or anything like that. And it does take about one to two hours for students to work through what’s an online sequence of different activities, discussions that they posted, and other types of reflections and self-assessment. So it is something that works quite well as an extra credit resource and that’s exactly how it’s perpetuated in its current form at NAU. So, faculty can voluntarily opt to incorporate it as an extra credit activity in an existing class anywhere in the curriculum. It tends to be particularly popular with our STEM teachers who have these large science and foundational science and mathematics courses, but anybody can use it. And yeah, then students put in a few hours, and they get this experience that they’re really not going to get anywhere else in that class.

Rebecca: What do students find the most surprising about this module?

Michelle: Well, let’s see. You’re picking up on a theme that we really did try to work into the design of the module itself—that element of surprise—that we typically know a lot less about how our attention works than we think. We take in a lot less than we assume or believe that we are. And so time and again, that’s exactly what we asked students. “What surprised you about this demonstration?” Students are surprised at how much can get past them when they are looking at, say, one aspect of a visual scene, but not paying attention to the whole thing. And you’re going to say that I’m going to be kind of weaseling out and talking around some of these issues. Some of these demonstrations do depend on the element of surprise. So I don’t want to talk too much about exactly what students are looking for in these different displays. Some of our more key demonstrations in this module have to do with some phenomena that most people, even if they don’t know the technical term, they’ve seen something about it before. So one is the change blindness effect, and this has to do with the fact that when we are paying attention to one aspect of a visual scene—like we’re looking at what somebody’s doing with their hands, or we’re looking at their car and not something else in the background of a street scene—we remember very little from moment to moment. And that’s why if somebody is, say, momentarily distracted or they just are really focused on one part of it, they can miss these huge visual changes. And then with multimedia, we can rewind and show you, “Oh, hey, here’s what you missed.” …and, it’s just shocking. And it’s something that is very robust in fact. You don’t have to have these perfectly controlled lab conditions, it happens pretty frequently, very reliable, so this makes a very good demonstration of attention and how attention works. We take a lot of these change blindness effects and those are very surprising. So students time and again will say, “I was surprised that I missed X, Y, and Z out of this thing that I saw.” And when they rewound it, “I just couldn’t believe that it got past me.”

Rebecca: Seems like this is a technique that pickpockets use pretty frequently. [LAUGHTER]

Michelle: Yes it is. [LAUGHTER] …and I was actually pickpocketed when I was abroad last year too. It’s something that can happen in a real scene, it happens visually. We are really subject to attention. And actually, if you’d like to, for people who would like to read a lot more—would like to do a deeper dive on this—there’s actually some really fascinating work on how stage magicians use this as well. So this is something that stage magicians have really known about in a different kind of arena for many, many years and is a very key aspect of what they do. So if you’re familiar with the concept of misdirection, it ties into that. So this is something very close to my heart because a former colleague from NAU named Anthony Barnhart is himself a very skilled stage magician and he is also a PhD who works in visual attention, so a lot of his work plays those out. So exactly, it’s something that we can all really get excited about. There’s these neat connections in so many different areas that are very, very relatable. So this is part of the fun of bringing attention and attention research out into this area to our students.

John: I want to put in a plug for another podcast actually, that came out on April 25 from the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast. There was a discussion on that, where Bonni Stachowiak was talking about something she used to demonstrate—so it won’t be one of the demonstrations you used—where she played some audio to students of a recording where there were three separate conversations going on, and she asked them to interpret it, and they couldn’t recall much of anything. But then she divided them up and she has some of them to focus on one conversation, others to focus on the other, and others to focus on the third, and then they were able to reproduce pretty much everything. But there was that issue of being able to focus on particular things and that focused attention, I think, is an important component to that. It’s not visual imagery, but it’s still, I think, the same sort of processing.

Michelle: Yes, absolutely. I mean, this is the real fun of teaching something like an attention module—which I get to do since I’m a psychology professor—because there are these neat interactive demonstrations. So those are the types of things that besides just the multimedia, and these neat demonstrations and things like change blindness that are out there on the web, I was able to kind of dive into my repertoire of those demonstrations of trying to focus when you’re distracted and how different competing inputs can take over and that affects your memory of which is interpretation, all these things I was able to pull out of my teaching repertoire and think about how could these be put online into this really massive course that students can come into, and can you make that work? And using those to—instead of trying to teach theoretical concepts about attention—to raise students awareness of an investment of that idea of being good stewards of their own attentional resources. To realize that yeah, things like learning by osmosis don’t really happen… that we need focused attention in order to learn, and that we aren’t always aware in the moment of just how our focus is being divided. And once we have lost focus on something, it’s very, very hard—if not impossible—to recapture that and get that information back. So establishing those ideas, getting students aware of and invested in them and getting us thinking about, “Alright, so how does this relate to very practical questions like you’ve got a cell phone and you’re in a class of 200 students, and you’ve got five friends texting you, what do you do? Or what if you’re sitting next to that neighbor in this large class, and they’ve got their laptop going, and it’s distracting? Or even low tech stuff like conversations.” That’s an issue that’s been around forever. So getting students kind of thinking ahead about that, instead of just kind of reactively—or worse depending on the teacher to tell them what to do in this situation. So those are some of the ways in which I was trying to weave together the teaching of some basic aspects of attention and cognition with, “Alright, you’re the student here. How are you going to handle this in your day-to-day life?”

Rebecca: How have your students who have completed the module change their behavior or used this information in a practical way?

Michelle: Well, just with so many of our teaching interventions that we do and our student initiatives that we do, I go to say it is very, very hard—not impossible—but that’s going to be a much harder and more long-term process of determining what changes in terms of actual behavior, the choices that students make. And I want to be real upfront here that in putting together and running this module, while we have done some basic empirical work on things like attitude change and knowledge change. I don’t know. I don’t know if students are more likely to turn off their cell phone and put it in their backpack, but I will say that what students say and do in the module itself is quite encouraging, quite eye opening. I mean, we asked them—and we could talk a little bit more about the design in maybe a minute—but we asked them at the end to tell us, “Alright, what is your plan going forward for managing your own attention? What’s your plan for having you manage your technology instead of your technology managing you?” And I am always surprised at the sophistication and the commitment that they expressed in these things, how they really personalized these concepts. So they will say, “From now on, I really am going to put my phone in airplane mode, or I’ll use the Do Not Disturb functions so that if that there’s a real emergency, my mom and dad need to talk to me, here’s what I’m going to do,” or a lot of what we exchange ideas on towards the end of the module when we say: “What’s your plan?” are, what’s kind of ironically, technology to manage your technology. So there are a range of other things that students can do—apps that are out there—that will do things like give an auto bounce back message when you’re in class, they’ll shut down certain problematic sites—that’s a favorite of mine because I definitely wouldn’t have any of this writing or anything to get this work done if I didn’t have a few checks on my own internet usage while I’m using my laptop—so you can make great concrete plans to do that as well. So those are some of the things that students say about their future behaviors assumption of this class. But yeah, if we look at something—I mean, I do hope perhaps in the Fall when I have a new student coming in—to look at things like longer term differences in say GPA, but those global measures, it can be very hard to discern the influence of something like that. But I do think that’s kind of the next step with this project.

John: In terms of the motivation for this, one of the things you’ve done is—I believe—you’ve looked at the relationship between the counterproductive belief scale and multitasking behavior in a convenience sample that you had worked with. Could you tell us a little bit about what you were looking at there and what you found?

Michelle: Yeah, and you know—just to give a sense of how those measures fit into all this—the part of what I’ve really enjoyed about this project as well has been the fact that it’s an opportunity to gather some data, both those qualitative impressions from students—which are so incredible to test and speaking in their own voices, their own experiences with digital distraction, that’s really neat—but we also have these very brief quantitative measures that we developed as part of the project and built in originally just as part of the assessment, but they have really become part of my research as well. So the counterproductive belief survey is a short 20 question set of items that breaks down in three big groups or subscales and they tap into what do people know and believe about their own attention and memory. So things like “quizzing yourself is a good way to remember information.” And, if we remember back to the podcast that we did together on retrieval practice, that’s such a bedrock idea about how attention to memory works, and it’s primarily an area of memory—but it relates to attention in that we kind of can contrast that with another item that says, “Oh, rereading things or skimming things in your notes is a good way to learn.” So that effortful, attentive processing is really important for memory and other things like really passes. Just seeing something go by doesn’t help you remember. So that’s the sort of thing that is tapped by that scale. So we look at what do they know about attention and memory? What do they know about attention itself like how limited it is, and so forth. And there’s actually another piece of it too that I’ve termed self-exceptionalism. The idea that, “Well, you know, other people might have a hard time texting and driving, but I’m really good, so I can do that,” or “I’m better than most people at dividing attention across different areas.” Oh, and I should say as well that this scale too was really inspired by some concepts in an absolutely fantastic book by Christopher Chabris and Dan Simon—two attention researchers—called The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us. So I went into that book and kind of pulled some of their core concepts and turned that into this counterproductive belief survey. So that’s what we can survey people on, the kind of, “What do you know?” Now the multitasking behaviors inventory was a self-report survey that looked at how often people said they multitasked with certain kinds of media or online types of things and how they did that in different day-to-day settings. So we could kind of cross those in a way so that we could ask, “How often do you do email that’s not relevant to the task at hand? And how often do you do this in classes if you take classes? How often do you do this at work? How often do you do this in social areas?” And then we can go through those same situations with other things like casual gaming or social media, or things like that. So we can also query people and get that sense of what they said about how frequently they found themselves doing this in day-to-day life. And in this survey that we ran with worldwide convenience online sample, we did find that there was a relationship between what people believed about attention and memory and how often they said they did these multitasking behaviors, which just establishing that yeah, beliefs relate to behaviors, at least self-reported behaviors. I think that was an important step. And we found that in particular, that correlation—that relationship—was strongest for the part of the counterproductive belief scale, specifically relating to attention. And that makes sense. So yeah, if I understand attention a little bit better, if I know “Oh, hey, this is limited and I’m not even going to know that I’m distracted until it’s too late,” then hey, I’m less likely to say, “Yeah, I sit in class and I do email because what could it possibly matter?” Right? So that’s something that we kind of uncovered and revealed as part of this project.

John: You mentioned the development process. Could you tell us a little bit about how this project was developed and how it’s evolved?

Michelle: In the design process for this—since it was just a project we put together spontaneously out of interest—we had a lot of opportunity to just go about it in a completely fresh new way. It wasn’t like being handed a course redesign project where new classes developed where you kind of have a rut that you’re already in. So with the design process—so I work really, really closely with John Doherty, who again, put in so much of the intellectual power behind this and made so many of the key design decisions and helped me with that. So we worked together to really talk about, “Okay, here’s sort of what we want. Here’s our philosophy,…” and then he—and again, with input from other instructional design colleagues—said, “Okay, how about this particular resource? How about this particular way of setting this up in the learning management system?” and they were just things that I would never have thought to come up with. So, with the philosophy—or grounding principles of what we wanted—we wanted to show don’t tell, we did not want it to be just this flat website that was like, “Okay, here’s a list of 20 things that I’m telling you not to do,” that we wanted students to have this experience of exploring this on their own, and have these surprising and interactive demonstrations. We did want to have those very selective, curated set of principles about attention that we wanted to convey and we didn’t want it to be academic—this is not a psychology course, not the way it would be taught in the psychology class—but it was very, very important to me that everything that we convey to students be grounded in science. And, if you just Google attention and attention demonstrations, you’re going to get lots of fun stuff off of the web, but this is an area that I already knew there’s a tremendous amount of misinformation, so everything had to be top notch in terms of what we were telling students. And we also wanted it to be something that had an open resource feel to it, something that we could kind of take apart and share with other people that wouldn’t be this one specific package that you had to either, Heaven forbid, purchase or that would be very hard to convey. We wanted it to be something that could be used in a lot of ways by a lot of people and adapted. So that’s what we wanted to do. And our design philosophy kind of converged too on this being a little bit like a MOOC—a Massive Open Online Course—so it’s got that flavor as well. Because it’s not part of my teaching load or anybody else’s, it has to be something that this does not result in a lot of papers or exams for me to grade. That’s just not feasible. It has to be something that can be run with very light interactions from me, so that’s what we were going for. So with that, it became this really creative, open-ended process because they would come up with research and say, “Hey, here’s this video I found,” I would say, “Well, no, it doesn’t really tie to this or it kind of conveys this in a way that I don’t like,” or “Oh my gosh, that’s wonderful.” Just for an example, John and his colleagues came up with one of the videos that I will talk about a little bit. It was put together by a driving safety initiative in Belgium, so it was actually subtitled, and it’s this crazy thing called the Text and Driving Test where it’s sort of like an online prank, where a student taking a driving test is set up to believe that now we’re asking everybody to text while they drive around the drivers’ training course. And havoc ensues, and the students are yelling and saying, “There’s no way this is safe, nobody can do this,” and that is something that I would never have thought to put in there, but that is something that students can definitely relate to since many of them have only recently learned to drive. And they know about the dangers of texting and driving, which—while it’s not learning specifically—it does kind of tie back to that idea that when we’re distracted, we’re oftentimes the last to know and the consequences are disastrous. So that’s how this process played out.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how the faculty have responded? You mentioned that a lot of faculty are using it as extra credit assignments and obviously, if it’s got distribution beyond just your institution, people are obviously engaged with this, but can you give us a little more specifics about what faculty are seeing the student benefit of doing this in their classes?

Michelle: Here to, this is something where really systematic impressions is a project for the future. But there’s absolutely a “voting with your feet” component to this. My fellow faculty have been so willing to incorporate this into their classes, especially those who are teaching with STEM classes, as I said, those really tend to be pretty popular. They are really, really careful about where they put their class time. Their classes are so sequenced and there’s so much in them, that they’re not going to sacrifice a moment or a point, if they don’t believe that this is something that they really want to get across to their students. And, I think this is reflected in some of the numbers which I just drew up as of today since we have students coming through this module all the time at NAU. We have had 4,481 unique users since the inception of this module and about 3,100 have gone all the way through and completed it, which for a MOOC, that’s a pretty good completion rate. So faculty’s willingness to really incorporate this as a core part of what they’re offering students, I think, speaks very highly—and again, I’m grateful to my colleagues. Because this sort of thing would not work if faculty don’t really endorse it, and not just with, “Hey, you can do this, but I will give you credit for doing this.” Another part of this too, though, I think—and especially for those people who might want to try to replicate something like this at their institution—is really needing to look at it from that faculty side as well of how can we make this a really kind of painless and low-investment proposition for faculty. So, you know, being able to really assure that the students are getting something where the science has been vetted, it’s going to pay off for the time invested, but also they don’t need to grade or support it, and it’s not they don’t care about this issue, it’s just really, they’re as stretched as they can be. So what students actually get at the end is a certificate of completion. So it’s something that our learning management system makes it very, very easy for them to just send right to their professors so the professor to mark them down for extra credit. So streamlining that last piece of that I think has been very helpful too for getting that positive faculty reaction.

John: If faculty would like to use this, or to use this approach, how can they go about doing that?

Michelle: Well, let’s see. I think first of all, I really encourage faculty to get a grounding in some of the basic issues and it’s not something, even as a cognitive psychologist, I’m not going to say “Oh, go out there, make a deep dive into the journal articles on this.” There are now some really high quality resources that talk about student distraction in a reasoned and evidence-based way which is so important. I would encourage them to consult—first off—Jim Lang’s excellent teaching distracted students series that has come out in the Chronicle of Higher Education. And he’s just been a really great voice for this, for giving a balanced reasoned take on the issues. So, I think getting familiar with that. Now, really playing around too with like what we did, to say what would be the best way to engage students in this, with that engagement idea of being really key here. And we’ve had such success with this MOOC approach, this online module approach at NAU. If they’d like to do something like that, of course, I say, “Get in touch with your local e-Learning Center and instructional designers to look at that.” There’s just no way that I could have put together something like this without that kind of input to set up the design in the way that we did and to come up with all these innovations. So, seeing whether there are some productive collaborations that can be done there, or perhaps with the library leadership and staff as well. So, having an idea of what does your initiative look like, what approach you’re going to use, how are you going to get it out there to students, is it going to meet with the faculty as we do, or something else? Now, if they would like to specifically take advantage of what we’ve developed as far as Attention Matters, contacting me directly by email or any of my other modalities is the way to go. Now what we have is not a slick commercial type of module that you can just pop open. But we have all of our materials unbundled. Everything from the self-assessments that students can take, the different surveys that we developed if they want to use those, the very short conversational introductions and summaries that I wrote—you’re welcome to those as well—and we can help you to an extent to put that together or give you what you need to create something like this in your own learning management system. And so we’ve had some colleagues who’ve been really willing to do that and to put their own spin on this and make it work for their own students and their own environment, so that’s something that you can do as well. We have a chapter out in a publication that’s free online—it was put out for the Society of Teaching Psychology—that talks a little bit more in depth about the different pieces and some things we found as far as attitude and belief change, so that I think is a good general appeal reading that you can do. And we’ll have, hopefully, some more publications coming out on this. And of course, they can always come to my website or talk to me if you’d like to do a more deep dive, put together a workshop for faculty, or anything else like that on this issue of distraction for students and how to build students skills in this area. I really come to believe that this is a metacognitive skill for the 21st century. There’s so much discussion and debate about what sort of policy should we have, what do we tell students to do or not to do? And I just think we need to come at it in a different way of looking at this as something that students need to master for themselves, to understand for themselves, and really make their own plan for how this is going to be a part of their life, kind of managing their own distractions and what they should know about their own minds. So I’m always really, really happy to share more and to talk more about this because it is just such an issue that I care so much about.

John: And as one of the campuses where Michelle has given workshops, we’d also encourage you to contact her about giving a workshop on these or other materials.

Rebecca: It’s also a topic that, like many others, like learning how to learn and other things that we’ve talked about with you, Michelle—and also other episodes of the podcast—students don’t innately know these things. I think sometimes the assumption is that we know about attention, but there’s lots to learn about it. So you got to meet people where they’re at and remember that that’s not necessarily something that they know about and maybe be willing to spend some time on these issues because in the long run, it might help them engage in whatever subject matter you’re hoping to get them engaged in.

Michelle: Absolutely.

John: And they’ll be more productive in the rest of their lives because these distractions are not going to be going away anytime in the near future.

Michelle: Absolutely, absolutely. I think we’re all completely on the same page as far as those ideas are concerned.

John: We always end the podcast with a question—as you know—what are you doing next?

Michelle: One of the big things, my big project for the summer, is to continue actually revising and getting out there an article that does go into more depth about the impact of the project itself. And I’m spending a lot of this upcoming summer pushing a lot of different kinds of learning related research projects ahead. I’ve got quite a few things in the cooker and I love them, but that’s how the summer is going to go. I am continuing in particular to work on some neat projects having to do with virtual reality for education with the immersive VR lab we have at NAU, so that’s all part of this kind of big complex of interest that I have around the mind, how we take in information, and teaching and learning. I’ll be continuing to work with faculty doing some speaking and some workshops, and I will be tackling my own long, growing, and rather intimidating reading list at this point. So much good work is coming out now, so many books, so many articles. So, I’m really looking forward to continuing to get through those this summer.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much, Michelle. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you and I think faculty will engage with your materials but also just think about attention as a topic that they might want to tackle with our students.

John: It’s always a pleasure talking to you.

Michelle: Likewise, always a pleasure.

[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.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.

77. First-Generation Students

The process of transitioning from high school to college can be quite challenging, especially for first-generation college students. In this episode, Dr. Lisa Nunn joins us to explore a variety of techniques that we can use to help first-year and first-year students successfully navigate this critical period in their educational journey.

Lisa is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of San Diego, and the author of 33 Simple Strategies for Faculty: A Week-By-Week Resource for Teaching First-Year and First-Generation Students.

