90. Blackish Mirror

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

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

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

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

Mya: Hello.

Ajsa: Hello there.

John: Our teas today are….

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

John: Okay.

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

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

John: And I have blackberry green tea.

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

Ajsa: Of course.

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

Rebecca: Like whitewashed

Ajsa: Yeah…

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

Ajsa: the norm…

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

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

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

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

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

Ajsa: Yeah

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

Ajsa: Yeah.

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

Ajsa: We had check-ins.

Mya: We had regular check-ins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ajsa: Yeah.

Mya: …happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ajsa: …comfortable, yeah…

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

Ajsa: “I am that girl.”

Mya: …”that is me.”

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

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

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

Mya: Yes, actually.

Ajsa: Yeah, I did.

Mya: Yeah, that happened a lot.

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

Mya: Yeah, I agree.

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

Mya: I think it absolutely helped.

Ajsa: It did.

Mya: Yes.

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

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

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

Rebecca: So a key learning point was listening?

Ajsa: Yeah.

Mya: Active listening.

Ajsa: Active Listening.

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

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

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

John: What would you do differently?

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

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

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

Ajsa: Um hmm.

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

Ajsa: Cooper…

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

Ajsa: Yeah.

MYSA: …just to let you know.

John: …unless you choose to stay….

Mya: Unless you stay? That’s true.

John: Which many of us have done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Big smiles on my side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: It also saved on the budget too

Mya: It did. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

Ajsa: course objectives

Mya: …course objectives are.

Rebecca: I just heard a student say course objectives

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

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

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

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

Mya: Aww.

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

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

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

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

Ajsa: We’re so lovable, yeah.

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

Ajsa: Student leaders… the whole aspect.

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

Ajsa: …how sexualized they are.

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

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

Ajsa: That’s what I was thinking about.

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

Ajsa: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Great.

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

Mya: Thank you.

Ajsa: Thank you.

Rebecca: Thank you so much.

[MUSIC]

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

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

89. Teaching About Race

Class discussions of race and racism can be difficult for all participants. In this episode, Dr. Cyndi Kernahan joins us to discuss ways of building a classroom climate in which these issues may be productively explored.

Cyndi is a psychology professor and Assistant Dean for Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls. She’s the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Class: Notes from a White Professor, which will be available from West Virginia University Press in Fall 2019. The book will be part of the Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Series edited by James Lang.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Class discussions of race and racism can be difficult for all participants. In this episode, we discuss ways of building a classroom climate in which these issues may be productively explored.

[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. Cyndi Kernahan, a psychology professor and Assistant Dean for Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls. She’s also the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Class: Notes from a White Professor, which will be available from West Virginia University Press in Fall 2019. The book will be part of the Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Series edited by James Lang. Welcome, Cyndi.

Cyndi: Thanks.

John: Welcome. Our teas today are:

Cyndi: I actually I just have water although I am a big tea drinker usually.

Rebecca: I’m drinking golden-tipped English Breakfast tea.

John: That’s a new one.

Rebecca: I know I’m branching out! [LAUGHTER]

John: And I have blueberry green tea today.

Rebecca: We’ve invited you here today to discuss your forthcoming book, Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Class: Notes from a White Professor. Can you tell us a little bit about the book?

Cyndi: Yeah, the book is essentially my answer to a question to my earlier self. So when I started teaching about the psychology of racism about 20 years ago, when I first started here, I felt desperately in need of help, because I’d always wanted to teach about the psychology of racism but it was much more difficult than I anticipated, as most teaching often is. And I was very young and new and I wanted a guidebook and there really wasn’t one. And so I kind of have had it in my mind for a long time and about five years ago, I started thinking seriously about how to do it. So the book is meant to be sort of a guidebook. It’s got both my own experiences, but also a lot of evidence in it. I’m a social psychologist, so there’s a lot of evidence from my field that I think is very easily translatable to the classroom in terms of how to learn and how to think about these issues because they’re hard to teach. It’s hard to teach about racism, I think. There’s a lot of difficulty in it. There’s a lot of evidence and also just sort of my overall philosophy about how we can teach it in compassionate but very honest ways. And so that’s my overall thinking…making sure that you tell the truth but that you tell the truth in a way that doesn’t alienate your students and keeps them engaged, which I think is kind of a can be a difficult line to walk. So, that’s kind of what it’s about. It covers a lot of different things, student resistance, creating a good climate, how to take care of yourself as an instructor when you teach this sort of stuff. But, those are some of the basic ideas.

John: A few years ago, with the election of Obama, there was some people who claimed that we had moved to a post-racial society. I think evidence since then has shown that that hasn’t quite been the case.

Cyndi: Yeah.

John: And I think the book is particularly well timed because these issues are in the forefront with the news all the time. How do you begin to address issues of race in your classes?

Cyndi: First of all, I think that idea of the post-race thing is really interesting, and I see it a lot in students. I mean, I’m just finishing up teaching this class now. We’re in our last week of classes now, it’s finals next week. And when most of my students, most of whom are white, came to the class a lot of them just have this colorblind idea, which is similar to the idea of post-race, like we’re done…sorted that out in the 60s, it’s all good. And it’s obviously not…and so they believe that we’re in this equal playing field, which we’re not really in obviously. And so that’s kind of a starting point. I talk about that in the book, this colorblind ideology that most Americans share. The first order of business is sort of getting through that. And so there’s, I think, two main things that most students and most people (especially white people) need to understand. One is that colorblindness isn’t really possible, even though we think it should be the norm, it’s not really the ideal. So that’s one thing, but then also that there is this larger structure of what people in my field would call institutional racism or structural racism. And that’s the piece that I think most white people, most students don’t really get: that racism is not as people said, individual acts of meanness, it’s also these bigger things that affect us that we don’t think about. That’s usually where I start. We talked about what race is and what it’s not, what institutional racism is, and what it’s not. So I think that mostly answers your question as to where we start.

John: And that feeling of colorblindness is that more unique to white students, perhaps than students of color?

Cyndi: I think it’s more unique, but it’s not exclusive to white students. Students of color can often struggle with that understanding of institutional racism, and structural and cultural racism, as well. If you look at attitude surveys, it’s not unusual for people of color to say that they don’t necessarily see it in institutional or structural terms. Or you’ll see surveys, they’ll ask, “What’s more important? Individual behavior or institutional laws and policies?” And almost all Americans with the exception of really recent immigrants and Native Americans, I think, say that the individual behavior is more important. And as a social psychologist, I would say, actually they’re both important. But as far as what impacts your life more, it’s those big, broad institutional, cultural stuff. So I think white students are more likely, but not only.

John: How do you make students more aware of those issues? How can you help get them past that notion of color blindness?

Cyndi: One answer is a lot of evidence, but it’s how you deliver that evidence. My usual way to try to get these things across is to combine a lot of statistical evidence, a lot of broad evidence, with stories and examples that are representative. So I try really hard in my content, like I don’t just cover a bunch of psychology experiments, and I don’t just cover statistics. I try to have that together with individual stories of people’s experiences. And I also think discussion is really key. So I don’t lecture in this course, really much at all. I’ll do some mini-lectures. But, that’s never the main thing that I’m doing because I think it’s really important for them to read, and then come to class and process all that stuff. Because the number one thing that happens, again going back to the misconceptions they come in with, is that they realize that there’s all this stuff that they didn’t know. So we cover a lot of history, for example, and there’s all this history of how we got to the racial categories that we have now that they’re just like, “No one told me this.” And they need to hear other students say that too. That’s part of also creating that climate is like, “Oh, I’m not weird or stupid for not knowing this. All these other people didn’t know it either.” And we talked a lot about, “It makes sense that you wouldn’t know because we don’t really teach it in our K-12 system very well for most students.” So, I think it’s a bunch of things. I think it’s what the content looks like, it’s how the class is structured, it’s how the evidence is presented. I think all those things matter.

Rebecca: Many faculty members avoid talking about race, especially in classes that are not about race specifically.

Cyndi: Yeah.

Rebecca: So can you address maybe why faculty do that, and how to help faculty overcome that fear?

Cyndi: I think fear is the main reason. And there’s different types of fear. One is: I don’t want to be the bad guy and I don’t want to be confrontational, which is understandable. Many years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who taught in our English department, and she was teaching something called ethnic film and literature. And at the time, I was coordinating ethnic studies, and I really wanted her to teach that class again so that I could get it back into the rotation. And she just told me…we were at a party and she said, “I’m not teaching that anymore.” I said, “Why?” And she said, “Because I have to fight with them about whether or not racism is a real thing. And I don’t want to do that anymore.” She didn’t want to put up with the resistance, essentially. And she didn’t want to have to be what she felt like was the bad guy to deal with that resistance. And so I think that’s a big piece of it. If I try to tell students the truth about this stuff, they’re just going to resist and then I’m going to have to deal with that discomfort. And that’s a real fear, particularly for instructors of color. I mean, they’re all these national examples, right? …of people getting called out by their universities for basically just telling the truth in their classes and trying to teach institutional racism. The most famous example was Shannon Gibney over at Minneapolis Community and Technical College near where I live, and she was officially reprimanded by her University, basically for teaching what I teach, because she was getting pushback from white students, essentially. So I think that’s part of it. Also, it creates a lot of dissonance in students which was related to the resistance, so knowing how to deal with that dissonance can help students feel okay about themselves even as they recognize that they hold a lot of these beliefs and they haven’t really been very critical about it. So I think that all those things, all those types of fears play into why you don’t see people covering it.

Rebecca: How do you suggest maybe faculty get over that or feel prepared for that resistance or can actually deal with that in the classroom and not feel shocked or distressed or overwhelmed.

Cyndi: The big key, I think, is being prepared and feeling like you know how to talk about it. I’ve also heard a lot of instructors say, “I don’t feel like I have enough knowledge.” For white instructors, they feel like they don’t have the right or the credibility to talk about it. So that’s sort of an issue, and for instructors of color, there’s a whole other set of things. If you look at the research for them, there’s just a ton of microaggressions that they often have to deal with. They’re also seen as not being credible purveyors of this information. So that’s an issue. So I think just a couple things: one being as prepared as possible. So knowing your subject really well…being clear that when you teach the class, you’re gonna be clear with the students like, this is the evidence we’re going to use. So you’re not coming at it, like it’s all people’s personal experiences or opinions. That I think is where it gets especially hard. But if you know that, you’re going to come back to this scholarly base of evidence that usually makes most of us more comfortable, because that’s how we roll. …and people had this misunderstanding of teaching about race: “Well, it’s all just opinion.” I once had a student say, “How could you possibly give us a test on this? I mean, it’s just all people’s opinions.” I was like, “No, not quite. [LAUGHTER] There’s definitely evidence there. There’s psychology, there’s sociology, and there’s history and we’re going to use all of those things.” So I think that part of it is knowing that you have this common base of information. And also knowing what to expect…how to deal with the resistance, knowing what the resistance looks like, I have a whole chapter on what resistance looks like and how it manifests in white students versus students of color and how to think about it and how to deal with it. So I think that can be helpful too.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about maybe one or two ways that we tend to see resistance and a couple of strategies that we might be able to use to overcome that?

Cyndi: Yeah, I think, in general, what you see with the research is that white students tend to be more resistant than students of color in general. They tend to be more vocal about it than students of color. One sort of broad distinction you sometimes see is that students of color are more likely to leave if they’re the minority in the classroom. So, if you have mostly white students (which is a lot of what I deal with, and maybe I have a few students of color), you might get more passive resistance on the part of the students of color, they sort of withdraw a little bit more, because they don’t want to be the one student saying things in the class and then being really looked at or targeted in that way. And for white students, they just tend to be more comfortable speaking up about this, particularly in the primarily white environments. So I think the ways to get around resistance are: 1. always sort of coming back to the evidence that you’re using. And if you set the table at the beginning of the class that can usually work so you can come back to: “Okay, here’s what we’re going to focus on.” So for example, I’ve had students say in class, when we talk about wealth disparities or something, they might bring up a particular person that they know who doesn’t fit that. And so what I found is useful as I don’t fight with them about whether or not their story is true. I don’t know the wealth of this individual family of color. So if I tell you that the wealth disparity is like 10 times… white families have on average 10 times the wealth that black families have…and they say, “No, no, there’s this one family I know. And they’re, they’re really, really rich…,” you know, as sort of an anecdotal thing. That’s a way you see resistance manifest, right? And so instead of arguing back and forth about whether or not that family is rich, which is useless, you can just undercut that and talk about the general wealth disparity. So, that’s one way to do it. That’s obviously pretty mild resistance. If you have consistently students questioning evidence, which doesn’t happen as much as you might think, bt it can happen, but it can happen, then I sometimes will take that out of class. For students of color, the way I try to work with the resistance you often see there, which is that sort of passive withdrawal because again, they don’t want to be targeted within a predominantly white classroom, one technique I use is to send an email really early in the semester that says something along the lines of, “We’re going to be talking about racism all semester. Your classmates may look to you to be a representative, just know that I know that you don’t need to do that. That’s not your job. And I’m not going to expect that of you, because I want to try to make those students especially feel as safe as possible. And I also recognize too, I reinforce to them: “I’m a scholarly expert on this. But this is your lived experience and I recognize that. Not saying that one is better than the other, but just I see you and I see that your experience is going to be different than the white students in the class. And so that’s the way I try to short circuit that withdrawal from class as much as possible. And most students, at least so far, have appreciated that…and also just acknowledging way up front that this is going to be new to you. You’re going to be uncomfortable, I put it in the syllabus: “You’re going to feel uncomfortable, this is not comfortable stuff to talk about, and so just know that it’s coming.” So those are a few things.

John: Do you recommend having the class come up with rules of engagement or discussion on these issues.

Cyndi: I definitely do. I mean, I have some that I think are important, but I let them drive that discussion. And then I add them in if I feel like maybe they’ve missed them, or something. And I usually have them. Actually, I think I learned this from an earlier version of your podcasts, someone was on talking about having the students working groups to develop their rules of engagement. And so I did a little bit of that on the first day this semester, let them talk about it in small groups before we talked about it in large groups. And then I just take a picture of what those agreed upon discussion groups are and I post them up on Canvas, so that that way they can come back to them. Yeah, we have a whole discussion about discussion: about what it should look like in our class, how we want to engage. One big question we always talk about is do you want to raise your hands or just talk? How do you want to handle somebody upset? They always think it’s going to be more contentious than it actually is, at least so far in my experience. I haven’t had a whole bunch of anger or confrontation. So that’s been so far that’s worked well.

Rebecca: What are some of the consequences of not dealing with race specifically in classes or subject matter that doesn’t directly indicate that race is going to be a part of the conversation? So we often hear this from faculty in math or science, or I would even say in my area of design where it’s not obvious that race might be something that should be discussed. What are the consequences of completely avoiding it?

Cyndi: Well, obviously it marginalizes it. So, it turns it into something that only some people can do. Only some people can cover these topics, only some people are allowed to on some level. And it’s interesting you ask that because this has come up on my campus in the last couple of years in a couple of different ways. Because we have, I don’t know if you all have it, a diversity requirement, but we do. So we have one course, American Cultural Diversity, that students are supposed to take. And there’s been sort of a…fight is a strong word, but…argument over who should be teaching those courses. And I don’t think just anyone should be teaching them. But I do think people can develop an expertise within their own field. So for example, I have a colleague (and we have a very big agriculture college on my campus), and she teaches soil science and crop production and all that sort of thing. So that’s an area where you think, where’s the race going to be that but it’s deeply in it because she’s teaching these future farmers and folks working in that industry. And there’s so many immigrants that work in farming. So she developed and she developed the expertise on this. And she developed a class on immigration…migrant farm workers, essentially. She and I talked about that course many times when she was in the process of developing and starting to teach it. She teaches it regularly. And I think the advantage of that is that, for the students who are majoring in that college, that’s going to feel very relevant for them. And so again, I think people have to develop some expertise to do it, and then they need some tools for how to teach it. But we all need tools for how to teach it because it’s hard. So, I think it’s important because it allows people to be more motivated to see how it relates to their specific field. I also have a colleague in math, who has talked a lot about trying to develop some courses around race and whiteness and math. You may recall, there was a math professor, I think, in Illinois, who was writing about white privilege and math and got a lot of haters online, essentially. Basically a really good scholarly analysis about the way white privilege works in math. And that stuff is really useful for students. It helps them connect in ways that are relevant to them.

John: You mentioned using narrative. While evidence is useful, it doesn’t always reach all of the students. I’ve been teaching about discrimination in my labor economics classes for decades. And it’s remarkable how resistant people are to facts. Because they rely on the sort of narratives: “My third cousin twice removed is this exceptional case. And it means all this evidence is wrong.” But you mentioned using narrative perhaps in a constructive way to help students understand that. Could you give us some examples of that?

Cyndi: Yeah, sure. Like the example that pops to mind right away was a really powerful piece that I used this semester on black maternal death rates, you may know that they’re wildly disparate, right? There’s a huge health disparities when it comes to race and healthcare. And so there was a really nice piece that was actually in the New York Times Magazine. That was this really good combination of a personal story of one woman and her experience. She lost a baby and then she was pregnant again and dealing with that… and there have been all these famous cases. Serena Williams most famously talked about her complications during birth and not being believed by doctors. So this piece was really great because they both had her story but then woven into it, it was a really well written piece. It had all the statistics, the differences…And the students…I gave it to them over a two-day period, because it was pretty long, and we discussed it for two days. And I just used it as this larger example of implicit bias in the healthcare industry. And these larger statistics on the disparities, the wealth gap…it illustrated a bunch of things that we had already covered. And the students loved it. It was hard for them to read, but they were very engaged with it. And some of the questions I got were excellent. And I’ll just say, too, I think one important thing is that when you come into a discussion, it’s really important to have a base to discuss with. And so, every day they have to read and post questions. I don’t give like reading quizzes, but they have to post questions so that I know that they read or at least mostly read, and I grade them. Because if you don’t do that, then your discussion is not good at all. If people don’t have a base of evidence to work from, you’re not going to get anywhere. And so those types of materials…I’m always looking for them…where they have that combo of the broad statistics and also the individual stories…and yeah, I know economics, it’s really tough to get those pieces. It’s the same for psychology can be really hard to find, but they’re useful.

John: Well, certainly in immigration and discrimination in labor markets, there’s a lot of examples out there and lots of good content.

Cyndi: Yeah, there definitely is. You just got to always be on the lookout.

Rebecca: So, what happens when it’s a conversation where the discussion point wasn’t going to be race, but then it becomes race. There isn’t a piece that you’re going to discuss ahead of time. But it pops up in conversation, it needs to be addressed. Do you have any strategies for handling those more impromptu situations that occur?

Cyndi: Well, for me, I think I always go back to then, either being honest that I don’t know enough to comment on it. What that question makes me think of are when students will bring up current examples, either that I don’t know or that I don’t know enough about. And so I will always try if I can to find some relevant psychological data or evidence or sociological data or evidence that I can bring it back to. And there have been times when if current events are happening, and I feel like I don’t know enough, I’ll just say, I don’t think we know enough. So if we have time, maybe we all spend a few minutes on our phones trying to find some information and you can do that right in class sometimes. But I always see myself as sort of a guide in terms of helping them sort through what the larger patterns are in terms of that evidence. And I think if you create a decent enough climate where they trust you, that usually can work. But yeah, the impromptu stuff can be tough, particularly if it’s not your area. I think that’s where, again, being prepared is hard. And I think you can just say, if this isn’t your area, like, “Let me go and find some more. Let me go find some stuff out and then we’ll come back to it.”

John: On dealing with things in the moment, how would you recommend people respond if someone makes a comment that somewhat racist without realizing the impact of that?

Cyndi: A really good example of that happened actually in a colleague’s classroom on campus this semester, and he called me after it. I forget what the term was, but a student had used a term in class that he found offensive and he was pretty sure other students found offensive and he didn’t really deal with it in the moment. And so he called me and asked what I thought. And I think one of the strongest ways to deal with that is, oftentimes, students don’t realize or people don’t realize that a turn might be offensive, or it might seem offensive. And so a lot of times, and what I advised him (and he said, it worked pretty well) is to go into those conversations, discussing it in terms of kind of a growth mindset idea. You know, here’s this term that was used…it’s offensive for some folks, but some folks might not understand why and then maybe talking about why that is. The word “colored” gets used a lot… “colored people.” And it makes sense in some ways that white students now who are very young wouldn’t know that that was an offensive term in the 50s and 60s. And so they use that term because they hear people say, people of color and then so colored people seems like a normal permutation of that, right? But it’s really not. It has this very unique history and so you could talk about how “Here’s this history that you may not have understood. And here’s this term that people didn’t use to describe themselves, it was used about them. And so that’s part of what makes it offensive.” And it’s normal that language changes and it evolves. And there’s plenty of examples you can bring up around that, like we talked in my classes about the word queer and the way that shifted over time…and language evolves…and so just sort of accepting that you’re going to make mistakes, you’re probably going to say things that might be offensive, but what’s the mindset that you bring to that? Do you bring the mindset that it’s normal, and you’ll figure it out, and you have to make your classroom safe for that too. So that it’s not like people are being called out and told that they’re saying the wrong word. We talked a lot in class about the difference between willful ignorance, like, “I know it’s wrong, but I’m gonna say it anyway” and just ignorance…like just really not knowing and coming out that and I give examples of my own, like times I screwed up…things I’ve said that were wrong, as a way to help them see that you’re never finished. I’ve been doing this for like 20 years, and I still make mistakes. I think that helps.

John: When you’re setting the classroom discussion rules, would that be a good time to bring that up?

Cyndi: Yeah, I think so. I think that you could, you could talk about expecting people to make mistakes. In the rule setting phase, you can talk about not expecting perfection, and how people will make mistakes and that’s all right, and ways to sort of come back from that, and gently talk about it rather than calling people out.

Rebecca: How do you handle microaggressions or other behaviors that might happen in class, that aren’t just like a word or whatever, but it’s something that’s happening or you see a pattern of behavior with a particular student. And maybe it’s something that you feel like you need to handle one on one. How do you usually handle those kinds of conversations?

Cyndi: Dealing with those. It’s usually much better one on one, because again, just like anybody, if you if you were to call someone out in class, then you’re likely to just get defensiveness and nobody’s going to be able to hear it. So what I’ve done in the past has been to talk to students one on one rather than to frame it as “You’re a bad person for doing this,” it’s like, “This is what I’m seeing. This is the pattern that I’m seeing. This is how I think it could be perceived” …and then just listening to what you hear. And you have to have a fair amount of trust with a student to be able to do that. But in general, I think whenever it comes to talking about someone’s racist behavior, it’s always better to focus on the behavior rather than the person. This is why when you hear national conversations about is that person a racist, I always want to throw my radio or my phone or whatever because it’s so frustrating to hear it framed in that way. “Is someone a racist?” is not a useful question. And I never quite sure what that means, because the goalposts always move, in terms of like how we think about what that word means. So, instead, focusing on the behavior, this is the pattern I’m seeing this is a problem. And I think if you’re in a moment where (this would be less with students, but more with colleagues) where you’re seeing this happen, and it’s directed at a person who has a lot less power in that moment… so like, a person of color, for example…you could step in and say, “This is what I’m seeing, and this is how I think about it.” So you’re not putting it on the person who was maybe the target of it. But you are saying in that moment, I see this and I see that this is a problem. That can be harder to do and less with students, I think more with colleagues. But, in general, it’s just sort of noting that it’s happening and being honest about it without necessarily saying you’re a bad person for doing this.

John: Last fall, we had a reading group addressing some of these issues. And one of the issues that came up in a lot of discussions is how to address these issues with colleagues, particularly those who are evaluating you for retention, promotion, and similar issues…

Rebecca: or hiring…

Cyndi: That is so hard when someone is in a position of power. Because if you’re the job candidate, there’s just no way that you’re going to be able, in that moment, to be able to do that.

John: What if you’re a junior faculty member on, for example, a recruitment committee and you observe comments or behavior that seems to be biased in some way. What would you suggest to a faculty member in that position?

Cyndi: I think you could go back to the sort of something called micro resistance. And there’s been a little bit written about this. In terms of how to deal with it, again, not making it about the person but just saying like, this is what I’m hearing, this is what I’m seeing. This is how I feel about it. And so you make it more about yourself. In extreme situations, and I’ve certainly been in them and seen them, you could go to other people that you trust on the committee and say, “This is what I’m seeing. This is what I’m hearing.” This is slightly different, but I had a slightly different but I had a student come to me last week and say that she’s in another course. And she’s hearing this from an instructor. And so then I was able to go to that department chair and say, what’s happening? So, I think using your mentors, using your colleagues, if you’re in that lower-power position; and if you’re in a higher-power position in those same spaces, try not to make the target responsible for that. If you’re a man, and you’re seeing sexism, it’s useful to just call that out. And again, not calling the person out, but just saying, “This is what I’m seeing. This is the pattern.” We talked about this actually, there’s an interesting anecdote in my class this last week. We were talking about this micro resistance thing and one of the students is a softball player and she’s on the softball team. According to her, there’s one black softball player on the team and everybody else is white. And, according to my student, whenever racist things will come up, like, they’ll all look at the black student to ask her “Is this okay?” And we talked in class about like, maybe that’s not fair to put that on the student of color. This white student feels like she really wants to be an ally, like she really wants to be an advocate. So we talked about, well, maybe you just say what you think about it, rather than asking her “Is it okay?” or going to her afterwards and saying, “Do you feel okay about this?” Because what is she going to say in that moment? I mean, she’s in the minority…the black student is, and so I think that can be a useful way to think about it too, because a lot of times we want the person who’s lower in power to like, excuse it and make it okay. And that’s really not fair. And I think it happens just because people don’t think about the power dynamics at all. They just don’t think about it. It doesn’t occur to them. And so trying to be more intentional about what is the power in this situation and trying to be more fair.

John: One of the issues if there’s a small number of minorities in a class, one potential issue might be stereotype threat. What are the consequences of that? And how can we address that perhaps by making it a more supportive environment?

Cyndi: Yeah, stereotype threat is really interesting. I know a lot about this. Actually, I’ve given lots of workshops on this, in addition to like implicit bias and stuff, too. And it’s a real problem. The consequences are…they’re sort of short term and long term. So the short-term consequences of stereotype threat is that you have students who underperform. So in a test situation or on a writing assignment, where you have a student who is feeling stereotype threat as a result of race or gender or social class. And so then it just create that extra layer of anxiety and stress, essentially. And it’s not always apparent. And you don’t necessarily know that that’s what you’re experiencing. But we know from the neuroscience research that, you just have less working memory in those moments because of stereotype threat. And so the short-term threat is that you underperform. The long-term consequence is that students disengage from the area altogether. So this is why we hear.…I’ve heard it so many times from my female advisees…“I’m not a math person. I’m not a science person. And I think it happens in art as well. I don’t know about design specifically…

Rebecca: um hmm.

Cyndi: …but you’ll get like, I’m not an art person. I’m not creative.

Rebecca: I can’t draw.

CUNDI: I can’t draw, yeah, that’s it. That one’s, I think, less about race, maybe a little bit more about gender, but it’s a very similar thing of like, “I don’t feel like I can do this. I’m not creative.” And so I’m just going to withdraw from it altogether. And so you see what Claude Steele calls dis-identification. So I’m just going to dis-identify with that field. It’s just not my thing. I’m going to go get my self esteem somewhere else. And obviously, that has serious consequences if the thing you’re dis-identifying with is school altogether. And so that’s why we see this underperformance over time with students of color and with women in math and science. The ways to get around that…there are a few. There’s a whole set of interventions that social psychologists have developed that can be really powerful. I guess I would send listeners to the mindset network web page. I don’t know if y’all have ever seen that. It’s mindsetscholarsnetwork.org. But it’s a bunch of social psychologists who have gotten together to create these really pretty low-cost interventions around increasing belonging…using values affirmations… Utility value is another one…growth mindset. There’s a bunch of them and there’s a little tweaks that you can do in your classes to help that. The other big intervention, and you can sort of call that active pedagogy. So there’s really good research that the more active your class is, that’s going to be good for everybody. But, it’s especially good for your students of color your first-generation students and your students who are women in math and science and engineering courses, where they’re more likely to feel that thread. That as an intervention itself is really great. There’s a ton of really nice discussions of that, and studies of that that you can find in terms of active pedagogy being an inclusive pedagogy. Because, in general, you want students to have a sense of belonging and you want them to feel included, and that’s going to help to undercut that, because really all stereotype threat is about is about a lack of trust. So everybody thinks it’s a lack of confidence in the student. It’s not. They don’t trust the environment to be fair, and so that’s why they disengage and they pull back. And so you want to you want to do everything you can to keep that trust.

John: …and they build more of a sense of community with their fellow students.

Cyndi: Absolutely.

John: I’m going to our conference in a few weeks, and one of the activities there is something called “sip and paint.” A friend of mine tried to convince me to do that. And my reaction was “No, the last time I painted I think I was seven years old.” [LAUGHTER] So, there’s a gender issue perhaps with the artwork thing.

Cyndi: Creativity. Yeah.

John: You mentioned implicit bias. My labor classes are online and one of the things I do is I have them take some of the Implicit Association tests, and then discuss them. And they tend to be pretty comfortable discussing many of them, but they tend to be much less comfortable discussing race.

Cyndi: Oh yeah.

John: But one of the things that led to some really good discussions are the associations between gender and careers.

Cyndi: Yeah.

John: And a lot of female students remark on how surprised they are that they associate women with home activities and men with careers. But, one of the things I note from the students who tend to perhaps have the more resistant attitudes towards facts in general, from other discussions, is that they tend to question the tests themselves and say, it’s clearly set up to demonstrate a bias when that bias really doesn’t exist. And those students are really hard to reach and we can keep giving them facts. But I’ve never been completely successful in getting through that barrier, at least in any one course. Any suggestions?

Cyndi: It’s really tough. As a social psychologist, I feel pretty comfortable talking about the Implicit Association test, but it is really hard to describe well, so that’s one problem with it, because you try to explain “No, no, like 25 years of research…” When I still had paper versions of the literature, I gotta bring in my big giant folder and I just sort of slap it on the desk and be like, “They’ve been studying this since 1995. But, like you said, the facts don’t always help. One thing I think that helps with them understanding implicit associations, is to depersonalize i… and I have some great podcast and book suggestions and article suggestions on how to help them understand what implicit associations are. But really, it’s not about them as a bad person. And that is one way I found to get at it. There’s a phrase that gets used by Mahzarin Banaji, who was one of the test co-creators and she talks about implicit associations as the thumbprint of the culture, which is really accurate, you know. So it’s not you’re a bad person, you have implicit bias… like, we all have it and it’s the thumbprint of the culture. You’ve been learning since you were a baby, what’s associated? what’s good and what’s bad? I mean, it really is that crude. It is your brain saying, “This group is bad. This group is good” over and over and over again, you get those messages. So if you can de-personalize it, I think that can help a lot. I have found that using the podcasts that I have on it, and some of the more newsy articles and they cite the researchers, that can be really helpful, too. But yeah, it’s they want to criticize the test all day long. I’ve gotten to where I don’t have them take the test until after they have a decent grounding in the science because they’re very resistant to the idea. They think the test just sucks.

John: At least those who have their preconceptions not confirmed in the way they’d like them to.

Cyndi: Yeah, because again, they think this means I’m a bad person. They think it’s the racism test. There’s a King of the Hill episode. I don’t know if y’all have ever seen that show, but I used to love that show. And there’s an episode where Hank has to go take the racism test, because he’s worried that his dog is racist or something. I can’t remember the full thing of the story. But, that episode is one of my favorites because it’s like, “Okay, let’s see if he’s racist.” But, that’s not the way it works, folks. I’ll have students sometimes say like, “We should just have all cops and all teachers and all judges take this test. And then we’d know who to hire…” and I’m like, “There’d be nobody left. There wouldn’t be enough people left to do all these jobs.” And I think if you talk about it in that way, it can make it so that it’s not a moral failing, which is, I think, why they’re so resistant.

