132. Pandemic Pivoting

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

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

Betsy: Thanks, I’m happy to be here.

John: Today’s teas are:

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

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

John: And I have oolong tea today.

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

Betsy: Sounds exciting.

John: Amazon helps. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

Betsy: I agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Betsy: Yeah, that’s smart.

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

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

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

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

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

Betsy: [LAUGHTER] Yes, yes.

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

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

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

Betsy: Yeah, it’s tough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Betsy: Oh, wonderful.

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

Betsy: Yeah, it’s wonderful.

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

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

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

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

John: You could use Google phone or you…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Betsy: Absolutely. Yep, I completely agree.

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

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

Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you so much.

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

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

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131. Trauma-informed Pedagogy

The global COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in serious disruptions in everyone’s lives. Traumatic experiences reduce our ability to focus, to learn, and to be productive. While this has always been true, it is an issue that has often been ignored by higher ed faculty. In this episode, Karen Costa joins us to discuss how trauma-informed pedagogy can be used to help our students on their educational journey in stressful times.

Karen is an adjunct faculty member teaching college success strategies to online students and a faculty professional development facilitator at Faculty Guild. She is a staff writer for Women in Higher Education. She writes regularly about higher education, and her new book 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos was just released by Stylus Publishing. In addition to her education degrees, Karen holds a professional certification in Trauma and Resilience from Florida State University and will complete her certificate in Neuroscience Learning and Online Instruction from Drexel this spring. She’s also a certified yoga teacher. Karen has been working to support diverse learners with trauma-aware practices since 2002.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: The global COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in serious disruptions in everyone’s lives. Traumatic experiences reduce our ability to focus, to learn, and to be productive. While this has always been true, it is an issue that has often been ignored by higher ed faculty. In this episode, we examine how trauma-informed pedagogy can be used to help our students on their educational journey in stressful times.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guest today is Karen Costa. Karen is an adjunct faculty member teaching college success strategies to online students and a faculty professional development facilitator at Faculty Guild. She is a staff writer for Women in Higher Education. She writes regularly about higher education, and her new book 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos was just released by Stylus Publishing, and I just got my copy a couple of days ago. In addition to her education degrees, Karen holds a professional certification in Trauma and Resilience from Florida State University and will complete her certificate in Neuroscience Learning and Online Instruction from Drexel this spring. She’s also a certified yoga teacher. Karen has been working to support diverse learners with trauma aware practices since 2002. Welcome back, Karen.

Karen: Thank you both for having me back. I didn’t expect to be back quite so soon, but I’m happy to be here.

John: There have been lots of things happening that people haven’t expected recently.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

Karen: I have a big bottle of water next to me because hydration is one of my healthy practices these days for mind and body, and I have been getting a little tickle in my throat, which is not ideal for podcast interviews. So I’m going with the old fashioned option today.

John: And I am drinking honey green iced tea.

Rebecca: And I’m sticking with my nice and comforting English afternoon tea.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss trauma-informed teaching. In a recent podcast Josh Eyler talked about trauma-informed teaching and he referred to you, so we thought it would be good to have you back to talk about it. Could you tell us a little bit about this approach and why it’s important, especially right now?

Karen: Sure. So I do want to start by just reminding listeners that talking about trauma, learning about trauma, can bring up some feelings, which is a very normal reaction to that. So I just want to remind people, if you notice that, that it’s okay to take a rain check on listening and engaging in this conversation. I also do recommend that even if you feel okay to engage with a discussion about trauma that it’s recommended that you do so in small doses, especially during these very challenging times. And I do think, we talked in the show notes, we’re going to make sure that we share additional resources for folks who might need some support during this challenging time. I’ve got some great links for folks if they would like to check out resources, but just a reminder, it’s very normal to have some of our own emotional experiences come up during this conversation. So I wanted to make sure that that was really clear as we get started. Also, thanks to Josh for giving me a shout out and connecting us, he’s wonderful and he’s doing a lot of great advocacy work, and I look forward to his tweets every day, very grateful for Twitter for keeping us all connected. So, why should we be learning about trauma in the context of higher education and pedagogy in this remote teaching, emergency teaching movement? Well, hopefully, we should have been engaging with it already, we know that trauma is not new. Most of our students, most of our faculty, most of our staff do have trauma histories to varying degrees, and those trauma histories do impact not only our relationships with students or colleagues, but they also impact how we learn, which is how I come to this conversation. So, my interest is in trauma, toxic stress, general stress, and how those all impact teaching and learning in higher education, specifically in the online learning environment, though I’m obviously engaged in that conversation across higher ed. We are all suddenly online now, so that’s where my interest comes in, so helping faculty and staff to utilize our knowledge about trauma and its impacts on the body and the mind and the brain to look at how students are learning and then look at how we’re teaching.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about how it impacts students’ ability to learn?