Show Notes

  • Dr. Lisa Nunn – Lisa Nunn’s website.
  • Nunn, Lisa. (2018). 3 Simple Strategies for Faculty: A Week-By-Week Resource for Teaching First-Year and First-Generation Students. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press
  • Dr. Nunn’s forthcoming coming book – College Belonging: How First-Year and First-Generation Students Navigate Campus Life

John: The process of transitioning from high school to college can be quite challenging, especially for first-generation college students. In this episode, we explore a variety of techniques that we can use to help students successfully navigate this critical period in their educational journey.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Our guest today is Dr. Lisa Nunn, an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of San Diego, and the author of 33 Simple Strategies for Faculty: A Week-By-Week Resource for Teaching First-Year and First-Generation Students. Welcome, Lisa.

Lisa: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Rebecca: We’re grateful to have you. Today’s teas are:

Lisa: I’m drinking Orange Spice.

Rebecca: Yum.

John: I’m drinking Ginger Peach Black tea,

Rebecca: I’m really boring and drinking Afternoon tea again. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your book, 33 Simple Strategies for Faculty. Could you tell us a bit about the research project that you engaged in that inspired this book?

Lisa: Yes, the bigger project that this book came out of is actually a project on sense of belonging among college students. So, I interviewed students in their very first semester at the end of their first year and at the end of their second year at two different universities, trying to get a sense of how students do or don’t develop a sense of belonging on campus. And what happened was, as I was interviewing students…particularly in their very first semester…I was asking them a lot of questions about academic belonging, also questions about social belonging, but the stuff that came forward for this book was mostly on academic belonging. So I would ask them, “What’s your favorite class? And what’s that professor doing that’s working for you?” and “What’s your least favorite class? And what’s that professor doing that’s not working for you?” just to get them to talk about their experiences of whether or not they felt like they belonged academically in college, or in their particular classes. And I just found myself keeping side notes. So a student would say something great that their professor did, and I would think, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to do that in my class,” and I take a little note. And then on the flip side too, students would talk about something they found particularly frustrating and I would think, “Oh, I do that,” and it never occurred to me that you could receive it that way. I’m never going to do that again. So I had this kind of running list of do’s and don’ts and I started to share them with other faculty on my own campus and it slowly developed into this idea of every single week, we could be doing just one or two targeted things that might really make a big difference at that moment in their transition to college.

John: In general, I think it’s probably a good strategy to talk to our students more and get that type of feedback. So I’m glad you did this, and I enjoyed reading the book.

Lisa: Thank you.

John: A good deal of focus in the book is actually focused on the student voices so that when you talk about a strategy, you give some examples of students. That’s a little different than most books on teaching and learning. Could you talk a little bit about why you adopted that strategy?

Lisa: It’s partly from the way that these strategies came out of a different research project. Not entirely different, I guess. But it’s a qualitative study where student voices are the data. So to show my evidence for why I was recommending this strategy or that strategy, it just made sense to include the data itself from students. But also I really wanted to give faculty a little glimpse into what it feels like to be going through the things that first-year students are going through, and particularly first-gen students just to hear, in their own words, what the world looks like and feels like for them in the classroom.

Rebecca: I think sometimes as faculty, you might have been in that position at one point in time, but perhaps it was a while ago, right?

Lisa: It was a while ago and many of us were not first-gen students. And I really think even in my own teaching, even though I might have first-year students and I know they’re in their very first semester, in my mind I think, “Oh, but they just figure it all out by the time they’re sophomores and juniors and seniors, they’ve got it all worked out,” and you forget how painful and how critical some of these ups and downs and transitional moments are in that first semester.

John: And the ones that survived to the time they get to be juniors and seniors are ones who have figured it all out, but there’s a lot of people who get lost along the way.

Lisa: Exactly right.

John: You focus both, as you noted, on first-generation and first-year students. In what ways are their interests and needs similar and different from those of other students?

Lisa: The transition to college is a real challenge for most students. And first-gen students tend to have particular challenges, but all students are getting the hang of it. Like we just said, by the time they’re in their second year, or their third year, they’ve figured out some habits that work for them, but they’re just learning those habits in that first semester. So it’s a particularly important time to pay attention to students and their brand new experiences, and they’re just figuring out what they need as well. As for first-gen students, the definition of first-gen is that you don’t have parents who have these college experiences that they can just pass on wisdom or offer unsolicited advice when you’re having a struggle of some kind. And it’s helpful for faculty and everyone on campus to just keep in mind that reaching out or offering unsolicited advice is exactly what students need and not everyone’s getting that from their family life.

Rebecca: Why is the focus on first-generation students important to closing performance gaps that result from differences in the quality of primary and secondary background education?

Lisa: So first-generation students are likely to be from low-income backgrounds…not all of them, certainly…but this is the way economics works in the United States. If you have a college degree, you have stronger earning power. So if your parents have college degrees, you’re less likely to be in a low-income neighborhood and low-income neighborhoods tend to have mediocre at best K through 12 public education. So if you went to your neighborhood school, you were just much less likely to have been prepared for college as well as your college classmates who went to some, you know, very excellent public schools or even private schools. So first-gen students and low-income…in general…students tend to come in the college doors plenty smart to handle the work and very eager and motivated to be successful, but they just may not have had that high-quality content in their physics class or their English composition class. And it’s about content and it’s also about study skills. They may not have been practicing the same kind of learning and studying and homework habits that have been really instilled in students in higher quality, more academically rigorous schools.

John: What types of strategies can instructors use to help students who haven’t been exposed to these more effective study strategies, or who have weaker backgrounds in certain areas?

Lisa: There are several. And again, many of these are the kinds of comments that students in interviews told me that their favorite professors were doing and that I realized many of them that I don’t do, and one is to offer a study guide. I used to think that giving a study guide for the midterms and final to my students meant that I was doing their thinking for them, because I try very hard on my syllabus to have weekly headings that summarize the issue at hand and on my lecture slides I have definitions of key concepts. Key concepts are in the headings of the lecture slides, I mean, I’ve really tried to sign post it. And I just didn’t realize that a lot of first-gen students don’t have the habit…they have never developed this skill…have never had to, based on the kind of high-school experiences they had…develop the skill of sifting through mountains of information and figuring out what is the most important stuff to really focus on for an exam. So, not offering a study guide only exacerbated this difference between students in my class who had excellent K through 12 educations and those who didn’t have such an excellent K through 12 education, because they already knew how to do this. And it’s a skill that you cultivate. And so I have now committed to helping cultivate that skill. I offer a study guide for the first midterm and then we work together to learn how to create such a study guide as the future midterms move on and by the final, they’re on their own. Okay, so that’s one, study guides. Also, one of my favorite strategies from this book is the mini-midterm. It’s often a week six, week seven, maybe even week eight of the semester before they get real feedback on their work after the first midterm has been given and it takes a little while for us to grade the midterms and give them back. And it’s only then, this very late moment in the semester, when students realize that they got a D or an F or maybe even a C can be heartbreaking. And they just are learning or discovering, in that moment, that their study habits aren’t quite up to snuff. And if we give them a teeny tiny, right, mine is two questions, but it’s a two-question version of the real midterm and I give it at the end of week two or the beginning of week three and I grade it as fast as I can so that they can figure out: first what my test style is like, what my grading expectations are, and also whether or not they are taking the right notes in class or thinking about the concepts in the right way to do well. So I very explicitly have this conversation about why we have the mini-midterm and that has been a game changer for my classes. And then other ways to address some other strategies in the book…about addressing this difference in levels of preparation is students tell me that they really appreciate it when their professor, like calculus professor, says, “Calculus is hard. I know it’s hard. Hang in there,” right? “This stuff is hard.” And they really feel disheartened when we say things like, “Yeah, I know this is review for most of you from your AP chemistry class,” or whatever it is. So, changing our habits of speech just a little bit can help just motivate and validate students who are feeling a little unsure or a little unhappy with how competent they feel academically in the first weeks. I also recommend that we explain our pedagogic rationales for the things that we require or prohibit in our classes. And also just to tell students right out of the gate, what is the best way to study for your class, because every professor is different. For example, I don’t want students to give me a word-for-word definition in the blue-book exam answer…the word-for-word definition that they learned from the book or learned from my lecture slides. I want them to say it in their own words so I can see if they really mastered the content rather than memorize a definition. But different classes and different professors want different things. Sometimes it is a word-for-word definition. So anyway, just to let them know exactly what we’re looking for, and why.

John: So don’t let the test be a surprise or something where students will say, “This isn’t what I was expecting,” so that students can prepare appropriately to meet the learning objectives that you set.

Lisa: Exactly. One of the students in my study called it the “Guess what’s in the professor’s head” game. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I found that trying to make things a little more explicit does change the classroom atmosphere in general. Students are much more open to letting the faculty know where they’re struggling or each other know where they’re struggling if you set those expectations up front and say things like, “Hey, maybe it’s been a long time since you’ve actually learned something new, like totally new, and learning something new is really hard.”

Lisa: That’s exactly right.

John: And that strategy you suggested of letting students know that this is going to be difficult and it’s going to be work and you’re going to have to work through those things and that everyone has to when they’re learning it, also perhaps might help build a growth mindset and I think a number of your strategies may address that growth mindset concept. Could you talk a little bit about some ways in which we can help students develop that mindset…that they can achieve?

Lisa: Yeah, absolutely. I think that the growth mindset is a helpful way to think about things, especially helping students understand that just because it’s an intro class doesn’t mean it’s easy. You’re learning a whole new discipline, a whole new way of thinking about the world, perhaps, and it might be an intro class but it’s a little bit like learning how to play guitar or learning how to dribble a soccer ball. And it takes a lot of practice and a lot of mistakes and kind of falling flat in order to get the hang of this brand new thing, and students often have this misconception that just because it’s a 100-level class and “introduction” is in the title that it’s somehow going to be easy for them, and then they’re frustrated and confused when it’s not so easy. So just having that in our minds and in the way that we communicate what’s going on in the class can help. But also, you know, thinking about failure as this phrase “failing forward,” growing and learning based on our failures rather than seeing failure as evidence that we aren’t cut out for this kind of work. And some of that, again, I think is just faculty holding that idea in our head so that when we’re just communicating in everyday ways with students that comes out, this idea that, “Yeah, a mistake is great, that tells you where you need to focus some energy for next time.” In the book I have some explicit strategies. Late in the semester I suggest sharing a failure CV, which is kind of a fun activity. I wrote one myself. It was a little embarrassing actually, to write it myself and to put it in the book about my own life and my own failures. I tried to focus on my undergraduate days, but there are also some good ones online. Students in these interviews with me tell me how successful we seem and how smart and how accomplished and it’s wonderful for them when we admit that we have failed along the way a million times. It feels very reassuring. So a failure CV, also I recommend helping students use this tool “fifteen questions to find your life purpose.” And faculty also, I call them stories of woe, sharing some academic story of woe. Some terrible mistake or bad grade or missed assignment that happened to you as an undergraduate just to let students know that it happens to all of us, and we just pick ourselves up and move forward.

Rebecca: I was just sharing some of those stories this morning. [LAUGHTER] Some of my students, who were putting too much pressure on themselves and expecting to kind of have results immediately when it was something brand new that we were just starting, expecting that somehow they were going to catch on immediately. It certainly was, I think, reassuring for the students to hear that, “You know, I also had those moments.” [LAUGHTER]

Lisa: Exactly right. And some of us even fail the class that ended up being a foundational class for the future discipline we pursued much later on. It just happens.

Rebecca: One of the other things that happens a lot for first year students is transitioning to a new place, being away from family, or just not being in a situation where maybe more structure is employed for them, and they have to make their own structure, their own study time, their own rules about eating and taking care of themselves. Can you talk a little bit about ways that faculty can help guide and support students in those ways?

Lisa: In the book, I recommend just taking a few minutes of class time…it doesn’t have to be class time, of course — and just sharing, for example, sharing what stress management activities you do in your own life. More than one first-year student told me that they didn’t have any. They had zero stress-management techniques in their repertoires of life. And they were just realizing that they needed to learn how to take time for themselves, they needed to learn how to figure out when they need some time away from people, or when they need to be around certain I don’t know, people or activities to re-energize. They’re just figuring this out. Just spending five minutes telling what you do when you need to relieve stress, or what you do to keep sane week-by-week. I also always share with them — like meditation, for example, is something I always think about doing and I never do it, so it’s kind of an aspirational stress-management technique for me, but what I actually do is go for a walk. That’s my go to. I kind of let them know that sometimes we imagine ourselves to be these much more balanced humans than we are and that’s okay, too. Stress management and just reminding them even in just small ways, small sentences, small moments that when we get overwhelmed, we cope in sometimes very unhealthy ways. Too much alcohol, too much other kinds of substances, self-sabotage, where we postpone doing something that intimidates us until it gets to the point where there’s no way that we have enough time to really do it successfully. And these are things that all of us deal with in life that are especially acute for college students with all these new routines, and new deadlines, and new expectations.

Rebecca: I feel like some students who are at the senior level, just getting ready to transition into being a professional have that same scary moment that’s happening as well, and asking those same questions or reminding them about those same strategies can be useful at that moment in time too.

Lisa: Yeah, that’s a great point.

John: One of the things you mentioned in talking to students you discovered that quite a few students had issues where they initially created a network of friends, but then sometimes that didn’t work out so well, and you suggest that one useful thing you can do in the classroom is to help students build a wider social network. Could you talk a little bit about that, and some of the strategies you recommend to help students develop a wider network?

Lisa: I recommend an explicit interview assignment — and of course, people can modify this in ways that makes sense for their own classes — but it’s around late October, early November, I discovered that first-year students, it’s not that everyone feels unsatisfied with the friendships they’ve made, but they’re all…or most of them at least…seem to be hungry for more. And what they say to me is that they feel like they would like to reach out and make some new friends but everyone seems already kind of cliqued off into their social groups, they themselves feel cliqued off, and they don’t know how to break through those barriers. And I was really surprised to discover how common this was among students and none of them seem to indicate that they knew that other people were feeling the same way. I give examples of this in the book that people can just print out and use. So I ask them to interview one person in class, and then outside of class, they have to interview at least one more person and I recommend up to five people. And I tell them explicitly, this activity is designed…yeah, you’re going to practice you know, thinking and having conversations about a sociological issue that’s important…but it’s designed on purpose right now because we know that first-year students are feeling a little hungry for more friendships. And so choose someone that you’ve kind of had your eye on as a friend and invite them to do this interview with you and maybe you’ll end up in a study group together, or maybe you’ll be able to have dinner together that night, or I don’t know what, but maybe a friendship will bloom. So, it’s very explicit in that way, in the way that I present it. And other professors that my students told me about in interviews talk about the way that the professor strategically organizes study groups among students in the class. If you’re an early-morning study person, go to the back corner of the room, if you’re a late-night study person, go to this front corner of the room, mix and mingle, exchange phone numbers, and, you know, kind of coordinating for students this ability to network in a way that they might be too shy to do on their own.

Rebecca: Or might just not have a way to facilitate on their own. I can imagine, how would you know necessarily who is an early-morning person but if you are one, that’s who you want to meet, those are the people who have the same kind of time schedules, so that seems really strategic and such an easy thing to do.

Lisa: Exactly. When that student told me about that the first time in the interview, I thought, “Oh, right. That’s about five minutes of class on the first day,” or whenever. Easy… and it really solves a problem for students.

Rebecca: It’s funny how sometimes these things can be just so easy but so easily overlooked.

Lisa: Yeah, exactly.

John: And those types of connections can help improve colleges’ retention rates and so forth because when students have more connections with other people on campus, other students, they’re much more likely to want to be successful and to want to continue. So it can help increase the odds of students staying in longer, I would think.

Lisa: That’s exactly the goal, right? I think about all of this is connected to belonging. How do we let all the members of our community know that they belong here, they’re valued here, we want them here, and their success matters to us?

Rebecca: One of the topics that are related to that academic belonging that you mentioned at the beginning of our interview that I think about a lot is how to connect first-year students to potential mentors, and how to get them connected to role models or people besides just their peer group because they don’t necessarily have an adult on campus that they look up to or can go to for things. How do you help facilitate students finding those connections?

Lisa: Some campuses like my own have structures for first-year students. I teach a class that is entirely comprised of first-year students and I am their academic advisor until they declare a major. So some institutions have tried to structure this…even that, there are students who don’t quite gravitate toward that advisor relationship and the strategies that I recommend in the book are very interpersonal. One of the strategies is just: this week, pick five students to reach out to, maybe it’s to send a short email, or maybe it’s to approach them before or after class, and just say hi and make it clear that you know who they are and they’re on your radar. I also recommend when you talk about your office hours…or first of all to talk about your office hours and to tell students what they might expect in there…but to also personally invite students when you’re chatting with them or if you have a moment before class, just kind of wander the aisles of the desk and say hi to people and make it a habit to just invite students to come and see you in office hours to talk more about something, or to get to know each other better. All of this is connected to not just being available, but being perceived as available to students. One of my favorite strategies in the book is to not seem busy. And this is really hard, because we are very busy. But students told me in these interviews that especially before and after class, this is kind of a testing ground for some students. They want to approach and ask a question, or just even say, “Hello,” or thank you for the class and they try it out to get a sense of how you might be and can they be brave enough to come to your office hours. And when we are frantically putting our things together or, if you happen to have four minutes before class starts, trying to get that one last thing read or marked up, the sense that we are too busy for them is a message that they take home. That they take very seriously. If you can just linger and just not be doing anything and just seem calm and available to be approached with a question…even just for those three-minutes, right before class starts, it makes a big difference for students feeling like they can approach us. And I also recommend holding one of your office hours just before or just after your first-year class so that you can tell students, “I’m right here, walk with me to my office if you want that office hour right now at the end of class. Let’s continue this conversation.” We all hold office hours. We all know that students can email us, but to be perceived as available is one more dimension.

John: One issue for first-year students is that, in the past when they were in high school, they often do not see going to someone’s office as being a very positive thing. So, creating that welcoming environment could be really useful. And I know this is one I struggle with because often when students stop by, I’m going to a meeting or I’m in the middle of a meeting, but making yourself open is really useful and I try to do that by saying, “I have to leave right now, but if you stop back, I’ll be here between two and five or two and six,” or something similar, and that often works in them coming back. But it is a concern I think that many of us have that we do get stuck in a lot of meetings. I had seven hours of meetings yesterday, for example, and I had a lot of students who wanted to see me about projects and I tried to accommodate them. In some cases I’ll share my phone number and tell them they can call me later if they have other questions, but it can be challenging.

Lisa: It is challenging. I remember feeling so flattered in graduate school, the first time a professor was racing off to some other meeting and had to cut our conversation short and he said, “Can we walk and talk?” and I was like, “What does that mean?” he’s like, “I need to walk over to this meeting that’s 10 minutes away. Can you walk with me?” and I was so flattered that he was willing to continue the conversation. Our campus is much smaller, it doesn’t really take 10 minutes to walk anywhere, but I try to remember that with students and just, “I have to go, but why don’t you keep asking me? Keep asking me this question, walk with me.”

Rebecca: Or “I need to eat lunch, but you’re welcome to come sit with me.” [LAUGHTER]

John: Yes.

Lisa: Yeah.

John: You suggest that it’s really helpful to be open with students and to encourage the students to come in and talk to you, but also, it’s important to maintain boundaries. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Lisa: This is something I think a lot of us learn the hard way…I know that I did…but I am completely convinced that setting boundaries is beneficial for our students as well as ourselves. So in my institution we have to hold five hours of office hours a week. That is enough time. Now certainly I’ll make appointments if someone’s schedule is crazy, but that is just enough time. I don’t need to be available at any whimsical moment that students might need me in a panic. But also emotionally, I want my students to know that I care about them, I care deeply about their wellbeing, and for me, the way to show that most effectively…of course if they’re sharing a personal trouble, to listen compassionately…but the best I can do is guide them toward the resources that might actually offer some resolution to their struggles. And I used to take on my student’s problems as my own and carry that emotional burden around and what it did was exhaust me and it made me unhelpful to other students, or even to those same students in the end, because I was depleted and it made me unhelpful to my own family and my own friends and my own self. I was just depleted. So setting healthy boundaries with the amount of emotional care that you can or are willing to give is good. You’re not short changing anyone, you’re modeling healthy behavior. You’re also practicing self-care. You know, I am not qualified to be a mental health counselor. I don’t want the job, I don’t have the credentials for it, and it doesn’t serve anyone for me to play that role at all. I can just dial the phone and help students get their own appointment with someone who can do that.

