145: Pedagogies of Care: Ungrading

This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, Dr. Susan Blum joins us to talk about ungrading as a method to support and motivate student learning. Susan is an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame and the author of several books and articles on higher education. Her newest book, Ungrading: Why Grading Students Undermines Learning and What to do Instead, will be released as part of the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning in December, 2020.

Show Notes

  • Blum, Susan (2020). Editor.  Ungrading: Why Grading Students Undermines Learning (and What to do Instead). West Virginia University Press.
  • Pedagogies of Care
  • Blum, S. D. (2016). ” I Love Learning; I Hate School”: An Anthropology of College. Cornell University Press.
  • Blum, S. D. (2017). “Ungrading.” Inside Higher Ed. November 14.
  • Noddings, Nel (2010). Caring in Education. Infed
  • Sackstein, S. (2015). Hacking assessment: 10 ways to go gradeless in a traditional grades school. Times 10 Publications.
  • Arcidiacono, Peter (2020). Differential Grading Policies. Tea for Teaching podcast, February 26. (the podcast that John referred to that discussed women and underrepresented minoritized groups in STEM classes)
  • Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1121.
  • A Theory of Public Higher Education
  • Society for Values in Higher Education
  • School Stories

Transcript

John: This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, we talk about ungrading as a method to support and motivate student learning.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Susan Blum. She is an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame and the author of several books and articles on higher education. Her newest book, Ungrading: Why Grading Students Undermines Learning and What to do Instead, will be released as part of the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning in December, 2020. Welcome, Susan.

Susan: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

John: Today’s teas are. Are you drinking tea?

Susan: I am drinking tea. I’m a tea drinker. I love the name of your podcast and I started my day with Mountain Rose Assam tea with milk and sugar. But now I’ve moved to Light of Day Organic Green Jasmine tea from Traverse City, Michigan.

Rebecca: It sounds like a lovely morning.

Susan: It’s as good as we can have during the pandemic.

Rebecca: It looked like you were drinking out of a lovely cup too, actually.

Susan: This is a Chinese made cup with lids that I’ve had for 35 maybe more years and I’m a China specialist by training and when I first went to China, and everybody was drinking out of covered tea cups, I came home and I thought I had to get some myself. So this is chipped and old, but it’s precious. So, thank you for noticing.

John: Very nice.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you for describing it too. Sometimes we see things… We don’t always communicate all that to our listeners.

John: The visuals don’t translate well on a podcast.

Susan: It’s a white background porcelain mug with blue dragons and clouds and fish.

Rebecca: Yeah, it attracted my attention the second I saw it with your cup earlier. [LAUGHTER] I’m drinking Scottish breakfast tea and I haven’t quite decided what the difference between the breakfast and afternoon is. So I’ll have to report back next time.

John: That’s right. You were drinking Scottish afternoon before. I think the breakfast tea is supposed to be fairly strong. I’m not sure about their afternoon.

Rebecca: I’ll let you know if I can’t sleep. [LAUGHTER]

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

We’ve invited you here to talk about your contribution to the Pedagogies of Care project and your forthcoming book on ungrading. First, could you tell us a little bit about what prompted your interest in upgrading.

Susan: Well, for over a decade, almost two decades now, I’ve been investigating education. And I do that as an anthropologist. So, there have been a lot of dimensions of my inquiries. I began really thinking about plagiarism, which comes in part from work I had done previously on deception. And that comes in part from my own training as a linguistic and cultural and psychological anthropologist. So the plagiarism work made me really wonder what students were doing in school, what their purposes were, how they felt about it, what motivated them, and so forth. And that led to more research on student experience in college and what the purpose of college was. And that led me to really question what we were doing in the classroom and how we were actually meeting students, given what they need or what they want, or what we think they should want, which is a kind of strange conundrum, and how all of this fits into more general ways people grow up and become adults and are socialized into their societies. And so clearly it has to do with issues of social structure and social values and power. And when I think about power, I think about agency and I wonder who has the agency in learning? Is it the students? Is it the teacher? Where are the topics being generated? What is motivating the learning at all? What kinds of ways can we build on innate curiosity and desire to be competent and responsible people in social groups? And how do our pedagogical practices support or even contradict and prevent some of what we actually want? So my more recent book called I Love Learning, I Hate School: an Anthropology of College really explored a lot of the contradictory dimensions of what we claim we want and why those things don’t really work. And students are pretty aware of a lot of these things. So I really explore what I call and others call “the game of school” where if everybody’s going through the motions and the outcome is just a set of points and the learning…. it’s nice if you get it, but you don’t have to, you can sort of cram some thoughts into your head and do well on a multiple choice exam and get the points at the other side. Learning doesn’t happen. Coercion, fear, anxiety, lots of negative things happen. And that seemed to me to be tragic. It’s a waste of time, money, effort, and it doesn’t have to be that way. So I have been engaged for at least a decade in really rethinking my own pedagogical practices from top to bottom. You know, what do I teach? Why do I teach it? How do I teach it? What do I do? What do the students do? What do they do alone? What do they do together? And grading ended up being one of the kind of threads that connect to all these different dimensions of things. And I’ve also been part of a research project to study student learning in an internship. And there were no grades, but there were authentic outcomes of their practices. And so, I’ve been trying to make my classes as authentic as possible, rather than something people are doing simply for performance of competence, but to actually feel competent themselves. So, grades are thought to have three functions: sorting (which I reject), motivating (which we know doesn’t work), and communicating (which also doesn’t work). So I’ve tried to figure out how to make co-operative classrooms where everybody learns as much as they possibly can, for their own purposes, not for me, and I try to have students help generate their own goals so that they see this is not simply a task to be checked off, but as something that matters to them. I mean, I’m spending my life doing this work, and the thought that it’s just something to check off and get out of the way till they can get on to the real important stuff was very galling to me and actually, frankly, almost made me quit, which is kind of the topic of my next book. But the idea that I could actually change something that everybody thinks is central was so liberating to me. And it has really transformed the way I’ve been teaching. And so I’ve really been very pleased with the outcome. And since I published a short piece on Inside Higher Ed in 2017, I found that there are thousands of people at all levels of education, who are engaged in ungrading, throwing out grades, degrading, we call it different things, but we’re all engaged in the same enterprise. So editing this book… I want to be clear. I’m not the author of this book, I’m the editor. I have written the introduction and conclusion and a chapter but about 15 other people have also contributed to this book. And it’s been so gratifying and reassuring and stimulating and refreshing to know that all these other people are engaged in this too from all different directions. So I’m very excited about getting this out into the world so that we can provide some support and reassurance for people who might be interested in doing this but aren’t really sure how to make it happen.

Rebecca: Authentic learning is something that I’ve been really interested in for a long time. And so ungrading has always been really interesting to me, but I haven’t quite gone all the way there yet. And I’m certainly wanting to experiment in that space. Can you describe for folks what on grading look like and how that shifts the focus to learning?

Susan: Sure, and there are ways to do it partially or fully. So I’ve gone to total ungrading until the end of the semester when I am obliged to give a grade for my class. I wish I didn’t have to. I don’t actually think it’s meaningful or informative. But I’m required to do that. So that does happen, and I can tell you a little bit about how that happens, too. But ungrading really means you talk about what people are learning, maybe you have a conversation about what they’ve done well, what they haven’t done well, some things don’t actually have to be graded at all. We don’t have to assess everything. That doesn’t have to be the central activity of our teaching. And there can be what Nell Noddings refers to as free gifts. You can have people have experiences in the classroom, and the outcome is the enjoyment and the learning. And so that is its own reward. And if people perceive that they have been satisfied in their learning, then that’s an assessment. And you don’t have to translate that into some sort of numerical or letter reduction of what is, we hope, a fully human, rich multisensorial experience. I taught a class on food and culture last semester, which is a really fun class to teach. And students did activities, many of which they generated. I didn’t dictate everything. But one of the classes wanted to push one of the topics which was on technology and food. And they wanted to see what tools people use for cooking. So they had this idea that they would take pictures of what was in their kitchen drawer. This was before the pandemic. So take pictures of what’s in your drawer. So we talked about what was in the drawer. And then they had the idea that they would ask somebody older in their family to take a picture of what was in their drawer and talk about it. So then they had the idea that they could interview people about this. And anyway, it was wonderful as an experience. They interviewed their grandmothers and their mothers about what has changed and why do you have this tool? and what is the tool? …and we had so much fun talking about it, and everybody learned everything and it wasn’t graded. It just wasn’t graded. Because who wouldn’t want to do that? And so the motivation was purely intrinsic. And the assessment was when their classmates said, “Wow, that’s so interesting,” or when their grandmother said, “Wow, it sounds like you’re learning interesting things in school.” And so the measure of the outcome was part of the experience. And there was no need or use for anybody else to assess it. So that’s one type of grading is just not grading. You’re learning something, you’re enjoying it, you’re sharing it, and that’s what we’re here for. So there’s no point in doing more than that. But there are other kinds of assessments that are appropriate sometimes, and so for the assignments that are major assignments in my classes, I have the students include with their assignment, a self assessment. And these self assessments used to look a lot like grading, but they don’t anymore. They used to look like: “I did this right. And I did this right. And I had enough sources and I used the proper format. And I did this and that.” And then it was kind of a rubric where you could add things up. Now it’s much more: “What did you learn? What did you do well? What didn’t you do well? Why didn’t you? What do you need help with? What would you do differently? What are you taking with you?” So, it’s a reflection. So, it’s an assessment, but it’s much more of a reflection, which fosters metacognition, which we all say we want. And until this year, I had “adequate,” “not adequate,” and “exceeds expectations” or something which still kind of translates into like F,C and A. Now I just say, you know what you’re doing or you don’t know what you’re doing. And so sometimes in classes where things are new and hard, I teach a linguistic anthropology class where I have students do sometimes very difficult projects: ethnography, conversation, analysis, all kinds of stuff that they’ve never seen before and they admit is difficult. Sometimes they can say “I didn’t do this well.” And because it’s not a grade, there’s nothing at risk for them to admit that they actually haven’t quite felt secure about it. And that’s helpful information for me. It’s very honest, then we can say, “Well, actually, not that you know how to do this. And that’s okay. And we can work at it more, or I don’t expect you to because it takes two decades to master, or whatever it is.” So, then when I return their projects, I reflect on what they’ve done as their project, and sometimes I also reflect on their reflections. So there are a lot of layers here. So, that’s some of what ungrading looks like.

John: Since this relies on intrinsic motivation, what do you do to help build that? I imagine some classes students will come into them with a great deal of intrinsic motivation and in others that they see as just a gen ed requirement or something… a hoop that they perceive as a box they have to check off, which is something that, as you said, always bothers us. How can we perhaps help build that intrinsic motivation in classes when students are there when, as they perceive it, they’re just required to.

Susan: So I teach fundamentals of linguistic anthropology class, which counts as a social science requirement. So I get a lot of students in there for their gen ed requirement. It also counts as something among a set of choices for the major, but it might not be that they’re inherently interested in the topic. I personally think that everybody’s interested in language and communication. And everybody can become interested in anthropology, which is the study of people, but I don’t take for granted that they’re interested in it the way I’m interested in it. So, in that class, in particular, I have spent a lot of time really tweaking every dimension of the class, from the way they sit in the room, to who speaks first every day, to getting to know each other. I try to introduce play and fun. And I have teams and snack teams and students bring in interesting things for themselves. And anyway, this is really my laboratory where I work on how to create experiences that may allow students’ intrinsic motivation to flourish. Because I don’t think I produce intrinsic motivation. I just create conditions for it. So in that class, I now spend a whole week before we even get started just inviting them to ask big questions, to take charge of their learning, to think about what they’re curious about. Sometimes they work in groups that then they have a responsibility to each other. Also the social dimension… sociality, we know is part of it… I spent a lot of time thinking about the emotional and affective dimension of learning. I try to find really interesting things to do and read and try to connect it to their lives. Students are doing a lot of observations of things that are happening around them, which many of them have never done in an analytic or critical way; they’ve only done it in a reactive way. So, I think there are lots of ways to connect students’ own experiences beginning where they are, not with a deficit perspective, but with an asset perspective. You know, what do you know? What do you care about? …and then connect what we’re learning to something that you want to know more about? In that particular class. I have people write linguistic autobiography, and many of them say, “Well, I just speak English. I grew up in America.” And by the end of the semester, when they go back, and they look at that assignment again, they realize “No, there’s actually something to say because I speak this kind of variety…” and there are a lot of things to do that connect to students’ own lives that still get to the material. I’m not shirking my responsibility, but I also think there are lots and lots of ways to get there and they don’t all have to get to the same place. That’s perfectly fine with me. So, those are some ideas.

Rebecca: You talked a little bit at the very beginning about ungrading throughout the semester, but then, at some point, there is some authority that’s requiring a grade. Can you talk a little bit about how to negotiate that?

Susan: this was something I really worried about for years. And then in the summer of 2016, I came across Starr Sackstein’s book Hacking Assessment. She’s a high school teacher, and she has a chapter in our new ungrading book, and she talked about how to go grade free in a conventional school. So, that gave me confidence and ammunition to try to figure this out. So basically, I asked the students to suggest a grade for themselves. I have conferences, I actually try to do the mid semester and semester final to just say like, “If you were going to give yourself a grade, what would it be and why? What’s the evidence?” I’m not that fixated on the grades anymore. grades for me have become such uninformative flat measures of student experience that I find them very maddening. So if I had a student who came in who had never encountered the discipline before, and got very excited and tried some new things and didn’t do that well at those things, but learned a huge amount, to me, that’s a great accomplishment and a great gain, even if their paper wasn’t as good as somebody who’s a senior anthropology major whose paper it’s flawless. I want to say that both of them have had great learning experiences. And if they both say they earned an A, because they learned a lot. I’m actually okay with that. And I know one of the questions people always have is: “What about the engineers who design our bridges? What if the bridges fall down because one person learned a lot but they still don’t know it?” And one of the things we’re really excited about in our ungrading book is we have STEM teachers. So they are talking about what it’s like to teach computer science or math or chemistry and use an ungrading approach. So it can be done in slightly different ways. But for me, because I’m trying to get my students to see the world, reflect on it, analyze the world, that’s what anthropology does. If I get them there, then I am completely happy to give many of my students As. They don’t all ask for As; they don’t all think they’ve earned it. They come in with different standards and experiences about what grades mean anyway. and international students tend to have very, very high expectations for themselves. So they suggest well, modestly, “I only earned a B minus” but I might say that they really demonstrated great learning and accomplishment and it might be harder if they’re not a native speaker of English. So, I may bump it up. I can bump it up or down. They’re suggesting great, but usually, they’re pretty honest. And they learned a lot. They’ve worked hard. And I usually do accept the grade that they suggest.

Rebecca: How do you see the role of reflection and revision as part of the ungrading process? You mentioned handing in an assignment with a reflection, and then you reflect on all of that. What do they do next? Is revision or iteration a part of the practice?

Susan: It depends on the course. I’m teaching a writing course for graduate students again, and revision is obviously the heart of writing. Anybody can revise anything they want in my classes, and I’ve had students say, “I turned this in, but I procrastinated and I couldn’t really get it done, and I’m just not proud of it. And I’ll say, “Would you like to redo it?” And they’ll look at me like “What? What do you mean? I get to redo it. I’m not like branded as a failure my whole life?” No, if you want to redo it, I’m happy to read it again. I try, depending on the course again, to have things build on each other so that even if they’re not literally revising that assignment, they’re recognizing gaps or deficiencies or weaknesses or strengths that they can carry forward to future work that might rely on what we’ve already done. But I have not, at least in this laboratory class that I’m talking about, I haven’t really had one overall semester-long project. I have thought about doing that, and I haven’t done it yet. That could be something I do next spring. If we’re back in pandemic-ville, I may revise things completely again, just because why not?

Rebecca: I’m thinking about ungrading in the realm of, in the design world, doing sprints, so doing one project that builds on it, but having really distinct chunks that you get feedback on and can keep revising all semester. And so it definitely is in that same spirit. So I’ve been wrestling with how to completely implement that.

Susan: Well, I think in a skills-based discipline, there are certainly skills that you need to try and not be good at it first and then get better at. And that’s how we learn anything real. And it seems obvious to me now that punishing people for not knowing at the beginning is the wrong thing to do. So, having only the final product evaluated seems appropriate to me. But I know design… there are some things that people might all agree on, but there are other things that people don’t all agree on. And that’s true of real life. That’s one reason that a single scale of grading is such a distortion of how we really live our lives. People might make a movie and some critics love it, and some critics don’t love it. And to pretend that there’s a uniform single scale is to deny most of our actual experience outside school.

John: One of the things you mentioned in terms of international students is that they often underestimate the quality of their work. You also mentioned in your recording for the Pedagogies of Care project that some underrepresented groups in particular disciplines often experience the same problem. And we had a podcast recording related to that a while back that talked about how women and underrepresented minorities did as well in their introductory STEM classes, but they were more likely to drop out because they didn’t perceive the quality of the work as being sufficiently high. And that served as a major barrier. And I’m wondering how you address the issues of students who undervalue what they’ve learned or underestimate the amount of learning they’ve achieved. When you’re meeting with students and providing feedback and they undervalue their work, how do you address that with them?

Susan: Well, that’s where I’m grading is so perfect, because I can have a conversation. I have these short individual meetings with every student at least twice a semester. And I can say to them, especially if mid semester they say this isn’t very good, because I’m not smart or my grammar’s bad or I didn’t do this before or something, I can say to them face to face, or at least it used to be face to face, I can say, this was extraordinary. I loved what you did, this was such a contribution. So, I can just personally affirm their value and say, you might be focusing on this, but also notice this wonderful thing. And because also, students are constantly interacting in my classes, the students who may have fewer privileges coming in may get a lot of affirmation also from their classmates for their offerings. They may be quiet, they may not be willing to speak, but I try to make people comfortable, at least in small groups or pairs or something, so that they can make their contributions. So, I think it’s less of a problem when people can actually reflect and get comments back. Also, sometimes students exchange papers or exchange work, I tried to have an authentic audience, so that I’m not the sole audience so that people aren’t writing for me, but they’re writing maybe for real people. That’s something I’ve really tried to develop more. I think that when students read each other’s work, they tend, at my school anyway, to be very nice to each other. So they will get some kind of compliment. And I think then in that sense, there’s less of a potential for people to retain this idea that they are somehow deficient. But I also would like to say that schools can’t solve every problem. And teachers and classes, even the best, can’t solve every problem. And so we have broad racism and sexism, and ableism, and all kinds of other things in our society, and one particular teacher might make a difference, but these are really bigger questions that we need to address outside school also. As a professor, my realm is in my classroom, so I can try.

John: At the other side, what about the students who’ve come in who’ve read some material on the topic and have this fluency illusion where they perceive that they’ve learned it very well. I’m thinking of the Dunning-Kruger effect where the people with the lowest level of understanding often overestimate their competence the most. How do you address those issues?

Susan: I’m not so worried about that, really. I’ve had experiences like, that where students think that they’re kind of expert, and they’re not actually, but I don’t really see my role as like cutting down students’ confidence. I think there are enough forces out there trying to do that. So, I don’t really want to jump on the confidence destruction bandwagon, but I like to think that there will be some kind of real consequence where they will say something to somebody who knows more and that person will say,”Yeah, but X” or where they will interact with another student who will know more, and then the student who has this false sense of their own abilities will realize “Wow, I only noticed these three things and Julia noticed 25 things. I guess I have more room to grow as an ethnographer.”

John: This system, though, relies on intrinsic motivation. And you’ve mentioned using authentic assessments, also perhaps, to help build that. Could you describe some examples of authentic assessments that you use?

Susan: Sure. So in this linguistic anthropology class, one of the projects is in groups of three-ish, they have to create some kind of presentation about a particular language. So something they’ve heard of like Hindi, or something they haven’t heard of, like, I don’t know, Tzelta or something like that. And I give them some things they are supposed to include, but the form is completely open. So, I’ve had infographics, I’ve had lots of websites, I’ve had PowerPoint things. And one time, it worked really great… and I’m in this weird classroom that I like with a bunch of screens. The room is imperfect but they’re five screens around the room. And so I happen to have 10 groups that year. So the students plugged in their laptops and the other half of the students circulated and listened to the students as they were talking about their project. And then on these whiteboards that were next to the screens, they were writing praise, questions, suggestions and different kinds of questions. They had to figure out what kind of question it was: Was it a kind of application question? a factual question? or something like that. And the students really loved that project, because everybody saw what everybody did. And the assessment was basically peer generated. It was: “I liked this image.” “This was a really clear presentation,” or “I didn’t really understand what you meant here.” And so that’s assessment. It doesn’t look like assessment. It doesn’t say good and bad, but it’s getting feedback about what you’re doing that you can take with you. So if somebody says, “I couldn’t read the italic font,” next time, presumably they won’t read the italic font. But they’ve had 30, some people responding to their work, which is such excellent feedback, and so much more useful and meaningful than me just sitting there with something and writing a few things.

Rebecca: I like that poster session model idea. It’s a lot of fun and I think students really do respond to peer feedback in that way. I know I’ve been really successful when I’ve done class sessions that are like that poster session or fair-like atmosphere with those same kinds of categories to fill out, I think, is really super helpful. I’ve had really good experiences with that, too.

Susan: One of the things we’re all thinking about is how to translate all this physical stuff online. And you can. Like this past semester, that project ended up online. And so I had a Google Doc, where people were doing the same thing, and it worked fine. It wasn’t as fun as running around the room, but it was effective.

John: I’ve done the same thing the last couple of years in my econometrics class where students create posters, half of them present one day and half the next class day and I give a break, and a group of them can wander around and see the others on the days when they’re presenting, and I’ve invited members of my department. The Dean has come by in the past, and it’s been something they found so much more valuable than the PowerPoint presentations that they used to do, where they’d all be sitting there nervously, and then getting up and being glad to get through it, and then they’d sit there quietly waiting for the rest of them to be done. There’s so much more engagement when they’re up there presenting for the whole class period to anyone who happens to wander by. And it’s a form of a more authentic assessment, I think, that they value quite a bit.

Rebecca: …builds in more practice, too, because they’re talking about it multiple times. [LAUGHTER]

John: Yeah, having them talk for an hour about their project is much more effective than presenting to a silent audience much of the time. I liked it, they liked it, and they strongly encouraged that it continue.

Rebecca: So, we started talking a little bit about how to translate some of these things online. So, why is upgrading maybe particularly important to think about during this pandemic or in this transition to remote learning or the unknowns of the fall semester, as they currently stand? [LAUGHTER]

Susan: That’s a great question. We are in a very unpredictable moment. And every campus is trying to figure out what to do. The ones who are fully online have just made their claim, and so that’s a little bit more predictable at some level. The ones like mine that are committed to in-person except for exceptions or hybrid until we can’t do it anymore.

Rebecca: It’s a familiar story. [LAUGHTER]

Susan: Yeah. And I read everyday about what everybody around the country is doing. And we don’t really know. So anybody who is sticking to a rigid grading scheme is probably going to keep recalculating and recalibrating all semester long… if you’ve got participation, but then people lose their internet connection because they are stranded somewhere, then what do you do? Do you just have a different formula for that person? I think having precision in grading schemes has often been seen as equitable and comforting for students because it gives them security knowing what they’re going to do, but that presumes that you know what the conditions are going to be. I think, even in ordinary times, there are a lot of fallacies built into that and students’ conditions aren’t as uniform as we often assume they are. But, we know now during the pandemic, how widely and wildly variable people’s conditions are, and the New York Times has done stories about one student helping her family with a food truck and the other one is in the family second home in Maine, and there’s everything in between. There’s using the WiFi in the parking lot of the library or there’s using the WiFi in your beautiful six bedroom home. So the lack of uniformity just highlights all of the inequities and all of the unevenness of the conditions. So, if you’re sorting people, but they’re in wildly different conditions, you’re not actually doing a very good controlled experiment, and it’s certainly unequitable. Another dimension we should probably consider is that, in our current moment, everybody is experiencing some kind of stress and trauma. And the trauma-informed pedagogy is something that we all need to learn a lot more about. We know that one of the outcomes of grading in ordinary times (I don’t know what we’re going to end up calling this third condition) is that grades produce stress and pressure. Right now, with so many other stresses and pressures, we don’t really need grades to add to that. How we keep people accountable, how we keep them on track, how we keep them motivated, involved, connected to each other is really our challenge. And that’s what I think those of us who are really thinking about this are trying to spend every minute of the summer trying to figure out. But grading is not the best method for motivating people. So, I think that this is the perfect time to try ungrading.

Rebecca:So if we try ungrading, how would you recommend framing such things in our syllabi?

Susan: Well, I’ll tell you what I do. I have one sentence on my syllabus. My syllabus is not a contract. It’s not one of those punitive sort of legalistic syllabi. So, what we’re figuring out in this conversation is that everything is connected. But my syllabus has one sentence that says, “We will be practicing ungrading in this class, this will be explained.” And I begin most of the semester by having meaningful, enjoyable experiences where people are learning, and I don’t say it’s not graded, it’s just not graded. And then over weeks, I explain what oungrading is, and I show them this is what we’ve done, see how it works. And when I’m lucky, I have students who have had other classes with me and they can sort of support my claims that this is actually meaningful and they won’t just blow it off and they won’t just think it’s not important. I want to have an acknowledgement here before we end though that contingent faculty, graduate students, people of color, young women, people who are tenure track, people who are teaching lots and lots of classes, may not feel that they have the security to engage in something that’s unfamiliar. And it might be risky for some people. They may need to clear it with their chair or their Dean or somebody like that, who may say no, because it’s scary. That’s one of the reasons we’re trying to have this book so that a young contingent faculty member who really cares about pedagogy can say to the person who’s really holding their employment over their head, “Well, there’s research, too. Look at all these people who are doing it, they’ve done it, they’ve done it, okay, they’ve done it for years, and I would like to try it too. Can I try it in one class, maybe with a good outcome?” So, I don’t recommend starting from a completely conventional class last semester to a completely unconventional class online next semester. I think changing things bit by bit is probably the way to go.

Rebecca: I think that’s good solidI think that’s good solid advice, always: iterative practice with our classes. [LAUGHTER]

John: And you mean by that, perhaps, having some activities that are ungraded and then gradually expanding that as you become more comfortable and your department becomes more comfortable with that?.

Susan: I think that’s a great way of framing it. And it depends on the subject too. Some are much more amenable to ungraded, like writing or social science or something.

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

Susan: So, I’m part of a project called A Theory of Public Higher Education. It’s funded by Indiana University and the Society for Values in Higher Education and we are generating a theory of public higher education. We are going to be publishing our kind of manifesto. We’re finishing It this summer and fall, and it should be published next year. We’re very excited about that. It’s a group of six of us from all different institutions teaching all different subjects. It’s really led us to rethink what is higher education from the foundation up. Another project that I’m also really excited about is called School Stories. And I’d love it if your listeners would give it a look. You can find it at schoolstorieslab.com. And it’s basically crowdsourcing experience stories about being in school. So, it can be students, teachers, parents, administrators, it can be from any place in the world, from any level of school. Our only condition is that you have to be 18 to write the story, because otherwise, we get into problems. But we just launched last week, and we have worked on our web design, and we’ve worked on our IRB, and we’ve worked on every dimension of this and we’re really excited about it. There’ll be a new theme every week; this past week, the theme was racism. So what are people’s experiences of racism in school? We have a whole COVID sort of shell and context for what we’re doing now. So, please check that out. And then my next other project is a book I was writing really well until the pandemic hit. It’s about how your education, it’s called Progress Report about my own transformation in teaching, but it’s on hold right now, because I don’t know what to say, exactly. [LAUGHTER] I’m in a profound process of rethinking right now. So, I will write that but I don’t know what it’s going to be now.

Rebecca: It does seem like COVID-19 has transformed us all. We’re just not sure how yet. [LAUGHTER]

Susan: Right? I mean, we’re living through what we all perceive simultaneously as a huge transformation.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for sharing some insight into ungrading. It’s been an interesting conversation, and hopefully, it’ll provoke people to think a little bit differently about their plans for the fall and in the future.

John: Yes, thank you. We’ve really enjoyed talking to you. And this is a topic we wanted to get on the podcast for quite a while. So when we saw your contribution to the Pedagogies of Care project, it was an ideal match.

Susan: Well, thank you so much for your great questions and your welcoming demeanor and for your own little contributions to how to think about teaching, which I’ve kind of taken notes on, and to our listeners. Good luck to you and we’ll get through this.

Rebecca: We hope

[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.

[MUSIC]

143. Pedagogies of Care: Creativity

Is creativity something you value in the work that students produce? In this episode, Natasha Haugnes and Martin Springborg join us to discuss ways to spark, motivate, and support creativity.

Natasha has served in faculty and curriculum development at the Academy of Art University and as an adjunct professor at the California College of the Arts. Martin is the Director of Teaching and Learning at Inver Hills Community College and Dakota County Technical College, Natasha and Martin both contributed to the Pedagogies of Care project and are two co-authors (with Hoag Holmgren) of Meaningful Grading: A Guide for Faculty in the Arts.

Show Notes

  • Haugnes, N., Holmgren, H., & Springborg, M. (2018). Meaningful Grading: A Guide for Faculty in the Arts. West Virginia University Press.
  • Pedagogies of Care
  • Haugnes, N., & Russell, J. L. (2016). Don’t Box Me In: Rubrics for Àrtists and Designers. To Improve the Academy, 35(2), 249-283.
  • Haugnes, N., & Russell, J. L. (2008, 2014) “What do Students Think of Rubrics? Summary of survey results: Student Perceptions of Rubric Effectiveness
  • Sawyer, R. K. (2011). Explaining creativity: The science of human innovation. Oxford university press.
  • Deci, E. L. (1972). Intrinsic motivation, extrinsic reinforcement, and inequity. Journal of personality and social psychology, 22(1), 113.
  • Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (2001). Extrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivation in education: Reconsidered once again. Review of educational research, 71(1), 1-27.
  • Inoue, A. B. (2015). Antiracist writing assessment ecologies: Teaching and assessing writing for a socially just future. WAC Clearinghouse.
  • Nilson,. Linda (2019). Specifications Grading. Tea for Teaching podcast. August 21.
  • Tharp, Twyla (2006). The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life. Simon & Schuster
  • Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT)

Transcript

John: Is creativity something you value in the work that students produce? In this episode, we discuss ways to spark, motivate, and support creativity.

[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 Natasha Haugnes and Martin Springborg. Natasha has served in faculty and curriculum development at the Academy of Art University and as an adjunct professor at the California College of the Arts. Martin is the Director of Teaching and Learning at Inver Hills Community College and Dakota County Technical College, Natasha and Martin both contributed to the Pedagogies of Care project and are two co-authors (with Hoag Holmgren) of Meaningful Grading: A Guide for Faculty in the Arts. Welcome Natasha and Martin.

Natasha: Good to see you. Yay.

Martin: Thanks for having us.

John: Our teas today are:

Martin: I’m drinking coffee this morning.

Rebecca: Always… Always the rebels.

Natasha: Well, I had my two cups of coffee and now I’m on to Wild Sweet Orange Tea…

Rebecca: That sounds good.

Natasha: … and it’s delicious. Yeah.

Rebecca: I have iced Scottish afternoon tea

Natasha: Afternoon? Huh…

John: And I am drinking Tea Forte Black Currant Tea. We’ve invited you here today to discuss Natasha’s contribution to the Pedagogies of Care project and your joint work on Meaningful Grading in the Arts. Natasha, could you start by telling us a little bit about your contribution to the project?

Natasha: Sure. “Nurturing the ‘aha moment’” is the topic of the video made. And it was based on one of the tips in the meaningful grading book that I co-authored with Martin and Hoag. This video focuses on the “aha moment,” or that moment of insight in the creative process, and how to really nurture students and invite them into that moment. I focused on the “aha moment,” which could also be called the moment of insight in the creative process because it really is associated with kind of joy and happiness and magic. And there are a lot of cultural myths around insight and creativity in general, but especially these magic moments. People think they come out of the blue, that they’re come down from God, that they’re somehow related to some innate ability. And research shows us, and people who are creative practitioners know, that this is not entirely true. So, I just decided to kind of hone in on that moment. In my work at the Academy of Art University, I have worked with a lot of students and a lot of instructors who are often drawn to creative fields because of the joy and they really want to engage in that, the joy of the creative process. But then when the students get to school, and when the new instructors come to teach, they often get really drained. And they find that there’s so much hard work and there’s so much stress in the classrooms, even in things like painting and graphic design and moviemaking classes, students seem to get really rundown, and they don’t connect with those moments of joy. So, this results in frustration. At my own school, we were seeing pretty high dropout rates of students at a certain point and I actually ended up working with at-risk students in my role as the Resource Center Director at the Academy of Art University many years ago, and that taught me a lot about working with students and engaging them in their creative process. A lot of the students I worked with, they were sent to me by an instructor who would say “This student is just not engaging. They’re really sloppy in their work. They’re really lazy. They’re not putting the time in.” And when I talk to those students, I would find patterns that really ultimately meant that they weren’t understanding their creative process. They were doing things like brainstorming a whole bunch of ideas, and then trying to finish one, but then getting distracted and thinking, “Ah, I’m going down the wrong path, I’m going to do this other project, I need to take this other approach…,” and they would go down another path, and then they would abandon that path, and they would take yet another approach and pretty soon it’s time to go to class and the project they’re presenting for critique looks like it was done at the last minute. Again, this is really frustrating for the student and the instructor. And I realized I needed to learn a lot more about the creative process in order to work with these students and help them connect to that joy, help them understand how the hard work connects with the joy, and help the teachers understand how the hard work connects with the joy. I think it’s really imperative that our faculty understand creative process and define it so we can teach it to our students. And this is especially important for students whose livelihood depends on creativity, like a game designer, a graphic designer, even an illustrator can’t just go to work and hope that insight comes, they need to learn how to have some control over that, not only for their own work, but just so that they continue to enjoy what they’re doing.

John: It sounds like part of the problem is that people think that creativity is just something that people either have or don’t have, and they don’t see that it involves a process that includes a lot of work. What types of things can we do to nurture students in making the connection between the work that they do and that aha moment to get them to that point, so that we don’t lose them on the way.

Martin: One thing that I talk about quite frequently with faculty, no matter their discipline, but especially in the creative fields, and one thing that we go back to quite a few times in Meaningful Grading, is rewarding failure and grading process versus grading that final product. If you value the development of a creative process and you value your students diving into the waters that they’re sort of murky, they cannot be afraid to do that. And at the same time, they should also be aware that you’re rewarding that effort and their engagement and what can be kind of a scary process for them, especially if they consider themselves non-artists or unable to do art because they don’t have some innate knowledge of it. So, as you develop grading systems, making sure to work into those grading systems those things that you truly value about that process and about your course.

Natasha: I think it’s really crucial. And something that I try to point out in the videos is breaking it down, scaffolding the process for them, breaking it down into small accomplishable steps and explaining to them: “No, this is not creativity, this is not your whole project. This is what you need to do now. And here’s what you need to do, and you need to put the work in to do it. And then you can move on to the next step.” I think that’s really important, and it’s just really important for the instructors to do that. We often have the overview, we understand the process, we have faith that they’re going to get there, but the students don’t, necessarily, and so that’s kind of what leads to those patterns of procrastination that we see with the students who aren’t doing so well. They put things off, they don’t understand the importance of that early hard work that you really have to just put in in order to get the payoff at the end.

Rebecca: What are some ways that you recommend building in experimentation or risk taking into the grading system? Because those are often things that we value in creative fields, but are harder things or things that we don’t always build into our evaluation systems. We might focus more on the principles of design or something technical, [LAUGHTER] because those are easy to measure.

Natasha: You’re a graphic designer, aren’t you, Rebecca?

Rebecca: I am. [LAUGHTER]

Natasha: I think graphic design is actually a really great example of a place where you can get really bogged down with rules, right? I mean, you can approach graphic design almost as a mathematician and just kind of go “ka-chink, ka-chink, ka-chink, ka-chink, ka-chink” and you can create stuff that follows the rules, but doesn’t really have a lot of creativity to it. And I guess one piece of advice, this goes to a recommendation that I’ve included in the video, but really simplifying criteria. Again, if you can break down the steps and have each step just be assessed on one or two criteria, that allows students to kind of say, “Okay, I’ve met the goal, now I can do what I want. I’ve done what that teacher needs to see, [LAUGHTER] and I’m going to pass, and now I can really play with it.” In some research that I did with a colleague of the Academy of Art University quite a while ago, we did this big study, twice actually, called “Student Perceptions of Rubric Effectiveness.” We found a common pattern in students’ responses, the students that really liked the rubrics said that they liked the rubrics because it told them exactly what they did have to do. And then once they checked off all those boxes, they could just run with it, and that was very freeing to them. We can talk later that a rubric is not always perceived that way, for some students, it kind of acts like a creative constraint. But, I think if we can keep the criteria to a minimum, that can allow students to know what they have to do and then have fun with it.