Karen: Let me back up a bit and let me define trauma for us. And there’s varying definitions, of course, if you ask 10 different people who work with trauma for their definitions of trauma, you’re going to get 10 definitions. I have some notes next to me because my brain is not quite working the way I want it to these days. One of the places that I refer to is the SAMHSA definition which talks about trauma resulting from an event, or a series of events, or a set of circumstances, an adverse experience that has significant negative results in terms of an individual’s functioning across the various areas, mental, physical, social, emotional, all of those areas. In other words, trauma is when something really bad happens and it impacts us in a negative way. Another definition that is pretty straightforward, one of the foremost researchers in the trauma field is Bessel Van Der Kolk. He wrote a book called The Body Keeps the Score. His short version is trauma is unbearable and intolerable, so when something really challenging happens to us and we have persistent effects from that experience. It’s also important to bring up toxic stress and stress, I think, which are very much related to trauma. So toxic stress is when we sort of reach that point where we’re beyond our healthy limits of stress, we’re going into that area where it’s starting to have significant negative effects in our lives, and then there’s just run-of-the-mill stress that we all experience every day. So, just a few definitions that might help folks and those are not new, those have been around as long as we have, they were here with us before this COVID-19 crisis, and trauma, toxic stress, and stress will continue with us. In terms of how they impact learning, things that we might experience would be difficulty concentrating. I’m sure some folks who are listening to this have experienced that in the past two weeks, certainly before, but very much so in the past two weeks. A disinterest in things that might have previously excited us or interested us, a feeling like we sort of can’t mentally organize it all, that there’s just things swimming in our brain and we can’t really get a hold on it, difficulty making decisions, delaying gratification are all pretty common impacts of trauma on the learning experience… executive function skills I should say. Sometimes you see these referred to as soft skills, which I don’t love that term, but I have to use it because it’s what most people use. Our ability to communicate with people, to maintain relationships can be impacted, our time management, think about things like test taking, which require really intensive focus and our higher-order thinking skills. All of those we know are disrupted when we experience trauma or toxic stress.

Rebecca: What are things that faculty can do to help students learn and mitigate some of that stress, or at least manage things so that they can feel like they can move forward? I know a lot of faculty will also say like, “I’m not a trained psychologist, so this isn’t for me, and I don’t really want to know that my students have had trauma or know their stories and I want to keep this professional distance away from them.” Can you talk through a little bit about the relationship between faculty and students related to trauma, and then also, what are some things that faculty can do to help students when they’re experiencing trauma? [LAUGHTER]