Rebecca: I think those are always good reminders.

John: I think we all fall into that at first, especially. One of the issues that many first-generation students have is that their faculty may come from very different backgrounds, their fellow students may, and they may be in a discipline where they’re underrepresented. What are some of the things you recommend to help students get past that stereotype threat?

Lisa: One is to simply add images of scholars and researchers that you’re talking about, or reading about in your class. Just add images to your lecture slides. Students may not be able to recognize from the name of the author, what this person’s background might be or whether or not it’s a person who looks like me, for example, and it’s really helpful. So I’m in sociology and this is relatively easy for me. My syllabus is full of scholars of color and women scholars and people who present their gender in nontraditional ways, and so an image is a really powerful tool to just show off the diversity in our field. And I don’t linger on the slide, I just put up the image, I say, “Here she is, we’re reading a chapter today from her first book,” and then we just move along. And I realize that some disciplines don’t have that luxury. You might be teaching a class where almost everyone is white or almost everyone is male on your syllabus. But I hope that this suggestion even helps people who teach such classes to think of creative ways to include more current scholars of color or women into their classroom, even if you’re not reading a whole week’s worth of content on someone, you might be able to present on five minutes on exciting new work in the field. And the idea is that, especially on my campus, students of color might look around the room and or look around campus and feel like it’s a world of white faces. But that’s not true entirely for academics and presenting images in this way is a very powerful message that scholars of color and women and non-gender conforming folks have a routine everyday place in the academic world. Here they are. Even if, when you look around this classroom, it may not seem that way. So that’s one. And the other strategies that I think that speak to issues like stereotype threat are again these small gestures that faculty can make to reach out to students. Just these five people that you might send a quick email to, and just share your favorite TED Talk or a great podcast that you just listened to or whatever it is, just this idea that, “You’re on my mind, I’m thinking of you.” Even if I just got your name off my roster. It doesn’t have to be some person that you actually have already established a connection with. But to really validate that student’s presence in your class, in your department, on your campus that they matter, that we see them.

Rebecca: Those are really great suggestions and again, things that are just super easy to implement, that aren’t time consuming. They just take a little time and thought, and if we have those five hours of office hours where students aren’t actually showing up, you probably have time to do it. [LAUGHTER]

Lisa: That’s the idea.

John: You’re working on another book called College Belonging: How First-Year and First-Generation Students Navigate Campus Life. What will be some of the differences in this new book?

Lisa: The current book is just a targeted…particularly for faculty…set of ideas and strategies to implement in our interactions with students. So the College Belonging book isn’t targeted that way at all but it is about this same general issue of sense of belonging for our students. As you mentioned earlier, John, sense of belonging is associated with all kinds of positive outcomes for students: better persistence rates, better graduation rates, better overall wellbeing, and the College Belonging book is more about articulating some of the issues and dynamics around developing a sense of belonging. First, this idea that students experience academic belonging separately from social belonging, even though they’re interrelated and overlap a bit, the scholarship on belonging really tends to focus on social belonging and there’s a lot less out there on what academic belonging is and how students navigate through it. And also thinking about the institutional structures at each of the two campuses in my study that really foster and promote maybe social belonging over academic belonging or vice versa. Yeah, it’s a bigger study about belonging and what the institutional features are and the particular obstacles or kind of wide-open straightforward pathways that students experience their real differences for first-gen students compared to continuing generation students, so exploring all of those differences.

Rebecca: Wow, that sounds really exciting.

Lisa: I think it is.

Rebecca: Yeah. Sounds super interesting.

John: It does.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next? So that’s… it’s coming, but what’s next?

Lisa: This bigger book, it’s not written yet. So what’s coming is the next book on the larger dynamics of sense of belonging at college, and where this book 33 Simple Strategies is targeted for faculty interactions with students, the College Belonging book will have recommendations for institutions.

Rebecca: That’s great.

Lisa: I have no idea what’s going to be next next after that, so that’s good as I can get you. [LAUGHTER]

John: Writing a book is plenty.

Lisa: Thank you, it feels like it.

Rebecca: Yeah, and that’s not going to take any time or anything, so. [LAUGHTER]

Lisa: You know, I’m just going to whip that out this weekend.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: We’ll check back next week to see.

Rebecca: Get an update.

Lisa: I’ll send you a draft.

[LAUGHTER]

John: Thank you for joining us. This was really interesting.

Rebecca: Yeah, I can’t wait to see your next book and also to try some of the things that were in the book we just talked about today.

Lisa: Thank you so much. I’m glad that these ideas are useful.

Rebecca: Well, thank you. This was really great.

[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.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.

73. The Injustice League

Difficult conversations like those around injustice and inequity can be challenging to facilitate no matter the student body, but first-year students have additional barriers to overcome like establishing a sense of belonging on campus. In this episode, Dr. Margaret Schmuhl joins us to discuss how comic books and programming outside of the classroom can help first-year students develop the confidence to engage with complex social issues. Maggie is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Show Notes

  • Mya Brown – Assistant Professor in the Theatre department at SUNY Oswego
  • Amy Bidwell – Associate professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Wellness at SUNY Oswego
  • ACUE – Association of College and University Educators – certificate of effective college instruction

Transcript

Rebecca: Difficult conversations like those around injustice and inequity can be challenging to facilitate no matter the student body, but first-year students have additional barriers to overcome, like establishing a sense of belonging on campus. In this episode, we examine how comic books and programming outside of the classroom can help first-year students develop the confidence to engage with complex social issues.

[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.

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Margaret Schmuhl an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Oswego. Welcome back Maggie.

Maggie: Hi everyone.

John: Good to have you back.

Maggie: It’s good to be here.

John: Our teas today are….

Maggie: I am having a black ginger and peach tea.

Rebecca: Oh, one of John’s favorites.

John: It is [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m having English afternoon tea.

John: And I have Tea Forte black currant tea.

Rebecca: Oh, another one of your favorites.

John: I have many favorites.

Maggie: That’s a favorite of mine too.

John: We invited you here to discuss your first-year Signature Course here at as Oswego called the Injustice League: Crime, Justice, and Inequality in Comic Books. Sounds like a really fun course. Can you tell us a little bit about the course and how it differs from your other introductory criminal justice courses?

Maggie: This class was a lot of fun to teach. In the class we read various comic books, we watched different superhero movies and we talked about, within those comic books, what it means to have justice, to recognize injustice, and how society responds to crime and maintains or perpetuates various inequalities in those stories and movies.

Rebecca: How does that class differ from the other classes that you teach in your subject area? Because it’s a First-Year Signature Course, so that has particular meaning at our institution.

Maggie: Yeah. So the signature courses here at SUNY Oswego are about bringing a student engagement aspect to our academic course content. And so in this class there’s a balance of introducing our subject matter (in my case, Criminal Justice Studies) to the students but through a really fun way, but also working with students to help them with their academic success and getting engaged with each other and with our campus community.

Rebecca: Are these usually majors that are in this class or non majors?

Maggie: So I actually had a mix of majors and non majors. I had probably about 19 students. I had about 10 or so majors and so about half of the class were non majors. And they came from a variety of disciplines, including computer science, communication studies, and we even had some undeclared majors in the course.

John: And this is part of a broader initiative that we talked about in a prior podcast, and we will include a link to that in the show notes for anyone who wants to learn more about the first-year signature courses here. So one of the purposes of this, as you said, is to build more of engagement with the college community and also amongst themselves so that students will feel more connected. And one of the first things you did, I believe, was take them on a field trip. Could you tell us a little bit about that field trip?

Maggie: In Oswego, there’s a local comic shop that we ordered some of the students comic books from. In the very first class I asked them which comic books they were interested in purchasing and how many students we’re going to accompany me to the comic book shop here in town. And so to get to the comic book shop, you have to take the public bus, or at least if you don’t have a car, and many first year students don’t, they have to learn how to take the public bus. And so part of this field trip was not only obtaining some of the course materials for the class, but also getting the students familiar with public transit in the town and how to navigate a new place with them. So we arrived at the comic book shop and the owner was very gracious to us. She made us cookies and we had coffee and the students picked up their books and some of them even got some additional materials. We had a lot of fun. It was an amusing trip bringing a bunch of college students on a bus, and some of them their first time using public transit, and the bus drivers were even entertained by the group of us, so we had a really good time.

Rebecca: I think you also discovered the infrequency of the buses….

Maggie: Oh yes.

Rebecca: …in our town, right?

Maggie: Yeah…

Maggie: Oh yes.

John: Particularly on weekends.

Maggie: Yeah, particularly on weekends. We did wait about an hour for the bus on Sunday. So that was a little bit of a lag, but we made it through.

John: I should note that the comic book shop is actually owned by the wife of a former member of my department. It’s Arlene Spizman who runs that store.

Maggie: Yeah, Arlene was wonderful.

John: She’s a very nice person.

Maggie: I didn’t realize she had that connection.

John: In fact, I just finished a paper with her husband.

Rebecca: I’m sure it can be difficult to have an authentic conversation about justice in general, especially with a diverse population of students and maybe students that don’t know each other very well. How did talking about comic books as a way to get into the topic help facilitate those discussions?

Maggie: Comic books offer a different world for students to experience some of the concepts and some of the issues that we struggle with as a society. And so to be able to visually see these issues play out across the panels, it’s a place where students don’t feel nervous or threatened, it feels safe. They’re taking these comic books and they’re finding ways to relate with them and work out some of their preconceived notions or feel like it’s okay to start working on some of these biases and issues in society.

Rebecca: It seems like it has a lot in common with some of the other topics that we’ve talked about on the podcast before, like simulations and role playing, where it’s a place to escape the real world and talk about something really challenging in a so-called fake environment, but really they’re working out real-life issues and biases and all kinds of things that can be really difficult to talk about, but it’s a lot easier to talk about character that’s not real.

Maggie: Absolutely. Yeah. One of the comic books we read is an X-Men comic book called God Loves, Man Kills and we talked a lot about the concept of othering and what it means to target out and marginalize a group of people and in a lot of ways X-Men plays out what has happened in race relations in society and in other groups who have been historically marginalized. And so for students to consume this information through a comic book, they can better reflect on their own experiences and start to understand the position of others in society.

Rebecca: It probably also makes it a lot easier to make mistakes when you’re talking about that. I think sometimes students don’t want to talk about touchy topics because they’re afraid of offending someone or saying something in the wrong way but if it’s not about anybody real….

Maggie:Yeah

Rebecca: …then it’s not going to hurt someone’s feelings.

Maggie: Yeah, absolutely…. And another thing that we did in this course right from the get go was to set ground rules for discussion and conversation. And so I had the students come up with various guidelines for discussions and we would write them down so that we could refer back to them as we continued throughout the semester, so that they all understood that they had a responsibility to each other to make sure that everyone was comfortable and safe in this classroom. It really helped to facilitate a lot of these very difficult discussions in a very similar way that comic books themselves kind of help us talk about very critical and very upsetting social issues.

John: They also come in probably very familiar with many of these comics because they’ve seen them in movies, and some of them may have read some of these as well. Could you give us some specific examples of some issues in criminal justice that you were able to address using comic books?

Maggie: In terms of the classroom breakup, we have many students who were avid comic book readers. And we had many students who were somewhat interested in comic books but were more in tuned with the recent TV shows and movies that have come out of Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes. And so there’s, you know, quite a range of knowledge around this. But for the most part, most all of the students were interested in some kind of criminal justice aspect of their studies. And so, one of the concepts that we tried to discuss in this class was the issue of mass incarceration in society. And so what we did was we read a book called Bitch Planet, and in this planet, women are incarcerated on another planet. It has a lot of strong connections to some of the ways that society has restricted women’s rights throughout history and how the punishment of women has differed across time and across place. So to be able to see these concepts in a comic book and to talk about the parallels that exist in our society was a really, really cool process for the students.

John: Did you mostly focus on comic books they were familiar with, or you mentioned Bitch Planet, which was one that perhaps many of them hadn’t seen before. Did you bring in many that were things that they hadn’t expected or that they were less familiar with?

Maggie: There was really a mix. I even had some criminology textbooks that had various criminological theories played out in comic book form and we read a few of those to give us a baseline of various theoretical perspectives on criminal behavior. But most of the comic books I’d say we’re falling in the mainstream. I think that’s what students were typically looking forward to, but they really did enjoy the new reboot of Miss Marvel, with Kamala Khan and Bitch Planet and those were perhaps a little more on the periphery than Black Panther and X-Men.

John: How did students react to this? Did they generally find it interesting? Were some students troubled by using comic books? What about the imbalance between those students who were very avid comic book fans with those who were less familiar? How did that play out?

Maggie: Some of the very avid comic book fans in the class had a lot more context to really draw from when discussing histories of the Joker or Black Panther and the development of the character over time. But because comic books have become so popular in mainstream media, with TV shows on Netflix and pretty much a new Marvel movie coming out each year, that students really had a lot to draw from. Students didn’t need a great depth of knowledge of comic books prior to coming to this class.

John: For those students who were avid comic book fans, was it a little more challenging, perhaps, than they expected to look at some of these things through perhaps a more critical lens?

Maggie: I think that comic books, even if you don’t have a great background of reading comic books, or knowing the development of various characters, I think comic books allow for anyone to just pick them up and start thinking about them in a different way. They’re relatively quick reads, which really helps. Students can read them a couple of times and start to reflect back on some of the course concepts and theories that we discussed and how they apply and pull out those very specific examples. So I think the medium of comic books really provides a great range of abilities for students.

Rebecca: What are some of the things that you learned from teaching this class that you started employing in other classes?

Maggie: Oh, that’s a good question. One of the things that teaching the Injustice League has helped me with my other courses is to really think about being explicit with what I expect and what I hope students learn from various assignments and activities. In the Injustice League, students are entering college for the very first time and so they may not always understand why we’re reading this particular article or how it relates to the comic book that we’re reading today. And so for me to slow down as an educator and say that “Here’s why we’re doing this. Here’s what the research is showing us about why low-stakes testing in this class is a good thing.” That’s helped me in my other courses be more explicit with why I’m making decisions in various teaching practices.

Rebecca: Have you done anything else that’s related to bringing more comic books to other classes or field trips or some of the other things that brought the fun piece to the class that I think really energized the group as a whole?

Maggie: In my research methods class, I’m hoping that students will be able to assist in it by going out into the community and surveying people about dating formerly incarcerated persons. And so I think to get them out into the community and to start locating various areas of the community will bring some of that campus engagement aspect to it. In my crime-mapping class we actually started geocoding some of the locations around campus and so these are more upper-division courses but I’m trying to, even though the winter months make it a little more difficult to get outside, but trying to get outside of the classroom and really talk about how important it is to be connected to our community and to understand our relationship with the community.

John: I believe there was also some type of a video or a movie that you showed and I think other classes participated in that. Could you tell us a little bit about that and how it fits into other classes?

Maggie: There was a collaborative effort among some of the first-year signature course instructors to bring our students together in a common place. We ended up watching a episode of Luke Cage and this particular episode really spoke to a lot of the different courses that were being offered in the Signature Course program. Obviously my course, as one that deals with comic books and crime and justice and inequalities, Luke Cage is a very good example of many of the concepts that we talked about in class. But Mya Brown in the theater department also taught a class called Blackish Mirror and it followed the development of black characters on television. And so this was also a really good place for her class to talk about how various stereotypes that they had learned existed and/or were resisted against in Luke Cage. We also had a professor from political science and from communication studies, talk about political organizing or activism in Luke Cage, as well as narrative and the use of narrative in TV shows. We even had a signature course instructor in the health and wellness department… their class made snacks for the students to enjoy at the event.

John: Healthy snacks.

Maggie: Yeah, healthy snacks and it was brilliant. The students loved it. They created a snack mix that could be created and replicated by using ingredients found on campus. So that was a really cool way to bring in even a discipline that’s not necessarily focused on examining social inequalities in media to this event, and so it really spoke to a lot of students across various disciplines.

John: And we should note that, that person was Amy Bidwell, who was on an earlier episode. Were there any surprises in teaching the class that you didn’t expect?

Maggie: The class was a lot of fun. I don’t think I’ve had as much fun teaching any other classes I had teaching this class. It was really fun to pick up a hobby of mine, something like reading comic books, to bring this to the classroom and to start and challenge students to think about the media they consume in a new way, and how it reflects what we do in society and various values that society has. One of the most surprising things in the classroom was really how much of a community the students had at the end of the class. They had been speaking about other courses and working together on other projects and planning their course schedules for the next semester so that others would be in their courses together and so that was a really cool outcome of the class.

John: …and I believe you also opened an Instagram account for the class.

Maggie: I did and so you can follow it @the_injustice_league_oz… each word is underscored. I won’t say that I have many followers on the Instagram account but a lot of the students who did follow it seemed to really enjoy it.

John: And are you going to be teaching this again?

Maggie: I will be teaching this class next fall. So I’m very much looking forward to the next cohort of Injustice League members.

Rebecca: Did you carry on the superhero fantasy world theme throughout the class? You talked about rules for discussion or rules for engagement at the beginning. It’s almost like world building. Did you think about theming that more? Could you talk about how you might have done some of that?

Maggie: All of the designing my syllabus was all thinking of the class as being a part of a group of superheroes as opposed to just a group of students in the class. I even designed the midterm exam to look like a top-secret mission directive from their Professor S, which is me. The secret mission was about identifying various concepts that we talked about in class and applying them to a new comic book that we hadn’t read in the class. And so, in this midterm exam, they got to explore some of their favorites that we may not have gotten to touch on the class. It was a good opportunity for them to get creative and think about how these theories and concerns about justice translate across various stories.

John: And that way, you’re giving them some autonomy, but you’re also helping them develop transfer skills so they can take the things you learned and apply them in new circumstances, which is a really good practice.

Maggie: Even one of my students, when we were discussing moral panics, stopped into my office hours one day and was ecstatic because he had just realized that his journalism course was talking about moral panics, and so to be able to identify these concepts across disciplines was also a really cool outcome of the class.

Rebecca: You talked a bit about the class being really fun to teach. And part of that’s because you brought your hobby and your discipline together. But were there other things that made the class fun? I can imagine that you’ve all thought about yourselves as a part of a league. So maybe that you felt more connected to your students, or am I kind of projecting?

Maggie: Oh, absolutely. So, I called myself Professor S as a play on Professor X in X-men and so the students really loved that and they had a really good time with the way we even addressed each other in the class. The Instagram account even helped create more of a community by bringing in various pictures of each other doing or identifying various comic things across our everyday lives and interactions.

John: How did you first get interested in comic books?

Maggie: Actually, my first interest in comic books came from graphic novels and reading Persepolis as a kid. But, of course, I fell in love with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and I’ve watched pretty much all of the movies in chronological order.

Rebecca: Of course [LAUGHTER]

Maggie: I called it “research,” the summer I rewatched them all, it was a wonderful time. After reading a novel like Persepolis it was also something that really got me interested in criminal justice and society and inequalities in social life.

John: Did the students seem more open to discussing some of these issues having been exposed to them through comic books?

Maggie: Comic books reflect a lot of what is going on currently in society and they provide us a way to talk about really difficult topics of racism and sexism and things that occur and that people and students are experiencing in their everyday lives. So using comic books to facilitate these conversations is really important for students just beginning to question some of these processes.

John: One aspect of this course, as you said before, was to help introduce students to college life and help them create bonds and connections. But that also frees you up quite a bit because you don’t have a standard curriculum. Is this the first time you’ve ever taught a class where you didn’t have a fixed amount of material you had to cover in the course?

Maggie: Yeah, so this class was really flexible in that way. As I look back on the class, I’d say that it’s equally as important for us to be talking about some of the content about comic books and the sociological and criminological aspects of them as it was to help students become more connected to their community and to their campus, but also to ensure that they will be successful students at moving forward. And so this class really allowed me to work on some of their questions that would just come up, like calculating a GPA or registering for classes. And so the flexibility that exists in this class lets me respond to the students and their concerns in the moment and to occasionally tie-in some of those issues in current events to what we’re discussing in these comic books.

Rebecca: I could also imagine that it allows for the tangents that might occur as you start talking about something related to the comic book but you think it’s a valuable discussion. But if you have a finite amount of material in a finite amount of time, you might not be able to b go down those rabbit holes, but they can be such valuable conversations.