Rebecca: I’ve done something as a follow up to doing some of the tests in my classes where I had students look at their portfolio of design work, and just see who was represented in the materials that they made. And what they usually do is discover that either it’s a lot of people that are just like them, or that it’s white and young….

Cyndi: Yeah.

Rebecca: …which some of the people in the class may not fit that particular group, but that’s what they’ve still represented. And that helps a lot, because we talk about, “Well, it’s easier to design for a group of people that you’re around all the time, perhaps”

Cyndi: Yeah.

Rebecca: Or, You know, know what, like this particular population, maybe preferences, if that’s a group that you’re a member of. And that sometimes helps too because it kind of breaks down some of the total ownership or blaming a student for something. It becomes more of that cultural identity piece.

Cyndi: Yeah, you can ask them, like, “Who’s most of your friends? Who’s in your environment?” I have them write journal entries all semester. I don’t say “Go find the racism and tell me about it” I just say like, ”Just tell me what you observe in terms of both race and gender.” Just like “What do you see? Who’s doing what jobs? Who’s in what space?” and that helps them too to start to see the stuff that they just sort of take for granted, because it’s the water that we all swim in. We’re all very segregated. And so I think it’s good for students to recognize that and then how that plays itself out in who you select to design, for example, and who comes into your consciousness. So again, thumbprint of the culture rather than moral failing…bad person.

Rebecca: I also do an activity in my capstone class where I ask students like, who are there five designers that inspire them, and then I end up with a pretty small list when we aggregate all of them together. And then I say, I’m going to ask this question again later in the semester, and I expect these lists to be really different. [LAUGHTER]

Cyndi: Yeah, that’s good…makes them explicitly think about it.

John: We always end with the question, what are you doing next?

Cyndi: I want to write more about these issues. What I really want to do is run some workshops for faculty. I’ve done a couple. Most of my workshops have been on stereotype threat and
implicit bias. So I would like to run more workshops on this topic in particular, like how do you teach about racism rather than teaching inclusively. That’s fun to talk about too. But how do you how do you teach about race and racism? I would love to do more of that. And I would also like to write more about these issues. Because I think it’s hard to do. And so I would like to just have more conversation. I’m also hoping eventually to maybe write a different book about inclusive pedagogy. We’ll see. I’m not sure. it’s a ways off.

John: And when is your book coming out?

Cyndi: It’s supposed to be November, I believe, November or December.

Rebecca: Well, I know that will probably have a line of people now that really want to make sure they get their hands on your book, because…

Cyndi: I hope so.

Rebecca: …there’s a lot of books that deal with these issues conceptually, but not in a practical way.

Cyndi: I could not find a lot on teaching about it. Like I said, I wanted the guide that I wish I had for myself 20 years ago, but I there’s just there’s not a ton. There’s a lot of good chapters on it in some edited books, but there wasn’t a lot that had sort of an overarching idea. So that’s what I wanted to try to do.

John: We were looking for that just last year. So, we will have it on pre-order very soon.

Rebecca: Yeah, Definitely.

Cyndi: Cool. Thanks.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. This was really great.

Cyndi: Yeah, thanks so much for asking.

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.

87. Social Presence in Online Courses

Interactions between students and faculty in online classes are mediated through a digital interface. Students are more successful in classes, though, when they feel connected to their instructor and classmates. In this episode, Allegra Davis Hanna and Misty Wilson-Merhtens explore a variety of methods that can increase the social presence of all participants in online courses.

Allegra is an English professor and the department chair of English and Humanities at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas. Misty is a history professor and social sciences chair at Tarrant County College. Allegra and Misty have been running The Profess-Hers Podcast since October 2018.

Show Notes

John: Interactions between students and faculty in online classes are mediated through a digital interface. Students are more successful in classes, though, when they feel connected to their instructor and classmates. In this episode, we explore a variety of methods that can increase the social presence of all participants in online courses.

[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 Allegra Davis Hanna and Misty Wilson-Merhtens. Allegra is an English professor and the department chair of English and Humanities at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas. Misty is a history professor and social sciences chair at Tarrant County College. Allegra and Misty have been running The Profess-Hers Podcast since October 2018.

John: Welcome.

Allegra: Thank you.

Misty: Thanks for having us.

John: Our teas today are…are you drinking tea?

Allegra: I am drinking Earl Grey tea.

Misty: I didn’t know tea was a requirement. I have coffee. [LAUGHTER]

John: Someone hasn’t listened to our podcast. [LAUGHTER]

Misty: Sorry!

Rebecca: We have this debate all the time. Nobody’s ever drinking tea with us. [LAUGHTER]

Allegra: I am!

Rebecca: So I appreciate it, yeah. We appreciate that there’s coffee drinkers in the world too.

Allegra: Yeah.

Rebecca: I’m drinking Christmas Tea today.

John: And I have Ginger Peach Black tea.

We’ve invited you here to talk a little bit about social presence in online instruction. While listening to one of your podcasts a while back, I heard you were presenting on this at a conference in Texas. Could you tell us a little bit about the importance of social presence in online instruction and what social presence is?

Allegra: Social presence is everything that’s non-instructional in an online class. And when we give this presentation, we start by saying, “I know what you’re thinking… that everything in an online class should be instructional. But everything in a face-to-face class is not instructional.” Everything that makes you seem like a real live human person with likes, dislikes, and interest is social presence. So there’s kind of two layers. One is the social presence of the faculty member, so that’s showing your students that you’re a real person, and the other is allowing students to create social presence so that your classroom becomes a community of learning and a place where students feel like they belong and can relate to each other both in the curriculum and outside of the curriculum. There are lots of strategies that faculty use to create online presence and so that’s really the focus of our presentations that we gave four or five times a semester at various conferences, some in Texas and some not in Texas. We went to Las Vegas, Colorado, and then a few places in Texas.

Rebecca: Can you give a couple of examples of social presence in an online environment, like specific ones?

Allegra: Oh, yeah, I can give you a lot. So, if you think about your in-person students, your in-person students get to see your face and facial expressions, they get to see your nonverbal cues, your body language, they get to hear your voice and your inflection, your tone of voice, and they get a sense of your personality. They know if you’re a funny or a not funny person and they know if you’re a serious or not so serious person. They see your office, they see your book bag, they see what kind of books that you have on your bookshelf, and your students get to see you make and correct mistakes when you’re speaking and when you’re writing, and so they get a sense of you as a real person. And so we try to teach our faculty to replicate the same kinds of experiences in an online class. And some specific ways of doing that, like the basic critical thing that you have to have is you have to let students know how long it will take you to respond to them and that reduces anxiety. Even if your answer is sometimes it takes me two days to respond to emails, letting students know what to expect, is absolutely critical. Obviously, I would recommend that you don’t take 48 hours to respond to student questions, but letting them know what your timeline is. And if you say, “I’m traveling this week, so I’m going to take a little bit longer to respond” … just to let them know and ease their anxiety. And it’s fine to say I’m traveling because again, you’re letting them know that you’re a real person and you have things that you do in your life. You need some kind of substitute for facial cues and personality indicators so we, on our campus, are really big advocates for bitmojis which are…

Misty: um….some people are…

Allegra: Misty doesn’t like them. [LAUGHTER] Misty is a very serious person. But some of us are really big advocates for bitmojis, which are like little avatars you can make of yourself. I use them all over my class, and a lot of people do. And if you want to make one, you just go to bitmoji.com, or you can download the app on your phone. You can download one that’s a little avatar view that says, “It’s Tuesday,” and then you can post it an announcement on Tuesday. And they have some reading books and things like that, that you can post in your class. Some people just use emojis and some people use words as substitutes for facial cues. Like they’ll just say, “JK” for “just kidding” or something like that.

Misty: And some of us use pictures. So my announcements have a lot of pictures of me at historical places… such as those me at Independence Hall.

Allegra: As Misty pointed out, we’re not all the same. And we definitely don’t advocate that all faculty take the exact same steps because the whole point is to show that you’re a real person, and so it should be authentic…

Misty: …and individual.

Allegra: In my introduction video, it’s really goofy and elaborate. And I show a picture of my child, I show them the books that I’m reading, I show them a picture of me on vacation. And some people aren’t comfortable sharing that much information with students and so it has to be authentic and it has to speak to who you are as a person. Because the point is letting your students know how approachable you are and what kind of person you are and what kind of professor you are. Whatever works for you is what will work for your students. And students are very, very savvy when it comes to being genuine and they know when a person is being inauthentic. They always can tell when a person is being fake. So it’s really what is most authentic for the instructor. And of course, beyond the basics, we have lots of things that we do training sessions on to teach faculty how to increase social presence incrementally, because we don’t say you have to completely revolutionize your class. But those are the basics.

John: You mentioned videos. I happen to have seen your intro video, and it’s really well done. And if you don’t mind, we’ll share a link to that in the show notes.

Allegra: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.

John:Do you use other videos in the class to provide feedback or instruction or other aspects?

Allegra: Absolutely.

Misty: For my class I have a lot of historical videos a little more like history.com, and they are more like me narrating and I use historical pictures and backgrounds and maps. And I know Allegra’s are a little bit more personalized than mine.

Allegra: I actually don’t use video. I don’t create video for my classes. My classes use curated videos from places like Ted-Ed. I use a lot of audio. We make a podcast, and I edit the audio for the podcast. And so I do a lot of audio for my classes. So my students can download… they’re like five-minute mp3s and they’re lesson introductions. When we start a new lesson on plot or on writing a research paper, I give them a rundown of what’s important as an mp3 file. Students could, if they wanted to, download that file and listen to it on their phones. I don’t know why anyone would ever want to do that. But when they open the class up in Blackboard, there’s just a play button so they can choose to read it, they can choose to listen to it, or they could choose to do both.

John: So you meet accessibility requirements.

Allegra: Yeah, and our instructional designers tell us it’s better to have a script. So, if you make a video or an audio file, just to start with a script and then you automatically have a transcript. And of course I find myself, as I’m talking, changing a little bit of what I’m saying or adding in an example or changing the way I wrote something. And so it’s really easy to go back and make five little changes. And then I have a transcript and I don’t have to transcript it after I do it. Plus, it sounds better if it’s planned out and it’s written and it’s scripted. We have a video studio on our campus because we’re a fully online campus. So we have a video studio for faculty to come and make videos. And the one thing our instructional designers say is, “Come with a script. Even if we change it, you need a script,” It helps take out a lot of the pauses and the “ums.” If you’re really nervous it helps to have a script, it kind of eases your anxiety…

Misty: …and it helps with your pacing.

Allegra: Absolutely. You don’t know in the moment whether you’re rambling or whether you’re on point. So if you have a script and you can stick to it, it makes it a higher quality video and of course easier to transcript for accessibility.

John: Do you use some type of teleprompter or big screen behind the camera,

Allegra: They have an iPad that’s dedicated to teleprompting, and they have an app on there. So they load up the word file and it, I don’t know how exactly how it works… but yeah.

Misty: So it flips it like a mirror, and it paces with you. And I have a tendency to talk really fast. So they’ll always say, “Slow down.” If the words are going too fast, they aren’t going to understand you.

Allegra: Yeah.

John: On most of the apps, you can adjust the speed as well. I’ve used Teleprompt+3… and there’s another one I’ve just heard about, I don’t remember the name, that actually syncs to your voice so it will recognize your voice and pause when you get to a new place or will keep up with you.

Misty: That’s what we use.

Allegra: Oh, wow… that’s cool, but kind of creepy. [LAUGHTER}

Rebecca: So social presence is really important to the learning. I think sometimes faculty don’t necessarily think of all these little details that aren’t part of the curriculum as being important. So can you talk a little bit about how students knowing you as an individual, and knowing that you’re a real person, impacts how they learn or how they perceive the class as a whole?

Misty: The first is it’s a requirement that students and faculty are interactive in a course. As you had on your podcast in April or May I think, someone was talking about the federal regulations for regular and substantive interaction. And so that’s where we start with faculty. I say, “This is not me being like a touchy-feely, Kumbaya faculty member. This is me telling you, you have to be interactive with your students or we could lose federal financial aid funding, not to mention that our accrediting body would also have a problem with you running a course that isn’t interactive.” Beyond that, it is important to students that they feel like they can reach out to you. And that’s the number one thing students say back to us when they watch our introductory videos, or they listen to a few of my audio files. They say, “I feel like you’re a real person, I feel more comfortable sending you an email.” And they also say that it really matters to them because they can tell that we took a lot of time to make these things for the course. Or they can see that we’re spending a lot of time corresponding with them in the course. And it matters to them. They take note of the fact that we’re doing what they perceive as going above and beyond. They say, “I really appreciate that. Because not everybody’s doing that.”

Allegra: The thing I get in my student reviews that I really like hearing online is, “I can tell she cares about us…”

Misty: Yeah.

Allegra: “I can tell that she cares that we’re learning.” And I think when I first started teaching online, I didn’t know how to do that effectively. And I get that pretty commonly now in my student evaluations.

Rebecca: Can you elaborate on that a little bit and talk about some of the things that faculty often miss or don’t do when they first start teaching online. Or where you found that you’ve tweaked things to get a little bit better at this.

Misty: Some of them are really, really easy. So welcome announcements, having a “start here” area on your online class so that students know exactly where to go when they first open it. Remembering that everybody’s online class looks different and students who are fully online students, which is about a third of our students, they’re taking four different online classes that all look and feel differently. So helping them with navigation and making things redundant. One thing that’s really easy that makes a huge difference with very high impact is using announcements. I post at least one announcement a week. I tell my students at the beginning of the semester, “You’re probably going to get tired of the announcements but you’ll also get used to them.” And so I use announcements, to remind them, things that are coming up that are due, to congratulate them on finishing a big project. If several people are commenting on the same thing in the discussion board, I might make an announcement and say “This is a really good topic of conversation and here are some things I want to point out.” I might say, “Everybody go read so and so’s point in the discussion board because I think it’s really, really important to the discussion.” I use them for keeping everybody on track and say, “We’re moving toward this big project, here are the things you want to keep in mind.” And if students are making a common error, if they’re six or seven students are making the same mistake or have the same misunderstanding, I can post an announcement, and correct that. Because if six students have a misunderstanding that I noticed, chances are, 15 students really are having the same problem.

Allegra: So, something that I do in my class is in the introduction week, I have them fill out a Google survey, and it populates it as a spreadsheet for me, and I tell them if there’s a name you want to be called, so if it’s Tim instead of Timothy…. So it populates into a spreadsheet for me, and I keep that on the side of my computer all semester. So every time I respond to them in a discussion board, it’s Tim, not Timothy. If they go by completely different name, they really notice. And the other thing that I do is halfway through the course, I send out a personalized email to the students who are getting A’s, because everybody corresponds to those students who are C or below. But I give special attention to the ones that are getting A’s and say, “This is what you’re doing well, this is why you’re getting an A in my courses, what’s working for you, continue with these strengths.” And if they respond I’ll say, “And these are things you can work on.” But I don’t put that in the initial email.

Rebecca: I’m sure students respond really positively about that. I think that’s true in face-to-face classes too. The students that are really excelling often are the ones that kind of get overlooked at some points during the semester.

Allegra: And discussion boards are just important places for interaction to happen. And I think a lot of times, people set the discussion board up and then they let students run the discussion. And the only time faculty look at it is when they go into grade a student’s participation. And it’s very hard for me as a chair or when I’m conducting these trainings to really push people and say, “You should engage in the discussion, you should respond. Now, can you respond to every student and every discussion board every single week? Probably not. But you should be responding to about five students per class per day.” And that doesn’t take very much time. Students know that if you’re constantly in the discussion board, that if something is a muddy point or two people are unclear about something that there’s a strong chance that you will be in the discussion within that week, and that you’ll see that and that you can help correct or clarify the point for them. Faculty really don’t want to have to do that because they say, “I read the discussion board posts when I grade them. And so I don’t want to have to read them twice.” But I think it makes a really big difference.

Allegra: Well, if two students in your in person class were debating, you wouldn’t just let them fight it out. You would step in…

Misty: We would hope. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, we would hope that you wouldn’t just let them argue and just watch. Yeah, that’s the equivalent. And, you know, everything that’s in your class is kind of your responsibility. So you should know what the ongoing conversations are. And I’ll say, when I started jumping into discussions I noticed that the discussion posts tended to be longer and more substantive. Because first of all, you’re setting a model for them, right? They see you talking and they see what kinds of things you’re saying and what kind of detail you’re going into. So you’re posting a kind of model of posts, but also, if they know you’re going to read them, they put them at a higher standard, at least in my experience.

Allegra: I do think early on, though, when they see you in there, it freaks the students out a little bit, because maybe they’re not used to professors doing that. And so it takes a minute for them to like, adjust.

Misty: Yeah, absolutely.

John: I know some faculty are reluctant to do that. Because sometimes when they’ve tried they said it tends to shut down the discussion when they come in, and maybe they’re coming in with perhaps too heavy of a hand in the discussion.

Misty: One thing I do is that I ask questions. I never just get in there… And this is what I think. And that’s it. I’m the professor, we’re done. It’s “Have you considered this?” Or “Have you thought about this?” Or “What about this point?” And it’s up to the students to lead themselves there. I’m just kind of putting the guide post up.

Allegra: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. The other thing you can do is you can read the discussions. And then you can do like a whole class response in an announcement so that students don’t feel like you’re directly responding to them. But you can just say, here’s some great things I read on the discussion board this week, and kind of highlight some comments in an announcement. And that way you’re not in the discussion, but students still know that you’re there responding to and interacting with them, and that might be a happy medium for people who don’t want to full fledge go into the discussion themselves. But, as Misty said, if we were doing an in-person class, and we had an in-class discussion, surely you would be facilitating in some way.

Misty: You hope.

Allegra: Yeah, we would hope.

John: …and nudging people sooner might be more productive than after the discussion has wandered far afield.

Allegra: Absolutely, yeah. And if you’re grading it, it’s after it’s over. So you have no chance to redirect the conversation at all.

Rebecca: For faculty who maybe are hesitant to do other things… we’ve talked a little bit about hesitation of being in discussion forums. Sometimes faculty are hesitant about having their face on screen and don’t want to do intro videos and things like that. Have you found other areas that faculty might be hesitant, but once they try something, they’ve been pleasantly surprised?

Allegra: If you watch my introduction video, you notice it’s not me talking, because I’m very aware of my facial expressions.

Misty: It is your voice.

Allegra: Yeah, it’s me talking.

Misty: Mine is not my voice.

Allegra: No, it’s my voice. But it’s not a video of me talking because I’m very aware of my facial expressions. So it’s a slideshow of pictures, and me narrating over it. So I was reluctant to speak on camera. And so we found a creative way for me to have an instructor video. And that’s the other reason I have a lot of audio files is because I don’t want to speak on camera. We have faculty who say, “I don’t want to put a picture of myself in my class.” And so then I just google them. And I say, I’ve just found 20 pictures of you by googling your name. So, your students can find out what you look like. We have professional headshots. So why don’t you just put a picture in the class? You’re not giving them top-secret information about yourself. But, absolutely, if you force faculty to do something, if we were to say you must create five videos for your class, some of them would be the most boring videos of all time because they would be forced. So what we would say is find what works and run with it. And so Missy has videos. I have audio. Other people have a combination of them. Some people make their own videos on their back porch using their iPhone. Some people do lecture capture. Absolutely, if we try to force one specific thing, then our faculty will comply, but it will be not as high quality, and so it won’t be the impact that we’re looking for.

Misty: So in my introduction video, I am aware that I’m very awkward on film. Like it’s awkward for me, it’s awkward for the students… everybody doesn’t want to see that. So mine is pictures of me, but other people are narrating it. And actually, Allegro is heckling.

Allegra: Yes.

Misty: And making funny comments during mine. But then when I’m speaking on historical topics, I can do that all day long. I just can’t talk about myself. So people will find what works for them if they’re given the ability to do so. One of our instructional designers who’s very good at working with reluctant faculty says everybody’s favorite subject is themselves in some capacity. So if you don’t want to share pictures of your family, which I understand… if you don’t want to talk about your vacations, that’s fine. Talk about your research, talk about what you’re reading. And if you don’t want to make a video, make an audio file. The software that we use to edit our podcast, which is what I use to edit the audio in my courses is free. It’s freeware… and so our school did buy us nice microphones. So that is an investment. But, for a long time, I was using a Logitech headset with a microphone. It’s not a huge monetary investment to make audio files, and students respond to it. So it’s whatever really works. And sometimes you need a little coaching to know: “What do faculty need? How can we kind of get them comfortable with the medium?” But we have people who said: “No way. Never. There’s not a chance…” and they watched a few videos, and they got to know the instructional designers who helped make the videos. And so they’re coming around and they’re like, “Okay, maybe I’ll make one for the fall.”

John: Do you have students do something similar? Do you have them share bitmojis or audio or video files?

Allegra: So we do have some faculty who use Flipgrid. The instructor will make a video on Flipgrid. And it’s basically a discussion board of little videos. Our speech faculty requires students make videos of them making speeches and presentations. And I asked students to post pictures in their introduction. And I say, if you don’t want to post a picture of yourself, post a picture of your dog or your favorite sports team, or a screenshot from your favorite TV show… just a visual that helps us get to know you. Sometimes I asked students in discussion boards to respond to things with names. So to add a little personality and you can just think about ways to make your discussion board a little bit more open. So, in my lesson about setting, I have a formal writing assignment where they analyze the setting of a short story. But then I have a discussion board where they just write about the setting in their favorite movie, and how the setting helps augment the theme or illustrate something important or relate to one of the main characters. And so I say tell us about the setting in your favorite movie, and then put a screenshot of the Hogwarts castle, or the stuff in Hunger Games. So then they’re like, “Oh, my God, I love that movie, too.” And so they’re talking about the subject matter. They’re relating to each other more personally. And so I don’t know that there are ways easily to do that in every subject matter. But I know that there are ways that you can give students less formal assignments sometimes that allows them to interact in that way.

Misty: So I do hidden bonus discussion boards. If you get all the way through my notes, there’’ll be a link, “click this,” and it’ll take you to a hidden discussion board and I do “favorite things” as one of them. So they go on and they get to post a picture of their favorite things. So I get a lot of like Dunder Mifflin logos. [LAUGHTER] I get a lot of memes, and it’s a reward for them for actually reading the work. And then they get to do something fun at the end, and they get bonus points.

John: It’s an interesting idea.

Misty: Yeah, we have a lot of Easter eggs in our online classes; a lot of faculty make use of that. And so at the very end of my syllabus… this is a very basic one… it just says, send me an email with this subject line and ask me a question… anything you want to know… and I’ll answer it and give you bonus points on your introduction. So, if they read the whole syllabus the first week of class, not only do they get this chance to get bonus points for reading the syllabus, but they’ve already sent me an email and once you’ve sent your instructor one email, it’s much easier then when you have a question to send them an email, because that line of communication is already established. And they ask me the goofiest questions. You know, they asked me like “What’s my favorite TV show?” Or do I think dragons are real? [LAUGHTER]. They they have fun with it.

Misty: Do you have tattoos?”

Allegra: Yeah, I mean, that’s in my intro introduction video because I got that question so many times. I’m like, “Yes, I’ll just tell you, I have tattoos. They’re obsessed with tattooed professors. So I just went ahead and let them know Yes, I have tattoos and they’re all related to books in fact. So it’s sort of related to the course.

John: Have you done the AMAsa on Reddit yet? [LAUGHTER]

Misty: We should do that. We should try it.

John: That could be a podcast episode with your students.

ALEGRA: Yeah. Oh God… [LAUGHTER]

Misty: I’m scared.

John: It could be dangerous. But, you can edit it.

Allegra: Yeah, that’s true. We do tell faculty to use humor if they’re actually funny. And what I say in presentations is if people don’t laugh at you in real life, they’re not gonna laugh at you online. So….

John: …or at least not for the reasons you want them to….

Allegra: Yeah, laughing at you. So I say if you’re funny, and you can do it well, absolutely use humor. You have to be careful that you’re not making fun of people, obviously. But self-deprecating humor is always a winner. So, I tell people that. I do advise them like “Don’t try if your jokes don’t land, they’re definitely not going to work online.”

John: Do you include any social media in your classes outside of the LMS?

MISSY: I have tried. It has been an abject falure.

Allegra: Missy is remedial at social media. But, I tell my students that they could find me on Twitter. The Twitter page that I have is a professional Twitter. So I post things about online teaching, or about our podcasts or articles about education, or about cool books or things just having to do with authors, so it’s professional related. It’s not like me posting about my favorite TV show. But I don’t use it for the class. So, students sometimes will follow me on Twitter, which I tell them, you’re going to be really bored, but that’s fine. But I don’t use it for the class. We do have instructors in the English department who use Twitter for their classes as a way to ask me a question or to get more information as just an additional contact method. We’ve had some teachers try to use it as a discussion forum. And they said that they just would rather use the discussion forum in the LMS.

Misty: Some of our government instructors have been able to do it pretty well, because it’s easier to share news articles on Facebook… and they put them in a closed group, then they kick everyone out of the closed group at the end of the semester and start a new closed group for the next semester. But government’s kind of unique in that way. I don’t know if it would work for other disciplines.

John: You’ve mentioned bitmoji. Are there any other tools you use to create content in your classes that perhaps faculty should explore?

Allegra: So audacity is the software that we use for editing audio files, and our instructional designers showed me how to use it in about 10 minutes. And so then I’ve gotten used to the tools and the buttons and how they work. He says it’s like a Fisher Price audio editing…. So he thinks it’s pretty straightforward and simple in terms of how to use it. I create a lot of graphics for my course. So I create banners. I create getting to know me things. I create things related to the subject matter and I use Canva that’s like Canvas without the S. It’s a free service. It’s a graphic design online tool. So if you wanted premium content, or better looking designs, then you could pay for those things, but it is free to use Canva as well.

Misty: Screencast-o-matic… I use that a lot to create where you’re talking over a PowerPoint video, or even pictures.

Allegra: Oh yeah, talking over a slideshow? Absolutely. Right now we’re using YouTube for videos. I don’t know what they’re using for video editing. I was trying to look and see if it was in my notes.

Misty: Camtasia

Allegra: Camtasia is what they’re using, but it’s not free, so I don’t recommend it to everyone.

Misty: Yeah.

John: For people who are on Macs or iPhones, there is iMovie. And there’s lots of Android editing tools that are free and there’s a few Windows ones as well.

Allegra: I would say the newest coolest thing to make videos is Apple Clips, which you can get on an iPhone or an iPad. And I don’t know if you’ve played around with it, but especially if you’re going to do like a talking-head video. You can change the background or you can make yourself look like you’re a comic-book character. And it’s auto captioning the same way that YouTube does. So it might be like 85% accurate and it’s very easy to go in and edit the caption file to make it 100% accurate. You can make a very cool looking, engaging, and dynamic video using Apple Clips and upload it to Twitter or to your LMS very, very quickly… very, very easily. And of course, the sound quality on just an iPhone itself with no microphone is pretty good. So if you’re in a quiet room, it’s going to sound really good and look really cool. Unfortunately, I don’t have an iPhone. So I’ve only played with it a little bit on the iPads at work, but I think Apple Clips is free, 100% free. And it’s a very cool tool, If you are an Apple person… and QuickTime you can also use on Macs to do screencast videos. I think that’s all my tools.

John: The nice thing about uploading things to YouTube is the captioning in YouTube has gotten very, very good. Is probably 97…98% accurate.

Allegra: Absolutely.

Misty: Unless you have an accent.

John: Yes, unless you have an accent or there’s a lot of background noise…

Allegra: …or you talk really fast. Yeah.

And something that is probably more for English faculty or people who have a lot of essays to grade, is you can do audio grading, which is you can record like a two minute you explaining to your student where they did well and what they could improve on. And I found that it helps me deliver information in a more softer personal way, the same way I would be able to do an in-person writing conference. In TurnItIn.com, which we use through our LMS, there’s just a button on the side of the paper that says record audio and I think can you can record up to three minutes. You have to ask students if they want to opt in or opt out of that because not all students respond really well to audio comments and some students need it to be written down. But it’s it’s a good way to be engaging and students hear from your voice and you can kind of use your tone and soften things and emphasize things, so audio grading is something we’re trying to get into more. Of course, you can do it in the LMS. You just have to record an mp3 and then attach it. So it’s a little bit more cumbersome.

John: And there’s a number of apps that you can use on iPads and other devices to do that on PDFs as well. And then just email them back or share them back.

Allegra: Absolutely, yes.

So we use a lot of Spotify playlists, and so Spotify is free, and students don’t need a Spotify account in order to listen to a Spotify playlist. They can just hit play in the LMS. So, I use them in three different ways. One, in my introduction, I just have a playlist of music that I like, and some students can really relate to you in that way. So I just like 15 of my favorite songs, and I might change it every now and again. And so I just there’s a way to embed Spotify playlists, you just get an embed code, and then you can embed it in an announcement or an item on your LMS. And so students can get to know you that way. When I teach metaphors and poetic devices, I have a playlist of songs that are like riddled with metaphors and poetic devices, imagery, symbolism… metaphors, of course, very prevalent in music. So I have a playlist of songs, and I link it into my lesson on poetic devices. And so then students can listen to songs. And hear examples, like, Collecting my Jar of Hearts, right? Like that’s a metaphor and a song that they all know. And so it helps them understand that concept in a little bit more of an accessible way than the Shakespeare sonnet that they’re going to read for that lesson. And then Misty uses them…

Misty: …for every historical era. So it helps them connect with the pop culture of the time.

Allegra: So, she’s a 40 playlist and a 50s playlists and a 60s playlist in her history class.

Rebecca: That sounds like a lot of fun.

Misty: I actually have a Civil War playlist.

Allegra: A Civil War play…. I don’t…

Misty: Yeah, marching songs.

Allegra: They’re free accounts of students want you they can connect to your playlist but they can just play them right through the LMS.

Rebecca: I think that’s an interesting option that maybe a lot of faculty haven’t considered.

It’s very easy. And Missy was the first person on our campus, I think, to think of using Spotify for teaching. So it’s really simple and straightforward. And students really, really…

Misty: Are you saying that if I can do it, anybody can do it? Because that’s kind of what it sounds like. [LAUGHTER]

Allegra: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. [LAUGHTER]

And there are opportunities maybe to have students create Spotify playlists in certain classes. So, that’s an option as well.

Misty: I want to say one more thing. Make sure that your social presence doesn’t overwhelm the actual instruction in your course. Because we have seen that mistake a couple of times, where it’s so heavy on the means or it’s so heavy on the bells and whistles that they forgot to actually teach the material. [LAUGHTER]

Allegra: Yeah, I think that was really kind of an error. You know, we had a whole conference that was really about like increasing engagement and presence. And so I think a lot of people took away the message that that was really, really important, which it is. But, obviously, the subject matter instruction is what’s most important. And students can get lost in a sea of images. If you have a lot of stuff in there that’s not directly related to the content. So honestly, the best thing to do is to look at the way different people use different things and to find a good balance of what works for you, and really go with what students are telling you. So if students are getting lost in your class, if students are getting confused in your class, then you have to go back and make it a little bit more simple and easy to navigate.

Rebecca: Details, details.

Allegra: Yes.

John: But tying the social presence and the images and the playlist and so forth to the content reinforces the learning without distracting from the learning.

Allegra: Yeah, exactly.