John: One of the things I noticed in reading through your book, and also in what you were just talking about in terms of giving stories scaffolding, is so much of the advice that you give could apply in pretty much any discipline. While your focus is on the arts, students don’t have the same expertise that we do. And the tasks that they’re facing are much more challenging and require much more processing. And they don’t always come in with that growth mindset. Much of what you’re talking about basically, is how to help students move from this binary view that they’re either good at it or they’re not to recognizing that learning is work, and that they can get better as they develop. And it was nice to see how closely this was aligned to the advice we try to give in so many disciplines.

Natasha: I totally agree, John, and actually I was in a conference at the University of Missouri where they actually viewed this video, and the person who was facilitating the workshop that I was lucky enough to be able to attend from the comfort of my own home office here, she’s a scientist, and she actually put up a map of the scientific method and said, this is the creative process and this is not the exclusive domain of artists and designers by any stretch of the imagination. So, I love having those cross-disciplinary conversations. I actually teach writing and ESL, and so I see some crossover there. I guess I’m just reluctant to offer a lot more advice to teachers of physics and math and economics and things like that, simply because I don’t have as much experience with those instructors. I’ve been exclusively art and design skills for a really long time. Martin, maybe you can speak to that. You have a lot more majors at your colleges.

Martin: Especially in those foundational courses, you’d certainly get students coming in at a variety of levels. So, they have past experiences, or they don’t, and those with past experiences sometimes come in with quite a bit of knowledge or experience in the arts. So, they’ve had a lot of high school experience, for example, that puts them at a different level than the other students in your class that are truly beginners and don’t have any prior experience and consider themselves very much non artists. So, one thing that’s important to do, just getting to the practical here, if you’re in an arts course teaching at that foundational level… or really going back to your comments about this crosses disciplines, no matter what discipline you’re in, if you’re teaching that foundational level course, getting everybody at that same base level at the beginning. Purely speaking from past experience here on this one point, I taught photography for about 20 years. And in my intro courses, I would frequently have students come in that had high school experience, and they had learned something and could demonstrate that thing. But, at the same time, they learned it in a, I’m not going to say the wrong way, but in a bad way. They picked up some poor practices from their previous education in that, and so you have to make an effort to untrain that a little bit and get them to that same process that you want everybody to engage in, at that very beginning level. So, that step and that effort also makes those students who are truly coming in as beginners and don’t have any previous experience realize that “Oh, yeah, this is something that I actually have to learn and that everybody has to learn and these students who come in with previous knowledge, it’s not just some inherent skill or ability that they have in the arts. Another thing that I found really helpful, in sort of leveling the playing field and making it apparent to those truly beginning students, is using my past beginning students who have come into my courses with no experience, using their products as exemplars when I’m talking about how I want somebody to do something. So, if I’m talking about an assignment, I’m using examples from, and I’m pointing out the fact that these students came in from like, say, they’re nursing students or their automotive students, or this student came in with zero knowledge, and this is the thing that they produced, and it’s actually an ideal example of what I want you to produce in this assignment. So, using that, and going back to those examples shows those students who come in as true non-native or true beginners, that that level of achievement is possible.

John: I think that was an interesting point, too, that also shows up in other fields. I know people teaching computer science often will note that it’s much easier to teach people who are true beginners than those who had been self taught or perhaps picked up something in a course, where perhaps not an optimal pathway was given to them. The importance of unlearning things, perhaps, or breaking down the structures that people have and replacing them with stronger structures, can be as much of a barrier as people who are struggling just to get to that initial level. And that I imagine is particularly true in the arts.

Martin: Yeah. And going back to what I mentioned earlier about valuing process, maybe they do produce a product, that’s roughly the same result, like if they come up with the same result, but the process that they engaged in to get to there is so much more complicated and convoluted than what you’re trying to get everybody to engage in. So, they do need to go back and learn process. They do need to be at that same level as everybody else in your course.

John: One of the issues that often comes up in discussing creative fields is the importance of intrinsic motivation. Could you elaborate a bit on how we can help develop intrinsic motivation for students in these fields?

Martin: So, another thing that we talk about or that we bring up in Meaningful Grading frequently is the building of a community in an arts classroom and how important that is. That community is the intrinsic motivator. For example, if you make that a primary goal of yours in a course, you would then grade heavy on participating in that community at the beginning, knowing full well that the goal you have is to make that a more intrinsic reward for students and to back off on the grading or drop it all together, that participation component. So, that they not only learned that after they leave your course and after they leave an arts program that an arts community is vital. Like you can’t develop work in some sort of vacuum. As an artist, you have to be engaging with others, but also within your course, it’s just showing them and it’s creating that intrinsic value. Like, what’s bringing me back to this class day after day is not the grades that I’m getting from my instructor, but the vast resource that I have in these 30 other classmates that are able to give me feedback and support. And that also show me what they’re working on… that give and take. So, that’s one example of building in that intrinsic value.

Natasha: Correct me if I’m wrong, Martin, but a huge part of that community is critique. It’s critique discussions, right?

Martin: Exactly, hours and hours of it.

NATASHSS: …and helping students to understand that just getting that conversation, it doesn’t even have to be feedback, but a conversation, and engaging people to talk about your work does build intrinsic motivation. That’s the big payoff that we’re working towards.

Martin: And if you don’t have that tight community in that class, when you get to the middle or the end of that class, when you really want students to be engaging honestly in critique, it’s going to be like pulling teeth. You have to foster that community so that students feel comfortable, that they can open up, they can give opinions about other’s work, and accept opinions about their own work.

Natasha: I kind of want to get into a little bit of that intrinsic/ extrinsic motivation research. And I guess one of the things that got me into this field, and my obsession with grading and creativity, which people kind of look at me and they say “You talk about grading in art school, shame on you.” But the thing that was so confusing for so many of these at-risk students that I worked with before was they were engaging in those conversations, or they thought they were, with their instructor and their instructor would say things like, “Yeah, you know, you’re doing great, keep going.” And that can mean “Keep going. You got to keep working. ] 3 handclaps] But you’re not there yet.” But the student was hearing it as “Yeah, I’ve done it. Good enough.” Right? And so that student would say, “I got a D+, I don’t understand. Like, what’s going on? The teacher likes me…” or “the teacher said I was doing great.” And so they weren’t able to suss out the actual evaluation in those conversations, especially these new students. So, this is where it is so important to actually have grading systems that align with those conversations and that reflect those conversations. Keith Sawyer, he is like the creativity guru who I follow. He’s amazing. He wrote this book called Explaining Creativity. And there are a couple of pages in this book, Explaining Creativity, where he does essentially a synopsis of all the research on the effects of reward and grading on creativity. And there’s some things that we can look at here that are kind of important… that yes, we can extinguish intrinsic motivation with grades, we can do it by giving As for everyone. We can do it by just throwing grades that are completely unconnected to the actual conversations we’re having in class. And we can do it when we grade students and use a whole lot of really judgmental language and convey that judgment. That will all really decrease intrinsic motivation and creativity. But a lot of that early research on intrinsic-extrinsic motivation goes back to the Edward Deci studies, I believe, and he actually did more work on this later. And there’s a more nuanced conclusion that he came to later that when grades and rewards are perceived as information, when these grades and rewards are based on the quality of work that students are turning in, that can actually enhance creativity, and it can really build intrinsic motivation. But even when you’re using grades well, they shouldn’t be emphasized too much. This is the conversation that I often had in faculty development when I was working with new teachers. Oh, come to class, you’ll get five points. Five Points, that’s not why you come to class. You should not be coming to class to get the five points; you should be coming to class because the conversations are important. That’s why we want you here… and just changing the script in how we talk about grades. You need to have a grading system that has a lot of integrity. But, we should not be banging that over our students’ heads all the time, it should be kind of in the background just running along in the background. And what we communicate to students is the intrinsic rewards of all the work that we’re having them do.

Martin: And that’s why your grading system has to transform a little bit over the course of a semester, going back to that grading heavily on participation at the beginning of the course, where you have to get the students to the course to participate in the beginning for them to realize that there’s value in those conversations. If nobody shows up, they aren’t going to have conversations, but then that can change and it can evolve over the 16 weeks or 10 weeks or whatever length your course is.

Natasha: Yeah, and there are those students who really do care about grades I find in art and design school, there’s a certain subset of students who really don’t care, and that’s fine. And so they’re kind of on their own path, and they’re often doing well. But there are those students who really care and there are the students who are on the verge of failing out of school so they have to care. And I find that just understanding that, instructors need to leverage that knowledge to convince students to do stuff that we want them to do… that we know will do them good anyway, right? So if I say, “Okay, you’re going to be really a grade grubber… you want an A do these things,” and they’re the things that they need to do anyway. It’s a way of kind of tricking them into doing what we want. If you’re grading what’s important in your course, it’s going to work out, it’s going to work out for the students who really care about the grades, for the ones who don’t as much, hopefully, they’ll just be intrinsically motivated to understand why they need to engage. But grading what’s important is really crucial in that, I think.

Rebecca: One of the things we’ve talked a bit about is scaffolding and helping provide structures. So if we were to provide structure for faculty who are thinking about the idea of building a grading system that has the values that we’re talking about, things that really they care about or are important to their class, what are some of the steps you would recommend they go through to actually develop that system so it actually does reflect the values that they want?

Natasha: Well, [LAUGHTER] my answer to that is it’s ultimately working towards a rubric. And again, that can be kind of a bad word. I’m the one who’s been walking around the art and design school for 25 years saying, “Let’s build rubrics. And let’s do normings.” And I had a photography teacher tell me one time “Natasha, you gotta understand when you say “norming” to an artist, I mean, that’s like death, you know?” So I’m like, “Ah, sorry.”

Martin: There’s a reason why we don’t have assessment in the title of our book.

Natasha: Yes.

Martin: That was on purpose.

Natasha: It was by design. Absolutely. For the really grade-averse instructors, I start with a conversation. And I usually start with grading because that’s a really good entryway. And I’ll just say, “What are you teaching? And what does that look like? And what does it look like when a student does it? And what does it look like when a student doesn’t do it?” And really, that’s where you start. And then I think the next step is really getting real student work in front of this instructor or this department or this cohort of instructors who are teaching the same course… different sections of the same course. They need to look at the student work and they need to say, “Well, yeah, that one meets the criteria for this course that doesn’t.” Why? Why not? Having those conversations, that’s like the best investment that I think any department or any instructor can make into really focusing their teaching and to improving assessment is just think about how you’re making what you teach visible. And then what does it look like when it’s acceptable and when it’s not acceptable, when it meets the goals and when it doesn’t meet the goals? And then it just moves on from there. And if what you think is important, the quality of the color print in your poster, or the resolution on your screen of your logo, or whatever the heck you’re talking about, it might be process. So again, what does that look like? Well, I want to know that they’re listening to the feedback and really taking it in. Well, how can we make that visible? Maybe I have them do a little recording or do a short paper saying here’s all the feedback I heard, and here’s how I responded. “Joey told me I should change the concept, but I didn’t like that idea because…, so I’m not going with that…” and actually have them make that thought process visible. So, it takes some, again, creativity on the part of the instructor in the field of the teaching and learning. But usually, if there’s something really important that you’re teaching, you can have a way to make it visible and figure out what you’re looking for. And what does it look like when there’s evidence that the student has done what you need them to do? And what does it look like when that evidence is not there yet?

John: I usually meet with new faculty and generally ask them what would they like to see workshops on and, about six or seven years ago, one thing that was requested was a workshop on evaluating creative work. So I reached out and we got four people from different departments. We had someone from art, someone from music, someone from theatre, and someone from English. And they put together a presentation of how they evaluate creative work. And one thing that was in common was they all used rubrics, and they all talked about how there are certain fundamental skills or processes that students have to follow. And that’s what they embed in the rubrics and it surprised a lot of people in STEM fields who were attending because they were much less clear about what they were expecting from students and They expected something that would be much less well defined. And so one of the things they also emphasized, and you’ve talked about is that it’s telling students exactly what they’re expected to do and what types of things they need to demonstrate in the work before they can embellish on that. And that was a really important feature in all of their discussions, the same arguments show up in your book. That surprised many people outside of the creative fields.

Natasha: Oh, those are my tribe. That warms my heart to hear that, John. That’s exciting, yeah.

Martin: One of the added benefits of using rubrics is that time saved as well. Faculty time is a precious commodity. And if you can convince them or just show them how much time will be saved by simply having that rubric available, and using it as a guide, as you’re going through the assignments that are piled on their desk, it’s a convincing argument.

Rebecca: So, we talked a lot about building in values into our evaluation system. Can you talk about some of the things we should avoid doing.

Martin: I can speak to that a little bit. So, one thing that I’ve seen a lot of arts faculty members do… from a student perspective. So, coming up through the arts, one thing I’ve seen a lot of, and heard stories about, is the instructors bringing their personal bias, their own career and background, and that subjectivity in general, to the process of evaluating student work. So I’ve heard some pretty bad horror stories about that. For example, I’ll just go into one story quickly because I think just every faculty member who’s hearing this should know that this is never something that you want to repeat. So all the work, as you can imagine, all the prints, lining the board during critique and the instructor just, without words, just going across the board, pulling work down and throwing it out the window. Like if he doesn’t like it, right… if it doesn’t meet his criteria, which are a mystery, by the way…

NATASHAS: I’ve been in those classrooms. I’ve seen that.

Martin: Tell non-arts people about these stories, and they’re like, “no.” Yeah, it really happened. So remembering that you got to check your personal bias and your personal preference for art at the door and rely a lot on, or more on, having students engage in self evaluation, like did they feel like, and how do they feel like, they have made this, or communicated this, through their work, this issue that they think is important through their work. And if it doesn’t, like if you’re not understanding, then engage in a conversation about it. Like how they feel they’re getting there and where you think they’re not getting there. So using that as a starting point instead of your own, “I am the authority on art, and this is why this does not work.” That’s a huge demotivator.

Rebecca: I think one of those biases that a lot of faculty might bring to the door, is the history of white art created by white individuals.

Martin: This is the history of art, it’s all white male.

Rebecca: If students are creating their work from different cultural perspectives, and the faculty member is not up to speed on other cultural perspectives, we’re enforcing essentially a white supremacist point of view and system. So how do we engage in those moments in a way that’s productive, especially if we don’t understand the cultural background that something is based on?

Martin: Yeah, if students can’t place themselves in the history that you’re talking about, you’re referring to, how are they to imagine themselves in that world in the future?

Natasha: I’m gonna offer just one little tip here because yes, I hear you, Rebecca, and we see it everywhere in the overwhelming influence and sort of self-perpetuation of the white colonialist culture, even in our art classes. Something that we found when we did our rubrics research was that students, in general, really love rubrics, it helps guide their work. But what they really loved… even more than the grid of language… was samples, examples of work, examples of work that span the quality. Here’s an example of something where somebody tried really hard but they didn’t quite hit the mark. Here’s some examples of passing work. Here’s some examples of work that really hits it out of the park. And it’s really important not to have one example, especially in a creative field, because what happens then? The students who are not very competent will copy. Here’s an opportunity to allow for many different interpretations and really show those to your students. Consider using student work from previous semesters from a diverse range of students with diverse content. And that gives students something to connect to, it helps them see themselves in the class, it helps them understand that you, as an instructor, see them and value them. And that even though you have these criteria, there are many ways to reach those goals and reach those marks, those criteria that you’re putting out.

John: And so, by including a range of examples too, from different genres or different approaches, so that it does not become just a Western culture, perhaps. In recent podcasts we’ve done with Kevin Gannon, for example, he talked about decolonizing your syllabus and just suggesting that when you’re putting together your syllabus or searching for examples or exemplars, you could just do a little Google search on decolonize your [insert subject matter here] syllabus, and you can often find some good discussions of that with some good resources that you can build in.

Natasha: Yeah.

Martin: Yeah.

Natasha: This is incredibly important. In my work at California College of the Arts, there’s a very active group of instructors. They’re working on decolonizing the classroom, anti-racism, anti-racist pedagogies, and I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been in teaching there. I haven’t been there for a very long time. But I guess there’s a book called Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future by Asao Inoue. And he speaks quite a lot about assessment. And the point he makes about assessment is he says, in order to really decolonize your classroom, we need to be careful how we talk about quality, because quality so often is really culturally loaded. It’s so loaded that it is really hard for us to even untangle what we see and what we look for. And as a response to that, he really emphasizes grading on labor, grading on the work. And this, again, relates to some of the topics that are in this little video I put together although I don’t really call it this by telling students and taking all that quality judgment away from your rubric and from your assessment and just saying, create 50 of these things, [make 50 taglines, make 50 photographs, write five different thesis statements for your paper or write five different opening lines for your paper and just do that. And that’s the way of just asking for labor. You’re just saying do this work and it doesn’t have to look a certain way or be a certain way. But if you just put some effort into this, you will do well. This is a way of assessing work that actually pans out much better for students of color, students from cultures that are not traditionally represented very well in the faculty at colleges and university. So this is something I’ve been really taking to heart a lot. And in my writing class, I’ve actually, at CCA, where I teach freshmen composition to non-native English speakers, everything is graded on pass not passing yet. And so that really emphasizes the labor. If they’re not passing yet, the implication in that not passing yet grade is that you will do it again. Just do it again. Do it again. Nope, still not quite right, do it again. There have been a few students who have redone their essays four or five times, and it’s painful. But wow, they learn… they learn. And again, the trick is in not having five pages of criteria, but having a pretty narrow band of criteria that we’re looking for here that doesn’t get really niggly about the quality.

John: It sounds like it’s a specification grading system that you’re using. And it’s also building in something much more explicit than the “keep going” message that can be misinterpreted. So giving students the opportunity to try something to not quite get there, but to encourage them to continue working on it more explicitly than perhaps students always hear.

Natasha: And I’m glad you mentioned specifications grading, Linda Nilson has been a huge influence on the way I think about teaching and grading. She’s got a lot of really good thoughts out there for sure.

Rebecca: One of the things that’s really easy to evaluate is something that’s technical that has a right or wrong answer. How do we evaluate in a rubric format, things that are more qualitative, like the amount of experimentation or risk taking or other things that we might value in terms of creativity? Can you give us a concrete example?

Natasha: Actually, we have a a whole tip in our book about risk taking. There’s some really interesting ideas about ways you can really force students into making some mistakes and talking about them. There’s so much that comes up that seems, at first, like it’s going to be really hard to describe it in a rubric. But again, if we just get instructors and people who teach these disciplines together, talking about things, usually they can come up with something much more concrete, even if it’s not a cut and dry technical skill. Concept is one and I have some examples of like before and after for rubric wording. And often when we first write out a rubric, we might use some really sloppy language like “The concept is sloppy. It’s lazy. It just doesn’t work.” That just doesn’t work, right? [LAUGHTER] And so that might be the first draft. But then you start looking at some student work and talk with your colleagues. And you’ll find some more precise language will come out. Often when we talk about concept… I’m talking about the context of maybe an advertising campaign. But the concept is predictable. That’s a concept that is not acceptable is predictable. It’s the first thing that comes to mind when people think of this product. So, that is not a good concept. So there you go. Now we’ve made something a lot more understandable to the students and to the instructors when they’re using this rubric to grade later. And it can help you move forward in a way that that judgmental language won’t. It just makes the students feel bad. It makes the teachers frustrated, because we’re like, “Oh, it just doesn’t work.” But actually taking the time to look again at a range of work that doesn’t meet or that does meet the expectations for this thing that seems really nebulous at first usually you can manage to articulate it, and if you can’t, then maybe that’s not something you’re actually teaching in your class and maybe that’s outside of what you’re assessing. This is another tip that we come up with quite often. I think oftentimes instructors who fear grading, they think that they need to grade the art and you can’t grade art. No, you can’t grade art. You can’t say Picasso was better than Twyla Tharp. You can’t compare people and grade artists in a holistic way. Your grades should be based on what you’re teaching, and the objectives for your class. And we can communicate to our students, this is what we’re looking at here. You’ve also done this other stuff really well, but in our class, we’re really looking at this, so this is what your grade is based on. And that’s a really important factor in this whole endeavor, as well. One other little trap, I think, that faculty members can fall into when we talk about assessing grading or assessing creative work is that when we sit down to write our criteria out often the first thing we want to talk about is that incredible piece that that student two years ago did, it was amazing. It was mind blowing, it was so good and students need to see this and you get into those conversations. And that’s fun to talk about with your colleagues and you pull up that student’s work. And you talk about how great they were and what they’re doing now. Yes, that work should be shared with other students, that’s exciting. We have to celebrate those moments. But for the student in the middle of the pack in your class who’s kind of struggling, we need to think about what’s acceptable. That’s why it’s really important to really focus on that line between what meets expectations and what doesn’t meet expectations, because there are some students that just really need to work on that. [LAUGHTER] There are others that are going to blast through that and do really great things, but the ones that need our help are usually the ones that are hovering around that middle area.

Rebecca: So, we’ve talked a lot about rubrics and grading and evaluation, kind of assuming that we’re living in a perfect little world in some ways. But as we all know, right now, in this moment in time, there’s a lot of extra stress of COVID-19, protests related to Black Lives Matter, and any numerous other health things that are coming up because of COVID-19, remote learning. [LAUGHTER] All of these things, there’s lots going on. And so students are under more stress than normal. Students are often under a lot of stress, but this is like extra stress. So in these moments, what are ways that we can help promote creativity and also help our students really feel supported and being able to learn whether they’re on this point in the spectrum or they’re finding being creative really therapeutic and helpful, and all the way to students who just feel like they’re frozen because there’s so many things going on in the world, they feel like they can’t move forward.

Martin: I think now is a great time to be engaging students in creative process. It’s what gets us unfrozen. I’m speaking purely from my location at a Community and Technical College. If we can get students to engage in those often elective courses outside of their major or area of focus that allow them the opportunity to dive into those things that they are feeling a lot of stress about or anxiety about. It helps students be more successful in those courses that they do have to get through as a matter of course for their program of study.

Natasha: Oh, boy, these are hard times. I think, just most immediately from the video, the nurturing the aha moment, I think that it’s even more important than ever to break down our projects into small steps and help make those steps really kind of distinct from each other. I think that’s something that’s happening for students now, and for us, is we’re sitting and we’re staring at the screen all day long and it can become this big blob of existence where one thing bleeds into the other. And if we can really make the steps a little bit distinct, including a few steps where the students just disengage from all social media and anything online where they can actually be alone, without all of the electronic stimulation. I think those are things that can really help nurture their creativity. And also just I think there’s this funny paradox right now that we’re all alone. We’re all isolated. And yet, if you’re sitting there on your TikTok and Instagram and all day long you’re connected and that can be really, really stressful… and so convincing students to take a break from that, telling them we’re going through another step now. [LAUGHTER] And keeping things again really simple so that they can have that opportunity to use what we’re doing in our classes as a springboard to express themselves. Encourage them to incorporate what’s going on in their own life into the work that we’re doing, including examples and acknowledgments of what’s going on in the world. Really important. And it’s a fine line. I’ve just talked about this with my co teacher about how we’re going to be discussing Black Lives Matter, the latest George Floyd protests, and the Black Lives Matter protests, and the defund the police protests with our students who are mostly from Mainland China. Where do we even begin with that discussion? How do we do that without completely stressing them out, but also using it as an opportunity to feed their curiosity and acknowledge their own stress around these issues? So we need to let them know that we’re a safe space for everybody to engage and really help them break down things into small packages and celebrate their achievements. And again, let them keep working if they’re not quite there yet. Let them do it again. Let them do it again, let them do it again, I found myself being very forgiving on deadlines,

Martin: We also have to help faculty realize that they’re safe to engage in those redesigns and those conversations, and that comes from at that administrative level, engaging this at a college or institutional level. So that you aren’t leaving faculty to figure this out on their own. At my two colleges, for example, we have this new initiative that will run all the way through next year, and actually, for the next three years, probably called Equity by Design. And so we’re starting with a team comprised of administrators, directors, faculty, helping each other understand what this effort is going to be at a college level.

Rebecca: One of the things that you’ve both emphasize is kind of these small steps. And I think a small step for an expert might be different than a small step for a beginner. [LAUGHTER] Can we just take a minute or two to describe the differences between what an expert might think of as a small step and what might be in practice an actual a small step for a student.

Martin: One thing that we have been engaging in at my colleges is the TILT framework of Transparency in Learning and Teaching by Mary-Ann Winkelmes and her team. Mary-Ann came to one of our colleges in January and actually spoke and I’ve been facilitating communities of practice at both colleges on this topic this year. And in that work, there’s a realization as faculty review each other’s assignments and each other’s syllabi that you’re not starting at square one, you’re actually starting at square five, because we have to so often take a step outside of our disciplines to realize that, like you just said… So, what’s complex or complicated to one student is not for another and vice versa. So that transparency effort helps us to really outline the steps of an assignment, even those small steps. And so I’d encourage any family member struggling with whether or not to start at this point or that to review that transparency literature a little bit to engage with their colleagues, share assignments, and ask their colleagues whether or not they’re starting in the right place.

Natasha: That’s such a good question, Rebecca. The expert/novice thing is just something we grapple with all the time as instructors, especially if we’re teaching a new course… something that I’ve had to do in my own class… I was just thrown into a very new course for me a couple of years ago. And we did a new project on public service announcements this last semester, and I start something in class, I told the students “Now, choose a topic from this list of public service announcements that you’re going to create. And first thing you have to do is do some research. So let’s look at some websites.” And by having them do that in class and seeing what they come up with, I start to say, “Oh, right. [LAUGHTER]] They’re going to TikTok, you know, they’re going to these kind of places I didn’t even anticipate, and that allows me to then say, “Okay, I need to actually really scaffold this down.” I don’t want this to take two weeks of my time, I want them to find a credible source and then I ended up giving them a list of basically five places they should look. And you might say that is oversimplifying it, but again, this was just a step in the process of a larger PSA that they needed to make. So I needed to really like clamp that down. But I think if we can have students start in class and actually watch what they do, that gives us a lot of information about how big a step they’re willing to take on. And again, the little creative process chart that I put in the video that I created, I think a lot of creative practitioners, people who are really established, they’ve internalized this process, and they even don’t even want to put it on the line. They’re just like, “Oh, you bounce around, you know, you go back and forth and it’s not a linear thing.” And that’s not actually helpful to a new student who’s really nervous, who’s really stressed, who’s in school for the first time. They’re paying a ton of money to go to art school and their grandparents are really pissed because they should be an accountant. That’s intense. And so these students really need things broken down. And I think that just an awareness of our own expertise is a good starting point, and taking our cues from the students.

Rebecca: This has been really interesting. We always wrap up by asking what’s next? \

Natasha: What’s next, Martin? [LAUGHTER]

Martin: What’s next for me is to finish this book I’m working on with Cassandra Horii. We’ve been doing this project together for the past decade or so. I’ve been making photographs at colleges and universities across the country. We use those photographs that I make in classrooms in faculty teaching to help faculty think about their teaching practice. So we do this form of photo0based teaching consultation. So we’re putting those thousands of thousands of photographs together into a book. And we’re working with the same press that Natasha and I were with, West Virginia University Press, on that book. As far as my other life as an administrator in higher education, what’s next is figuring out what fall semester looks like. How are we engaging students? And in what space are we engaging them? Are courses going to be offered HyFlex, we don’t know? Are any courses going to be conducted face to face? Some of them have to be. You can’t teach arc welding at a distance. There’s some of that that has to be hands on. So figuring out exactly how we’re engaging students in this next phase is what’s next for me.

Natasha: I’m going really micro because these are really big questions. I’m going to keep working on the curriculum for my ESL class. I am now not in faculty development officially anymore at my university in an official role. My current role is that I coordinate and write the curriculum for one level of the English for non-native speakers at the Academy of Art University. And it’s exciting. So I’m working on actually integrating more of the anti-racist ecologies. I’m working on incorporating even more creative process readings and practices into my ESL course in the new zoom world, also really trying to figure out how to get students conversation practice in zoom. That’s the really tough one. So, I’m very much just kind of looking [LAUGHTER] about two feet in front of myself right now. And boy, as far as the bigger issues go, I don’t know. Let’s check in again in the fall. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I think that’s fair.

Natasha: This afternoon, I’m going to make a creative genealogy for myself. I’m making a creative family tree, because I’m having my students do this next week when we start class and I’m going to do it for myself as a sample for them and also just to see what it’s like to go through that process. So that’s actually been really fun. That’s my fun thing that I’m doing.

Rebecca: It’s all about balance.

Natasha: Yeah.

John: Well, thank you. This has been fascinating. I really enjoyed reading through your book, and I’ve enjoyed your contribution to the Pedagogies of Care, and it’s been really great talking to you. Thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you so much.

Natasha: John and Rebecca, it’s been a really fun conversation. Thanks so much for inviting us.

[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.

[MUSIC]

140. Pedagogies of Care: Nerd Edition

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

[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&hellip

John: &hellipand Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

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

Rebecca: Fair.

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

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

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

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

Jessamyn: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessamyn: Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessamyn: I know. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

Jessamyn: For sure. Yeah.

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

Jessamyn: That’s very, very true.

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

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

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

Jessamyn: Me too.

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

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

Jessamyn: Yeah, for sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: &hellipterrifying.

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Please tell us.

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

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

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

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

Jessamyn: Absolutely. Yes.

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

Jessamyn: Thank you so much for having me.

John: Thank you.

[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.

[MUSIC]

138. Pedagogies of Care: UDL

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many reflections on the future of higher education and what we value and prioritize as educators. This week we begin a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, Thomas J. Tobin joins us to discuss how the adoption of Universal Design for Learning principles can increase student motivation, engagement, and success. Tom is the author of Reach Everyone Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education and several other works related to teaching and learning. He is one of the contributors to the Pedagogies of Care project from the authors in the West Virginia University Press Teaching and Learning book series.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many reflections on the future of higher education and what we value and prioritize as educators. This week we begin a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, we discuss how the adoption of Universal Design for Learning principles can increase student motivation, engagement, and success.

[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&helliip;

John: &helliip;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 Thomas J. Tobin. Tom is the author of Reach Everyone Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education and several other works related to teaching and learning. He is one of the contributors to the Pedagogies of Care project from the authors in the West Virginia University Press Teaching and Learning book series. Welcome, Tom.

John: Welcome, Tom.

Tom: Thanks. I’m glad to be here, and thank you for inviting me.

John: Our teas today are:

Tom: I’m drinking decaf black tea as always, nothing added, nothing, taken away.

Rebecca: Sounds perfect. I’m drinking strawberry grapefruit green tea today.

John: And I’m drinking a peppermint tea. I’ve had a lot of caffeine today, so I’m watering it down a little bit. [LAUGHTER] We’ve invited you here to talk primarily about your work with the Pedagogies of Care project as well as your work with Universal Design for Learning. Could you tell us about how this project came together?

Tom: I’m one of the authors in the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning and it started with an idea from Jim Lang at Assumption College. He wanted to put together a series of books that wasn’t so much “Here’s all the research and all the bona fides and all the scholarship on teaching and learning topics. He wanted books that talked directly to practitioners about what those best practices are, in a way that’s easily digestible and practical and implementable. My co-author Kirsten Behling and I, we wrote the book Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education for the series. Jim is the editor of the whole series. We’ve got lots of other folks in the series. Michelle Miller is coming up. Josh Eyler just published. Sarah Rose Cavanagh. Kevin Gannon. A lot of the people that you see on academic Twitter. The public intellectuals among us are published in this series and that’s a credit to Derek Chrisoff, the series editor. A number of us who are or will be published in that series in the future, we were part of the emergency response teams at our colleges and universities when the COVID-19 pandemic came up. And we found that whether we were reading in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside HigherEd, Edsurge, we were reading a lot of, “Well, this is the time when we should be evaluating online teaching because now everyone’s teaching online” or “We should be guarding the ivory tower and defending against these rings of cheating students.” And almost everyone in the series thought these are reactionary takes that are getting published out there. And it’s almost the opposite of how we would advise people to go. So a few of us got out our trusty keyboards and we wrote response articles. I responded to a couple of pieces in The Chronicle. Michelle Miller in Inside Higher Ed. Derek Bruff went over onto Edsurge. And we wrote our responses up and people said, “Oh, this is really humane. This treats students like co-learners in the process Instead of adversaries. What else do you have? Do you have more?” And the answer was, “Well, Perhaps we should have more.” And Tori Mondelli from the University of Missouri, asked, “Why not envision and help to shape what the new normal of colleges and universities and higher education could look like post pandemic, if we’re just going back to the way things were, that’s an opportunity missed.” And so we decided to put together this Pedagogies of Care collection from all of the authors and soon-to-be authors in the WVU Press series. So a lot of things went into it. So it was conversations on the POD network open discussion group topic, Josh Eyler was especially active over there, academic Twitter, Kevin Gannon, Viji Sathy, Kelly Hogan from the University of North Carolina. We’ve been voices out there that people trust. We’ve been doing the research, we’ve been listening to our colleagues. And what we’re doing with this Pedagogies of Care Collection, is we’re trying to create a unified voice for what colleges and universities could look like, with the understanding that we have a huge budget crisis, that we only have so much in terms of people, money, and time to be able to implement things. So this isn’t really a rose-colored glasses utopian vision. But it’s a practical look at what we can actually accomplish if we’re working together, thinking together, and thinking in terms of student success.

John: In terms of the contributions, I understand it’s going to be a mix of different types of inputs. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Tom: Of course. As the Universal Design for Learning thinker among the group, we’ve got a few of us who are also fans of that idea, the initial prompt to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t “Please write an essay,” although I totally wrote an essay, but it was “Please respond in the way that you feel represents your ideas best.” And so for example, Cyndi Kernahan and Kevin Gannon decided that they wanted to, even though they wrote two different books, they wanted to get together and create a video podcast. For example, Sarah Rose Cavanagh decided that she wanted to put together an audio podcast along with a bunch of reference resources and handouts that people could take away. Jessamyn Neuhaus, the author of Geeky Pedagogy, she decided that she wanted to do a video log of different pieces of advice that she had collected and created. And a lot of folks went in lots of different creative ways. So the prompt was: respond how you like, and we got a really varied bunch of contributions from everybody. And we’re in the process of editing that right now as we’re recording this interview, and we hope that that’ll be coming out soon.

Rebecca: Sounds like a very caring way to address everybody’s needs during COVID-19, including all the authors’. [LAUGHTER]

Tom: Well, absolutely. And the flexibility is almost the key here is that we’re trying to model, in our advice, the kinds of strategies that we’re asking people to adopt, and really the overarching idea is that students are coming to us from lots of varied circumstances. One of the things that the pandemic has done for everyone is shown that everybody has barriers to learning. And whether those barriers have to do with disability, whether those barriers just have to do with time&helliip; people are working, they have family responsibilities, their kids are home from school and they’re taking care of them. All different kinds of barriers. And if there are ways that we can address those barriers, help to minimize them, help to lower them, and help to reach out to our students as human beings first, that’s going to actually make our lives as instructors and support staffers, smoother, easier, and it’s going to mean that we’re not as bureaucratic about things as we might have been previously. We’d thought about a number of different titles for the collection, you know, “The road back from COVID-19,” and we didn’t really want to focus everything on the virus. We wanted to focus on the interpersonal dynamics, on the interactions, on the caring that we saw people engaging in, that emotional and affective labor that really marks the best teachers and instructors. And so I think it was Tori Mondelli who came up with the title of Pedagogies of Care, because that was the thread that ran through all of our approaches to this collection and to how we wanted to work with our colleagues at our individual institutions.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve appreciated about the conversations I’ve observed on Twitter and other spaces is how much the focus has been on humans: students as humans, faculty as humans, and that faculty and staff have barriers just like students do. And that’s something that hasn’t really been highlighted in the past in a lot of conversation about disability or universal design or any of these things that tend to be very student driven. And so it’s nice that the conversation has actually widened to be more inclusive.