Karen: There’s so much in that question. I’m going to try to tease that out, it was such a great question. We know that most students in your class have a trauma history, we know that. Public health research shows us that around 70% of people have trauma histories, and with what we’re going through now, which I’m looking at as a global trauma that we’re all experiencing to varying degrees, certainly, but at the same time, we can assume that this is impacting all of your students. So first of all, it’s not appropriate for us to expect our students to disclose their trauma to us but whether or not they do, we can absolutely safely assume that the majority of students in your class have a trauma history that is impacting their ability to learn. What’s interesting is that we sometimes don’t go to the next step, which is that this is also true for our educators. So when you get your college diploma you don’t lose your trauma history. The research on rates of trauma in our population holds true across educational levels. So most of our educators also experience trauma. So I do hear that idea of “I don’t want to know about this,” or “I shouldn’t have to deal with this.” This is the reality, this is part of the human condition. So I think it’s important that people know that whether or not you want to deal with it, that it is there. That said, I think the really important thing is to remember something called scope of practice, and this is not a phrase I hear often used in education, but you hear it in social work, in the counseling field, in the medical field. An example of that was something I learned about as a yoga teacher. So just an example, I would have students come to me and say, “Karen, I have a stomach issue. What should I do?” It would not be appropriate for me as a yoga teacher to say, “Oh, you should try this medicine,” or “Have you taken this?” or “Have you done this?” Absolutely outside of my scope of practice as a yoga teacher. Would it be appropriate for me to say “Keep coming to class, keep taking care of yourself, keep your practice up, and listen to your body, and talk to your doctor?” Sure, that is within my scope of practice as a yoga teacher. So absolutely, it is outside of your scope of practice as an educator to offer counseling to your students, to inquire about their trauma histories, to offer any sort of medical or mental health advice, it is appropriate for us to refer. So posting links and resources to internal or external mental health resources and hotlines is absolutely within our scope of practice. Empathy is in everybody’s scope of practice, so that is a great place to start. We can all practice empathy, we can recognize that everyone is coming to this with a lot of challenges and previous challenges as well, not just the new ones that we’re all facing, so we can all practice empathy. An example of something that an educator could do would be, what I’m recommending, is to balance structure with flexibility, so having very, very flexible deadlines. I’m keeping deadlines, but I’m being very flexible with them, and I’m letting students know, “Hey, if this isn’t working for you let me know.” Some students need the structure, and they appreciate the structure and it’s a nice distraction, but I’ve got students emailing me that their kids are sick, or their parents are sick, or they just lost their job. So letting them know, “Hey, take a few days off, and let’s talk on Wednesday. How about nine o’clock? Can we exchange an email or a phone call then?” is absolutely within my scope of practice and balancing structure with flexibility is a trauma-aware teaching practice, I don’t need to be a counselor to do that. So that’s just one example of very many that are being shared. To me, that’s been my guiding paradigm recently. Certainly things change by the hour but balancing structure with flexibility is helping me do what I feel is the best job to keep students on track toward their goals, to be present, to give them a distraction and a focus, but also to honor that they have other survival issues at play right now. Deadlines are not always appropriate in those instances.

John: Would it be helpful to bring up the current circumstances in our class either as it connects to our content areas or just to give students a chance to talk about it with their peers and with their instructors?

Karen: Yes, 110% is my answer on that one. So we also have some good data that a sense of meaning and a sense of purpose is really important to our mental and physical health. So I think within an appropriate context without overloading students, focusing on what we can control rather than what we can’t, is a really appropriate way to discuss this challenge. So perhaps sharing with students one small thing that you’ve done to support people in your community would be an appropriate example of that, sharing a resource for ways that they can contribute, reminding students that the act of staying home and flattening the curve is a contribution, though it can feel small and insignificant at times, it does make a difference, so that they have a sense of meaning and purpose and contribution. For those of us that have the luxury of staying home, one of the things I’ve noticed personally is there is that sense of a lack of purpose and a lack of focus. I was just tweeting about how much I love my students and my faculty that I work with, and when I have those moments of challenge, without pushing myself beyond my limits, to just see how I can help them… so how I can help somebody else really does give me a little boost. So I think it’s appropriate to talk to students about what’s going on in terms of helping them see that they can serve a greater good. And, certainly within the context of our subject areas or content areas, it makes a lot of sense to me. If you teach journalism, for example, my neighbor teaches journalism at a community college. Hi, Sue. How could you not be talking about the coverage of the crisis in the media right now as part of your class? I also do think we need to give students breaks from it though, and not overload them too much, because we’re all a bit overloaded. Most of the mental health professionals that I’m hearing from are encouraging people to be mindful and to limit their consumption. So if students are trying to do that, and they come into our class and we’re overloading them, that would be problematic, but I think gently, mindfully, making sure students know they can take breaks as needed from that content makes a lot of sense.

John: In my seminar class we were talking about, some other issues were scheduled for discussion, but somehow that discussion got shifted over to talking about the economic consequences of this and what types of adjustment policies might be helpful and possible paths for getting through this and resolving it. And we were doing some face-to-face discussions as well as some online ones, and students opened up quite a bit about it, and it seemed to be really productive, and they seemed to really enjoy that opportunity to connect with each other.