John: How have students responded to your increase in social presence in classes. I’ll say about 50% of them have not mentioned it at all. So, we get feedback from students on student evaluations. So that’s like solicited feedback. And I have only ever taught online this way. So I don’t have anything to compare it to necessarily, but I get a lot of unsolicited feedback from students in the form of emails. A lot of them say I really don’t like English class. I was really anxious about English class. And watching your video or listening to the first lesson really helped me feel more comfortable. A lot of them say you seemed more approachable. I really feel like I can ask you questions. And it shows because students will send me emails halfway through the semester and they’ll just say, I don’t really even know what question I have. I just feel like I’m getting lost and I’m not doing very well. And I guess, can you just help me? And so a student will only send you that kind of email, if they’re really comfortable sending you that kind of like, “Just help me. I don’t know, am I doing okay?” if you’re an unapproachable instructor, if you are somebody who doesn’t consistently respond to emails, if you are somebody who seems like a robotic behind the computer grader, students don’t reach out to you with that kind of question. So, that tells me it’s important to cultivate this kind of sense of community in a class so that students feel comfortable when they are lost at sea. And they’re sitting at home all by themselves, they don’t have classmates they can turn to you and say, “Do you know what’s going on?” You have to really create that sense of community very intentionally. And it shows. I get about 15 to 20 unsolicited emails a week in the first six weeks of class when students are orienting themselves to where things are, and they all say the same thing: “I feel comfortable. I feel less anxious. I appreciate this.” And then on the evaluations, they say I can tell that she did extra work. She always responded to my messages, which it’s heartbreaking to me when students thank me for replying…

Misty: Yes….

Allegra: …to them.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: Yeah, I know.

Allegra: Because I’m like, “Does that mean you have faculty who don’t reply to you?”

Misty: Yes, it does.

Allegra: But it does show… and I don’t mean this like in a bragging, like, “look at me, I get all this great feedback” way… But I do get a lot of great feedback. And it’s because of all of these things. It’s not because they all love reading poetry.

Misty: So, all the research shows that if you create community, students will stay in your course and will stay in college, and all of the research for years and years and years focused on in-person classes. So, we’re trying to take that research and adapt it to our online classes. And as chairs, you and I both get success rates every semester. And I can tell you, immediately when I look at the success rate I know who’s creating a social presence in their class and who isn’t because if a student feels connected to you, they don’t want to drop your course. And they want to try to do well for you. And the high success rates generally usually typically correspond to courses where the instructor’s engaged, involved, and has an actual dialogue with the students.

Allegra: Absolutely. Everybody has good semesters and bad semesters, including me. But if somebody consistently has a low success rate in an online class, then that is a person that we start to intervene. And we say, like, “Let me help you. Let me give you some strategies. Let’s talk about ways that you think you could do better, because my job is not to change the way you teach. But my job is definitely to make sure students are as successful as possible.”

Misty: And that doesn’t mean 100% success rate’s a good thing either.

Allegra: No, no. Just definitely not. [LAUGHTER] But we’re kind of sorting this out in terms of making our online classes as good as they possibly can be while at the same time evaluating our faculty’s online classes in a formal way, and also mentoring online faculty to improve their classes in a less formal way. And a lot of times they ask us, like, “How can my students just feel like disconnected for me? How can I fix that?” And I’ll say, “Why don’t you try… just post an announcement every week. Just start there. It’s very easy, doesn’t take very much time. And you’re reaching out to every single student and then we can talk about individualized emails, reminding students who haven’t submitted something, all those kinds of things. The other thing is, in an online class at a community college policies like I will never take late work under any circumstances, no matter what, I don’t care who died, it’s not going to work. And students perceive that from you. And to be that rigid and inflexible in these circumstances is a breakdown and that is what I number one thing I get student complaints about is: “I submitted it five minutes late,” or “I was in a car accident and my teacher didn’t care.” And those kinds of things we can’t accept anymore. That’s just not the nature of online teaching. And that’s not the nature of community colleges.

Rebecca: These are really good points. We want to make sure that our students succeed, and putting artificial barriers in their way is certainly not going to help that.

John: It’s a serious issue. As we’re getting a broader spectrum of society entering college, many of the students are ones who are on the threshold of deciding whether to go or not. And when they’re turned away with because of major life issues and they get discouraged, they often just disappear… and being welcoming and dealing with real-life situations in a realistic way (in the same way that they’d be dealt with in a workplace) isn’t really unreasonable.

Misty: Yeah, absolutely.

Allegra: That’s what I say to faculty. I’ve had a circumstance where a student forgot to attach the document and the faculty wouldn’t accept it. Even though the student submitted it, it was just blank… I attached the wrong document, and I can pull back an email from that same faculty member and say, “Here are three different times you sent me an email, and you forgot the attachment.” Be realistic, we don’t have to cut everybody a break. But like you said, people make the same kinds of mistakes in the workplace. And we don’t have this artificial rigid system where there are no exceptions, and zero tolerance for anything. And when there are students who are on the border of whether or not they want to continue in college, or whether they have enough support, or whether they feel confident enough to become successful, your attitude can make or break that student’s experience.

Rebecca: That really does tie back to this whole idea of social presence in a lot of ways because these are the things that aren’t really about the content of the course, but really about how it’s delivered. And that’s really what social presence is about.

Allegra: Absolutely and if you have a student who says “I felt anxious, and you’re silly video and your bitmojis helped me feel more comfortable,” that is a student who maybe would have dropped when they had the first difficulty with an assignment. But instead, they felt comfortable enough to reach out and say, I’m really struggling, I don’t have any idea what’s going on. And I can just explain it in a different way. Or say, actually, it seems like you really do know what’s going on. And you just needed me to kind of build you up a little bit. And that’s what my job is supposed to be. My job is not supposed to be to enforce a bunch of rules, and to be the arbiter of what’s on time and not on time. And to just sit in a room and grade your paper, like my job is to build you up and help you learn.

John: It’s nice to see two people who are department chairs using these techniques in their classes. [LAUGHTER] Because that sets a nice role model which we don’t always see in all departments at all institutions.

Allegra: It does help to be a fully online campus, so we have a whole campus culture. Our administrators support this, our instructional designers help us with all of this. There’s no way I could have made that video without them. And they really emphasize it and reward it.

Misty: Well, and to some extent, we’re still the Wild West, right? So we’re still getting to determine the culture, whereas brick and mortar campuses, maybe that culture has already been set. Maybe it was set in the 1970s. And that’s kind of hard to change.

Allegra: Yeah.

John: Or the 1870s, as the case may be, [LAUGHTER]

Allegra: Yeah.

Misty: Yeah.

John: Your podcast…. Tell us a little bit about how that got started.

Allegra: Our campus administration said, “We have all this equipment, and we want to make sure that it’s getting used.” Our campus President, I think, is the person who said somebody around here should make a podcast.

Misty: Well, no, what he said was, “You guys need to make radio shows.”

Allegra: Yeah.

Misty: …and I didn’t understand.

Allegra: So it was Misty’s idea, because she teaches history and I teach English and you can tell we don’t agree on anything or everything. But we do have shared passions for feminism and for social justice, and we’re both very passionate about the things we like. We don’t like the same things. [LAUGHTER]

John: It’s a great blend, though.

Allegra: So, I will talk about Grey’s Anatomy, and she will talk about the War of 1812. No… but it’s a great integrative learning model. So we, in almost every episode, are able to integrate history and literature, or history and information literacy. And we can also talk about how the same ideas of textual analysis apply to Grey’s Anatomy and Game of Thrones, or how there are historical figures who are similar to the figures that you see in Game of Thrones. That’s actually episode we’re going to record later today is about history and Game of Thrones connections…

Misty: We also want our students to see the connections between their subjects.

Allegra: Yeah.

Misty: Because we think that they leave a history class, they don’t see how it touches literature, or they leave a literature class or they don’t see out to just psychology and so having the podcast can help bridge that gap. And it can kind of wrap them in this world of the humanities.

Allegra: Absolutely.

Misty: I mean, we try math and science, too. But it’s not our strong…

Allegra: It’s not. So yeah, in our math episode we have historical women in mathematics. And then I’m like, “Here are some great books about women in mathematics.” But we the two of us are certainly not experts in math. And because we’re a community college, we don’t have like a gender studies program. So it’s a great way for students to get exposed to some of those ideas that if they’re transfer students to universities, that will be more prevalent on the university campus. So more cultural studies, more applications of history, English, sociology, and all those kinds of things together. And we sometimes have our Dean as a guest star on our podcast, because she was a speech professor and now she’s an administrator, and she has new perspectives to add as well.

ALLEGRA And the other thing… it lets our students see that were people, that we’re actual real people and they can hear us joke with each other and they can see the difference in personalities. So, I’ve started including these in my course, especially the ones that relate directly to a historical era.

Misty: Interestingly, our most popular episode is called “The Trouble with Tropes,“ which is about tropes of female characters in TV, movies, literature. And so obviously, that directly relates to literary analysis, and I teach tropes in literary analysis. And I think it’s hilarious that it’s one of the most academic episodes of our podcast, and it’s the most popular. But I definitely, when I talk about stereotypes and archetypes and tropes, direct students to that, and beyond that there’s a link to the podcast in my “About Me” section in my course. So students want to listen to it, they can have some students say, “You know, I listened to your podcast.” I’m not going to give them extra credit for listening to me talk for an extra hour because that seems a little self serving, but I do tell them about it and like Missy said, if it directly relate to the content, I will add it as an additional resource in that lesson. Absolutely.

John: I know we mentioned this at the beginning of the episode, but could you remind our listeners of the name of your podcast?

Allegra: It’s the Profess-Hers Podcast, and its history, literature, pop culture, sports, through a woman’s perspective and a feminist perspective.

Rebecca: And we can download it where?

Allegra: Everywhere you get podcasts: Apple, Stitcher, Google, all those places that you get podcasts. They’re in all of them. Yeah, it’s in a lot of places. I didn’t know how it got there.The same places you can get the Tea for Teaching podcast.

John: Are you on Spotify?

Allegra: Yes.

Rebecca: Well, they have to be, right, they’re promoting Spotify. [LAUGHTER]

Allegra: Yeah, I should be getting a check from Spotify any day now. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah. We all wish, right? [LAUGHTER]

Allegra: Yeah.

John: Our Spotify take up just doesn’t seem quite as high as the others. But we do get a few every month.

Allegra: Yeah, I think it’s 50% from iTunes and Apple.

John: We always end with: what are you doing next?

Allegra: Well, next we are recording two episodes of our podcast because our semester is coming to a close. So we will have a few weeks where we’re not on campus. So we’re also trying to record ahead a little bit so that we have the consistent podcast releases even while we’re not at work. I took Misty’s answer because as soon as we’re done with this we’re going to eat some nachos, and then record some Profess-hers podcasts…

Misty: …and beg our teachers to get their grades and on time. Please submit if you’re listening. Always submit grades on time. Thank you.

Rebecca: Public Service Announcement. Yes. From every department chair ever.

Allegra: …of all time. Yes, indeed.

Rebecca: It’s been really fun. Thanks so much for joining us.

Misty: Thank you.

Allegra: Thank you.

John: And I’ll keep enjoying your show. And Rebecca will be listening to your show.

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely.

John: It’s been a lot of fun.

Allegra: It has and I’ll get Misty to listen to yours. I’ve been listening to it.

Misty: New subscriber.

Allegra: Yeah, you’ve got one here.

[MUSIC]

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

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

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

86. Attention Matters

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

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: I have an Orange Cylon tea today.

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

Rebecca: How do you say it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle: Likewise, always a pleasure.

[MUSIC]

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

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

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

85. Small-Group Discussions

Small-group discussion activities provide all students, even the quiet ones, with an opportunity to actively engage with course material. In this episode, Dr. Dakin Burdick joins us to explore a variety of small-group discussion activities that can be productively integrated into our classes. Dakin is the Director of the Institute for College Teaching at SUNY Cortland. He has been active in professional development for almost 20 years, and has served on the Board of Directors for both the Professional and Organizational Development Network in higher education (the POD network) and the New England Faculty Development Consortium, where he was a president for four years.

Show Notes

  • Burdick, Dakin (2019). Small Group Discussion Protocols
  • Joan Middendorf — Teaching Resource Center Director at Indiana University
  • Middendorf, J., & Shopkow, L. (2017). Overcoming Student Learning Bottlenecks: Decode the Critical Thinking of Your Discipline. Stylus Publishing.
  • IUPUI — Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis
  • Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (2012). Classroom Assessment Techniques. Jossey Bass Wiley.
  • 84. Barriers to Active LearningTea for Teaching podcast (with Lindsay Wheeler and Hannah Sturtevant)
  • Larry Michaelsen — Professor of Management at the University of Central Missouri, pioneer of Team-Based Learning
  • Michaelsen, L., Knight, A., & Fink, L. (2005). Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching. Stylus Publishing.
  • Team-Based Learning Collaborative
  • Elliot Aronson — Inventor of the Jigsaw classroom technique
  • Aronson, E. (1978). The Jigsaw Classroom. Sage. Chicago.
  • ZoomiOS, Android
  • Eric Mazur — Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics and Area Chair of Applied Physics at Harvard University
  • Teaching Professor Conference
  • David Pace — Professor Emeritus of History at Indiana University, Bloomington.
  • Pace, D. (2017). The Decoding the Disciplines Paradigm: Seven Steps to Increased Student Learning. Indiana University Press.
  • Pace, D. and Middendorf, J. (2004). Decoding the Disciplines: Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking. Jossey-Bass.

Transcript

John: Small-group discussion activities provide all students, even the quiet ones, with an opportunity to actively engage with course material. In this episode, we explore how a variety of small-group discussion activities can be productively integrated into our classes.

[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. Dakin Burdick, the Director of the Institute for College Teaching at SUNY Cortland. Dakin has been active in professional development for almost 20 years, and has served on the Board of Directors for both the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (the POD network) and the New England Faculty Development Consortium, where he was President for four years. Welcome.

Dakin: Hi. Good to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Dakin: Yes, I am drinking Sleepytime Vanilla today.

Rebecca: That sounds yummy.

John: And a great way to start the day. [LAUGHTER] And I have Ginger tea.

Rebecca: And I have something different today. I have Strawberry Grapefruit Xue Long Flavored Green tea.

John: Okay.

Dakin: Nice.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about effective ways of engaging in small-group discussions. You’ve done quite a few workshops on that. Could you tell us is about your shift to small group discussion protocols in your own classes and how you get started with using small group discussions?

Dakin: Sure. My method of instruction was lecture primarily. I started off in history and I did a lot of lectures. Some of them were good—and I’m proud of those few—but I was teaching a class at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis at Columbus and it was a U.S. history survey, first-year survey. It was once a week, three hours long, and some of the students had traveled for more than an hour to reach the class after a full day of work. Some of them came in with their dinners, and I knew that lecture class was not going to get me through that class. Nobody would survive it; not even me. [LAUGHTER] So I worked with the Teaching Resource Center Director at Indiana University, Joan Middendorf. I selected several small group discussion methods: jigsaw discussions, role playing. I modified the debate system to create a evidence-based debate protocol. I used the just-in-time teaching method from IUPUI, and the classroom assessment techniques of Angelo and Cross, which I kind of regard as my Bible. The combination of those worked really well. The students remained active throughout the class, we were often surprised to find the class was over, everybody was still energized, I still had a protocol or two to go. Everybody learned each other’s names because we did random groups, and the class as a whole was tremendously successful. I was really happy with the results and I’ve used it ever since.

John: Whole-class discussions are often used but what are the advantages of small-group discussions relative to a whole-group discussion?

Dakin: I actually advocate both of those. I advocate lecture, small-group, and whole-group discussions for different purposes. The large group for me is one where I would often find faculty having the usual suspects were the only ones talking. You had three or four students in a class of 20 to 30, no one else was talking, and the faculty member would usually come to my office and ask, “Well, how can I change this? How can I get more students involved?” and often, that’s where the diagnostics began. What I found was, first of all, they needed to have preparatory homework, the students needed to do it, it needed to be graded, and if it was graded and it’s frequent assessment in order to reduce faculty load, they had to grade this lightly, and place the effort onto the students and not onto themselves. And if they did that, usually things improved. The advantage of the small groups is that if they’ve done all that work, then the students wants to talk. If you get to a large-group conversation and you’re not talking, it’s pretty boring for the students that aren’t talking. For the faculty member, it sounds like it’s a really good conversation because they’re the center of the wagon wheel, they’re the center of the hub, and so they’re constantly talking with those three or four students, but they’re wondering what’s happening with the rest of them. And that’s a good thing to wonder about, frankly. If you use small groups, you have the advantage that more people are talking at the same time. So instead of having one person talk at a time, you can have six people in the room talking at a time, so there’s a lot more conversation taking place and hopefully, more change in learning, which is important. Students in small groups feel more free to talk, there’s less risk in a small group, they can gain confidence from that talking, and they’re more active in the classroom at the same time because there’s more people talking. It also gives them the chance to practice disciplinary skills that the faculty member has put into that assignment. So the assignment shouldn’t be about declarative knowledge or facts, it should be about how can you do something in the field? How can you emulate the skills of an expert? The other piece of this is that the small groups have been demonstrated to be effective. Students in the 1920s said they preferred this sort of discussion—at least large-group discussion at that point—and then by the 30s and 40s, there was research and social psychology showing that small groups were more effective in promoting change and student learning. And from there it went on and since the 50s and 60s, a lot of different types of protocols have been invented and developed. There’s just a lot of advantages.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about how you ensure that students come prepared to actively participate in those small group discussions?

Dakin: The main thing is grade it. The rule is that students—according to the Carnegie unit—are supposed to study for two hours outside the class for every one hour in. Well, the Study Study at Indiana University showed they weren’t doing that. They were studying one hour outside of class for every hour in, and it was usually on Sundays. That means that we kind of have to take that knowledge and make use of it. We know they’re going to do their work on Sundays. So okay, the assignments going to be due Sunday night, 11 o’clock, 11:55. But you make sure that they work harder. You don’t feel guilty about putting more work on them because more work means more practice. All of them could use more work reading, all of them could use more work writing, so that’s what I have them do. And then I make sure they turn their assignments in on Sunday night, I grade them Monday morning—which is a principle of just-in-time teaching—it’s preparatory homework, I read that, and then I modify my class based on what the students bring to it. And so I can see—first of all—their weaknesses. I can see their misconceptions. I also can see their strengths. Occasionally they have real strengths they bring to the class that would be totally invisible if I hadn’t done this work. And my example for that is I had a class where I was teaching the My Lai Massacre—about Vietnam—and I had in the class two very strong students. One was a G.I. who had fought in Vietnam, and one was a First Lieutenant who had taught the rules of land warfare at Fort Benning for three years. Both of these guys were A, smart; B, aggressive; and C, constantly fighting with each other because it was enlisted versus officer. So they dominated the class very often. And when I got back their feedback, they told me their knowledge and I hadn’t seen that knowledge before. I did not know that these were their backgrounds. So I spent an extra two to three hours reading about the rules of land warfare, came to class prepared, and instead of a class that would be a trainwreck for me, what happened is they came in and the Lieutenant said, “Everybody knows the rules of land warfare. So they’re all guilty, and they are all responsible,” and the G.I. says, “No G.I. is going to read a 100-page field manual on the rules of land warfare.” And the Lieutenant says, “Well, there is no 100-page manual on the rules of land warfare,” and I said, “Well, actually, there’s three. [LAUGHTER] There’s the 1956, 1965 and the 1973 (revised on the basis of My Lai).” Okay, so that stops that conversation. Then I turned to the GI and I say, “Okay, but every G.I. has those little plastic helmet liners, right? …with the 10 rules of land warfare on them.” “Yeah.” “Okay. So we’re agreed; they knew the rules of land warfare. Some follow them, some didn’t. Now, let’s talk about why,” and at that point, the conversation became really useful. First of all, all the other students could participate, because they now had the background, and the two people that were real experts in the room could help us kind of determine why people followed or did not follow those rules. And again, if I had not done that preparation—just two extra hours—that class would have been ruination.

Rebecca: What are the kinds of questions that you have students respond to that maybe elicited some of the information that helped you? What are the keys to asking good questions for that preparatory work?

Dakin: I think the keys to that are knowing your subject. So, everybody that is a content master—every faculty member —has their own expertise, and it’s pretty impossible for me to name the prompts that they might use effectively. But they probably know them, they’ve probably seen them in their graduate work. They know that these are the elements that made up their dissertation exams, their qualifying exams, and they’re probably pretty smart about what are those major issues in their field that need to be discussed, and to be prepared, and the students need to be prepared. The big thing is making sure that we’re talking at a high level of cognition. So in Bloom’s taxonomy, talking about analysis, talking about evaluation, those are the levels you want to get at. And those are almost impossible to get at with multiple-choice questions or tests, so that means there has to be conversation, there has to be writing. Those are elements that are important.

John: Earlier you mentioned that you use random assignments for small-group activities. Do you do change the groups on a daily basis or do you have more persistent groups?

Dakin: Occasionally, if I’m doing long-term group work, I will do some sort of pre-test, find out what the strengths and skills of the students are, and then place them mindfully into those groups, so that they construct useful groups because they’re going to be in those for half a semester. I’ll do a swap halfway through, but that’s a long time to be in a single group. For the random groups, I definitely do that and I do that on a daily basis. The students originally complain about that, but they get used to it pretty quickly and they’re ready for it. And the advantage is that they get to meet everybody in the classroom. They get to be in a group with everybody else and that builds trust and it builds community. And that allows them, by halftime through the semester, they know everybody, they’re comfortable with everybody, they trust that other people have their best intentions at heart, and then the conversation just escalates from there because everybody’s now willing to talk.

Rebecca: In our previous episode that we just released last week, we discussed some of the issues that can come up when you’re using evidence-based practices for the first time. A lot of people know or buy into the idea of small-group discussions and might just go for it without necessarily having a good plan in place, and things might go awry. Can you talk a little bit about ways to be prepared for trying something new, the kinds of things that might go wrong, and how we might adjust ourselves a bit as faculty members as we’re trying new things?

Dakin: The thing that I find usually is that people just don’t give the new techniques a chance. It’s scary. Now there was a study back in the late 90s out at Brigham Young and they asked faculty two questions. They asked them first, “What do you think are the most effective teaching methods?” and then “What do you do?” and they were diametrically opposed. [LAUGHTER] And the reason was time management, people are very busy and the stuff that’s effective takes a lot of time to do—or they think so. So I view my job as an instructional designer when I’m helping them to reduce that amount of time and make sure that they can do that. So first, make it time manageable, so that you can do the task and you can feel comfortable. Secondly, trust the system. Trust the change you’ve made. You made this change for a reason, trust it. And third, trust your students. Your students want to succeed, they want to learn. Trust that and have them help you make this successful. Tell them what it is you’re doing in the classroom, why you’re making this change, why you think this is going to help them learn better, and then also use feedback from them to get it. So I typically will use something called a stop, start, continue—What do you want me to stop doing? What do you want me to start doing? What do you want me to continue doing?—and use that student feedback to then modify the class. So it’s kind of like a mid-semester evaluation, but I feel like doing it whenever I do… it is just fine.

John: Now earlier you mentioned that whole-group discussions have a place. In what sort of sequence might you use or in what combinations would you use small-group discussions and then whole-group activities?

Dakin: My process is basically four-part. One, preparatory homework. There has to be preparatory homework and it has to be graded—lightly graded—and it should be moderately challenging. Next, they come to class, there’s a brief lecture and the lecture introduces the material, frames the questions we’re going to talk about today, maybe corrects some of the errors that were made in that preparatory homework, also celebrate successes from that preparatory homework. Once that lecture is done, maybe 10, 15 minutes, then move them into small group work. Small group work can be anywhere from one to two minutes in a lecture hall to 40, 50 minutes—and you might do a whole session on the rest of that piece, maybe a debate or some large-scale exercise—usually though, about 10 to 15 minutes in small group. Then when you hear the sounds rising, that means they’re talking about things they enjoy, which means their social life, [LAUGHTER] and so it’s time to stop them. You’ll also see sometimes that there will be a student—maybe all the A students somehow got at the same table—and they’re done three to four minutes before everybody else. Well, the point of putting them into small groups is to build energy and confidence and you don’t want your A students to be bored. So if you have a group that’s done first, you appraise how much of everybody else got through, “Can I stop this now?”—usually you can—and you bring them back to the large-group discussion. And in that large-group discussion of 10 to 15 minutes, you do debriefing and you find out what they think they know, maybe use a classroom assessment techniques from Angelo and Cross, and you evaluate and you build feedback that you can use later. And then once you’ve got that, then you move back to the lecture, and you clean up the misconceptions, you explain and reframe the next issue, and then it’s just a cycle. So it’s lecture, small-group discussion, large-group discussion, and continually like that.

Rebecca: What are some strategies that you use in small groups to make sure that everyone participates or is engaged and stays on task?

Dakin: First, make sure they’ve done the homework. Secondly, randomize so that I’ve got some good students and some poorer students in the same groups, so that we have people that can interact—also, so that people can learn about each other. To keep them on task and walk the room: first of all, be engaged with them. Listen to what they’re saying and if it’s on task, you just congratulate them and move on, if it’s off task, okay, now start working with them—and there’s going to be one group that’s off task, certainly. Other pieces are… that you might encounter a small group where there’s a number of dominant individuals. So there’s a couple of people that are really assertive, and they’re talking all the time, and they are just dominating the whole piece, and the other people aren’t getting heard. And so in that point, then you start introducing other discussion protocols that will allow more inclusivity: so things like expense account, talking stick, things where other people’s voices are valued. Another one would be Larry Michaelsen’s Team-Based Learning that also does that.

Rebecca: Can you talk through each of those, for those that aren’t familiar with each of those?

Dakin: Sure, let’s start with talking stick. Talking stick is very simple. You have an object—usually a pencil or something—and one person gets that stick, and is able to talk for one minute without being interrupted, or any comments from anybody else. And then you pass it to the next person, for one minute they get to talk, and it goes around the room that way. And then once it’s gone around once, everybody can talk at once and kind of work out what it was that they heard said, but everybody’s voice is listened to and heard during that time. That’s a rather formal way. Another less formal way is expense account, which is maybe you give them three—or however many pennies you want—three tokens. And they pass those tokens in each time they talk. So the assertive ones are going to spend their pennies very quickly. [LAUGHTER] And the less assertives are going to then have a chance to spend their pennies. And when everybody has spent their pennies, you all get your pennies back and now you can start again. But again, that’s a way to give people a chance to speak. But people can choose when they want to speak, rather than having this turn where it’s coming around. And it’s very set. Larry Michaelsen’s Team-Based Learning is much more complex. Larry started this in a lecture hall. And so he has basically an IRAT and GRAT. And the IRAT is an Individual Readiness Assessment Test and that GRAT is a Group Readiness Assessment Test. So he has them take an IRAT first, and as an individual give their answers, turn that in—that’s a grade—and then he has them do the GRAT. So as a group, they now turn in their group grade. And he also uses the scratch off cards, the if/at cards, that sort of thing. Initially, the assertive ones—again—are giving the answers. But as they discover that they don’t have the right answers all the time, then the quieter ones in the group suddenly become more important to the group because their grade is dependent on this. So they’ll start asking, “What did you get for this? You seem to get A’s all the time. Can you please help us?” And so that’s his method of doing that inclusivity.

John: And in that approach though, I believe he recommends persistent teams over the course of the semester, so that they develop that sort of team dynamic.

Dakin: Yeah, very much so.

John: Are there any other small group activities that you like to use?

Dakin: I have a lot of protocols that I’ve gathered over the years—probably got 40, 50 protocols—and the ones that I select are the ones that are low risk. So I’ve kind of classed them as low risk, medium risk, and high risk in terms of how much risk does the student feel when they’re in the classroom doing these… and I like low-risk things which are usually small group where they’re by themselves and they’re talking, and it’s not in front of the faculty member, and they are not having to answer to the whole class in front of a large group. So, some of the pieces I like are jigsaw—which comes out of Elliot Aronson’s work in the 70s—the idea that you break up an assignment into five pieces, and each of the students in a group will do one of those five pieces, and then they will talk in class and share out what they’ve learned from each of those five pieces. So it’s a great way to synthesize a lot of data that maybe you don’t want all students doing. So when I was teaching my Middle Eastern history class, each student was responsible for a different country and they had to do a lot of reading on that country. But if I had all the students do all that reading, it would have been far too much. So instead, I can have these various countries sit at a table and then have a conversation, and the student representing Israel can talk about Israel’s point of view, and the student doing Jordan can talk about Jordan’s point of view, that sort of thing. So that’s one method I love and I even do a double jigsaw. But I only do a double jigsaw maybe twice a semester and they’re at moments where there’s so much content, that there’s absolutely no way we can cover it. And the best example of that is U.S. history survey, first day, which is the dawn of time to 1492, which I think is horribly disrespectful to everybody that was in North America before 1492. So we do a double jigsaw, which is where you have a jigsaw that creates experts at each table and then those experts then are now experts in five different topics. And those people then go off to create super jigsaws. And that works well, but it takes a lot of time. The other one I love is role playing. Role playing… just because it’s my age… I grew up with role playing, but I’ve done a lot of different styles of role play. The one that I think I use the most in first-year history is Articles of Confederation. Everybody takes a representative to the Confederation and talks about what it was that person was like, and why they voted the way they did, and what were their goals. And then we skip ahead to the Constitutional Convention and we talk about who’s still there, who’s not there, why are they not there? If they’re still there, do they still have the same opinions? Are they still voting the same way? Why are the results different at the Constitutional Convention as opposed to with the Articles of Confederation? So that’s a good one. Other classics are the Oregon Trail… everybody loves the Oregon Trail. And unlike the computer game, what you learn is not many people died on the Oregon Trail. People who died most were the Native Americans who are along the trail, everybody else pretty much made where they were going, but that had to do with who those people were. The other one we did was Cuban Missile Crisis. Did the Cuban Missile Crisis and role played the various operatives in the Cuban Missile Crisis. And then next week we talked about Watergate and again looked at those same operatives and where they were now in the Watergate plumbers. So that was also useful …those kind of things. There’s lots of different ways to use that though. I’ve seen people use that with theorists. So in psychology, different theorists are represented by the students and they argue their different theories and try to figure out how these things go together. Role playing is obviously one I love.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how you set the role play up? You mentioned what some of the topics are and when you use it, but can you talk a little bit about the logistics of setting that up and how you have students prepare for that?

Dakin: And those vary a lot. When we’re doing the Articles of Confederation, I just have a list of representatives and I asked them to choose one and then we go from there. So my prep on that is zero, they are the ones responsible for that prep. On some of the others, there’s a lot of prep. With Oregon Trail I worked out, I took a K-12 game that had been done for Oregon Trail, and then I made it much more complex and they had to purchase their gear so I had a full list of gear, I had a list of where they were going to stop, how they were going to stop, and what the mortality rates were. So I basically created this whole game around it and then they played through that. With the Watergate and Cuban Missile Crisis, it was kind of halfway between there. I made cards with each of the people they would role play and on the back—like a Clue card—it tells you who this person is and what their role is and then I gave those to them. And then from there, they again generated most of the data.

John: You mentioned you have these organized by levels of risk. How would you recommend using the different levels? Would it make sense to start with low-risk activities, and then as more trust is built, build the higher ones, or would that be affected by the level of the class that you’re teaching, whether it’s introductory or more advanced?