Tom: Yeah, and this is the myth of the faculty super person, right? The students can have all these challenges but faculty members have got it together, right? We are super and awesome and always good and always on and always perfect, which is baloney. We’re human beings as well. And it’s actually how I got started in the field. Dial back 23 years, it’s 1997, and I’m at a two-year college in Pennsylvania. I’m a 27 year old kid with just about almost have my doctorate. And I’m tasked with creating online courses for this community college. I help them adopt Blackboard version one. That’s how long ago that was. Your listeners can’t see me, but all this gray hair, I earned it. And one of my business faculty members came to me, Marty, and he says, “I would like to teach online, not because I think it’s the next world beating thing or the thing that’s the best for me. But I see the handwriting on the wall. We’re moving in this direction. And I want to know how to do it.” And I said, “Sure, I’ll help you.” The only problem, Marty in his 40s, had gone blind due to complications from undiagnosed and so untreated diabetes. Now that meant that he didn’t, and I’ll put air quotes here, he didn’t know how to be a blind person. He didn’t walk with a cane. He didn’t touch type&helliip; couldn’t read Braille. And so I said, “Oh, the literature will save me.” And I went back to the literature and there was no literature. And so, by good grace and good luck, I got connected with Norm Coombs at Rochester Institute of Technology. Norm is a faculty member who has been blind since birth. He was a great big advocate for the rights of faculty members and instructors who have disabilities. And his advice was essentially “Good luck, kid.” But along the way, he also turned me on to a lot of different ways that I could help Marty, and we did actually get him to teach his business courses online. This is in the days before JAWS and screen readers, and we ended up getting some graduate students from a local university and using them as Marty’s eyes and ears. He memorized what the Blackboard interface, the LMS interface, looked like. And when his students would send him things or put discussion messages on the posts, the graduate students would read them out loud and Marty would say, “Here’s my feedback. Here’s the grade,” and the graduate students would put those things in there. It was wildly successful for about the three semesters before we realized we were violating FERPA privacy laws about eight different ways and we had to stop. It was that failure, though, that really caused me&helliip; and to your point, Rebecca&helliip; it caused me to look around and start seeing people who we weren’t serving well, or maybe not at all. People with those military deployments, those weird work shifts, the family responsibilities, the people who weren’t even in our classrooms because they couldn’t get there. And if I had my way I would teach all of my courses face to face. But that means that I’m leaving out a big number of people whom we could otherwise be serving well, and so I’ve been an advocate for using technology to lower barriers for years and years and years. So, thank you for letting me take off on a little bit of a side note there, but it’s actually the absence of scholarship and research about instructors who have various barriers. And it’s not just disability barriers. It’s instructors who are single parents, folks who are the adjuncts among us, contingent faculty members who are trying to put a life together by moving from among four or five different institutions. These are all barriers that we should be talking more about and surfacing. And that kind of advocating on behalf of, and trying to bring visibility to, a lot of people who aren’t really visible right now, that’s one of those driving impetus behind the Pedagogies of Care collection.

John: The timing of this seems very appropriate because as you suggested before, many of these barriers became much more visible both in faculties own lives and also being on a college campus makes it easier for those barriers to be invisible, that we don’t observe different socioeconomic differences in quite the same way because we’re in the same environment. Students on college campuses at least appear to have equal access to technology through computer labs and college provided WiFi. But there’s a lot of hidden barriers there, as you’ve talked about in many different ways, but I think now is a really good time to be providing these resources because people are thinking about them in ways that many faculty have been able to avoid.

Tom: You bring up a good point because it’s really easy to sort of hide inside the ivory tower, because you see students only in controlled circumstances. And with the pandemic, now everybody’s teaching remotely using Zoom and other remote instruction tools like that. And when you start seeing into students’ living rooms, and seeing how other people live, it’s kind of eye opening in a literal sense. And it also means that we’re at a moment where people are going in one of two different directions that I’m seeing. They’re either going in the direction of compassion, and understanding, you know, that my students are human beings just like I am and our goal for this course is to get them from “I don’t know yet” to “now I know.” But the other direction is also pretty prevalent where you’ve got instructors saying “Now is the time where I really need to tighten up and get hard and maintain my standards, because I’m in a situation that’s way beyond my control and unlike something that I’ve ever seen before,” and both of those are very natural reactions to a situation where you’re in unfamiliar territory. So, in this Pedagogies of Care collection, one of the aims of all of it is to help to show that that road of compassion is one that actually solves more problems for us as instructors. One of the biggest challenges that we’ve had as instructional designers and public thinkers for years is that we have the data to show that the best way to ensure academic integrity is actually to build a culture of academic honesty in your class, not setting up panoptical surveillance of your students and assuming that they’re cheating. But why do people still use those other methods of surveillance? Because there’s the promise of, there’s the illusion of, control. There’s the illusion of “I’ve got this all set,” and you’ve both been teaching for a while and so have I. If I go back to when I was first an instructor, I was the worst professor in the world because I had a legal pad filled with reminders to myself: “tell this story,” “make sure they understand this concept,” “do these things.” And I was so focused on the content itself, that I forgot to actually interact with my students. [LAUGHTER] It was just a big lecture, it was a bunch of information presentation. And I can’t tell you how many of the same questions that we all struggled with, when online teaching was brand new back in 1997 and 98. they’re coming right back up again, from people who didn’t think they had to pay attention to technology-mediated instruction, and now everyone must. So that’s one of the things that we want to address in the collection as well. So, I appreciate where you’re going with your thinking process there.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about UDL and what it is, and how faculty might start thinking about universal design for learning, moving into the fall?

Tom: Yeah, absolutely. There’s four different ways that I talk about UDL a lot, and one of them is the least helpful for most instructors. And that’s the neuroscience behind it. When we learn anything, and it sticks, we have to activate three different chemical pathways in our brains. So there’s the acetylcholine uptake pathway through the hippocampus, there’s the norepinephrine cycle through the frontal cortex. And then we have to stimulate the amygdala in order to reduce fear response and actually put things into long-term memory. If you go around telling people that their eyes glaze over or they run away, so I usually don’t start there. What I usually do is, the folks at CAST, C_A_S_T, the Center for Advanced Specialized Technology in Boston, they are the neuroscientists who figured out in the early 1990s that those three brain networks correspond to: the how, the why, and the what of learning. So they figured out that if you design learning interactions, to give people a “Why,” “Why am I learning this,” right? So if a pipe underneath your sink breaks at eight o’clock at night, it’s just around dinnertime, and there’s water gushing out, what’s the first thing you need to do? You need to turn off the water. If you don’t know where that shutoff valve is, you have to figure that out. Most people these days, they would turn on their phones if they don’t know, and they say “Where’s the shutoff valve?” Usually under a sink. But having that “why,” having a reason to learn something is the reason that we stay engaged. And if you can give people more than one way to stay engaged, that’s what the folks in CAST talk about multiple means of engagement, then having the choice that leads everybody to the same goal means that people feel that they can have a measure of control, have a measure of agency in their learning. So that’s one of the three principles. The next one is the “what” of learning. You need to have some content to learn, some information. And so if you’re teaching a microbiology course and you’re talking about the cellular energy transfer process, you might be talking about meiosis and mitosis. Well, people have to be able to experience what that looks like, or see a description of how that process works in meiosis and mitosis and the difference between the two of them. So, you have to have multiple ways of taking in the information. So, perhaps that microbiology Professor might have a video animation that the textbook publisher provided, and might also have a text-based description of each of those processes as well. So, students can use one, both, or make a choice about where they’re going to get the information and how. So, that’s multiple means of representing information. And the third part of universal design for learning, and this is the part that no one’s using yet, and it’s most powerful, is multiple means of action and expression. When we learn anything, we have to have a way to show what we know with which we are comfortable. And the way that we’ve been failing folks, that we’ve been letting them down, is asking everybody to demonstrate their skills in exactly the same way. Mark in the bubble sheets on this final examination. Write out your thoughts on the exam and tell us what you know, when a demonstration might be something that would be equally valid to show that someone has internalized the concepts for your course, but is not necessarily a written format. So, we’ve got multiple means of staying engaged, multiple means of representing information, and multiple means of action and expression – that’s allowing students to write out the traditional three-page essay, or it’s allowing students the choice to take out their phones and take the selfie camera and put it to good use and narrate what they would have said in an essay as though they were doing a news report. So long as you can grade both of those according to the same criteria, you have the same learning objectives, the same demonstration of skills, then give students the choices there. So, those three principles: multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representing information, multiple means of action and expression come together into universal design for learning. And you know what? That was a long explanation. And people’s eyes… well, they still kind of glaze over when you talk like that. So I and Kirsten, in the book, try to simplify it even further. And at its root… this isn’t the whole thing, but it’s a wonderful place to start&helliip; Universal Design for Learning is really just “plus one” thinking. Think about all the interactions that your students have. The interactions that they have with the materials, yes, but also the interactions that they have with one another, that they have with you as the instructor, with support staffers at your college or your university, and with the wider world when you ask them to go out and talk to people in the field. All those interactions. If there’s one way for it to happen now, make one more way. And that is a very UDL approach to things and then you can start getting into the details of the three different principles and how to apply them. But that’s a quick overview of UDL. And what I love about universal design for learning is that it is a mindset. It’s a framework. It’s not a set of practices that you do, it’s a way of thinking about the interactions that you create. So if you’re a fan of active learning, or the flipped classroom model, or any other specific way of teaching, you don’t have to change what you do, or how you do it. You just have to think in terms of being more inclusive and doing that “plus one” thinking.

Rebecca: How common are these UDL practices in higher education right now?

Tom: Ah, not common enough. The data that we have suggests that it’s about 10% of college courses that actually use any kind of inclusive design methods, including UDL. And we would love for that number to be higher. Because Universal Design for Learning&helliip; Yes, it does require work up front… it’s work that pays you back, many, many fold. So, when we’re thinking about Universal Design for Learning, that’s actually the hardest part of the conversation to have with a lot of college and university instructors. Because they say “Do I have to do absolutely everything and set everything up ahead of time?” And the answer is largely “Yes, there is work involved.” And once you design those choices for your students, you can start in three different ways. One: where are the pinch points in your course? Where do you… that microbiology professor&helliip; where do your students always get the concept of mitosis and meiosis confused and they send you the same email 700 times every time you teach the course? That’s a wonderful place to start doing some plus one thinking. Where do your students get things wrong on tests and quizzes, everybody, and you end up having to reteach, again&helliip; a good place to start doing some choices, or to give them information in more than one format to help reduce that reteaching load. And where do your students say, “Hey, Professor John, Professor Rebecca, that was a great lecture, but I still don’t get it.” And when they’re confused, that’s another good place to give them more options for engagement, more options for how they take in information. And if people start there, it doesn’t have to be “Oh, I have 30 half-minute videos in my course. And now I have to caption all of them.” It’s just looking for those pinch points, starting small and starting in the places where you already have identified things aren’t going the way that you wanted them to go. So, how common is UDL in higher education? Ah, right about 10% adoption right now. That number is climbing. It was a buzzword in higher ed, maybe a couple years ago, 2015, 2016. And I’d like to advocate that it not be a buzzword. It’s not like, you know, “my President went away to some leadership conference, and every year that person comes back with a new thing that we’re all going to try, and UDL was one of those new things.” [LAUGHTER] Instead, I’d like to say that Universal Design for Learning is one of those toolkit issues that everybody should have in their panoply of strategies that they’re going to use when they’re designing and when they’re teaching, because it helps with persistence, retention, and satisfaction for our students. Students who have choices and feel that their instructor is helping them to move through their own education with a sense of agency. We’ve got 35 years of data that show that students who have that feeling, they stick around better, so more students who are there on day one are there to take the exam. They retain better. More students who are with us this semester will come back next semester, and they’re more satisfied with their experience, they’re more likely to tell their friends, “Hey, come to this college or this university.” So, the idea of how common is UDL? We haven’t had as much of a head start, as the folks in K-12 have, it’s only really been a big thing in higher education for the past four or five years. But, we’re getting there. So I’m happy to be an evangelist for it. And I’m really grateful to see how people are applying it in small ways and then moving from those small beginnings into larger and larger iterations as word spreads. You’d be surprised, you’d be absolutely surprised. One person in a faculty meeting says, “Hey, you know, I made this one change. And now I don’t have to reteach the hard concept in our field every semester.” And then that person just sits back and is quiet. And everyone else in the faculty meeting goes, “What did you do? How can we get in on that? Help us, please.” And then UDL takes root. So, there are some good things coming out of it.

Rebecca: Tom, what do you think the biggest barrier is for faculty to get started with UDL?

Tom: The biggest barrier is really the investment of time and effort, as well as misunderstandings about what it is. So imagine for a minute&helliip; I’ll ask you and John a quick question. You both teach at SUNY Oswego. When was the last time that you had an accommodation paperwork from a student with a disability barrier?

John: I get them every semester.

Rebecca: I get them less often.

Tom: Ok.

Rebecca: But, I also teach in the arts.

John: I usually teach three to four hundred students at a time. [LAUGHTER]

Tom: Ah yes, but you’re both familiar with that paperwork, right?

Rebecca: Definitely.

John: Yes.

Tom: So, it’s usually “give this student extra time on a test” or “set up some individual accommodation for the student” that is different from how you treat all the other students. Because our disability services areas are often understaffed and overworked, that Disability Services paperwork often comes to you like in week two of the semester. And it’s almost always a surprise, right? And you think, “you know, I did all of my prep for this course. And now here’s this paperwork that says, I have to do all this extra work just for this one student.” Now, I’ll be charitable, I don’t think either of you, or any of your listeners hold that kind of mindset. But there’s a lot of people who say, “You know what? I’m mad about this. Is this student faking a disability? Is this a real thing?” I hear these kinds of questions from people and it kind of breaks my heart because the answer is these students are struggling and they’re trying to get a level playing field and they’re doing their best to be good students in your class. And that mindset of “Well, this accommodation paperwork is just a thorn in my side or it’s extra work,” that’s what people think about when we all say, accessibility. So, if I come to you and I say Universal Design for Learning, it’s easy to make the mental mistake of thinking, “Oh, that must be about students with disabilities and that accessibility paperwork, that’s a bunch of work” and it makes me kind of frustrated, and the emotions that come up for a lot of people are negative ones. Now Universal Design for Learning has nothing to do with accommodations, individually. It really has nothing to do with Disability Services. It’s all about constructing interactions so that we are reducing the effort and work that’s needed to engage in the conversation in the first place for students. Universal Design for Learning has the good benefit of reducing the need for individual accommodations. Fewer of your students will need that piece of paper to come to you and say treat me differently. It doesn’t mean we’ll ever get rid of the need for those accommodations, but it does help to reduce them quite significantly. Because, if you’re giving people information in more than one way, if you’re helping them stay engaged in more than one way, and you’re giving them options for how they demonstrate their skills in more than one way, then, by definition, fewer people are going to have to say, “You know what? I can’t write that essay because I have a physical disability barrier, or I can’t do this project because I have this time crunch and I have personal family care obligations, so please treat me differently.” But that’s the biggest barrier is people mistake UDL with disability accommodations. And so when I talk about Universal Design for Learning, I actually don’t&helliip; I know there’s lots of people listening, but don’t hate me on this one&helliip; I don’t talk about people with disability, not first, and not only. What I talk about is mobile devices. Absolutely everybody in college and university has a smartphone, just about. Now granted, there are lots of people who don’t, but the latest Pew Research and Pearson Research surveys show that between 90 and 95% of college and university students have smartphones. Does that mean that they all prefer to work on their smartphones? No. Katie Linder at Kansas State University now, when she was with Oregon State University, they did a huge nationwide survey in the United States and Canada, and found that by and large college students prefer to learn using their laptops or desktop devices. But, oftentimes they don’t have those or they don’t have access to those. So, they’re trying to learn using their mobile devices. With the COVID-19 pandemic, everybody got thrown into that same situation where everybody needed to be remote. And it was “Let’s be remote students with whatever devices and whatever connectivity we have at the moment.” So, the challenge there is with Universal Design for Learning, when I talk about students and their mobile devices everybody understands that, everybody knows how students are tied to their mobile devices. And it applies to everybody in the course. it’s not “Oh, this is just for those students over there, that small percentage of our population with disability barriers.” No, Universal Design for Learning is design that helps absolutely everyone in the class to lower access barriers, rather than just accessibility barriers. And in fact, I chop the end of the word off when I’m talking to people. I seldom talk about “accessibility” anymore, and talk just in terms of “access.” And that is what helps to address that main barrier, Rebecca, that you talked about.

John: For someone who wants to get started, what would be a relatively easy way of providing the thing that’s missing most, the multiple means of expression?

Tom: So, for example, when we talk about multiple means of action and expression, this can be as easy as helping people with drafting content. So, if I’m teaching a chemistry lab, and I would like for my students to understand how to mix reagents safely, I might create a video that shows how to mix these two chemicals together in order to create a component for a chemical experiment, and if my students are remote or they’re at home, they might not be able to do that process themselves. But, I still want to know that they know the process well. And in a single-stream course, I would say, “Please write up five paragraphs where you go through the five steps of this process and send it to me, and I’ll grade it based on how well you’re following the safety protocol and how you’re well you understand the process of mixing reagents.” In UDL, a plus one way to do that is to use the same criteria, you still want to see those five steps. But you might ask your students to take the choice: write it out in a word processing document, or do an audio podcast where you walk people through the process and describe all the steps of the process in that audio file. You’ll notice two things in that sort of first way of doing multiple means of expression. First, we’re using the same grading criteria or the same learning objectives for the activities. So that the instructor can give a grade or give feedback in the same way regardless of how the students choose to perform that activity. Second, and this is the fun part, the students still get to demonstrate their knowledge, but they choose how they do it. And both of the choices lead them to the same goal. You’re not giving choice just for the sake of choice, but the choice actually helps students to demonstrate needed knowledge or information so that they can move on to whatever is next. I teach English Composition courses. And it’s really difficult to ask students to demonstrate APA format in any way other than doing a word processed file. I cannot tell whether someone has Times New Roman 12 point font, double-spaced one-inch margins, all those things, unless there’s a word processed document. For those of you who really didn’t like English composition, I’m very sorry if that was just traumatic for you. [LAUGHTER] But, in that case, the format is the requirement. So I don’t give my students a choice. I say “On your final essay, you have to demonstrate that you know APA format by writing it correctly in APA.” Does that mean that my students don’t have any choices as they’re writing? No. When they’re drafting, when I’m not concerned about their APA format, but I am concerned about them being able to structure things with a thesis statement, giving details, evidence and examples, following a rhetorical mode. In those instances&helliip; writing instructors don’t hate me here&helliip;I don’t care whether they write that in a word processed format. What I care about is “Can they state a thesis statement? Can they demonstrate those details, evidence, and examples?” So, I give my students the choice between writing it in Microsoft Word or turning on the camera on their phone and just talking to me about how they want to compose a particular paragraph or a section of their writing. All the while knowing that the final product does have to be a word processed document. So, multiple means of action and expression can be something small, it can be a draft. But, wherever you have an opportunity to give students those options and choices that all lead to the same outcome, and you can grade them the same way, do so. Your students are going to feel like they have more of a choice. Like they have more control, like they have more agency in your class. They’re likely to stick with you better. And it’s an engagement strategy, par excellence. So, thanks for the question. It’s a really good one.

John: I’ve been teaching at this program for middle school and high school students at Duke for about 30 some years now. Unfortunately, I’m not doing it this summer. I used to have a final project, a capstone project at the end of the course, it was basically a college-level course in micro and macro economics. I had them do a policy debate at the end. And then after reading a little bit about Universal Design, I gave them a choice and said “Here are some options, but basically you can find whatever way works for you. If you want to write a song, you can do that. If you want to make a video. you can do that.” I even threw in the option, since at the time I had just seen some of the YouTube videos on dance your PhD, I said if you want to do an interpretive dance illustrating the concept, you can do it. But these are the things you need to achieve. And it was so much more fun.

Tom: They lit right up, didn’t they?

John: They did. And the quality of the work and their engagement was so dramatically higher. And it was so much more fun for me too to watch what they were doing. The additional creativity that that unleashed was really amazing.

Tom: But, and that’s actually one of the joys of Universal Design for Learning when it’s done well, is that you can start with that plus one mentality. And that’s actually speaking from a position of control, where I don’t want to give people lots of lots of choices, because then I’ve got to grade lots and lots of things. And so starting out small with that plus one mentality is a way to dip your toe into the water of Universal Design for Learning. But really, the goal of UDL is to create expert learners rather than expert students. We in the K-12 and higher education system have so structured things that we have created students who know how to take a test, rather than students who know how to do an inquiry and how to explore and learn on their own. The goal for Universal Design for Learning is creating those expert learning strategies. And think about it. John, what’s the hobby that you’ve enjoyed over your lifetime?

John: Music, I suppose, is probably the longest one.

Tom: What instruments do you play?

John: Mostly keyboard but also bass and guitar. At one point, I played drums back in high school.

Tom: Oh, fantastic. Rebecca, how about you?

Rebecca: I embroider.

Tom: Ooh, embroidery. So, hand eye coordination, those skills, that takes a lot of concentration and effort. That’s awesome. And when you were learning those hobbies, who graded you? What tests did you have to take to prove that you could move from one level to the next?

Rebecca: Nobody.

Tom: Nobody, right? And if someone tried to do it, you’d laugh at them. Because when you’re into something because you’re engaged with it, when you’re into something because you have a choice or you get to go and have some control or agency over it, it becomes rewarding. It becomes, dare I say it, fun, sometimes. And I don’t mean to say that every single college course that people take should be an exercise in fun. It should, though, offer a way for people to catch fire, to light up, to understand, to bring a little bit of themselves into the scholarship, and the research, and the curiosity that they’re expressing. And that’s what Universal Design for Learning is really about. And it actually brings me back into the Pedagogies of Care collection. The academic climate that we envision in the Pedagogies of Care collection is one that is more open, more equitable, and more just. It reaches more people who want to learn. It provides them with choices, voices, and agency in how they take a path through our colleges and universities. Now, at the same time, we’re all helping to keep the lights on at our individual institutions. We’re now in a time of catastrophic budget shortfalls. We need collectively to be thinking about the best ways that we should be serving students, to bring them in and keep them coming back. One of the things that we haven’t been able to really figure out in higher education is something called the freshmen cliff. And I imagine that some of your listeners are familiar with it. But what it means is, if at my university, if we bring in 2000 freshmen, we’re probably only going to get about 1400 of them back as sophomores. The number one reason why those 600 students dropped out among them, it’s financial, and we really can’t touch that with our instruction. But the number two reason is time. And we can definitely touch that with our instruction, with our design, with the way that we teach our courses. We can help students to manage and juggle among lots of competing priorities. School is usually down toward the bottom of the list if caring for your family, going to work, and putting food on the table are top of the list. And that freshmen cliff&helliip; If we can keep more of those students who are freshmen to become sophomores, that actually costs us less in terms of dollars, in terms of resources, in terms of time, in terms of people. For every $10 that we spend bringing a freshmen into our institutions, we usually only spend about $2 on upkeep and maintenance supporting that student in the next years. But every time a student drops out, and we have to go find another one, that’s another 10 bucks. So in terms of just keeping the lights on, being sensitive to our budget crises, that Universal Design for Learning helps more of our students, and all of the caring ideas in the Pedagogies of Care collection help more of our students stick with us, feel valued, and move through their education with us in a way that they feel they have some control and agency. And of course, Universal Design for Learning helps us to address exactly that. It’s a tool that helps us reach more broadly, teach more inclusively, increase students’ persistence, retention, and satisfaction. We’ve got 30 years of data to show that engaged and active students who feel that they have choices and a say in their programs of study, stick with us in higher numbers. So, it’s not just that we have our rose-colored glasses on. I’m talking to you: Presidents, Provosts, Chancellors right now, these are mission-critical efforts. While our collection speaks most directly to individual instructors and designers, the issues for which we advocate are those ones at the C-suite level. We’re trying to create a new normal at colleges and universities in order to find and serve new populations of students and then keep them with us better than we’ve done in the past.

John: We always end with the question, what’s next?

Tom: So the what’s next for me is I’m doing research on a book that addresses a problem that I’ve seen in terms of quality and it gets a little bit outside of my usual wheelhouse. We’ve all been to academic conferences where somebody who is talking to us about the latest way of keeping students engaged is standing there reading from a script and using a bunch of bullet points on a PowerPoint slide and reading them directly to us verbatim. Oh, my goodness, if I have to sit through one more of those. But that frustration is what is causing my new research in what are the real bare bones of how to give a good presentation? How do you present information? And it’s not just for people at conferences, it’s for instructors in the classroom. It’s for people who are doing research and grants. It’s for presidents, Provost, and Deans who need to share information with the people who are under their direct reports. So, I’m working on that book and it’s been lots and lots of fun doing the research. I’ve taken a bunch of photographs at conferences over the past couple of years here. And if you see me taking a photograph of your slides, it means one of two things: you are a rock star, or goodness, you need help. And it’s gonna be a fun book, I’ve been repurposing a lot of these things. I’ve been reading up on the literature of how to present information. And you can tell I’m an advocate for it. I did a little stint of radio voiceover when I lived in Chicago and really just fell in love with it. And I’m a big believer in communicating information in a simple way, that then helps people to get fired up and want to learn more about the details and the complexities behind it. So, I’m really grateful to be here on the Tea for Teaching podcast. And I hope that your listeners have enjoyed it. If you’d like to reach out to me, my website is just my name, ThomasJTobin.com. And I’d be happy to talk with you about whatever we’ve talked about here on the podcast or any other technology mediated teaching issues. So, thank you again for having me on.

John: Thank you. This has been fascinating, and we’ve long had you on a list of guests that we wanted to invite and this provided a nice convenient reason.

Tom: Splendid, awesome deal.

Rebecca: Yeah, we’re looking forward to seeing the Pedagogies of Care when it comes out.

Tom: We’re hoping that this will come out close to when the collection comes out as well.

Rebecca: Excellent. Thanks 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. Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Savannah Norton.

[MUSIC]

136. Learning Networks

Students in many classes work in isolation to create written assignments that are shared only with their professor. Unless they’ve kept a copy of this work, it disappears once their course ends. In this episode, Gardner Campbell joins us to discuss how student motivation, engagement, and learning might change if students instead become active contributors to public knowledge sharing networks.  Gardner is an Associate Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Gardner  has long been a leader in the use of open pedagogy projects.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Students in many classes work in isolation to create written assignments that are shared only with their professor. Unless they’ve kept a copy of this work, it disappears once their course ends. In this episode, we examine how student motivation, engagement, and learning might change if students instead become active contributors to public knowledge sharing networks.

[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. Gardner Campbell. Gardner is an Associate Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Gardner has long been a leader in the use of open pedagogy projects, and we’ll be talking about that and a few other things today. Welcome, Gardner.

Gardner: Thanks, John. Thanks, Rebecca. It’s great to be here.

John: It’s good to talk to you again. You were on our campus when I first took over as the teaching center director here, you lead a symposium and then a workshop for faculty on web 2.0 tools about 12 years ago, I think it was.

Gardner: It’s hard to believe it was that long ago, but I remember my time on the campus very fondly and had a great time. So, if 12 years ago that would put it what ‘08? Yeah, that’s interesting. Wow, that doesn’t seem like that long ago.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are.

John: Are you drinking tea?

Gardner: I am not. Should I be drinking tea?

John: Well, it’s the title of the podcast… So, Rebecca makes us do that.

Gardner: Am I underdressed? Oh dear. No, I’m actually not drinking anything, though I see that it’s soon going to be five o’clock. So, that could change.

John: I’m drinking honey green iced tea today.

Gardner: Oh, nice.

John: Most of my tees are up at the office in a safe, secure location. [LAUGHTER]

Gardner: John’s tea is at an undisclosed location somewhere in a bunker underneath the White House.

Rebecca: Luckily, I have a nice stockpile. Today I have glazed lemon loaf.

Gardner: Hmm, interesting. What is a lemon loaf?

Rebecca: I think it’s like breakfast bread that you might have at like a Starbucks or something. And it does smell a lot like it… it doesn’t taste a lot like it. but it smells a lot like it.

John: So, are there crumbs in it or something? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: No, but it smells like crumbs.

Gardner: See, we’re getting virtual already. I’m all about it. Let’s get to metaphor and I’ll be right at home.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk a little bit about some of the open pedagogy projects you’ve done with your students. Could you tell us a little bit about how you got started with these projects?

Gardner: Well, a long long time ago, I got very interested in the capacity for network communications to kind of erase the compartmentalization of learning on a college campus or in a college community generally… the idea that well, you went to this class from 9:30 to 10:45, you went on Tuesdays and Thursdays, you went to this class from 1:00 to 2:00 Monday, Wednesday, Friday… things never really connected. You never had a sense that it was something more than just one thing after another. And to my way of thinking it had become increasingly difficult, even in the 1990s, to get to this idea of the life of the mind, which sounds kind of highfalutin, but really, for me, it means that you’re never not thinking about things. And you’re always kind of putting things through the tumble in your head to figure out “Huh, well, I learned this in my economics class, and I learned this my Milton class, but Milton was in the government. And so he was familiar with some of the stuff that was going on with finance, and he actually wrote about currency at one point in Paradise Lost.” Those things need to connect, it seems to me, especially in a liberal arts education setting, so one of the things I always felt like I was fighting was the walls of the classroom, including the temporal walls when you were in a particular place for a particular time. When I saw the birth of high-speed internet connectivity in the mid 90s, at Mary Washington, where I was at the time, I saw an opportunity to try to get students interested in various kinds of asynchronous communication that would keep the thread going, would keep the conversation going, would keep that life of the mind present to them in a way. And the first thing I used was email and had it backed up on a listserv server. Back in those days, students would get their first email accounts when they came to campus. And now they don’t have email accounts, because that’s for old people. It’s taken about 25 years to make that change, which is pretty rapid. But, what I found was there was an interesting way, that even though that wasn’t what I would later do with big open project, there was a way in which I was finding what they call a third space, like a coffee house, or a cafe or a diner or a place that wasn’t a formal institutional place and it wasn’t just a home place. But, it was this third space where people were informal, but they also had an idea that they were with other people and they couldn’t just slouch around in their jammies and slippers, they really did need to metaphorically kind of be present in a social setting, but it wasn’t a formal or scripted setting. So I got really interested in that. And then when the web came along, just about a year or so after I started the stuff with email… it was already there, but we were really getting into it in a big way at Mary Washington… I saw an opportunity for students to build things that would be out in the open, that would give them the opportunity to create something that would last beyond just the semester, and that would have an audience besides just the professor or even each other in the class, and that that would present certain interesting challenges to students. That is, they would have to do something that would represent their own growing expertise, but would also be potentially of interest to someone who hadn’t been at the class. When I first started doing that with a first year writing class, and it’s the kind of long tail effect about two years after the first time I did that with a partner in crime named Bill Kemp, who passed away recently, but was a really close colleague and a wonderful mentor and friend at Mary Washington. There was a moment when I got an email (because we had asked that people contact either me or Bill, not the student directly because we were trying to protect the students contact information and privacy) and a student from Africa, wrote in and said, “I just read what one of your students wrote about Tupac Shakur, and he speaks for me, would you please just let him know?” Now, I didn’t have WordPress, I didn’t have any way for people to leave comments on these web publications, but as soon as I got in touch with the fellow who had written that essay, he was just flabbergasted: “You’re kidding me? Something I did for a first-year writing class has now touched somebody halfway around the world two years later.” And I said, “Yeah, that’s part of what the promise of the web is, that these things that we do for ourselves in particular contexts, will find affinity groups, will find people we had not anticipated, making use of what we’ve created and learning with us in ways that we hadn’t anticipated.” So, those two things together: the way in which the class could be in communication with itself without simply being in the same physical space, and know themselves as a learning community; and then this other idea that by being open and sharing what we have done with the world, we could have these unanticipated, these serendipitous, encounters with the way in which this work might matter outside of a school setting, those two things really did, I think, lead to everything I was trying to do with open pedagogy from thereafter. And then you’ve already mentioned the advent of web 2.0. And that was the next big turning point for me, when it suddenly became clear to me that, for very little money, I could set up my own domain, I could set up my own blog, I could run all sorts of discussion forums on my own domain, which I continue to do, that that would be an opportunity for me to kind of set up shop on the web in a way that would be persistent and would make my work more visible. And then I said, “Well, now, hmmm… what if I ask my staff to do that? And hmmm… what if I asked my students to do that and what if I did AAC&U projects using that idea of the open platform and opportunities for connection that had not been anticipated or scripted, but would arrive serendipitously with some intentionality as we reached out to our various networks. I just got completely hooked on that. And I guess the high point of all of that, for me was a moment in 2015, in which I was still on senior staff, I was a Vice Provost at VCU at the time, and there was a lot of conversation about what were we going to do with the World Championship bicycle race that was going to be coming to Richmond, and of course, “What are we gonna do with it? We’re gonna watch it. Are you kidding? This is once in a lifetime.” But the concern was that because the bicycle race would be going around the main Arts and Sciences Campus, that we wouldn’t be able to get faculty in regularly or efficiently. We wouldn’t be able to ensure people could leave at a particular time. And so we couldn’t even be sure the dining services would be able to stay open. We’ll just have to send everybody home. But, there were a number of us who said “Hmm, why would we send people home when part of the way that we recruit them to VCU is to promise them Richmond and the urban setting, and here’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.” So, to make a long story short, there was a project that I was very privileged to lead. But I had some really great collaborators who came up with really wonderful ideas and fed into the project people from the community engagement Vice Provost Office, people from communications, people from web services, just, you know, the Dean’s office, etc. And we had a curricular event during that week, in which we offered about 26 different courses, one credit each, at a special price that would have a kind of in place component related to the bicycle race, but would be conducted primarily online or in perhaps smaller groups that wouldn’t be at any risk of not having facilities they would need during that time, and first-year students would be able to stay on campus, and that was called the Great VCU bike race book. The promise was that what students did would all be syndicated upwards into WordPress sites. These 26 classes were massively across the disciplines, everything from the psychology or in the motivation of exercise to gender and bicycling to bicycling and film to the physics of bicycling. And the student works syndicated up into the WordPress sites would then be curated by the faculty, and would then become a permanent part of the scholarly depository in the library, which made students go “Wait a minute, really, I’m going to be doing something that will be permanently stored in the library as part of the scholarly activity at VCU.” And the answer was “yes.” And while we want you to be very aware of the potential for copyright violation and be a good copyright citizen, when we talk to you about fair use, we’re also talking to you about fair use of your products, the things that you are making that reflect the work you are doing. And everyone I guess, except 2 of the 350 students or so who signed up gave their permission, and their work is now in the scholarly depository at VCU. Jimmy Ghapery, who’s in charge of the digital part of the library’s operations, was good enough to work with me, work with the academic learning transformation laboratory to digitize these student websites and to make them part of the permanent cultural record that was documented during this event at VCU. That was massively open. But it was interesting. I, of course, tracked the MOOC mania very carefully when it was coming out 2011… 2012 all the predictions about “Well, soon we’ll have 10 universities, and they’ll simply offer 10 million courses and it will all scale up and all the rest of that,” I was highly skeptical, though I recognize there’s a little bit of a conflict of interest since I make my livelihood this way. But, what I’ve been working at is not so much these massively open online designs, though I remain interested in them. I think there is some value there. But what happens if you scale up smaller learning communities into larger networks, that is to say you can actually have… wait for it… a network of networks, like the internet On the internet, we’re not all logging into one gigantic computer that AT&T operates on our behalf. There was a time when that was the model that people had in their minds. What we have instead are all these individual computers, these personal computers, that can hook up freely with either other computers in a smaller network, or do things that then become amplified up through greater and greater networks through the web. And that’s really, for me, been the focus of most of my work in open pedagogy. It’s been trying to figure out ways to generate healthy, medium-sized networks and then network the networks. I’ve had some success with that, and at the same time, I can’t tell you that people know more about the web now than they knew in the 2000s, they probably know a little bit less, the smartphone has made a huge difference along those lines, and not just in a good way. I mean, I love my smartphone. But, there’s been a way in which we’ve all kind of retreated into this closed system, and one that’s built on apps and I think that some of the deep knowledge of the way the web operations has eroded over time. But I’m still in there and still getting my students to blog and putting them onto old school PHP, BB forums, because they still have more functionality than anything that the learning management systems have provided. And I guess that’s my story. And I’m sticking to it.