Karen: That makes a lot of sense. The other thing that comes to mind is a future orientation, looking toward the future with hope and possibility even though things are extremely challenging and dire and dark right now, remembering that there is hope in the future and having that mindset of looking forward and “What can I do to make things better in the future?” does seem to have positive effects on our mental health and our ability to move forward and take action in our daily lives. So there’s a lot of good research to support that. I love that idea of students being able to engage in that way, with that future orientation. The other thing I’ll add, though, is that I’ve reminded folks, if you have time with your students and you use all that time to talk about “Where are people finding toilet paper?” and “What are you doing with your kids?” and “How are you just moving throughout the day or taking walks in your neighborhood?” I had a friend do that, and she said, “I hope I did okay,” and I said, “You did perfect.” So talking about the crisis in the context of just getting through the day is okay, too. I think, really let the students kind of guide that conversation and see what they need, and then let them take the lead on that a bit makes a lot of sense.

John: That did become a non-trivial portion of those conversations.

Karen: Yeah.

Rebecca: I think an interesting conversation that bubbled up in the pandemic pedagogy Facebook group was about having students do reflections of their COVID-19 experience, but then some faculty really pushing back on that and saying, “Yeah, that’s really good. Some students might really need that, but some students might really need an escape from it as well, and so pushing it or requiring an engagement in that conversation could also be really problematic.” What are your thoughts on that, Karen?

Karen: Yes, it is problematic to require that, that’s my feeling. This is, for many folks, a trauma and we’re all experiencing that to varying degrees. We all come to this with different amounts of privilege, with different protective factors in our lives, but I can’t think of a context where I would require someone to talk about their trauma, that would need to be up to them. I’m certainly writing about it. I write in my journal every day. I had a journaling practice before and journaling is a positive coping mechanism, and we have data that that works really well, but it’s not really somebody else’s place to require that. I would probably give students a choice, let them know that you can talk about this, but here are some other options that are not related to the crisis that you could talk about as well. Choice is always good in our assignments, I think so, and that certainly holds true in this situation as well. I wouldn’t force that conversation. That could certainly cause some additional stress in an already very stressful time.

Rebecca: What are some things that faculty can do, thinking forward to the fall, in being trauma aware in their practices, given that there might be some space for some folks in their relationship to the pandemic, but then for others , it might still be really very prime key thing that they’re still really dealing with?

Karen: I don’t know enough at this point to know what the fall is going to bring. The words that I’m using with faculty and in my own work is, number one, prioritize caring and support above all else, and number two, focus on being adaptable to whatever comes. I can imagine a scenario where we’re brought back out into the world for a couple weeks, and then we go back home for a couple weeks, so I think the ability to adapt is going to be really important. I shared a blog post today from my friend Janice Carello. She’s been writing about trauma-informed pedagogy for years. She’s brilliant, and a real gift to this field in higher education, and one of the things she shared was write everything down. So I just think of that as an example of how we can prepare for this possibility of things changing on the dime throughout the fall and possibly longer, is just being really clear in our communications with students, with our colleagues, and with ourselves by writing everything down, recognizing that our brains aren’t going to quite hold information as well as they used to, and just little things like that, I think. There’s so much outside of our control. We are not, as individuals, able to always do much to make an impact on something of this size, but I can make sure that I’m putting communications to students in writing. So I would encourage people to just look at those seemingly small choices in how they communicate with students, how they plan their courses, how they manage their time and communicate with colleagues and to plan for the possibility of things changing on the dime and, of course, again to prioritize caring and support above all else.

John: Following up on Rebecca’s question, though, when we do come back in the fall, there’s going to be a lot of people who will have lost family members, who will have lost friends, and will be facing potentially a much more uncertain economic future, and so I think this issue of trauma is one that we probably always should be paying more attention to, but it’s going to be something that’s going to be affecting, I suspect, a very large share of our students, as well as many faculty in the fall.