Dakin: Yeah, it definitely depends upon the purpose of the class. I tend to teach introductory classes so I build a lot of trust, I use a lot of low-risk pieces, and I’ll move to maybe medium risk by the middle of the semester—or maybe I won’t ever use medium risk, it’ll all be low risk—because I’m trying to get them to get used to college and figure out what that’s involved in. If I am teaching a class that’s kind of a gateway or portal class that’s going to lead on and it’s supposed to cull out people, it’s supposed to find out who the best people are, then maybe it makes sense to start doing some of those high-risk pieces, but I probably wouldn’t do that until at least the third year. Build a lot of confidence, a lot of trust, and there’s a lot of learning that has to take place before that, before you get to that point. Traditionally of course, if you look at law school or medical school, they have a lot a lot of high-risk protocols, because there’s a lot at stake and people have to do well. And I remember when I started working with the med school that I read academic medicine, and one of the articles was, “We should abuse our students less.” [LAUGHTER] Not, “We shouldn’t abuse our students,” but, “We should abuse them less.” So, that kind of gave you a sense of what we were dealing with.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of the small-group techniques that you use in online environments?

Dakin: Sure. Online environments—actually, the small groups—I usually leave that up to the groups themselves. So if there are groups of students that I’m having work on particular topics, I’ll have those students organize, say, a synchronous conference where they get together on Zoom, and they talk about these things. So they get to pick whatever tool they want—I’ll recommend Zoom because it’s free and you can have up to 40 minutes free, and you can record it. It’s very simple—but they will do that work by themselves. If we’re dealing with, say, a discussion forum, what I’ll generally deal with is ways that students can interact kind of more of at a large-group level, because there’s really no need for a small group when you’re on the discussion forum. But what I do want to do is get rid of the old “post one, reply two” because after you’ve taken two or three online courses, you’re pretty bored with that protocol. And so giving them different ways to think about it and moving the jigsaw into it, moving a debate into it, moving role playing into it, those are all really useful.

Rebecca: Can you pick one of those more complex ways of using a discussion board and talk through how you set that up or organize that?

Dakin: Sure. I think the main thing I do is really—it’s not so much about the organization of the board when I’m doing it—but building student activity. I do a big sales job in terms of talking about what is the value you get from an online course. Now, if it’s just teacher to student, I think that’s a really limited amount of value because there’s a lot of good books out, you can read, you can train, you can look at YouTube, there’s all sorts of great ways to learn. But a real value from an online course for me is who is in that class with you and finding out what their strengths are and what they can bring to it, and that’s where a large part of the education comes. So I don’t use this “post one, reply two” but I do want them to make sure that they are responding weekly to their colleagues, but at a level they feel is appropriate. So don’t say something if you think it’s totally pointless. But if you have a comment and you feel it’s worthwhile, say it, because we need to hear it. That’s the largest part of this. In terms of the organization, the only pieces I’ve done in terms of organization have been very slight. So, with an assignment, you turn in your first post Wednesday, and you turn in your final post on the piece, on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. So the initial post is what your response is—out of a think-pair-share, this would be the think part—that you’re doing your initial writing. And then the second part of the week is simply the sharing part. So now you’re responding to those students. Now, if you’re in Canvas, you can do this with setting up the initial one as your due date, and the second piece as your until date, so you can do it within one assignment. Unfortunately with Blackboard, you can’t do that, you have to have two separate assignments. But that’s the only real difference.

John: What about larger classes? What techniques do you recommend there?

Dakin: In large classes, I often talk about Eric Mazur and his peer instruction, simply because I can send them to the videos he’s got on YouTube, and he’s got a lot of videos there. He’s got a lot of publications. So that’s great, I have a lot of resources I can send them to that they can start working on. But Eric’s technique is largely one that applies to an interactive lecture. It’s not really small-group work per se, it’s a way to maintain activity by the students and also makes sure that you’re getting feedback back on what they’re understanding. But since Eric uses multiple-choice questions, he’s really not getting beyond that understanding- or application-level question. So, the issue really with small-group work and large classes is really not about the size of the class, it’s about the furniture in the class. So, you can do small-group work with a very large group as long as you’ve got movable tables and chairs. So, I did this at the Teaching Professor Conference a few years ago. I had 110 people in the room and we did value line, and we did jigsaw, and we did all these different things, and it’s very easy to do as long as you’ve got the furniture that allows you to do it. The hard part about a “large” class is really it’s about the lecture hall and the furniture in it. So if you’ve got furniture that’s fixed, if you’ve got a table that’s fixed, if you’ve got chairs that are fixed, it’s hard to have more than two to three people working together at any one time because they can’t turn around—they can’t do anything else. Also, since you’re in a large lecture hall, there’s a lot of noise. So again, you don’t want to get more than three people because you won’t be able to hear the others. If in a lecture where students can turn around, then you can have a larger group of say four to six. So you have two to three in the front row, two or three in the back row, and they’re talking together in that small group. And I’ve seen small-group work in lecture halls with as many as 160 people, so I know it works. It does take some effort in terms of arranging it. Usually they don’t do random small groups every day—because that would be chaos—but they do long-term teamwork and the faculty member who did this was David Pace at Indiana University—he was very good at this, he’s the one who taught me how to do much of this—he does a pretest, he organizes the students, he puts them into these long-term teams, and then in those teams in the lecture hall, they have the seating arrangement where they’re sitting. And then when he wants to do small-group work, he’ll do his lecture, and he’ll do small-group work, then he’ll do a debrief, same sort of pattern.

Rebecca: What do you find your role is, as an instructor during small-group work? You want to put a lot of the onus on the students, but what’s your role during all of that and how does that scale up to a big class?

Dakin: My role is—as an instructor small-group work—is essentially challenging, adding to, and supporting. Making sure that they know they’re encouraged and they’re doing a great job and going around doing that sort of thing as I walk the room. A lot of the work I do is really the preparation. Making sure that those things are well thought out, that I have a lot of idea of which directions they can go, and to, after the class, make sure I’ve done my reflection: I’ve written down all the weird places they went so that I know that those are possibilities and I can be ready for those, or maybe I just work towards those. Maybe those were better ideas than the ones I came up with—which is actually one of the big advantages of small-group work because you are paying more attention to the students, the students have a bigger role in the class, and your life isn’t as boring. If I was doing the same lecture 20, 30 years later, I would be bored to tears. But as it is, since I’m using these, every semester is different because every group of students is different. So my life is constantly interesting. And it’s almost like doing improv, really, in a way. You have to be a little brave about it, you give them opportunities, but there’s a lot of trust, you trust the students are there to help you. And everything goes well, even with apathetic classes that when I’ve walked in, the class has just been dead, they don’t want to do anything. After a week or two of this, they start getting into it. And by the end of the semester, they’re the same as every other class, and it’s going very well. So it’s highly enjoyable. So I think that’s it, make the class fun, get them to trust and encourage them to do their best work.

John: And in large classes if you have TAs, you could have TAs going around and doing the same thing, just so that you get more of the room covered.

Dakin: That, or if you’ve got a tight space to deal with, you could also have a backchannel going, so people in the groups are reporting out and the TAs are looking at that backchannel through Twitter or something else and kind of getting those ideas and feeding those back to either the students or the instructor.

John: Earlier you mentioned that light grading be used. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?

Dakin: I think that’s the hardest thing for faculty to do is light grading. Faculty members really want to mark everything. If they see something wrong, they will mark it. And I must admit, myself, when I’m posting to Facebook and somebody writes something and spells it incorrectly, I have to respond. It’s annoying, but I have to do it, and it’s the same way with grading. People will try to grade everything and they will eat up their lives giving these huge responses back that the students really aren’t going to listen to. Nobody has time to make all those corrections. So the smartest guy I ever saw was Bob Ferrell, who was a professor of history. And Bob was highly published—he had 50 plus books—and he still had a line out the door of students that he talked to every day and that was highly admirable as far as I was concerned. And so I wanted to find out how he did this, and what he did is… I took a readings class with him and I handed in a paper a week, and we worked through that. And every paper, the first time he got it, he marked it up pretty heavily to show, “You need to work on your grammar and I’m watching you.” But after that, every week, it was three things. He’d mark… circle one, flip a couple pages, circle another, flip a couple pages, circle another, “There you go,” out the door, you’re done. And so for me it felt like, “Oh, I only have three things to change. This is great, I’m really close to getting that top grade.” And next week it would be another three. And next week it would be another three, and so on. So, he was doing light grading, he was giving me feedback—feedback that was useful to me—feedback that was moderately challenging. I didn’t feel at sea, I felt I could do it. Great. And so I would do it. And that’s the way I come to this. The way I implement it is, say if I’m in a freshman class, I will have the students writing say 1000 words response every week, which for a freshman class seems like a lot, but I want them to work and I want to hear their voice. I will tell them not to use any quotations, I want to hear their voice, I don’t want to hear somebody else’s. I want to hear them thinking, and if they don’t agree with the text, argue with it—that’s fine. If you don’t agree with me, argue. That’s what you should be doing. You’re trying to construct your ability to speak and write. So, when they do that, they then turn these pieces in, and I grade them but I grade them lightly, which means I’ve got now 40,000 word essays I’m supposed to be grading, that will take me about 40 minutes. I spend about a minute on each. I just kind of flip through it, I can tell if somebody’s done the reading or not, I can tell if there’s a major issue or not, and then I write down my responses but I don’t give them to the students. I just give the students grades. And when I get to the class, I’ll do a group grade. So at the beginning of the class, I will then do a couple things. One, I will celebrate some people, and I’ll talk about that in a minute, but I also make corrections. I’ll do grammatical corrections, will say “Here’s the five grammatical errors of the week,” and by about mid semester, I’m still showing some of those grammatical errors up on the board and the girl who’s done it says, “Oh my God, it’s me again!” So they get it and they’re trying to reduce them and that’s fine. The other thing is I talk about misconceptions. Say somebody has a misconception about a particular piece, I’ll say, “A couple people had a misconception about X.” Now it’s not a couple people, it’s Joe. It’s always Joe. Joe’s in the back room, Joe never does the reading, Joe’s having trouble. But Joe knows he’s not doing the reading and Joe knows he’s not getting a good grade, he doesn’t need to have his name called out in front of the class. So I say, “A couple people had this issue.” I talk about that and address it. And then the next part, the celebration. So, in order to make them feel better about what just happened, I then say “Now then, I wanted to talk about some of the great things that were done this week. So first of all, Jenny had this fantastic response, it was just so meaningful. I want to share it with you, because I think it’s really worthwhile listening to. And Bob said something that no one has ever said in this class before and so I think it’s important to address that.” And then maybe I talked about Jim, “Jim really did a very deep reading of the text, he brought up some serious issues that I did not bring up myself, and I think we need to explore those today. So that’s part of our discussion today, it will be based on what Jim has talked about.” So that’s the celebration, but every week, it’s a different three. It’s never the same three, it’s never always the A students. Over the course of semester, I find a way to celebrate each and every student in that class, including Joe. And Joe is hard. Joe’s really hard. So I’m always watching every week to see what Joe is talking about and if Joe says something good it’s like, “Yes, I can now celebrate Joe! Good. Check.” I’m celebrating. And that’s the way light grading works for me, it allows me to spend more time interacting with students, less time interacting with their work.

Rebecca: I’m sure we can all take advice on reducing grading, right? [LAUGHTER]

John: When we talk to faculty about using group discussions in class, one thing they often raise is a question of when students are teaching each other—in general with peer discussion or peer activities—there’s a concern that perhaps it may reinforce misinformation. How can you be sure that that doesn’t happen with small-group activities?

Dakin: Well, I don’t think you can be sure it doesn’t happen, but you can certainly set up a system to check for that and make sure it’s not happening or that if it’s happening, you’re correcting it. So the way to do that would be use some ungraded assessments, those classroom assessment techniques from Angelo and Cross. In the large group during the debriefing, some of those may come to light again, and you can then use lecture to correct those misconceptions once they become apparent. I agree that small-group work builds confidence, but it can really be like the blind leading the blind sometimes, especially if the students haven’t been doing the preparatory homework, and especially if the groups aren’t randomized.

John: And if you do that sort of pretesting, where you’re getting the initial feedback, you can tell what those misperceptions are, so that you can be prepared to address them during the class, which should help reduce that issue.

Dakin: Sometimes… yeah. I have to know which questions to ask, and often I don’t. So it’s that ungraded assessment where they toss back an answer that completely takes me by surprise. Oh, I am so surprised. Now I know what your misconception is. But I couldn’t have guessed at it.

Rebecca: I think that’s important to remember too, that [when] you’ve been teaching for a long time, the misperceptions that you might have come across five years ago are really different than the misperceptions that you might experience this year, because the experiences of our students change and the group of students change, and all of that influences prior knowledge and prior experience that influences how they might interpret material.

Dakin: That is so important. Over the 30 some odd years I’ve been teaching, my students have changed a lot, not only in their content knowledge and what they know and what they’ve experienced, but also how they think and how they behave. And again, that’s the strength of using small group work, because you get to see how they think and how they behave. And they’re not just sitting there in rows in front of you and you imagine that’s the same class you were teaching in 1987. [LAUGHTER]

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

Dakin: I’m collecting all these protocols for my own use and also to help others, so it’d be great if people listening to this podcast could send me some new ideas, send me some more protocols, so I can share those out. The way to do that is to send them at teaching@cortland.edu. That’s our email address. In the meantime, we’ve got a new Institute for College Teaching down here, we finished up a faculty needs survey. We’ve got our advisory committee in place, and we’re just about to start setting up priorities for next year. So, there’s a lot happening, I just don’t know what it is yet.

John: Because you’ve just taken over that position fairly recently, right?

Dakin: Two months ago.

Rebecca: Oh, the surprises you might find, right? [LAUGHTER]

Dakin: I have been very pleasantly surprised so far. I have found a lot of really skilled and dedicated faculty, and I’ve just really been enjoying talking to them. I know I enjoy this because it’s a challenge, and I love a challenge. And they are so well-educated already. It makes me work very hard.

Rebecca: Which means you’ll never be bored, right?

Dakin: Exactly, and that that’s why it’s so important to me.

Rebecca: Well thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been really interesting, and I think will help faculty as they plan for their next teaching adventure.

John: Thank you and we will share some of the resources that you’ve provided in the show notes as well.

Dakin: Thank you. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. 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.

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

83. ACUE

Faculty are often excited after attending professional development workshops and plan to implement new techniques, but often don’t follow through. In this episode Dr. Penny MacCormack joins us to talk about one program that provides scaffolding and structure to help faculty improve their teaching using evidence-based practices.

Penny is the Chief Academic Officer of the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE). Before joining ACUE, Penny had served as the Chief Academic Officer for the New Jersey State Department of Education and as an adjunct professor at Southern Connecticut State University, and Montclair State University. She began her career in education as a science teacher.

Show Notes

Transcript

Rebecca: Faculty are often excited after attending professional development workshops and plan to implement new techniques, but often don’t follow through. In this episode we talk about one program that provides scaffolding and structure to help faculty improve their teaching using evidence-based practices.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Our guest today is Dr. Penny MacCormack, the Chief Academic Officer of the Association of College and University Educators, or ACUE. Before joining ACUE, Penny had served as the Chief Academic Officer for the New Jersey State Department of Education and as an adjunct professor at Southern Connecticut State University, and Montclair State University. She began her career in education as a science teacher. Welcome, Penny.

Penny: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Penny: Green tea.

John: I have Bing Cherry Black tea.

Rebecca: And I have Lady Grey.

John: We’ve invited you here to join us to discuss ACUE’s effective practice framework and the associated professional development program. How did this program come about?

Penny: So I think, like many ideas, initially with a conversation among leaders in higher education, some very respected leaders, talking about some of the challenges and changes happening in higher ed. An increasingly diverse student body, certainly more attention being paid to retention and graduation rates, and increasing contingent faculty, as well as the public starting to question the quality and the value of a degree in higher ed. And as we looked at the student success agenda, with many strategies that made good sense, really paying attention to maybe more nuanced financial supports, guided pathways with better advisement, data analytics, instructional supports, et cetera. We felt that there was a missing element and we felt like that element was more foundational than just one of the strategies that folks should be thinking of. For example, guided pathways or advisement make really good sense to us…that a student would have a clear path to a meaningful degree. But what we thought attention needed to be paid to was the quality of instruction in those courses along the pathway, and then across an entire institution, the quality of teaching. And we were very aware of the fact that faculty—including contingent faculty—are experts in their discipline, in their subject area, and they’re experts in the research processes. But most have little—sometimes no—training in evidence-based teaching practices in teaching. So we felt like that missing foundation needed to be addressed and set about to develop a comprehensive…we wanted something that would give folks a foundational base of the evidence-based teaching practices we know to be effective in the college classroom. So we wanted to be comprehensive, we wanted it to be research based, we wanted it to be high quality, and we wanted to be scalable. Recognizing that while it’s important for small groups of instructors to become better teachers, the reality is, all of our students, and all of our faculty deserve to be interacting with the evidence-based teaching practices we know actually improve engagement and deepen learning. So we set about to do that.

Rebecca: It’s a pretty big undertaking. It sounds like you probably had a lot of people involved in that process. Can you talk a little bit about how did the design of the program happen and who was involved?

Penny: So you’ll notice here one of the things I said was comprehensive, that we wanted faculty to gain a foundation in evidence-based practices. And so we needed to identify, what are the core set of knowledge and skills you need to be effective in the college classroom? And to be very honest, we had hoped perhaps that already existed somewhere. [LAUGHTER] But lo and behold, that was not the case. And so we reached out to scholars in teaching and learning across the country and worked with them, did a deep dive into the literature, and worked through an iterative process to identify that core set of knowledge and skills. And once we had that, we also worked with the American Council on Education, to endorse our courses and our framework. And they brought to bear their own set of experts across the country in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning to review the framework. And then eventually, ACE endorsed the framework and so we feel pretty confident at this point through the processes we used and ACE used to say that our framework and effective practice does outline the core set of knowledge and skills you need to be effective in the college classroom. So in that case, the folks who really informed that work are the experts in the scholarship of teaching and learning across the country, folks like Linda Nilson, Tom Angelo, Elizabeth Barkley, Saundra McGuire, really making sure again, to involve those folks that teaching centers across the country know really have done the majority of scholarship in that area.

Rebecca: Of course, once you came up with the framework and that comprehensive knowledge, you had to figure out how to deliver it. Can you talk a little bit about how that decision was made?

Penny: Absolutely. You point out something that is quite important. It’s one thing to develop a list, right? “Here’s the core set of knowledge and skills.” It’s yet another thing to do that those other three describers, right? Research based—that was kind of easy, because the list was research based—but high quality. And for me, when I’m talking with folks, high quality really means that faculty will love it. Because if faculty are not going to be engaged in this course and engaged enough to actually change the practices that they’re using in the classroom, then we’re not going to realize that student level impact that is our mission. So in order to design the course now—to your point, got to do that part—we did a couple of things. So one, we paid a lot of attention to the research on how people learn, how does the brain work, and specifically, how do adults learn. The course needed to be scalable. It needed to be offered online, so a lot of attention to online practices. But then we did something really important. And that was to talk to faculty focus groups across the country and do a couple of things. One, put some materials in front of them. Some questions, some video, some text, and ask them to critique, which they did happily, because faculty are quite good at critiquing. [LAUGHTER] The second thing we did was we asked them, “What would you need to consider changing the practices you use in the classroom?” And so they were crystal clear. One, they wanted to see those evidence-based practices in action, in authentic classrooms, by their peers…peers teaching…people that they could see would be instructors in the classroom. Two, they wanted to hear from those instructors why they were using those practices. Icing on the cake would be to hear from students as well, how those practices were working for them. Three, they wanted to hear from researchers. They wanted to hear from the folks who demonstrated that these practices are effective in the classroom. Makes sense, they’re higher ed folks, they want to hear from the folks that did the research. And four, they wanted opportunities to learn, discuss with their colleagues as they were learning, to learn with and from their colleagues. And so just as we paid attention to the research on how people learn, how adults learn, online practices, we paid really careful attention to what faculty asked for, and we delivered it. We made sure that those four things that I heard over and over and over again—from faculty across the country—we delivered on. We listened to them.

John: Maybe it would help if you sketch out the process of a typical module, because it incorporates all those things. And we’re new to ACUE, but our faculty so far have really been enjoying it and they really appreciate the design of the program. But it might help for our listeners who aren’t as familiar to know how a typical module is structured.

Penny: I’m happy to discuss the learning design because we spend a lot of time and a lot of attention to it. Each module includes 12 components. I can divide those 12 components into four groups of three. So the first three components are really designed to pique somebody’s interest and to activate prior knowledge. So we show an introduction video, where that includes clips from our classroom demonstration, kind of like how 60 Minutes gets you interested in the rest of the show, we’re showing little clips to get folks interested in the topic. We outline very clearly the learning objectives and the rationale for the module, so we connect the practices that they’re going to learn to the research that demonstrates it does impact students, and then we offer a group of questions to activate that prior knowledge because what we know about that is if you activate prior knowledge, you’re more ready for new knowledge. So that’s the first three components. The second three are designed to build that foundational knowledge. We decided to show before tell first. And so we have a classroom demonstration video, where you see faculty utilizing the evidence-based practices being recommended in that module. You hear from those faculty why they’re using those practices and you hear from students about how those practices are impacting their learning. Next component, you hear from the researchers about the research behind that component. We actually utilize speed drawing there, so that it’s not just a talking head, but there’s a little bit more interaction going on and then finally, we offer resources to faculty so that when they implement any one of the practices that they’ve just seen in that classroom demo, they have all the resources they would need to implement. The next three components are about deepening learning, and allowing for that collaboration to happen with their colleagues. And so the first component is some text. We wanted faculty to read a little bit deeper about the practices and the way we do that is to address some of the common misconceptions, common challenges that faculty might think of, and we address those with the research. And so a common challenge or a common misconception will include a couple of paragraphs from the research about why that’s a challenge and how to overcome it or why that misconception exists in the information that kind of helps you see it differently. We follow that by two sections of what we call observe and analyze. Up to this point in any module, faculty would be able to do all of those components on their own online when it’s most convenient for them. With the observe and analyze, oftentimes faculty will schedule a particular day that they’re all going to engage in watching these videos, and the videos are of what I call developing practice. So you’ll remember that faculty would have seen effective practice, they would have heard from the researchers, but now we show them developing practice—somebody doing some things well and some things that could be adjusted some—and that is the conversation that faculty have. So they watch this video, and then they engage in an online conversation—some of our partners will sometimes bring folks together face to face—but they engage in a rich conversation about what that person is doing well, and what they might adjust or tweak.

John: We should note that no actual students were harmed during these demonstration component videos.

Penny: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, during the demonstration videos where we were doing developing practice, students knew what we were doing, and it’s completely scripted. So I think what was interesting about students is they understood when a practice was really effective, because remember, it’s developing. So it’s not like a train wreck, it’s some things being done well, and some things that could be tweaked. And when you think about it, the faculty watching the video are in the same shoes as the person trying it for the first time. So they’re watching somebody try something for the first time making some mistakes but doing some things that are quite good. And they’re able, they have that opportunity, before they’re asked to implement one of those practices in their classroom so it’s a really rich learning opportunity that they get to do with their cohort to collaborate with their colleagues. The last set of components, faculty are asked to practice and reflect and then we do a closing video. So we indicate to faculty, “Here are the learning objectives for the module and here are the practices.” And there’s always between five to 10 practices offered in every single module. And we say to faculty, “Choose one,” and that’s important. In adult learning you don’t want to say, “This is the one thing you have to do and you have to do it now,” because faculty are teaching different classes, have different students that they’re working with, we want to give them a choice. So they choose one of those practices and they implement it in their classroom. And then what we require is they reflect on that experience in writing. And that written reflection is submitted to us to be scored. We do present to faculty a rubric for how we’re going to score that reflection. So those requirements are up front, we try to practice what we preach, as far as teaching and learning goes. Faculty submit the reflection, we have national readers that score it using the rubric, and if a faculty’s reflection isn’t quite up to our meets category, we get it back to them with specific feedback and they can resubmit. Now we finish every module with a closing summary—again, practicing what we preach, good teaching and learning—close with a summary of the learning objectives and some more commentary from the researchers.

John: A lot of our faculty have commented how they appreciate the fact that the course itself uses all the practices that are implemented—as you mentioned—and they really enjoy the skeletal outlines, they like the ability to go in and critique these demonstrations. And one of the things that we as working with our teaching center appreciate is that we’ve done workshops on many of these topics and some people have attended them two or three years in a row without actually implementing them. And what we really appreciate is the fact that now people have to get past that barrier of actually trying it in the classroom. And a lot of people who have been coming to our gatherings have said they did this for the course and now they’re doing it in every class. So it’s already making some big changes in people’s teaching practice. So it’s been working really well.

Rebecca: I think another real strength is the external reviewers is really important so that as teaching and learning center staff, we can support our colleagues and not feel like there’s some sort of punitive relationship where we’re judging.

Penny: Yeah, we are a learning organization and so actually when we first piloted a smaller number of the modules, we had the facilitators—our course facilitators, often folks from an institution’s teaching and learning center—scoring their reflections, and they were crystal clear with us that that didn’t feel right. And so we took that on, so that they could really be the coaches that we want them to be with the cohorts.

Rebecca: I think that works really well and I think that really encourages faculty to follow through and to do them and to actually take the actions in the classroom. So I think we really benefited from that particular feature.

Penny: Yeah. I know our mission has been to realize student outcomes— better retention, graduation rates, better learning— through quality instruction. And so in order to impact students, we knew faculty had to go beyond learning these evidence-based practices, but actually using them and so the requirement to complete a module became the implementing of one of the practices. And then what we know to be true in professional development is reflection is such a strong way to not only implement but actually to continue thinking about what went well, what didn’t go well, what might I refine, et cetera. That’s really putting you on the trajectory to becoming a better and better instructor.

Rebecca: I think one of the other interesting advantages of this particular online course is that a lot of our faculty may never have taken an online course but may be asked to teach online courses, so having the experience of a well designed online course is an important experience, especially as faculty move more and more into teaching online and having an idea of how to implement some of these practices, not just in face-to-face situations, but also in online or hybrid situations.

John: And we should also note that in each module, the options that people have could be either for a face-to-face class, or there’s a set of options for people who are teaching online, so it facilitates both types of instruction directly for people with different teaching schedules.

Penny: And we have actually even brought that to a more sophisticated level. So we will be offering our course in online essentials coming up in the next few months, where if we had a cohort of online instructors, they would be doing an observe and analyze about online instruction versus face-to-face so that they would really have that full experience of, “How do I do this core set of skills needed to be an effective instructor online?” So we’ve gone beyond just offering the online resources, to making sure we offer some real high quality learning experiences for them.

Rebecca: That’s great.

John: You mentioned the goal of improving instruction and improving all these outcomes. I know that there’s been some research that has been done at some campuses in terms of what sort of impact this has had. Could you tell us a little bit about what’s been found in terms of the effectiveness of this program in improving student outcomes?

Penny: Absolutely. We’re really, really proud of the work that we’ve done with regards to efficacy. And I think it’s important to recognize that when we partner with any institution, we partner to assist and support implementation. So when you partner with ACUE, we don’t say, “You can click on here and get to our courses, and good luck!” [LAUGHTER] When we partner, every institution has an academic director who will work with the campus lead—oftentimes the teaching and learning center folks as well—to design the course sequence and cadence and make sure that it makes sense for that particular group of faculty. And then in addition to assisting with implementation, we actually study efficacy. And we are very proud of multiple studies now demonstrating student impact. But I always like to indicate that the first set of data that we collected was around faculty, because as I was mentioning before, if faculty aren’t engaged with the course, faculty aren’t learning, and faculty aren’t changing their practices, then you have no hopes of seeing student impact. And we’re particularly proud of what we have with regards to faculty data across over 2,000 faculty members. Ninety-seven percent on average report that the course is relevant. On average, faculty report learning 55 new practices and learning more about 71. And then on average, faculty report implementing 28 new practices as they engage with the 25 modules and a plan to implement 28 more. So we’ve got that faculty data that says to us, “Hey, you know what, you’ll likely have student impact data,” because again, all of the practices in the course are evidence based, they’re already research based. And we’re, again, really proud to share some of the findings we have at Delta State, we have a study where we were able to show an increase in A’s, B’s and C’s, and a decrease in DFW’s. At Miami Dade College, we were able to show an all of these results are statistically significant. In fact, I invite anyone to go on our website, look at the impact page, if they’re particularly interested in the statistical analyses. At Miami Dade, we saw increased student engagement, comparing faculty to themselves before and after they engaged in the course as well as to a matched cohort. We saw an increase in grades. At Texas Women’s University we saw an elimination of course completion gap, a rracial course completion gap. And at Broward, we actually gave students surveys where they indicated that they had engaged regularly in evidence-based teaching practices. And we’ve got a number of studies currently going on so we have been able to show and realize the student level impact that you might expect as faculty start to regularly use evidence-based teaching practices. It’s really, pretty quite amazing.

John: How many schools have participated in this program?

Penny: So currently, we are partnering with over 100 colleges and universities across 37 states. And again, as we partner with any university, we work with them to design the course offering for that particular set of faculty at that particular institution.

John: We appreciated the fact that since we started in late January that the structure was able to accommodate teaching schedules of our faculty, so that people were doing things that were relevant at that portion of the year.

Penny: Yeah, I am particularly proud of the fact that this is not just some lockstep set of courses we ask you to follow, but rather thoughtfully sequenced, dependent on when faculty are starting to engage in the course, and we sequence in a way so that faculty pretty early on—as they implement in their classrooms—start to have some positive feedback from students because that itself is pretty motivating.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think one thing to point out is that we often think about when you teach someone how to teach, you start with the syllabus or you start at the beginning, and we started in the middle, because we were in the middle of the semester, and it made perfect sense for our faculty. I think that it was really effective and I think that the faculty really appreciated that they were able to do stuff right away and not plan things for a semester out.

Penny: Yeah, what we found essentially is as much as I love to think about learning outcomes, and aligning my assessments and aligning my activities, that’s not what everybody enjoys doing. And it’s best to put that towards the end of a sequence. So that faculty really can utilize practices that connect with their students, motivate their students, really embrace the diversity in their classroom, and have those kinds of interactions and then get to, “Okay, so how do I structure this? How do I write a learning outcome that really helps students learn more? How do I make sure my assessments are aligned,” et cetera. That’s work that’s best after they’ve had some of those other experiences.

John: And after the toolkits have been developed, so they have activities they can plug into those learning objectives.

Penny: I do think that when an institution feels like, “Gosh, we need to do something about courses,” they’ll often go to course design as their strategy and leave out the how the course is taught all together and just think the redesign is going to do it, but it really is the combination.

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

John: For either you or ACUE?

Penny: For both me and ACUE—I’m happy to say—as I described before, we’re a learning organization. So we are constantly listening to our partners, seeing what’s happening in higher ed where we think we might be able to have some positive impact. But one of the key areas—no surprise—is continuing education. So, we’re helping faculty have this strong foundation, but we know it takes a lifetime to become an effective instructor. And so we want to support faculty in continuing to build on that strong foundation. As well as looking at what are some other areas in higher education where we might be able to offer some courses and some learning that would assist with, again, realizing student success.

John: We’ve really enjoyed talking to you and we’re really enjoying the program here.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much for joining us today.

Penny: I’m so happy that folks are enjoying the program. When we hear from faculty and we hear the kinds of appreciation and even as they talk about how their students are more engaged or learning at deeper levels, there’s simply nothing better than that, and so we’re excited to be working with you folks and with folks across the country.

[MUSIC]

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

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

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

82. Geeky Pedagogy

When they were students, most faculty members were not the “average student.” They generally enjoyed learning and were willing to spend long hours independently studying topics that others may not care much about. In this episode, Dr. Jessamyn Neuhaus joins us to examine how geeks and nerds can successfully teach our more “normal” students.

Jessamyn is a professor in the history department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is the recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She’s also the author of Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers, which is scheduled for release in September 2019.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: When they were students, most faculty members were not the “average student.” They generally enjoyed learning and were willing to spend long hours independently studying topics that others may not care much about. In this episode, we examine how geeks and nerds can successfully teach our more “normal” 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.