Rebecca: You’ve talked a lot about the scope and some of the possibilities of networks to connect and people to connect from different communities and around the world. Can you talk a little bit about some of the learning gains the students get from working on these larger scale projects?

Gardner: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. I think the first thing that students get is a kind of ambient awareness of what out there in the environment they could connect to. So, for example, when my students are blogging on WordPress, the first thing they start to figure out is, “oh, I can embed a video,” “oh, well, if I can embed a video or whatever, I could make a video” or” Oh, I wonder if I could put screenshots in here to illustrate the kinds of things I’m talking about.” Now, these are things that students typically are pretty capable of doing. It is true that students are not necessarily very sophisticated about the web. I think URLs puzzle a lot of my students, they don’t understand how they’re constructed or what they signify. But they’re doing screenshots all the time. They use their smartphones, that stuff is built in, their tablets have screenshots built in. Well, what if you use the thing that you’re on a day-to-day basis to communicate with your friends, and you use it to illustrate a point you’re making? Could you do that, and typically, that kind of thing starts to happen pretty organically. There’ll be a student in the class who either gets it very quickly or has already done something in multiple modalities, maybe in a composition class or something like that. And they’ll break the ice. And then this ambient awareness starts to emerge as, what I think of it as an enormous learning game. What could I bring to bear on this thing I’m writing that would make it more persuasive, that would illustrate it in a more interesting way, and that by doing so, would draw me into the project in a more interesting way. So, the first learning gain, I think, is that ambient awareness… just what is possible, and I’m an academic, so I do a lot of stuff with academic writing… scholarly publishing. I think it’s fair to say that you don’t always get an enormous amount of ambient awareness of how you connect to the wider world in the scholarly literature. It’s in some ways, I guess, it has a different purpose. But that’s what students are told to do: go get peer-reviewed articles. Nothing wrong with that… a lot that’s good about that. But the other side of that is students get locked into a kind of an imitation rhetoric, that is to say they’re trying to do the thing that the professor seems to recognize as a thing that can be done and the examples of that are in the scholarly articles, and they miss out on some of the ways that they could begin to experiment with multiple modalities and kind of rethink even what an argumentative paper might be. So that’s one of the things I think is a gain. The other gain is when they begin to realize that there are other people in the environment doing similar work and they have an opportunity to connect. Now this is where the school begins to acquire a much bigger role in the student’s life than just the set of classes they’re taking, they start to become aware in a deeper way of what it means to be spending time in a learning community that it’s not simply going from door number one to door number two, that you’re in an environment and that the environment is kind of greater than sum of its parts. This happened just in a blog post that the student published in my senior seminar just today, the senior seminar is on a filmmaker and a writer named Errol Morris. And one of the things that the student began to do was to be curious to see if there were any traces of her classmates in other classes working on Errol Morris. Now, already, this is an interesting kind of ambient awareness that takes the knowledge of other communication channels and the experience of other communication channels, and you get the feeling that “I wonder if anybody is out there in another network.” Typically, learning management systems shut down the network of a class at the end of the semester, because they’re not even thinking of a class as a network and they’re thinking of the learning management system as a kind of a document delivery platform. But,as it happens, this student was in a communications class that used Slack. So she’s using WordPress, as well as we’re doing a Wikipedia project in the senior seminar that kind of goes along with the research project they’re doing for the seminar. And we’ve been spending a lot of time in these other platforms like Zoom, making these kinds of connections and bringing the buffet of what’s available in. So, she went to her Slack channel, which had preserved the chit chat from her class and saw that there was somebody in there this semester, who was also working on Errol Morris. And she thought, “Well, now, that’s interesting.” And then she continued to do this exploration. And she said that the thing she found was that there were more people at VCU working on Errol Morris than she had ever dreamed, and that it was a real surprise because she had never heard of Errol Morris until she came into the senior seminar. And this is a sophisticated student. This is someone who’s not just keeping blinders on and not aware of anything thing that’s going on in the world. But, nobody knows everything. She took the senior seminar and now she’s kind of finding out, “Huh, this is kind of all over the place, including in various places in school itself.” And I think without an open pedagogical approach, in this case, it’s the Wikipedia project and blogging that my students are doing, there’s a way in which it just never rises into their consciousness to even ask the question::are there other people around me doing this?” And of course, if those other channels don’t exist, if everything is locked away in an LMS, it wouldn’t matter if you did ask the question. Which brings me to a part of the question that you’ve asked that I think is also very important, it informed a lot of my work when I was doing this as an administrator for about 13 years. I always knew that the more of my colleagues who were adopting aspects of this approach… and not everything has to be open, closed things need to be a part of what we’re doing… there needs to be a sweet spot between the things that what’s said in the senior seminar stays in the senior seminar and what you’re able to do as a more public self, those are useful skills. But I always thought the more my colleagues who began to adopt these approaches, it wasn’t just about the increased value of the pedagogy in their classrooms, which I firmly believe would happen, but the more open classes we have the more chances for these classes to discover each other. And again, it’s this idea that each class has a network, but then the networks start to network. And the big learning gain, if you’re able to do that is that you’re able to start to understand how connections scale in the world. And I think it makes you a better citizen in a democracy. I think it makes you more effective as a professional, really any activity that you’re in, you start to understand how smaller units like families exist within a community; how communities exist within larger units, like states; how states exist within larger units, like nations; and so forth. So, those are just a few of the learning gains that happened and then maybe two years later someone reads your blog and they say “Wow, you speak for me” and you get a nice little surprise as a comment on something you’ve written.

John: Going back to Rebecca’s question a little bit. I remember when you were here and you gave a keynote address at our teaching symposium, one of the things you mentioned was that students had been writing on a blog, and they continued writing even after the class ended. And that was something I think that people still talk about, how these open pedagogy projects if they get them started, and they continue to provide students with motivation that they might not typically have in their regular assignments.

Gardner: Oh, that’s right. David Wiley, who’s been working with open education for decades now has this great phrase for the opposite of what you’re talking about. He calls them disposable assignments. And I think what you’re saying is absolutely right. The things that students contribute to the world through open pedagogical practices and putting their artifacts up where other people can see them helps students understand that the work they’re doing is not disposable. It’s something that not only can persist but can be the first stage in an expanding kind of public presence as a writer, as a thinker, and as a student. This is a particular challenge… and first of all, I should say that there are not many students who will be motivated to keep on with this in any kind of formal way after the class is done, but some of them are, and if you get any of them, I think that’s a great advantage. But, even for the students who don’t go on as bloggers, or don’t go on to doing podcasts, or whatever. the seed is planted, there’s a way in which sometimes these things may take 10 or even 20 years, and then suddenly, the student will be in a particular context again, and go, “Ah, oh, that’s interesting,” and something will come out of that. It’s just the way it is with any kind of teaching. You can see certain things happening right away. Other things, you just hope you can live long enough to see the day when suddenly there’s an idea and it comes back at you. You recognize it’s what a student has built out that started at a particular moment back in the day, but yeah, I think disposable assignments… it just gets back to this thing that john Dewey said he said, you know, “education is not preparation for life, Education is the process of living.” And there’s a corollary to that, which is hard for my students to understand. But I think it’s valuable. When I tell them blog, they say, “Well, what am I going to blog about?” And I say, “Well, you must tell the story of your learning.” And for a number of them, this is the first time they thought of their learning as a kind of a narrative, that this is a set of experiences, they are living through a set of cognitive events that make a difference in the way they’re going to be approaching the world afterwards. And so you might as well keep a diary, and you’re not going to be wrong. It’s your story. It’s your learning. But it does mean that you think about your learning in a different way,

John: Which builds in a nice metacognitive component where students can learn more by reflecting on what they’ve learned. And that’s something I think you’ve written about a little bit in some of your writings recently.

Gardner: I have tried to do that. I’ve tried to emphasize that when students understand that this metacognition, which for me, of course, I’m always doing that, but for many students either they’ve never thought that that is something they need to do with school, because school for them has just been a series of tasks, or they think of their own metacognitive ideas out in the wild as somehow not being worth other people’s time. And lately I’ve been doing some work with memoirists and one of them is Patricia Hampl. And she has this really great way of talking about her own reluctance to write a memoir at first because she thought it was the most narcissistic thing you could possibly do. And then found out, as I think many of us do, over the course of our lives, that if you write something honest and searching about your own experience, people will connect with that… the first person is a way to get to the first person plural. And it’s kind of a mystery in a way how that works. But I want my students to have that idea. And there have been so many times when students have essentially said to me, “Well, who cares what I think about something,” and I say, “Well, it is true, you’re not an expert. It is true that we got plenty of opinions floating around. In the world, and maybe we don’t need another op ed, but nobody else is going to be able to tell the story of your learning. And if you tell the story of your learning, you’re also telling it to yourself.” And that kind of metacognition expands in all sorts of directions. And when it happens, it’s pretty extraordinary. It’s a wonderful thing to see.

Rebecca: So one of the things that I hear coming up and all the learning that we’re talking about is moving beyond being consumers of tech and consumers of knowledge to creators, and being scholars and students thinking of themselves as scholars, which I think is really interesting because it gives them agency in a way that they might not understand that they have agency. And so when they see themselves as agents, in communities, there’s a lot of power there. And maybe they’re not always able to act on that power initially, but I think that’s what you’re pointing out, Garfner is like, later on, down the road, they realize that they have that power and that they are able to act on that agency… that maybe they didn’t choose to act on earlier. And so I think that’s really powerful and not seeing school as a silo, but part of this bigger part of their lives. And that this agency crosses between a lot of different domains that they exist in.

Gardner: I think that’s exactly right and very well put. It also has the bonus that they begin to understand some deep truths about the scholarly life, which are, for me, that scholarship is about creation. It’s about a certain kind of rigor and responsibility with regard to the material you’re working with. And it’s also about a conversation. So, for many of them, and I’ve seen this happen with the Wikipedia assignment very recently in a poetry class, and I’ve seen it happen with blogging a good deal, for them books on the shelf in the library, or even more so the e-stuff that they get through JSTOR or whatever, it just all looks, again, to use your word, like silos, like these bound volumes, these discrete units. What they can’t imagine is that when you walk into a library, either physically or when you’re surrounded by these electronic resources online, what you’re hearing is a conversation, what you’re hearing our voices over many years, and within each of those articles within each of those books, there’s a network of all the things that the author has brought to bear on his or her argument. And once you kind of get away from this idea that books are inert, articles are just book reports that these things are simply there, like pebbles, or like little capsules. And you start to think, no, this is a kind of time lapse photograph of a flower blooming. This is something that has a rich temporal dimension. And then to the next part of your point, I can be one of those voices too. I need to be a responsible voice. I can’t just run into the conversation and blurt out whatever’s on the top of my head. That’s kind of a rude way to get into a conversation, and nobody’s likely to listen to you. They’ll just be annoyed. But you may come in and find that you have something to say that is rich, that’s authentic, and may surprise the other people in the conversation. This is something that I learned a long time ago from one of the scholars in residence at Baylor University, that if people are sufficiently observant and responsible and responsive to their environment, there’s always a chance that they’re going to see something nobody else has ever seen. And I really do try very hard to work that into my own pedagogy. And if I’m working on, I don’t know, Citizen Kane, a movie I’ve seen 60 times, I always try to tell my students the story of moments when students saw things that I had never seen, because you just need to be alert, you need to be awake. And so that agency that you’re discussing, which is a sense of responsibility, but also a sense of why it’s worth discovering your agency, I just think that’s so crucial. And it can be very, very difficult to convey that in a way that gets those students in the sweet spot where they’re not just kind of popping off without thinking at all, but they’re also not clamming up because what can they offer? They’re not the expert. There’s that middle ground. And in some ways, the open pedagogical framework, that third space idea is the ideal place for them to start spreading their wings and finding that agency.

John: You mentioned that you’ve used blogging for quite a while and you’ve been having students do some wikipedia assignments. And also I believe you have your students work with hypothes.is as well. Could you tell us a little bit about the details of how all these things fit together in your courses?

Gardner: Happy to do that. I know there are a lot of moving parts and some of my students are not happy with all the moving parts, I think because they like the regimented approach. I think we’ve all found that if we try to do some things that are a little more open, or a little more freewheeling, that often students will resist that because that’s not the way they’ve been managing their presence or their activity within school. But, for the students who thrive, here’s what I hope it offers. I always describe this in terms of zooming out and zooming in, or sometimes the microcosm and the macrocosm. And I actually use those as kind of tropes as I’m talking about it with students. There’s no great mystery there. I’m just trying to give them a framework for thinking about it. The blog, it seems to me, is a place for synthesis. It’s a place to take a step back as you tell the story of your learning. You’re making In these connections. You’re knitting things together. You’re trying to make something larger out of more discrete encounters, let’s say with a text, but with hypothes.is, which is a platform for online annotation, now you’re zooming in. Now you’re doing close reading in a social reading environment, in which, in my case, it’s usually a PDF, but it can also be a web page, all the students are reading the same thing and they are highlighting places that strike them as puzzling or interesting or insightful. I actually asked them to use those words as tags, and they highlight those bits. And then in the margin, they leave a comment, they leave a note or they respond to another comment or another note. And hypothes.is, as a platform, has been super because it starts to encourage students to read things more carefully, read things more closely, and to consider again, how the shape of an argument can unfold because they’ll leave a comment at the beginning or a question in the beginning, and then by the end, they see the authors anticipated that question or maybe has complicated that observation even more, and they also become, and this is a great bonus for me as an English professor, they become very attuned to ways in which writers can word things in insightful or beautiful ways. And the tags I’m talking about in the hypothesis environment have to do with making students aware of what Paul Silvia calls knowledge emotions, which he categorizes as confusion, awe, surprise, and interest generally (that also includes curiosity), and for Sylvia, it’s all about balancing certainty and uncertainty in a framework that encourages students to respond but not simply to sum things up… to respond in a way that would record at a particular moment, a cognitive and affective response without simply delivering a summary judgment with a bow on it, which we know can happen. You can think that your whole job as a student is to deliver a set of pat conclusions, but hypothes.is, and using these knowledge emotion tags of “interesting” or “puzzling” or “insightful,” that encourages something that’s a little more open ended and also very attentive to the particulars of a text, it tends to work against paraphrasing. And then often what I’ll do is I’ll say, “Okay, folks, now I want you to blog about your experience of using hypothes.is.” And then they begin to back up again, and synthesize some of the more granular and specific things they were doing with a particular text, also with the dimension of how the interaction with students went, their classmates. So the zooming out, the zooming in, and then connecting that to the work with Wikipedia, you’ve got opportunities to do very granular work with particular facts, with particular sources, to step back a little bit and start to think about the information design of the Wikipedia page. And then to learn how to interact with the other Wikipedia editors in the wild and interesting world of the culture of Wikipedia. Michael Nielsen says “my favorite thing about Wikipedia,” he says “it’s not an encyclopedia, it’s a city whose main export to the world is an encyclopedia.” And in his book on network science, he talks about ways in which the culture of Wikipedia manifests itself throughout Wikipedia. And by the time we are moving in that direction, ideally, if the hypothes.is work and the blogging work have achieved that kind of synergy, students are going to be ready for the detailed work and the cultural work and the synthesis work that comes with contributing to a big public resource like Wikipedia. In that effort. I have, of course, enormous partnership help from various organizations: hypothes.is, the learning resources there, the way they have set up Jeremy Dean as a Director of Education who was able to work with individual faculty and with students to help them make the most of this platform and then Wikipedia opened up to me by means of an organization called Wiki Education, which is a fantastic group of folks, may they live forever. They are devoted to setting up environments in which faculty can very easily, and in ways that are very straightforward with the students, set up a series of training encounters for the students… ways in which the students are able to think at a much deeper level about how to be a responsible contributor to Wikipedia, can begin to grapple with issues of copyright, issues of how do you deal with sensitive things like health pages, or pages describing mental illness. Now, my students aren’t doing a lot with that, but those training opportunities are there for people who are running a class in biology or running a class in psychology and they want to contribute to these articles. And it’s a way to, again, to emphasize to students that we have this enormous privilege of being in this very high-level learning community. Let’s give back. This is a kind of experiential learning in which we’re actually contributing what we have been able to be in contact with and to learn in ways that will benefit the world. And that’s no idle promise either. There’s ample documentation of all of these communities for whom Wikipedia is a primary means of learning about the world and, I would add, a primary means of learning about the dangers and the promise of the internet. I think that my students work in blogging in hypothes.is And in Wikipedia, in particular, make them into better digital citizens, people who understand, I think, at much greater depth, what they can contribute, and what kinds of privileges and pitfalls accompany these platforms. So, ideally, what I’m describing is a kind of synergy. I always want these positive feedback loops in which what you do in one environment makes your work stronger, richer, and brings you more surprises with connections when you move into another environment or when you’re working at a big level what happens when you start to work at a more focused and granular level. This is all interactive. It’s another network and my hope is that it creates a network inside students’ heads. At its best, I think, the kind of, I guess, open ecology and the hypothes.is tends to be open, that tends to be in a small, closed group for the classroom. But what they do there, they can bring in weblinks, they can bring in things from the outside. But my hope is that that kind of ecology begins to create, again, the sense of possibility within the students and they begin to see that, really any class, if you look at it’s design carefully, if it’s been put together thoughtfully doing things that should be mutually reinforcing, and not just one thing after another,

John: What do you do with those students who are reluctant to have their work shared publicly, at least under their name? How do you address the students who prefer to keep their work private?

Gardner: Well, the first thing is, they don’t have to do it under their name. One of the nice things about the platform that we’re using, which is WordPress multisite platform, and I’ve done this on my own web-hosted accounts, but we have the big one at school called Ram Pages, they can choose a pseudonym, so they can be pseudonymous to each other. They can be pseudonymous to the world and I talked to them a great deal about the difference between personal and private. I say, you know, you want a good sense of who you are as a person out there. It’s part of your voice and you need to know how to do that in a public setting. But, at the same time, you don’t want to disclose private details. You really don’t want to do that. Because it’s unpredictable how that will promulgate once it’s out on the web. I think the idea that, you know, once you publish something to a blog, it’s there forever, it’s part of your permanent record, is a little overblown. There is that security through obscurity, you’re not going to be found right away. There’s a little bit of space there. That happened to me once. A student blogged about using a roommate’s key to get into the room. And of course, that was an honor offense, you weren’t supposed to do that ,you weren’t supposed to use somebody else’s ID and I had a talk with a student I said, you need to take that blog post down because “ain’t no big thang, but you really don’t want to be talking about that stuff out on the open web.” So, there’s a way I frame it so that I try to anticipate some of the reluctance that students might have and answer questions ahead of time before they even start writing on their blogs. The other thing I do is I always, always, always talk about it in terms of how this is going to be a part of their learning. And I compare it to classes that would have a public performance aspect, a music class, or an art class or a theater class. And I’ll say now we’re doing early modern literature. It’s not necessarily a performance class, but it can have a performance aspect to it that I think is pedagogically valuable. And here is why. If you have a particular objection, then please come to me and we will talk about that. I will try to make you as comfortable as possible and give you what you need to be able to work successfully in an open medium. If at the end of the day, you just can’t bear it, then we’ll have that conversation. What’s interesting to me is, I can’t think of any student who’s ever said, “I’m just not going to do that. I am just not going to do that.” If they don’t do it, it’s usually not because they’re reluctant to put themselves out on the open web. It’s because it doesn’t fit into their normal view of schooling and they just neglect to do it. And that’s the part that always saddens me, because there really is nothing sadder than seeing a student write a tremendous blog post and you think, “Wow, this blogging thing is really bringing out a voice and agency I wouldn’t see otherwise.” But then the student just gets preoccupied or just kind of checks out a little bit and you don’t hear anything from them again. Typically, those students are not going to be attending regularly. They’re not kind of all in to the class. And it’s often been said, and I think it’s true, that one of the things about using these online means is that there’s really no back of the classroom. You’re either there or you’re not. And it’s pretty obvious whether you’re there or not. And some students are just kind of used to being on the margins and being on the periphery. And this is kind of a challenge to them not to do that and they just kind of drift. They’re not terribly interested. But, the idea that people would go, “oh my goodness, if I do this, I’m compromising my inner self and I will be haunted by this for the rest of my life.” First of all, that’s not what we do when we blog in a class. I make that very clear. And second, very few of them say anything about that even after I’ve talked about that as a common apprehension. So, I really do try to make their consent, informed consent. And so far, knock on wood, that certainly seems to have been the case. Every now and then I’ll have a student reach out to me, this happened about 10 years ago, and say, “I just want to make sure that you’ve taken my posts down.” But, that really only happened once, and that was a very special circumstance. Of course, to the best of my ability, I took it down right away. I would like the blog post to have a truly global audience, but a semester is not really a lot of time to build up any kind of a big audience, but the potential is always there. And I think that’s what excites students about work that prepares them to be citizens in a public sphere in ways that maybe they weren’t able to imagine before.

Rebecca: You’ve talked a lot about ways to frame projects like this as a faculty member to make sure that students are safe and responsible and doing what they need to do, and maybe should do, in thinking about their agency. Can we shift gears a little bit and think about what faculty might do to get started on a project and introduce these to students? Where do they start? You know, obviously, there’s the framing, which I think we’ve covered. But, what tools or techniques or kinds of projects would be a good small step in this direction to get started without going full in with three platforms?

Gardner: Well, you know, I feel like if you’re going to take the medicine take the whole dose, because then you’ll conclude, oh, penicillin doesn’t work. And how much did you take? Well, really half a tab every other day. Ah, you didn’t get it up to the therapeutic dose. But, I’ll back down from that. I actually have an answer for your excellent question. I think the first thing that would be helpful for faculty is to run a fairly unscripted, unprompted, discussion forum. And that can even be inside the learning management system. Because one of the first things that faculty need to get comfortable with in my experience is this idea that the student participation doesn’t need to be led by them. I mean, certainly in the classroom, it can be in the assignments, but if there’s a space, a little clubhouse, where students are told they need to be doing things that are interesting, substantive, and relevant to the course, but the teacher is not supplying the prompt. The teacher is not saying it’s going to be 250 words, the teacher is not doing the things that a teacher would often do to try to ensure that students would do interesting, substantive, relevant work. There’s nothing wrong with stipulating certain kinds of ways in which you imagine substantive work would be or interesting work would be and you can talk about that. And I still tell my students, this paper needs to be 10 to 12 pages long, because that’s a way of signifying how much I want them to be invested in a kind of breadth and depth as they approach the topic. But the big step is to say, here’s the forum, I want you to do work that’s interesting, substantive and relevant. I want you to post on three different days and three times a week. In other words, set up the platform so they’re not phoning it in, so that they’re not just kind of doing a big “Oh, I’ll do my three posts on Sunday night” and ”oh, now I’ve got that done.” So that there are maximum chances for the students to work in a constructive way and a couple of guardrails to try to keep them from just driving out of the lane all together. But then don’t prompt it, don’t make the topic yourself, see what happens. And sometimes, of course, you’re going to be disappointed. Other times, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised. And one of the surprises is likely to be the way in which the students who are most committed begin to serve as kind of examples and inspirations for other students, and it belongs to them. I’ve run the discussion forum in my intro film classes for a long, long time. And the platform I use is not hard. It doesn’t seem hard to me, but it’s probably not as, I guess, click here as something that Blackboard or even Canvas would have. I think it’s a lot better. But the key is really not going to be the platform right away. I think I’ve got a platform that encourages kinds of rich interaction that maybe Blackboard wouldn’t, but even if you do it on Blackboard, when the students sense that this is a place in which they are going to need to steer the conversation… within these guidelines: interesting, substantive, and relevant, I tend to use adjectives and talk about qualities in ways that don’t get reduced right away to “How long does it have to be?” and “Do you have a rubric?” Like,” Yeah, my rubric is interesting, substantive, and relevant.” And then if you have questions about those things, let’s talk about that. What does substantive mean? What do you think it means and we have a conversation. If you can habituate yourself to that, then I think you become braver about other kinds of open platforms where you are going to have to give up a little bit of control unless you want the student’s blog to be a kind of term paper published to WordPress, which is a disaster. Just don’t bother. That’s not what a blog is. WordPress can certainly be a place to share the work you do in a term project. You can put your research paper up on WordPress, but that shouldn’t be the only thing you do. There needs to be these opportunities for students to have an idea of what the fruitful directions will be, but not a script, and not a map. And when you get to be able to do those things… And I would say just start small, you know, maybe even start with two weeks in a particular discussion forum just to see what happens and then talk to your students about what happened or what didn’t happen. It becomes a way to reflect on your own instructional design and for them to start to reflect on some of their own contribution or lack of them, and then you just start to build up over time. Now, if you wanted to do something really interesting and a little braver than that, but with plenty of help, I would definitely go to Wiki Education. Wiki education will be a wonderful set of scaffolding for you and your students. It does require some commitment, it requires a little more than running a discussion forum in an unscripted mode for a couple of weeks… that you really do need to think of it as a fairly substantial component of the course, I think, because otherwise it’s just too much work for too little reward for the students. But, if you can do that, you’ll find that you’ve got an army of helpers on Wiki Education. You’ve got a liaison for the students. You’ve got a liaison for the faculty member. You’ve got a dashboard you can look at to be able to see at a glance where students are in working on their articles. You can also pitch the articles they’re working on as making substantive contributions to things that are not well represented in Wikipedia. Women computer scientists, people who are in marginalized groups of any kind… the work that they have done to contribute to any field, or information that’s really important but kind of scant on Wikipedia, having to do with any sphere of interest or something that you’re passionate about that you want to see represented more fully on Wikipedia and the scaffolding you get to help you get the community become part of through the wiki education people, which is simply wikiedu.org is just staggering to me. And did I mention it doesn’t cost anything? There’s that too. So, those are some ways I would say to get started.

Rebecca: I think one thing that’s really interesting to observe as we’ve become distributed teachers and learners with COVID-19… everybody’s remote… is how many of these informal spaces are getting formed by students and faculty alike. I’ve heard examples of students forming their own slack channels to collaborate on work unprompted and just doing that. At Oswego, we’ve had a faculty member who created an Oz hangout group on Facebook that’s actually been really active. So, beyond the formal structure that we generally have for professional development, it’s a space that people have come to and are helping each other out. So, we can observe these things and see how they naturally happen to get an idea of how we can help facilitate that to happen a little bit too.

Gardner: Well, I certainly hope so. And I have to say, though, no one would wish to live through this kind of time. No one would sign up to say, “Gee, I wonder if I could be part of a pandemic.” It is true, necessity is the mother of invention. It is true. Hello. I’m waving to the toddler in the background. And this is another thing that’s so nice about some of these moments, to connect your family and your home with your professional life in a way that everybody is just going to tolerate because my dogs barking in the background and all these things are happening. It helps us embrace the mess and maybe not have the illusion that we can walk around in our uniforms and just keep everything all pristine. So, to your point in particular, it’s always a question of whether the motivation and the sense of urgency and opportunity that you feel during a crisis can actually carry over into business as usual. And I’ve always thought that higher education is the place that is uniquely suited to being able to maintain a sense of urgency and adventure, even if the world isn’t on fire. I can’t say that always happens in higher ed.[LAUGHTER] We have our ruts too, but I remain hopeful and I think your point is exactly right.

John: We’re only in the first week of this ,we’ll be releasing as a few weeks later. But, in my own class, using Zoom for meetings, students start coming in a bit early, and they’ve been likely to stay later. And it’s broken down a lot of the barriers where students might have where they stay a little more distant. We’re seeing them in their natural habitats in their homes. There’s dogs wandering by and so forth. And there also before and after class, and sometimes during class talking about their fears and their concerns.

Gardner: It was such a poignant moment to me when I did my first Zoom session with the senior seminar, when at the end of talking about the unknown known, which was the Errol Morris movie we’re discussing that day, one of the students just said, just almost blurted it out, “I’m so glad for this contact today. You people are the first people I’ve talked to outside of my home all day.” And as the crisis wears on, it’s an opportunity as the uncertainties mount, your dad gets laid off, you find out that somebody in your family is sick, or you’re just kind of increasingly worried, the chance to be together, kind of get your mind off it by doing another kind of learning, but also at the same time to be present to each other with these intimate little portals, which work pretty well now. This is a lot better than CU-See-Me was in 1997. I can tell you that. That’s pretty rich. I think it increases that ambient awareness I was talking about, and frankly, it’s a chance to bond with each other a little more.

Rebecca: I’ve heard some really interesting examples of students from different schools trying to connect as well. I know that’s something in the design area that we’re talking about helping to facilitate a little bit through our professional organizations. Our senior design students, for example, are used to having exhibitions in galleries and can’t, because they can’t have it in physical space. So we’ve talked about ways that they might actually interact with each other and their work in a way that they wouldn’t normally.

Gardner: That’s terrific. Now, that’s magnificent. And you have the impetus to do it quickly. not let the great be the enemy of the good. And then there’s this openness to discovery. That just sounds like a great project. Are you blogging about it? Can I follow you? You’re on leave, That’s right.

Rebecca: We’re discussing how we might be able to help facilitate that to happen and provide a little structure so that the students don’t have to provide the structure, but I’m pretty confident that something will happen.

Gardner: That’s terrific. That’s wonderful.

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

Gardner: Wow, that’s a great question. What is next? I’m not sure. I’m going to keep on keeping on. I continue to be interested in harnessing Wikipedia in ever more intense ways. I’ve use Wikipedia a long time I had been an editor inside of Wikipedia, since I don’t know, I guess I got my first account in the early 2000s, not long after it became Wikipedia. But, it’s one of those things that the farther in you go, the farther in there is to go. And you start to become aware of things that I’m always telling my students and then finding out to my own surprise, it’s true. I was watching a movie called Festival, which is a documentary about the Newport Folk Festival from I think 63 through 67, something like that, and found an artist in there, Horton Barker, I just was fascinated by a blind singer. It turns out he lived in southwest Virginia, knew something like 2000 songs, and had actually performed at the White House at one point. So, I started getting interested in that and decided I would go find more about him on Wikipedia. There was no Wikipedia article on Horton Barker, but because I had been doing this with my students, I knew a lot more about how to start an article up from nothing, what sorts of things might happen. If I didn’t pitch it the right way, it would be marked for deletion, somebody would be on me for this or that because sometimes Wikipedia are kind of persnickety about this wonderful thing that they’ve helped to create, which is perfectly understandable. And the first thing I knew I was creating this Horton Barker article, the next thing I knew, there was an article about the Library of Congress releasing all these folk song recordings in their archive. And Horton Barker was one of the people that they were mentioning, and it was a hyperlink and it linked back to the Wikipedia article I had started and while I was doing it all I met another Wikipedian named Julie Farman, who was one of the people kind of watching new articles about music. She’d never heard of Horton Barker, she gave me some encouragement for the article. and said she was going to spend the rest of her morning listening to Horton Barker, who did put out a long playing record in the early 60s. So the next thing for me is going to be, in terms of my own teaching, is going to be thinking about ways I can be a scholar-practitioner and model that more intensely for my students. They already know I’m on Twitter, they know that I have a blog. But if I ramp up my own involvement in some of these things, I’m interested in in Wikipedia, that gives me another way to create a feedback loop. So I can bring in not just what I’m seeing in articles that they’re doing, but, here’s my Horton Barker article or other things. I just made my 500th edit in Wikipedia, which is nothing, 500 just barely gets you in the door, but it felt like a lot. And so I was at 499, and I said, I’m gonna make my 500th edit in the article on John Milton. And that was my 500th edit. So, that was good. In terms of my own scholarship, I’ve got a project I’m very excited about, which has also been something I’ve worked on in a networked way, which is a book that I’m writing on the story behind Doug Englebart’s authorship of the 1962 Manifesto, which was a research report called Augmenting Human Intellect: a Conceptual Framework. And one of the things I’ve tried to do, in a networked setting, I actually had a big open project on this involving hypothes.is and video interviews over Zoom, just February, I guess about this time a year ago, to try to bring in voices from many different sectors, students, teachers, people who knew Doug and worked with him, people who have used his work in their own work in subsequent years, and try to create a network of conversations to raise awareness of this document, this 1962 monograph, really it is, that was written by an electrical engineer pretty much just off to himself the way a humanities prof would write a monograph. It represented about two year’s sabbatical that he finally had gotten funding for from the Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. So it’s a massive multidisciplinary effort, and it’s a conceptual framework that has never been as widely known as it needs to be. My thesis, one of them anyway, is that without a conceptual framework, we’re just kind of out here on the internet willy nilly, not able to fend off the problems or realize the promise in any kind of rich and ultimately beneficial way. So, let’s go back to 1962. What was this Doug Engelbart guy doing when he was doing the research in everything from linguistics to magnetic core memory that would lead to this document Augmenting Human Intellect: a Conceptual Framework. It’s really a kind of philosophy of networks, a philosophy of computing. And it turns out that there’s a very rich archive at Stanford University of rough drafts of this document, of correspondence with the people who are helping to fund his research from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, various stages of presenting parts of the argument to various people along the way. And the early days of what would become Doug Engelbart’s Augmentation Research Center at SRI. They were the second node on the internet. UCLA was the first the Augmentation Research Center was a place out of which came the mouse, out of which came this idea of a very close coupling between the psychomotor things that the user was doing and the environment in which the user was working. There was even this idea that the operating system, which was called the online system, at the Augmentation Research Center would be a kind of a blueprint for the way in which the internet could keep on providing opportunities for people to innovate applications as they wanted. So there’s a kind of almost a worldwide web built in, even though this was the big mother of all demos that kind of showed a lot of the startling technology to the world, was 1968. So, many decades before the World Wide Web, and many years after Doug had put together really the intellectual and philosophical visionary document, this 1962 manifesto that I want to do a deep dive into to help to try to explain what I think are some of its deepest implications, to tell the story of how it came to be, and to talk about some of the things that it might have to offer for us today, as we try to think about where we’ve gotten to and maybe what direction we should go in. So, that’s my book project. And as you can tell, I’m kind of jazzed about it.

John: It sounds like a fascinating project. Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you again, and it’s good to see you.

Gardner: Good to see you too. And thanks for a fine conversation. We have a good little network here and it’s a privilege to be part of it today. Thank you.

[MUSIC]

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

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

[MUSIC]

132. Pandemic Pivoting

The unexpected shift to remote instruction during the spring 2020 semester in response to a global pandemic disrupted established teaching patterns, forcing many faculty to rapidly learn new tools and techniques of engaging their students. In this episode, Dr. Betsy Barre joins us to discuss what we’ve learned from this sudden shift to remote instruction and how we can better prepare for the uncertainties of the fall semester.

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

Show Notes

Transcript

John: The unexpected shift to remote instruction during the spring 2020 semester in response to a global pandemic disrupted established teaching patterns, forcing many faculty to rapidly learn new tools and techniques of engaging their students. In this episode, we discuss what we’ve learned from this sudden shift to remote instruction and how we can better prepare for the uncertainties of the fall 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 guest today is Dr. Betsy Barre, the Executive Director of the Center for Advancement of Teaching at Wake Forest University. In 2017 she won, with Justin Esarey, the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education’s Innovation Award for their Course Workload Estimator. Welcome, Betsy.

Betsy: Thanks, I’m happy to be here.

John: Today’s teas are:

Betsy: I am not having tea, but I am having a raspberry lime Spindrift. I actually would love to have tea, but I just didn’t get downstairs in time, so I have my Spindrift here.

Rebecca: That sounds good. I have an English breakfast.

John: And I have oolong tea today.

Rebecca: Oh, you’re switching it up a little.

Betsy: Sounds exciting.

John: Amazon helps. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Betsy, we invited you here today to talk a little bit about the work that you’ve been doing at Wake Forest to help faculty prepare for pandemic teaching. Can you talk a little bit about what the Center for Advancement of Teaching’s approach has been and what it will look like leading into summer and fall courses?