Karen: Yeah, I’ve been talking about that, and it’s tough to wrap my head around, and to really engage with that, because we’ve always had that in higher education. We’ve had students who have lost multiple family members during their college education. We’ve had students who live with poverty and racism, this is not new. What’s new is that we can no longer deny that in the same way that we were before, but I think a lot of us were begging higher education to notice that and to take it seriously and to adapt our teaching and our advising and our institutions to become more trauma aware, and eventually to become trauma-informed, and there was resistance to that, and now, I don’t know if that resistance will continue. I don’t know if people will realize how widespread this is, because of this challenge. It’s a little tough to wrap my head around that, but number one, I would say K through 12 is quite a bit ahead of us in higher education. So for those in higher education who are ready to look at this in a meaningful way, K through 12 has done a bit more work than higher ed has done and we have a lot of models and tools that we can use. So you’ve heard me use the terms trauma aware and trauma informed. One of the models out there, it’s called the Missouri Model. It has four stages that an organization can move through to ultimately become a trauma-informed organization. The first step is to become trauma aware, and that’s kind of how I’ve been engaging with people lately, which is just to start talking about trauma, to recognize what it is and to recognize that it is widespread, that most students and most faculty have experienced trauma and to talk about what that does to our minds and our brains and our bodies and how it might impact learning. So that’s how I’ve been engaging with people. And I expect that because of the widespread nature of this crisis, most institutions will hopefully start to develop more trauma awareness in the coming months, which will ultimately lead to more sustained widespread solutions down the road.

John: I’m hoping that this does make all of us a bit more aware of those issues. For those faculty who are interested in learning more about the impacts of trauma and dealing with their students’ trauma, what resources would you suggest to help them learn more?

Karen: As I mentioned, K through 12 is a little bit ahead of us in higher ed, so we’ve got some great content out there in that K through 12 world. I follow a heck of a lot of K through 12 educators on social media and learn so much from them. So I would encourage folks to really recognize and respect the expertise of our K through 12 educators, folks who have already been doing this work. I don’t want to imply that this hasn’t been happening in higher ed, but it happens in pockets. So we see things like a school of social work within a college or university will have really developed a lot of trauma awareness and maybe even advanced to some trauma-informed practices across that department or that division, but it kind of remains within that pocket. Most institutions probably have some pockets of this going on. Find those people who are doing that work and who’ve been asking for folks to take it seriously for years. This is for all of us. One of the things that I talk about is how we sometimes say “Oh, trauma, stress, anxiety, that’s for Karen in room 312. She’s the college counselor.” That’s how we’ve sometimes approached it. This is not the sole responsibility of the college counselor, the one that maybe we have for 6000 students. She’s already being asked to do far too much with too little. This is the responsibility of all of us. It’s a human issue, it’s a pedagogical issue. This is something that a Vice President of Academic Affairs, deans, faculty, academic advisors should all be educated about and bringing to their staff and their team and educating folks about and learning more about. The other resource I’ll mention is I know we’re higher educators, we like to read. I mentioned before, I’ll remind folks again, The Body Keeps the Score. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, he’s out of the trauma center in Boston. He has done some groundbreaking work in this area. It’s a very intense read, know that going in, don’t read it in one sitting, but it really gives a good overview of trauma and its impact on people and how they can learn and grow. And the other thing I haven’t mentioned, I’m realizing now that I usually mention up front but my brain isn’t on full capacity, is what Dr. Van Der Kolk does. He’s so good at talking about resilience, and when we talk about trauma, we always do want to make sure that people’s resilience is part of that conversation. I was just listening to him earlier on a podcast, he talks about how trauma really brings out the best of us and the worst of us. It’s important to remember that people are extraordinarily resilient, and that people who’ve experienced trauma have so many assets and so many skills and so much brilliance. Trauma is treatable. There are countless resources out there that will help people through this. As we talk about this idea of widespread trauma and coming back to campus in the fall having gone through this, whatever that looks like, it’s important to remember that resilience should always be part of that conversation.

John: One of the things I’ve been in getting lots of emails from faculty is questions about how to deal with things like students submitting their work an hour or two late or something similar, and I’ve never had to send out so many emails just suggesting maybe this is a good time to give students the benefit of the doubt. It’s a difficult adjustment for many faculty, perhaps, being a little more compassionate and it’s something that we should be doing all the time.