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Jessamyn Neuhaus. Jessamyn is a professor in the history department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is the recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She’s also the author of Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers, which is scheduled for release in September 2019. Welcome, Jessamyn.

Jessamyn: Thank you. Nice to be here.

John: Welcome. Our teas today are…

Jessamyn: I am drinking Lemon Zinger in my book nerd mug. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That sounds perfect.

John: You’ll have to bring that to book signings too. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m drinking Rose Garden today.

John: I’m drinking Twinings Enchanted Forest Fruits Black tea, which I picked up in Epcot last year.

Rebecca: Yeah, my Rose Garden’s from there too.

John: I was there for the OLC conference and you were there actually for a vacation.

Rebecca: Yep. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: Enchanted garden sounds super nerdy. [LAUGHTER]

John: It is, and it tastes very good, too. We’ve invited you here to talk about your new book. What inspired you to write this?

Jessamyn: For as long as I could remember, I’ve loved to read and write and think. I’ve always been an introvert, I need a lot of solitude in order to function. I’ve always done well academically. My son, on the other hand, he’s an off-the-charts extrovert and a different student—let’s call it that, different—watching him grow up and go through the education system made me realize how differently he and I experienced school. And like I say in the acknowledgments section of my book, living with him and with his father—my significant other—is a master class in the difference between nerds and normals. [LAUGHTER] They are the normals, I’m the nerd. This was a big part of the inspiration for the book. Nobody was saying what I think is pretty self-evident: that people who earn advanced degrees—by and large—are pretty nerdy, which is as it should be—we’re the experts. Introverts are also disproportionately represented in academia, we take pretty easily to those long hours of isolated study that’s required to earn an advanced degree. Another inspiration was I really wanted to inspire teaching self-efficacy and helping faculty become effective teachers. And I use that word really, really deliberately—I understand why SoTL folks and professional developers use terms like best teachers, excellent teachers, even good teachers—but I think those terms really feed into some disempowering myths about teaching, myths like “good teachers are born, not made,” or myths like “only the most astounding super teachers affect student learning.” And those highly idealized impossible standards, I think, can really undermine teaching self-efficacy… feed into doubts and insecurities… So that was another inspiration. And similarly, throughout the book, I use us and we, when I’m talking about teaching, trying to create a sense of shared undertaking. Like we do in our classes when we talk about our class, our learning, our discussion, trying to help students become aware of their own responsibilities for their learning. And similarly, a lot of SoTL authors who I know want to invite readers to join the Teaching Commons, inadvertently undermining this goal by handing down these rigid dictates from above. “You should do this,” “Don’t forget to do that,” “You do this… that…” as if the person writing is not also in the teaching trenches trying to learn and relearn how to be an effective teacher. And I guess along with that, I also really wanted to bridge the major gulf between SoTL converts and faculty who are new to—or even resistant to— professional development. I see so much conversation about college teaching that is really divided along these two extreme positions. On one side: pro-student SoTL experts, they’re practically perfect, they never get frustrated by students… [LAUGHTER]… they’re 100% compassionate, and they’re totally on board with professional development. And on the other extreme, faculty who are totally burnt out, or completely cynical, and they’re always sniping at each other like, “You should be more compassionate to students.” “No, students are always terrible.” [LAUGHTER] And I want something in the middle saying “We can learn how to be effective teachers, we can be compassionate, we can be understanding, but also, sometimes students are irritating. It’s frustrating.” And I think finally, the most important inspiration for me was, I saw a need for a teaching book that strongly and repeatedly acknowledges the importance of our individual teaching context. And what works for one instructor just plain might not work for another. I mean, even what works for you in one class may not work in another class. And this isn’t like a brand new concept—it’s widely acknowledged—but I don’t think it’s acknowledged consistently enough. I think, especially for new instructors, I think you can read a lot of SoTL that seems to be suggesting, “If you just do this, you’ll be an effective teacher,” and that’s not nuanced enough.

Rebecca: I know that I was really excited to hear about your book, because it includes words like introvert and geeky in the title [LAUGHTER] and I identify that way. And I know that the first chapter in your book is on identity. Can you talk a little bit about why it’s important to think about identity and why that’s not often included in professional development?

Jessamyn: Sure. I’m so glad you asked that question, and the short answer to why I included it is because embodied identity is an important reality in human interactions. And I’m not sure why it’s not more fully acknowledged in professional development. It does seem like a lot of advice about teaching and scholarship on teaching and learning seems to imagine that we’re teaching in some sort of enchanted bubble that’s floating above the dreary workaday world, this wondrous place of true equality. There’s no racism or sexism and students and teachers are purely intellectual beings, and we gather—totally free of our biases—just to learn together every morning [LAUGHTER] the sky is full rainbows, and we skip down lollipop lane to another glorious day of tenure, but…

Rebecca: Right after we walk by the unicorns, right? [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: That’s right, yeah. When we enter the classroom, we don’t close the door, and presto change-o, there’s no race and ethnicity and gender expression, and speaking voice and physical abilities, sexual identity, they don’t exist. We bring all those assumptions, and stereotypes, and biases, and unconscious biases with us. But a lot of otherwise excellent scholarship on teaching and learning just does not fully acknowledge this. There’s a widespread assumption about what a professor looks like, and it’s a white guy, probably wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches, and he’s lecturing so brilliantly in front of these mesmerized students that they learn without effort. And to be clear, I’m not suggesting that white guys don’t have to work hard to be effective teachers—they do—and I’m also not suggesting anyone who’s not a white guy can’t teach effectively—of course that’s not true—but any teaching advice is not going to apply in exactly the same way in every classroom and embodied identity is one—it’s only one—but it is one important aspect of our individual and unique teaching context. So, just to give an example, it’s pretty clear from the scholarship that effective teachers build rapport and demonstrate immediacy with students. But what I have to do to achieve that as a white gender-normative woman is different than what my white gender-normative male colleague would have to do. And it’s different from what all faculty of color have to do, especially because their expertise is not assumed in the same way. It will be challenged in a different way than many white faculty members. To take an even more specific example, I’ve seen teaching advice that talks about how professors need to be friendly and approachable, and that that would include smiling to students. But, you know that saying you should smile more means something different to women than it does to men, and we will hear it differently. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t smile with students, but it means we have to utilize that scholarship in a different way. I think in every aspect of our world, white male privilege is often the default center of SoTL, and I would add maybe tenure too—this kind of default privileging—and I think we just have to start more regularly acknowledging that effective teaching and learning is shaped by embodied identity just like everything else we do as human beings. And one last point on this, it was very, very important to me that I not reinforce gendered and racialized stereotypes about geeks and nerds. Historically, those terms have been gendered male and raced as white. That’s changing, and you can see it in some contemporary popular representations. You can see it in people’s lived experiences. Those stereotypes aren’t gone—they still have an impact on people’s lives—and in fact, geek gatekeeping where white male geeks say, “You can’t play this, you can’t do that,” is still a factor, especially in fan cultures and gaming communities, it’s still a problem. But there’s so many of us nerds and geeks who fully embrace and celebrate Spock’s view of the universe, [LAUGHTER] as a place of infinite diversity in infinite combinations.

John: You also in that first chapter include a section called “Learning is Hard” and that’s probably a useful thing for faculty to remember because many of us have either found it to be easy along the way or it was so long ago that we were at that position that we’ve forgotten how difficult it is to learn new things. Could you address that just a little bit?

Jessamyn: That section draws on all the great science out there about the brain and learning. And you’re absolutely right. It’s especially important for us nerdy experts because we know our topic so well—our brains are so skilled and practiced at it— that’s the expert blind spot that gets in our way. It’s something that we do so automatically, it’s hard to remember what it’s like for a new learner. It’s hard to remember how long it takes to learn. It’s hard to remember how emotional learning can be, especially when—like I was saying with my son—we’ve had really different academic experiences than most people. Even our most brilliant students at our most elite institutions, most of them don’t take to academia the way we did. Most people want to be done with school. We said, “No, I like school so much, I’m going to stay in school forever.” So the science of learning is an important way for us to keep reminding ourselves that learning is hard and we have to do it over and over… and that does apply to us too. One of my main points in this book is that learning how to be an effective teacher never stops. We are always learning and relearning because students change, we change, curriculum changes, we’re always having to relearn. And yet faculty will often throw up their hands at the first obstacle they get to and say, “I’m not a good teacher.” I’ve lectured my students, I don’t know how many times on,“You got to have a growth mindset. Don’t tell yourself you’re bad at something.” But then when I was trying to teach myself how to do Twitter, after two weeks I was like, “Oh, I’m terrible at this. Everybody else is so good. I just can’t do it.” It’s really hard to learn, and it’s easy to forget in our subjects because we’re so skilled at them.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by geeky pedagogy in general?

Jessamyn: Sure. So this is the first college teaching guide addressed to geeks, introverts, and nerds, which is pretty amazing because, damn. Like, look around you, pal. [LAUGHTER] I mean, academia is jam packed with us but it’s more than a gimmick. So at the heart of my argument is that geeks, introverts, and nerds as a group—and I’m generalizing, this isn’t every single person—but as a group, we face certain obstacles to effective teaching and learning. Obstacles like effective communication, building rapport, productive professional and social interaction. We’re highly successful academically and most of us who have not taught much before somehow believe that that’s going to magically translate into helping other people be successful academically, but it doesn’t, it’s not necessarily. That being said though, geeks, introverts, and nerds as a group bring important and necessary skills to learning and relearning how to teach effectively. We’re passionate about our subjects and we can draw on that passion to create what I call a geek culture of sharing pedagogy. So that is creating classrooms and instruction that invites everyone into the study of whatever crazy, arcane, esoteric topic we love with all our dorky hearts. Instead of acting as a geek gatekeeper… keep people out, prove how smart we are… geek culture of sharing says, “Come in! This cool thing we are learning about… I can’t wait to share with you.”

John: You have a chapter in your book on preparing for class, could you tell us some of the things you focus on in there?

Jessamyn: Okay, so my first recommendation for preparation is you’re going to read Geeky Pedagogy from cover to cover. [LAUGHTER] You’re going to follow me on Twitter @geekypedagogy. You’re going to visit my website, geekypedagogy.com, going live July 1st. But seriously, the first thing I would emphasize—my top recommendation for preparation—the thing I most want to share with my tribe of nerdy eggheads—is to think about teaching effectively as an intellectual activity. We have to use our big fat brains for effective teaching. All those geeky study skills we have, we have to apply it to teaching preparation. So, we have to do some research on pedagogical content knowledge, how to teach your subject. We have to think carefully about our syllabi, and prepare them in a timely way—do not procrastinate. That’s my one nag, [LAUGHTER] don’t procrastinate—we have to think through our experts’ blind spots, we have to read up on the science of the brain, how people learn, and we have to take into account that over and over again in our individual and unique teaching context, we’re going to be learning and relearning about effective teaching. Now in the book, it’s a narrative guide. So I don’t offer extensive checklists or step-by-step… do this do that, and then, “Tada! You’re an effective teacher.” Those can be helpful at times, I think maybe especially if it’s your very first class if you’re really, really nervous, but I want faculty drawing on—a lot of this may be specific advice I have in the book—but I want faculty to feel empowered to research their own specific teaching context to become what Stephen Brookfield called experts on our own teaching. Keep figuring out what worked, what didn’t work, reflect on it, repeat.

John: One of the things you mentioned is preparing for confrontation and conflict. What advice do you give faculty? or what types of confrontation and conflict do you address?

Jessamyn: We were just talking about the emotional aspects of teaching and learning. Teaching and learning include a lot of extreme emotions. I’m not the first. Stephen Brookfield, Maryellen Weimer both mentioned that teaching is a roller coaster, there’s a lot of ups and downs. Same is true for learning, there’s a lot of ups and downs. For different kinds of assessment and creating there can be conflict. Student incivility, which is a very polite term for things that sometimes are pretty egregious, it can happen. And this is all—it’s a tiny part of teaching—but it happens and it sucks up a disproportionate amount of our time and energy. Another example might be plagiarism. One issue I talked about is academic entitlement, a new and growing issue. The most important thing—and this is across all teaching contexts, even taking into account what Roxanna Harlow called disparate teaching reality—so even taking those into account, preparation is the one thing that can help mitigate any kind of conflict. Clearly conveying and communicating—not easy for introverts and nerds—but clearly conveying your expectations, being as transparent as possible, that’s the number one thing, preparing for those. And then the other thing I guess in that section, the most important point is that understanding as introverts… and not every introvert and nerd is socially awkward…. I am. I’m definitely socially awkward, smarty pants, that’s my persona. [LAUGHTER] Understanding that, for me, high-levels of emotion are hard to handle. And it’s definitely not easy for anybody in any workplace to deal with conflict and anger and strong emotion. But I think it can be especially daunting for introverts, for people who aren’t extra socially skilled. It’s hard to be right there in the face of extreme student emotion. Preparing for it with some scripts in your mind, not like endlessly rehearsing, “I’m going to say this to so-and-so,” but just having a kind of standard for plagiarism, this is kind of my standard script. For someone upset about their grade, this is some steps I do. Being as mindful and as present as possible in that moment tends to help as well, which is actually a strength for introverts is listening. So the research seems to be suggesting that the best way to defuse any kind of student conflict is for students to feel like they’ve been listened to, and that seems to matter more than what you actually do to resolve the situation. So there was one study that showed, for example, students might view the offer to do makeup work for something as either a positive or a negative resolution, fully depending on if they felt like the professor had been listening to their concerns. That’s great news for introverts and nerds, because it means it has everything to do with our communication skills, which we can do.

Rebecca: You mentioned reflective practice a little bit ago, can you talk a little bit about some techniques or ways that we can build that into our practice and then actually use the time that we reflect effectively?

Jessamyn: Right. Well, I’m glad you mentioned, those are two very different things, and neither one of them is easy but the second one is definitely harder. So applying the knowledge you’ve gained from reflection to your actual classroom practice is a lot harder. The number one thing to do and not do is don’t limit your pedagogical reflection to student evaluations. Too often, that’s the only feedback, and the only reflection faculty do about their teaching, and it’s insufficient. It can tell us some important things, but it’s not adequate on its own. I have some specific suggestions in the book. Things as simple as keeping ongoing notes throughout the term on your syllabus about things that are working or not working well. But I would say generally, I really want to encourage people to find reflective practices that engage you as part of your actual work of teaching and make sense for you. I was really aware that for some of us, mindfulness practices, yoga, we’re onboard. And then for some of us, even anything slightly new agey is not going to work at all. So my main recommendation is find reflective practices that help you reflect on what’s working, what’s not working, and then apply to your practice. An important part of that is thinking about reflection as something we do as individuals, but also part of a community of practice. We have to talk to other people about teaching. And sorry, introverts, you can’t do it just on your own. Academia doesn’t encourage it at all, you’re often going against the grain to try to talk about teaching, especially if you want to talk about our teaching mistakes—which are the most important way we learn just like our students—it’s the most important way we learn. But there’s so few opportunities, we have to really go out of our way to make those opportunities happen. And the one last plug I put in is for adding a gratitude practice to pedagogical reflection. And here I’m drawing on Kerry Howells’ book. It’s called Gratitude and Education: A Radical View. I want to emphasize this is not just positive thinking, it doesn’t mean ignoring the toxic aspects of your workplace—not that academia has any toxic aspects whatsoever, right? [LAUGHTER] Or injustice, or inequality, or anything going wrong—that’s not what gratitude practice means. It does mean being fully aware of and paying attention to every aspect of your teaching context. And Howells argues that our teaching context in her gift paradigm of education… as opposed to the consumerization model. In the gift paradigm, our teaching context always includes gifts, things we get no strings attached from students, from colleagues, and staff. I know people listening might be thinking, “Gifts? Give me a break. Like, I get jack squat every day from my frustrating students.” But I would counter with—pardon me while I super nerd out the wise words of Thorin Oakenshield from the Hobbit—he said, “There is nothing like looking if you want to find something, you certainly usually find something if you look, but it’s not always quite this something you were after.” So gratitude practice by opening up our view of our teaching context, we will find a gift.

John: Early in the book, you start off with, “Learning is hard,” and at the end, you conclude with, “Teaching is hard.” Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Jessamyn: Sure. So the last chapter is the shortest one. It’s called “Practice.” It’s the best news and the worst news you’re ever going to hear about teaching, is that you can get better with practice. So that’s great news, because it means we’re always learning how to do it better. It’s bad news because nothing can replace it. Fellow bookworms, there’s nothing you can read that will replace it. And if you don’t have employment security—like most of us teaching college, the majority of us teaching college are doing so on a contingent basis—if you don’t have employment security, that’s hard news. And it’s a vicious irony, that teaching effectively is so key to our employment and yet, the thing that will help us the most—being able to do it over and over—is dependent on our employment status. That very last section in chapter five is just an acknowledgement that when you’re working hard to be an effective teacher, it’s tiring, it can be daunting. There’s some real highs and lows. And to guard against burnout—to be aware of what you can and can’t do, and to really—I circle back and say again—fight that super teacher myth. Get that damn Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, “Captain, my captain.” Get out of my head, get out of my students’ head. That’s not how teaching goes. Every once in a while you have a magical moment, but there’s a lot of grinding hard work. Most of us become effective teachers the same way our students learn how to do something, which is just slogging away at it day after ever loving day. That’s how you get better. That’s how you become effective. And it’s hard.

Rebecca: Earlier you talked about inviting students into our geeky spaces. Can you talk a little bit about how you invite students into your geeky spaces?

Jessamyn: Well, I’ll never forget the time—I described this in chapter five—I just stumbled on it. I made a joke in passing about my own geekiness about an article we were reading and I got this big student laugh. So student laughs, always good. But later, reflecting on it, I realized what made that so pedagogically effective. So first, there’s a lot of debate and discussion about what exactly a nerd is, what exactly a geek is, but the one thing we all agree on is they’re super smart. So when I said, “I’m a big nerd,” to my students, it was joking and yet it was also reinforcing my expertise and my knowledge. I know a lot about this, I am a big nerd. It also, I think one thing I talked about in the book is the importance of enthusiasm and that’s a difficult term for someone like me who’s pretty reserved—in many ways, an introvert—I’m not going to be a cheerleader. I’m not extra warm and fuzzy, I’m pretty intellectual. But I am passionate and I love the things I’m teaching, and when I position myself as the big geek in the room who can’t get enough of this topic, it helps me convey that enthusiasm to students. One of the studies that I cite in the book says a massive survey of students who said they perceived a teacher as authentic when the teacher was happy that class begins. That’s a tough one for introverts because part of me is always going to be back alone in my office doing my research or my scholarship, whatever gets me going as a scholar. But by embracing my nerdy love for my subject, I’m able to convey to students, “I am happy when class begins.”

Rebecca: Before we started recording, you were talking about zombies in your class. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: Yeah.

Rebecca: Could you talk a little bit about some of the things you’d like to nerd out on?

Jessamyn: Sure.

John: Or about that class in general.

Jessamyn: I would say—let’s see—I’m going to put it in the teaching context. So the thing that I most love about teaching my subjects is getting students to rethink something they thought they knew about popular culture. And everybody arrives in my classes, knowing a lot about popular culture in many ways. They know how to watch a movie, they know how to play a video game. And so getting them to rethink those things is what is most rewarding to me as a teacher, I sort of joke about it but sometimes when students will say, “Professor Neuhaus, you ruined such and such for me,” like some movie or some TV show like, “Now I can’t stop thinking about it.” That’s so rewarding for me as a professor. Being able to have students apply some pretty abstract cultural studies work to their real lives, that’s what makes me happiest as a professor. Every once in a while a student will say, “That documentary we saw, it was so interesting, I forced my roommate to watch it,” or, “We looked it up online, I wanted my dad to see it.” That’s like a microphone drop for a professor. I figure if they’re talking about it for no reason except they were interested outside of class, then I’ve definitely done my job. For me personally nerding out, a big chunk of it has been on the history of gender and prescriptive gender norms, prescriptive literature. So my first book was about cookbooks and gender, my second book was about advertising and housework. And I’ve written articles about sex-manuals, classroom films, instructional films, high-school instructional films, and I could talk about those things for hours and hours.

Rebecca: Will that be geeky pedagogy as well, right?

Jessamyn: Yes, that’s right. [LAUGHTER]

John: What strategies do you recommend for faculty trying to improve their teaching and where can they find assistance?

Jessamyn: You got to nerd out about teaching and learning. We already know how to nerd out about our topics, ask anyone teaching a college class “Tell me about this subject” and watch their little faces light up, hear their voice get animated, no matter how arcane or obscure. Donald Glover said “Strange, specific stuff; That’s what makes a nerd a nerd.” And that’s what makes academics, academics. And I’ll just use as an example, my good friend and colleague—he’s a historian of industrialization, Jeff Hornibrook, at SUNY Plattsburgh—he spent almost 20 years studying a single coal mine in China. A hole. A hole in the ground. But as he explains in his book, A Great Undertaking, this hole can tell you so many interesting things. That’s an academic nerd for you. We can apply that same focus and ability to studying, teaching, and learning. And just like we’re always learning about our topic, we’re always going to keep learning about teaching. So resources for that definitely SoTL—scholarship on teaching and learning—keeping in mind anything you read you have to apply in your specific, unique, individual context. I also think, probably the most immediately effective resource is your campus teaching and learning center. I’ve yet to speak to a single person who’s ever had anything negative to say about their experiences at a teaching and learning center. If you have access to one, if there’s one on your campus, it’s the very first step you should do for any kind of support and for resources. I’ve also learned a ton about teaching from teaching conferences, which I think are a totally different world than academic conferences. Academic conferences, you’re supposedly there to share knowledge but really it’s about proving you’re smarter than other smart people, in my humble opinion. Teaching conferences, I really do see people trying to share knowledge, and like in the book I say is like, “The mothership come home,” you’re surrounded by other nerdy people who want to learn about teaching. And I’m also going to put—going to say—academic Twitter. I’m going to say that. I only joined Twitter for recently. Thanks, marketing team West Virginia University Press, [LAUGHTER] they really said, “You should think about doing this,” and I did, hoping to get the word out about my book. But, just very surprisingly, I found that it has significantly expanded my pedagogical community of practice. Of course, it has significant limitations. 280 characters, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for citations as citations nerd like me. But it does provide a key component of reflection and improvement for teaching practice, which is talking to other people about teaching. And especially for me—as an introvert—I’ve always been terrible at networking. And I teach at a very small, very rural, and isolated university, and Twitter has really expanded my ability to hear what other people are doing in the classroom. And also, it really does, in many ways, work to de-center privilege in discussions about teaching and learning. It really is a platform for voices from across different employment status, teaching contacts, identity, and so on.

John: One of the barriers I think that a lot of people have with academic Twitter is when they first sign up for it, it doesn’t seem to offer much benefit until they start following enough group of people. So it takes time to develop that personal learning network there to make it more useful. And it’s worth taking the time to do that, but it doesn’t have that immediate feedback that many other types of social networks perhaps may.

Rebecca: But you can take your time to compose your interactions and not be caught on the spot. So in that way, it’s really wonderful. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: Yeah, it is. It’s kind of a boon for introverts.

Rebecca: What are some ways that your book differs from other books on teaching and learning?

Jessamyn: Well, it’s fun to read. [LAUGHTER] That already sets it apart. I would call it SoTL with a side of snark. So in other words, it’s real scholarship. I mean, it’s so packed with citations, I had to cut out a bunch and I’m going to have to make that available as supplemental bibliographies online. So it’s real research, there’s all kinds of scholarly resources in there. But I’m allergic to jargon, and pomposity, and I really like to make people laugh so the book is highly readable. It’s multidisciplinary. I’m a multidisciplinary scholar so it was easy for me to move beyond the rigid dictates of studying history—that’s my discipline—and it takes into mind the real variety of faculty who are looking to become effective teachers with all kinds of different individual teaching contexts, employment status, embodied identity. It’s highly readable in a narrative style and it’s written by someone who who doesn’t take herself unduly seriously, and someone who can acknowledge the roller coaster of teaching and learning.

Rebecca: I’m really looking forward to checking out when it comes out in September, right?

Jessamyn: Yes, September 1st.

John: And we will include links to everything we’ve referred to here in the show notes.

Jessamyn: Great, thank you.

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

Jessamyn: I guess you mean after I’m done with my worldwide speaking tour…

John: Right.

Rebecca: Clearly.

Jessamyn: ….when Geeky Pedagogy becomes an international bestseller. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: So it’ll be years from now.

Jessamyn: Yeah, years from now. After I convince all intellectuals everywhere to nerd out about teaching and learning. What I’d like to next focus on is de-centering privilege in SoTL. I’m not sure what form this will take yet. I’m considering maybe like an edited collection. I’m thinking specifically of practical pedagogical strategies for underrepresented and marginalized faculty. There are a lot of excellent books and articles, anthologies, scholarship, and reflection about disparate teaching realities—that’s Roxanna Harlow’s term—but what’s needed now, I think, is building on that for some practical suggestions and guidance for increasing pedagogical content knowledge when you don’t look like a professor.

Rebecca: I look forward to seeing what form that takes, it sounds really interesting.

Jessamyn: I’ll be back to talk about it on Tea for Teaching.

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well, thank you very much.We’re both very much looking forward to your book and hearing more about it.

Jessamyn: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Rebecca: Yeah, we appreciate the time you spent with us today.

Jessamyn: 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.

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

81. Intentional Tech

Some faculty try to use each new educational technology tool they find. Others are reluctant to try any new tools. In this episode, Dr. Derek Bruff joins us to examine how to productively choose educational technology that will support and enhance student learning.

Derek is the director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a principal senior lecturer at Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics. He’s the author of Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments. His new book Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching will be available from West Virginia University Press in November 2019. Derek is also a host of the Leading Lines podcast.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Some faculty try to use each new educational technology tool they find. Others are reluctant to try any new tools. In this episode, we examine how to productively choose educational technology that will support and enhance 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. Derek Bruff. Derek is the Director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a principal senior lecturer at Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics. He’s the author of Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments. His new book Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching will be available from West Virginia University Press in November 2019. Derek is also a host of the Leading Lines podcast. Welcome, Derek.

Derek: Hi, I’m happy to be here.

John: We’re happy to have you here. Our teas today are…

Rebecca: Do you have anything that you’re drinking Derek?

Derek: So I do, I have some coffee here. [LAUGHTER] I’m not a tea drinker. But there’s a bit of a story. I’m drinking a coffee called Kaldi’s Dog from a local coffee vendor called Bongo Java. And a couple years ago—I work here at the teaching center—we had been serving Folgers coffee in our coffee machine in the break room for several years. And some of us claimed that it was terrible and others of us claimed that people can’t actually tell the difference between coffee brands. And so we actually had a taste test at one of our staff meetings, a blind taste test. [LAUGHTER] From Folgers and several other kind s of fancy coffees and I have to say, I was justified actually. It was very clear that that some coffees were more alike than others. And this was actually the winner, Kaldi’s Dog… the winner of our taste test.

John: So there was no p-hacking or anything going on there? [LAUGHTER]

Derek: No. No.

Rebecca: The nice thing about our tea selection is that we just make hot water and then you can have any of the many varieties that we have in our office.

Derek: That’s true. That’s true.

Rebecca: So speaking of which, what do you have John?

John: Ginger Peach Black tea.

Rebecca: And I have Gold Monkey still.

John: Okay. Mine is nearly empty. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about your new book. Could you tell us a little bit about the new book and what prompted you to write that?

Derek: Sure. So my work at Vanderbilt involves working with a lot of faculty around their teaching—much like your work—helping them kind of think through the choices they have as teachers, what kind of objectives they have as teachers, and what are some teaching strategies, activities, tools that they could use to try to kind of reach those objectives with their students. It’s a really great job, I get to work with faculty all across the campus, lots of different disciplines. And, in recent years, it’s taken me to other universities as well—and colleges—to kind of talk to faculty there. And so my area of expertise and kind of specialty is around educational technology. And I kind of feel like a lot of faculty come at technology in their teaching from kind of three different areas. Some faculty are told by their administrators that they need to use more technology. And they’re not always sure why. [LAUGHTER] Like what’s it good for? Why do I need this? How can it be helpful? And then kind of at the other end of the spectrum, we have all these faculty who are easily distracted by shiny objects and they see a new technology, and they’re like, “Oh, Pokemon Go, how can I use this in my teaching,” right? [LAUGHTER] And they’re great, these folks are great to work with, they’re all great to work with. But there are also a lot of faculty kind of in the middle who just want to teach well, right? They want to connect with their students, they want their students to succeed, and they want some sensible tools to help them get there. For all three faculty, sometimes they struggle with figuring out how to match technology with learning goals and teaching principles. They know kind of what they want to accomplish, but they’re not sure how to select or use the technology that helps them get there. And so the example I often give in my talks is, I’ll say that my favorite teaching technology is actually wheels on chairs. [LAUGHTER] When I walk into a classroom, right, I have stuff I want to do with my students, I have learning experiences I’ve constructed for them, and I want the furniture in the room to be flexible enough to support what we need to do. Maybe it’s small group activities today, maybe we circle up and have a whole class discussion, maybe we use a debate. I want the technology in the room to support my teaching choices. And so it’s pedagogy first, but then we find tools that help us accomplish those pedagogies. As I’ve talked with faculty at Vanderbilt and elsewhere, I see a lot of patterns in how they use technology and what I’ve done is I’ve tried to distill these patterns down into seven teaching principles, because it’s a book and you have to have seven principles, right? That’s the rule.[LAUGHTER] So seven teaching principles that kind of give you a reason for using technology. And so the intent is to guide faculty to say, “Oh, here’s why I would use technology,” and then each chapter explores one of those principles and has lots of examples of actual teaching practice from faculty in a variety of disciplines. What does it look like in English to use technology to accomplish this goal? What does it look like in biology? What does it look like in communication studies? That kind of thing. I love telling stories and one of the reasons I’m excited to be a part of the Teaching in Higher Education series of West Virginia University Press, it’s edited by Jim Lang—who is a fantastic writer—and he takes this kind of storytelling first-person personal approach to his writing and I was really excited to be a part of this series, because that’s how I like to write too.

John: And you start your book with a chapter on a time for telling, speaking of narratives. Could you tell us a little bit about what the focus of that is?

Derek: This is a little counterintuitive, sometimes for faculty, but it’s really one of the most useful principles I found when working with faculty around designing especially—I mean, to some degree, it works at all scales—but it’s really helpful in kind of a lesson-plan scale, like one day in the classroom. And so I think sometimes there’s this impulse that faculty have to explain the thing, and then have the students do something with it, right? Here’s what it is, here’s the background, here’s the context, here’s the theory, and then let’s have the students do something with that. But the example I give actually comes from my daughter’s preschool. This was 10 years ago now, her preschool had science day and they asked the parents to come in and do sciencey things. And so I was the dad who brought the Mentos and Diet Coke. [LAUGHTER] So, you’ve seen this, right? You take a Diet Coke two-liter and you put some Mentos breath mints in there and then half a second later, you get this huge geyser of Diet Coke. It’s rather dramatic. Mine only got maybe seven-feet tall, but I’ve seen them much higher on YouTube. [LAUGHTER] And so I do this kind of fun thing in front of the five-year olds. And then they ask me “Why did it explode?” And so one could lecture—maybe not to five-year-olds—but you might lecture to a bunch of chemistry students for fifteen minutes on the physics and chemistry behind this and then do the demonstration. Or you could start with the demonstration and have students conjecture. Why is this working? Why does this explode, right? Bless her heart, my daughter asked, “Why is it Diet Coke?” I was like, “That’s a good question.” Why is it diet and not regular Coke? So this is the idea behind time for telling—this is a term from the literature Schwartz and Bransford wrote about this back in the 90s—that if we can create these times for telling with our students where they’re ready to learn and they’re interested in learning, then they’re going to get a lot more out of it, they’ll learn more deeply. We can use technology to do this. One of the stories that I share in the book is a grad student in English at Purdue University, Alisha Karabinus, and she’s teaching a first-year writing composition course and she has her students play this text-based online game. It’s all text, and you’re typing in commands and telling your character where to go. You kind of wake up in this apartment and you’re not sure what’s happening and you have to navigate and walk through the apartment. And there’s this kind of sequence where you need to take a shower and so you walk into the bathroom and you try to take a shower and the game’s like, “You still have your clothes on, you have to take the clothes off.” And then they’re like, “You probably don’t want to walk into the shower with your clothes in your arms.” And so you’d have to put the clothes down and you have to take her watch off, right? Like there’s all these kind of step-by-step things. I’m of a certain age where I played games like this back in the 80s…

John: The old adventure games, yes.