Maggie: Yeah, absolutely. You know, the flexibility of this course isn’t just to my benefit, but to the students benefit, where they can ask questions and we don’t have to worry about how much material we get through. We don’t have that curriculum that requires various elements to be covered and so the students can explore some of their questions in a very meaningful way.

Rebecca: I think it might be useful to just clarify that these classes are not part of any specific major, and they’re not a prerequisite for anything. So that’s what we’ve been talking about in terms of them being kind of freeing. I don’t know if we explicitly stated that.

John: Did you get to know the students better than you would in a typical introductory class?

Maggie: O ne of the good things about this particular classes is that there were only 19 students, and so it really allowed for me to get to know each of them individually and be able to see their personalities through our discussions and to have that comfort level with the classroom to talk about what made their day not so great today and what they really enjoyed about the weekend. And so to have that sort of informal relationship in a very formal setting was a really cool experience.

Rebecca: I know that one of the things that I’ve been thinking about after hearing many of the faculty who taught the signature classes talk about their classes is just finding ways to have some more of those informal opportunities in class, but also thinking very carefully about the content that I think that needs to be covered versus what maybe actually needs to be covered. There tends to be a disconnect, We think we need to cram in so much stuff. What are some of the key principles and things? And can we go into more depth for some of those if students are interested? And I’ve allowed that to happen a little bit this semester, and it’s been really delightful, I think, for everybody involved.

Maggie: Yeah, that was one of the things that I struggled with in the class. At the very beginning I was treating the class like a topics course and cramming, or at least planning to cram, a ton of information in. A few weeks in, I realized that it just wasn’t going to work for this type of class, that this class really did need time to facilitate these relationships and to help students learn and navigate their first semester here on campus. And so to have that flexibility for them to be able to explore their questions and concerns on campus and off campus was a important part of this class.

Rebecca: Sometimes I think that these functional aspects of being a student can get in the way of learning. So spending the time and just addressing those concerns that are preoccupying a student can free them up to actually think about the content and spend time investigating it. So, if they’re really concerned about figuring out their GPA or really concerned about making sure they’re registering for the right classes, addressing that concern up front can actually free them to focus on learning.

Maggie: Yeah, absolutely. And a lot of students, they come into the classroom and they think that college is going to be just like their high school experiences and so that studying in the same ways is going to be effective for them or that GPA’s and what credit hours are. There’s a lot of new information that makes transitioning to college more difficult one then, say, transitioning from their middle school to their high school . And so I think this does give them the time in class to talk with a faculty member to try to work out some of these questions in a way that they may not get to in their other courses and so it does certainly alleviate some of their anxiety around these issues.

Rebecca: When there’s not a context like that I think the option is going to office hours or something and that can be really intimidating, I think, for first-year students, or they just have no idea what office hours are for, which is another thing.

Maggie: Right, or how to book an appointment…

Rebecca: Yeah.

Maggie: …and all of that. And so I know many of the First-Year Signature Course instructors, including myself, tried to have individual meetings with students to break the barrier of setting up an appointment for office hours and how to draft emails to your professors and such and so I think it really helps them not be as nervous about getting the help they need and the resources that they may need in the future moving forward.

John: Because in the past if they were called into go to someone’s office after class…

Rebecca: Right, it was a bad thing, yeah.

John: Exactly. And so, you know, that’s something they do need to get past and it takes a while often and by then sometimes a little too late. So that’s really helpful.

Rebecca: Speaking of criminal justice, right? [LAUGHTER]

Maggie: Colleges, it’s a different culture than they’re used to and so to get assimilated to that culture is really important in many different ways.

Rebecca: Right, it’s like mentoring instead of a penal system.

Maggie: Right? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Kind of a weird word flip there.

Maggie: Yeah, absolutely.

John: And one of the nice things about this whole program is it was set up as a randomized controlled experiment where students were asked if they were interested in courses and then they were randomly assigned or not assigned. And there’s some work that’s being done right now analyzing how their outcomes compared to outcomes of the students who were not in one of these groups, and they’ll be followed a bit to see how this works overall. So, I’m looking forward to seeing more, but the preliminary results they have, as were reported in the meeting this morning, were fairly positive.

Maggie: Yeah, retention was really good and so hopefully that’ll continue.

John: Semester-to-semester retention….

Maggie: for underrepresented populations, yeah. There was…

John: …was 100% retention semester to semester.

Maggie: Yeah.

John: It’ll be interesting to see if that persists, because that has not always been the experience of Freshmen.

Maggie: Right, and hopefully it does and I think one of the things this Signature Course program is trying to promote are those students and faculty relationships and that if students have a strong bond with a staff member or faculty that they’ll be more successful in all aspects of their academic life.

Rebecca: We always wrap up by asking, what next?

Maggie: Well next, I’m currently meeting with various new faculty members for the Signature Course program so we’re going to work our way through more course prep, and I’m very excited to meet the newest members of the Injustice League next Fall.

John: And you’re also joining the cohort of people in ACUE…

Maggie: Yes.

John: …which is starting up here on campus very shortly.

Rebecca: …another league.

Maggie: Yeah, another league of sorts. [LAUGHTER] I’m very excited… very excited for that as well.

John: T hank you. It’s been a lot of fun talking to you about this course and I wish I could take most of these courses.

Rebecca: I know, they’re always so much fun to hear about, but I think they give us lots of prompts and interesting things that we can start to consider in other contexts too.

Maggie: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

[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.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.

72. Maintaining Balance

How can faculty and students maintain a healthy lifestyle while managing their stressful workloads? In this episode, Dr. Amy Bidwell joins us to discuss strategies that faculty and students can use to create a more productive learning environment. Amy is an associate professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Wellness at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: How can faculty and students maintain a healthy lifestyle while managing their stressful workloads? In this episode, we discuss strategies that faculty and students can use to create a more productive learning environment.

[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.

John: Our guest today is Dr. Amy Bidwell, an associate professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Wellness at the State University of New York at Oswego. Welcome, Amy.

Amy: Thank you, John.

John: How can faculty and students maintain a healthy lifestyle while managing their stressful workloads? In this episode, we discuss strategies that faculty and students can use to create a more productive learning environment.

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

Amy: I do not have tea this morning.

Rebecca: That’s disappointing. Are you drinking anything?

Amy: I am drinking water.

Rebecca: That sounds healthy.

Amy: It is very healthy.

John: I have pineapple ginger green tea.

Rebecca: I have my good old English Afternoon. Faculty and professional staff have regularly asked for professional development related to work-life balance. And you’ve done some workshops for us on this topic that have been wildly popular. Faculty have many demands on their time and attention…. from students and teaching to colleagues and committees to family and personal obligations. So if we’re so far out of balance, how do we get back into balance?

Amy: Well, Rebecca, that’s actually pretty interesting because I fall out of balance quite a bit and I would say that the key is that people don’t understand… they need to take time for themselves. We schedule all these things into our day, we’re constantly running around here and there, we forget to stop and smell the roses. And it’s interesting because you can actually be so much more efficient if you actually just take time to just sit back and relax and enjoy the moment and there’s actually a lot of books that I read. Jon Kabat Zinn talks all about being in the moment. We’re going from place to place. Some of us have an hour plus commute, and what are we doing during that commuting? We’re thinking about the zillions of things that we have to do. And this book is really cool and I read it 20 plus years ago, and he has since redone it, but if you actually focus on what you’re doing in that very moment… So for instance, think of all that free time we would have if we actually utilized our driving time or something as simple as our walking time. If we can just focus on that moment… what we’re doing at that moment. So if you focus on the actual act of driving, or the act of washing dishes,or walking to class, it actually frees your brain up. It’s called in brain psychology, the “agile mind.” So the agile mind is being able to go from this kind of high stress workload to quickly this resting state in our brain. And so if we as faculty, and staff, and students, and so on, can really focus on changing our brain states more efficiently, I think it really will help us just calm down and try to get in what we need for the day. Like I said, instead of us rushing to get to the next point, if we really just focus on what we’re doing at that moment. It actually makes us much more efficient.

John: And one of the things you could be doing at those moments is listening to podcasts like this one. [LAUGHTER] …..But actually taking that downtime is helpful. It lets you consolidate new information you’ve picked up, as well as just being relaxing

Amy: Right! I think our lives in general are just going 100 miles an hour all the time and that’s why we are so stressed… because we don’t give our brains a chance to relax and it’s obviously easier said than done. So again, just using that tip of listening to podcasts in the car instead of crazy music, or putting the phone away or the electronics away for just five minutes to give our brain a chance to rest. So, again, it’s easy for me to say, do this, do that, but I practice it myself. I really do. And it just takes five minutes. When was the last time you actually drove in your car with no noise? Maybe just this podcast but no noise at all; no radio, take the phone off… it will make the rest of your day that much more efficient. It really does… and it sounds kind of corny, but it’s true.

Rebecca: I don’t know the last time I did that it was freezing rain and I was really focused on not dying, but…. [LAUGHTER]

Amy: But what you were focused on something… that’s good. Next time focus on your breathing, focus on the snowflakes falling. It sounds really odd, but let me tell you, it really helps us maintain our stress levels.

Rebecca: Faculty sometimes have particular stressful times. Going up for tenure and promotion, for example, or part-time faculty who may have multiple positions and they’re commuting back and forth multiple schools and trying to balance this big workload and not having job security. What can we do when stress levels are particularly high? I think the example that you gave before was kind of that constant day-to-day stress that we can focus, but what about these like really intense moments of stress?

Amy: Well, coming from a faculty that just went through the tenure process and a faculty that has been on search committees so I’ve seen it all. And we all— just like our students—we have that up and down as the semester goes. And it’s really funny we tell our students this, to not wait until the last minute, but imagine if us as faculty didn’t wait until the last minute to do our stuff. As our semester progresses and I think I see this a lot in the tenure process. I think one thing that helped me is I looked at every year as its own entity. And I didn’t look at it as “I can kind of slack year one and two, just focus on my teaching,” and then all of a sudden it’s year five and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I really need to get this research done.” So us,as faculty, really not procrastinating ourselves, putting it into our calendar. One thing that I do that’s very helpful is on Thursdays I don’t teach and I don’t schedule any meetings and from 8 a.m. until say, 3:45—and that’s when my daughter gets off the bus—I block it off and it just says Oswego and that means research and/or grading. We don’t work efficiently as human beings by doing little bit here, 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there. And so as somebody that’s moving all over the place, and really trying to grasp that relationship between academics and scholarship and service, just taking a day out of your week in your calendar that specifically says, “Okay, today I’m going to work on my grant, next Thursday it’s going to be a grading day. The following Thursday, I’m going to have all my meetings lined up with potential collaborators.” But I really find that trying to incorporate it an hour here or an hour there, it doesn’t make you efficient because… think of it… by the time you get into your office, shut the door, turn the computer on, get done checking your text messages and all that, you’ve lost 25 minutes. And I tell people in all of the realms of areas that I’ve worked in, “You need to schedule your own time, you need to schedule your research, you need to schedule your scholarship, you need to schedule even your service. You can’t just fit it in here and there.” And I think that helps in something as simple as scheduling 10 minutes of downtime for your brain; if that’s what you need to do, put it in your calendar. I think this day and age it’s so easy because we have all these electronics, we can actually use this to our advantage. It beeps, “Okay, I need 10 minutes to myself. Everybody out of my office, I need to breathe.”

John: What about some of the issues that students face? Because they may not have as much control over the timing of the pressure and so forth?

Amy: That’s a great question John. And I started to teach a new class this past fall “Bounce onto Campus.” And the purpose of the class is just how do incoming students manage the day to day changes that occur in a college setting. And going back to your question before about how do faculty survive this whole concept of getting through their hurdles and their obstacles, students have the same things and it’s really the same techniques but for my students, for SUNY Oswego students, what I tell them is first and foremost, and I did this in my class the first week, they all had to come in with a calendar, you know, a planner— and I was actually surprised at the amount people that still use paper calendars, I’m very electronic. But they all came in and we took all their syllabi, and we wrote in all their assignments for the whole 15 weeks. Which, right there was a huge eye-opener because almost looks like they had nothing for two weeks, you know how it is… nothing for two weeks, and then your midterm exam. Well, they’re thinking “Oh, I have nothing for two weeks.” But so what we did after this is we then went in and said “Okay, now I want you to look at your day and schedule in your day… I’m going to work on my ECO 101 homework from 2–4 pm. Even though I know I don’t have an exam until October 31st, or five or six weeks down the road, I have that actually planned into my schedule.” And so my students found that extremely helpful. Another thing, there’s actually a lot of apps that you can use that will actually turn off the internet. And so I taught my students… actually they taught me “Okay, what does your evening look like? Are you in your room on your computer doing your work, and then all of a sudden, you feel the need to get on social media?” Well, these apps will turn all that off, so you can’t. And so we talked about those apps and how to utilize them and they actually use them so I think between laying out their whole schedule in their planner for 15 weeks, and then within the 15 weeks plan out their study time right in there. It actually worked really well. And then what we did also was re-evaluated it mid-semester and we looked at their mid-semester grades and we looked at the study habits and the students feedback was that they found just writing in their planner “go to library” huge. I think anyone would agree with me that the biggest no-no for college students is to go back to their dorm rooms in between classes because what do we see? We see that cozy comfy bed that’s calling out our name so you want to take a nap, and next thing you know, you slept through your library time. I would say for students, incoming students as far as stress… planning it out… you have got to plan it out.

Rebecca: In addition to time-management issues, what are some of the other struggles that students have when they’re away from home for the first time and become responsible for their own health and wellness?

Amy: Well, that’s really interesting, because this is the first time I’ve ever worked with first-year students. And what an eye-opener because I guess my experience in college was… I didn’t experience a lot of homesickness, and I was about two and a half hours away, but we have so many students that are from so far away. So a couple things. One, the biggest issue is you walk into this environment and it’s all-you-can-eat buffet, two, three times a day. And so that’s one thing that the students really struggled with. We spent a lot of time not necessarily condoning eating certain things, but planning what you’re going to eat before you go into the dining hall, knowing that you essentially can eat anything you want, you don’t have anybody hovering over you. And so I had my upperclassmen take the students to the dining hall, and we actually had discussions about, “Okay, what would your plate look like?” And so just opening up their minds about being more in tune to what they were eating… as far as the same thing when we drive and we have no idea of how we got to point A to point B because we’re focusing on so many other things. I tell them, “Be mindful when you eat. Don’t just eat anything that you can get your hands on, because it’s all you can eat.” We have a pretty intense conversation about managing the dining halls as a first-year student. They opened my eyes up to “late-night.” I wasn’t really sure what “late-night” was for the first few years I was here. “Late night”… I can explain it as like after-hours dining, I suppose. And I think the purpose of it is for people that missed dinner, but what I see is students that had dinner that want a late-night snack. It’s not necessarily the healthiest and I will be the first to say I don’t think we need to get rid of unhealthy food. I think we need to just educate people on moderation and when to eat it. So we had a nice discussion about if you’re going to go to late night for the social setting, what can you eat? And how much of it can you eat? I think the diet is the big issue for incoming first-year students. And there’s two other things. One is the social anxiety, you don’t know anyone and if you’re lucky, maybe you do know a few people from your high school, but you don’t know anyone. And so in our first-year course, it was a first-year Signature Course, we had an opportunity as a group to do some extracurricular activities and they got to know each other outside of class… that I think helped a lot to a point where towards the end of the semester, I would walk into class and I couldn’t get them to calm down. Literally, they were talking about their evenings and that has helped, I think, socially. We talked about the importance of getting out of your dorm room, getting involved with extracurricular activities more for a social way of just getting away from the studying, but to get to know people and to meet new people. And then I think the third thing, as I’ve already addressed a little bit, was so many students are surprised at the amount of workload they have in college. If I had to take a poll, I’d say 90% of my class said that either high school was way too easy or college is way too hard, but they didn’t feel like they were prepared for the workload and from what I gather it’s more the independent workload. It’s a matter of they have this exam that’s five weeks down the road and yet nothing due in between. In high school you would have assignments due every week to keep you on task, now it’s, “You have an exam in five weeks and it’s up to you to do well on it.” And so we talked about… again…going into their planner and putting in there every day or every week “Library Time: Study ECO 101,” or whatever class you have. So those tools helped them a lot, but I would say those three things, managing the dining halls and the food, finding friends, and that kind of goes along with missing their friends at home, and then managing their study time.

John: One of the things I think faculty can do for that, and you’ve mentioned ECO 101, is in every economics class, I believe, there’s weekly assignments that are due. So it’s scaffolded. And so they don’t have to worry about waiting to study. Basically, their work in most economics classes, and I think a growing number of classes in general, have some sort of scaffolding to basically ensure that students are regularly working on the material.

Amy: I agree, and I know compared to my academic experience as a student it was three exams in a whole semester and then that’s it. Whereas I feel like SUNY Oswego… as really the help of CELT and all of that… with learning how to scaffold your semester. I know I have assignments due every week. They’re usually low-stakes assignments, it could be just a two points for class participation where they, instead of me taking the time to take attendance, I will just ask them one or two questions, they write it out, and I get it back, I get the attendance for the day. I know a lot of people do Kahoot and using clickers, but that keeps students engaged, but also keeps them wanting to be prepared on a day-to-day basis.

Rebecca: I think that accountability makes a big difference.

Amy: Yes, yes. And, you know, I do grade them or I don’t grade them. And if I do grade them, it’s only worth a few points. So if they miss class, it’s not the end of the world. They can’t make it up. But the students know that when they walk into class, there’s an expectation that they’ve reviewed the notes from the previous lesson.

John: Going back to things like procrastination. One thing that behavioral economists have found is that commitment devices can be really helpful. And you mentioned that finding friends and making connections can help but that can also be used to help I think, encourage persistence towards goals, which could be any number of goals.

Amy: Yes, I definitely agree. You know, something as simple as, for instance, if you were looking at like a physical activity goal. Any brand of activity monitor, you can sync it up with a friend or you can watch a friend on the app to see how they’re doing for the day. I know I have a couple friends on my activity monitor app, which I don’t pay attention to too much, but I do know that if I’m kind of feeling a little lazy that day, that l’ll kind of click over to see what they did. And I’m like, “Oh, they have 10,000 steps in today, now I have to get moving.” So that, from a physical activity perspective, really helps me. And then I do agree something as simple as social networks… I think the social media can kind of be a downfall sometimes, but I think we can use it in a positive way. For instance, going out with a friend to the lake and taking a picture of yourself in front of the lake. That’s a good thing. You know, you’re not showing off yourself you’re showing off the fact that you’re socializing with a friend, you’re taking time to enjoy life. And then I’m also a really big fan of the different software that all sync together. So if I write it to do list down, it’ll cue me on all my devices to say, “Okay, let’s stop. Let’s take five minutes to myself. Or let’s go to the gym.” Technology, I think, gets a bad rap. I think we can really use it to our advantage by networking with each other and doing some light-hearted competition with each other with the different apps, especially the physical activity apps. But again, social networking isn’t really as bad as it seems. You know, our students… that’s how they socialize and you know, it’s okay if they want to talk about going out that night, but they’re socializing. And so maybe bringing it back more to say, you know, “I went to this event on campus, I went to this showing of a particular movie. This was my experience, next time can you come with me?”

John: … and if you have any exercise goals or study goals, agreeing to meet at a certain time for a certain while, can help encourage each person because you don’t want to let your friends down.

Amy: Yes.

John: I remember we had an associate director at the teaching center not too long ago, who often would go to the gym along with a couple of friends. And if one of them didn’t show up, pictures would show up saying, “We’re missing you.” [LAUGHTER]

Amy: [LAUGHTER] Yes, yes. Another perfect use of social media, I completely agree. In our first-year experience class, we actually did a lot of that where it was more studying. You know, we only had a class of 19 people but we realized that there were kids that were taking the same courses and then by the end of the semester they had study partners with each other… study groups… and I knew just by coming into class and overhearing conversations that so and so didn’t show up that night. And now that person hears about it the next day, and they feel almost guilty, and they respond by coming the next time. For my BOUNCE class, we took them to the gym. We showed them how to use the equipment and how to get involved with different classes. And we did it as a group because, as we know as human beings, most human beings can be motivated by others. There’s that extrinsic motivation, knowing that that person is there waiting for you, then you need to go and be there. And I think studying and exercise are two very easy examples. Exercising with a buddy and setting up study times with friends in the library or wherever.