Betsy: Sure, I can talk more about what we’ve done, sort of what we’re planning for the future is still in process, as I’m sure it is for many institutions. One of the great things about Wake Forest is that our Center for the Advancement of Teaching is not the only office that has been working with faculty and faculty development and digital technology issues, academic technology, etc. So one of the first things that we did when we knew we were transitioning to online, or transitioning to remote teaching, let’s be specific there, is that we pulled together the offices that were adjacent to our office. So we pulled together the Office of Online Education, the Office of Academic Technology, which is an Information Systems RIT wing at Wake Forest, and also we had a number of librarians who did work on digital pedagogy. So we pulled all of us together and created a kind of super team that would support faculty, and that was really helpful to do that really quickly because it expanded our reach, the numbers of folks who could work with faculty and integrated it, so faculty didn’t have to go to a million different places, there was one place that they could go. We had about 850 faculty or so that were teaching that we had to work with and there were about 10 of us on our team. So, it’s a better ratio than some schools, but it’s still a pretty not ideal ratio, and so we tried to streamline things as quickly as possible. So, like many schools, we created a keep teaching website that had resources, but we also created a blog that had daily updates. So every day, they could subscribe to an email and get it in their inbox every morning that would have daily updates, but also resources, tips, things we’d heard from faculty, etc. That turned out to be really helpful and we’re still keeping that going, and it’s been helpful as they’ve been teaching. We also, though, really wanted to encourage them to share their expertise with each other. So, that week that we had off to help our faculty prepare, we did a series of open labs, where we were there to answer questions, but they could also share with each other what they were doing. And then sort of unexpectedly, a few things that we did that have gone really well is that those of us that are on social media saw some faculty talking on Facebook about this, we thought, “Hey, let’s just create a Facebook group,” and that group has been incredibly active. We have like over 300 faculty that are in that group now and some of our professional staff and it’s been a way of communicating. We’ve tried to communicate it outside of Facebook for those who don’t like Facebook, but certainly it’s been a wonderful way of building community that I think will live on after this, and so that has been nice. And then of course, our one-on-one consultations that we’ve always done, but we set up a easier streamlined system for requesting a consultation, and it would cycle through all 10 of us and sync up with our calendars, and so we found that to be really successful, and as successful as we could be in this trying situation. Summer and fall, a much more interesting wrinkle, that we’ve been working on. Once we got faculty up and ready to go, we now could transition to thinking about how are we going to support faculty in the summer and fall. And one of the things we’ve been saying all along, many institutions have, is that what we did in the spring where we had one week to transition is not really robust online teaching. At the same time, we don’t necessarily have the staff and resources to transition all of our courses online for the summer in a robust way, but we have more than a week. So we’re trying to hit some sort of middle sweet spot where it’s not exactly what we would ideally do with online education at Wake Forest, but it’s better and more intentional and takes more time than what we did for remote teaching. So currently, we’re planning for those who have volunteered to teach in the summer to run a three-week course for them to take asynchronously online to learn more about teaching online, and then we’re also gonna offer all 10 of us to do one-on-one consultations and some minimal instructional design work with them. Fall is still up in the air and we’re not really sure what’s gonna happen with the fall, but I think we’ll probably know in the next few weeks what we’re planning.

John: It’s interesting to see how similar the approaches of various institutions have become and a lot of it, I think, is social media made it easy to share some of those thoughts. We also have a Facebook group, we’ve also done lots of meetings and we’ve had a number of people working with us from our campus technology services in providing support and workshops, and it’s been nice to see everyone come together to help so many faculty make this surprise transition that they never expected and didn’t always entirely welcome, but they’ve been really positive in terms of how people have approached it.

Betsy: I agree.

Rebecca: One of the things that I saw you guys doing that I thought was really interesting was “Ask the CAT,” can you talk a little bit about that program and how it works?

Betsy: The name of our center is the Center for the Advancement of Teaching. We still haven’t decided at Wake Forest if we want to do cat or CAT, but we often joke a cat would be funny because then we could have all these funny cat jokes associated with that. But outside of the blog, we started getting some really simple questions that we realized would be helpful for everyone to hear the answer to. And so early on, a few people asked some questions, and we said, “Can we turn this into a sort of Dear Abby letter that we can then publish responses to, really quick responses on our blog?” and they were happy to do that, and then we turned it into a formal themed series in the blog where people can submit online, ask the CAT questions, and they can do it with a pseudonym, so there’s no stupid questions, any sort of challenges they have, and it’s gone pretty well. And we hope to continue to do that because I think we’ve seen on the Facebook pages, I’m sure you all have as well, is that often there are many similar questions, and so when they see us answering another question, faculty get ideas and say, “Oh, I could do that, now that makes sense.”

Rebecca: It seems like the ability to have a little bit of anonymity there in asking the question might allow for some questions that really need to be asked actually be asked.

Betsy: Yeah, sometimes they’ll just ask a simple tech question and we try to expand it a little bit beyond that to say “Okay, that’s great. Here, I’m going to give you your answer, but before I do, let’s talk a little bit about pedagogy and how you might think about universal design,” or something unrelated to the specific tech question.

John: Rebecca mentioned that you had won an award for your work on Rice’s Course Workload Estimator, which is something we recommend to our faculty regularly and people find it really helpful. How would you recommend people interact with that tool during situations like the pandemic, especially for people who are adjusting very rapidly from one mode of instruction to another?

Betsy: Yeah, so one of the things I shared with Rebecca before we started is this actually is really great timing for you to ask about this, because Justin Esarey is the co-author, co-creator with me and I… he’s my husband actually, we did it together… one of the things we’re thinking about doing in the next couple of weeks is actually revising it in a number of ways. We’ve had a long standing interest in doing it, just haven’t had occasion to do that, and there are some changes we’re going to make that aren’t specifically about online, but one of the changes we’re hoping to do is to actually create some categories that are related to traditional online assignments. And again, these are going to be guesstimates. I always tell people, this is an estimator, it’s not perfect. It’s just our best guesses. But to create some estimates of “How long would it take to have a discussion board if they have two posts, 500 words,” sort of things that we’re used to assigning in online education to hopefully help in that regard. But one of the things that I think is a reason this estimator is important is one of the things we’ve seen, and I’m sure you all have seen as well, after about the second week of remote teaching is that some students started to complain about workload, how much work these new remote courses were. And I think part of that is because faculty were incorporating more accountability measures into their courses, so they may have been expecting that work, but never were really holding the students to account to do that work. And so now students actually have to do and show their work, and so whereas before they might have been able to just show up in a lecture, study on their own time, or not study as the case may be, not do the reading as the case may be. Now, if they’re having weekly reading reflections, they actually have to do the reading and that significantly shifts how much work they feel they have to do. So that’s putting it on the students, but it’s certainly the case, and part of the reason we made the estimator, is that as faculty, we’re not really good at estimating how much time our work takes. And that’s true in a traditional setting, it’s true for me, that’s why I created the estimator. I am a humanist, and so I assign a lot of reading and I never really knew, like, how much time it would take them to read, and so that’s what motivated me to investigate the research on that. I think it’s particularly true that we’re not good at estimating how much time things will take when it’s a new assignment or activity that we’ve never assigned, and that’s what we see in this scenario, many faculty are introducing completely new activities and assignments that they’ve never done before. And they often might think, “Oh, yeah, I should give them discussions in a discussion board,” without taking into account how much time that will take, or “Oh, I really want them to make sure that they connect with me each week, in this way,” or “I need to make sure we have these office hours and they need to watch these videos, but since they’re watching the videos, now, we can have some discussion in class because the videos are no longer part of the class time.” And so we think we’re pretty good at sort of keeping track of that, but it turns out one of the things we found with our estimator is that when we asked faculty to play around with it, that we were often very wrong. Faculty were often very wrong about even their own estimates about how much time they thought they were expecting of students. So, I think it can be a valuable check. It’s not perfect, it’s not exact, but it can be a valuable check on our intuitions about how much time we’re expecting of students, particularly with some of these unique activities that we’re asking them to do online, and I also think there’s some really creative strategies by our friends in online education to help us think about a traditional assignment and how to make it a little bit more efficient, discussion board a little bit less time intensive, that we can talk to faculty about as well.

John: With the pandemic, I would think, some of those calculations based on online classes where people intentionally were in online classes might be a somewhat different situation when people are in households where there’s more people in the room perhaps, or where they’re sharing network access, or where there’s more distractions and noise than the people who had intentionally chosen the online environment.

Betsy: Yeah, I think that’s a really thoughtful insight. Absolutely. I think we’ll hopefully get to talk about this later in our conversation today, is that there are a variety of changes that take place here that are not just about the modality, but thinking about our students’ situation, how long it takes to learn the technology if they’ve never learned it as well. Like, “How do I upload this? How do I take an exam?” And so if we give them a certain amount of time for an exam, recognizing that they didn’t choose to do it, they also don’t know the technology as well, and so how do we account for those adjustments as well, for sure.

Rebecca: Yeah, I agree. I think all of those little extra things that now students have to do, including learning the technology or just getting used to a new system or a new rhythm, they all take time. In a semester, we think that’s what the first couple of weeks of the semester are, but then like this semester, we had two sets of those.

Betsy: Absolutely. And I mean, the fact that we are still sending out posts giving suggestions, means that some faculty are still changing things, they’re still adding new things, because they want to try something new or something didn’t work, and normally, we encourage that, but in this scenario, it’s particularly challenging for our students if new things keep getting piled on over five courses or four courses that they’re taking.

Rebecca: If we’re thinking in a traditional context where there’s in class and out of class work, and now everything is remote, how do we think about dividing up that time or what kind of time they should be spending on what kind of activities?

Betsy: I think this is a really good question. And again, my colleagues in online education who think about this question a lot have more subtle distinctions to make about this, but I actually was just having a conversation last week about what accreditors require and how to think about, quote unquote, contact hours in an online environment, and incidentally, one of the things we found actually, unexpectedly with our Course Workload Estimator… again, the motivation was for me as a humanist to basically answer the faculty question of “How much reading should I assign?” was a very narrow purpose, how much reading should I assign? But what we found is that the biggest usage were people who were instructional designers in online programs, who were interested in this question of “How much time is faculty contact hours, is it actually comparable to the face-to-face courses?” So it is connected, and so I’ve been talking about this a lot, and one of the things that, at least the federal guidance suggests, is that one credit hour is about 45 hours of work for students. So over 15 weeks, one credit hour, you do two hours out of class for every hour in class over 15 weeks, and so it’s about 45 hours. They don’t really enforce it, it’s a complicated question or a comparable amount of work, but that’s an easy way of thinking about it. It’s about 45 hours of work for a single credit hour and then 15 of that is expected to be in the presence of the professor. So traditionally, that would mean 15 of that you go to class, 30 of it’s at home. That’s the traditional model that we think of, but in online, of course, it’s different because everything is at home. So one thing, you could just say, “Well, everything’s at home. So then professor never needs to be engaged,” like, you can just say, “I’m going to record all my lectures, put them all up, and then I’ll grade your exam at the end.” Of course, we know that that’s not good pedagogy, online or otherwise. And so I think the way to think about this is, of the 45 hours of work your students are doing, are at least 15 of those hours, somehow engaging with the faculty member? But that could be, for example, a discussion board where the faculty member is in the discussion board engaging and providing feedback. It could be one-on-one sessions where you work on a paper together with the student in an office hour. There are a lot of ways you can imagine faculty presence and engagement that don’t have to be “Let’s have a synchronous video conference session.” But there are some good reasons for that too, particularly in the remote environment where students want some continuity to what they’ve already done. But I think that there should be more flexibility and I think there often is in good online program about what counts as those contact hours, but without just saying, “Oh, as long as we have a video, that counts as a contact hour.”

Rebecca: Along these lines, do you have any advice about designing learning activities and assessments when we have no idea what the modality might be in the fall?

Betsy: That’s a good question. I’m sure that many other people have been asking that question, I myself am teaching this semester, so it has been interesting in helping all the faculty but also teaching myself and figuring out what’s working and what’s not. And I think Derek Bruff at Vanderbilt had a, I actually liked this language that he shared initially about creating pivotable courses. He ended up changing it, he didn’t like that one as much, but I actually like that, like your course could easily pivot. And I think for me, one of the things that I saw was that my course, even though it was a face-to-face course, heavy discussion course seminar course, I had built in already some asynchronous activity outside of class, they were already annotating the text via Hypothesis, which is a really wonderful tool for those of you that don’t know about that in the humanities or any text heavy discipline, Hypothesis is wonderful and in that sense they were already used to and had learned how to annotate their text digitally in the face-to-face course. When we transitioned, it was easy. Okay, we’re going to be doing that. And that was already built into the course. I also think getting all of our courses so far as possible into a digital environment, whether that’s an LMS, or Google or whatever you prefer, can be an easy way too, because a lot of the time we spent with faculty was just getting them to like, “Oh, how do you collect assignments? Okay, let’s get you into the LMS. Here’s how you collect assignments. Here’s a way that you can think about sending a message to students that’s not just through email.” And so at the very least, if we all get in our LMS, or another digital environment, if you don’t like the LMS, and then think of some activities and engagement that our students can engage in at home with each other, or perhaps with you that’s outside of the regularly scheduled class time, you’re already making it easier to shift. But I also think one thing, and we may come to this when we talk about grading, one thing I’ve been thinking a lot about is I had to scrap one of my activities in my course when we transitioned to remote and I’ve been thinking about the particularly challenging situation for those faculty who had a semester-long assignment. So luckily, my assignment was at the second part and so they haven’t started it yet, we can just do something else, because that would be difficult. But if you have many semester-long assignments, that disruption can be really difficult, but if you could organize your course another way to make it pivotable is to organize it in modules, like really intentionally, not just in Canvas, but actually say, “Okay, we’re going to work on this unit as a self-contained assignment that will be done in two weeks. So that way, if we have to take off in week three, you’re already finished with that assignment in that module.” And then there’s one module that’s remote and then if we come back, hey, we get to start another module that might be face-to-face, and so it gives you some flexibility. If you design your course in a more modular way to prepare for disruptions rather than thinking about it as multiple whole semester-long assignments.

Rebecca: It’s interesting that you say that, Betsy, because I’m not teaching this semester, but I’m planning for my fall class, and I teach web design primarily and I was thinking about teaching agile design. So I decided that I would teach it in an agile fashion, which is really what you’re describing. [LAUGHTER]

Betsy: Yeah, that’s smart.

Rebecca: So, I started mapping out what that would look like in these little sprints to work on a larger project, and we would do maybe two projects, one that was collaborative and one that was individual, but in sprints that would rotate between the two projects. So I’ve been mapping out what that might look like, and my real reasoning for that was, specifically if something was going to be disrupted or if it was going to be online, I thought it would be a little easier to help students through the project if it had these clear checkpoints and finishes to things before starting something new.

Betsy: One of the things that made me start thinking this way, and this goes back to the question of how we’re preparing for fall and all the scenarios that all the institutions are thinking about, Beloit college just decided that they were going to actually teach their fall semester in two seven and a half week sessions, essentially. So basically, students will take two courses for the first seven and a half weeks, and then two courses for the second seven and a half weeks. Certainly it’s a lot of work on the part of faculty to transition their 15 week course to a seven and a half week course, but it also is creative because it means that we have to start late, only two classes are disrupted rather than all four and if you have to leave in the middle, only two classes are disrupted. So, there is a way in which it allows for some flexibility. You can even be as dramatic and radical as going to a block schedule like they have at Colorado College or other schools where they have one course at a time. That would be more work for our faculty and may not work as well, but I did like the idea of thinking, “Okay, let’s just prepare for our face-to-face courses to be seven and a half weeks as an institution.” And then it’s the opportunity to experiment with that kind of pedagogy anyway, because some schools have May terms and other things. And so we are not, at Wake Forest, certainly planning that, but it is an interesting fun thought experiment to think about.

John: One issue that we’re talking about on our campus is how faculty should administer final exams, and grading and assessment, and there’s a lot of concern over people trying to give timed exams and put other limits on students. What are your thoughts on how we should deal with assessing students as we move towards the end of the semester?

Betsy: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, there are a number of issues at work here. One is the challenges the students have at home and thinking about good universal design principles of giving students as much time as possible if it’s not one of your outcomes. If doing things quickly is not one of your outcomes, that’s an important thing to think about. Often, also, what’s in the mind of people, though, is academic integrity. And so part of the concern of a number of faculty is: “Well, I’m usually proctoring it in person. So, how do I give an exam in a way where I’m not going to be there in person?” And then that raises all sorts of interesting challenges associated with technology and the privacy concerns with those online proctoring systems, and so certainly we’ve been thinking a lot about this too, and how to give advice. One of the first easy answers that anybody who’s in pedagogy is going to say, is come up with different designs for your assessments. And I think, absolutely, we should start there. I don’t need to give a timed exam in my course, there are ways I can write the question where I’m not worried about academic integrity issues. So, there are certainly ways in which that’s possible, but I do want to be mindful of my colleagues in intro languages, or my colleagues in intro math, where there are some recall outcomes that are really important for them. And so I think I always want to just be careful to not say, like, “Oh, how dare you have any recall outcomes because that’s just not good pedagogy.” I don’t think that’s necessarily true, so for those colleagues who have recall outcomes, it becomes a more interesting question. On our blog, we have a post on this that we could share, if you’re interested, where my colleague, Anita McCauley, who’s amazing, posted a flowchart of ways of thinking about, “Okay, if you have an exam, what are ways that you can think through how to do something differently?” And one of the first parts of that flowchart that I really like is, if you’ve already assessed it before, you may not need to assess it again, and so particularly for my colleagues in Spanish and other intro languages, maybe they’ve already assessed their ability to conjugate verbs. Do you need to have it on the final in a cumulative way? That was just something that often has not been on the table and talked about and I think it’s worth saying. But, beyond that, they might be somewhat different outcomes where they have to recall but then explain why the verb was conjugated in that way, and so there are ways you can see whether they know it or not, that they can’t just get on the internet. And so being mindful of the challenges there but also saying that “Let’s try as hard as we can to come up with alternative assessments.” Then the questions of how much time to give them, again, always come back to say, like, “Is speed one of your outcomes?” and almost always it’s not; almost always the reason there are timed exams is because they’re in the timeframe of the class. So there’s 75 minutes for them to sit in the class and take the exam and that’s why there’s a limit. It’s not because speed is actually an outcome. So now they actually have some more flexibility where they could give them more time and the technological tools allow them to give them more time, and you can extend it as far as you want. I will often say, instead of giving accommodations to a student to get extra time, give the whole class extra time, especially as they’re learning new technology. If folks are still committed to traditional recall exam and worried about proctoring…. we, for example, at Wake Forest,have not bought proctoring software… and we’re not using it for a variety of reasons, and so one of the things I recommend is if you absolutely are still committed to that, then you can do a synchronous session just like you would normally where they’re taking the exam, and it’s you, not some outside vendor or AI etc, as you would in the classroom.

John: I’m not sure if the problem though, is just due to recall type exams because I can speak from my own experience. Last week I gave a test which were all applications in econometrics and copies of the questions (where there were many different variants for one problem, there were seven variants), most of those problems ended up on Chegg within about 15 minutes of the release of that, and answers were posted. Many of them were really bad answers, which helped make it really easy to find these things…

Betsy: [LAUGHTER] Yes, yes.

John: …within less than an hour of the time the exam was released. So even when people are doing some problems, there are some issues, or even when they’re asked to write essays, there are people out there who are willing to provide those responses for them.

Betsy: Oh, yes. And actually, that will be true in face-to-face classes, too, if you’re not doing in class essays. That’s the one level of academic integrity that you just are never going to be able to catch if you pay somebody to write your essays for you or take your online exam. My background, incidentally, is as an ethicist, so I think a lot about questions of academic integrity. I always get mad at my students when I give this lecture like, “This is an ethics class, you need to take this seriously.” But it is true that the empirical research on student behavior in this regard is not heartening. Let’s put it that way. So I really appreciate all the literature about “We need to trust our students,” and there’s a certain framework of what happens when we come into a course where we don’t trust our students, but the empirical literature about what students admit to have done is really not heartening, and so I do think it’s okay for us to think about these questions that you’re thinking about, John, which is, “Okay, we’re creating conditions where they’re tempted,” and that’s something also we don’t want to do either is to create the conditions where students might be tempted, particularly for students who do have academic integrity, because then they’re at a disadvantage if they choose not to engage in that kind of sharing of resources. What did you do, John, how did you address this?

John: I’m just dealing with it now, I was just grading those today.

Betsy: Yeah, it’s tough.

John: So right now I’m trying to identify the students and I’ll be having conversations with them. Because there were so many varieties of questions out there, it’s going to be pretty easy to identify which student did which. One interesting thing is, someone took one of the answers and ran it through a paraphrasing tool so that the “error terms” in the equation became “blunder terms” in the equation, which was a pretty obvious paraphrase. It was interesting.

Betsy: One of the things I’ve appreciated about this moment and having conversations like you and I are having right now is that it’s encouraged some faculty to think in different ways about assessment. They have a standard way of assessing “This is the kind of thing that I’ve done for years,” and now I have to think, “Oh, what could I possibly do differently?” So one thing I just keep coming back to, when I think about my own courses… there are challenges with this… there are problems with this, because it can be stressful for students… but I think oral exams are often some of the most effective ways to see whether a student knows something is that you, face-to-face, come to my office hour, and let’s talk about it. Tell me, and I’ll ask follow-up questions. That’s a way to really tell whether a student knows something, and so you can still do that virtually. Now that takes more time, especially if you have a big class, but thinking sort of outside of the box in that way of “How can I verify?” is important. I have a couple colleagues that are ethicists too, who have devoted their life to this issue of academic integrity and it consumes them. In some ways, I understand that, because it’s a real violation of trust, and it harms other students. But at the same time, too, I worry sometimes that it becomes so consuming for us that we lose track of all the other things that we should be thinking about with teaching, and so, in this scenario, where it’s as crazy as it is, this is why I think the pass-fail designation that many of our schools have done have made things easier, because we also know empirically that students are less likely to cheat when it’s a pass-fail environment. I think the fact that many of our schools did optional pass-fail means that we’re still in this wrinkle space where many of our students still want to get the good grade, and so they’re taking it for a grade and there’s still temptations. But thinking of ways to make it less high stakes can be another way as well to reduce the likelihood of academic integrity, but it is going to be a challenge that there’s no quick and easy solution for. I don’t have your solution, John.

John: Well, I don’t either, right now.

Betsy: Maybe somebody will… that they can tell us too, who listens to this podcast.

John: One thing I am also doing is I have scaffolded assignments where they have to develop things from the very beginning up to their final projects, and there it’s much more difficult for academic integrity problems to show up because they’ve been guided and getting feedback all the way through and that tends to reduce it, but when you’re trying to test some other things that they’re not using in their projects, but might need to know in the future, there are challenges there.

Rebecca: I think another question that’s come up quite a bit is how to grade fairly just over the course of the semester, either this semester or a future semester when there might be potential for another outbreak or something, when students are not in optimal work conditions, there’s distractions, they might be sick, they might be dealing with family members who are sick. So what do we do to make sure we’re fair?

Betsy: Again, coming back to me as an ethicist, I think a lot about academic integrity, but also about grades and what it means to be fair, and there’s some people who would make the argument that there’s certain notions of fairness… that it’s impossible to grade fairly, even in normal situations, especially if we’re taking into account differences in student background, etc., that they’re always going to be disadvantaged students in our classes. And so thinking about what a grade is, is really important. And again, I’ve been heartened by the fact that these challenges have led so many of our faculty to start thinking in new ways about “What the heck is a grade and how do I want to think about my grades?” And I do think that one way of thinking about fair grades is actually not the model of “Well, we need to take account of all these challenges the students have,” one way of thinking about their grades is that all the grade is, is a measure of their performance. Now, you could say that that’s unjust for other reasons, but that it’s at least I’m treating all the students the same. So this is maybe the difference between equality and equity. So like we’re treating them all equally, that’s a measure of performance and mastery, so it’s ensuring the integrity of the grade. But what’s interesting is that most of us don’t actually grade that way. Most of us have all sorts of other things in our grading scheme that are about behavior, rather than about outcomes. So like, “You have to show up, you have to turn these in by this due date, you have to make sure you participate in class,” and I have those in my typical grading scheme as well, and those we’ll refer to as behavioral grades. And there are some educational theorists, as you two probably know, that would argue that you should never grade on behavior, you should never have behavioral grades. I think we could have a much longer discussion about this. I sort of think there are some good reasons for doing it in the context of higher ed at least. But I think in this scenario, this is if there’s any scenario and this is what I wrote about in one of our first blog posts, if there’s any scenario where that would be unfair, the kind of behavioral grading, it would be this scenario because some of our students did not choose this, they’re in different time zones, they can’t make it to our class, they have to deal with things at home. They were already in the midst of the course too, so it’s not as if we say, “Well, wait a year and come back to us when you’re ready to take the class fully,” because they were ready, and we kicked them off campus. So there is all sorts of other complications here to the traditional model of like, “Well, wait until you’re ready to take a class.” They can’t, they were already enrolled, they already paid, we’re not giving them refunds. So in this context, being as accommodating as possible, and making our courses as accessible as possible, is really important. And some people have even argued, this is why we should give them all A’s like some people have argued, not just pass-fail, but actually all A’s would be a better approach. Because to say like, “Look, you’ve done some work this semester, let’s move on and give you all A’s,” of course that creates challenges for some of our colleagues, who are going to say “What about the integrity of the grades for future courses? Is that fair to students who take it a different time and don’t get the A?” So what I have argued for, but it’s again, not a perfect solution, is really dropping any behavioral grades that you have in these scenarios, at least for this context, and then really focusing on your mastery outcomes, but also being reasonable about the number of outcomes students can master in this scenario. So I actually dropped two outcomes from my course completely, completely dropped them. Now, that’s easier for me to do in an intro religion class than it is in an intro calc class where they’re prepared for the next course. So I always want to be mindful of the differences of my colleagues in different disciplines. But, if you are able to drop outcomes, you can drop them and still be rigorous with the outcomes you still have and being a little bit more compassionate and sensitive to your students. But doing mastery based grading also can be helpful in the sense that, for me, students get multiple shots at showing mastery, and so this would be like specifications grading if you want to read more for the fall, so they have multiple opportunities to show. So, if they have a bad week or an assignment doesn’t work well, they can try again, and as long as by the end of the semester they showed mastery, that’s enough. It’s not about averaging over the course of the semester, and so I already had a mastery based grading system in my course before I began this semester, so I wasn’t recommending to people in this transition, “Oh, completely revise your grading scheme,” that would be not helpful. But if people are thinking about the fall, you know, it might be worth considering thinking about that. There are downsides to mastery based grading too, so I don’t want to act as if it’s this, like, solution to everything, but it might be worth investigating a little bit and maybe incorporating some aspects of mastery based grading into your teaching.

John: And we did have an earlier podcast episode on specifications grading with Linda Nilson.

Betsy: Oh, wonderful.

John: So we can refer people back to that in our show notes as well.

Betsy: Yeah, it’s wonderful.

John: One of the issues with equity, as you mentioned, is that that problem became, I think, much more severe when students were suddenly sent home. On campuses, at least there’s some attempt to equalize that, that everyone gets access to high- speed internet. There’s computer labs in most campuses spread out across campus, and we also don’t have as much of an issue with food insecurity, at least for our on-campus students while they’re there. Suddenly when students are sent home, all those things disappear and the issues of inequity, I think, become a whole lot more severe and it’s something, as you said, we need to be much more mindful of.

Betsy: Yeah, one of the things that I really appreciated from Tom Tobin’s book on universal design, he has a distinction. I don’t actually know if it’s his… it might be his or it might just be generally in the literature on universal design… is distinguishing between access skills and target skills that you want your students to learn versus things they have to know or be able to do to access your material. What I really appreciate, as it helps us think about something as simple as like having a good internet connection, that should not influence their grade, because it’s not one of our target skills. That’s not what we want the grade to be reflecting, whether they had good internet connection. What we want the grade to be reflecting are the target skills that we’re interested in. So I think the way to think about equity here is to focus on any place where things that are irrelevant to your course outcomes are getting in the way of students being able to learn and demonstrate their mastery. That’s where you want to be lenient, that’s where you want to come up with solutions. So for example, in my first-year writing courses in English as a second language, if the thing that you’re assessing is not grammar, if the thing you’re assessing is the way they develop their ideas, the grammar can be a barrier. So there are ways in which you don’t want to grade on that, because your target skills are really about developing ideas. And so that’s a sort of inclusive teaching practice that’s really important in this scenario. What are the things that make it difficult for the students to show up in our Zoom session? And how am I going to create alternatives for them? One thing that we have suggested to our faculty is if you’re doing Zoom sessions, of course, they should be optional. But we also suggested recording it. So the students who couldn’t be there could watch it setting aside the problems with privacy, of course. We can talk about that too. But there’s another wrinkle there too, which is that then that means some students get the interactive, quote, unquote, face-to-face engagement, but the other students only get to watch recordings the whole time. So, one of the things we’ve also said is for equity is also to think of other ways you can engage with those students who can’t come to the Zoom sessions in a way that’s asynchronous or that perhaps at a separate time without overly burdening the faculty member as well.

John: One of the things I’ve done is I’ve shared my cell phone number because all the students have cell phones. [LAUGHTER] I’ve only done that once or twice before in senior-level classes. But this time I’ve done it with all my classes. I did get a phone call coming in right at the beginning when we started recording, and I sent back a text saying I’ll contact you later. But, that has helped because some students do have issues with being able to use Zoom.

Rebecca: And there are certainly tools that you can use to allow you to provide a number that’s not your actual cell phone number that students can still use your phone or texting to communicate.

John: You could use Google phone or you…

Betsy: There’s another one, though, that I’ve used in the past maybe five or six years ago, it’s used in K through 12 environments. Oh, Remind… Remind is the one. Yeah, so I actually used that when I started to realize my students weren’t checking email anymore. I was like, “Oh, this isn’t gonna work, emails not going to work anymore. So I need to find some other way to connect.” But that’s great to be as accessible as possible to your students, but recognizing also that equity issues for us, as faculty. Some of my colleagues can do that more easily than other colleagues who have three kids at home that they’re homeschooling. And so that’s a part of the challenge of this scenario as well, it’s not just what we know is good teaching practice, but also the labor implications for faculty too… that are significant.

Rebecca: Following up on that, that’s a really important consideration is the balance of fairness between both faculty and students because it’s certainly not a situation that any of us signed up for, but we’re all trying to manage. And it’s really possible that we might be in a similar situation in the fall, maybe not exactly the same in that we’ll have a little warning, but it still could happen. So, how do we think about balancing the ability to pivot and make sure that we’re thinking about the ability of teaching remotely without getting too much burden on faculty, but still have really good learning opportunities for students?

Betsy: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I think part of it is trying to think about efficient ways of development. So I was, and you, too, may feel the same way, that that week that we had to transition, I have never seen so much learning happening in a week and so much effort and work and those of us in faculty development probably would never have dreamed. I mean, I don’t know, maybe we would have dreamed that that would happen, but it was a really remarkable thing to see that faculty teaching other faculty can accelerate this in a way that often the model of one instructional designer with one faculty member for six months, that model like that’s how much we need, well, maybe not, now. Maybe we see that if you have to get it done, we’ll get it done, and we can have one-to-many trainings, we can have faculty training each other, we can accelerate that, in some ways, I think is important. But support is also important. So, making sure that we’re supporting faculty as they’re learning what things they can do, and also what we often do in faculty development is talk about efficiencies. So, it’s not just “We’re going to give you a million new pedagogies that we know work, but we’re going to give you a pedagogy that’s actually going to save you time,” and that is really powerful with our faculty and I think we can do the same thing here. So, if we know that there’s a faculty member who has children and has had a hard time with this transition, because they can’t do synchronous Zoom sessions, maybe we talk with them about other alternatives that might be easier for them that they can prep in advance, that will make that transition easier without having to show up at a set time for those synchronous sessions with their children at home. So, it doesn’t solve it, but I do think we should work really hard to come up with the most efficient ways of making the best outcomes possible given the resources that we have. And I think adjusting resources… so we’ve talked about at Wake Forest, outside of teaching and learning, some of our staff, their jobs are no longer really needed, so let’s transition them to other places where we need support. I think you could do the same thing with faculty as well. So, maybe those who have the capability of teaching more or have taught online before, maybe they do more in the fall, but then they get a leave in the spring. There are ways in which you can move things around. Again, I’m not a Dean making these decisions, but being creative about making sure to share the load equally. One question that has come up here, which is really interesting, is that for our faculty who teach more as part of their load, in some ways, this is certainly harder on them than those who have a more balanced teaching and research pipeline, because most of the effort here is in revising courses. Of course, if you have a lab that you have to shut down, certainly that’s a lot of effort. But, making sure we’re mindful of the differential impacts of this transition on our faculty and figuring out ways, not that we’re going to pay them for it, but figuring out ways that we might be able to balance the load moving forward once things go back to quote unquote normal, if they ever do go back to normal [KNOCKING SOUND] …knock on wood here.

Rebecca: I know one thing that I’m thinking about, having small children, is that I’m thinking about all the things that require a little less cognitive load that I’m doing right now while I have a toddler at home, and then when I think I’m going to have daycare again, I’m going to take advantage and do the things that actually require a lot more cognition. And I’m planning to do those at those times, including things like recordings or things like that, that I know I might need to do just to have it in the wings just in case something happens in the fall.

Betsy: I think this is an opportunity for all of us in higher ed to think creatively about how we distribute workload and how we think about the semester and timelines. So, even before this happened, our team read the book Deep Work, and we were just talking about how to create space in our daily work to do intensive deep work, and one of the stories he tells in the book is about a faculty member who stacked his courses so that they were all in one semester. So you know, you have a two-two load or three-three load and he decided to do six in one semester, and then none in the next which normally that sounds crazy, but there’s a way in which that could be really helpful in certain contexts and I think this is an opportunity to think about that. So, those who are doing really intensive work, building online courses, maybe they do a number of them, because it scales, economies of scale, like they do a number of them in the fall and then in the spring, they don’t have to teach… you know, ways of thinking about how to balance this, and then it also would allow us as faculty developers to work with a smaller cohort of faculty, rather than having to work with every single faculty member. Now, I don’t imagine we’ll do that, but it is an opportunity to think of these creative ways of making the workload more equitable as well.

John: And faculty, as human beings, tend to keep doing things the same way as they’ve always done them until there’s some sort of disruption. This certainly has been a fairly substantial disruption, and I think a lot of people, as you said, have learned how to use new tools and at least from what I’ve been hearing, many people now having discovered using Kahoot for quizzing, for example, or using Hypothesis. I’ve been giving workshops on Hypothesis for a while on campus, but not many people adopted it. All of a sudden, I’m getting all these questions about using Hypothesis where people are using it for peer review of documents, where they’re using it in the LMS or more broadly, and I’m hoping that this will continue in the fall. What sort of reactions have you been getting from faculty who are trying some new tools?

Betsy: Yeah, I mean, there’s so many who have said, “Oh, wow, I can totally use this in my face-to-face classes,” and that’s really exciting to hear, that they’re gonna keep it, they’re gonna keep the strategies in their face-to-face courses, or if it needs to go remote, of course, as well. As well as, “Oh, now I know how to use Canvas, so I’ll actually use the gradebook.” Things that are going to be nice for our students as well. Students have been asking for to have a place where they can see all their courses together. I think there was a kind of fear about these technologies in some ways and now that they were forced to do that, “Ah, it’s not so hard.” Now some things are difficult, some things are challenging associated with developing a really well designed online course, but some of these little tools that they have to use in this environment can be helpful in what they’re traditionally doing in their face-to-face courses and I’ve seen many of them say they’re going to do that which is such a wonderful thing to hear as well as pedagogical decisions they’ve had to make about assessment, about universal design, about academic integrity, grading, all the things they’re learning there can also translate back to their courses too, even if we don’t go remote.

Rebecca: And I think all those like crossover areas are ways that faculty can be more nimble. The word pivoting has been used a lot, but I think also being nimble, “I’m using this tool or method and it works both online and in person, so it doesn’t matter which modality I’m using” is something to think about. I did want to just ask one last question related to grading and evaluation, and that’s about motivating students to achieve our learning outcomes when there are so many other things in the world right now that we might be thinking about.