Derek: Right. And so there’s a kind of, you know, interface here that you have to master and you have to learn. It needs to be very explicit about what you’re doing. So she has her students play this game outside of class and then they come in and they debrief the experience. And it’s really lovely because they get so frustrated with the interface, then she makes this nice, clever little pivot where she says, “Well, when you’re writing, when you’re trying to express yourself, you’ve got all these ideas in your head. If you’re not explicit with your reader, they’re not going to know what you’re actually saying.” And so she uses that to talk about transitions and topic sentences and things like this. And so I think it’s a really lovely example of using a little bit of technology that was not at all designed for teaching to give students an experience that then prepares them to learn this lesson about how they communicate and how they write.

Rebecca: Do you have any advice on how to find some of those key little demonstrations or technology pieces that could lead into particular ideas?

Derek: Yeah, I’ve got some more examples in my book. I mean, part of it is that I think—especially for the time for telling—there’s this kind of experiential piece that’s pretty great…

Rebecca: Yeah.

Derek: A lot of faculty will show a video clip. This is one way to kind of do it. The Office is very commonly used to introduce various topics in different courses. I have several examples in the book of games, either video games or board games, and so I think there’s some real value in this experiential piece. And so, there’s no silver bullet. I think a lot of this involves being open to taking something outside your area and bringing it in. In this case, part of it was the interface. It wasn’t the content of the game that was interesting, it was the interface of the game that really helped. And so those are things to look for. Is it the content? Is it the interface? Those are helpful. I also talk about what tools are designed for teaching that can help create this time for telling. And so my first book was all about teaching with classroom response systems—which used to be called clickers—and now in most places students bring their own devices and answer on their phones. But the idea is that you can pose a question to all of your students and they all answer and then you can show the distribution of answers up on the big screen. And if you’ve asked a question that really taps into some type of misconception that students have, and they get the question wrong, the technology is important here, because you want everyone to answer so they all have that experience of grappling with the question. So you need a way to hold all the students accountable for answering in a way to collect all their answers. So you need some tech for that. And then by displaying the distribution of answers and the wrong answers on the board, you let everyone know, “Hey, this is a hard question, right?” It’s not like everyone got this right? You’re split across these two different answers. I share an example in my book of a colleague here at Vanderbilt in the law school, Ed Cheng, and he’d ask a series of questions of his students about Carl and his rhinoceros. So this was a situation that was perhaps prone to disaster when Carl keeps a pet rhinoceros and so he plays out these different scenarios of things going wrong. And then he basically asked these multiple choice questions about who can sue whom for what. And so the first two questions are actually really straightforward, right? The rhinoceros escapes and runs into a car or something, and Carl should have known that was going to happen. And there’s clear cut answers to the first couple of these clicker questions that my colleague asks. But then the third one, it’s a little bit different. And the students, when they respond to the scenario about Carl and his escaped rhinoceros, they’re actually split across three different answer choices. Ed has this great move in class where he’s like, “Well, you’re kind of all right. There are parts of law that are really clear cut and there’s a clear answer, and we just talked about a couple of questions that fell under that category, but we’ve moved into this area where there’s actually not a clear answer and a good lawyer could argue any of these.” It’s critical for his law students to know when they’ve moved into that part of law because that’s when they have to really do the hard work and marshal the resources and make the arguments and work with evidence. And so he’s using this short technology exercise to create this moment where they’re like, “Oh, right, I need to really pay attention here.” It’s that time for telling moment that I think is really lovely and having the bar graph on the screen that has the three-way tie is really important to creating that moment.

Rebecca: I think those are really good examples that I think will help faculty get started.

John: Actually, we did talk about one in an earlier podcast where we had Doug McKee on and he was talking about using this technique in his econometrics class, where you give students a problem that’s just a little bit above what they’ve been working on and it forces them to recognize the need to develop new tools, and then they’re primed to be receptive to a solution if they don’t quite make it all the way there themselves.

Derek: Absolutely. And again, this is a little bit counterintuitive. I think some faculty are hesitant to give their students a problem they know they can’t finish, or they can’t solve, or they haven’t been fully prepared for. But by having that experience, starting class with this hard problem that they can’t quite finish and getting stuck and recognizing the limits in their mental models or their need for additional resources, then they’re ready for the second half of class when the faculty member’s like, “Oh, here’s the resource, here’s the concept, here’s the tool.” And again, very non-intuitive and one of the things I think that’s important about my book is that my focus is on using technology to accomplish these things. But all of these teaching principles are true regardless. You don’t have to use technology to create a time for telling, but it is an interesting and useful way to think about certain types of technology and how you might bring them into your classroom.

Rebecca: I think that’s an important point to hit. The technology is supposed to follow the pedagogy like what you said earlier.

Derek: Yeah.

Rebecca: So remembering that you need to make good teaching choices first, and then finding ways to support.

Derek: Yeah, and sometimes tech is not the answer, right? Or low-tech is a better choice, right? So I have a chapter on knowledge organizations and so this is the idea that when we all organize the information in our head in various ways and so you can kind of imagine in your head like this concept map of ideas and examples and facts, and there are connections between all of them and novices in a domain, right? When our students walk into our class, their knowledge organizations are not as robust, they don’t have as many nodes, they don’t have as many connections, and connections are not as meaningful, and part of our work as instructors is to help them develop more robust knowledge organizations. Well, if we just leave them to their own devices, they’ll do okay, but we can actually help them learn and see the big picture in our course, if we can give them activities that help them develop, construct, represent, and visualize their own knowledge organizations. And so I teach a first-year writing seminar at Vanderbilt—and I talk a little bit about my own teaching in the book, because I think it’s important that I’m using these tools myself and trying to figure out how they work—my first-year writing seminar is on cryptography. Codes and ciphers. And we talk about privacy and surveillance and the role of encryption in today’s society. As part of this, I teach a novel, even though I’m in the math department. [LAUGHTER] It’s not something I was trained to do in grad school, to teach a novel, but I do work a teaching center so I’ve picked up some ideas. But there’s this book called Little Brother by the author Cory Doctorow and it kind of imagines a terrorist incident that happens in San Francisco and then the kind of surveillance and security apparatus that comes after that and the lead character is this teenage hacker who’s kind of fighting against this. And so what I have my students do is they read the book, I have them blog about it in the course blog—so that is a digital technology that they use—but when they come to class, I ask them to get into small groups, I give each group a couple of large Post-it Notes—so these are the kind of five-inch by seven-inch brightly colored Post-it Notes—and some markers. And I say, “Your job in the group is to find two arguments in the book in favor of surveillance and two arguments in the book in favor of privacy.” And so they have to kind of page through the book, they’re looking for arguments made by specific characters in favor of one of those two things. And so the privacy arguments go on Post-it Notes of one color and surveillance arguments go on Post-it Notes of another color. And so then, once they’ve done that piece, the second phase is they in turn go up to the chalkboard and they put their Post-it Notes on the board one at a time, and they have to do two things here. One is they have to put practical arguments towards one end of the board. Like, “If we monitored everyone’s subway movements, are we actually going to catch bad guys?” Like that’s a practical argument. And then have to put principled arguments at the other end of the board. So one of the characters says that, “Hey, it’s about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in that order. If you’re not alive, you can’t be happy, so we got to keep you safe.” That’s a principled argument. And so the students have to put their their Post-it Notes along this axis and then they also have to use the chalk to connect their argument to something already on the board. Because basically, there’s this really complex debate space around safety, and security, and privacy, and surveillance, and I want my students to know how complex that is and to start to see the relationships between some of those arguments and ideas. “This argument is a counter to that argument, or this argument is a support to that argument.” So by the end of class, they’ve constructed this debate map on the chalkboard out of Post-it Notes. And they have, I think, a much better sense of the complexity of this debate. They’ll do more with this. They’ll write about this topic throughout the semester. And so that debate map, that knowledge organization that they’ve constructed collaboratively, can then inform the arguments they make as they take positions within that debate later. And in this case—as I said—this is pretty low-tech, it’s Post-it Notes and chalkboards. I actually tried it once using some software, but having students build this map in a collaborative digital space at the same time was just too chaotic and so I needed to kind of slow the process down, and the Post-it Notes were really great for that. And so this is something I’ve used several times in my course and I think it’s a really great way to help students see how the ideas in an argument space are connected.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve liked about using Post-it Notes in some of the kinds of things that I do in my classrooms is that it is easy to change your mind too. You can easily pick it up and move it and it doesn’t seem as intimidating as trying to navigate software to make a decision or something. It somehow lowers a whole bunch of barriers and then it’s a little more flexible and fluid.

Derek: Yeah, absolutely.

John: And you’ve got them thinking about it among multiple dimensions and also making connections, which really, I would think would help them develop a lot of scaffolding there and a lot of connections that they wouldn’t necessarily do with their own reading. So it’s forcing them to develop better close reading skills and analytical skills, and so forth. It’s a wonderful exercise.

One of the principles of learning is that it helps for students to have lots of feedback opportunities and lots of practice, and I see you have a chapter on that. Could you tell us just a little bit about what you focus on there or some of the points that are made in that chapter?

Derek: Sure. So I actually start the chapter of the story about how I learned how to ski a couple of years ago, because learning to ski as an adult is a challenging process, as I found. [LAUGHTER] It involves much falling down. And every time you fall down when you’re learning how to ski, your body is getting a little bit of feedback about what works and what didn’t. And so in a very kind of physical motor skills way, to learn to ski, you have to practice skiing. You fail a lot, your body gets feedback, and then hopefully over time you get better at manipulating your limbs and controlling your muscles so you’re going kind of where you want to go. And so our students need this too, this is actually so key to learning is that we have to practice with the stuff that we’re learning, we have to do stuff with it and we have to get feedback on that practice. It’s a key part of learning. In the chapter, I use this as an opportunity to talk about the so-called flipped classroom because I think there’s a traditional model in some of our disciplines where students get an introduction to information during class. And then after class, they go and do something with it. They do the practice, they have a problem set, right? And the problem is that the practice and feedback part, it’s really important and also really hard. And so to have students do that when they’re left to their own devices, is a lost opportunity actually. And so the flipped classroom model says, “Let’s take some of that activity. Instead of doing it later on your own, let’s do it together collaboratively during class.” And so in the chapter I talk about some ways that some faculty have used technology creatively to help students practice the skills of their discipline during class. I mentioned the classroom response systems as certainly an option for this. I think sometimes when I talked to faculty around technology in the classroom, there’s sometimes an assumption that you’re talking about AV tech. We have a projector, we have some speakers… and that’s great, we need that, that’s helpful. But all my examples involves students using the technology because I think that’s really important. One of my favorites, actually is Kathryn Tomasek from Wheaton College. She’s a historian, and she wanted her students to practice doing the kind of close reading that historians do. When they get a primary-source document, a lot of that reading they do is looking at it line by line, word by word, figuring out who is that person? What is that term? What does it mean? Looking at the very building blocks of this primary-source document, because especially if you’re separated in time by one hundred or two hundred years, you got to do a lot of this close reading to kind of make sense of what it is. And so she had her students work with… she started with historical documents in her library’s special collections and asked her students to do what’s called a TEI. It’s a text-encoding initiative, it’s a way of marking up the text—kind of like HTML a little bit if you know web development—where you’re actually kind of tagging things in the text and labeling them as to what they are. So this is a date, this is a noun, this is a person, this is a location, or in her case, this is a theme that comes out in the sentence. And so her students, they would do this together in class. Like she’d take a piece of it and walk them through it collaboratively on the big screen and then have them take their own pieces and do this markup. And the neat part is the students were actually contributing to a larger digital history project because their markup would be kind of incorporated in this bigger database and shared online. And the work that they did with the primary source documents would then inform the writing and the argumentation that they do later in the semester. But in this case, she wanted to target a very particular skill that’s kind of close reading in history and she found a technology that digital historians use actually pretty regularly to create these opportunities for practice during class to help our students do this kind of work. I share another example of Richard Flagan from Caltech and he was doing chemical engineering. Very different course. But he used little mini projectors to kind of turn his lecture hall into an active learning classroom so his students could work in groups and do some coding—they were doing MATLAB coding in this case—and he found that when he introduced the coding in class and had them work on it after class, they would get hung up on these really small errors around grammar and syntax in the code. So he shifted that work into class to do group works in class and so then he’s able to kind of circulate among them, see what they’re doing on their little projector screens, and intervene and ask questions and help them. And so again, it’s kind of targeting these very particular skills that students need practice with that will inform often bigger projects later in the semester, but creating some time and space in class through technology to give them a chance to practice those skills and get feedback either from each other or from the instructor.

Rebecca: A lot of those examples I think are opportunities for faculty to also see where misconceptions are happening because it’s happening in class soyou can address them one-on-one, but you can also address those bigger themes that bubble up as well as a bigger group rather than having the same conversation 20 plus times.

Derek: Absolutely. Yeah,you may walk over and talk to one student or a small group or you may see a pattern across the students and then kind of take a moment to kind of gather everyone’s attention and try to kind of walk them through together as a whole class.

John: Doing some just in time teaching type of techniques, which is much more efficient use of class time.

Rebecca: That seems really tied to the knowledge organization that you were talking about as well because I think those same kinds of things happen when you’re doing those sorts of activities in class too, right? Like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that you thought this was connected to that,” right? And you can help negotiate that. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Yeah, and these teaching principles overlap, right? So when I had my students do that debate map activity in class, we were doing practice and feedback. We were taking class time, it was just that this kind of analysis level where they were making connections across topics as opposed to Kathryn’s example of the close reading. That wasn’t necessarily a big picture kind of practice and feedback, it was a very skill focused practice and feedback.

Rebecca: I also really like that these are examples that don’t necessarily make feedback more work for faculty. It’s embedded in the practice in the classroom and it’s just when they need it. And it makes more sense because they’re getting it while they’re doing something so they’re probably more apt to listen to said feedback rather than getting it on an assignment that you hand back and they put it in the garbage or something.

Derek: There’s this book by Walvoord and Anderson called Effective Grading that you may be familiar with and I remember the first time I read about what they called light grading. L-i-g-h-t grading. I thought, “Oh, this makes so much sense. I don’t have to grade everything the students do very rigorously, I could give them a grade on the effort or I could give them a zero, one, or two if the work that they’ve invested in that little piece then shows up later.” So if I have them write a blog post before class to get ready for class, I don’t have to grade that very intensely because we’re going to talk about that material in class and that’s where they get the feedback. I may need the grade it enough to motivate them to do it, but I don’t have to give them detailed feedback at that stage, it will happen during class discussion. And I think that’s kind of freeing for instructors to know I don’t have to grade the heck out of everything. I can kind of design a sequence where students get the feedback they need apart from the grade itself.

Rebecca: I think faculty always appreciate those opportunities. [LAUGHTER]

John: And in the podcast that’ll be coming out a week before this, we talked briefly about specifications grading, which is a variation on the same theme.

Derek: Oh sure.

John: One of your chapters is entitled “Thin Slices of Learning.” Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Derek: I am so glad you asked. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, so this may be my my favorite chapter in the book just because I think the creativity that faculty brought to their use of technology in some of the examples I share, it’s just really amazing. And I also get to quote, one of my mentors a couple of times. Randy Bass is, as I like to say, the Vice Provost of Awesomeness at Georgetown University. [LAUGHTER] That’s not his actual title, but he gets to do some really amazing things there. He’s also really active in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning world and I think he’s just a really deep thinker about how learning works and so there’s a couple of things that he talks about that I’ve heard him talk about before. He was doing some video projects with his students in an American Studies class a while back and he would look at their finished products—these short videos that they put together as a class assignment—and he realized that he wasn’t seen all of their learning. That—as he said it—there’s a lot of learning that’s left on the cutting room floor. And actually, in the book I talk about how my daughter wrote—she created a short film a couple years ago just because she wanted to—and she filmed, I think three hours of footage for a two-minute film. And so to decide what footage to use, what footage not to use, which angle, which take, even kind of which characters she wanted to include in the final product, there was a ton of decisions that went into those final two minutes. But if you just look at the two minutes, you may not know what those decisions are.Ttechnology, though, can be really good at making visible student learning, and in particular, thin slices of student learning. The kind of choices and sense making that they’re doing in the middle of learning, or creating, or designing, or producing something, and the more we can learn about how our students learn, the more we can kind of get those thin slices of learning in front of us. We can be responsive, we can be helpful, we can guide, and we can direct. And so the examples in this chapter about using technology to make visible (or sometimes audible) kinds of learning that students might not kind of share with us naturally. My all time favorite example of teaching with Twitter is from Margaret Rubega. She is a biology professor at the University of Connecticut. She’s also I think, Connecticut’s State Ornithologist, and she teaches a course on ornithology. So it’s a course on birds and so she has—wait for it—she has her students tweet about tweeters. [LAUGHTER] She’s so articulate about it, like students come to this class—and it’s a fairly large class, I don’t know, 40, 50 students—and they’ve seen really cool birds on National Geographic or YouTube and they think of birds as doing really amazing things in the Amazon and in Africa and far away. And she wants her students to know that birds in rural Connecticut also do really interesting things. Their ecology, their behavior, their biology is all very interesting. And so what she has them do as they’re learning about birds in the course is several times a semester they’re asked to tweet about their observations of birds as they go about their lives. So they’re on their way to work, they’re on the way to school, they see a bird, they see it do something or behave in a way that connects with what they’re learning in class. And she asked them to tweet about it. They have to kind of include their observation and where they are, and they have to connect to the course material, and they’ve got now 280 characters to do that on Twitter. Sometimes they get photos of birds that they see, which Twitter is really good at handling that. The thing I like about it is that it’s leveraging the field observation device that they carry around with them in their pockets—also known as their smartphone—or their regular phone, whatever it is. When they’re in the moment when they see that bird doing something, they’re able to kind of capture that and then share that back with her and with the entire class actually. One of my favorite tweets is a student who was walking by a golf course and he noticed the bird song sounded different in different parts of the golf course and in his tweet he conjectured that the golf course itself was dividing bird territory. [LAUGHTER] I was like, “That’s genius,” right? I don’t know if he’s right, but he’s really paying attention. And what Margaret’s doing is she’s helping her students practice transfer, taking what they learned in the classroom and apply it to real-world situations outside of the classroom and that’s one of the hardest things about learning, is how to transfer learning to new context. And she’s giving her students explicit practice in this, but then also making visible that practice by having this class hashtag on Twitter, #birdclass. And if you go search on Twitter for bird class you’ll see some of the tweets from her students because they’re sharing their observations with her, with each other. I just think it’s a really beautiful use of a very particular technology for a very particular reason. I love the bird class example.

Rebecca: That’s really fun.

John: Yeah, that’s a great example.

Rebecca: I couldn’t help but think that if my two-year-old could tweet, she’d be really into it right now. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Does she have a lot of observations about life that she tries to share?

Rebecca: A lot about birds lately. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: But you think about all the learning that students do when they’re not with us that may be really important. I have another example from Mark Sample at Davidson College, where he had his students live tweet the film they were watching in his sci-fi class. They watched it on their own time in their own rooms or whatever, but it was Blade Runner and they would live tweet their observations about the film. And it’s one thing if we have our students read something or watch something and then write a response paper and bring that to class and then we discuss it, right? That’s great. But he was getting kind of a next level down. They are kind of immediate in the moment reactions to what they were seeing in the film and kind of surfacing that and making that visible. And this is a great use of technology. There’s other ways to do this but technology can be really good at this kind of thin slices of learning piece and that’s one of the connections I want folks to make in the book is that, if you think about it, “Hey, Twitter seems really useful. What can we do with Twitter and our teaching?” Well, there’s a lot of things you can do. But one of those is to surface thin slices of student learning. And that provides some focus for thinking about how you might use Twitter in your class for a very particular purpose.

Rebecca: Sounds really fun.

John: It does, and you can see this in other areas of biology or botany. I think Michelle Miller was on a while back and she talked about a class where students went out in the field to identify plants and tweet back photos and so forth.

Derek: Yeah, and I shared this with a grad student here in civil engineering and she has her students tweet about structural things they see in the built environment that connect to the material that they’re learning. I’ve ran into teacher educators who have their students—while respecting some privacy—but they’ll tweet about what they see in the field when they’re in classrooms and they’re observing teachers in action. They’ll tweet those observations and so yeah, I think there’s a lot of different uses for this kind of application.

Rebecca: This also moves a little bit into the idea of learning communities, because this is a community practice using a hashtag where you’re kind of seeing things outside, but you also have a whole chapter on just learning communities.

Derek: Yeah, and I mentioned the bird class, because there’s a lot of things going on with the bird class piece. And part of it is that yes, by making the students tweets visible to the other students, you have this other dynamic going on which is that the students are starting to learn from and with each other. And students can learn a lot from their professors certainly—and we have a lot of expertise and authority that we that we use in the classroom—but if you think about the places where you learn naturally when you’re picking up a new hobby, or you’ve got some interest of yours that you want to pursue, you’re often connecting with other people who do that too. So like, I have a friend who just went to a quilting conference in Nashville because she loves to quilt and she’s going to connect with other quilters. And that’s how she learns how to quilt, it’s this kind of peer-to-peer learning that she does. And so we can leverage that in the classroom. It’s always a little authentic. Students in a statistics class aren’t going to just get super passionate about statistics and learn from each other necessarily, they’re going to bring their own levels of intrinsic motivation to this. But if you think about all of the different perspectives and experiences that you have in the room with your students, they have a lot to bring and they can actually learn a lot from each other and you can learn a lot from your students. But you’ve got to create some mechanisms for that, it’s not necessarily going to happen naturally. And so bird class is a great example because as the students, I mean, they’re all in Connecticut, right? But other than that, they’re going to different places, they’re seeing different parts of town, then they go to different locations for spring break, and see different birds, and so they’re all bringing their kind of different perspective on this. And by making that visible, they can start to learn from each other. In my chapter I talk about, I use a social bookmarking tool called Diigo, which allows basically students to share links with each other. And so we create a group for a class and I give them these assignments, in my cryptography class especially. So, find an example of cryptography in the news or find an example of military cryptography or let’s find out something about the National Security Agency. And so what’s really cool is—especially for a course like this—students bring a lot of different interests into this topic. And so I’ll have students who have kind of like a literature interest—I had a Sherlock Holmes buff in the class once and so she was always finding really interesting examples of cryptography in literature to share—I had students who were always interested in kind of cybersecurity and computer science and so they’re bringing in kind of modern news and technology. I had one student—bless her heart—she loved Russia, she found a way to find a Russian connection to everything that she did. And so it was really great, right, because she found all these examples of cryptography, especially kind of Cold War espionage stuff that we wouldn’t have seen if she didn’t have this passion for Russia and then found resources and shared them with the class. And so by having students share these resources, in a shared space and then talk talking about them in class, I can really leverage the fact that we’ve got a number of individuals in this room that have different experiences and perspectives and if we can make advantage of that, we can actually all learn more deeply.

Rebecca: I’ve used Slack in my web design classes to do troubleshooting and technical help but I use the same Slack channel across semesters. And so what I found is that people who have graduated who are out in the field will sometimes randomly pop in and answer questions, and it’s really cool, but I remind the students that I’m not the only one that can answer questions. They can help each other out. But sometimes—you never know—some other lurker might pop in and help out. And they have some sort of vested interest, you know, because they were also in that class at one time.

Derek: Absolutely, and that’s one of the advantages. One thing that can happen when you shift away from a course management system, course management systems are good for a lot of things but they’re not good for semester to semester continuity. They kind of put courses in little boxes by semester and the students can’t get out of those boxes. And so once you move to Slack or social bookmarking—like my Diigo group, we’ve been doing it for like seven years. We’ve got hundreds of resources collected by students over time. Course blogs are really good for that too—and so that’s really exciting when you can use some technology to make some student work public and persistent in a way that invites future or past students to participate. It’s still a learning community, it’s just expanding beyond the time and space of this one particular course offering

John: One of the issues with learning management systems is—as Robin DeRosa and other people have called it—is that the assignments often take on the nature of a disposable assignment, that they’ve done the work and then at the end of the semester, they even lose access to it unless they keep it outside. And there’s a lot of advantages to having a sort of persistent work that you’re describing there.

Rebecca: It seems like you’re moving right into another chapter of Derek’s book on “Authentic Audiences.”

Derek: I mean this is the other thing—and again, the book is not a critique of course management systems—but I will say course management systems also make it hard for student work to escape, to be seen by anyone not in the course, and often that’s appropriate. When students are first learning a topic or a discipline, they need a private space to practice, and screw up, and say dumb things, and get feedback, and get better. And that’s true for the assignments, right? Sometimes we have students turn in an assignment to us and we’re the only one who looks at it because they’re still learning the skill set and they need some good practice on that. But when we have students construct work or produce work for authentic audiences outside of the course, that can be hugely motivating for students. Hugely motivating. I’ll quote Randy Bass again, he’s got this white paper where he coins this term social pedagogies. These are pedagogies where we’re asking students to construct their knowledge by representing that knowledge for an authentic audience other than the instructor, and it could just be each other. That can be really powerful as well. But when students see that the work that they’re doing is not disposable, it’s not going to be gone. Students often do write a paper and there’s only one human being on the planet who ever looks at it, but if you can build toward some assignments where students are writing or constructing or producing for an external audience or an authentic audience, there’s a lot of motivational benefits to this for students and they start to take their work very seriously and invest in it in ways that they don’t sometimes in the disposable assignments. One of my favorite examples, Jonathan Rattner teaches cinema and media arts here at Vanderbilt and he had connected with a colleague of his from grad school who was teaching a writing course, Bridget Draxler, she was at another institution. Jonathan was teaching students how to create short experimental films and they needed an audience to share that work with. Bridget was teaching her students to critique media and she wanted her students to find media to critique where they could interact with the creator, and so they just set up a course blog for the two of them, these two courses. It wasn’t public to the world but Jonathan’s students were creating media for her students and her students were critiquing it and then they would have this conversation. And this idea of connecting your course, with just one other course—somewhere else on your campus or maybe at another institution where you have colleagues working—all of a sudden, you have this really authentic audience for the work. And in this case, this was really intentional too, this wasn’t just a random pairing “We want to share stuff with someone,” but there was this kind of synthesis that worked well across the two courses. But that’s a fairly easy way to create some authentic audiences for your students. I also talked about Tim Foster who used to teach Spanish here—he’s out at one of the University of Texas schools now—and he had his students write for Wikipedia. This is actually becoming increasingly common in higher education where you have students write for Wikipedia. There’s certain standards that you have to follow and it’s kind of hard to get content to stick on Wikipedia because of that. He was actually teaching an introduction to Portuguese course—so this was first semester Portuguese language learners—and what they realized was that the Portuguese language page for Nashville on Wikipedia was very skimpy. And what his students didn’t know at first is that Portuguese Wikipedia is not just a translation of English Wikipedia. Portuguese speakers create their own Wikipedia. And so the national page was kind of skimpy. So as a class project, he had his students create content for the Portuguese language Wikipedia page for the city where we are. And so it was great as a language production task for them because they could focus on writing two or three sentences, first semester language learners, but they knew that actual people are going to look at this so they took it very seriously. Some of them went above and beyond. I think this is just a really powerful pedagogy. And again, you don’t have to use technology but this is something technology is actually good at, is connecting people across time and space. Having students use some technology to create something for an authentic audience can be really powerful.

Rebecca: I think you have one last chapter that we didn’t quite get to yet and that’s…

John: “Multimodal Assignments.”

Rebecca: Which, you know, technology is also really good at that whole multimodal thing, right? [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Sure. I was so close to calling this chapter “Beyond the Five-Page Paper.” [LAUGHTER] Because again, the five-page paper has its place where students write a thing, and it’s just text, and they give it to the professor, and they get feedback. Again, there’s a lot of practice and feedback that happens in activities like that. But there’s a lot of research that says, not so much that learning styles exist. The research actually doesn’t support this idea that I need to match my teaching modality to my students learning preference. So the matching hypothesis would say that I have some visual learners and some verbal learners and some kinesthetic learners and so I should do visual stuff with the visual learners and verbal stuff with the verbal learners and kinesthetic stuff with the kinesthetic learners. There’s no research that supports that actually. So there’s kind of this learning styles myth that I like to debunk when I can but where the research does support is multimodal learning. Now, we all learn better when we encounter stuff in multiple ways. And so I think this is the reason the learning styles feels so compelling to a lot of instructors, is that if they’re doing that, if they’re thinking about their lesson plan and saying, “Oh, I got to have some visual stuff, I got to have some verbal stuff, I got to have some activities.” It’s not that they match those with individual students, it’s that all students are benefiting from those three different modalities happening in the same classroom. This chapter is all about multimodal assignments, ways to tap into this dual coding that our brains do where we take in information in verbal ways and in visual ways and kind of put that together and it’s stronger. We’ve done a lot of work at Vanderbilt. We call it students as producers. This is kind of a course design and assignment design approach that we work a lot with here through our course design institute and elsewhere. It’s helping faculty move away from some of those traditional text-only assignments and moving to more open-ended assignments, more multimodal projects, student projects that have authentic audiences. And so actually, this chapter is kind of all Vanderbilt examples which sounds a little self-serving, but I just happen to know a lot of faculty here who are experimenting a lot in this area. I share an example for my own classroom about infographics in a stats class where I’m asking students to represent quantitative information visually. There’s an English grad student here, Kylie Korsnack, who has her students take a paper they wrote, and revise it in a different medium. So it starts off as a traditional paper but they have to revise it as a Prezi or a concept map or choose your own adventure novel, or one student did a Pinterest pin board. And so by kind of re-seeing their work, moving into this other sort of medium, the students are often able to see their work in new ways and realize, “Oh, that’s what my argument really was,” or, “Oh, my transitions are terrible. Now I know how things have to be connected.” And so there’s a lot of value in having students move into different media than straight text as a way to help them make sense of things. I’ve been experimenting a lot with podcasting. So I got this idea from Gilbert Gonzales, a colleague of mine here in health policy, who had his students create podcast episodes instead of research papers. And he really wanted them to be fluent with the language of healthcare policy. HMOs and PPOs and all this kind of stuff. And so an audio assignment made a lot of sense, actually, for the students. And he founded it with a lot more fun to listen to a few podcasts than grade a few papers [LAUGHTER]. And podcasting is a low bar, right? Not to say that what we’re doing isn’t super challenging here, but you can, you know, create a pretty decent podcast with your phone, right? It’s not going to be super high quality, but you can record and you can edit using some free software and so I now have my students do a podcast assignment in my cryptography course. And with about 25 minutes of in classroom technical training, they’re able to produce some interesting things and then we can focus on “How do you tell a story through audio?” Or in my class, how do you explain this kind of technical mathematical stuff that they’re studying through audio only without pictures? And so, again, all of these are about kind of moving to different modalities and shifting between modalities to help students see and understand the material in different ways. And if you keep doing that, they’ll start to kind of triangulate and, and make a lot more sense out of it.