Rebecca: It works for faculty too.

Amy: …Yes..

Rebecca: Our accessibility fellows group is meeting weekly for an hour and we’re getting tons done collaboratively, but also individually because we have that time set aside. I think early on we had a bad weather day and people ask like, “Hey, are we still meeting?” like, “Yeah, I’m here already.” You know, and everybody showed up.[LAUGHTER]

Amy: [LAUGHTER] It’s the social setting. I definitely agree that, from a faculty perspective, we have so many groups on campus. You know, something as simple as book club, the amount of people that show up for that type of stuff. I think in technology now I’m noticing many more people are using Zoom. But knowing that they’re there and seeing their face up on the screen, it gives you that feeling of collaboration. And from a faculty perspective, I think we sometimes get lost in our own little worlds, we get lost in our grading. And again, you know, going back to what we were talking about earlier with the tenure lines and how to navigate the stress related to that, another piece of advice would be, collaborating with others, but making the time to do that. And I think making it regular scheduled time, like it sounds like you guys have, which is, you know, at a certain time, every week you’re meeting at the library or at the cafe to spend two hours discussing your research, or whatever it is. I completely agree with that. I think people get stuck in their own little office and forget that we have technology… if the weather is bad, you can Zoom in or whatever. I think that helps tremendously.

Rebecca: A lot of times we think of like, faculty do this in a group or students can do this. But the class that I’m currently teaching is a travel class to the Czech Republic and my students and myself and another group of students and another faculty member who are all traveling together, are all in an app together to learn some language skills….

Amy: Oh, wow.

Rebecca: …And so there’s leaderboards and what have you, and it provides some friendly competition. And so every week when we meet as a class, I’d say like, “Oh, good job,” whoever, you know…

Amy: Right.

Rebecca: …got the leaderboard, the faculty joke a little bit about like, okay, we’ll keep our third place. [LAUGHTER]

Amy: [LAUGHTER] I think there’s so much opportunity to collaborate within the economic environment with students and faculty. We worked on a study a few years ago, or a project I would call it more less, where we had Brazilian students here. Their faculty came and worked with me and I worked with his students and my students and we all learned Portuguese together. Well, my students learned Portuguese, I just sat in the back of the classroom thinking how are they doing this, but they did an amazing job. But it was faculty and students in the same classroom from two completely different countries learning different languages and we were all equal. And it was such a great experience that I wish we actually more of that.

Rebecca: We’ve talked a lot about healthy habits and things that we can all take advantage of. What role do faculty have in helping students develop those kinds of habits?

Amy: We have a role. And one of the projects that my students did in my BOUNCE class was to find ways to incorporate physical activity and stress management skills in the classroom. And it wasn’t just my classroom, but it was if they were in another classroom, how could they tell their professor, we need five minutes. And a situation that came to my attention this year is, my daughter’s class, she’s in fifth grade, and her teacher is very much into the importance of physical activity and stress management for brain function. And so every hour, they actually have five minute brain breaks. And my thought process with faculty is if a teacher with a classroom full of 27 ten-year olds can get them to do five minutes and calm down and get right back on task, then I think a classroom of 20-25 twenty- year olds can do it as well. Some of the things that they came up with was to, even in a 55- minute class, halfway through have the instructor stop. And I did this in my class the other day, because you saw the eyes kind of getting a little lazy. And so they literally, we stood up, just walking slowly, five circles around the room… stopped… and went five in the other direction. They sat right back down, and it was like a whole different class. And so having the faculty understand that just like it’s hard for us to sit for 55 minutes or an hour and 20 minutes, to focus on one thing, it’s hard for them. And what’s wrong with actually giving them a five- or six-minute break in between. Sometimes I’ll actually have a break where I’ll say, “Go ahead. You have five minutes to check all your text messages, answer all calls, go to the bathroom.” Because I get sick of the students coming in and out of the classroom to go to the bathroom. And so I’m like, “Okay, let’s take five minutes to do this.” And then we start up again. And they’re like 100% on task. I think they respect you because you understand that they need that time. But then they perform better because they gave themselves a brain break. Just like all these activity monitors that tell us to get up and move after 50 minutes. It is so important. And there’s a lot of research to show that… it’s not a lot, it’s an enormous amount of research now… that says, physical inactivity is the new smoking. If we can get up and move for five or 10 minutes every hour we’re negating that issue of sedentary activity. And so if our faculty and staff can understand the importance of getting our students up moving, there’s so much research to support their brain health. And in fact, there’s a couple studies in New Zealand in college students and in grade school that their standardized test scores have increased substantially since they started incorporating five-minute physical activity brain breaks into their day. And what they thought is, instead of spending an hour on math, you might only get 50 minutes in of math. But that 50 minutes is so much more efficient because the brain is working so much more efficiently. And so they’ve reduced the length of time they spend on these, say, math, science, English, whatever, and they spend less time on it, but they’re more efficient. As a professor, set an alarm after 40 minutes, “Okay, let’s stop.” I don’t need an alarm, I can just gauge it for my students, their brains are starting to falter a little bit. There’s nothing wrong with taking three or four minutes, tell them to “get up, switch seats.” I did this a couple semesters ago. In the middle of the class I had everyone get up, I was in the lecture hall, everyone get up and completely sit on the opposite side of the room. It’s amazing how their attention completely changed. Just like I use the example of if you are driving to work the same route every day and all of a sudden there’s a detour and you have to go a different way, all of a sudden you’re paying attention a little bit more. And so I noticed something as simple as switching their seats, having them switch it, so it’s not you forcing something on them. But that worked actually really well, it was kind of funny too. And then the next day they all came in those new seats.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s funny.

Amy: Yeah, it was great.

John: Students do tend, once they get into a seat, they tend to stay there. But there’s a lot of other activities like clicker questions…

Amy: Yes.

John: … or other things you can do, just to break up the class and and bring their attention back to focus. This discussion also reminds me that a lot of students have been using a Pomodoro technique where you have a timer or an app that gives you 25 minutes of focused attention. And then you take five minutes off to do something else and then go back and focus again.

Amy: Yes, I had the Student Academic Success specialist come into my first-year class and they taught them that. A lot of the students already did know it but there’s actually an app… the Pomodoro app, I don’t know the exact name of it. But I actually did it myself because my problem is, most of my students’ assignments are on Blackboard. And so I’ll be at home grading my papers, and then I last about five minutes and I get distracted, and I go on and start window shopping on the internet. And so I actually use it myself and from a faculty perspective, it makes me so much more efficient. So for the students it’s great. I learned so much about the different apps, there’s also one a time management app where the students can lay out exactly where they spend all of their time. And then they notice how many hours they actually have free. I know when I start to work with people from a physical activity perspective, what is the number one reason that people don’t exercise? They don’t have time. So I actually use this app where they actually fill in where their day is, and then they realize that there’s four hours where they’re really not doing anything. Instead of spending five minutes five times a day on social media, combine that all up, walk, and there’s your physical activity for the day

John: One other strategy, going back to behavioral economics, there’s a website called Stickk.com that Dean Karlin (a friend of mine) and some other economists put together where you make a commitment to do something and you post that. You give them your credit card number and then if you don’t meet your goal, a certain amount of money is deducted. You don’t have to put money up against it, but that’s strongly recommended. And the money could go to a charity, it could go to an organization…

Rebecca: You did that, right?

John: I did that, yeah.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: But what they actually recommend as being most effective is an anti-charity. You set a goal—they break it up into weekly segments—it could be exercising for a certain number of hours or studying a certain number of hours. It could be anything you want. They have some preset ones and then you can configure your own. You find someone who will verify that report, a weekly report, and then if you don’t meet it, money is taken out. So what they recommend is using an anti-charity where if, say you’re a liberal, money would go to the NRA if you don’t meet your goal, or to a Republican super PAC. If you’re relatively conservative, they recommend using something like the ACLU or a Democratic super PAC. And they found that that’s been fairly effective. There’s been a number of studies doing that.

Amy: That is absolutely amazing. That’s something that would work really well for me. I know there’s some apps and programs where if you check-in at a gym to exercise, I don’t know if you have to be there for a certain length of time, I don’t know exactly how it works, but you get money put back into an account. But I think any way to motivate somebody, whatever it is, I almost wonder if we could create something where you check into the library a certain number of times to study, where you meet with your study groups a certain number of times. I know in my BOUNCE class they have to set weekly goals and those goals are recorded in their online journals that I look at so I’m they’re kind of big brother, so to speak, watching over them. And the goals that these students have accomplished just knowing that I’m looking at it, that motivation helps. I remember when I first started running, I announced it on social media and it wasn’t to brag. It was to give myself that…

John: Well, it’s a commitment…it’s a commitment device… You stated it publicly.

Amy: It’s a commitment. Yes, I stated it publicly. So now I’m telling everybody out there, “I am really going to do this. I don’t care if you’re paying attention or reading this but knowing I just told the world that I’m going to exercise three times a week, now I’m going to do it.” And so… again, using social media to our advantage. And goal setting, however you do it, is huge. We do this in my BOUNCE class. We set goals every week, they have to enter this journal. I mean, in a way we’re doing that… we’re giving them points, graded points for completing their journal entry. There’s no way for me to say whether you’re doing it or not. I can’t tell if you really went to the gym those days. But I think eventually the student realizes that they’re only cheating themselves. And I tell them this all time in my class, “Don’t just write these goals out to get your five points. The point of the class is a behavior change.” And I’m thinking the students, they have appreciated this weekly goal setting so much. And I think using these different—I think you mentioned it’s called ClickIt—these different…

John: Stickk.com.

Amy: I think these different apps and technology use it in our favor. We have so much out there to use and I think we need to use it in our favor.

REBECA: The last thing I wanted to really ask you about is one of the things that I find that I end up having conversations with my students about is the fact that they actually need to sleep and eat.

Amy: Yes. We have in my BOUNCE class—like two weeks we talk about sleeping and eating. Again when we had the SASS people coming in, the Student Support Specialist… Academic Support Specialist, when they showed us these programs where you can record all of your time that you spend. What I was finding is—and what the students actually discovered—they thought they were up until one in the morning studying. No, they were up til one in the morning either on their phones or on the computer watching different movies. And so I actually get in my class, what we get involved with physiologically, what’s happening with your body, when you don’t sleep. Something as simple as that fretful cortisol hormone that is increased with lack of sleep and that causes your body to store fat. And so really, they look at their daily behavioral patterns and they start to actually schedule sleep into their calendar. And again, going back to some of those apps. There’s apps that turn off the phones and turn off the computers at a certain time, and the students are actually using it, which surprises me and then they come into class and it’s like a whole ‘nother person. It’s like, “Wow, you look so different when you actually get more than two hours of sleep.” And then after we navigate the sleep system, we discuss the importance of getting up just 10 minutes earlier and grabbing something to eat, even if it’s just a simple granola bar walking out the door. How important it is to fuel your body. I use the example of picture a fire, your metabolism is your fire. And as that nice big fire’s going throughout the day, it starts to slow down at night, and the way you have to grab that fire back up, is to throw logs on it, throw sticks on it. Same thing with your eating. When you wake up in the morning that fire has kind of died down. You need to throw some sticks on it to rev it back up. And so even if it’s, you know, 100 calorie snack here and there—I know people just sometimes hate to eat breakfast—but you cannot survive without sleep and without breakfast, whatever it is. Something…except candy. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Was there anything else that we wanted to make sure we discuss?

Amy: You know, I think overall if I wanted to just summarize everything that we chatted about from a faculty perspective and professional staff, taking time to live in the moment—I mentioned it in the very beginning—but if you could really just take five minutes every hour to just turn everything off and breathe, you will be so much more productive. And then scheduling in time chunks, very large chunks of time to get the research done, get the grading done, get the social collaboration in there, putting that into your schedule is huge. And then from a student perspective, scheduling into your planner your exams, your exams for the whole entire semester, and then putting right into your schedule time going to the library or going to the dining hall. We had people actually scheduling in lunch because they would forget to eat lunch. Scheduling in physical activity, whatever it is… planning. Just planning being present and participating. And then keeping in mind that technology can be our friend if it’s used in the right way.

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

Amy: What is next? Well, there’s lots next. For one, I am offering a program, a BOUNCE now for adults, for faculty and staff that actually focuses on the eight dimensions of wellness. And we actually—I teach you the behavior change techniques needed to encompass all of this. And then from a student perspective, you can take BOUNCE for credit in the Spring. Anyone can take it. In the Fall, it’s just first-year students. And then if you wanted to really know what’s next, it’s to take five minutes for yourself.

John: Thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much.

Amy: Thank you. This was enjoyable.

[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.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson. Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.

65. Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice has consistently been shown to be important in developing long-term recall. Many students, however, resist the use of this practice. In this episode, Dr. Michelle Miller joins us to discuss methods of overcoming this resistance and examine how retrieval practice may be productively used to increase student learning.

Michelle is the director of the First-Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Her academic background is in cognitive psychology and her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. She co-created the First-Year Learning Initiative at Northern Arizona University and is active in course redesign, serving as a redesign scholar for the National Center for Academic Transformation. She’s the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general-interest publications.

Show Notes

  • Miller, M. (2014). Minds Online: Teaching Effectively With Technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Roediger III, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249-255.
  • Roediger III, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(3), 181-210.
  • Roediger III, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(3), 181-210.
  • Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L. (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science, 319(5865), 966-968.
  • Karpicke, J. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science, 1199327.
  • Kahoot
  • Bray, Niki (2018). 43 to 0: How One University Instructor Eliminated Failure Using Gamified Learning. Blog post
  • Retrievalpractice.org
  • Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Pennebaker, J. W., Gosling, S. D., & Ferrell, J. D. (2013). Daily online testing in large classes: Boosting college performance while reducing achievement gaps. PloS one, 8(11), e79774.
  • Pauk, W. (1984). The new SQ4R.
  • Thomas, E. L., & Robinson, H. A. (1972). Improving reading in every class. (a discussion of PQ4R)

Transcript

John: Retrieval practice has consistently been shown to be important in developing long-term recall. Many students, however, resist the use of this practice. In this episode, we discuss methods of overcoming this resistance and examine how retrieval practice may be productively used to increase student learning.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Today we’re welcoming back Dr. Michelle Miller. Michelle is the director of the First-Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology. Her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. She co-created the First-Year Learning Initiative at Northern Arizona University and is active in course redesign, serving as a redesign scholar for the National Center for Academic Transformation. She’s the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general-interest publications. Welcome back. Michelle.

Michelle: Thank you so much. It’s so great to be here today.

Rebecca: We’re so happy to have you again. Today’s teas are:

Michelle: Well, I’m drinking Coco Loco, which is a blend from a local tea shop here in Flagstaff, Arizona. Steep Leaf Tea. And Coco Loco is a lot like what it sounds like. It’s chocolate and banana. So tea snobs may scoff at my choice, but it’s wonderful.

John: IIt sounds good.

Rebecca: And I think I saw a nice silver teapot that was poured into a green and blue tea mug.

Michelle: Yup.

Rebecca: A nice tall one.

Michelle: That’s what I need.

John: And I’m drinking ginger, peach green tea.

Rebecca: I went with a Christmas tea today. So Michelle, we invited you here today to talk a little bit about retrieval practice. Can you first start with defining that for us and letting us know what it is?

Michelle: Right. So retrieval practice is essentially the act of pulling something out of memory. So that is, in memory research, what we would term retrieval. So something is stored in memory and we want to pull it out so we can actively use that information, have it in our conscious minds and so forth. And so we go through this usually very fast process called retrieval. So retrieval practice is specifically the act of doing it, and we contextualize that with learning. So, when I’m trying to learn something or I’m the process of learning something, to say, “Oh, what was that fact I remembered, or what can I say about this?” When we do that, it produces something that we can call the testing effect. So this is kind of the clearest example… not the only… but the clearest example of retrieval practice in action during learning is when we sit down to take a quiz, take a test or something like that. So all the excitement that’s happened around retrieval practice in higher education, and really in the rest of education today, is around this finding, which has been replicated many, many times: that tests are, as one person put it, not neutral events in learning. When we take a test on something, that has a very powerful effect on our ability to remember it in the future. So, really simplified down to its core, tests help us remember in the future; when we take a test it strengthens our memory. So that’s what retrieval practice is and it can, as we’ll maybe talk about today, take many, many forms in learning settings. And I did want to clarify too, this is something that I definitely don’t want to take any kind of credit for discovering this. This has been around and has been known about for a long, long time. Some of the big names who are associated with this: Jeffrey Karpicke, Robert Bjork. Roddy Roediger, there are quite a few really heavy hitting cognitive scientists and cognitive psychologists who have established this. But there are many, many of us who are out there trying to disseminate this to other teachers around the world so that we can all tap into the power of this. And I have done a little bit of work in this area with my colleague here at Northern Arizona University, Laurie Dixon, who’s another psychologist… and we teamed up some time ago to look at a very practical implementation of retrieval practice in an Introduction to Psychology course that we conducted some years ago and this is a course, you can imagine, where just trying to get students to perform even a little bit better is a big project. So we examined how even something kind of basic… it was very high tech at the time… but just basic web quizzes that came packaged with the textbook. We said, “Well, if we actually assigned students to do these as part of the course, and if they went through and treated these as opportunities to learn, not just assessments in and of themselves, would that have any systematic impact on course performance?” And we found that in fact, there was a significant improvement associated with that. So that’s kind of the landscape of what retrieval practice is, and why we’ve been so interested in discussing this in the psychology of teaching and learning.

John: In fact, I saw you present on that about 11 or 12 years ago in Orlando at one of the NCAT conferences and it convinced me to completely revise how I was giving my classes and it’s made a big difference and resulted in some significant improvements in student learning. Given that we know so much about retrieval practice. Why are faculty resistant to doing this?

Michelle: Wow, that’s a great question, and that is one that I have been really facing a lot these days in my own practice, talking to other faculty members, and disseminating this through some different activities I do in this area. It is easy for those of us who work in this area, cognitive psychologists in particular, but a lot of us who like you heard about this a long time ago. We’ve seen the power of it. We forget that to other faculty, this can be a very off-putting concept. And so it’s really great for us to think about why that is. And I always think that’s really good for me to kind of go back to that and say “Yeah, not everybody is sold on this idea. And there are good reasons for that.” So like with a lot of things that we talk about in teaching and learning, I think that these really break down into two neat categories: there’s the philosophical issues that people have with it, and then there’s more practical and logistical issues with it. So kind of tackling those one at a time. Philosophically, when people say, “Yeah, I understand about the research but this just goes against something that I believe as a teacher or how I want my classes to be. Here are some ways that that can play out. First off is this idea, that I’ve heard in one form or another quite a few times, and that is this notion of superficial learning. So “Okay, sure, there’s a study that showed that maybe people retain something a little bit better. But surely that’s not this deep learning, whatever that is.” That’s a concept that we all want. So do tests and exams… just testing… create just a superficial form of learning? And while, of course, I understand that, and I absolutely applaud faculty for really thinking deeply about that issue, and caring about it. I Here’s the thing… we got to define that. We social scientists, that’s what we do… we have to kind of break things down and say, “Okay, what does deep learning mean?” and I don’t know that anybody has kind of definitively done that. But when I look at that, I say, “Well, this is not just one research study that showed a little improvement in a lab test. There’s quite a few studies that do use realistic types of materials. It’s not all just contrived laboratory studies. Furthermore, there’s also studies that show that when students engage in more quizzing and testing on material that they actually are able to transfer that learning better. And that is a very, very big deal in teaching and learning as a lot of us know is not just getting students to be able to solve a problem in one context or work a concept in one context, but can they do it in the next circumstance? And that very difficult process is aided by quizzing… and to me, what could be deeper learning than learning that transfers? So that’s part of it. Some of it is perceptions around multiple choice quizzes and tests. There’s an assumption too that if we’re talking about quizzing we must be talking about multiple choice questions… and first off, sometimes in larger classes, those are the final assessments… in that Introduction to Psychology course that we studied years back, that’s what the assessments were… so, having students practice in that format I don’t think that we should necessarily dismiss that. And as we can talk about in a little bit, there’s lots of ways to induce retrieval practice that actually don’t involve multiple choice questions. So, there’s a bit of that as well. And something that I’ve talked about with some faculty recently, too, is this baggage around K through 12. And maybe that’s something that’s resonant with you all.