Betsy: Yeah, that’s a great question. I often like to quote the former Secretary of Education that said, “There’s only three things that matter in education; motivation, motivation, and motivation.” [LAUGHTER] So motivation is super, super important when we think about how students learn. We can design the coolest evidence-informed course and design, but if students aren’t motivated, it doesn’t matter. So thinking about our student contexts, and their motivation is really central to their learning, let alone how we’re going to grade them. And so there are a number of things we know that lead to motivation. Sort of important is the students have a choice and that they have some agency or ownership over what’s happening, and so I know a lot of my colleagues at Wake Forest did this and I did as well, is when we made this transition is to ask the students, “So what’s going on with you? What’s your preferences for how we restructure the course? How would you like to learn moving forward?” and to keep being in conversation with our students. And what I did, for example is, now again, I had the flexibility to do this in a religious studies course, but I basically threw out that project at the end of my semester, and so instead had time to say, “What do you want to read about? What things about religion do you want to know about?” And so we’ve been reading about religion in violence, religion in COVID-19, just things that they’re interested in, and that has allowed me to help a little bit with motivation is to just engage with the students a little bit more, but it’s tough. Typically, I think a lot of times we think of there’s carrots and sticks related to motivation, so you can certainly use sticks if you wanted to with grades, but that often has unintended negative consequences. So the more you can do carrots, which would mean thinking about what do they want to learn. I also think that my students, at least at Wake Forest, really miss each other. It’s a really communal place and they really miss each other, so creating opportunities for them to engage with each other, even if I’m not there. There are lots of little interesting activities I’ve seen people suggest where they get together and have video chats in groups, and then record them for the professor. Creating opportunities for them to spend time with one another… They will just want to spend time with each other, whether it’s about learning or not, but if you sneak in the learning, that can be something that will motivate them too, but the reality is some of our students, there are too many other more important things on their plate and we need to acknowledge that, and so I’ve tried to make my students feel that it’s okay to say that, that I’m not disappointed in them if they don’t do as well or if they choose to take it pass-fail that like, “Look, this is just a religious studies class. It’s one class among many. There are many other more important things happening right now. Yes, we want to help you learn if you want to learn, if you want to complete the course and get the credits you get, but we all know that there are other things that are taking our attention away right now, and that’s understandable,” and being sympathetic about that, I think, can also be motivating because they’re not demoralized if they don’t do well. “That’s okay. She understands. I’ll give it a try next week.”

Rebecca: I think that humanity piece is key, both for students and for faculty, and it makes people feel like they have a sense of belonging but also that belonging is often motivating.

John: We always end with the question. What’s next? Which is a question on everyone’s mind right now.

Betsy: I think for me, and maybe this is unique to me or my colleagues who are in teaching and learning centers and in faculty development. What’s next is I want to have some time to reflect back on what I’ve learned about faculty from this transition, and what I’ve learned about faculty development from this transition, and we talked a little bit about this in our earlier conversation, but I was really struck by what I saw on that week off that we had to learn how to improve. I mean, again, I need to spend more time thinking about this and what we’ve learned, but one of the things that was really striking to me was how important having a dedicated time to talk about teaching was, like, “This is a week where you’re going to work on your classes, faculty,” and often we talk about “How do we motivate faculty to do professional development?” We think about funding, we think about course releases or making it enticing in other ways, but my hypothesis that we learned through this transition is that time and dedicated time and a sort of cultural commitment to saying we’re going to take two days to focus on our teaching. What if we did that every year, and there are some schools that have a faculty development day, but what if we took three days every year where everybody got together and talked about their teaching. And I think that’s just one example of something that I would like to reflect on, but I think there are many other things that have happened in the past three weeks that can help inform the way we think about faculty development and I’m really excited to think about that as we, as a center, think about how we work with faculty going forward.

John: Things like that Facebook group that you mentioned, and we have a similar one, has been really helpful in building more of a community than I’ve ever seen before.

Betsy: Absolutely. Yep, I completely agree.

John: Well, thank you. This has been fascinating, and we wish you luck.

Betsy: Thanks for inviting me. It was great to talk with you all.

Rebecca: Yeah. 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. Editing assistance provided by Savannah Norton.

[MUSIC]

130. Radical Hope

Faculty enter teaching careers with the hope of shaping a better future for our students and our society. In this episode, Dr. Kevin Gannon joins us discuss what faculty can do to build a positive and inclusive learning community that empowers and motivates students. Kevin, also known as the Tattooed Professor, is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University. He is also the author of Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, which has recently been released by West Virginia University Press.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Faculty enter teaching careers with the hope of shaping a better future for our students and our society. In this episode, we discuss what faculty can do to build a positive and inclusive learning community that empowers and motivates students.

While this podcast was recorded before the global pandemic resulted in a shift to remote instruction, the message seems especially timely.

[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. Kevin Gannon, also known as the Tattooed Professor. Kevin is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University. He is also the author of Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, which has recently been released by West Virginia University Press. Welcome, Kevin.

Kevin: Thanks. Great to be here with you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

Kevin: I am actually drinking water right now, but I am brewing up some Japanese green tea as we speak.

Rebecca: Excellent.

John: And I am drinking a peppermint, spearmint, and tarragon blend.

Rebecca: I have now resorted back to my English afternoon. I’m like about three or four cups in today, so I’m back to my old habits. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: So you’re ready to go, then, is what you’re saying.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m ready to go. [LAUGHTER]

John: We recorded one earlier today and she was off on a different tea, so.

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about Radical Hope. Could you talk a little bit about the origin of this project?

Kevin: Sure. So the book actually started as a blog post I wrote back in the summer of 2016, back when we all had so much hope and optimism, right? [LAUGHTER] So it took me a lot longer to write it into a book than I thought it would. The first draft of the manuscript was actually really angry. [LAUGHTER] And as Jim Lang, my editor, pointed out, we’re not titling the book Radical Anger. We’re titling it Radical Hope. [LAUGHTER] So people would ask me, “So what’s it like to be writing a book on hope?” And I’d say, “Well, it’s interesting,” and “How’s the book coming?” …and… “Well, it’s interesting,” but that’s where it got its origin, and the blog post was written, I started the blog I think in 2014, even, I was trying to jump start my own writing practice. So, I figured having a platform to kind of put stuff out there in a less formal sort of way and try to develop ideas and if one or two people read them great, but it was mostly for me. And this post came after a particularly interesting semester, and interesting euphemistically speaking, where I was really trying to kind of make sense of some struggles that I had personally in the classroom with my students, but also just kind of the higher ed landscape in general, and I really felt like writing some, kind of clarifying my values and my approach, would be a really useful reflective exercise, and so that’s what the post came out of. And it seemed to resonate with a lot of folks, and Jim invited me to turn it into a book and longer than expected later, here we are.

John: Even though we’re in fairly challenging times right now, teaching, as you note, is an act of radical hope. Could you elaborate on that concept just a little bit?

Kevin: Absolutely, so I’m using the word radical in its sort of literal sense, like root level, fundamental, pervasive. It’s an ethic, I think, that informs or can inform, and I would argue, should inform every sort of nook and cranny of our practice. So if you really think about it, what we’re doing on the everyday basis, the seemingly routine choices we make, “Here are the textbooks I will select, here’s how I’m going to run this particular class on this particular day.” Putting the work and the effort into doing those things is an assertion of hope, because otherwise we wouldn’t be doing those things, or we’d be doing them very poorly, or we’d be doing them and bitching and moaning about it the whole time too… which you see… but I would suggest the acknowledging that we are taking a stance with our teaching practices, whether we realize it or not. And I think it’s a lot more useful to realize that, to acknowledge it, to own it, and to be proud of the stance that we’re taking.

John: We’ve all seen those faculty who are often posting on Twitter, who are often posting comments on Facebook dealing with students, but they’re still in the classroom, and they’re still trying to make a difference, even if they don’t always display that hope. I think most of us have that hope. But one of the things you talk about in your book in the chapter on “Classrooms of Death” is the inspiration you found from the work of a 19th century Danish philosopher. Could you tell us a little bit about his critique of the educational system in Europe during that time?

Kevin: Sure. It’s Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig who I had no idea about, even as a historian of the 19th century, until I started working here at Grand View, which was founded by Danish Lutherans and we are the sole remaining Danish Lutheran college in the country, so there’s your niche higher ed market for the day. [LAUGHTER] It’s interesting that ethics suffuses a lot of the identity, I think, here in terms of access, in terms of looking at things democratically and what Grundtvig basically argued is he looked at the classical model of elite centered higher education in 19th century Europe that was built along the lines that we see in places like Harvard in the United States, so it was sort of a finishing school for the gentlemen of society, where you would learn things like Latin, and rhetoric and ranks would be assigned and all those sorts of things. And so that’s what Grundtvig called, in his sort of characteristically blunt way, Schools of Death. So I adopted the title from that for the chapter, even though it’s perhaps the most heavy metal chapter title ever, which I’m proud of. [LAUGHTER] It was like “You wrote a book on hope, but chapter one is called Classrooms of Death,” and I was like, “Well read the chapter, you’ll understand.” And so what Grundtvig does is he posits what he calls a life affirming vision of education, which is what we now know as the Danish folk school model, and it’s a mind-body-spirit model, it’s holistic, but what it really does is Grundtvig sees education as something that should enliven and awaken, as opposed to just sort of stultify and further ossify structures, in particular sort of this elite structure that was already in place. So that really appeals to me, and I think that if we’re looking for an ethic to think about our own institutions and the purpose of higher ed, we could do a lot worse than that.

Rebecca: I think it’s interesting when you’re talking about the idea of awakening students or awakening the community of learning, that a lot of faculty talk about trying to be neutral in the way they deliver content.

Kevin: So I’m trained as a historian, right? And so we, in our field, talk about this a lot. We have to be objective. Well, what is objectivity? That’s not a neutral term. In fact, Thomas Haskell, a social and cultural historian who wrote a great book called Objectivity is Not Neutrality that gets at this concept too, but this idea that there’s some sort of objective set of things out there, and if I present them objectively enough that all of my students will learn them thoroughly. Again, every choice we make, whether we realize we’re making it or not, is still a choice. And in that sense, education is eminently political, and if we try to ignore that and disregard it, we actually, I think, do more damage to it because then we make unthinking decisions. We don’t think about, necessarily, the consequences of the long-term effects of the decisions that we make. I think it’s much better to sort of acknowledge that, yes, we are on eminently political terrain, it is shaped by politics and identity and difference, and our students are not coming to us from a vacuum. They are coming to us from structures of inequality from a larger society, where all of these things are embedded. So we can’t pretend that our classrooms, whether they’re fully on ground or online, or whatever learning space it is, we can’t pretend that they’re somehow hermetically sealed from the rest of our students’ experiences. I don’t think it serves any of us well, them or us.

Rebecca: Wait, do you think we’re all people then and have emotions? [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Yeah, I know that sounds like a radical concept, but one of the phrases that I heard of originally from Jelani Cobb was this idea that we are full and complicated human beings, and I just love the way that that’s phrased, full and complicated. It’s messy. We are complicated people. We are the products of an intersection of a kaleidoscope of experiences and identities, and that shapes the way we teach, that shapes the way that students learn, that shapes the spaces that we’re in, and I think we miss a real opportunity if we choose to not think about that as we create learning spaces and practice within them.

John: So when faculty try to be neutral and try to present content to students, what are they missing in terms of dealing with the actual students in the room rather than the ones they imagine to be in the room?

Rebecca: Or perhaps themselves. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Right.

John: …which are usually little clones of their own past.

Kevin: One of the things that I tell colleagues a lot is, and I struggled with this earlier in my career, is when I was a young history major undergrad, I loved my history classes. I was in front, I was taking notes, I thought the lectures were witty and erudite, but now I am teaching classes with all of those students who were sitting behind me in those undergraduate classes who felt a little differently. So how am I teaching those students, they are not learning history, and they are not connecting necessarily in the same ways that resonated with my experience. And so in thinking about that, we know that students learn better and that learning is more effective and meaningful when there is that connection, there is that relevance to the student experience. And so we want students to be motivated, and a big part of that is avoiding demotivation, and I know that sounds like an obvious point, but there are things that can happen that will immediately turn off that switch for students. So I’ll give you one example of a way that the sort of aspect of neutrality could actually really damage the learning experience. At my institution, recently, a student came to me, an African-American male student, one of two African-American men in the class, 27 people in the class total, so the rest of the students were white. We are in Iowa, which you may have heard is a white state predominantly, and a discussion about the Confederate flag came up. And actually there’s a house about two blocks from our campus that flies the Confederate flag on a 20-foot tall metal flagpole in the front yard. So it’s something that our students see and notice, and this discussion came up and it turned into, very quickly, some white students say, “Well, it’s just a symbol of history. It’s a symbol of heritage. Basically, you can separate it from the defense of slavery, why don’t people get over that?” And these two Black students in the class were like, “Y’all really need to understand that this means something different to us,” and the instructor, in that case, completely unplugged, disengaged, let the students argue it out for themselves, and I think what that thought process was is, “Well, here is the marketplace of ideas. We’ll throw all the ideas out there and the best one will win.” And what it turned into was here are two Black students at a predominantly white institution being forced to basically argue for their basic humanity in a class of 25 white students and do that work by themselves. And so while the idea may have been that the instructor is not going to be an arbiter or shift things one way or the other, what you really have in that situation was something extraordinarily damaging, so when the student came to see me right after that class, they were in a place that it pains me that any student enrolled in one of our colleges or universities would be at the emotional place where that student was after that class.

Rebecca: I think that’s an interesting example, I had a situation one time when I was teaching, I teach art and design classes, and I had a critique class for graduate students with an international student that was using the Confederate flag as a symbol, but really didn’t understand the history. I pushed against that, “You really need to understand the history of the symbol and what it means and there’s a lot of different interpretations,” and the white students in the class just like “Ah, free speech, free speech.”

Kevin: Right.

Rebecca: So I think it’s worth addressing that part of those kinds of conversations too, when a faculty member is trying to facilitate something and point out different identities and different perspectives, pushing against the dominant messaging that’s happening in the room when people are piling on, and that’s, I think, exactly why faculty try to move to the neutral zone, right, like, I don’t want to be here.

Kevin: Yeah.

Rebecca: It’s certainly not comfortable.

Kevin: Yeah, it’s very much an avoidance mechanism. In conversations like that, I think it’s a natural reaction. If an off- ramp appears, I’m going to take it, but that’s not our job. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah, boy, did I want to disappear. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Yeah, and I get it, as a historian, again, of the Civil War Era. I’ve been in the class where the one white student will say, “Well, why don’t Black people just get over slavery, it was 150 years ago for crying out loud,” and then feeling all the oxygen immediately sucked out of the room as we all look at this sort of figurative hand grenade that’s been rolled into the middle of the class. At that point, I was certainly reconsidering my choice of locations for the day. But I think it’s a really important thing for, in particular, our white students to learn that free speech doesn’t mean that basic humanity, dignity, and civil rights are open to debate, right, just as I would not hire a flat earther to teach a geography class. There are certain things that are not part of that discourse, because an idea that there is, for example, biologically distinct categories of race, of which some are inferior and some are superior, that’s not true. And so I’m not bringing a flat earther to teach geography and I’m not going to re-litigate racist pseudoscience in a history classroom, and I think that we have to get over this idea that if I retreat into some sort of clinical objectivity, that that’s going to fix everything, because it doesn’t, and our students see that. We say that we want our classrooms to include all our students, for all of our students to feel like they belong. We want our students to take risks. We want our students to not be afraid to fail, that if we haven’t created a space where every student genuinely feels that we mean what we say with that, then that’s a real problem.

Rebecca: I think it also means that we need to be willing to do all the things that we ask our students to do, too.

Kevin: Yeah, what a radical concept.

Rebecca: I know, there’s so much radicalness happening in this conversation.

Kevin: Very on brand, yes.

Rebecca: I think many faculty try not to take risks because you don’t want a mutiny in your class, it takes a little bit of bravery to do that, but I think if we’re not modeling that, and modeling failure, and modeling the ability to learn from that failure, then I don’t know how we can possibly ask our students to take those same risks.

Kevin: Yeah, especially if they see us actively avoiding taking those risks. I think students have a pretty finely calibrated BS detector, and so if we say that our values are one thing, and then when we have the chance to put those into action, and we decline to take that opportunity, that gets noticed. You’re absolutely right, that I can’t ask my students to do anything that I’m not willing to do myself in the classroom. And so what are some of the ways that we could model that effectively for our students, and of course, that’s going to look different. As a tenured white male professor, that’s going to look different for me to model failure than it would be foran early career faculty of color, for example, but I think that there are ways that we could do that in ways that are appropriate for our own context and for our individual class and student contexts, where we could model that yes, not everything goes perfectly the first time, learning is messy, learning is complicated. We’re going to struggle with some things, we’re going to problematize students’ prior assumptions that we have to create a sort of net underneath that when they feel that precarity for the first time, so it’s a structured discomfort rather than a throw ‘em to the wolves kind of discomfort. That’s really important, I think.

John: One of the things you suggest is that faculty should work to building equity rather than equality into their instruction. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Kevin: Absolutely. Yeah, so equity and equality are related concepts, but they’re not complete synonyms. And I think sometimes we get so focused on the equality part in terms of “I am going to be fair, so here are the expectations that I have of all of my students and here’s my attendance policy for all of my students,” and etc, etc and I don’t think that we’re flexible enough if we stick to that approach. What equity means is that every student has an equal opportunity. An equitable space is one where students can learn and succeed, and I will help them connect to or provide the resources with which they can do so, and of course that’s going to look different for students depending upon their prior academic experience, depending on their experience with the subject, all those sorts of variables that go in, and we don’t treat students equally now anyway, even if we say we do. Some students come to office hours and some don’t. Some students we work a little bit harder with outside of class and some we don’t, depending upon needs. We try to engineer discussions all the time. If there’s that one student who’s always raising their hand, sometimes we look somewhere else first. So we do this sort of engineering already. I think what’s useful is to acknowledge the fact that equity involves us thinking in a lot more nuanced and flexible way than just laying down a consistent policy in the name of fairness and then handcuffing ourselves to that.

John: And students come in with really diverse needs, but you suggest as part of this work towards equity, we have to be careful to avoid a deficit model. Could you talk a little bit about that and why that could be damaging?

Kevin: Yeah, so this is one of the things that I personally struggle with the most, I work with at risk students here at my institution, I teach some college success courses and some credit recovery courses, and even the label “at-risk,” like all of a sudden, what I am now doing is I’m categorizing students in terms of something they’re missing, and so when we work with students and think about things like developmental level courses, for example, what we’ve done is we tell the story really well of what our students can’t do. They can’t read, they can’t write, they can’t… And it’s very easy to sort of tell ourselves the story of “Well, this is how they are and this is the hand I’ve been dealt.” We don’t really talk all the time about what our students can do, even the ones that we would say are academically unprepared or that come from under resourced school districts. What are the strengths that they bring to class? Some of our students have had to navigate really difficult academic terrain, and now they’re in our classrooms. That ability to navigate difficult terrain is a real asset. So how can we make use of that instead of talking about whether all of their writing is grammatically and mechanically correct, but I really struggled because it is very easy to type. We want to help students, some students are going to need more assistance than others, how do I not see those students solely through the lens of what they’re lacking? Social workers would call this a strengths-based approach. I have colleagues in our social work department who really helped me think of this in some interesting and, I think, productive ways. So thinking about in terms like that, because if you think about it pervades a lot of our discours as faculty. Don’t we always say like, “Oh, today’s students can’t do this, like the previous, you know….” And we’ve been doing this for every generation of students, like “They’re always on their smartphones, so they can’t read a book, they don’t have the attention.” So it’s very easy for us to fall into these narratives. We’ve already told ourselves a story about our students before we’ve even actually worked with them.

John: You tell a really interesting story, a really moving story, about a student who stopped showing up for class after starting in class doing really well. Could you share that?

Kevin: Yeah, it’s one of the more obviously memorable things that’s happened. This was actually very early in my teaching career while I was doing my doctorate. I did my PhD at South Carolina, but I was living in Texas at the time, and I was a lecturer, an adjunct faculty member at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. So this is just a couple of years into teaching anything more than just one class a semester, and so I’ve tried to find my way and figure all this out and I’m teaching this survey course, it’s got about 45 students in it, and again, yeah, there’s a student who’s a little bit older, her friends were taking it together, the kind of mid 20s working students, but were taking classes to finish up a degree, started out really strongly and then just kind of disappeared and missed the first exam, didn’t come back for another week, and then it was two weeks, and so I’m asking her friend, like, “Where is so and so, she’s really in danger of failing the class, I need to connect with her so we can talk about what she could do to catch up.” And her friend was very vague, said “Well, she’s been going through some stuff, but she’s going to call you, she’s going to email you.” And that didn’t happen again for another little bit, and so I at that point, I just said, “Well, you know, so she’s gonna fail the class,” that narrative that goes through my head, like “I’ve given her all these chances, and she hasn’t taken me up on any of these opportunities, and hey, you know, that’s on her. Sometimes decisions have consequences.” And so I’ve told myself the story, that she’s just sort of blowing off the class and blowing me off and making these poor choices. Well early the next week, she does come to my office before class. And as I talk about in the book, I remember the scene so vividly because she looked awful, not just sick, but just, like, awful. And what she told me was that she’s coming off a heroin addiction, and she goes to the methadone clinic and the only times the clinic is open are the same mornings that we have this class, and sometimes she comes out of the clinic and feels so physically awful that she literally cannot come to campus or class. And so at that point, I’m sitting there and as soon as she started talking, I knew like, “Okay, my assumptions are about to be proven completely incorrect, right?” And then the story, I didn’t know what to say at first, and I was just kind of stunned. What happened was, we did have a conversation about “Okay, what could work for you? How could we work around this if you want to stay in the class,” and she was in a program that had very tight sequencing, so this class this semester was really important. So we came up with some ways that she could make up the work but also continue on so she didn’t fall further behind. We did a little supplemental instruction and she got a “B” in the class. She stayed in school, she ended up graduating, I think, a year and a half or so later. And what that really taught me was, again, this power of narratives, because we’ve all had students who kind of ghost us. It’s really frustrating, and then we start thinking about “These students have made really poor choices, and they can’t do this. Maybe college isn’t for them right now.” But here I have, you know, a student coming off a heroin addiction, which I have not done that personally, but I understand is really, really difficult physically, mentally, emotionally. I have some experience in other areas of substance abuse, but not that and needs the opportunity. And if I had shut down before she had the chance to visit, what would have happened at that point, like if I just said no, and that this was a required core class for her curriculum, what path happens after that, so who am I to say no, you have to stop when you are willing to make the effort. This whole myth of the entitled student, well here was a student that was literally at the lowest point in her life, probably, still trying to do this thing academically, and to me that was amazing. So who am I to not provide that opportunity and resources and that process that semester was an eye opener for me then, but I think really has shaped the way that I approach those sorts of “life happens” kind of moments with students ever since.

John: But you already created an environment where she felt comfortable talking to you. Not all faculty would have done that.

Kevin: Yeah, and I don’t know exactly what I did to do that, but I’m very mindful of trying to do that now for exactly that reason.

Rebecca: I think we all have students who have, not that narrative, but narratives that are powerful like that, that demonstrate they were making really good life choices, actually, at the moment, even though we were judging and thinking that perhaps they weren’t great life choices.

Kevin: Yeah, exactly. The proper choice for that student at that point was not to make History 1321 her first priority, so, yeah.

Rebecca: That was a good choice.

Kevin: Exactly.

Rebecca: I’m really involved in accessibility and universal design for learning and spaces like that and inclusive pedagogy. And we’ve been really, as a team on campus, been thinking about ways to set up our classes so that it actually predicts that those kinds of things will happen, that we are setting our classes up from the start to accommodate those students.

Kevin: Yeah, absolutely.

Rebecca: And make them successful. Can you offer some tips about strategies that we can use, just so our classes are structured from the beginning without having to make exceptions, that it’s actually just open in that way?

Kevin: Yeah, it’s this idea of universal design for learning, that some of the things that we do think of them in terms of accommodations for a student with a documented disability. In this West Virginia series that I’m in, Tom Tobin and Kirsten Behling’s book, Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone, is a fantastic overview of this idea of universal design. I think the best place to get started, and the way that I’ve really been able to think about this, is looking at the accommodations requests that we’ve gotten from a disability service office and the student brings in the form and “I need time and a half on an exam.” The first question to ask is, “Would this be an accommodation that would benefit learning for everybody, not just this particular student?” And so we get beyond this idea of one accommodation for one student at one time, and then we start thinking about, as you say, “How can I create a space that minimizes the need for those accommodations?” Because it’s already baked into the cake. In my experience, an accommodation request for time and a half on an exam got me thinking about “Why am I offering exams? Why do I have them as time limits? What am I really trying to assess here? And how might that shape the format of my exams?” And so now my exams are take-home, and there’s a different set of criteria and a process that we use, and they’re still summative assessments, but now, no one needs to make an accommodation request for time and a half or a different classroom. And so that’s, I think, one sort of practical example that people can use is when you get a request, ask yourself, “Is this something that would work for everybody?” And most likely, the answer will be yes, and then it’s “Okay, how do I operationalize that?”

Rebecca: I was talking to a group of faculty too about big groups of students being absent with the flu or COVID-19, or whatever it might be at anytime, and also just making it so that if a student has to miss a class because we don’t want them in our class if they’re sick, I don’t want to get sick. Everyone else in the room doesn’t want to get sick, how can we make sure that they can get that content or that experience in a different way?

Kevin: Exactly. So one of the other requests for accommodations that I would get a lot was students who wanted to record lectures, or discussions, or whatever happened to be going on in class. And of course, my thought was, “Well, this might be something that benefits everybody.” So when we do that we put it on our LMS, we have the audio file, you can stream it. And in my city, we don’t do public transit really well, it takes you an hour and a half to get anywhere on the bus, and so if you’re riding the bus from across town, maybe you want to listen to what you missed in class. We have a lot of student athletes who travel, well here’s a way to catch up on actually what happened in class rather than just a recap of it. So we’ve got tools at our disposal and some practices that we’re already doing individually. A lot of this is just thinking about how might we scale that out to work best for all of our students.

John: I’ve recorded nearly all of my classes for about five or six years now, and one of the things that surprised me was how students who had English as a second language would play back things multiple times and also slow down the pace so that they were more comfortable, until they get up to speed so that they got used to the technical terms in the class, and that was something I hadn’t really considered when I started doing that.

Kevin: Yeah, that’s a great point. Yeah.

John: You talk in your book a little bit about creating an inclusive environment in the classroom. Could you talk a little bit about what general strategies faculty should focus on to start towards a more inclusive environment?

Kevin: Well, I think it starts with this idea of universal design. How are we making learning the most accessible for all of our students even before we’ve met them, right? So what learning spaces are we creating? And again, back to this larger idea of thinking about the choices that we’re making. So at my institution, when I started here at Grand View in 2004, our student body was something like 92% white. Now we are 65% white, so in terms of race and ethnicity, my campus is diversified in its student body extraordinarily. And so how am I thinking about that when I’m choosing course materials, when I’m framing assignments, so sometimes it’s simply, “Who are the authors of my textbooks? What do they look like? Where do they come from? What’s their story?” Students who are taking my course, if I tell them that “When you take a history course you are a historian, right? We are involved in doing history. You can create knowledge in this field.” If I’m telling students that they can be knowledge creators in my field, do they see examples of people like them who are knowledge creators in the field? Because otherwise, my words don’t rain quite as true. So creating inclusive spaces in many ways a product of design, and then how do we put that design into practice? So being mindful, we know from the research that male students get called on in discussions much more than female students, male students interrupt more. So how am I framing? How am I having a conversation with students about expectations for when we’re working together in discussion in that seminar setting? How do we think about what people need in the classroom in terms of supportive materials, whether it’s recording or whether taking notes in a certain medium or not? How’s that going to work best for everybody? I think inviting students into that process early on, having them be collaborators and co-creating some elements of the learning space in a way that it’s not just the class discussion, but maybe have them do some writing and reflection about what has worked for them in terms of their learning in their academic career, and what are the things that have gotten in the way of their learning, and then looking through those results, and then coming back and debriefing the class the next time, like, “Here’s what you all told me, here are some of the things that I heard a lot, here are some of the things that maybe we should put on our radar screens for this discussion and then go from there.” So paying attention to the space we’re creating, whether it’s an on ground or an online course, the decisions we’re making about what’s going to furnish that space in terms of course materials, and then bringing student voices in and setting that idea of collaboration and all of our responsibility for making sure that that learning space is inclusive throughout the duration of the course.

Rebecca: When you’re talking about collaboration, I know you’re not just talking about students collaborating with each other, but also students collaborating with the faculty and thinking about the group as allies rather than adversaries. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Kevin: Yeah. So that’s my mantra, that so often we see students as adversaries, and they should be seen as our allies. And I think a lot of that is it is difficult to be a practitioner in higher ed right now, and especially if you’re a precariously employed faculty member and you’re teaching at three different campuses, and it’s eight courses and you’re stressed through the roof, who do you see the most? Your students. So for us, a lot of times students become the target of convenience, or the free floating stress and anxiety that we have rests there first, because that’s the easiest landing spot. I think it’s really easy for us to get into that place, and I think we need to be super mindful not to do so because the students are the ones that are in these spaces with us. So thinking about “What are the stories that we’re telling ourselves about students? What are the stories that students have been told about themselves?” So we know math anxiety is a thing. So many of our students have been told “You can’t do math,” that total fixed mindset, and that does a lot of damage, in my colleagues in the math and computer science department here, is true across the country. You know, that’s a big problem in terms of a barrier to learning. I think one of the most powerful ways to address it is to get students to see themselves as active participants in creating their knowledge. So how can we do things where we collaborate with them maybe to create course expectations or how are discussions going to work? How are we going to work if it’s an online class? What are the expectations we’re going to hold each other to in these interactions? Thinking about maybe assignment choice, I’ve got particular learning outcomes, can I let the students fashion a way in which they’ll demonstrate those outcomes? Maybe it doesn’t have to be a traditional research paper, it could be a number of other things. I talk in the book about un-essays, which I think is a really interesting and fun concept and has being used really well in history, for example. Students collaborating means students taking ownership of their learning as well, and that’s what we all say we want, so I think we need to be able to create spaces for our students to do that. Now, it’ll look different in a larger survey-level class than it might an upper=level seminar, but I think there’s the space to do that no matter what the class context, and I think it’s a really important thing to have student voices help shape the environment in which after all, they’re going to be learning in.

Rebecca: As a designer, a topic that comes up often is designing for people without including them.

Kevin: Yeah.

Rebecca: So we want to design with, and not for, and so…

Kevin: Right.

Rebecca: …you’re essentially describing that exact process, where you’re inviting students in to help design the experience..

Kevin: Yeah.

Rebecca: …rather than just designing it for them by making a lot of assumptions about them.

Kevin: Yeah, and sometimes I use the metaphor of a house. But if we take a learning space, of course, I’ve built this house, do I have to furnish it and put in the carpets and paint the walls and do all that before anybody else comes in, or is that a process we can all do together? And maybe we decide we want to knock out a wall and add on something. Are there ways that we could do that? Because again, if this is the structure, in which we’re all going to be occupying throughout the duration of the course, is it a structure that works for everybody, that promotes rather than puts barriers in front of learning?

John: One of the things you talk about in terms of this collaborative approach is how to deal with issues such as distractions in the classroom from laptops and mobile devices. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Kevin: Yeah, the great laptop debates. As I’m sure everybody’s aware, this has been something that sort of lights social media on fire among educators about every six months or so. And my position is, as I titled a post on it, “Let’s Ban the Technology Ban.” Again, back to this idea of you know, are we handcuffing ourselves to overly rigid policies that aren’t going to work for all of our students? I don’t have a “no-laptop, no-cell phone” policy. That said, if a student is on doing their fantasy baseball team, that’s a problem. I invite students to collaborate when we set up class expectations, like “What’s going to help you learn? What do we want to hold each other accountable for in this class?” And it’s funny, because I’ll ask if they don’t bring it up, like “Okay, what about cell phones and laptops?” A lot of them share prior experiences like, “Oh, I didn’t know we were allowed to have those in class.” So it’s like, well, we have this thing called the internet, which could be a really useful resource at times, so why would we cut ourselves off from it, but then I show a quick summary of some of the research that talks about how technology use that’s not on task actually distracts people around that individual student just as much as it does the original student, and that reframes the conversation completely. Because now it’s not this “Well if I want to check out and go on ESPN or whatever, that’s a choice I make and I’ll suffer the consequences.” It’s “No, now you’re stealing time from classmates around you who didn’t get to make that choice,” and so if we’re going to be accountable to one another, what does that do in terms of thinking about about what we’re going to do and not do and what kind of environment are we going to create? The conversation that comes out of that is really interesting. So it’s this idea of laptops and phones, but not doing off-task stuff when we’re supposed to be doing on- n task stuff, and respecting other people’s attention. Because when you have conversations like this, and you ask students, “What are the things that we want to do to create this space?” The first thing that comes to their mind is respect. Well, what does that mean? So a part of this is we’re not going to steal somebody else’s time and attention, the resources that they have to bear for learning. So then when, and it’s not if but when, somebody’s doing their fantasy baseball team, I don’t have to be the cop. I’m not the bad guy. I just remind them of something that we all committed to earlier in the semester. And so it takes a lot of the kind of drama and distraction out of those reminders, and it becomes a nudge rather than cell phone cop and I’m much more comfortable with that because then it doesn’t create this sort of dramatic power imbalance in a classroom where we’re trying to flatten things out.

John: And you also say it could be used by the instructor, I believe, as a signal of when students are losing focus. When you have an activity that may not be so engaging, if you notice many of your students are distracted, something’s not working.

Kevin: Exactly, right? So you hear people complain, like “All of my students are on Facebook during class.” My first response, it sounds snarky, but it was like, “Doesn’t that sound like a you problem? Why are they all on Facebook?” It’s not that we need to be up there, one man or one woman entertainment, but it’s like, if I look out and see all of that, the first question I’m gonna ask is, “Alright, what’s the common denominator in all of this?” And then, “Where are we going to go to fix it?”

Rebecca: And it’s funny, a lot of times, especially if you’re doing group work or something, it’s because the students need a little more structure. They’re not sure what to do nex. Often, they might need just a little more instruction, because maybe they’ve never done a task before, or they’re intimidated by it, or they’re not really sure where to start, or they’re stuck and they don’t know how to move forward.

Kevin: Yeah, I totally agree. I think group work gets such a bad rap because it so often sucks, but I think a lot of that is due to the fact that we sort of assume that students know how to do group work, and I’ve been on enough faculty committees to know that not a lot of us know how to do effective group work, much less our students. So what kind of structure are we providing? I’m a big fan of Mary-Ann Winkelmes and the TILT framework, the Transparency in Learning and Teaching that asks us to be really explicit about not just the goals, but the actual tangible steps that need to be done, and then, what does excellence look like in this task? How are you going to know if you’re doing this right? And that’s really reshaped my approach to group work in terms of providing that next step. Once you do this, here are some of the things to think about, once you answer this question, here are some of the ways that you might think about representing the knowledge or reporting this back out to the class, because otherwise, “Let’s get into groups. Let’s work on this.” Well what does that mean, right? And so after a few minutes, you’ll start to see that drift. So in this case, I think structure and not handcuffing people to anything, but providing steps and options and some sort of direction for students to take their efforts is, I think, really useful.

John: And building in these expectations, one of the places where we all should start with our course is the syllabus, and you have a chapter on “Building a Syllabus Worth Reading.” Could you talk a little bit about some of the key things to put in a syllabus to make it worth reading?