Karen: Yeah, I do want to speak to that and I’ll be transparent and I’m noticing all kinds of emotions coming up in myself there. I like to think of myself as a very big advocate of faculty success. I see faculty and student success as interdependent. I do want to recognize that the faculty that I work with are hardworking, creative, empathetic, and I was just talking to some faculty earlier today… what they’re doing for their students is so inspirational, so powerful. They’re just going above and beyond. I know that there are some faculty who do have a more rigid approach, and if I want faculty to give students the benefit of the doubt, I feel like I have to give faculty the benefit of the doubt too. And I think sometimes we teach how we were taught, and that is just kind of our instinct. I was held to these really tough standards, so I’m going to do that for my students. I’ve also heard this idea, “I’m preparing students for the real world.” This is the real world… right now. This is the real world that we’re living in, with people getting really sick, with our students out there working on the frontlines and just really struggling, people at home with their kids while working, all kinds of things, this is the real world. And I have not ever seen any data that shows that holding students to a rigid deadline improves student success in learning. If anybody sees that please feel free to share it to me, but every ounce of research and data that I know of shows that flexibility within structure works really well for student success in learning, particularly recognizing that, again, most of our students, and just as we do, experience trauma, toxic stress that can impact our ability to learn. So, I know people struggle with that and say, “Well, aren’t I teaching them a bad habit?” I have been utilizing that strategy with first-generation first year students for the past 15 years. What I have found is that students still get it to me, they still have a positive learning experience. When appropriate, I’ll remind students and say, “Next week, I want you to try to meet that deadline.” Am I doing that now? No, but I have in the past, but I always err on the side of flexibility, and it has served me and my students very well. I don’t feel like my students have taken advantage of that. I think it’s built trust in our classroom and not everybody learns at the same pace. At the same time, I want to recognize also that I think sometimes faculty feel that’s going to make more work for them to have things coming in at varying deadlines. Faculty are bombarded and overloaded. So then cut the amount of content down. I’ve mentioned Janice Carello earlier, one of her recommendations is cut the content in half, if that’s what you need to do right now to simplify things for yourself and your students. I’d rather faculty do that. I think that’s a smarter practice in terms of teaching and learning than to hold students to rigid deadlines.

John: What would you suggest for faculty experiencing trauma and just dealing with the everyday stress? What techniques might be helpful in helping us all get through this?

Karen: Hopefully, one of the things I’ve already conveyed is that any conversation about trauma-aware practices in higher education needs to recognize faculty and staff as part of that equation. So, sometimes I hear us talk about student trauma and stress, but then it’s like, apparently, we’re all magically immune to it. That’s just not the case. So a good place to start is for educators, administrators, leaders to recognize that faculty, just like students, have already experienced trauma before this and are experiencing trauma and likely toxic stress now, and to name that and to begin to get educated about that. In terms of individual faculty, again, let’s focus on resilience, let’s focus on what we call protective factors. So, one of the things that’s really interesting in the research on trauma is that one caring adult can make a difference in the life of a child who’s experienced trauma. One caring adult can make a difference. So we do look at things like protective factors, so community support, a caring adult who reaches out, those are really important. What’s interesting that I’ve noticed about those protective factors is that they often come from another person, so I think our connections are really important. We’re hearing people talk about physical distancing versus social distancing. So, making sure that you talk to a few people each day, whether it’s over the phone or over text or in Animal Crossing on your Nintendo Switch, on Twitter, whatever the case may be, I do think hearing someone’s voice can make a difference for me, but just finding some way to connect. Loneliness, there’s a lot of data about the negative impacts of loneliness that was before this, and now we’re all being asked to stay home. That’s obviously creating some additional challenges there. So I would say it’s really important to connect with somebody else, whether it’s a friend, family member, and to stay connected on a daily basis. That goes on my to do list every morning, text my niece, text my nephews, call this person, those are priorities. Other things that I’m doing, movement is really important, I try to stay away from the word exercise because it brings up a lot of junk for people, [LAUGHTER] because a lot of junk has been shoved down our throats about what exercise should be. So, I encourage people to embrace movement, even if that’s pacing in your house. In the book that I mentioned before, The Body Keeps the Score, movement and bodywork is really an important part of managing trauma, so anything that you can do to move. I am getting out in my neighborhood, I’m able to safely walk in my neighborhood and maintain that physical distancing. That does a lot to help me, so movement is really important. Hydration is important. For me, reading is a great option, and again, connecting is just the number on e for me right now to keep myself grounded, and remember that we’re all in this together. But those social connections are incredibly important when dealing with stress.

John: A lot of students and faculty both have reported that they’ve been having Zoom gatherings, social hours, happy hours, and so forth, and also, I think, Netflix Party, the plugin for Chrome is getting a lot of action too, where people watch movies together from wherever they are, and then they chat with each other as if they were in the same place.