John: Yeah, that’s given the testing effect a somewhat bad name, because high-stakes testing is being used in a lot of what’s going on with K to 12. But that I don’t think is what retrieval practice as you’re suggesting is all about.

Michelle: Right, and I have to be cautious here. I really like how you laid that issue out in K through 12, that there is a reputation problem… and that has happened because of the high-stakes standardized testing policy in the United States. And I got to be careful because I don’t want to represent myself as an expert in K through 12 or in K through 12 education policy. But I don’t think you have to be an expert in that to know that there’s been a lot of same pretty well justified public pushback against over-testing in K through 12. And yeah, I think that we absolutely do have to be aware of that. Students come to us in higher education… that’s a system that many of them have been through and our faculty are very aware and very cognizant of that too. So, nobody’s a blank slate here, not our students, not our fellow faculty. We have assumptions and ideas and experiences about testing that happen. I think those can be addressed. But, yeah, that is definitely another very big barrier. We got to differentiate between high-stakes standardized testing for the reasons it’s done in K through 12, and low-stakes testing and quizzing for learning as proponents of retrieval practice would have it.

Rebecca: Some of the pushback I’ve heard from faculty fall into two categories related to this as well. One is that they assume that retrieval practice is best implemented in 100, 200 level introductory classes instead of upper level 300, 400, graduate-level classes. And then the other area is that paper and pencil tests don’t make sense and all disciplines. And so they assume that a test has to be in a paper/pencil format, which could be online testing, or it could be multiple choice or it could be essay questions. But I think that, from being someone in the arts, like there’s other ways to test beyond that, but we don’t think of those as tests.

Michelle: Right. That’s another great lens through which to look at this issue; that we do need to broaden the definition to draw more attention to this and to make it a more appealing concept. But yes, how can we make it broadly appeal across lots of disparate disciplines? Not only does it not have to be a multiple choice type of exam, maybe it’s not a pencil and paper exam at all. And we as faculty have to think about what makes sense there. You make a good point about the levels concept. I think, these days most of us have heard of, “Well, there’s one particular Bloom’s taxonomy…” which is a wonderful framework for getting us thinking about being systematic about what we’re asking students to do with the information that we’re bringing to a course and trying to do things like align the teaching we do with the assessments that we have. That’s wonderful. However, I think it does ingrain in us that idea that “Well, just knowing things is sort of at the bottom… You sort of get that out of the way, and then we go on to the good stuff.” And from a cognitive perspective, these relationships are much more fluid and much more interdependent, so that yes, absolutely, the higher thinking that is what we want. That is what we should want. Or if we’re in highly applied disciplines (if we’re in the arts, for example), we need students to be able to do things with that information. But they have to have that. So I think it challenges us to think of new ways with that concept as well.

John: One of the barriers I think some people have is they don’t like to grade tests and so forth. But one of the things you mentioned in your book is that the testing effects been known for a long time, but it was really difficult to implement in terms of low-stakes testing, particularly when you’re teaching at a larger scale. But, as you’ve done yourself, and as you suggest in your book, computer technology makes it easy to automate some of this… certainly more easily for multiple choice and free response and similar things. But it makes it a whole lot easier for both students to have multiple attempts at learning something using some type of mastery quizzing and it makes it a whole lot easier for faculty who don’t have to spend all their time grading.

Michelle: Right and that’s absolutely where the practical stuff comes in. So, we’ve worked through some the philosophical objections, that: “No, this does not turn your classroom into some terrible assembly-line concept of learning. It’s not going to create a bad relationship with your students. It’s not going to simply carry on a legacy of bad policy as people perceive it. It’s not going to do those things.” And then, we do get to: “Alright, but what is this going to do to my life as a faculty member?” …and this is important stuff. Those who know me know I’m a big fan of James Lang’s work in his books. One of his more recent books is called Small Teaching and there’s a lot of different takes on it in that book, but it really hits home with respect to “We do have to think about not everybody’s in a position to, nor should we even try sometimes, to just take everything down to the foundation and rebuild.” That we do really need to think about “Do I want to do this, if it’s going to create 800 more questions for me to grade?” Is this a sort of a situation where, “Well, I don’t want multiple choice, so I’m going to have to give these open-ended questions. I’m gonna have to give feedback and I have 200 students, what will happen? If I am going to go with multiple choice questions… well, how am I going to do this? to have to write all of this?” And yes, it’s one of the most powerful outcomes of the educational technology revolution that makes it workable, and scalable in a sense, even with large classes to do these types of things and to bring them in. So, that is definitely a message that I hope faculty think about if they’re on the borderline of wanting to bring in more retrieval practice into their classes.

Rebecca: I’m in a discipline where the multiple-choice questions are using things digitally doesn’t always work for testing and practicing some of these basic things, and there’s not a good way to automatically grade it. But one of the strategies that I’ve used is actually some self grading, which has actually worked pretty well. I just check and I have them write notes about anything that they got wrong. So, it demonstrates that they’ve tried to understand when we go over it, and I give credit based on how thorough those notes are, rather than whether or not they got the question right or wrong. And that’s made a difference in my classes. And had I not come up with that solution, I think I would have abandoned it because it would have been too much work. But it it actually is working pretty well.

John: When we had a reading group on Small Teaching last year, one of the things that was widely adopted by faculty was a very simple form of retrieval practice where they had students at the start of each class reflect back on what they had done in the previous class. And most of them have continued to do that in subsequent classes as well.

Rebecca: One of the other barriers that faculty might raise is the idea that students don’t take low-stakes things seriously, or that they don’t put the same kind of time into it that they might for something that’s high stakes. Can you talk a little bit about how we might help students find value in retrieval practice and subsequently also with the faculty then?

Michelle: Right, so that, ”Well, we can put it out there, but will they do it?” I’ve kind of crossed this philosophical and practical barrier for myself of giving some credit for pretty much anything that I am hoping that students will do. I put the work in to set it up and I do believe as a teacher that there’s reason to believe that will help their performance, that I need to work it into the syllabus somewhere. I don’t think it detracts from learning, necessarily, to say, “Yeah, there’s some points associated with this.” And especially with our students who, for many of us, are going in a million directions at once. They’re juggling jobs, multiple classes, sometimes their own families. So having an incentive in the form of points—having some kind of a payoff—I think, helps them make that decision that this is at least worth the time to do. I think the other thing that we probably can all do more of, and that I’ve done more over the years, is framing and honestly marketing this to students… communicating with them about why. And when students disengage from an activity like this, when they say, “Ah, why do I have to sit down and do this thing? This is just another test. Oh, no.” …really conveying the excitement and the goodwill that we have in setting those things up can go a very, very long way. Of course, a student, if they just look at it inside and they have no context for why this was put into place, they’re going to have them say, “Well, maybe I won’t do that.” But when we can market to students, we can say “There is a lot of research that shows that this is a very, very good use of your time. And hey, you’ve probably taken a lot of tests in your life that were really about measuring or sorting you and figuring out what you know and what you could do. This is a very different kind of test.” So that can go along way and get the C students nodding: “Alright, I get it. I get why she put this assessment right here.” I think a lot of us have hit on the practical strategy too, that the little Easter eggs or goodies that we plant in the form of questions that get re-used on the higher stakes assessment. So most of us will have tests for measurement at some point in our courses. And yes, students really do pick up on it when you use one, two or more of those items that were in, say, the gamified quiz that you ran in class or the reading quiz that they did beforehand. They can see those and say, “Oh, wow, I got feedback on that. I got an opportunity to practice…” and if it draws in a few more students who see it as almost a legitimate form of cheating, honestly…. like a fun and sanctioned form of getting an advance sneak peek at the exam, then great! Then that maybe is an opportunity for them to come in and see that. So there is that. Actually taking it seriously ourselves, not just in the form of saying, “Well, here’s the points I’m going to give you for this,” but spending class time on it. That’s a big bridge for a lot of us to cross, right? Because we as teachers tend to be very focused on “Oh my gosh, class is for covering material. We use all these sort of distance metaphors to talk about what we want to do with our class time. But if I say, “You know what, guys, I believe in this, and I believe in it enough to where we’re going to spend the entire class period before the final exam….” I did that twice last week myself, when running exams. Or we’re going to spend five or 10 minutes of the beginning of every class period doing this, as one project recently published about doing. If you show yourself doing that, and offer them that, I think that also goes a long way towards it. And I guess to just say, well, taking it seriously… here again, what does that look like? What does that mean to different people? And we can kind of a little tongue-in-cheek say, “Well, why do we have to take it so seriously?” Sometimes games and learning can happen when it is presented in a more fun context. So not everything has to be deadly serious or spending hours and hours and hours of stressful time on. There are occasions when a light-hearted approach can be perfectly good and can still get us involved in that really critical activity of retrieval

Rebecca: I can share an example of doing that in my classes. We’ve done design challenges and sometimes we challenge other classes that are happening at the same time. That reinforces some of the basic principles that we think that students should be doing and reminds them of it… and they might work in a team…and then we have a competition. And it’s fun and what have you. And students like those, it breaks up the day, it makes it more fun. And then I’ve also done things where I give class time to do little design challenges in class that might be individual and then they can level up to working with a partner to finish solving a problem or something… and students value that. They recognize that next time they’re trying to do a project on their own,that it’s easier because they’ve had that practice or that opportunity for the retrieval practice. And my students have actually ended up asking for more of those opportunities.

Michelle: Great.

John: Could you go back just a little bit and tell us what you did in those couple of classes last week before your final. We’re recording this, by the way, in early December during finals periods in both of our campuses, but we’ll be releasing it a few weeks later… to put that in context.

Michelle: Oh, okay. Well, I’d love to. …and I’ve been talking about retrieval practice as you pointed out for years, and I still discover new ways to infuse this into courses. And the context for this is my cognitive psychology undergraduate course. It’s a 200 level. So it’s a lower-division course. And it’s about 60 or 70 students. And as you can imagine, it is a bit of a tough sell. For many of the students it’s their first encounter with this side of psychology. It’s not as intuitive as some other areas of psychology. So there’s a lot to learn and a lot of motivation to be done. One of the ways we bring this and in this course is using a technology called Kahoot, that’s spelled K-A-H-O-O-T,, and it’s really very intuitive and functions very smoothly… relatively free of bugs. That’s good stuff. It’s a program for doing gamified quizzes of various kinds. What I did, and at different points in the semester, and then really amped up in the last week of the semester is running these gamified quizzes. And this is something, by the way, that I hit on and got the idea to try based on a colleague named Niki Bray, who’s from Tennessee, and has actually done some really systematic work in reformulating some of her courses around in class quizzing in just really ingenious way. So I saw some of her presentation and I said I’ve got to try this for myself. I went with multiple choice questions. Kahoot does have some parameters… questions do have to be short…very, very short. And to some people that may be off-putting, but you can put together quite a few of these. And so we would put this up on the projector and students have the option of dialing with either their laptop or their smartphone and weighing in on each question. The neat thing about it is it has an algorithm for giving points based on your speed as well as your accuracy and it’s got a little leaderboard so you can actually have a little in-class competition. Now some people who use this do require all students to do it and they actually issue points for performance. Now, I presented it very much as a practice activity… and made it very, very clear because of my philosophy, I’m not going to assume that all students have devices or have smartphones or laptops or that they want to do that. But I said, “Look, remember we’re talking about retrieval practice, guys. So the real meat and potatoes of this is not buzzing it on your phone. That’s fun. But the real benefit of this activity is what you’re doing sitting there in your seat. And you could be doing this with a piece of paper if you want.” And that is what a few students opt to do. They try to answer the questions, they know what they need to go back and review and so on. And it’s nice because it spits out at the end, a whole report that tells me right away… Okay, which questions do we need to revisit? Which ones did students have the hardest time with and so on. That’s one of the things that I just brought in. And yeah, it was a big deal. I sacrifice a chapter of “coverage” so that we would have more time at the end of the semester. But to me, I would rather have students going into the final knowing that they’ve had this retrieval practice and they have a better chance of performing really well. Earning a good grade on this material I care about than honestly cramming in a little bit more mileage in terms of the quantity.

Rebecca: Sounds like fun.

Michelle: You know what, it does really bring a fun factor. There’s been a lot of different variations on in-class polling, and I will admit to this, I actually purchased and am the proud owner of a physical buzz-in quiz device, complete with a whole spaghetti nest of wires and an incredibly abrasive, buzzer sound, and everything. So previous to this, my educational technology did include… I think I could have up to eight intrepid volunteers who would play a quiz game and then I would have to appoint a points keeper and all this… and props are always a lot of fun. So when I say I believe in bringing in retrieval practice, I really do walk that walk. But I will say doing it by a smartphone does allow for more participation, and I don’t have to worry as much about the minutiae of scorekeeping and stuff like that.

John: I played with Kahoot a little bit at my classes at Duke and students have loved it.

Rebecca: We’ve talked a little bit about framing things so that students take the practice seriously. What do we do about the students who just push back, it’s like “This is too much work. This is a lot of extra time…” or that sort of argument.

Michelle: I think that that’s another piece of that barrier to more faculty adopting this, not just the work involved, but realistically, student opinions. Student evaluations matter a lot to faculty life. And of course, we all want to have that wonderfully rewarding semester, not the semester where we feel like we’re at odds with our students. So I do think a little piece of this is we do anticipate sometimes worse and more pushback than what actually happens in the end. So I think we have a fair amount of sort of a dread factor when we go into something new like this. But that said, when students have an issue with more quizzing or more testing, here’s how those come out. I think, first of all, we do have to sometimes separate out the technology aspects of it from the quizzing or testing, per se. So, as John mentioned, this is one of the amazing things that educational technology does. But the flip side of that is, if you’ve ever used technology for education, in any shape or form, you know that it breaks down. And when it breaks down at a big class, that’s a headache for everybody, it’s a misery. So if you’re trying it, and things are not working out, you just got to figure out “Okay, how much of this is the assignment, the activity per se, and how much of it is that wonky quizzing thing that I got from the publisher and it fell apart, or students hanging up when they’re trying to dial in with the poll and fine tuning those. I mean, when I first used kahoot, I decided it would be a lovely idea to put four chapters worth of material into a 40-question quiz. And when you get used to as you know, that they took a long time, I mean, 12 questions can keep you going for a very long time, especially if you’re discussing… and some students got kicked out part way through and then they weren’t on the leaderboard and I could have set the whole thing aside. But really, that was more I needed to get the technology working. So that’s a big piece of it. I think that sometimes it is a perception issue with the timing. Now, those of us who are just all over this as a teaching technique, we like to do reading quizzes before we talk about that material in class. So chapter three is up on the syllabus and your chapter three reading quizzes due on Sunday night before we do that…, and that can provoke a fair amount of confusion and honestly griping with students. They say, “Why did I get tested on this when we didn’t do it… we didn’t cover it in class yet?” And what do you know, that’s another framing and communications issue. Once we know that that is why we’re doing that you get so much less on that side of things. But here too we do also ourselves have to follow along with what we say. If we say you’re doing this reading quiz so that we’re establishing a foundation. we don’t have to teach everything in the class itself. We could spend the time applying. Well, guess what, then you do have to do that. So if I assign you to do the reading quiz on chapter three, and then on that Monday morning I go, “Okay, we’re going to go over chapter three starting at the top. And I’m going to show you all the PowerPoints for all these things that you already read.” Well, yes, then student morale and student support will fall apart at that point.

Rebecca: Those are very good reminders.

John: Yeah, I’ve pretty much adopted this approach all through my class beginning when I first saw you present it. So I have students do the reading in advance, I have them take reading quizzes with repeated attempts allowed on those. And then in class, I have them working on clicker questions, and I and the TAs go around and help them when they get stuck on problems. But there is an adjustment and students, especially when I first started doing it, would generally say, “But you’re not teaching me” …and you do have to sell students on this a bit. One source of resistance is that when students take quizzes, they often get negative feedback. When they read something and they read it over again, it looks more and more familiar. They’ve got that whole fluency illusion thing going and they become comfortable with it, and they feel that they’re learning it… or similarly, if they hear someone give a really clear presentation on a topic, it feels comfortable. They feel like they’re learning it until they get some type of summative assessment where they get negative feedback, and then they feel the test was somehow tricky. But it’s a bit harder to convince them that actually working through retrieval practice, watching videos at their own time and pace, reading material as needed, and then spending class time working through those problems is as effective. I’m getting better at it. But it’s been a long time trying to convince students and I did take a bit of a hit in my evaluations, especially the first few times.

Rebecca: Do you mean learning’s not easy?

John: Students would like learning to be easy.

Michelle: You know, it’s funny, I think almost in a way… see what you think about this idea. But it’s almost a mirror image of our illusions as teachers, right? That I gave a wonderful clear lecture and I assigned wonderful readings and I saw students highlighting them. Therefore, students must have assimilated this knowledge and it must be in there. So I think it challenges our students but it also challenges us as well. It can be quite an eye-opening experience to running something like a Kahoot. And that brilliant point that I gave this great example for…. what do you know…. 7% of the students actually nailed it. And so we can all use a reality check… teachers and the students. And you mentioned re-reading, that’s another one where I’ve had some pretty intensive conversations with other faculty, I’ll kind of say, “Oh, well, and there’s this great research that shows that students tend to re-read when they’re studying and we know that from a memory standpoint, that is really, really ineffective.” And faculty will say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.I want my students to be re-reading.” Of course, now when they say re-reading, they may be picturing deeply interrogating a text… annotating it… looking at it from a different perspective. And absolutely, that’s a wonderful part of scholarship. But that isn’t what we’re talking about. We’re talking about students re-reading as a study form and mistaking highlighting for deep interrogation. So, just like with the rest of knowledge bases versus higher-order skills. This is another words “both and” it cannot be “either or.” Yes, we want students re-reading in the right ways, but students or teachers cannot mistake that for learning sometimes.

Rebecca: So, let’s say you’ve just convinced all of our listeners that we need to be doing this, how do we bake it into our course designs?

Michelle: Well, I think that, really getting creative with this, and as I talked to faculty when I visit other schools or talk to faculty of my own institution, I just see all of these new ideas all the time about how to do this. Once you do get that critical epiphany of alright, a test doesn’t have to look like a test on the surface… it does not have to be the ritual of “Okay, you’ve got a number 2 pencil that’s breaking and I’m standing over you while you have a panic attack for an hour.” That’s not what it is—that it’s about the retrieval. Once you get that, all kinds of creativity opens up. So I’ve also started sometimes on the very first day with the syllabus quiz. So, especially if you have a smaller class, we all struggle with that “I spent all week writing the syllabus and it’s incredibly important, and then I’m getting questions about stuff that’s on it all the way through the semester.” So, really on the first day, what I do is I take a very light-hearted approach and I divide the students up into teams, just physical teams. Everybody’s got a copy of the syllabus, sometimes I fake them out and I say, “Okay, we’re going to go over the syllabus point by point…” and I say, “No, you can read the syllabus. We’re actually going to do this other thing which research shows will actually help you remember it.” So the task here is that each team formulates a set of questions… you can make just a few. like three… so a little bit of teamwork. So formulate three good questions off the syllabus. And you’d be amazed, they come up with questions that even I can’t answer sometimes without having to cheat. So they talk about it. And then of course, you go around the room in some arrangement and each team gets to ask the other team their questions, and if you really want you could keep score and everybody loves bragging rights for being the team that stumped the other teams and won the most points. So, it can literally start right then. With that idea that I don’t read stuff to you in this class, this is about you. And I’m also not piling a huge amount of work on myself either apart from being the moderator and the MC and having written the thing in the first place. I don’t have to write questions. They’re writing the questions and they’re answering them too. So those are some of the ways that we can do that. I think especially in our larger classes we do want to think about things like peer grading or peer review of open-ended question responses. We do want to take advantage of things like publishers’ test banks to set those up as reading quizzes. And you’d mentioned earlier about “Well, what about this not being suitable for upper-division classes?” I had an upper-division class that just wrap this semester where we had reading quizzes as well. It may have been an upper-division course but it also serve that purpose of “Hey, you take a basic quiz over the chapter on Sunday and that really sets the stage for us to have a more substantive discussion.” All of those things. are ways that we can do this. I think open-ended reflection as well… so tests that look nothing like a test but are still retrieval practice. You’d mentioned about reflecting on what you learned last class period. So this sometimes goes by the name “brain dump.” And I did a bit of this last semester as well. So, this by the way, I do want to credit the great website retrievalpractice.org. So retrieval practice is actually that high profile it has its own website. It’s an absolute treasure trove of ideas. So, with the brain dump the way that I did it, or similar to what it sounds like you did, every now and again we start off class with you writing down everything you remember from last time on a piece of paper. I had students then turn to their neighbor and compare notes and see what they came up with. And I didn’t grade those. This was not a heap of grading for me. But in the end what they did turn into me for accountability and a few points was a very short reflection, just on an index card. So, “What surprised you?” and I review those and they’re very eye-opening but again I’m not there to police or micromanage what they put on their cards. So, that’s retrieval practice too. There’s lots of different flavors that we can bring in.