Kevin: I am a syllabus dork, syllabi fascinate me. I love to look at what people are doing, how they’re thinking about and conceiving of their class, their field. I mean, I’ve sought counseling for it, but yeah, I am an unabashed syllabus dork and I think a lot about syllabi. And we certainly all had our share, in our own academic career, of syllabi that we got and just sort of disappeared into the ether. It was something that I would never use for the rest of the semester. So I think we’d lose an opportunity when we approach the syllabus. The common metaphor is that the syllabus is a contract, and there’s this urban legend that there are actually court cases and judicial precedent that has defined it as such, and that’s not true. That’s not true at all. The syllabus has never been interpreted legally as the same way that one would interpret a business contract, for example. I think if we approach syllabi as, in many ways, this might be the first at least formal interaction the student has with us or our course. So what’s that first impression going to be like? Is it going to be like reading the rider to an insurance contract for my car, or is it going to be an invitation? Ken Bain talks a lot about the promising syllabus, which I think is a really useful way to think about it, because with any course we’re promising our students something, “You will be different as a result of this course. When you get to point B, you’re going to look back at point A, and say I am different in these ways.” So my syllabus should be able to answer the question, “Well, how am I going to be different? What’s that going to look like, and how am I going to get there?” And there are a number of ways to do that, where you can actually say things in interesting ways as opposed to legalese, it’s okay to use first person rather than the “instructor will” and the “students will” it’s “I will” and “y’all will” or “you will” if you don’t want to as colloquial as “y’all,” it’s okay to put in some pictures. It’s okay to think about design a little bit. It’s okay to have it to be just visually appealing. One of the things we really struggle with is of course, institutional bloat in terms of policies, right? …like, “Here are six pages of stuff that you got to put into your syllabus.” Well, are there ways you can offload that? Put it in your LMS and then put a link in the syllabus. “Hey, there’s other stuff that you should read too. Here it is, but I’m not putting six pages of “Thou shalt not” in a syllabus that’s supposed to promise you what the great parts about this learning experience would be.” What is our syllabus saying to our students? What are we telling them? The syllabus tells our students, “Here’s what I think about you, and here’s what I think about this class.” And so if we have two pages about what academic dishonesty is, and what plagiarism is, and what horrible fate will await you if you do it, heaven forbid if you do it again, what I’m telling my students, right there is, I am spending so much time on this because I expect you to cheat. Is that what I really want to tell my students? In my case, the answer is no, and so, there are other ways to get at that sort of academic integrity thing talking about collaborative expectations and accountability, and we’ll talk about this together, why these things are important, and then I’m not giving them a litany of things, “Do this and you will have X consequences,” and the syllabus should provide what the students need. “How am I going to know if I’m doing well in this class? What’s important to you in this class? What’s important to the instructor, and when am I going to be expected to do things?” I mean, we ought to have a calendar in there and it ought to be pretty clear. We ask our students to plan ahead for a whole semester, we should too, even if things change, and we should note that like, “Hey, things will probably change, but here’s how I’m going to communicate that if they do.” …so taking the steps and paying attention to those details, so our students know I have put thought and care into this initial go at a learning space for us.

Rebecca: We’ve been talking a lot about what to have in the syllabi, but if students’ expectations have been that it’s just a disposable document, because that’s what their experience has been in the past, how do we convince them that the one that we’ve created, that we’ve taken so much care to set the tone for, is worth the effort to engage with?

Kevin: That’s a great question. The first answer to that is, what is the first impression of this? Is it a visually compelling document to look at? And again, that doesn’t mean we all have to be graphic designers, but is this a photocopy of a photocopy? Am I just copying and pasting it from last semester and I forgot to change a couple of the dates? Students will put as much effort into the syllabus as I put into the syllabus. There are some tips and tricks, you can hide easter eggs in there. “Hey, if you’re reading this section, send me an email with a picture of a dinosaur,” or something like that. Some people do syllabus quizzes. An interesting thing that I have some colleagues who do is the first day of class, they divide students up into a group and each of them tackles a part of the syllabus and comes up with if there’s any further questions from having gone through that section. And so it’s sort of a way to assess as well as having students in the syllabus. And it’s also something that should live throughout the semester, we should be referring to it frequently. There should be links to materials in there, are there other course materials that we might embed in the syllabus? Is it a place where, if students lose a paper copy, that they can go into the LMS and get a copy of it, for example. Having a calendar, a good course calendar in there, keeps them reiterating back into it as well. And I think too, again, the first day of class is a real opportunity. We have a tradition here, the students call it syllabus day, where “I come to class, the instructor hands out the syllabus, we’re out after 10 minutes.” And so I had a student come in once, like, “Are you gonna keep us the whole class?” And I was like, “Well, yeah, that’s kind of the plan,” and the look of disappointment on their faces. [LAUGHTER]

John: I get that all the time.

Rebecca: Yeah, me too.

Kevin: What have we conditioned them to do?

John: I wouldn’t want to cheat you out of this discussion, this is where we’re inviting you to this class, yeah.

Kevin: Right, exactly, and it’s such an opportunity, and so a way to squander that opportunity is to read the syllabus for 20 minutes for the first part of that class. So how are we using the first day of class to pique interest in the course, and maybe looking at the syllabus doesn’t come until the second day, or later in the first day, like “I want to highlight a couple of things, and then next session, we’re going to talk about these couple of things, so be ready for that.” If we treat it as sort of a routine, “Okay, here’s a syllabus,” then they’re going to treat it that way, too.

John: We should note that you have some wonderful examples of syllabi on your blog, and we’ll share a link to those in the show notes.

Kevin: Oh, thank you.

John: We should also note that you’re wearing a T-shirt that says “Decolonize your Syllabus.”

Kevin: That’s right, yes. Today, and that is courtesy of Yvette DeChavez who directs a writing center at a university in Austin, Texas, and I bought it off her website and I can send you the link if you want to include it in show notes. She does a lot of great work, she was the one who introduced me to this concept of decolonize your syllabus and again, thinking about the choices we make, and what those say to students, I find it really important and fascinating work. And it’s a great t-shirt too, so everybody wins.

John: So we always end with a question, what are you doing next? [LAUGHTER] What’s the next blog post that’ll evolve into a book?

Kevin: I need to update the blog, so that’s a good nudge in that direction. Actually, my current book project is I’m working on a textbook for the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction Era, and the textbook was conceived as “I really don’t like any of the textbooks in the field, so I’m going to write my own, dammit,” and it took me about 10 years to get to that point. So it’s actually going to be a textbook framed through a continental history approach, which in the Civil War is often missing, and it’s going to be framed through settler colonial theory. And one of the things I’m doing with it, that so far the editor is okay with, is putting all the cards on the table up front. A lot of textbooks are based in a theoretical approach. Very few of them will tell you about it, I’m going to tell you about it right here. So, inviting the students in to those choices right away and talking about “Well, what is settler colonial theory? How does it provide a really powerful explanatory lens for what we’re going to be looking at?” and sort of demystifying that process. I’m excited, and I think it’ll be a little bit of a different textbook, it’ll certainly approach the period differently, if it turns out the way that I hope, maybe it’ll start some interesting conversations and help instructors who, like me, were frustrated with some of the extant stuff out there for teaching a course that’s offered across most colleges and universities.

Rebecca: Sounds like an exciting adventure, but the writing process is never done. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Right? What’s the old joke? I like writing, but even more I like having written. [LAUGHTER]

John: Yeah, it’s always so much easier in retrospect.

Kevin: Right? I do want to make sure that I really take the time to enjoy this book being out and the conversations that are surrounding it. I’m fortunate to have been invited to several places to talk about things in the book, to explore a lot of these things differently. I love going to other campuses and doing that. So, that’s the immediate next steps, are to continue the conversations that hopefully the book has started and see how they resonate with various people in different institutional contexts. I’m really excited for that.

John: I really enjoyed reading this. I read the PDF version because my print copy is not coming until later today.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a really fun conversation.

Kevin: Thanks, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks for having me with you, I appreciate it.

[MUSIC]

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

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

[MUSIC]

124. The Missing Course

Graduate programs provide very strong training in how to be an effective researcher, but generally provide grad students with little preparation for teaching careers. In this episode, Dr. David Gooblar joins us to discuss what all faculty should know to enable us to create a productive learning environment for all of our students.

David is the Associate Director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Temple University, a regular contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the creator of Pedagogy Unbound. He is also the author of The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You about College Teaching.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Graduate programs provide very strong training in how to be an effective researcher, but generally provide grad students with little preparation for teaching careers. In this episode, we explore what all faculty should know to enable us to create a productive learning environment for all of our students.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Fiona: My name is Fiona Coll. I teach in the Department of English and Creative Writing here at SUNY Oswego and this is my turn to sit in as a guest host.

John: Our guest today is Dr. David Gooblar. David is the Associate Director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Temple University, a regular contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the creator of Pedagogy Unbound. He is also the author of The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You about College Teaching.

John: Welcome.

David: Thank you so much. I’m happy to be here.

Fiona: Today’s teas are…

David: I’m drinking green tea.

Fiona: That sounds delicious. I have a cup of wild orange something that’s quite delicious, but not as memorably titled as one might hope.

John: And I have a pumpkin spice Chai today.

David: Wow. Okay.

John: A little out of season but I wanted to try it. We invited you here to talk about The Missing Course. This book is intended for those of us that never received formal training on how to teach, which applies to most college faculty, and maybe we could start with this question of why don’t faculty receive more formal training while they’re in grad school, since most people do end up in teaching careers?

David: It’s a great question. And one that’s not that easy to answer, I think. To me, our graduate programs, almost across the board, almost across all disciplines, still sort of operate with an outdated model of the industry that they’re training students for. And I’m not sure that the model was ever actually something that applied to all graduate students, or even most, but there’s this idea of an academic career as being a tenure-track career where you teach two courses a semester, and the rest of your time is for research, and you are evaluated on your research and scholarship. And so our graduate programs still, for the most part, train students for that career. And what is clearer and clearer to more and more people is that that career is for a very slim minority of people who get PhDs. And as you mentioned, the job for most PhDs if they managed to stay in academia is, for the most part, teacher. And so I do think as well, there’s this notion that teaching is something that content knowledge is enough preparation for, so that if you know something really well, obviously, you’ll be able to teach it, that is not something that needs training in and of itself, that it can be a sort of byproduct of scholarship. And really, anyone who’s had a teacher [LAUGHTER] should be able to see the holes in that logic, that there are better teachers and worse teachers, and that doesn’t depend on how well they know their subject, that depends on how well they know how to teach. So this struck me as a big hole in our education system, and something that I thought would be, at the very least, a good frame for a book about teaching.

Fiona: That hole you describe, the missing part of graduate education, is something that produces a phenomenon you describe early in the book, which is your sense of surprise at discovering a community, a community of people interested in teaching as itself an intellectual and technique oriented discipline, I suppose. And it’s an amazing feeling to happen upon a group of people who are thinking the way you are. And I do wonder if you could maybe expand on what you talk about early in The Missing Course, which is a discussion of how your own view of teaching evolved from that initial focus on content coverage that you’ve just described. Could you tell us about your own transformation in that respect?

David: Sure. I don’t think unlike most people, in that I wasn’t trained to teach at all, I was thrown into the classroom. And to some extent, that’s not the worst way to begin to learn something, is to be thrown into it. But I of course did what most people do, which is that I sort of mimicked what my professors had done. And so my background’s in English, I’m not sure I would have been conscious of this, but my idea of what an English professor does in the classroom is to go and be brilliant about books in front of students… to go talk really smartly about the book in question. And I guess the idea is that you’re modeling interpretation, but you’re not really showing students how you arrived at your interpretation, you’re just showing them the fruits of it. So I would prepare, I was a very devoted teacher as a grad student. All my preparation went to uncovering smart things to say about texts. And what the students would be doing never entered my mind at all, for sure. And so this is kind of how I taught and it seemed to be successful. I don’t know how I was measuring success, but it seemed to go okay. Until I, as an adjunct at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, was given (as adjuncts are often given), a course in which there was no real content to teach. It was a skills-based course, the course was called Rhetoric in the Liberal Arts. And I was meant to teach students how to write academic papers, how to critically read, critical thinking was a big part of it. I was supposed to promote an understanding of the value of the liberal arts sort of broadly. And there were a couple of essays that I was given to teach, but for the most part, there wasn’t really a central text to teach. And so my old method of being brilliant about texts really quickly showed itself to be insufficient. I really scrambled. I had no idea what I was doing. I remember that semester so clearly, because I worked very hard to figure out day to day, there was such panic, “How am I going to fill the class period?” And I guess what I came upon is that it was the students that were my material, rather than material that I needed to explicate for students. Actually, it was these human beings in the room that I was tasked with improving, or helping to develop, or helping them to see things. And that’s just a completely different idea of what teaching is… and it changed my life. It changed how I see the job and the job became increasingly important to me. Because, and you’ll forgive me for rambling, but if the job is saying something interesting about books, well, that’s something that I think can be mastered pretty easily. If the job is help a new set of human beings to reach their potential or grow in ways that they didn’t think were possible, that’s an endlessly fascinating, endlessly challenging, and mostly difficult task. And that, to me, is something worth devoting yourself to. So that really, really sort of turned me on to teaching as a discipline in itself.

John: When you started to change your focus to students, what were some of the first things you did to focus on the students you had, instead of your earlier approach?

David: I think a lot of it comes down to, maybe strangely, trying to find out more about the students themselves. And I often tell faculty now in my role at Temple that the beginning of the semester is really a time to learn about the students in your room and to win their trust. If you’re going to be asking them to do things during the semester, you can’t assume that they’re going to trust that you’re doing it for the right reasons, you’re doing it in their best interest. So, forging that relationship is really the most important thing we can do at the beginning of a semester. So that starts, I think, by turning the tables a little bit. Usually students come into a class and they know the deal, which is that they’re there to find out the professor’s rules. They’re there to read the syllabus, “What’s this class going to be all about?” And the professor sets the course… and the students, if they’re good students, they sort of follow. And so I really like to advise faculty to try to switch that around, and from the very beginning, try to signal at every turn that the course is for the students’ benefit, and this should be their course. And therefore the opening weeks should be about finding out about them, and what they want to get out of it, and why they’re taking this course. And even if the answer to that is “it was required,” that’s good knowledge for you to have too. So, sort of going from there, from trying to find out who these people are, what their goals are, what challenges they foresee, how they want you to help them. That to me is the starting point and signals to them and to you that the point is the students, not the stuff you came up with beforehand.

John: Are you doing that through class discussions, or are there specific activities that you use to try to elicit information from the students?

David: Yes, certainly, I like to do a lot of class discussion and that’s going to depend upon your class size, for sure. A lot of class discussion. I also like to do a sort of initial, no- stakes writing assignment where I ask students for their goals for the course. And this helps me, of course, see more individually, and in a way that doesn’t make them say things out loud, which can be a problem for shy students or for students who maybe need a little more time to formulate an answer. To see what they’re going for, I ask them sort of what things have helped them in the past, you know, what their best teachers have been like, what challenges they foresee. I have to teach writing, it also helps me see their writing level really early on, so I can see where to sort of aim my writing instruction, what kinds of things they might need help with. So, a sort of diagnostic, low- or no-stakes writing assignment can help. But, a lot of it is trying to just be human in the classroom, and be actually curious about these people, and make that a subject of the early class periods in a way that, I hope at least, that the students will get to know each other as well. Is that gonna help as well with motivation down the line?

Fiona: You focus on teaching as this drawing out process from students as opposed to the fill the cup model, which is perhaps the older lecture-based content delivery model… but you do, you focus on this drawing out and you pay some attention to the verb “elicit.”

David: Yes, I do love that verb.

Fiona: It’s a very good verb. But part of the way you use that verb is to turn your attention towards active learning techniques…

David: Yes.

Fiona: … in the classroom. And could you give a brief sense of what you feel are the most important evidence based nuggets to know about active learning as a technique?

David: Sure. I’m increasingly convinced that more than any particular strategy or technique, the most important thing for teachers is to have a solid understanding of how people learn. And what we know about how people learn is that it doesn’t work by pouring knowledge into people’s heads. You don’t learn by someone giving you knowledge. We learn by actively revising our preconceptions. And so even just to have that as your starting point, that students aren’t blank slates to be filled up. But students come in with all sorts of ideas, usually wrong ideas, but all sorts of ideas about our subjects. The job is then to help them hold those conceptions up to the light, see that they’re lacking in some way, and revise them. So I try to let that guide whatever strategies I use in the classroom, so active learning strategies is a really vague term to refer to anything you do in the class where students are doing stuff. So, there’s nothing wrong with lecture per se, but lecture that assumes that just telling students information is enough is going to fail. So if we lecture we want to lecture in a way that elicits… there’s that word… that elicits students’ attention, that intrigues them, that sort of draws them in, that can work really great. We’ve all had really good lecturers in the past. And usually they’re the ones that get our attention, that present us with a puzzle that we try to solve. It’s us, as students, who do the learning, we, we can’t do the work of learning for our students, students have to do it. So, if that’s our guide, then that can sort of help us chart class periods. Active learning strategies are often a combination of trying to get students to see what their intuition is, get to see that the intuition is in some way insufficient, and try to solve that problem. If what I initially thought was wrong, how can I be right? That’s often what I’m trying to do with an active learning strategy is help students do that, if that makes sense.

Fiona: Most definitely. And one of my absolute favorite parts of The Missing Course is the sheer number of practical, applicable ideas for this nurturing, motivating, eliciting process you describe. It’s wonderful just as a resource for ideas, the book is fantastic. Do you currently have a strategy you’re trying or that you’re feeling very excited about? Do you have an anecdote from your recent teaching to put something into focus a little?

David: One thing that I really love that I’m kind of endlessly fascinated by is this idea of naive tasks. I do mention that in the book, but it’s something that I often talk with faculty about. It’s particularly helpful if you do need to lecture if you have large classes, or if you teach in a discipline that is very content heavy, and you have a lot that you need to tell students. The idea of a naive task is you give students a puzzle, or a challenge, or a question that they’re not yet equipped to solve. And you give that to them before you give them the information that would equip them to solve it. The example that I always use comes from a guy named Donald Finkel who wrote a great book called Teaching with Your Mouth Shut, and he writes of a physics professor who gives his students before a lecture, this challenge, which is that he wants them to picture a canary in a very large sealed jar. And the jar with the canary inside is on a scale. And the problem is this “if inside the jar, the canary takes flight inside the sealed jar, does the reading on the scale change?” So, I put the challenge to you two, what do you think? Does the reading on the scale change if the canary takes flight?

Fiona: I’m feeling very elicited at the moment.

David: Yeah.

John: I read that, and I wondered that, because I don’t think you answer the question in your book, do you?

David: Oh, good. I’m glad I didn’t. I don’t remember. You got to make the reader do the work. So, what’s your intuition? Does the weight change when the canary is flying in the air inside a sealed jar?

John: My intuition would be no.

David: The weight stays the same, there’s still a bird in a jar, even if it’s in the air?

JOHN and Fiona: Yeah.

David: And does your intuition change if the jar is open, does that change things?

John: My intuition would change, then, I would say no in that case.

David: That the scale would change?

John: My intuition was that the scale would change if the bird took flight.

David: Okay, that is correct. In a sealed jar, the amount of force pushed down by the bird’s wings is exactly equal to the weight of the bird. That’s how flight works.

Fiona: Of course, right?

David: And so that would keep the reading on the scale the same. If the jar is open, the air can escape.

Fiona: Yeah, right.

David: So, this is a great example of a naive task for students who have not yet learned the laws of weight and mass and force. They have to struggle with this, and it’s kind of an intriguing puzzle. It’s a challenge. And in trying to answer it, and of course, you can sort of prod them along and help them consider the various factors, they’re engaging with the material in a way that they’ll want to know how this works after working on the subject. You’re priming them for your lecture. So I often like to work with faculty and I give them this example. This is always my example, because it’s one I remember. I actually don’t know very much about physics, but I can tell you this. And then I ask them to try to come up with naive tasks for their own discipline. And that’s sort of like “What’s a puzzle? What’s something intriguing that you can give students that they won’t be able to do yet, they won’t be able to solve yet or you think they might not be sure about?” and try to give that to them before you give them the information that would help. So I do like that idea of that the timing of when we give students activities can matter, and can make it more effective when we do tell them things. That’s been something that increasingly I talk to faculty about.

John: And the nice thing about that, too, is not only does it make them curious and want to know the answer, activating that curiosity, it’s also forcing them to activate whatever prior knowledge…

David: That’s right.

John:…whether it’s actually correct knowledge or any misconceptions they may have, but it makes them consciously aware of what they know and what they don’t know. So, they’re not only primed to find out more, but they’re also ready to make more connections and try to integrate the materials.

David: Yeah, ideally, it will leave them in a place of sort of dissatisfaction with their current model of how things work, which is where you want them.

Fiona: You do describe the learning process as a process of revision… revising, exactly as you’ve described, preconceived notions or prior knowledge, updating it, expanding it, refining it. But, as you suggest, this doesn’t feel easy to students. There’s a lot of pushing of comfort zones…

David: Right.

Fiona: …There’s a lot of truly difficult risks sometimes involved for students.

David: Yes.

Fiona: And so how do you approach that piece, the effective piece, or the willingness of students to maybe trust your methods or to actually engage in these essentially revising oriented activities? What do you do about student motivation?

David: It’s a very important factor. I mean, what we know about student motivation and a lot of this I take from the great book How Learning Works from a lot of folks at Carnegie Mellon that came out maybe 10,12 years ago. Their chapter on motivation sketched three main factors from the literature that govern motivation in educational context. And the first two are probably maybe the more apparent. One is value. The more students value a goal, the more they’ll be motivated to pursue it. That seems obvious. The second is efficacy. If students feel like they’ll succeed, they’re more likely to be motivated to pursue something. That makes sense to me too. The third one, which is maybe less obvious, is the extent to which students perceive that their environment is supportive. It’s a very important factor. If, as you say, we’re asking students to take risks and significant learning does involve taking risks, they’ll be more motivated to pursue those risks if they feel like they’ll be supported if and when they fail. We want them to be comfortable with failure. We want to give them the sense that they’ll be supported. So, how do we do that? That to me is again, part of this opening weeks of a semester trying to cultivate trust. And part of that is through signaling to them at every turn that your intentions are for their benefit to help them, not because of your agenda. But part of that, I think, is also trying to cultivate a supportive community between students, among students, kind of apart from you. I mentioned in the book a number of times research by the sociologist Polly Fassinger who tried to sort of pin down what are the most important factors that govern why students participate in class. And what she found, maybe surprisingly, is that more important than anything that the professor does is the students’ sense of their peers as being a supportive group. And that makes sense to me, that students wouldn’t feel comfortable opening their mouths if they felt like they might be the object of fun or they felt like maybe they weren’t in the mainstream of the class. Again, a lot of this work is best done early in a semester. Cultivate community. Often that means trying to encourage students to bring in informal parts of their lives to class, get them to share bits of themselves, get them to, if not become friends, become comfortable with each other as people they can talk to and share an experience with. If I’ve got that, if I’ve got a class that seems to genuinely like each other, respects each other, wants to find out what other people are thinking might want to learn from each other, that makes my job so much easier. And I think most professors can think back to classes they’ve had where the students really gelled. And those to me are the best classes, and not just because it’s pleasant, but it seems to magnify the possibilities for learning if students want to be there, and usually what makes students want to be there is not that they like you so much, but that they like each other.

Fiona: Could you give us an example of a relatively community building activity you can do early in a semester?

David: Yeah, what I really like to do, and it does take a little bit of time, but I think it’s worth it. This is an idea that came from a colleague and friend of mine at the University of Iowa, Ben Hassman, he calls it question roll, and it’s a way to take attendance at the beginning of each class. And it’s certainly easier with a smaller class, but you can do it with larger classes with a little bit of finagling. Instead of just calling out people’s names, you ask a question, and you go around the room and everyone has to answer the question as their way to signal that they’re there. And the best way to do it is for these questions to be absolutely easy to answer. They should be like “What is your favorite movie?” or “What’s something that your parents cooked for you when you were a kid that you have fond memories of?” And so they’re often informal. I like to make them have nothing to do with class content. You can, of course, make them be lead-ins to discussion, but I like to give students an opportunity to speak up that is so easy that they’ll speak up. Basically, I think there’s something that happens after someone speaks up for the first time in a class period that makes it more easy for subsequent times. So, that’s one reason to do it. The other thing is that if you do it regularly, students get to know each other, they remember that so and so likes spaghetti. They remember that so and so likes comic book movies. And so that’s a kind of easy ritual that helps students bring a little bit of their outside lives into the class. And again, signals to them that this class might actually matter to those outside lives, class might be something that they want to do not just because they have to, but because it’s something central to their goals and ambitions.

Fiona: And I’d imagine that’s an approach that also includes you in that learning community, right? You learn?

David: Of course, I have to answer the question.

Fiona: One of the chapters in your book is devoted to what you call teaching the students in the room. Could you give us a little bit of an overview of that approach?

David: Sure. I do think that if there’s anything that teaching is about, it’s about helping particular people develop and learn. And so that is going to change. This is what I was talking about earlier, that’s going to change depending on the human beings in the room. And so I do think that as much as most professors are preparers and were good students themselves and like to do lots of preparation to make sure that they have every “T” crossed and “I” dotted before entering the classroom, there’s a limit to what you can do without meeting and understanding the people you’re going to teach. And again, it’s that idea of thinking of the students as the material rather than the course content or the text. So I do think it’s important that we do more than just tweak our teaching, depending on who’s in the room, but we try to leave a lot to the particular people we have in our classes.

John: One of the things you described is something I’ve been doing recently which is starting with a shell of a syllabus and letting the students pick some of the content on that. And I’ve done that to a varying degree, but I found a dramatic increase in the amount of student engagement when they have some say over the course concepts. Could you talk about some examples where you’ve used or heard good examples of that type of tactic?

David: Yeah, I do love that tactic as well. I recommend to faculty to make a list of things that they absolutely have to have in their courses that are non-negotiable that have to be in their classes, and things that aren’t on that list give to students to decide. This is, again, a way to get as you say, greater engagement, have students have a sense of ownership in the class. I’ve had real success when I taught a survey of American Literature. And I gave students as the assigned text one of these big Norton Anthologies of American literature, these huge 1200 page, very thin paged, big books of poems, and short stories, and excerpts from novels. And what I did was I left slots throughout the semester, throughout the calendar for poems, but I didn’t choose any poems, and I had each student assigned to a slot on the calendar and I said “On your slot, we are going to read the poem you choose. You’re going to introduce it for the class, talk maybe five minutes about it, but then we’re going to talk about it, you’re going to put it on the calendar.” You can do this with bigger classes through voting, through putting them in groups to choose, there are ways to do it. And then I had as the first writing assignment, the first essay for students to justify why they chose the poem. “Why should your classmates read this poem? What’s so good about it?” And the reason I loved how this worked in that particular class was one, of course, that it had that engagement that students owned part of the class, they had their little patch of land, but it also made them read the book. They had to look through this anthology that otherwise they would have just flipped to what I assigned, this made them browse and look for a poem that they could pick and I think it made them think about, “Well, what makes a good poem? What kinds of poems do I like?” Certainly, some students just picked very, very short poems, and we were grateful for that too. But I think students surprised themselves. They discovered things they wouldn’t have found otherwise. And they thought a little bit about, “Well, what’s my taste in poetry?” which is a wonderful thing to encourage, at least in my students. I’ve also had success, I do this all the time now, with letting students determine policies for the class. I do it all the time with technology policy, using technology in class. This is easy for me to give to students because I don’t care at all about what students do with their phones or laptops. I’m not a stickler, other professors feel differently, and that’s fine, of course. But that was an easy thing for me to offload to students because I don’t care. And what I found is that inevitably, students come up with a technology policy that is more strict than anything I would have come up with. I asked them to think about what really annoys them about people using phones in class and come up with regulations, and they tend to regulate pretty heavily when left to their own devices. And it works better if the rules are coming from them than from me. I just don’t like to play policeman, that’s not a role I’m suited for. So policy is a good thing to give to students, whether that’s a technology policy or late policies some professors do, they leave it to students to come up with. And that’s another thing where you’d be surprised that students are not that laissez faire. Some tend to be quite strict when they suggest late policies. But sort of going through your syllabus and looking for “What can I give to students to come up with?” And I think that you’ll see that there are sort of outsized effects from letting students decide. Student ownership is, I think, a really helpful concept for professors.

Fiona: And a totally practical question. So is this an activity you do on the first day, first week kind of thing? And then do you codify it in a formalized syllabus in some way?

David: Yes. So, usually, if I do a technology policy activity, it’ll be on the second day, it’ll be sometime in the first class periods. And what I usually do is I put them into small groups and have them brainstorm possible challenges with using technology in class and possible rules that they want. And I tell them I want them to think about their experiences as students, that they are veteran students, they’ll know probably better than I what comes up from a student’s point of view. And then I open up a document on the screen and I say, “Call out your suggestions.” And I type them as they call them out on their transcriber. And sometimes I have them vote if there are some things that are different, but often they kind of find consensus. I sort of try to guide a discussion, we find consensus. It’s a sort of constitutional document that I add to our learning management system. It lives there for everyone to see and I almost never need to refer to it. But there have been times where I do refer to and I say, “Let’s remember the rules we put in place.” And again, it helps that they’re not my rules. It helps enforcement if I can say “This is what you came up with, do we want to revise them? Maybe this doesn’t work anymore, that’s fine.” I would much rather be their learning coach, for lack of a better term, than to be Nurse Ratched in enforcing rules.

John: The only problem I’ve ever had with this strategy is the secretary keeps nagging me for a copy of the syllabus a week or two before the semester and I say “We won’t have a syllabus until after we meet” and I just open up a document which has the learning objectives and broad categories, and then we spend that first class period just working it all out.

David: I tend to make a distinction between the syllabus I give to the people upstairs and the sort of living document that governs what we do in the classroom. Some people make appendices to their syllabus. I think there’s things that the college needs to know, and I think that’s appropriate. And there’s things that the college doesn’t necessarily need to know.

Fiona: I wonder if I might turn the direction of our conversation towards the way that you talk about faculty and teachers themselves in this book, because many of the ideas: that learning is a process of revision, of challenging your preconceived notions about how something might work, you actually suggest that teachers themselves do the same sorts of processes in terms of their own experience as learners of teaching.

David: Yeah.

Fiona: Could you talk a little bit about how you ask people to revise their teaching?

David: Sure. I think you’re right that how I think about students learning influences how I think about giving advice to faculty on improving their teaching. And I think it’s important to remember that most of us did not have a rich education on how to teach. And so we sort of have to teach ourselves as we go, which does mean that it’s a process of revision. It’s also the nature of teaching that it’s such a complex pursuit. The product in question, the thing that is produced by our teaching, is spread out over a whole semester and diffused by how many students we have. And it’s very difficult to assess how well we did. And you can come out of a classroom thinking “That was a great class, I did wonderfully.” And you can come out of a class period thinking “Oh, that didn’t work well,” and equally have no idea why it worked or it didn’t. So, I do think it’s important for faculty to know that it’s a difficult process and to give attention to trying to assess, trying to evaluate, trying to stay on top of what they do that’s healthy and works, and what they do that doesn’t work. So, I do try to encourage what we might think of as good writing advice for teaching. And that’s thinking of a drafting process when coming up with a lesson plan, just as I tell my writing students to write a really bad draft as their first draft just to get something down, knowing that you’ll come back to it. I do the same thing with teachers I work with, I say, “First just fill the class period. Come up with a class period and then try to be critical in looking at what you came up with. Does that meet your goals? Does that do what you think students should be doing? Does that engage students?” And keep going back to and going back to it. The other thing that I think is really important is after a class period, or after a unit, or certainly after a semester, writing down how you think it went before you forget. I find that, especially in August for a fall semester, but even in January, if I’m teaching something I taught before, I am always kicking myself for not having taken good notes on how I changed things from what I wrote down, because our lesson plans don’t often survive a class period intact. And so trying to keep good notes, trying to see teaching as a sort of career long pursuit that you’ll benefit from having an archive of notes to self. Just sort of developing those habits I think are really important. I try to be aware of this whenever I talk teaching, but certainly when I was writing the book, that most faculty members are, without a doubt, overworked and underpaid, and almost without exception, not given enough credit or time for their teaching. And so I think it’s all the more important that we try to come up with strategies that help us to be better teachers that don’t keep us up all night grading, and that don’t add to our considerable anxiety and stress. I think we need to sort of navigate within what’s still a pretty unfair system for most faculty members when giving advice. So I really try to be aware of that.

John: Talking about that issue of the effort required for grading, you do recommend giving students the right kind of feedback. Could you talk a little bit about how we can do that? We know that students benefit from having feedback. But the more feedback we give students, the more time it requires. What type of feedback would be most helpful for students without overburdening faculty with the work of grading?

David: That’s a really good question. I think the most effective feedback comes at a time when students can still use it. So, too often I think we give students feedback after the fact, we give students feedback on their essays or on their assignments when we give them their grade, and then we’re already moving on to another unit. Often, because of time constraints, it might take us a month to grade a paper. And we’ve already moved on for a month to another unit when we’re giving them feedback on something they did last month. And so that can tell them a little bit. But most students, it doesn’t help them that much to find out that a month ago, they made an error with a too long paragraph or something. So I really try to give students feedback while they’re still working on something. And so the way to do this without doubling your work is to give them much less feedback after the fact. So I think it’s entirely appropriate to give just a grade and very minimal feedback at the end, if you give lots of feedback in the middle. So when I teach writing, I have all of my students, for their essays, they have to turn in a rough draft, and this is after a number of checkpoints where they’re working on components, but they turn in a rough draft at a midway point. And I meet with them one-on-one. Again, this is something that can be adjusted for bigger classes. But I try to give them feedback at that point, like really extensive feedback. That’s where they hear from me the most. And why that’s effective is, well one, because they still haven’t gotten a grade, there’s still something they can do with the feedback, but two, it allows me to be much more of a coach rather than evaluator. And that’s where, at least personally, where my strengths as a teacher lie. I’m much worse at justifying a grade than I am at giving advice on how to improve work. So I never answer in those conferences, questions like “What grade do you think this will be?” Or if they ask me that, I say, “Well, it’s not done yet. This is a draft, I don’t grade rough drafts. Here’s what I think you need to do for this to be better.” I try to sort of strenuously resist being evaluator there. But I do think looking for ways that you can shift when you give feedback to earlier in the process can help you keep that feedback formative. I think it’s useful to have this distinction between formative feedback, which is feedback designed to teach, designed to help students grow and learn, and summative feedback, which is feedback designed to deliver a verdict on their performance. Summative feedback is important. Certainly an engaged student will want to know whether their work met the grade. Certainly we have institutional pressures that want us to give them a summative grade at the end of the semester. But to me, formative feedback is so much more valuable, it is teaching rather than just grading. And so looking for ways whenever possible to make our grading formative, I think, is good practice.

John: Do you recommend giving some sort of light grading though, even just “They completed this or not” just to provide incentives for those who may not be as intrinsically motivated?

David: For sure. 34:21 Yeah, I think that can help. I think that it’s worth considering the ways that our grading policy, like how much weight we give to each element of the course itself, is a rhetorical signal that tells students what we value and so I think, unless you’re able to do away with grades altogether, and most of us are not because of our institutions, it’s worth looking for ways to use that to help us teach, for sure. And extrinsic motivation is not worthless, even as most people, I think depend on it too much. But if you’ve got the grades yeah, I try to use them strategically.

Fiona: Could I ask about the chapter which you’ve entitled Teaching in Tumultuous Times, which in many ways pulls together all of the threads we’ve been discussing. What it means to meet students where they are, what it means to work as a learning coach in order to develop long-term, perhaps civic oriented ways of being in the world, but also opens up into issues of inclusivity in teaching and what it might mean for teaching to be a space in which we can actively address some of the more alarming directions that the world is tending at the moment. Could you talk about teaching in tumultuous times?

David: Yes, I believe very strongly that teaching matters. And I believe that because of my experience in the classroom. I really think that the transformations that can happen through working closely with young people are real, and they are incredibly meaningful to me. And once I realized that teaching is the pursuit of helping people develop, or change, or learn, it then became inevitable that I’d have to be committed to helping every single student develop, or change, or learn. And I recognize that I am not going to be successful in reaching every single student, but my practice needs to be committed to helping every single student. So what that means on the one hand is student centered teaching, as we’ve been talking about what that means, on the other hand, is looking closely at our status quo of teaching and realizing that it doesn’t serve every student equally well. I think it is decidedly the case that our normal way of teaching rewards students who can navigate the school environment, it rewards students who have better preparation, it rewards students who are mentally healthy. It rewards students who are physically capable and we want to ask ourselves, “Is this what we want to promote in our classrooms?” It’s not what I want to promote. And so that sort of led me into thinking about inclusive teaching practices, which I talk about not nearly long enough in that chapter, but as part of that chapter. I do think if we’re committed to helping every student learn, we need to think about making our classrooms more accessible. We need to think about practices that unwittingly, unwittingly, privileged students who have had better schooling, we need to think about ways that we are reproducing inequality. The other part of that chapter, or one other part of that chapter, has to deal with talking about politics in the classroom. And to me these things go together in a sense, because they are, as you implied with your question, they’re kind of about taking responsibility, or seeing that teaching does produce changes in our students and trying to be responsible for creating citizens. And I think that’s kind of a difficult pill for some professors to swallow, who say, “Well I teach chemistry. I don’t produce political thinkers,” but I do think that we have more influence than we know. And it’s worth thinking about what kinds of thinking we’re encouraging in our students. For those times when politics do come up, and they do come up more frequently than you think, it’s worth thinking through what we’re trying to achieve and what we’re trying to avoid. What really helped me in writing about politics in the classroom, and you’ll know this if you’ve read the book, is coming across some material from philosophy of education on the concept of indoctrination. And I really like this because indoctrination is one thing that everyone can agree we don’t want to do. And so it helped me to clarify my thinking to get clear on what we’re trying to avoid. So there are a number of philosophers who have worked to define more closely this concept of indoctrination, and what they’ve come up with is that indoctrination requires us to use our authority to inculcate an uncritically adopted belief. And so keeping that in mind that we have authority that can be used for ill, and that we want to avoid as students adopting beliefs without examining evidence without being critical. That helps me think about how I do want to talk about politics. So I want to privilege open mindedness rather than closed mindedness. I want to foster students to have more control rather than me having the control, I want to work against the authority that I might have. So things like that, I think, came out in that chapter. It’s a chapter that I get asked about probably most of all, I think these are subjects that are on a lot of teachers minds. And I think for good reason.