John: I would think it would force them to think about it a bit more deeply to make connections that they might not otherwise. Just seeing things from a different perspective seems to have a lot of value in it.

Derek: Yeah. I would also add that when you move to a non-traditional assignment—this is something that I realized kind of late in writing the book—is that we asked you to do a podcast they walk in and they don’t know how to do podcasts. So Gilbert and I were like, “Okay, so we have to listen to some podcasts together and critique them, and then maybe come up with a rubric together, and they need to outline it and maybe even turning the script and get it approved.” We have this whole scaffolding process around preparing students to do this type of work. Well, some of our students come in and they don’t know how to write a five-page paper either. We assume they do, we assume they’re good at it, that they’ve learned that in high school or something. But for some of these traditional assignments, we have students who really struggle and so one of the things that non-traditional assignments do for faculty is help them realize, “Oh, I really have to get in the head of my students and figure out what’s the scaffolding they need.” And we really should be applying that to more traditional assignments as well, because a lot of our students struggle because we don’t have them submit a proposal, or get feedback on a rough draft, or practice how to find a credible source. These are all things that we that it’s easy to assume our students can do, but they can’t always actually do that. And so moving to a non-traditional assignment often then helps faculty move back to more traditional assignments with a new lens with greater intentionality.

Rebecca: So we have to wait until November to get this book? [LAUGHTER]

John: Yeah, I know I saw when you posted this on Twitter, I said “I’d like this now.” [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Well thank you, yes. The book production process is a long timeline as I’ve found.

John: Yeah.

Rebecca: It’s a good tease though, right? [LAUGHTER] So you were also just talking about how you’ve been experimenting with podcasts and you’ve been the host of Leading Lines since 2016. How did you get interested in doing all this podcasting stuff in the first place?

Derek: Part of it was that—at the time—I had a 45 minute commute to work so I was listening to a lot of podcasts and appreciating podcasts and wishing I had more podcasts like Tea for Teaching that talk about teaching, learning, and higher education. And so that was part of it. I think, also, I was involved in a pretty big online course project that involved a ton of video work. And I saw how powerful that was, but how much work it was to put together really high-quality video and I thought, “What if we had a podcast on educational technology?” There’s folks that I run into here on campus and elsewhere who are doing really cool things and I would just love to kind of give them a bigger audience for the innovative teaching that they’re doing, and producing a podcast seems way more tractable than producing a YouTube series. [LAUGHTER] So I mentioned this at a meeting here, we were having this meeting on campus with some other folks who deal with educational technology. One of our Associate Provosts, John Sloop, for digital learning, he’s like, “I would love to do a podcast.” We kind of both had been thinking about this idea for a while and so we combined forces. And so it’s the Center for Teaching, it’s our libraries, it’s our Institute for Digital Learning. We created Leading Lines, we’ve been doing it for a few years now, each episode is an interview with a faculty, staff, or grad student who’s kind of doing something interesting in the educational technology space. We call it Leading Lines because it has this kind of connotation of looking into the future. So leading lines in a photograph, are those kind of straight lines that draw your eye into the frame. And so we’re not really trying to predict the future—because I think that’s a fool’s errand—but I’d rather kind of shape it and influence it and so we’re looking for folks who are doing things that are kind of one or two steps down the road with technology. And it’s been really great, I mean several of the examples in my book are drawn from interviews I did for Leading Lines. It just gives me this occasion to talk to interesting people who are doing interesting things.

Rebecca: Now you know our secret. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Right.

John: We’ve gotten this opportunity to talk to all these people doing some wonderful research that we wouldn’t be able to be in contact with so many of them otherwise.

Derek: Yeah, absolutely. I’m always referencing these people that I’ve met and the work that they’re doing and my other work here, connecting faculty, and it’s been a lot of fun. And it’s been fun to work here. So we have about six of us who do interviews for Leading Lines and so we have a little bigger team then you guys have and they go in different directions. Sometimes I’m like, “That’s really not an interesting topic,” and then they do an interview and it’s an interesting topic. And so it’s been really fun to kind of work with my colleagues here and having this collaborative project across multiple units at Vanderbilt, that’s been pretty great too.

Rebecca: Cool.

John: On one of the recent episodes, you had a discussion of the VandyVox project. And in particular you had a podcast from there. Could you tell us what this project is and how that came about?

Derek: So I had this idea actually just last summer. We were running a course design institute here at the teaching center and we had several faculty who are really interested in doing podcast projects because I think I had shared Gilbert Gonzales’s Health Policy Radio podcasts with them. And several faculty started thinking, “Oh I could really use this in my teaching,” and I thought, “This is great, but if we have Vanderbilt undergrads, especially, who are producing really interesting audio for class assignments all over campus, wouldn’t it be fun to curate that to have a podcast of podcasts?” So then I reached out to my colleagues at Vanderbilt student media and they’re like, “Yeah, that sounds great. We love to help students make media and share media with the world.” And so they were able to do all the heavy lifting on the technology piece, all I had to do was reach out to some faculty members and ask them to recommend some student produced audio for this and so this spring we launched VandyVox. It’s the best of student produced audio from all over campus. It’s a bit of a fudge, right? Like if some student has a Sports Radio Podcast, we’re not covering that. But if there’s an academic component to it, if it’s curricular or co-curricular, we’re happy to feature it on the podcast. And so it kind of serves two purposes. One is to kind of shine a spotlight on some student work, show this great stuff that our students are doing to provide some inspiration maybe for faculty and students to have students engaged in this kind of work. In the show notes for each episode, we have some background information about what the assignment was, or how the faculty members worked with students around this. So there’s a faculty development piece to it as well. But it’s been really fun to see what students are doing all over campus. You know, I highlighted some Health Policy Radio piece, we had a student from an anthropology course on health care politics. She created a 10 minute speculative fiction audio story…

Rebecca: Oh, cool.

Derek: …dramatized it as her project where she kind of imagined what would happen in the future with gene editing and baby selection. It’s just a really great sci fi kind of look at the course topic. Well researched, right? Like she turned in an annotated bibliography with all this so it’s all kind of backed up by the latest research. We had law students who were doing podcast episodes on immigration and refugee law talking to some immigrants and refugees. For that audio. We have Robbie Spivey in our Women’s and Gender Studies class teaches a course called Women Who Kill [LAUGHTER]—which is a great name for a course—and so she had her students do kind of true-crime podcasts about women who kill and how we make sense of that as a society. And then our last episode of season one, which came out recently, featured some work by Anna Butrico, who was a senior here last year, an English major. She did her senior honors thesis on podcasting and kind of connected it to ancient Greek rhetorical forms, which is really great. But her senior thesis had audio pieces to it. It’s hard to do a senior thesis on podcasting without creating a podcast and so we featured the audio introduction to her senior thesis, which I was really excited because Anna actually did a lot of work with podcasting while she was at Vanderbilt and her technical skills and her composition and storytelling skills are really strong. So it’s been really fun to kind of see something of a critical mass here at Vanderbilt around student podcasts and to be able to kind of highlight that a little bit. And I’m really excited, we’ve got some good stuff lined up for season two this fall as I’m kind of reaching out to more faculty and students about the the audio work that they’re doing. And again, part of it is getting started with a podcast is not hard. Doing it really well is still very hard, but the bar for entry is pretty low actually. And so if you want to have your students kind of move into a different modality—and again, you need to kind of be intentional about why you’re doing it and how it connects to your course goals—but podcasts offer a really great option for that. And I’ve just seening more and more faculty start to embrace this as a kind of creative output for students.

John: Going back a little bit, you mentioned that video project or the the video intensive project, I’m assuming those are the two MOOCs you have on teaching in STEM courses. I participated in the first one when it first came out.

Derek: Oh, that’s great.

John: It was a lot of fun, it was really useful. I didn’t do the second one. I think we both recommend those to a lot of faculty and encourage more people to take those. I believe they’re still running on Coursera?

Derek: Oh, yeah, we’re running one every semester. They’re not on Coursera anymore, they’re on edX. But you can always go to stemteachingcourse.org and you can find out information about those courses.

Rebecca: So you’ve already talked about the podcast that you’re working on and your book, the editing process and such that takes a long time, so you’ve got a lot of things in the cooker but we always wrap up by asking, what’s next?

Derek: Short run, we’re running a couple of course design institutes in the first of May and so that will occupy the next several weeks as kind of prep for that and those are always fun because I get to work with faculty. It’s on the theme of students as producers so we’ll be working with faculty around these creative nontraditional assignments. That’s always pretty exciting. There’s also—this is just an idea right now—but I keep running into faculty who are teaching with games or having their students design games, board games especially, as course assignments. I mentioned this text-based game that Alisha Karabinus uses and so I just keep finding examples of games and simulations that have a learning goal or learning purpose and so I’m hoping maybe this fall to put together a little one day symposium on campus on games for learning, games for social change, that kind of thing. I think that’d be a fun space to explore. And the other thing that I’m seeing—and I talked a little bit about this in the book—is this move towards active learning classrooms. I mentioned I like to walk into a classroom and see wheels on the chairs, because we can move them around and make them do what we want. The affordances that our classrooms have really matter for the choices we make as teachers. And so classrooms that are designed to facilitate small group work, student collaboration, active learning, this is a strong trend in higher education. I’m really kind of shocked how even from like three years ago, where I was having to tell people about this idea for the first time, now and here on our campus, our campus planners have decided this is a standard classroom configuration going forward. And so I see a lot of campuses moving towards active learning classrooms. Again, digital and analog technologies that support learning and so I want faculty to use them in intentional ways. And so I think we’re going to be doing a lot more with active learning classrooms here on campus, probably starting a learning community on that in the fall and I’m excited to dig into that work too.

Rebecca: Sounds like a lot of exciting things going on.

Derek: I try to stay busy. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s going to be hard to keep up with all of them.

John: Well, we appreciate that and we’re looking forward to the book coming out.

Derek: Awesome.

Rebecca: Well thanks so much for joining us. It’s been really exciting and I know we all have a countdown now.

Derek: Thanks so much for having me on. This has been a really fun conversation. I’m happy to get the chance to share a little bit.

[MUSIC]

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

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

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

80. Self-Regulated Learning

Most students arrive at college with serious misconceptions about effective learning strategies. In this episode, Dr. Linda Nilson joins us to examine what we as faculty can do to help students develop their metacognitive skills and become self-regulated learners.

Dr. Nilson is the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She is the author of many superb books, book chapters, and articles on teaching and learning. In this episode we focus on discussing one of her books: Creating Self-regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-awareness and Learning Skills.

Show Notes

  • Linda Nilson—Director Emeritus of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation (OTEI) at Clemson University
  • Nilson, L. (2013). Creating Self-regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-awareness and Learning Skills. Stylus Publishing, LLC..
  • Nilson, L. (2014). Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Professional and Organizational Development (POD)—Network in Higher Education Conference
  • 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.

Transcript

This transcript has been edited to improve readability.

Rebecca: Most students arrive at college with serious misconceptions about effective learning strategies. In this episode, we examine what we as faculty can do to help students develop their metacognitive skills and become self-regulated learners.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

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

Linda: I’m very honored to be here. Thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

John: Are you drinking any tea?

Linda: Yes, I am drinking tea. I am drinking Lemon Lift.

Rebecca: Oh that sounds like a great way to start the day.

Linda: It is. It’s a very good way. Well, I also started it with coffee, but… [LAUGHTER]

John: And I’m drinking Ginger Peach Black tea.

Rebecca: And I have my Golden Monkey tea today.

John: We’ve invited you here today to talk about your book, Creating Self-regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-Awareness and Learning Skills. Could you define what it means to be a self-regulated learner?

Linda: Yes. Self-regulated learning is the conscious planning, monitoring, and evaluation of one’s learning for the purpose of maximizing it. That’s a very fancy way of putting it. It’s that voice in your head that asks you questions about your learning as you’re involved in some sort of learning task, questions like, “Okay, I’m going to do a reading now, what strategy works best for me?” Now you just might brush over that because you’ve done readings of this type a dozen times, a hundred times, whatever, but you’ve asked yourself that question along the way. “What’s my best strategy? What kind of a task is this? And monitoring: are my strategies working for me? Am I getting it? Can I paraphrase the last couple of paragraphs that I just read?” It’s a reading thing, but it works also in lecture. And then at the end, you evaluate yourself. “Well, let’s see. I had a goal, being able to recite five main points from this chapter, let’s see if I can do it,” without looking at the chapter of course. [LAUGHTER] So you evaluate your abilities, you evaluate your strategies. That’s really what it’s all about and it involves a great deal of talking to yourself.

Rebecca: So how did you get interested in talking to yourself? [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Well, I heard voices. [LAUGHTER] Well, how did I get interested in this topic? Actually, it was an accounting professor at Clemson that got me interested in it. This is 2007, right, this is a long time ago. And so she said to me, “What about giving a workshop on self-regulated learning?” In my head I said, “Huh? What’s that?” I’d never heard of it. And so I decided to go find out about it and it took me a few years to really get a workshop together on it and I decided, “Gosh, this is wonderful. This is learning how to learn. This is familiar to me,” because I’ve been talking to myself for years. [LAUGHTER] So I thought, “Okay, I’m not crazy. This is a learning strategy, a major learning strategy, one that you can use throughout your life.” And so I gave the workshop, I started giving workshops, like at the POD Network Conference—which is made up by people like me who go to this conference every year—and then I decided—well, I didn’t decide—a book publisher came up to me and said, “Please write a book on this, I will publish it.” Since I was in love with the topic anyway, I decided to do it. And so I did and delved into it deeply.

John: As you’ve described it, it sounds like part of this deals with improving student metacognition, but you note that it goes a bit further. Could you talk about the additional aspects of it?

Linda: Metacognition is the cognitive part of self-regulated learning, which is a major part of it. However, there are a couple of other elements to it that I don’t know that you could say are really focused on cognition. There is the emotional element to it, which involves getting yourself to be motivated and interested in the topic. Remembering, reviewing what your professor told you about the relevance of this topic, and thinking about it yourself. We can motivate ourselves, we can reframe a task for ourselves, and we can certainly reframe what is going on in terms of a learning experience. That’s a major, major part of it. The emotional part of the end is: “If you didn’t reach your goal, what do you do about it?” Do you give up, walk away, and say, “Well, I wasn’t born to do engineering,” or whatever the topic is. No, what you should say is, “Let’s try another strategy. Let’s look into possible strategies.” As instructors, we need to familiarize students with various strategies because they come to us—I like the phrase—“as feral children” in terms of the life of the mind and what they know about learning. We don’t have cognitive psychologists—unfortunately—teaching first grade or fifth grade, and so we need to equip them with how their mind works. There is one other element, a physical element, and that involves planning, monitoring, and evaluating your physical setting, where do you study best. If doing a reading or writing assignment, is it in a coffee shop, or do you have to essentially be in a soundproof booth where you don’t have any stimulation? How much coffee should you have? Or tea? [LAUGHTER] What kind of an environment should you set up for yourself—perhaps putting your digital distractions in another room. How should you schedule your breaks? Other things that you might want to consider is the amount of sleep that you have had because that can be a very important element of learning and writing. Some people study better to mild background noises as long as they are familiar music they’ve never heard before. You’ve got to try out these different things and find out your best setting.

John: In your book you describe how you became a self-regulated learner. Could you relay that story?

Linda: Yes, it was based on fear and terror. [LAUGHTER] As a child, I went to a private Catholic girls school—great education, but not in the sweetest of ways. From about fifth grade on, we had what was called recitation every single day in English and history classes. The nuns would ask a question and would randomly call out students’ names—we were in small classes so it wasn’t an absurd thing—and we had to get up and we’d better have the answer to the question. Now, not all the kids did, but I needed to be Little Miss Perfect because I wanted to get into college. Somehow I thought that the answers that I gave in fifth and sixth and seventh and eighth grade would or would not get me into college. So I learned to quiz myself while I was reading chapters or essays. Constantly quizzing myself. And another thing we had to do, usually later in the day, was called “exercise period.” We had 35 minutes to write an answer to an essay question that was generally related to the readings. And we couldn’t look at our books. It was out of desperation that I was trying different strategies so I could perform very well every day, and I was really quite successful. So when I was reading about self-regulated learning, I said, “My God, I was doing this as a child.” That’s why it sounded so familiar to me.

John: But that’s not the experience I think that the students we have entering our colleges have.

Linda: You are so right. You are so right. And we don’t do this to children anymore, okay? There is a good side to it—there really is—because you do buckle under and get very serious about your homework, very serious about your studies, or you look like an idiot the next day. Anyway, the sport I’m trying to think of is that sport where you get the ice or any kind of ice particles out of the way.…

Rebecca: Curling?

Linda: Curling! Curling, yes, we are curling teachers and curling parents. We try to clear the way for our students. We don’t want to put them in stressful situations. We don’t want to ask Johnny to read if Johnny might not be able to read—and I mean, get up and read well—and the problem with this is that students are denied the opportunity for achievement. And there is no achievement without the possibility of failure, there just isn’t. So students have no idea what fear and terror in school might be. There’s bullying and all that, but I mean from the learning experience. So no, they don’t have any kind of the experiences that I had.

Rebecca: How do we start coaching students then to become self-regulated learners if they’re coming out of this really different environment that’s much more supportive and doesn’t allow for failure seemingly?

Linda: They start failing in college. We’re still sort of, you know, curling them a little bit, but they are really facing a much greater challenge. They get insecure really quickly because they’ve been told how special they are and how smart they are, and then they begin to question that, because they’re not doing as well as they were in high school, where you could get an A relatively easily. Now, “Oh my, it can be really hard,” and then they start getting C’s, and then you have their attention. That’s a way that you can tell them that, “There are ways that you can get A’s, you did not learn how to study, here is a way to learn.” Does it involves a sort of effort? Sure, but it’s really just talking to yourself and deciding what strategies would be best for you, testing out strategies, seeing how they work, and you will be more successful. And there have been studies of students—like in developmental courses—that show that the students who are struggling the most tend to know the least about self-regulated learning strategies and start to do better if they use these strategies.Of course we’ve got to get them to use the strategies, we’ve got to explain these strategies. It can be life changing for them in the most positive way.

John: I think part of the issue is that faculty generally haven’t been taught these strategies themselves. They somehow found ways to be successful, so they become self-regulated learners, but faculty are the exceptions. They’re not the typical student, and they’ve never really been trained to teach students how to become more effective learners, in part because they never learned that directly themselves quite often. What can faculty do to be more effective in this way?

Linda: Well first of all, faculty have to realize that they’re the weird ones, and everybody else is normal. [LAUGHTER] So we have to stop projecting our learning abilities, our strategies, our interests in the life of the mind onto everybody else. We have to not only sell our material, but we have to equip students to learn our material. We don’t want to do that. We say, “They should know by now.” Well, guess what? They don’t. So what are you going to do about it? You’ve got to start from where they are. Teaching students learning strategies takes a couple of sentences every class. Now, if you really want to get into self-regulated learning activities and assignments with them, that might take a few minutes per class period, but you don’t have to do it every class period, and a lot of self-regulated learning activities can be homework, in which case they take no class time at all. This is so easy to do. This is why I think faculty have really been attracted to my book and why I’m asked to speak on it so often, because there are so many little things you can do that don’t take away from the content at all—rather, they reinforce the content—that make this huge difference in the performance of most students. You can’t always bring everybody along with you. There are some people—some students—who’d just as soon shoot themselves in their foot, but most do not. They find these activities so easy to do. They don’t take a lot of time and they get to know themselves and start doing better, so students don’t complain about this.

Rebecca: Can you describe what a couple of those activities might be?

Linda: Sure, absolutely. Well, let’s consider the different parts of the course and I’ll just give you just a few, some of my personal favorites. For starting a course for instance—starting and you can also end it with these sorts of activities—but one of them is a goal setting activity. You can assign this as homework, you can have students do it in class with students write on “How I earned an A in this course.” Now, you would be surprised and students will be surprised—C students and B students will be surprised—that they know what it takes to earn an A in a course, and they will come up with, “Well, I’ve got to come to class every day, don’t I? And in class I can’t fiddle around with my mobile device, and I have to start a paper sort of early and I have to keep up with the readings.” For many people, writing this down is goal setting for them. They think, “Well, you know, maybe I could do this, maybe this isn’t so absurd.” If you make a discussion out of it afterwards, the A students will say, “Yeah, I do these things, it’s not unrealistic.” And then the C and B and F students will say, “Well, let’s give it a whirl.” Then at the end of the course, you give them another little essay assignment, “How I earned an A in this course—or not.” [LAUGHTER] True confessions time, right? And so students assess how well they met their goals. Goal setting is definitely a part of self-regulated learning, the planning and then self-evaluation at the end. Another thing that you can do is you can give your students essay questions. If you give an essay final—or have any essays on it at all—you can give them the essays on the final to take the first day. This will not take much class time at all, because students will know very little, or they’ll try to BS an answer. So they will try but they can be really quite wrong. Now at the end, for the final, they correct their answers, and then rewrite these answers given the knowledge that they have gained throughout the course. This can be really interesting for faculty—for not just faculty… well, it can be interesting for them, too—because they can see exactly what they learned. So it is a measure of learning. Faculty will never get that comment on the student evaluations saying, “Well, I didn’t learn anything in this course.” Never again, that’s gone. So anyway, those are a couple of things that you can do. Little assignments you can make on the readings. Little reflection exercises like, “What did you think was the most important point in this reading? What surprised you the most? What connections can you make between what you read and your prior knowledge, what you already know? Or to your life? Or your emotional reactions to it, if the material is amenable to that?” So those are little reflections you can give on the readings. Another exercise, a self-testing exercise, is called “read, recall, review.” This is the best way to do reading. Forget about rereading, that’s what students really do… It’s really a waste of time. What students should do is to read a portion of the chapter or the whole chapter, put their notes away, close the book, and then recall as much as they can and write it down. Then they should go back and look in the chapter for what they forgot and what they might have gummed up. And they know that, “I didn’t really get that point.” And so they go back and look at it, and then they recall again. Read, recall, review. Studies that have been done on this showing it is so much more effective than rereading. It really doesn’t take that long, and then you actually have the material in your head, even in your long-term memory. You get retrieval practice, you get deliberate practice, so there’s nothing as good as testing yourself except—well, the nicest thing we can do for students is to test them. In lectures—I should say mini-lectures—it’s a good idea to have students do this. You stop, let’s say, every 15 minutes or so and have students do the same thing. Write down everything that they can recall, and then work with their neighbor to fill in the blanks—their own blanks—and ask any questions they have. First they ask their neighbor their questions, and then they ask you. This doesn’t take very long at all, maybe five minutes, but then you know that the students got it and can remember it. Again, most effective… studies done on this, too. So this makes students aware of their learning or their lack of learning. You can give students what are called active learning checks. You give your mini-lecture, and then you stop—and by the way, you can warn students you’re going to do this so they’re listening—and ask them, “Okay, what are the three major points in my last mini-lecture that I talked about in the last 15 minutes?” Then they write those things down—and it could be two things or four things depending—and turn them in. They don’t really have to turn them in, but you know, you might want to see them yourself. Then you reveal the three most important points, and they monitor and evaluate their learning skills. Now, students are motivated to want to learn how to listen to you, so they want to improve. According to a study that was done, they improve really quickly. The first time, 45 percent of students got all three points correct. By the third time, 75 percent of the students got these correct. Remarkable progress, really remarkable. Then there are meta-assignments. In a problem solving field like chemistry or math, we are denying students learning opportunities when all we do is mark the wrong answers as wrong or incomplete and then drop the subject. Students should be able to correct their mistakes to get half the points back, let’s say. In other words, they’re going to learn how to solve that problem if it’s the last thing they do. [LAUGHTER] Again, you give them some sort of an incentive, then they learn. There have been studies on this technique as well. It’s extremely effective. And students can learn not just from you, but in peer groups. Peers can help each other very effectively. There is a wrapper—they’re called “wrappers”—for an exam, a reflection that students do after they get their exams back where they answer questions like, “How did your expected grade compare with your actual grade? How do you feel about that?” So they have to look at the exam and your feedback. “How many hours did you study? Was that enough? What did you do while studying? Might you want to change your strategies? Why did you lose points? Were there any patterns that you see here? How are you going to study more effectively for the next exam?” This has been life changing for students because they’ve never thought about this before. They’ve never really looked at their exams, their mistakes. They drop them too, right? They don’t want to see what they did wrong. Yet these are the best learning opportunities possible, and they will remember them. We remember our mistakes, we learn from our mistakes, and it’s sad that we don’t stop and use those errors. These are just a small sample of self-regulated learning activities. I can give you many more. [LAUGHTER]

John: And there are many in the book, which we strongly recommend to people.

Linda: Yes, yes, yeah…

Rebecca: A lot of what you’re talking about seems tied to growth mindset as well.

Linda: Exactly, and this creates, this generates the growth mindset because students learn that they can learn, they can do better. Otherwise they feel like their learning is like the weather. “Maybe it’ll rain on me, and maybe not. [LAUGHTER] There’s really nothing I can do about it. Because it’s all about you, professor, you are responsible for my learning, just like the fates are responsible for the weather. [LAUGHTER] And if I’m not learning, you’re not a good instructor, or you’re pitching the material over my head, or your teaching strategies are wrong.” And so everybody else gets blamed, and then they start to realize, “Oh, I can do this.” Now, this isn’t the best news for them in the world because then they have to start taking responsibility for their learning. And that can be, for some students, a hard pill to swallow. For other students it will be very empowering, and what we want to encourage in students is that sense of empowerment.

John: And that’s especially important, I think, in freshman-level classes, because students generally don’t come in with that type of mindset. They’ve often been able to blame it on the teacher and do things over and over again until they get the grade they want or get the extensions and so forth with a focus on self-esteem in many classrooms.

Linda: Oh, yeah, self-esteem without achievement.

John: But it’s an adjustment. So if they come in with a fixed mindset, and they’re confronted with failure, it’s pretty easy to give up. So we need to encourage students, I think, to see failure as a learning opportunity as you’ve mentioned. As instructors, I think we have to somehow convince them of that, because they don’t come in naturally picking it up, but the techniques you’ve mentioned are very good for that.

Linda: You know, our whole society makes them feel they’re not responsible for their learning. Look at what happens in K-12. Students have to take standardized tests and if they don’t do well, who gets blamed and who suffers? The teacher and the school, and that’s nuts. In the final analysis, we teach ourselves. We are responsible for our own learning. Good teaching can make a big difference because we can be motivated or unmotivated by teaching. We can acquire learning strategies through teaching. So it’s not that students are just left adrift on their own, we do have to help them. We do have to put them in learning experiences where learning becomes attractive for them, or you can’t help but learn, right? But they’ve got to pick up that learning and run with it themselves.

Rebecca: So you mentioned the idea of encouraging students to see learning and the self-regulation as empowering. What about those students who are a little resistant to that because it’s surprising to them that they’re not getting it and they’re failing and that it’s going to be more work? What are some things that we can do to encourage those students to see things a little differently?

Linda: Yes, first of all, if they’re failing and they subconsciously want to—it happens, it really does —[LAUGHTER] there is not a whole lot you can do about it. They might need some counseling and they might need to get some help from professionals like psychologists. But again, it can be difficult for students to realize that the ball is in their court because it’s a whole different gestalt for them. The only cure for that is success—a little bit of success—where they start doing a little better, let’s say, on the quiz on the readings or they start being able to solve more problems. That’s really the only cure. And we are assuming that they want to be successful. Again, if they prefer failure, then they are responsible for their own failure.

Rebecca: Right, they’re the ones that are normal and we are not, right? [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Exactly.

Rebecca: Maybe that should be the refrain of this interview, right?

Linda: Yes. They are the normal ones and we are strange. And we always have been strange. We were the strange kids in school, too. [LAUGHTER]

John: In your book you mentioned the Dunning-Kruger effect as being a barrier to some students, that the students who don’t understand things as well often overestimate their understanding. How can we overcome that?

Linda: Self-regulated learning helps when we give them activities and assignments where they do self-evaluation, because the only way to learn self-evaluation is through practice, practice with feedback. And that feedback doesn’t even have to come from you; it can come from peers or a computer program. We don’t give students a lot of practice in self-evaluation, and they certainly haven’t had much of it in K-12l. But the nice thing is that when we have students look back to see if they met their goals, or to evaluate their study strategies, or to assess their mistakes and the reasons for their mistakes, it makes all the difference in the world. After low-stakes practice, you can introduce higher stakes self-evaluation assignments and see more savvy self-evaluations.

John: What recommendations do you have for faculty who’d like to start building more self-regulation? Are there small steps that faculty could take to get started on this path?

Linda: Absolutely. There’s a sense in which most of the assignments, most of the activities, are little things. Here’s a little thing you can start off the course with, I was talking about essay questions, but you can just have students do a little reflection the first day and then again on the last day about the subject matter, as in, “What do you think chemistry is? Why is it a science?” You can find out a lot about students’ misconceptions just by looking at these reflections. And then of course, they’ve hopefully corrected a lot of misconceptions by the end. This could take like all of five minutes the first day. There’s so many little things. Here are some ideas for experiential learning. It’s so easy for students not to make a connection between a simulation, an interesting role play, a service-learning experience, or field work to the course. So it’s important that whenever you do an experiential assignment or activity, students reflect on what they are learning—for a simulation, to look back and explain what their goals were, to evaluate how well they met their goals, to assess their strategies, to explain how their strategies changed and their responses to other players. It’s very important that students become conscious of what’s going on in their heads. Only by becoming conscious can they remember the strategies? [LAUGHTER] And then they can write them down and articulate them. You can have students do short papers associated with papers and projects where they record, while they are doing it, the process they are following. If you’ve given them a process to follow, they even have a skeletal outline of what they should be doing. This is a place also for self-evaluation. If you have students do a revision, oftentimes you give them feedback on what they should revise, and they may or may not read your advice. So you can have them paraphrase your feedback back to them and write out their goals for the revision. What are they going to do? What are their strategies for revision? These are just little things. Students start to realize the value of this. And again, this is an assignment where you can’t screw up. It’s not a test, it’s just a reflection of what’s going on in your head. Students like to learn about themselves. And this is like the reading reflections. This is no stress. How do you mess this up? It takes less stress to just write an honest answer than it is to make one up that sounds credible. [LAUGHTER] I want to make faculty aware that the activities don’t have to be graded at all. The assignments don’t really have to be graded. You “grade” them pass-fail. Students pass just by completing the assignment. Let’s say, you had them answering three questions, three reflections. Did they answer three reflections? Is it vaguely on the chapter? Okay it’s not about football, it’s something about what’s in the chapter. [LAUGHTER] And did they meet the length requirement? It’s always a good idea to give length requirements on these reflections because for students, length means depth. So if you ask them to write a minimum of 150 words, you know, they’ll tend to do that. Those who don’t fail.You don’t count every word that students write. You eyeball the reflection. Essentially you are “grading” pass-fail at a glance. It doesn’t take much time. Plus, it gets students to do the readings in the easiest way and most productive way for them. It’s all about them, and it’s not about us. We just have to hold them accountable in some very quick way. Even the longer assignments that you might associate with a paper or project can be graded pass-fail. You have to make them worth some points if you’re still on a point system. But there are alternatives, that’s what specifications grading is all about. You don’t have to use points. In any case, you do have to at least eyeball the reflections and give some value in your course however you are grading. That communicates to students that this is important to you, that you put value on this meta-assignment or assignment wrapper, as you might call it. The same thing with the post-exam wrapper, these reflections on this exam. You make students do it because it’s worth 10 points if they simply complete it and hand it in—even though it’s for them—and they will realize right away that there is some value to this. Again, for some students, it will be life changing in the most positive way. And they will start to realize the way that they’ve been preparing for or taking exams may not be the best. They will realize what they tend to do when they’re taking an exam, such as to misread the question, or to be careless, or to not budget their time, or to not really thoroughly study all the material. Cramming is not very effective. You don’t have to spend time grading these exercises or giving any feedback at all. They can give themselves their own feedback. If they did it and they get the 10 points, okay, that’s plenty of feedback for them. They did it. You regard it as their meeting the requirements of the assignment.