John: I do something similar with asking students to reflect on the reading in each module we work through. But because I teach a fairly large class, I didn’t want to have to deal with all the index cards. So I just have them fill up a simple Google form. And then I can skim through it and assign grades much more easily than shuffling paper. But it’s the same basic idea and it’s worked quite well.

Michelle: Absolutely.

Rebecca: Do you have any other examples of the kinds of little tests that faculty can run that don’t look like tests?

Michelle: Right? So tests that don’t look like tests. Well, here’s another that was probably a little bit more practical for a small class, and this is how I ran this. It, like the brain-dump exercise the way I ran it, was also very cyclical and very student generated. So we started out each class at the beginning of each week with students generating a set of quiz questions based out of the assigned reading. So we didn’t actually, in this particular example, have pre-quizzes or something like that. But students came in knowing that they can bring their book if they wanted. But they would need to sit down and write for me three questions, whether short-answer or multiple choice. Then I can flip through those and I would really quickly put those together for a quiz that went out the subsequent day. So, we’re alternating between generating questions and then returning to those questions. And then I would have pass out. I told them treat this like a realistic test. Actually try to retrieve everything, but, you know, when times up, you’re going to get to go back to it. And then they would grade it themselves. So I didn’t actually do the grading either. And that is really great for spurring discussion. And “Oh, my gosh, I thought I knew the difference between reliability and validity, but now that I tried to answer it, I realized that I didn’t.” And then you can throw it back out to the student who now has bragging rights for having had their question selected and say, “Hey, what did you mean? What was the right answer? And why did you put that down there?” And at the end of the day, they kept that quiz too. So it was really very much in their own hands to do. So there’s that. Other creative ideas that I’ve run across over the last couple of semesters… There’s a great project out there, run by Bruce Kirchhoff at University of North Carolina at Greensboro. So I got the wonderful pleasure of talking to that group last year. And he and some colleagues working in the area of botany actually put together a freestanding, custom built mobile app that students could take with them that presented different kinds of quizzes over the sorts of things that botany students really need to know like the back of their hands like how to identify different plants and how to discriminate among different examples and they found some empirical evidence that this actually raised performance up quite a bit. I’ve heard too of another Professor put together some surveys in Qualtrics, the surveying software took advantage of its ability to actually text message people and send them the questions. So this was an opt in sort of activity and it’s one that they didn’t just have it run 24-7 because it was a little intrusive, but what it did is it sent students questions that they could answer at different intervals throughout the day, which also takes advantage of another principle from applied memory research which is spacing. So students are getting these unpredictable questions, they have the option to answer them, and they could be happening even when they’re not in class. So those are some other ways. Some of them look like tests, some of them don’t. But those are creative ways to get students engaged in that practice.

Rebecca: As a faculty member, we often advise students and mentor students who might be struggling in other classes, ones that we don’t have control over. Are there ways that we can help those students use this methodology to do well in those classes where it might not be embedded?

Michelle: Right. And that’s so great that you bring that in as well because ultimately that is what we need as teachers and that maybe circles back to yet one other piece of objection that I’ve seen… actually this time in a published article from a few years back that said, well are we doing too much for students? Are we scaffolding them too much so they’re going to grow really dependent on these kinds of aids like reading quizzes, and reading questions. But if we also have in our mind very intentionally, that what we want students to have at the end of the day is also something they can walk away with, I think that we do have to be very mindful of like, “Okay, let’s not create the impression that just because retrieval practice is so important that you have to sit there and wait for me to put together this specific kind of reading quiz for you.” So I think here, the really powerful message is once again that one students take this to heart… once they’ve not just been told this, that “Oh well, you should quiz yourself as a study strategy,” but they’ve seen that I believe in it to the point where I’m going to put time, energy, and work into it as part of my class. And maybe they’ve even seen the results… they’ve now had their own little before and after experience of what happens when I do this… that they can be more likely to take this forward. So having more faculty across the curriculum endorse this is a powerful idea that “Hey, this is how your mind works. This is how your brain works. Your brain doesn’t just soak up stuff that’s in front of it. You soak up stuff that you have to answer questions about.” That I think is going to be a powerful message. And there’s actually another article out there that I just absolutely love it was done by a psychologist named Pennebaker and some colleagues at University of Texas at Austin some time ago. They replaced high-stakes assessments in their Introduction to Psychology course with these mobile in-class quizzes that were done every day. And one of the things that they report in this article is not just that students did better in that class, but that certain subgroups of students actually showed improvement, specifically closing of achievement gaps, really, in classes that they took after the psychology course. And these were classes that we’re not even in psychology. So you think about that for a minute. How does that happen? Now, nobody knows exactly for sure, because this was kind of an unexpected finding in the study was my impression, but a real possibility is that when students have sat in this class and every single day they have seen the power of taking a quiz… of spacing out their learning… and attacking it in a very active learning approach… Once they’ve seen that happen, they’re more likely to go home and say, “You know what? I can do this in my biology course too. I don’t have to sit there with the teacher’s quiz. But, if I attack it in the same way I might get the same results.” So I think with those things, we can have students walking away with that enduring practice that we want them to have. And it is funny too, because it brings up one of the, I’ll just say it was a really heartwarming teacher moment that I had this last semester when I did bring in these Kahoot quizzes. In the run up to the first exam, I had done my fancy little in-class quiz and was kind of patting myself on the back of what a great leader I was. So I came in to, I think it was the class right before this exam, and I come plowing into the classroom and it’s dead quiet. And there is a student at the front of the classroom. He has commandeered the podium and the computer and what has he done? He’s accessed the Kahoots, which I gave them the links. You know, they’re out there for all the students to see. And he is running them and the rest of the students in the class are taking them just as seriously as when I was administering them. So they’re running through the questions again, giving it another shot. I didn’t tell them to do this at all. It was one of these moments where I just backed out and closed the door after me. And I came back in when they were finished. And so I think those are the kind of moments that we can set ourselves up for when we really do bring this into our classes and we get behind it and a really authentic way.

Rebecca: I think one thing Michelle, in the way that I asked the question, I had also asked it from the perspective of a student hadn’t had the experience of doing a retrieval practice in a class. So, if you’re working with a student, maybe outside of class or as an advisor, are there things that we could do to help those students adopt those practices, even if they haven’t seen it modeled for them?

Michelle: So how do you help students when they haven’t had some of these experiences on their own? And I think this is a part of a bigger package of goals that I think a lot of us should have in supporting our students to really put students in the driver’s seat. To say, “Yeah, you don’t have to wait for a certain style of teaching or certain subject material in order to succeed with it.” I see that isn’t really part of a larger package of growth mindset honestly. So what can students do to make themselves the masters of this? Now, I think that there are some old standard, very traditional, approaches that are worthwhile. And when you look at those approaches, sometimes retrieval practice is at the core. So it may not be a matter of trying to get a very unfamiliar set of terminology or anything for students before, but really getting them to look at some of these approaches in a new way. So things like you’ve ever heard the term SSQ4R or PQ4R, there’s a couple of those that have acronyms and the things they have in common are that they tell students when you sit down to study or read a text or prepare for a test, here’s what you do. You don’t just start reading from the top with no goal in mind other than “Oh, I want to get a good grade later.” What you do is first of all, you set yourself up with questions. Which is, after all, a lot like retrieval practice. Start with a question, say, “What do I want to answer? Can I answer that now?” And if not, why not? To read your text or go through your material very intentionally around this questions, and then there’s always this piece of recite or review. That’s what one of those Rs stand for in some of those traditional systems. And that means closing the book. That means closing the book and saying, “Okay, I’ve sat here with this material for this amount of time. What can I actually say about it at this point?” So, sometimes directing students back into some of those and saying, you need to adopt these strategies, which are completely teacher-independent, they’re fairly discipline-independent as well. That can be good. If you’re doing them for the right reasons and with the right approach in mind, that’s very good. Encouraging students to take advantage of the publishers’ companion sites… Now this is a little bit more of an uphill climb. That is where we run into “Well, if there’s no points for it, Why should I do it?” But encouraging students to say “Look, you already paid for this textbook. To be crass about it, you paid all this money, did you know there’s a website over here and if you interact with those materials in this particular way that’s really, really likely to pay off for you?” So, besides just ensuring that our students have what I consider to be these basic foundational pieces of knowledge about the mind and brain: that we remember through testing, we remember through retrieval and an active engagement. All students should have that, but those are some specific things that we can counsel students to use across all their studies that really should pay off.

John: Do you have any other suggestions for those faculty that are thinking about expanding their use of retrieval practice?

Michelle: You know, just to really encourage and support faculty who are starting this journey, as it sounds like that you all have, to really re-examine how we can bring in this incredibly powerful principle, and to really reassure each other that “Yeah, this is not about really just piling so much more work on yourself.” We can sometimes even just re-examine the assessments and assignments that are already in the course and so that’s kind of one last piece of practice that I think that a lot of us can really stand to bring in. And that was a big thing for me as well to say, “Well, if I’m going to administer these tests… we administer tests, we administer midterms anyway… what else can we do to increase their value as learning experiences… as learning events. So here’s another where I’ve brought in various forms of test discussion activities. Instead of standing in front of the class with that deadly the day-after-the-test class period where I say, “Let’s go over it” to realize, you know what? That probably will not work that well. But one of the amazing things that we have learned from the research on retrieval practice is that it’s not just in the moment in the taking of the test, where this advantage to memory happens. It actually creates a sort of a receptive window for learning and for review when we’ve just taken a test on something. So if you’ve got a midterm in your class already, well, hey, why not carve out the time after that test is up to say give it back to the students… like I photocopy the exams before I’ve graded them. They have no feedback on them whatsoever. And I hand them back to students as a group discussion exercise. I say “Alright, here’s a blank copy of the exam, your group can fill out this blank copy together, just knowing what you know, revisiting all those questions, having those good discussions about what you understood and what you didn’t. And I offer a little bit of extra credit for really good performance on that. And there’s other ways to work that out so it actually takes off as a small group exercise in class. But regardless of the specifics of how you make something like that work, the spirit of it is the same. That when you sat down to do this, to try to drag all this information out of memory, that is not an end unto itself. It should be part of a bigger picture of learning in the class. And it’s sort of an untapped vein of potential we have as teachers and that our students have as well and that we can access it regardless of what the discipline is or how the class is setup.

John: …and students see it’s very relevant. I started doing something very similar in my econometrics class last year following a suggestion from Doug McKee who had been doing that in his class. And it worked remarkably well… and turned what was normally a pretty unproductive class period where we’d go over the test… and the people who did well with just be really happy and pretty much ignore any discussion, and the people who did badly were just sitting there unhappy and not really being very receptive. But when they sit there, and they’re explaining it to each other, it seemed like a really ripe time for them to learn the material much more deeply.

Rebecca: I remember the first time that you implemented that. You sent me a text message with a photograph of his students taking a test and it looked very active. [LAUGHTER}

John: …and they were having fun.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: One of the nice things that came out as I was wandering around listening to their conversations, and I was hearing people say, “Oh, yeah, now I see where that came from.” Or someone would say, “Well, when did we learn this?” And then someone else would say, “Well, remember when we worked on these problems?” …and it just helped them make connections… and the power of peer instruction is so remarkable. I’m going to do it in as many of my classes I can.

Michelle: That’s perfect. That’s what we want as teachers, and that’s what our students benefit from.

Rebecca: So as you know, we always wrap up our podcast by asking what’s next?

Michelle: Oh, wow. So I am looking forward to kind of rebooting a course that I have not taught in some time. My senior capstone course in technology, mind, and brain. And that is a fun one. But it’s one that is going to take a lot of revision, since it is technology and things change so rapidly, as we all know. So that is going to be a big part of next semester. I also have a crop of research projects in various angles on teaching, learning and educational technology that I’m really excited to be moving forward in the next calendar year. One of those… really foremost among them is a project on virtual reality for learning. We have an incredibly creative and dynamic team looking at virtual reality here at Northern Arizona University. They put together an amazing series of interactive exercises that are part of the organic chemistry course here and teach some of the challenging concepts in that extraordinarily challenging gateway course. And so we now have a whole set of data from students who went through and did this at varying points during the semester. We got their feedback, we’ve got all different kinds of psychometric measures that we gathered from them at the time as well. So, I cannot wait to be tackling that and looking at all kinds of angles on how this part of technology is impacting student learning in this course.

Rebecca: Sounds like some exciting adventures.

John: That sounds like a wonderful research project. …looking forward to seeing what you find.

Rebecca: It was a real pleasure to talk to you again, Michelle. Thanks for spending some time with us.

John: It’s wonderful talking to you. Thank you.

Michelle: Oh, likewise, always a pleasure to talk to your listeners.

[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.

47. First-year classes

The first semester of the first year is pivotal in helping students see themselves as scholars. In this episode, Dr. Scott Furlong, a political scientist and Provost at SUNY Oswego, joins us in this episode to discuss how first-year classes may be used to captivate student attention and ignite a passion for learning.

Show Notes

Transcript

Rebecca: The first semester of the first year is pivotal in helping students see themselves as scholars. In this episode we explore one strategy for captivating student attention and igniting a passion for learning.

[Music]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[Music]

John: Our guest today is Dr. Scott Furlong, a political scientist and our Provost at SUNY Oswego. Welcome Scott!

Scott: Thanks John, I’m glad to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Scott: My tea is coffee because I stupidly forgot that they serve tea here. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: We’ll accept coffee drinkers too.

John: And I’m drinking a blend of peppermint, spearmint, and tarragon tea.

Rebecca: I reverted back to my old good time…

John: English afternoon?

Rebecca: Yeah [LAUGHTER]

John: SUNY-Oswego is introducing a series of new first-year courses this fall, and before we talk about what we’re doing at Oswego, could you tell us a little bit about what your own experiences with first-year courses at Green Bay?

Scott: Sure, back probably almost 12 years ago at Wisconsin, Green Bay, I was director of our first year programs on our campus. We had recognized that we have some pretty good first-year programs, but we were missing what I would have considered the most critical part, which was the academic aspect of it. I had been to a number of first-year conferences, had done a lot of work, reading, in first year and we were behind in that area. We did not really have any type of academic course for our first-year students. So, a number of our faculty (myself and about five others) decided we were going to do this on our campus. And, literally a colleague and myself… we’re sitting on an airplane coming back from a first-year conference and literally on an airplane napkin sketched out what we wanted to do in development of a first-year seminar for our students. And when we started at Green Bay, we needed to deal with some of the traditional questions around resources: How are we going to afford to do this? So, we made a conscious decision that we were going to take some of our existing general education courses that our basically introductory to the major and bring those larger sections of classes down to a smaller seminar size class, but we wanted to make sure that we were also going to infuse into these courses some amount of co-curricular activities and programs a student would have to go to that were diversity based, leadership based, health and wellness based, and academic lectures. And then we also incorporated interdisciplinary exercise where we would bring the students from the six classes together in a big room and and break them all up and have them solve what we thought was going to be a very interesting interdisciplinary problem using their disciplinary perspectives that they were learning throughout their normal semester. So, that was the birth of our first-year seminar courses. Those courses grew in terms of the number, we offered six the first year, twelve the next, fifteen the third year, and eventually got up to 20. And we got to a point where we were assessing the heck out of these things and it was clear that they were making a difference in terms of student engagement. We got up to the point where we were adding it to our general education program. The courses at that point were a lot different than how we originally initiated them, they were not Intro American government, they were not Intro to Psychology, they were what we started calling passion courses at UW-Green Bay and we stole that term that came out of Millersville University down in Pennsylvania. And they were courses that were interdisciplinary in nature and in topic, but they basically were around topics and areas that faculty cared a lot about and some of them were very much within their research or teaching interest; others were really far afield, where they would bring their discipline and other interdisciplinary perspectives into that course and in those courses we found were much more amenable to a first-year seminar than trying to ensure that we got all 26 chapters of an intro psych book in addition to everything else we wanted to do. When you can actually build the course around some of these activities, we found it to be a much more successful process.

Rebecca: Did you maintain those classes as part of the general education requirement or did it shift to being something else?

Scott: Two years into the first-year pilot, I had become Dean by then. The provost at the time had asked me to lead a general education reform effort. We knew pretty early that we wanted… because we had already collected a lot of very positive data that adding a first-year seminar would be something that would be a strong aspect of our general education. We really followed some of the AAC&U perspectives around general education: that your gen ed should be mission-based, should be based on what you’re most proud about at your institution. And again at Green Bay we were really strong around interdisciplinarity and almost all of these new freshman seminars were interdisciplinary based. So it ended up being sort of its own three credit requirement not meeting any type of disciplinary or domain type requirement, but just the idea that you had to take a first-year seminar.

John: Did that interdisciplinary requirement stay as part of the program?

Scott: It was when I left. [LAUGHTER]

John: Ok. …and you said there was a there were multiple classes that work together on a general problem.

Scott: Yeah, that didn’t last as long. There’s a great story there that I’ll tell. The faculty got very excited. One of the things that I most enjoyed about the process at Green Bay was the informal faculty development that sprouted up around the first-year seminar development. So, we would meet about every other week in our coffee house and pitch ideas and develop ideas and sort of frame what we thought the common learning outcomes ought to be. And one of the things we did is we came up with this common learning assignment and the idea we had (and at the time we thought it was a great idea) was that a new planet was discovered. And we had to send people to this new planet and teach them about the planet Earth. And how would you do that? And how would you set up a institution of higher education in a way that would teach these this new alien race about planet Earth? And we got cute and the name of the planet was trahe (that’s earth with a little bit of turning around of the letters) and we thought it was the coolest thing since sliced bread. The students hated it. [LAUGHTER] They couldn’t get it. They weren’t sure what they were doing. Although I will tell you the presentations they gave were dynamite given that they were first-year students that didn’t really know what they were getting into. They really give some really dynamite presentations, but we found out a little later in the semester that they had actually created a Facebook site called “I hate trahe.com”.

John: So, it was a unifying experience for them.

Scott: It was a unifying experience… and so we tried that one more year, realized it wasn’t working, shifted the interdisciplinary assignment a little bit, where it was a little bit more problem focused and probably more lecture oriented. We looked at issues and had different faculty from different disciplines try to talk about a problem or an issue from their perspective and then eventually we moved away from that sort of common group assignment. It became a little bit unwieldy as we got to 12 classes, 15 classes, to try to get those that many classes together or even as subsets of classes.

Rebecca: You mentioned that you did a lot of assessment related to the first-year passion courses, can you talk a little bit about what your findings were? You mentioned student engagement, but can you dive a little bit more into that?