Fiona: The other piece of this puzzle is, of course, how the authority you just described that inheres in the figure of the teacher in some way in the classroom is itself not evenly distributed. So different sorts of teachers do and don’t match students’ ideas of what an authority figure is, what a professor looks like, what a teacher looks like.

David: Absolutely. Right.

Fiona: And so I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how these techniques you suggest also are risky?

David: Yes.

Fiona: For professors or for teachers who are already themselves in some way at risk just by trying to be in a classroom in the role that we call teacher.

David: Yeah, I think that there’s a real problem in advice given to teachers that ignores the many kinds of teachers that there are and ignores the, the huge differences in power that belong to different kinds of teachers. I learned this very vividly when I worked with grad instructors, all novice instructors, particularly young women struggle with authority in the classroom with students not respecting them, with students openly challenging them. And it’s something that I think we need to take very seriously. So it’s worth remembering that there’s no one size fits all teaching advice. You need to take a teaching approach that works for you particularly as a teacher. But it’s also worth remembering that no matter how powerless any one faculty member feels, institutional realities ensure that students have less power, at least within the institution. There are many other kinds of power, and those are real as well. But as long as we have the power to grade students and the power to fail students, we have to remember that giving students more control, giving students more power where we can, is almost always going to benefit us, no matter our position. And so that’s a difficult thing to get across, particularly for me as a white man, relatively healthy, relatively young, though that’s less and less each day. So I do try to be aware of that, that what works for me is not going to work for every teacher. And that’s pretty clear to me. And so no teaching approach is going to work if it makes the faculty member uncomfortable, if it makes the faculty member feel like they’re going to lose the room, as it were. So this is things that anyone who gives advice, which I guess it’s something that I’m doing professionally now needs to keep in mind, for sure.

Fiona: It also points to the importance of collaboration and community building among teachers, which is something that all of your work points towards, and your suggestion that we take co-teaching opportunities if they come along, or at the very least sit in on each other’s classes.

David: Yes.

Fiona: Which is something that I don’t think we think about as an actual pedagogical strategy.

David: Yes.

Fiona: But which seems so, so important, both in terms of what you described, which is seeing the classroom from the students’ perspective, but also seeing another teacher…

David: Absolutely.

Fiona:… In their environment dealing with what they’re dealing.

David: Yeah, I often think that so many of the problems that afflict teaching as a profession, so many of the reasons why teaching isn’t taken seriously as a discipline. So many of the reasons why students and learning is not understood as well as it should be, has to do with how private connectivity teaching is, how thick our classroom walls are. And actually the traditional independence of tenured faculty, which tells everyone else to stay away and “don’t tell me how to teach.” I do think that we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t pay attention to community, where we don’t try to learn from other people who are doing the same thing we do. Almost every other profession tries to take advantage of this. And so it’s a really strange and terrible tradition that we don’t get in the habit of seeing other teachers. It’s really amazing actually that you can go your whole career as a professional teacher and never, unless you’ve been required to evaluate someone for promotion, never see the inside of someone else’s classroom.

John: We’re starting to introduce an activity this semester where faculty will sit in on other people’s classes and then get together informally, and I think more and more colleges are doing that, but it is a relatively recent phenomenon. And I think it’s one we can all benefit from. One of the things you suggest, and we just talked about a little bit, is breaking down some of the barriers caused by that authority figure in the room. One of the ways you recommend doing that is by letting people know that you don’t know things.

David: Yes.

John: Could you talk a little bit about that strategy?

David: Yeah. And this is something that I often get pushback from faculty of color, from women faculty, but I get a lot of mileage out of self deprecation as a teacher. And again, this isn’t gonna work for everybody. But I do think that in that pursuit of students feeling like they own the class, part of that has to be me, giving up some of my ownership. It doesn’t need to mean inviting disrespect, but it does, to me at least, mean showing students one that I don’t know everything, which is pretty easy, for me at least, but two, that learning is a process and that you’re never done. And it’s not just that I’m not so smart, but that anyone, no matter how much they’ve learned, they’ve got more to go, and they’re going to make mistakes, and they want to keep learning. So I’m trying to encourage this to my students. A lot of it comes from being a parent actually and trying to encourage this in my children, this idea that I can always learn more and that curiosity is the best engine. So I do try to model uncertainty. This is quite common advice, but I do tell faculty all the time that it’s very powerful to tell students “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” When students ask something, to not feel the need to pretend like you know everything, I think, is really powerful and can take away, in fact, some of that anxiety that young instructors have about being found out, which is something I certainly felt very strongly when I was starting out. If you take away from your concept of teacher this idea that you have to be the supreme authority, it can actually, maybe paradoxically, increase your authority a little bit because you’re no longer aiming so high. You don’t need to know quite so much. You can be a sort of fellow searcher with your students. And that’s a great place to be, where you’re part of that community of looking for answers of learning. You can model along the way for them.

John: And you could also work with them perhaps in trying to explore how you would find an answer to model that more explicitly and get them involved in finding the answers themselves.

Fiona: That sounds great.

John: One of the problems we had in preparing for this is in reading through the book, there were just so many wonderful things that we wanted to discuss that it could have taken days to go through all of this.

David: That is wonderful to hear. Thanks for saying so.

Fiona: We do end by asking “What’s next?”

David: I’m very excited about what I’ve been working on. I’m working on what I see as my next book. We’ll see if it gets there. But I’ve been thinking more and more about what I think of as one of the most important and most persistent problems in higher education, which is inequality of outcomes. We still have quite shocking completion rates in America. These numbers can vary depending on how you measure or what you’re looking at. But typically 70% of all White students in universities graduate within six years. That number for Black students is 40%, which is shockingly low, I think. For Hispanic students it’s at 50%. We see similar gaps for first generation students, we see similar gaps for students with disabilities. We see similar gaps for academic achievement for women in STEM still, we see similar gaps for low income students. So it’s something that I’m looking at in my research. Most universities are aware of this problem and are tackling it, or trying to tackle it, in one way or another with diversity and inclusion initiatives. And what’s really interesting to me is that for the most part, these initiatives don’t tackle teaching. They very often target students support networks. There are financial incentives, of course, but they don’t really tackle teaching. And I guess my intuition is that there’s a lot we can do in the classroom to affect these outcomes. My initial research so far has borne that out, that actually there’s been quite a lot of research in the scholarship of teaching and learning in the past decade on narrowing academic achievement gaps within particular classes. And I guess my running thesis is that by changing teaching approaches, we can do something about these broader completion gaps. So that’s the big picture project. I do think it’ll take a number of years to turn into a book, but that’s where I’m working right now. And I’m finding it very exciting, I think it’s something that’s really important.

Fiona: Your work is exciting and inspiring to us, we look forward to hearing about the developments in this newest direction.

David: Right, thanks 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. Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Savannah Norton.

[MUSIC]

119. Faculty Incentives

If faculty were paid more when their students learned more, would student learning increase? In this episode, Sally Sadoff and Andy Brownback join us to discuss their recent study that provides some interesting results on this issue. Sally is an Associate Professor of Economics and Strategic Management in the Rady School of Management at the University of California at San Diego. Andy’s an Assistant Professor of Economics in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: If faculty were paid more when their students learned more, would student learning increase? In this episode, we discuss a recent study that provides some interesting results on this issue.

[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, 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 Sally Sadoff and Andy Brownback. Sally is an Associate Professor of Economics and Strategic Management in the Rady School of Management at the University of California at San Diego. Andy’s an Assistant Professor of Economics in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Welcome.

Andy: Thank you.

Sally: Thanks. Great to be here.

John: Our teas today are:

Andy: I wanted to represent Fayetteville, so I went to the tea shop and I got what I have been told is the world’s greatest cup of Earl Grey tea. [LAUGHTER] It’s an award winning cup. They promised me this. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Does it taste award winning?

Andy: I haven’t had enough of it yet. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Reserve judgment?

Andy: I don’t give these awards out lightly.

Rebecca: And a nice lineup of mugs on your desk too.

Andy: Yes, many, too many. So this is just a way I avoid doing dishes. [LAUGHTER]

John: And Sally?

Sally: I’m drinking coffee but I’m on California time, so I’m excused.

Rebecca: And I’m drinking Spice of Life today, a white tea, John.

John: Pretty good.

Rebecca: Unusual, right?

John: And I’m drinking Oolong tea

Rebecca: You’re drinking nothing cause you forgot the cup of tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: . If I remember where I put it, I think I may have left it in the office before I came over here. But I did make a cup of Oolong tea and I did have a sip of it before and I will have it right after this.

Rebecca: I intended to drink tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: We invited you here to talk about your forthcoming article on improving college instruction through incentives. Could you start by giving us a general overview of this study?

Andy: Our study, we partnered with a large community college in Indiana called Ivy Tech. And what Ivy Tech wanted to do was incentivize instructors based on student performance. At the same time, they were rolling out a new set of large end-of-semester comprehensive, and importantly, objective exams. And so we were able to partner with them to use those exams to incentivize instructors based on the outcomes of students. So, that’s kind of the high level overview of what we were doing. I know we’ll get into more detail in a bit.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what motivated the study in the first place?

Andy: Yeah, absolutely. So, community colleges are obviously really important. It’s thought of as a sort of pathway to the middle class. At the same time, the rates of success at the community college level have been relatively low. And so if we think of community colleges as a particularly good tool for upward mobility, then it needs to be the case that they achieve better outcomes. And with the low current rates of success, it also leads to long times of accruing debt without receiving the benefits of these higher incomes from having that college education. So, there’s a whole host of factors that are kind of coming into play to make these both important and potentially underachieving tools for upward mobility. And then the other side of the equation is also that the faculty at community colleges are predominantly or at least, there’s a large percentage of adjunct faculty with really low pay and sort of what could be seen as an unsustainable business model where you’re relying on people to work in short-term, non-guaranteed contracts regularly and teach these classes. So, we wanted to address both sides, both the student achievement side, as well as the sort of personnel side of the community college setting.

John: And in terms of student success, specifically, I think you’re referring to the proportion of students that move through to a four-year degree program as being lower than what students intended. Is that the primary metric?

Andy: Yes, that’s one of the primary metrics. You can think of the community colleges as having two goals: one being graduating students with associate degrees and another being transferring students to four-year degrees. Now, Sally will know the exact number, but a large percentage of students attending community colleges, I forget what the number is, but their ultimate goal is to eventually transfer and graduate from a four year-college with a bachelor’s degree. So, there’s kind of two ultimate goals. In the process of achieving those goals there’s also gains from simply taking additional classes or receiving accreditation in certain skills, and that’s something that a lot of people go to community college to do. But, our primary long-term concerns are graduation rates and transfer rates.

Sally: Yeah, I think it’s really fascinating. Most of my work up until now has been at the K-12 level. And I think most economists, if you look at education economists, there’s a lot of focus on the K-12 level and looking at teacher quality at the K-12 level and how can we improve teacher quality at the K-12 level? When we came to the college level, there’s been work showing how important it is who your instructor is. Instructor quality matters a lot. But we couldn’t find any work looking at how can we improve instructor quality at the college level? I think it’s really interesting because community colleges are getting a lot of attention from policymakers because they’re low cost, they expand access to underrepresented populations that normally don’t have as much access to college: minority students, students who are first generation college goers, students who are working and so they can’t travel necessarily to go to a college. And so we think that community colleges provide amazing opportunities to students, but as Andy was saying, they really struggle with success rates. And so 80% of students entering a community college say they intend to transfer to a four-year school and fewer than 30% end up doing so. Fewer than 40% of students graduate with any kind of degree within six years. And so these colleges, and we see this working with Ivy Tech, they are incredibly dedicated. The administrators and the teachers there are incredibly dedicated, but they’re working with students who are struggling, nd so there’s a lot of room for improvement. And what we found actually that’s interesting, I think, at community colleges, is that there’s actually more room to think about how to structure employment contracts than there is at the K-12 level. Because often, the instructors aren’t unionized, as Andy was saying they work under these short-term, flexible contracts. And so there’s a lot of flexibility. And really, people haven’t thought much about how to structure these contracts in a way that can improve performance and motivate both instructors and students.

John: It’s a fascinating study. For those of our listeners who aren’t familiar with field experiments, could you tell us a little bit about what a field experiment is?

Andy: Yeah, absolutely. So a field experiment is, in our case, a test of policy. And the way it’s experimentally designed is through what would be known as a randomized controlled trial, meaning that you take a sample of people from a population and you split that sample into a treatment and a control group, and you do this randomly… and that’s the really important part. Because if you test a policy with an assignment that’s anything but random, then you can’t guarantee that these two groups are otherwise equal. But in our case, we’re going to randomly assign people to be in the treatment group or the control group. So, the treatment group will receive the policy, the control group will continue in the current status quo. And then what we will do is look at outcomes and how they differ between the two groups. Now, since the assignment to the two groups is random, again, there’s no mechanical correlation between treatment assignment and any of the characteristics of the groups themselves. Then we can know that any differences subsequent to the assignment are results of the treatment itself and not any sort of spurious correlations or selection biases.

Sally: Yes, I think listeners are probably familiar with this kind of experiment when you think about testing a drug or a vaccine, those kinds of clinical trials. And more and more economists have brought those models in for testing policies. And I think they gained a lot of attention recently because of the recent Nobel Prize, which highlighted how powerful these experiments can be for evaluating policies. And so I think that they gained a lot of attention from economists, they’re growing in their use, and it’s really thanks to partners like Ivy Tech that are willing to let us come in and test things in this way. Because, I think although people are very comfortable with the idea of testing a drug in a clinical trial, sometimes there’s discomfort with testing policies in this randomized way. And so we’re really grateful when we have partners who are willing to let us come in and try these new policies and implement them in this randomized way where some instructors receive incentives and some won’t.

John: And in a sense, we’re always testing things. It’s just, we don’t always measure the effect of it. When you something new in your class, you are doing an experiment. But unless you have a control group to compare it to, you can’t really assess whether the gain is due to that particular intervention or something else that was happening.

Sally: That’s exactly right and we really try to emphasize to people exactly that, that you’re always trying things, rolling out new policies or stopping one thing and doing it differently. And if you’re going to be making these changes, do it in a way where you can learn from them instead of just trying something, trying to step back and try to understand whether it worked or not. How do you know whether something is working or not unless you can compare it to a proper control group?

Andy: And just to emphasize the importance of this methodology, there’s a lot of policy that gets rolled out based on bad data and bad evidence. And so if you’re using a poorly designed experiment, or simply looking at correlational data and rolling out policy, what you could be doing might not be effective, it might be actively detrimental to students. But once you have this clear causal evidence, we can be really confident in the policies we roll out and understand the cost-benefit analysis of the policies prior to implementation.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the policy that you were testing in this particular experiment?

Andy: Yeah, so as we talked about, we wanted to roll out incentives for instructors based on student performance. And we base these incentives on objective, comprehensive exams for a variety of courses in a variety of departments. The exams are designed outside of the classroom in the sense that it was designed by deans and department heads and represented the types of material that they wanted the students to master by the end of the semester. So, those form the basis of our incentives that we would be giving to instructors. Now, we didn’t just want to offer incentives based on outcomes. We wanted these to be potentially as powerful as possible. So, we leveraged an approach that Sally’s researched in the past in a paper with Roland Fryer, John List, and Steve Levitt, where they looked at loss contracts.

Our incentives were actually such that every instructor would receive $50 for every student who passed the exam, and passing the exam is defined as receiving a 70% or higher on the exam.
So, we framed these as losses. And we delivered incentives at the beginning of the semester, as if half of the students in an instructor’s course had passed the exam. Now, this established it as sort of a target, but it also allowed us to leverage this idea of loss aversion, that instructors would value keeping money potentially more than they value gaining an equivalent amount of money. So, as the students progressed through the semester, at the end of the semester they would take this exam, we would have these objective evaluations for how many students passed the exam, and then we calculate their final payments. If their final payments exceeded this initial payment, they would receive additional payments. If their final payment was less than this initial payment, we would clawback some of that payment. And this was all explained at the outset of the experiment. And again, this sort of loss framing is leveraging a long line of research in behavioral economics, about how much more motivating it can be to face potential losses than equivalent gains.

Sally: Yeah, so just to give an example, if you have 20 students, and you get $50 per student who passes, half of your students passing, that would be $500. So we would send you a check for $500 at the beginning of the year, the beginning of the semester. At the end of the semester, if fewer than 10 of your students pass the exam, say only eight students pass the exam, you have to write us a check back for $100. If more than 10 of your students pass the exam, say 12 of your students pass the exam, then we send you a check for an additional hundred dollars. And we found in previous work that having this money in your bank account and knowing that you potentially could lose it if your students don’t pass the exam can be very motivating, compared with rewards that you only receive at the end of the semester.

Andy: Yeah. And one point about the logistics real quick is that these initial targets were based on enrollment as of what they call the census date. It’s not the drop deadline in the sense that you can’t drop afterwards, but it’s the deadline at which point dropping a course is no longer costless. All the students at this point in the course are enrolled sort of formally, and instructors will receive the upfront incentives based on that number of students. So, there’s multiple margins at which the instructors can influence student outcomes.

John: One thing I think that’s probably worth noting is that one advantage of doing it in a community college is that it’s much easier to have that standardized testing. I know in a lot of four-year colleges, faculty would object to having to assign an externally designrf exam at the end of the term, while in community colleges that type of standardization is much more common, which makes it a bit easier to design a study like this, I would think.

Sally: Yeah, that may be the case. Interestingly, I think, even for accreditation, for example, often you need to show that the test has certain questions on it. I know in large classes with many sections, they often write the exam together. The goal at Ivy Tech was to sort of create this bank of questions that every year tests would be drawn from, and I think moving classes over to that model is interesting. And there’s more openness to it than I thought. So, for example, when we started this study, I thought, “Oh, the only courses we’re going to get in this study are going to be math and maybe some science courses.” And what’s really interesting to me about this study, is unlike at the K-12 level, where it’s primarily focused on math and reading, we have a really wide range of courses. We have anatomy and physiology, art history, nursing, psychology, criminology, sociology, psychology. And so what it showed to me was that you can really get a wide range of courses into this kind of framework. And it doesn’t cover every element of the course. But, for example, in the English courses, one thing they were moving toward was evaluating the essays in a more objective way where you’d have two readers that would both rate the essays and compare ratings. And as colleges move toward those models, I think that this kind of framework will be more and more implementable.

John: It’s certainly good for assessment, and it’s certainly good for evaluating the effectiveness of innovations in instruction. There’s a lot to be said for it. I’m just thinking, at my college I know in many departments there’d be some objections to this. We used to have a standardized common final in the economics department where I teach and people objected to that for a long time, and we eventually moved away from it, but we are talking about doing something similar with at least some subset of questions that would be standard, for that sort of purpose.

Sally: Right. And I think always a concern about these kinds of studies is if the incentive is based on the objective part of the exam that can be tested and assessed in that way, does it take away from the other parts of the course that are more qualitative or more specific to each instructor? And so one thing we were really careful about in this study was to look at not just performance on the test, but how did students do in the class overall, how did they do on the other courses they were taking at the same time? How did they do in future coursework? And I think that’s really important that it’s not just all about teaching to this one assessment that’s going to be used for the incentive.

John: Given the strong findings on loss aversion in terms of how people find losses much more painful than gains of equivalent value, how did faculty react to that incentive structure? I believe you surveyed them on that early on, and then again later.

Andy: Yes, at the outset or at the baseline, the faculty did not like the idea of these incentives. This is both evidence-based where we have survey information and people were willing to sacrifice a rather large amount of money to have these contracts converted into contracts that were gain-based contracts that wouldn’t be paid out until the end of the semester. Anecdotally, this fits with my experiences, I went to explain these contracts. There was quite a bit of pushback in asking why these were framed in this way, and some people potentially wanting to approach them differently. Interestingly, this was very heterogeneous across departments. The accountants were like, Okay, well, I know what to do with this, [LAUGHTER] and put it away, and the psychologists were particularly upset because they knew exactly what we were doing. But, the data show that with experience, our treatment group, on average, has no preference between a loss contract and a gain contract, meaning that a large amount of this distrust of the contract could be attributable to just a lack of experience with this style of contract. And that as instructors gained more experience, they also gained a comfort level with the contracts as well.

John: I still wouldn’t rule out loss aversion as being a factor, but it is interesting that it gets reduced after they’ve experienced it.

Andy: Oh, absolutely. So, that’s not to say that loss aversion isn’t still a factor. But, as you gain experience with these contracts, maybe you start to appreciate the motivating qualities of loss aversion. So, maybe you understand that although these contracts cause you to work harder, or cause you to exert more effort around a certain goal, that by increasing that effort, you’re actually achieving greater outcomes for yourself. And if that’s the case, then they’re still motivating you through loss aversion, but you may not be as averse to the contracts as you were ex ante.

Sally: Yeah, so it may be that people are using them as a type of commitment contract where they know that yes, it will be painful while I’m in the contract, but it’s a way to motivate me to work harder, and I’ll walk home with more money than I would otherwise.

John: Just a couple of months ago, we did a podcast on commitment devices with Dean Karlan…

Sally: Oh nice.

John: …and we talked a little bit about that, and StickK.com, the site he created for that. Now, we’ve talked a little bit about the incentives for faculty, but you also introduce an incentive for students. Could you talk a little bit about that as well?

Andy: Yeah. So, on the student side, this was only in the spring semester. We rolled it out in the fall semester, where we had a pure control group and instructor incentives only. As we moved to the spring, we then cross randomized those two groups with student incentives. The students were incentivized with the following possibility. If they pass the exam, that is receive a 70% or higher, they would get a voucher for free tuition for a summer course. And this could be worth up to about $400 worth of tuition. So, now students are incentivized alongside the faculty. And we wanted to test whether 1. student incentives were effective and 2. if they made the instructor incentives even more effective.

Sally: Yes, we were interested in whether there’s complementarities between student incentives and instructor incentives. We knew from prior work that offering student incentives alone has, at best, modest effects. But, we thought that maybe if we put them in combination with instructor incentives, we could imagine the instructor saying to the students, “Look, guys, you guys have something at stake here too…” and it could create this positive cycle.

Rebecca: So can you tell us a little bit about the results?

Andy: That’s on page 22. [LAUGHTER] We found that the instructor incentives were really effective. They increased student outcomes by about 0.2 standard deviations on those exams. It’s a really nice effect in this literature. What’s also exciting is, suppose you don’t believe our tests or don’t like our tests, they also reduce course dropouts by 3.7 percentage points, which is about a 17% decline in the course dropout rate. They raised grades in the course by over a 10th of a standard deviation. And that’s even if you take out the effect of the exam itself, the course grades still go up by about a 10th of a standard deviation. And these positive results spill over into other courses. They complete other courses at higher rates, they accumulate more credits, and they even go on to transfer at higher rates. So, that’s in the faculty incentives or the instructor incentives branch of the study. When we look at the student incentives by themselves, we see essentially no effects on any key outcomes that we care about. When we look at them in combination, they actually don’t improve the impact of instructor incentives. If anything, we see a pretty small negative effect that wouldn’t be any significant difference at all. But, there simply doesn’t seem to be any impact of the student incentives. Now, this could be attributable to our specific student incentives. But, you’d have to believe essentially that they have either no value or very limited value to say that it’s just the fact that we’re incentivizing students in a very specific way.

John: When you first were talking about it, one of the things that struck me as… I think it was W.C. Fields who was talking about a contest where he said the first prize was a week in Philadelphia. Second prize was two weeks in Philadelphia. [LAUGHTER]

Sally: So, Andy and I are doing a separate study on summer school. And we do find that students do not want to attend school in the summer. But, interestingly, if we can get them to attend school in the summer, it has a really big impact on helping them graduate sooner. So, we’re really fascinated with understanding how we can address this aversion to summer school. But, that may be for another podcast. But,we agree that, I think that the incentive for students may not have been very motivating. I think just to return to the results about the instructor incentives, I think there’s some really interesting results there. First, something that’s unique to the college setting that you don’t find in the K-12 setting, is this really large problem with students enrolling in a course, paying for the course, and then not completing the course. So, about a quarter of students fail to complete courses that they’ve enrolled in and paid for. And this is a big struggle at community colleges. So, just increasing these rates of persistence in the course we think has a really large impact. And what it seems like is happening is instructor incentives get students to keep coming to their course, and so students go to their other classes as well. And so it has this really positive reinforcement effect on students completing all of their courses that they’re taking that semester. I think another really exciting result is that a year after our program ends, when we’ve stopped giving anybody incentives, you see these really large impacts on transfers to four-year schools… about a 20% increase in the rate of transferring into a four-year school, which we think is really exciting, which is the primary goal… as we talked about the primary goal of community college is to get these students to transfer to four-year schools. They really struggle with that. And so we see that this could have a really large impact.

John: And education is costly. And if we get more people finishing, the private and social returns, both go up significantly. And the cost of doing this is relatively low. It’s substantially less costly than the student intervention.

Sally: Yeah, it’s incredibly low, about $25 per student. One thing that’s interesting, again, about community colleges, because adjunct faculty are not paid very well, you can offer relatively cheap incentives that represent a significant bonus. So for these adjunct instructors, the average bonus represented a 20% increase on their baseline salary. Our adjuncts are making about $1,700 for a 16-week course. So, you can get a lot of bang for your buck with adjunct instructors, and we see the largest impact among adjunct instructors. Those are the instructors that really responded to the incentives. And adjunct instructors are increasingly becoming the model for schools, not just community colleges, but four-year schools as well. So, they represent about 50 to 80% of instructors at four-year and two-year schools, respectively. And that’s on the rise. So we expect that to increase in the future.

John: And that’s another topic we actually address in a podcast that was released on December 18.

Andy: So, I think the adjunct effect is also one that’s worth emphasizing, just because of the model of using adjunct faculty or increasingly using adjunct faculty is unsustainable at the current pay rates. So, if we think about these contracts as being more flexible as these adjunct instructors are more used to working on temporary contracts, if it turns out to be the case that you can’t continue to pay people such small amounts for so much work, then how do you design contracts in the future that can maximize student outcomes? So, if we’re in a world where we know we have to redesign these contracts, what we wanted to be able to do with this study is say, “This is a way you can redesign the contracts and achieve the outcomes that you hope to achieve.”

John: That works well, when the test is administered or designed externally. There would be some incentive issues, though, if the instructors had more control over the test or that assessment of how well their students did, I would think.

Andy: Yeah, absolutely. And that was at the front of our minds while we were designing the study was, “Are we not simply motivating people to either teach to the test, or to lie to us outright,” and based on the way the exams were designed, these are both objective and for the most part, externally graded. So, it’s still possible, for example, for a teacher to just erase answers and write in the correct answer if they wanted. But, there’s a certain point at which you have to start trusting your subjects, that they’re not attempting to deceive you. And so we kept that sort of in mind as we were thinking about how to design the study.

Rebecca: Did you have any feedback from faculty at the end of the study, when they discovered that your incentive worked, for example?

Andy: So, we have been in touch with our partner in the administration, we haven’t been in touch with the faculty themselves with our working paper or now the forthcoming paper. So, we hadn’t gotten feedback at that point. We did get feedback in the process of the study that is like at the end of the fall semester, and at the end of the spring semester, and just like the preferences for these contracts, the feedback was, of course, not universally positive. But for the most part, the majority of people appreciated the extra money. And I guess this is something that we haven’t emphasized yet, but we didn’t really change anyone’s contract, they were still operating under the existing contracts. And these served as a bonus on top of those contracts. So, there was very little room to think of these as sort of a really detrimental change toward your contract. Because the worst-case scenario is that you were under the exact same contract as you were previously.

John: If everybody failed, or if everybody came in below the threshold.

Andy: If literally zero percent of your students were able to pass this exam, you were in the same world you were previously.

Sally: We had high rates of sign up in the fall, and then even in the spring semester, there were people in the fall who hadn’t signed up that chose to sign up when they had a chance again, and all but one instructor continued the study from the fall to the spring. So, I think that instructors did like participating and we generally got positive feedback.

John: So, you got really strong results for the incentives for instructors with larger results for the lower-paid instructors… for adjuncts. Was there any evidence of the mechanism by which this affected student outcomes?

Andy: So, we look into mechanisms in two ways. One, we look at self reports of time use. And we really don’t see any significant differences between the treatment and control groups. So nothing that would clearly identify a change in behavior. Now we have one caveat to this, and that’s that when we put the time-use survey out, we limited each activity to 16 hours, not thinking how many of our instructors might spend more than 16 hours on a given activity. And that was made pretty obvious with the outside-work option. And so it is possible that we are top coded there and unable to differentiate between the two. And we also look at student evaluations, and we don’t see any significant differences between the way students evaluate instructors that were in the treatment versus the control group. So, we don’t really see a specific mechanism that’s driving these differences in student outcomes. And if we really wanted to try to isolate these things, we would need to maybe have some better or more objective data about instructor practices or a more fine-grained approach to looking at time use, I think.

John: That could be an interesting follow-up study.

Sally: Yeah, I think now that we’ve shown that these incentives work and can be very powerful, getting inside the black box of the mechanisms is our next step. And we’re currently working with an online university where everything instructors do and everything students do is passively recorded because they’re interacting online. And we think that will give us more fine-grained data. If you think about it… If I asked you last week, “How many hours did you spend on email? How many hours did you spend prepping your course?” It’s really hard to recall that without a lot of noise in there. And I think the other thing we discovered after presenting the results, talking to instructors, talking to administrators, talking to other people who work in this area, is that a lot of it might not be captured by time spent. Some of it might be… you learn the names of the students in your class… when you saw a student in your class who was on their phone, instead of letting them be on their phone, you said, “Please put your phone away, please close your laptop.” And so it might be much more subtle practices that we need to either observe classrooms or do focus groups or really get more qualitative data. And that’s something we’re really interested in doing.

John: Because it could be motivational, it could be that instructors who know that they’re going to get paid more might put a little more effort into those things that may not be captured by those measures. One hypothesis I was thinking is that it could also be that the existence of the incentives might perhaps encourage people to develop a growth mindset. And there’s a lot of evidence that faculty that have a growth mindset tend to have students that do better, or at least that have narrower performance gaps.

Sally: That would be really interesting, I think, for evaluating. We’re already surveying instructors at baseline and throughout and so we could see if the characteristics of the instructors change or their attitudes. We do ask them their attitudes about teaching and their view of students. For instance, questions like “most of my students achievement is determined by background” or “I’m able, with enough effort, to change how my students achieve.” And so we can look more closely at those questions. We use them mainly as baseline questions to characterize teachers about their attitudes. I don’t think we’ve looked to see whether their attitudes change. So that might be an interesting approach, we should take a look at those data.

Andy: One other mechanism that’s opened up by our incentives is that what we’re doing is essentially giving people a big influx of cash at the beginning of the semester. And so this could also just open up resources or capacity constraints that they had without these incentives. So for example, you could imagine someone who’s also working part time, who now gets a check at the beginning of the semester based on all of these potential student gains and doesn’t have to spend as much time working in their other job. Things like that could be potential mechanisms and could also explain why adjunct faculty have this really large differential effect. But again, we don’t have that hard data. And so it’s something that’s really interesting to us. But, unfortunately, not cleanly identified by our data.

Sally: One thing that we received is an unsolicited text message exchange between an instructor and their student, which I thought was interesting, because my students don’t have my cell phone number. But, things like that, giving out your number, exchanging text messages, the sort of individual support that I think, especially for community college students who may be less connected to campus, less connected to the community, could be really important. And so we want to think more about that sort of sense of connection to the community, to your instructor, to your fellow students.

Rebecca: I’m really excited to find out what your next round of studies reveals, because you have interesting directions that you can go in right now. And then really valuable information that you’ve already discovered.

Sally: Yeah, I think another interesting direction that we’re very interested in… is Andy’s talked about this model of being sustainable, especially as schools move more and more over to this adjunct model. So, another thing we want to understand is if a school offers these kinds of incentives, what kinds of people do you attract? Are you better able to retain your high quality instructors? Do you recruit higher quality instructors? So, that’s another question we’d really like to answer in future studies.

John: Because you’re offering higher pay to the faculty that are more effective, which could have an interesting self-selection effect on the faculty composition.

Sally: Exactly.

Andy: Yeah. And if anything, our results suggest that it takes a little bit of experience with these contracts to really appreciate them. So, moving to a model where you have these types of contracts, there might be a transition period where it was challenging before it became something that people understood as beneficial to themselves.

Rebecca: And not just to themselves, to the bigger educational community. Yeah.
So, we always wrap up by asking, what’s next?

Andy: I can talk about a project Sally and I are working on right now, as we talked about earlier, summer enrollment was seen as this potential mechanism to drive student success. And so we did a really simple experiment where we just randomly assigned people to receive a free summer course and then tracked their outcomes for the two years subsequent to that summer course. So, we’re wrapping up a working paper on that. And it looks like summer has this really nice long-term effect that would be kind of hidden in the short-term data because of the fact that you don’t see impacts on retention between spring and fall. But, you do see these impacts on credit accumulation in the short run and then graduation and transfers over these shorter windows as well.

Sally: So, I think as behavioral economists, something that Andy and I are really interested in is the intersection between preferences for contracts, preferences to attend in the summer, and the impact of those kinds of contracts on your future outcome. For example, we find that instructors don’t really like these loss contracts, but they perform really well under them. We find that students don’t really want a summer scholarship, but it has a really big impact on their future outcomes. And so trying to understand this intersection of your preferences for the here and now, and how these things may or may not translate into your future outcomes, is something that I think will be really interesting for future research.

John: This is a topic we keep coming back to in other contexts, that in terms of student metacognition, that the approaches that we know are most effective for learning are the things that students tend to value the least, and tend to perceive as being less important. So this is a pretty general problem, I think.

Andy: And isn’t there data showing how students give worse evaluations to teachers that cause greater amounts of learning?

John: There was that Harvard study a few months ago in a physics program there, where they found that students believed active learning to be less effective in terms of their learning. And yet the students who were exposed to active learning techniques ended up with larger learning gains. And that was also a randomized control trial.

Andy: Yeah.

Rebecca: People just don’t know what’s good for them.

Sally: But it’s hard, because I was trained at the University of Chicago. I am a behavioral economist, but I’m also a University of Chicago economist. And I believe in respecting people’s preferences and their choices. And so we have to be very careful about how to sort of take these complex and think about how to translate them into policy.

John: In terms of gentle nudges that work well.

Rebecca: Well thank you so much for joining us, it’s been really interesting.

John: It’s always better when there’s economists on.

Rebecca: I’m always outnumbered.

John: This has been fascinating, thank you.

Andy: Thank you.

Sally: Thank you so much for having us.

[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.

[MUSIC]

110. Fostering a Growth Mindset

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John K.: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

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

Sarah: Thank you.

John M.: Thank you.

John K.: Our teas today are?

Sarah: None today

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

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

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

Rebecca: I have English afternoon.

John K.: And I have a ginger tea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John M.: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John K.: Okay.

Sarah: And leave it at that. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

John K.: Many academics do.

Sarah: Yeah.

John M.: Yes, of course.

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

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

Sarah: Precisely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah: Yeah.

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

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

Rebecca: Yeah.

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

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

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

Sarah: Exactly.

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

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

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

Sarah: Yay!!

John M.: Good.

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: You’re not “teaching” them.

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: So I hear you…

Sarah: Yeah.

Rebecca: …nut…

Sarah: I hear you, but…

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

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

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

John M.: Right

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

John K.: Yes.

John M.: Right. Right, right.

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Sounds like a new adventure.

Sarah: It is a brand new adventure.

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

Sarah: We’re moving to a new building.

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

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

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

Sarah: if only…

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

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