John: And this is a topic you cover in another book on specifications grading, which is also another book we’d like to recommend. We’ll include a link to both of those on the show notes.

Linda: The title of the book is Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students—it’s been found to be motivating—and Saving Faculty Time, saving you time. If there’s one thing we don’t have, it’s time. Time is really more precious to us than money. Otherwise, we’d be working in some venture capital firm or something. [LAUGHTER] But time is really quite a precious thing for us. So, in terms of these sort of assignments, for self-regulated learning assignments, they’re all what we’d call “specs graded.” You set out the specs, they’re very simple, and you just grade them pass-fail.

Rebecca: I think pointing out how it doesn’t have to be complicated for faculty is important because I think we all want students to learn. We all want them to be self-regulated learners.

John: We all want to give students feedback, but we don’t want to make it impossible for us to keep up with our work.

Rebecca: Yeah. Or feedback that’s going to get ignored anyways.

John: Right.

Linda: You’re worried about students reading the feedback, and our feedback is valuable. We’ve given it, we’ve taken the time, and so you make them paraphrase it back to you. And this could be a learning experience for us because we might be “misread.” Students might not understand something that we’ve said. Awkward—that’s my favorite one—a sentence structure is awkward. What does that mean? That student didn’t set out to write an awkward sentence. That in itself will not help them because they don’t know what you’re talking about, and this is most unfortunate. But again, it’s a learning experience for us and we can learn to express ourselves somewhat differently. Too often, students get back a paper from us and look at the grade, read the paragraph at the end of the paper, and put it in their “circular file.” They dump it. They don’t read that feedback, so how are they going to get better? So paraphrasing our feedback back to us can be a very valuable exercise for them. And you can let them gain back some points for it. I just think that faculty should look at themselves as responsible for helping our students learn. They don’t come to us with those skills. We can be the finest instructor in the world, have the most interesting classes, hold their attention, and motivate them, but if they don’t know how to process that material in their own minds, it’s all for naught. Now, maybe, hopefully, seniors have learned to learn their material along the line. And by the way, there can be different learning strategies for different subject matter. There are different self-regulated learning activities and assignments for problem solving mathematically-based fields, and different ones for the social sciences and humanities. There can different kinds of assignments, different kinds of readings, actually different kinds of lectures. So we have to respect that. But we have to become conscious of study strategies, learning strategies, our strategies, and other strategies that are out there. But self-regulated learning strategies, to my mind, they’re the shortest distance between two points. Shortest distance between ignorance and learning because it’s all going on in your head, and it’s so powerful. The value of it to students becomes evident rather quickly.

Rebecca: And it’s a skill that can help through a whole lifetime, not just while they’re in college and I think helping students realize that is also really valuable.

Linda: Like no other generation before, these younger generations are going to have to learn to learn on their own. They’re going to have to keep up with their field, whatever their field is, and they might have to—will very likely have to—pivot into another field because their first field might run its course. They’re going to have to learn on their own. They aren’t going to have employers holding their hand. Not at all. They’re probably going to have to learn online, where you really are responsible for your own processing, more so than you might feel let’s say in a face-to-face class, and for your own motivating as well. There needs to be more motivation than simple fear that you will go hungry and won’t be able to get a job. [LAUGHTER] Yes, students are going to really have to learn how to learn. If they consider that a bitter pill, that’s too bad. This is reality, this is life, and most of them have not learned that life is hard. Many of them are wondering where their next meal is coming from, but a lot of students have not. Students need to learn along the line that life is not easy, that nobody does curling on their path. And they will face challenges, but if they have the strategies for facing these challenges, no problem. They needn’t be paralyzed. They needn’t freeze.

John: You foster some really good advice and I think our listeners will appreciate this and it’s really powerful.

Rebecca: Yeah, I agree. We’re all wondering, what’s next for you?

Linda: I’m actually Director Emeritus. I’m actually retired from Clemson University. But you know how academics are, [LAUGHTER] they don’t disappear, they just sort of like fade away. So I’m trying to ease into retirement because it’s not an easy thing to do? Not when you love what you’ve been doing. But I have sworn off writing books. That’s progress! [LAUGHTER] I’ve written some articles and chapters in other people’s books, so that’s fine. And I’m still traveling to give keynotes and faculty workshops. That’s hard to give up because it’s interesting to go somewhere else, somewhere new.” And I still give webinars and podcasts. But eventually I won’t be doing that anymore. Ultimately I want to work with animals. I do love animals but I’m still busy doing this and still loving doing this, but also loving just as much not having to do bureaucratic tasks for the university [LAUGHTER] and not having to stay up until two in the morning doing my email. When I’m traveling, not have to worry about, what’s going on back at the office. So I’m not complaining about retirement. I really like where I’m at right now, but I know that I will eventually fade into the sunset. That’s okay because then I’ll reinvent myself.

Rebecca: Sounds like some self-regulation was going on there, I’m pretty sure. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Yes, I’m trying, I’m trying to retire but not too quickly.

John: Well, we’re glad you haven’t, fully yet.

Rebecca: This was really great. Thank you so much for spending some time with us today.

Linda: Well thank you for this opportunity. I hope that I have helped some faculty members out there to help them help their students to achieve more, because again, we all do want our students to learn. We’re all in love with our material, it’s worth learning, and we just have to help our students do that. So thank you ever so much, and thank all of you listeners for listening.

Rebecca: Thank you so much.

[Music]

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

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

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

79. Self-Learning vs. Online Instruction

Research shows that online classes are most effective when there is substantial interaction among the students and between the students and the instructor. In this episode, Dr. Spiros Protopsaltis and Dr. Sandy Baum join us to discuss the possible adverse effects of proposed changes in federal regulations that may reduce the extent of this interaction.

Dr. Protopsaltis is an Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Education Policy and Evaluation at George Mason University, and he was a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Higher Education and Student Financial Aid at the U.S. Education Department during the Obama administration. Dr. Baum is a Fellow in the Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute, and a professor emeritus of economics at Skidmore College.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Research shows that online classes are most effective when there is substantial interaction among the students and between the students and the instructor. In this episode, we discuss the possible adverse effects of proposed changes in federal regulations that may reduce the extent of this interaction.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Our guests today are Dr. Spiros Protopsaltis and Dr. Sandy Baum. Dr. Protopsaltis is an Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Education Policy and Evaluation at George Mason University, and he was a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Higher Education and Student Financial Aid at the U.S. Education Department during the Obama administration. Dr. Baum is a Fellow in the Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute, and a professor emeritus of economics at Skidmore College. Welcome.

Spiros: Thank you for having me.

Sandy: Glad to be here.

John: We’re glad to have you here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Spiros: Coffee for me.

Sandy: Water for me.

[LAUGHTER]

John: I’m drinking Ginger Peach Black tea.

Rebecca: And I have English Afternoon.

John: One of your usuals.

Rebecca: Yeah. We invited you here today to discuss your January 2019 paper on online education entitled “Does Online Education Live Up to Its Promise? A Look at Evidence and Implications for Federal Policy.” In this paper, you raise some significant concerns about the outcomes of online education. What prompted your interest in this topic?

Spiros: The conversation in higher education around the role of technology in tackling a lot of the major challenges in the sector has been going on for a long time. In recent years, we’ve seen the conversation focus on MOOCs, most recently on competency-based education, but before all that, the big focus was on online education. And there was a big debate in Washington that unfolded over a decade or so about whether online education should gain access to federal student aid, which it did in 2006. When I was working in the Senate for Senator Harkin, who was chairman of the Health Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, we conducted very thorough and brought investigation of the for-profit college sector in light of increasing concerns regarding student debt, student outcomes, and overall predatory practices in the sector. And as we were doing that investigation, one thing that jumped out at me is that a lot of these actors—a lot of these schools that we were investigating—had a huge online presence and had experienced exponential growth in just a very short period of time. Obviously, that was the period of the Great Recession. So, as we know, enrollment in higher education is counter-cyclical to the economy, so part of it was explained by that. But this huge explosion in online education was something that I wanted to investigate a little bit more in depth. At the same time, there were these increasing conversations happening around online education and regulation. And a lot of folks were saying whether we should deregulate online education, whether there’s possibility for more innovation in the space, et cetera et cetera. So I partnered with Sandy to write this paper because it was an opportunity to do exactly that: to look back and see, what does the evidence tell us? Did online education live up to its promise as it’s advocates had stated when they successfully had the law changed in 2006 and gained access to federal student aid? What exactly is this potential and has it been realized? So it was a combination of many years working on higher education issues and constantly listening to the same argument of advocates on the innovation side of the equation, saying that technology holds the key for transforming higher education, and tackling it’s big challenges. And that if we deregulate higher education, and if we remove “barriers to innovation,” we’re going to unleash this huge potential of technology and we’re going to be able to reduce costs, get more students in college, and improve student outcomes. This was a great opportunity for us to take the time and to do a deep dive and to see what exactly is the evidence in this area?

Sandy: One of the things that is really notable about the conversation about increasing access to higher education and reducing the price of higher education in recent years is that the discussion so rarely talks about quality and about what students learn. So the idea sort of seems to be if we can get more students to spend less time getting more credentials, we’ll be in good shape, and that’s clearly not enough. So we really wanted to look at, if students do engage in this different method of learning, will they learn? Will they succeed? What does it mean for them?

John: What’s been happening to the share of students in online education?

Spiros: I’ll talk a little bit on the enrollment trends and then I’m going to pass it on to Sandy, who specifically focused on a lot of the review of the research literature on outcomes. We had seen an explosive growth in online education, almost one-in-three college students, over 6 million students, take any online courses. Half of these students—three million students—are enrolled in exclusively online programs, what we would call fully online programs, while the other three million take at least one, but not all of their courses online. So one-third of students today are involved in online education, one-sixth of students are enrolled in exclusively fully online education. Now, when you look at for-profit colleges, and just so we get a sense of the concentration—or rather the disproportionate share in the sector—for-profit colleges enroll six percent of all students, thirteen percent of students taking at least a course online, but a full one-quarter of fully online students. Eighty percent of students at four-year for-profit colleges take courses online. That’s more than two and a half times the rate at public institutions and triple the rate at private nonprofit higher education institutions. Today, seventy percent of four-year for-profit college students are fully online. So in other words, when you look at the entire four-year for-profit college sector, seven out of ten of their students never have in-person contact with peers or instructors. They are fully online. That is seven times the rate at public institutions, and a three and a half times the rate at nonprofit institutions. So big picture, online education enrollment is booming, it has experienced an explosive growth, and it has been disproportionately significant in the for-profit college, and how it coincided with a change in the law, I think you can reasonably say that, yes, there is a relationship there for sure, and that was a significant driver of the enrollment growth. But I would like Sandy to weigh in on these points as well, because she’s focused on that.

Sandy: So just a couple of clarifications about this enrollment growth. One is that although the growth has been much more rapid in the for-profit sector than in other sectors, and the share of for-profit students enrolled online is higher—much higher than the share in other sectors—large public state universities are seeing big efforts in the online space. I mean, you could interpret this as trying to provide opportunities for different groups of students, or as looking for a revenue source. So the revenue is also an issue for these public institutions. And there are a number of private nonprofit large institutions—just a very small number—that enroll thousands and thousands of online students. Another issue that is really important to understand is that much of the research that we looked at focuses on courses that are taught fully online. So there’s a distinction between your whole program being online and never seeing a human being, and just taking one course online. But there’s also a distinction between taking a course that is fully online and of course, that is what we call a hybrid course, that adds technology to some classroom experiences. And the evidence is that these hybrid methods are actually quite good for students and that the outcomes are at least as good as they are in traditional classroom courses. It’s the fully online coursework that we’re talking about, and about which there is a lot of evidence of questionable outcomes.

John: Earlier you noted that one of the arguments for increased use of online instruction is to lower costs and increase access. Have costs been lowered, either to students or to institutions by expanding online programs?

Sandy: By and large, no. There is some evidence that at institutions that do a lot of online education there may be some lower tuition prices, but the fact is that tuition is frequently higher. So it may be possible in the future for online coursework to save money. We don’t want to say that we know that that can’t be the case—because it’s logical that it could be the case—but right now, it hasn’t happened, and some of that has to do with individual institutions reinventing the wheel of course, and big investment overall in online education could in the future solve this problem. But today, no, it’s not cheaper.

Spiros: One point I wanted to add to what Sandy said is that it’s also an issue of incentives here. We obviously have University of Maryland, University College that has been one of the big players in the space for a long time and Arizona State University has always been a player, they’re announcing even more of an expansion. And as Sandy mentioned, one of the reasons is revenue. In other words, a lot of institutions see online education as a way to get more revenue. Then the question is, even if they become successful in reducing the costs of production—which as Sandy correctly pointed out, raises significant issues around quality—what would be the incentive to pass on the savings to students? So in other words, in many ways online education—even if it has the potential to reduce costs of production—the big question remains, is that going to translate into reducing the costs of attendance for students? And I’m not sure that the incentives are there for that to happen. And one of the things that we have seen is that not only do they charge the same tuition as they do for their regular programs, so if the university let’s say has a Bachelor’s in psychology, which is a brick-and-mortar program and then it offers a Bachelor’s in psychology online, and we see that they charge the same tuition, then they add on top of that a variety of technology fee s, and other things just for online, which ends up making it more expensive. And so there was one conclusion that we reached on the paper is that no, online education has not realized its potential of reducing costs in higher education today.

Rebecca: I’d like to focus a little bit on the quality issue that you’ve raised multiple times now. There’s a wide variety of courses that are online, you mentioned, certainly recording a video and putting it online and allowing many people to see it is very different than interactions that you might have with students. Can you talk a little bit about the differences in quality and what some of your findings were in that area?

Sandy: Well unfortunately, a lot of the studies that compare outcomes among students in fully online versus other courses don’t actually go into much detail about how those courses were taught, so the careful studies of this are rather limited. What is clear from all of the evidence is that interaction, personal interaction, makes a difference. That when you look at students who have no interaction with their classmates or with instructors, they are less likely to get good grades, they are less likely to complete their courses, and they voice this concern. In particular, it is vulnerable groups of students who suffer from this lack of interaction. So you see that students who are well prepared, who already know how to study, who are motivated, know how to learn, have good GPAs going into the courses, are most likely to do just as well in a fully online course as they would in a classroom course. But it’s those with weaker preparation, it’s students with low GPAs, it’s black and Hispanic students, students from low-income backgrounds. These students do very poorly in these courses, so that the socioeconomic gap in outcomes is greater in online courses than it is in classroom courses. This is a huge problem because people actually are hoping that online courses will make it easier for adult students, students with other responsibilities, work responsibilities, children, that for them—where the travel to a physical location is more difficult—this online learning could be the saving grace and that they would learn more from this. And those are the very students who are struggling most from it. And there is just a lot of evidence that the problem is learning—and we know this from the psychological literature as well— learning is a social process. I mean, we can all read something, but it’s not just a matter of pouring information into people’s heads, it’s learning to solve problems, it’s engaging in discussions, and for people who don’t have a lot of experience with that, the interaction is particularly important and the fully online learning environment is particularly risky.

Rebecca: You’re kind of emphasizing the idea that having an expert in the field to help guide the way students are learning how to think in the discipline is particularly important?

Spiros: Yeah, substantive expertise is key. The instructor has to be a subject matter expert, and has to interact with students. That is the essence of education. The educational process is intrinsically an interactive process. When if you go and look up in Oxford the definition of education, it’s gonna say, it’s between a teacher and a student interacting. I mean, you can’t have an education without the interaction. What is happening though now is that we’re seeing a glorification of self-learning. We’re seeing a glorification where you have students interacting with software programs, students interacting with technology, and that might be fine, but that’s not education. That’s self-learning. And the big distinction in the federal law between correspondence education—which is self-learning—and distance education is that in distance education—online education—students have to interact with an instructor on a regular basis and in a substantive manner. That regular and substantive interaction is legally, statutorily (in law), a regular education. And what was surprising to us is that in looking at the evidence we uncovered a large number of studies making that exact point. How from a pedagogical perspective, interaction between students and instructors is absolutely critical. And we found evidence that that is what increases student learning, that is what increases student satisfaction, that is what improve student outcomes. We reviewed those studies and the verdict was in, you got to have strong interaction. And so the current efforts by this administration to water down those requirements is very concerning because it’s going to blur the lines between self-learning and education. And interestingly, our paper coincided with a beginning of the negotiated rulemaking process at the Department of Education on a host of issues, including this one, under the general guise of promoting innovation and flexibility in higher education.

John: Actually, I think at least one of the studies that found this was a study of online instruction at the State University of New York by Peter Shea who found that classes that had more active instructor engagement and more interaction were more successful. But adaptive learning, on the other hand, has been shown to be effective in face-to-face classes, and I believe online as well. But I don’t think the ideas are mutually incompatible – that having students work individually with computer mediated instruction can be useful as long as they’re also interacting actively with the instructor and the class community and getting feedback on their work. So I don’t think we have to rule out adaptive learning tools to say that having active instructor engagement in the class is really important to learning.

Sandy: Adaptive learning is a whole other thing from what we’re talking about. And so we’re not saying that technology can’t help—of course, technology can help—and adaptive learning can be terrific. It’s not cheap, but it can be terrific. We’re not saying that there are no good fully online courses, either. I mean, that’s not the question. It’s about how most of this is done, and how it’s done, if it’s not carefully designed adaptive learning, and if it doesn’t involve personal interaction with subject matter experts.

Rebecca: In addition to the personal interaction, were there other things that you discovered would be really useful to help those populations that are particularly at risk that you mentioned earlier?

Spiros: I’m gonna ask Sandy to weigh in as well. But I can tell you that what we know from the literature about student outcomes in higher education in general, beyond what we examine in online education, is that academically underprepared and at-risk populations—including students from lower-income families, first-generation students, and the students with remedial needs, I mean, what we would call in general at-risk populations in higher education—they need significant academic and student support services to help them succeed. That requires a significant investment from the institution. It requires a purposeful and meaningful strategy that specifically is designed to address the unique needs of these populations. Of course, it’s difficult to cover all of the research and the literature in my comment, but we know that it takes a whole lot to support these students and to ensure their success. Everybody talks about the CUNY ASAP program, which has become the new poster child of what it takes to have tremendous success with these populations. That’s a very expensive program. It’s a great program, but it’s also a very expensive program. It again confirms what we know, which is: we know what needs to be done, but you have to have the investments and you have to have a purposeful strategy. But Sandy, I would like for you to weigh in on this as well.

Sandy: Yeah, I think it’s really important to understand that all of that evidence suggests that for at-risk students, for students with weak academic backgrounds, and with many factors that could interfere with their academic success, these students need really strong support systems, it’s not just about money. And it’s not just about time, it’s about the need for support systems. So it is certainly true that for many of these students, if they can take some courses online, this could actually help them to graduate because you can take more courses online, because you can do them in the evening and on flexible schedules. And even if you fail a lot of them still, you might end up accumulating more courses. But taking some courses online is not the same thing as thinking that you can just sit at home with your computer and get your whole education and succeed that way. Because being part of a community, part of an intellectual community, part of an academic support community, and part of a social support community is what these students need. Understanding that should make it possible for us to develop systems that take advantage of the things that online learning can contribute without assuming that it’s going to be the silver bullet, and that it can replace the important components of traditional learning. I think that’s one of the problems we always have is somebody sees something that adds an important component to the education system where they say, “Okay, let’s junk everything else and just do that. And that our evidence clearly suggests is not going to be a good strategy.

John: How do employers view online education relative to face-to-face education?

Sandy: There are surveys of employers, of faculty members, of academic administrators, of the public, uniformly they say that the perception is that online education does not produce the same outcomes as in-person education. Now, perceptions are not always a reflection of reality, but particularly for employers you would expect that perceptions would pretty quickly catch up to reality because those perceptions are, to a great extent, based on the performance of people they hire.

Rebecca: So you shared a lot of things that I think faculty or administrators who are developing online courses should certainly be thinking about. We’ve also talked a little bit about some of the legal issues that we might want to be concerned with. Are there things that faculty and institutions should be doing to make sure that quality is ensured, and that as institutions of higher education, and the value of education is held moving forward?

Spiros: Every industry needs to listen to its customers. Higher education needs to listen to students. And students surveys consistently emphasize the desire for greater interaction with their instructors and their peers, and so that is something that higher education needs to be responsive to. So even if they dismiss our paper, they dismissed what I think, what Sandy thinks, let’s just boil it down to the basics which is they need to listen to the students that they serve. I don’t like talking about students as customers or consumers. But just for the purposes of this conversation, they should listen to the consumers of their services, and so they definitely need to put a focus on that. They definitely need to understand that we have to ask if students need additional services. And they need to listen to their faculty. And we’ve seen many examples for faculty involvement in online programming hasn’t been that strong. Institutions are in a hurry to set up programs for revenue purposes and others, and they do not take the thoughtful approach that includes feedback and input from the faculty. So I think faculty involvement is critical. At the end of the day, faculty are the experts, faculty know pedagogy, faculty are the ones who work and teach the students, so I think that that’s another advice that that I would have. And again, I would be making the point that quality matters. It’s not just about just building the platform and going out there and offering online, you have to pay attention to making sure that it’s a quality education.

John: Speaking of Quality Matters, there is a Quality Matters rubric out there that’s used in many institutions to evaluate online education. And SUNY—along with the Online Learning Consortium—has also developed the OSCQR rubric. Will those types of things perhaps help ensure a higher quality of online instruction?

Spiros: Frankly, I’m not familiar with either of them. I’m not a traditional academic, I came out after eight years in government. So to be honest with you, I’m not particularly familiar with those. I don’t know if Sandy is, but I would say that all tools that are geared towards ensuring quality definitely are welcome into contributing that effort.

Sandy: So, what we do know is that the people who have worked on quality for online education agree that an important component of quality is making sure that there is substantive interaction. So these efforts seem to all be headed in a similar direction, which is, let’s make sure that we think about how students learn and that we incorporate that knowledge into how we design our courses. The problem that they’re going to run into is that it’s more expensive to do that. So it’s really important for the people who are focused on quality, who have evidence about quality, who care about quality, to stand up to the people on campus who are just saying, “Well, the goal here was to make more money, so let’s make it cheaper.” So yes, I mean, all of these efforts are really moving in the right direction and certainly compiling evidence is the best way to make sure that we improve outcomes at the same time that we broaden opportunities and promote innovation.

Rebecca: So you’ve mentioned that, on campuses, people who are emphasizing the quality are all moving in the right direction. But you also mentioned earlier that the legislation is moving in the other direction. So can you talk a little bit about that disconnect, and maybe some of the actions that we could try to take to, to help align those?

Sandy: Let me just say that—and Spiros is more of an expert on the details of the legislation—but there’s a clear movement under the current administration to reduce regulation, regardless, and there are obviously regulations in higher education and elsewhere, that are counterproductive that raise costs without improving outcomes, that burden providers and so on. And so looking at regulations is certainly worth doing and I think past administrations have done the same thing. But in this case, there is just a wholesale effort to remove the regulations that have been developed in order to protect students… to protect consumers. And so we just need to look at that and say, “Let’s look each time there was a proposal to reduce regulation and ask why that regulation was imposed, if there’s any evidence that it’s helping, and what the results of removing it would likely be,” and in higher education, it’s really frightening to watch and see how everything that in any way interferes, particularly with the providers of for-profit education, is assumed to be a bad thing. And we need innovation, we need to allow things to change and develop. We need new ideas. But we have a big history of the changes in the federal financial aid system, opening up to for-profit providers, leading to generating a huge growth in this sector that obviously included—well, it includes some quality institutions included—lots of organizations that were not interested in really educating students. So that could easily happen again, if we just say, “Oh, you have a good idea, you say it works. Go ahead, do it. We’ll pay for it.” That’s so obviously going to lead to big problems.

Spiros: Yeah, everything Sandy said was correct. And the one point I would make is people use the word innovation and I think it’s important to remember there’s good innovation and there’s bad innovation. Not all innovation is a good thing. Innovation means doing things differently, you can do things differently and have a better outcome and you can do things differently and have a worse outcome. So I think a lot of these changes that are being advanced by the administration, and here’s the disturbing part: Oftentimes, with the support of the higher education institutions, and the higher education sector overall—and I don’t know of any industry that loves regulation, higher education is no exception.—and it’s under this framing of “if we get rid of all these laws and all these regulations, et cetera, we’re going to have innovation.” And if we’ve learned anything from history—if we study history of regulation in higher education—is that every time we do that, there was a huge period of a lot of fraud, waste, and abuse, because the incentive structure in higher education promotes those behaviors. And we need to understand that when we change our regulation, we’re not just changing it for the good schools out there, we’re changing it for all the schools. So when you lower these barriers, when you remove these barriers—all of whom, by the way, are there for a reason—and the good actors might continue acting in a responsible manner, but there are a lot of bad actors who have an incentive to take advantage of that removal of the “barrier.” So when we’re talking about one hundred fifty billion dollars a year—that’s according to the College Board, when you throw all the aid in and Sandy’s the author of that report so she knows that well—but when we’re talking about one hundred fifty billion a year with tax expenditures and everything, that’s a pretty significant investment we need to safeguard and we need to understand that all of these changes actually have significant implications, most importantly for students, but also for taxpayers. So the stakes are high, essentially, is what I’m trying to say and we need to look behind the curtain of innovation and behind the veil of flexibility, and see exactly what are these changes meant to do and who is going to benefit from them. So just to give a specific example, a year and a half ago the OIG—the Office of the Inspector General—in the Department of Education did an audit of Western Governors University and found that they hadn’t really complied with regular and substantive interaction. And WGU is what I would call—based on the outcomes it has—decent student outcomes, affordable school, nonprofit, and does not have a track record of any sort of abuses of predatory behavior or anything like that. So it’s a pretty solid school that has a very strong reputation among policymakers. So everybody jumped to the defense of WGU saying, “Oh, no, no, no, you know, let’s be careful here, let’s not penalize them, because maybe they were not in compliance, let’s change the law to make sure that the law complies with WGU, rather than WGU complying with the law.” The point here is though, that while WGU might have been the specific example, changing the law is not only going to help WGU, it’s going to impact everybody. So while WGU might benefit, a lot of bad actors are also going to benefit from such changes. And the results from such a change with bad actors is probably not going to be something that we’re proud of or that we should be proud of. And so in politics and in policy it’s important to look not only at who is the obvious beneficiary of something but also who is the potential beneficiary behind the scenes, and we talk about that in the paper towards the end.

John: What recommendations would you have for faculty teaching online classes or developing new courses or programs in creating high quality online programs?

Sandy: Many faculty members who have a bias against online learning have found when they engage in it that actually it goes very well and their students learn, but those same people are very likely to say that they put more work into the online course then they did into their regular courses. So I would say that faculty should be open to the opportunity but they should not expect it to be just the easy way out, they should be prepared to learn how to teach well in this environment, to be prepared to put their resources and their time into getting to know the students, and into helping the students learn. And it’s quite likely to be a big investment at first, a bigger investment than just continuing your courses. Now we know that faculty members don’t all do a good job in the classroom either. So the idea is not that every classroom course is better than every online course. But faculty members need to understand that this is a big investment and they need to learn how to do it. They need to accept support from people who have experience at doing it well. And they have to urge their institutions to have the goal of doing this right, putting resources into it, integrating—again—personal interaction with the technology, and making sure that the primary goal is not just to save the institution money, but to really create positive learning experiences for students and I think if faculty and the administration share those goals, that there is potential for this to go a lot better. But the there’s a real risk of everybody just looking for an easy way out. I think many people agree on what is important, but they don’t know quite how to do it. And so learning how to do it… doing a lot of studying, examining the successful efforts. And then again, putting the students first is the best advice for people who are developing this kind of learning opportunity.

Spiros: I would only add, as well, for faculty to pay attention to what’s happening right now in negotiated rulemaking, that these changes that are being considered are going to have an impact on education, on faculty. And there are a lot of folks in higher education, who really want to downgrade the role of faculty in the educational process and want to minimize this importance of interaction between students and faculty, and would rather have students interacting with software and calling that an education. So I know that AAUP and others are paying attention to this, but I think it’s important for all faculty to be following these conversations because they have wide ranging implications that really, really impact our daily lives and how we engage in this practice,

Sandy: I think we really want people to understand that what we’re talking about is learning, education, and quality. We’re not talking about sort of making a blanket condemnation, either of technology and online learning or of the for-profit sector, but we are saying that these problems are very evident there and that we have to work this out, acknowledging where they are concentrated.

Spiros: The one thing I would I would say is this. From a policy perspective—from like the thirty-thousand foot level—the argument is that higher education has not been serving non-traditional populations well and that technology has the potential to provide access to opportunity for a lot of these populations. Based on what we found, and the bad outcomes that online education has been producing for these exact populations, I am very, very worried that if we don’t fix the issues identified in the paper, we are moving in a situation where instead of engines of mobility and equality, we are making online education engines of inequality. And instead of helping and addressing the huge achievement gaps and attainment gaps in this country, we’re actually going to be making them even more severe and augmenting them. So from a very big sort of high level, the concern here is that if online education is the tool that folks believe can help close the achievement gaps, is actually increasing those achievement gaps, then it’s urgent that we fix these issues. Otherwise, we are really making things worse instead of better.

Sandy: Yeah, I think that is really our most important point. And if the institutions that have ample resources put those resources into doing a really good job of adaptive learning and hybrid learning and so on, then the gap is going to grow even greater… that students who have had the preparation and the resources to enroll in institutions that do this well will have even better opportunities whereas students who are at risk and are going to the under-resourced institutions that are struggling to really provide the support that they need are going to end up pushed online into courses that are not carefully constructed in programs that don’t serve them well. And the socioeconomic gaps in educational outcomes and attainment are going to grow and that’s what we really want to avoid.

Rebecca: I think that the research that you shared should be really compelling to any faculty whether or not they teach online, to push their institutions to do the right thing to push their colleagues to do the right thing… to push their representatives do the right thing in the regulatory sphere.

John: We’ve already seen decades of worsening economic inequality and reduced intergenerational mobility and your arguments suggest that that’s just going to get worse if online education, which is a growing share of education, continues to widen the performance gap between first-generation and continuing-generation college students.

Sandy: That’s right.

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

Spiros: What next? I mean, you know, as with everything, once you you write a paper on something, you do research on something, and it’s not like you switch off the light. We continue being engaged. We recently published a notepad with Sandy in the Chronicle of Higher Education and we summarize a lot of the arguments that we have in the paper. We’re participating in podcasts like yours and events and panels, and we continue to write about the issue and following closely what’s happening in D.C. on this. So I think we’re just continuing to spread and share what we learned in the paper with others, and hopefully, it’s going to have an impact.

Sandy: You know our main interest, I mean online education is one component and one symptom of the issues that we’re interested in. So thinking about access and success in higher education and increasing opportunities is the key. And certainly we expect our research to continue in that direction, but understanding the relationships. I mean, I think that there are a lot of cases where people think that a solution is a progressive solution that will really increase opportunities and it turns out not to be. And how can people understand the difference between something that sounds like it increases opportunity and something that really does increase opportunities is very difficult and very important.

Rebecca: I look forward to following your research. That’s a really interesting and important topic. So thank you so much for joining us and sharing your work with us.

John: Yes, thank you.

Sandy: Thank you.

Spiros: 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.

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