Scott: One of the things that I’ll say right off the front is we went into this project knowing from our NSSE scores that our student engagement was pretty bad compared to the rest of the UW comprehensive campuses. So we knew we had a problem that we needed to address. We entered into this first-year seminar not so much around issues of “We need to address retention…” which is often a reason that’s put forward for bringing forth the first-year seminar, but rather we wanted to improve engagement. With the idea, and again research bears this out, if you increase your engagement you’re going to have a positive impact on retention. So, I had become friends and known some of the folks that work at NSSE… and specifically, Jillian Kinzie, who’s one of the lead researchers in the NSSE movement in Indiana. And I wrote to her and I said “Listen, I know we’re not on cycle for NSSE” (we were on, I think, a three-year cycle much like Oswego I think is now) and I said “…but we’re starting this new pilot program, we’d like to pull some of the NSSE questions and not only ask our pilot, but also ask some of our students who are not in the pilot. And what we found was engagement scores that were significantly greater across the board for the first-year seminars. And I had a colleague that used to talk about this when we would go to conferences of red bars reaching to the sky because we had a nice little bar chart that we would show on our PowerPoint which very dramatically showed the increase in engagement across a number of the NSSE criteria that they were looking at. We also found, and it didn’t hold, but in the first year we saw an 8 percent increase in retention as well for those students. Now, I know there was some selection bias there in terms of the students who were going into those courses, but we never saw anything less than 3% increase in all the years of the pilot. …and so we knew we had found something that was going to work, at least at Green Bay.

John: …and you taught one of these first-year courses. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Scott: Sure, well I taught my first one, it was an intro to American government. And that was the the first year or two that we were doing this… and that was fun and it was great, and it’s always nice to teach a class with 19 students rather than 120 (which is what I was teaching). So you got to delve into some issues in a lot more detail, a lot more discussion based. But, when I became Dean, one of the things that I wanted to do (at least occasionally) is try to stay in the classroom a little bit. And it’s sometimes hard as an administrator to carve out the time because you never know when your boss is going to ask for you. So, I worked with a colleague and we team-taught a course around issues of Disney and we got cute and I came up with the name of “Inter-Disney-planarity” as the title of the course to sort of highlight the interdisciplinarity aspects of the class. She was an experimental psychologist and we used our various perspectives to really examine issues of Disney both in terms of the parks, the films, the culture. For example, I did a couple of different sections around how, at least Disney World, the one in Orlando, really is set up as its own government. Almost like a Vatican City in Florida, because they have their own police force. They have everything. Their own regulatory bodies, things like that. My colleague did a lot of work around architectural and planning background and planning theory… looking at people like Frank Lloyd Wright and others (names I’m not remembering) in terms of how they did some of the urban planning and suburban planning in the United States. And how Disney really pulled a lot of those issues in the building of the parks, and why they were doing it, and why it works the way they did. And then together the two of us taught class a part of the class on racial and gender issues around Disney, particularly some of their early films, still to this day… but it was really biased in the early years. So, it was a lot of fun. It was always a great way to engage academically in a fun topic. I will tell you, the students who signed up, they all thought they were watch Disney movies. We showed clips, but we rarely would show full films and so I think they were disappointed in that. But I think they had a lot of fun in the class.

John: And they were learning things.

Scott: They were learning about the disciplines, we did have some common learning outcomes: we had a writing requirement, we had an oral communication requirement and we had a critical thinking requirement. So, all of these sort of skill based activities that we all value as part of a strong liberal arts education is what we were introducing to them, and it was a way for them to engage in college-level work around topic areas that students find interesting. So, you mentioned before we started about zombies, we had courses on zombies, and what would happen in a zombie apocalypse and we had students who would put together basically action plans and where would you go on our campus in order to survive a zombie apocalypse. And why would you do that? and so on and so forth, and it became competitive within the faculty in terms of the titles of the courses and whose course would fill first as part of the registration process.

John: This is a nice follow up to last week’s podcast with Wendy Watson, where we talked about writing a constitution after a zombie apocalypse.

Rebecca: As an instructor how did you find the experience of teaching this passion course to be different from other courses that you taught?

Scott: Well, you go into your other courses, if you will, your normal course load, at least after a few years, you go in relatively easily to these courses… at least I found… and in the case of one of my classes. I’ve taught an intro to public policy class for 20 years, and actually wrote a book on it. So, you kind of walk in there and you don’t need to think too much about what you’re doing. I mean, that sounds terrible, but you get into a rhythm of your teaching and you keep current but some of the theories remain the same. The highlights of the course remain the same. This course, there was all a whole new set of readings because I was working with a colleague, it was not just making sure I was up-to-date on what I was worried about and taking lead on. But, at least having some type of knowledge on what she was talking about because a lot of the class was discussion based. Which again was probably a bit different compared to some of my lower level-classes in the past which, because they’re large you have to do a little less discussion in those situations. The other thing I would say is different when you’re teaching a first-year seminar compared to classes that have first-year students in it is that it’s a rare situation for most faculty to teach all freshmen or all first-year students… and there is a dynamic change, teaching a class like an economics class or a American government, where you’re going to have a lot of freshmen but you still have upperclassmen… and there is a dynamic that changes in that classroom in terms of modeling behavior and things like that. They’re not too far away from being high school students. You’ve got to get them focused. You really need to engage them as: “You are college students now. There’s an expectation we’re not going to go through every page of the textbook. We really expect you to do a large part of this work on your own so that you can bring your own perspectives and ideas to the classroom.” And again, that was something that was different for me and a lot of our faculty other than our English comp faculty that did this.

John: Because they’re used to small classes.

Scott: They’re used to small freshman classes. Most of us, we’re not used, so that was a difference.

Rebecca: …having that experience right now. We have a freshman colloquium in my department that I’ve never taught before until this semester. And it’s like: “Yeah, alright. We have to do these things that I don’t generally do in my other classes.”

Scott: And you’ve got to be really intentional with the students, which is a good thing anyway… but you can’t just assume that they know how to do college work.

John: That’s one of the benefits, I would think, of these courses… that it provides that bridge where you can focus on that without losing the upper-level students and that intentional focus on their needs could be really helpful in getting them acclimated.

Scott: Getting them acclimated, being intentional about the type of work that you expect, the type of writing you expect. That you can’t just copy and paste a wikipedia thing and call it a paper, and the acclimation to the rest of the campus was a big deal for us as well and is for the Oswego courses. There are a lot of resources here, there are a lot of events that happen here, and yes, we’re going to make you go to some of those, but the hope there is not that we’re making them do it, it’s once they get there they understand “Hey, I actually enjoyed this and I’m going to another one, just without being required to do it.”

Rebecca: Part of it is just figuring out the logistics if you’ve been doing it or where to find the information. Some students, if they don’t have that guided experience, might never discover it. There are so many other things going on.

Scott: Yeah, and we got to a point, at least for the first few years, where we actually were creating sort of cheat sheets of events, so that they had a calendar in front of them, so they didn’t have to worry about finding those of those types of things.
REBECA: This year, we’re piloting a first-year program at Oswego. Can you talk a little bit about that program?

Scott: Sure, we’re piloting nine first-year signature classes. That was the title that they wanted to put on our group here at Oswego. The program was developed by a committee of faculty and staff that developed a number of common learning outcomes that are very similar to what we did at Green Bay: strong communication, critical thinking issues… and then we recruited nine faculty from across the campus to engage in these ideas of, I won’t say common pedagogy, but some common learning outcomes. …and structure classes, and we did call them passion courses, at least internally. What is it that you want to teach? Is there something out there that maybe doesn’t fit traditionally into your curriculum but is of interest to you? Be creative about it. It’s okay to have fun. Be fun about what you want to do… and then really think through how you’ll get at these common goals, but also the goals of the class itself. So, we got a good group of nine courses… diverse courses… and they did just a great job in the development and even went above and beyond in terms of how they pitched and advertised their courses to the incoming students. They all did one- to two-minute videos… that our students actually did, which is great… and it really comes across as very professional. You can see the passion in their faces and I’ve already been told that a number of the faculty that have developed these first-year courses, it’s affecting how they think about their other courses as well.

John: That came up at several of the meetings (because I’ve been attending those too) and many of the people are saying that once I’ve learned how to do these things or I’ve tried doing these things, and some of it was credited to workshops that Rebecca did in the spring, but it’s changing how they’re teaching all their classes.

Rebecca: The conversations around the first- year class has been really interesting. Hearing those faculty talk through what they’re doing and work together has been really interesting, and so what you described at Green Bay as being that informal learning community certainly evolved here as well.

Scott: Well, that’s my sense too. Again, I specifically tried to stay away from it a little bit because I didn’t want my perspectives to fully guide what was happening and I wanted this to be a bottom-up faculty-led thing. But everything I’m hearing, is that the faculty are getting a lot out of those discussions and to really engage in teaching in a different way and around some different types of topics. And I think also to really think through the entire learning environment that we are providing here at Oswego, not just what’s going on within the classroom. I think all the faculty (I know at least one or two) require their students to go to the info fair over in the arena last week and actually I got passed on an email from a student who really credited “I never would have gone to this unless I was required to and by going I actually signed up for four different organizations.” …and this is exactly why we do these types of things.

John: …and that type of connection makes a big difference in retention and student success and engagement.

Scott: Yep.

Rebecca: How did the students end up in these courses?

Scott: They self selected as part of the information that goes out as part of the registration process. Late spring, early summer, these were offered up as an opportunity for them to sign up as part of their process of submitting their list of desired courses or preferred courses for the Fall. If they wanted to be in one of these courses or any of these courses, they put it on and then our our first-year advisers then made their made their schedules much like they do now… but they just included that particular course. I think there was a little bit of a concern initially since these courses count, but they’re electives. They’re electives within our 120 graduation requirements, so I think there was some concern upfront: “Why would students take these courses?” They don’t count for Gen Ed, they don’t count for the major but they filled pretty quickly, which I think speaks to both the marketing but also the topic areas that students find interesting. …and I think there are mechanisms for us to move forward to think that some of these courses could fit general education in a traditional way.

John: I’m not sure if this has changed, but in the early discussions of this, the goal was to have students request these courses with the hope that there’d be more people requesting courses than there would be slots, and then the students who applied for them but didn’t get them could serve as a control group so that you could get a benchmark without that self-selection issue. Has that been maintained?

Scott: I don’t know if that’s been maintained or not. I wasn’t part of those discussions. There are other ways of getting at some of the control groups if we need to do that, whether it’s simplistically students who did not take those courses or even pulling or surveying students that might be in like the English comp classes or the introductory math classes and using them as a pseudo control group. I’m gonna let IR worry about about how to get at some of those assessment issues. …and I will say that some of the issues around assessment… some of the issues around the success of this program… won’t show up immediately, and they won’t necessarily show up in data. We had a situation at Green Bay our first year where a student did not come back her second year and the faculty member actually got a letter from the student that said: “I want you to know that I really noticed how much time you spent with me, I noticed that you were paying attention to me and trying to get me involved and I’m not gonna be back in the spring semester, but I had a great experience here. This is just not the place for me.” That’s going to show up as a non-retained student and not a good statistic, but in many ways that’s a success story, and that’s something you can’t do in a lot of normal classes because you don’t have the ability to really engage with students in that type of a close way.

Rebecca: Do any have sense with the launch of the program this year whether or not the students in those classes are in the same major as the faculty member teaching them or do you think it’s more mixed?

Scott: I don’t know. I think it’s more mixed, but it’s a great question, and I’m going to guess they’re mixed, but I haven’t actually seen the the enrollments. And the reason why I’m going to say they’re mixed is that an incoming student would really have to pay attention to the bio of the faculty member, the description of the course, to be able to figure out “Is this course really within some major that I’m interested in? The courses themselves do not scream communication or business or any of that, so you’d a student would have to do a lot of sort of… not digging, it’s all there… but they’d really have to pay a lot attention to that. I’m sure there were some that did, but I’m not sure if that would be the majority or not.

John: Could you give us a few examples of some of these courses?

Scott: Sure. We’ve got nine as I mentioned and they are from all across campus. So Kat Blake is doing a course out of anthropology entitled: “The Talking Dead: Understanding Life from the Human Skeletal Remains.” …and I actually did print out the description a little bit here and what she had written was: They help forensic anthropologists investigate murders, bioarcheologists reconstruct life in the past, paleopathologists examine past disease and trauma… These are the bones of the human skeletons and they have stories to tell and students will learn about the scientific techniques for evaluating skeletal remains… so on and so forth. Who doesn’t want to play with bones, right? That’s great. And then another course that that is being offered is by Alison Rank out of the political science program and the title of her course is “The Witches are Hunting: Contemporary Feminist Activism in America” and she’s looking at the #metoo movement and feminist theory, and how these things have developed. And the interesting thing that she’s doing with her course is, she is occasionally (I think once a week) linking up with Mary McCune’s course out of history, and Mary’s teaching a course entitled “How New is the #Metoo? The history of Gender Activism in the United States.” So, those students will have the added benefit (at least from my perspective it’s an added benefit) of having some of these discussions in an interdisciplinary way. These are all highly engaging type topics. We have a course on how comic book characters are portrayed, and why is it that we turn to comic book characters when we’re looking at issues of justice? Why aren’t we doing these things ourselves? We have a course out of theater that’s looking at how black characters are portrayed within the arts and how that has evolved culturally. Another one out of theatre that’s actually looking at the interconnection between theatre and sports. Again, these are all topics that frankly students coming into a college/university setting would never think that they would be able to study. Frankly, a lot of things that we offer in the first year, students would never think about [LAUGHTER] studying coming out of high school. But, I really believe strongly that wrapping these accessible topics around college-level work is a really effective way to get students to think like college-level students and to do that get them prepared for the type of work that we want them to do as they’re moving through their years on campus.

John: When I heard some of the topics, I wanted to sit in on all of those classes. They all seem fascinating.

Scott: I think I’m going to, I’m gonna try to make some time to just sit in on these and try to get a sense of how they’re going.

John: They sound like a lot of fun.

Rebecca: They sound like a lot of fun. Yeah, definitely, and the videos are pretty fun too.

John: Yeah.

Scott: The videos are great. There’s a balance of the the funness. I’ve had people… frankly, I had a former Provost, when we’re really implementing our first-year seminars at Green Bay, talk about these courses as fluff courses. And I really had to push back on her, because I think, in many cases, these courses are more rigorous than some of the courses they would be taking otherwise (or in addition). They’re doing much more writing than they probably would be otherwise. I know, compared to an old large lecture class, where you’re taking a bunch of multiple-choice tests (because that’s the only way you can keep your sanity sometimes as a faculty member), that these are much more rigorous. The expectations are higher… and you’ve got to be present in order to do well in these types of classes, and I think we’ve all experienced situations with larger lecture halls, where it’s not unusual for a third of the class not to be there because they can get what they need out of a book or by copying notes.

Rebecca: As soon as you start tackling a topic that’s not traditionally a textbook, then you don’t have a textbook to rely on and you’ve got a start thinking about things differently.

Scott: …and it’s that’s a great exercise in and of itself to be, to move into sort of OER/direct digital access type things. There are all sorts of things out there that are not textbooks but are still primary source type materials or even current events type topics that you can really pull into these classes… and even the theoretical aspects of the discipline. How does psych address some of these issues? How does art address some of these issues? How does economics address some of these issues. Even around things like the #metoo movement or how comic books are portraying justice issues.

John: …and it shows students perhaps that these are really useful methodologies for approaching and analyzing things in the world that they may not generally see those connections, I think.

Scott: That’s right. I agree with that. You start looking at some of the popular culture issues through a different lens. I hope that the class that we taught on Disney really opened the eyes of students in terms of how Native Americans are portrayed or had been portrayed in Disney films, or black Americans or how gender issues are dealt. I mean it’s fine to just sit there and enjoy a movie, but at some point you want to start thinking through the larger social context that the film is being produced in and shown in as well.

Rebecca: I think it’s when you start hearing the students say things like well I can’t go to an experience like that without thinking X, Y, & Z now… or I can’t help but seeing… whatever it is… and I think that’s it’s a good sign of success.

Scott: It is. That’s what we’re about generally on our campus, is beginning to open up their mind and open up different ways of observing and interacting with the world.

Rebecca: Which, I think, leads into a good question about how are you gonna assess this particular program?

Scott: This program was started probably with a little bit more intentionality around retention, so we’ll look at retention rates. We’ve again been in contact with the NSSE folks to see if we can pull in some of their questions, even though we’re not in a NSSE year, and we’ll look at that as well. We’ll do some self assessments or surveys of the students and their experiences and what they thought of those experiences. And, frankly, I want to get the faculty response. I want to see how they reacted to the course. How did they think it went? How did they perceive the students responding to these classes? These classes do not necessarily automatically, just because they have interesting topics, lead to high faculty evaluations. Oftentimes new course development does not lead to high evaluations. You got to do these things a few times before you sort of get in your rhythm and really know what you’re doing. So, I’m hopeful that they’ll start looking at student outcomes and and are they maintaining connections with the students beyond the course? Which is something we saw on our campus that even though they weren’t their formal advisors, they would continue and seek out those faculty member for other courses. They would seek them out as they were walking across campus; or, if their office door was open, they would just stop in in a much more relaxed way than you might expect any other student to do that.

Rebecca: …sounds more like a mentorship kind of role, in some ways.

Scott: Yeah… that mentorship is probably a little strong, but it could develop into something like that. It’s the connection… it’s really focusing on what I feel is the most important connection that students can make, and that’s with the faculty member… that’s what’s going to keep them here… that’s what’s going to lead to their success. Yes, of course, it could lead into the mentorship as well but that’s where they’re spending their time… it’s with the faculty across campus. So, to the extent that we can facilitate that relationship… sometimes it’s good to bring them down to equal levels. We need to remain some level of distance and we have to ensure that the faculty is respected, but we’re also people and sometimes students don’t see that [LAUGHTER]… that we’re people. But, if we can get them in a small environment we can encourage them to talk. I used to require them to come to office hours initially just to make sure they at least stopped in a couple times. Those are all things that we can do to to help make that connection to SUNY Oswego.

Rebecca: …a strong connection to the episode that we had with Jennifer Knapp, talking about interpersonal relationships between faculty and students and that some of those outside of class relationships that are built (often through the classroom) are really important and really powerful. So, I think what you’re describing is exactly some of the research that she was describing in that episode.

Scott: I’m passionate about this area generally, and in this project in particular. I think there’s room to grow this, I actually think from a resource perspective, SUNY Oswego is in a better place than Green Bay was in terms of sort of scaling this; not that we go from 6 to 40 in a year. But, I think as we move forward if we find the type of success that I think we will find, we’ll need to have some good conversations around: How do we scale? How do we engage more faculty, more departments in this? How do we sort of expand these informal faculty dialogues around these important issues? …and we’re always going to be focusing on retention here. It’s an important element in student success. All of these are our building blocks to what I think is already s strong SUNY-Oswego education, but this is the beginning of the experiential learning that we’re trying to promote within our students.

John: Those informal discussions among the faculty are really incredibly important. In many of the meetings, when people were asked about what they were doing in their courses, many of them said: “Well, I stole this idea from Allison…” or “I stole this idea from Maggie…” or “I stole this idea from one of the other participants.” …and it was nice to see that sort of informal discussion.
So, we always end with this question of what are you going to do next?

Scott: Ooh… Well, clearly we are going to assess and look at this very strongly, and I’ve already mentioned that we’ve had some discussions around: “Can these courses be structured around general ed learning outcomes as well,” so that students don’t feel as if it’s a… I hate to use the word a “wasted” course, but sometimes that’s the way they’re looked at because they don’t count in GenEd… they don’t count in the major. It’s hard to explain sometimes to students that it doesn’t matter, you need 120 credits. That’s a harder discussion for a new first-year student than it is for a sophomore or junior. We’ll look at expansion. There are some things behind the scenes in terms of that expansion that I need to get a handle on in terms of numbers, and what would it take, and who’s doing what and how do we do that. I think, generally, the other thing we’ll probably start thinking and doing about is how can this seminar be the anchor to perhaps a more engaging elaborate first-year program for our students? How can we improve our advising process for our first-year students? How do we make that transition from that first year to that second year for students? How do we really get the faculty to engage with the idea that the entire campus is a learning community? There are resources out there that not everybody knows about, but people can tie into. Those types of discussions, I think, will be some of the things we’ll think about as we move forward.

Rebecca: Well, thanks for sharing.

Scott: Oh, this is great.

Rebecca: Some great stories.

John: Thanks for joining us.

Scott: Thank you.

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

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