Karen: I haven’t heard of the Netflix one, so I’m gonna have to check that out.

John: It’s just a Chrome plugin.

Karen: That’s very cool.

John: My students talked about it, and some faculty talked about that in an informal gathering we had just yesterday.

Karen: And that’s a great example of one of my favorite reminders, which is that students know things, and we can ask them [LAUGHTER] and they will tell us things that we don’t know, so we all just learned something there as well.

Rebecca: It seems like likewise, it might also be important to remember, you know, as you’re saying that students know things… hey, Ada, [LAUGHTER] Just one second. Can you hang on for just one second?

ADA: No!

Rebecca: No? Well, I guess Ada will be on this podcast. [LAUGHTER]

John: And that was our guest host Ada Mushtare joining us for the first time on one of our podcast recordings, and now we return to our regularly scheduled podcast.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that students have been really understanding of the circumstances that faculty can be in. When I’ve talked to other faculty, they’ve talked about how the students have been asking how they’re doing. And I know in my own case, I’ve fallen, in one class, a couple weeks behind in grading, and I said, I’ve been doing eight to 10 hours of faculty meetings every day trying to help people move online, and they’ve been really understanding about all of that in ways that surprised me, because I’d be disappointed if my instructor had fallen that far behind in grading. So in general, I think in some ways, this may have helped both students and faculty connect in ways that they might not otherwise have done.

Karen: What I would classify that conversation under is this idea of humanizing learning. So Michelle Pacansky-Brock is an amazing educator, she has kind of taken the lead on this humanizing online learning movement, and we sometimes also talk about it as humanizing higher education in general. This idea that we can appropriately reveal challenges, failures, interests to our students as a way to build a sense of connection between students and faculty, again, is not new, and many of us have been doing that for a long time, and I think because of this challenge, maybe because more folks are working from home and might have kids running around and pets running around, and not really as much of a choice about distinguishing the personal from the professional, that maybe they are diving into that humanizing teaching and learning movement, and I am glad about that. We know, particularly in the online learning environment, that that can have some really positive effects on teaching and learning. What I would remind people is that we find that when we can build those connections with our students, they’re more likely to persist and to succeed, so find whatever way you’re comfortable with to do that. I don’t think it’s appropriate to reveal the depths of your soul, perhaps, but could you remind students that you’re feeling anxious? Absolutely. Could you let students know that you’re worried about a sick family member? Absolutely. Could you let students know you’re challenged by having kids at home? Absolutely. Do what’s comfortable for you. I always tell folks, if even that makes you nervous, some faculty feel more comfortable just engaging around their content area. So, I tell folks, this is a chance to maybe talk about why you got into your field of study and perhaps how this crisis is causing you to reflect on that choice and what you love about your discipline. That’s an okay place to start too, for some faculty that’s what they’re comfortable with. But, certainly if you’re open to sharing more details, sharing more challenges, I send regular emails to my students. This morning I said, “We’re all still here, we’re hunkered down. We’re saying home. We’re really thinking about those health care workers and frontline workers and we’re so grateful for them.” And then I moved on to some course topics, but it was an appropriate sharing about challenges we’re facing without getting too in depth and it is one of the ways that I connect with my students.

John: Is there any other advice you’d like to share with our listeners?

Karen: I think I just want to emphasize again, the importance of hope, something that we grasp for when we’re desperate, but hope is really a powerful cognitive strategy. The work of Martin Seligman, he writes about something called the Hope Circuit, which is the idea that in the face of just devastating impossible circumstances, if we can find a way to look toward the future with any little bit of hope, that it can help us get through those challenges. So I would just emphasize to people that, for me, hope is a really important research-based strategy that I try to apply in my life. One of the things I’ve been doing at night when I fall asleep, I was perseverating, about all of the scary stuff, and I was projecting into some really dark places and one of the things that I’ve been doing is tried to at that point in my day, to think about a hopeful future and what’s it gonna be like to hug loved ones again, and get to go to a bookstore or the library, which are two of my favorite things to do? And that is one of my practices, and certainly do I go into those other places at other times? Absolutely. But I just want to remind people, I think we can respect and honor the challenges that we’re facing, and also remember hope and resilience, and keep practicing those as well.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca: Apparently, you should talk all the time because Ada is incredibly attentive to you, Karen. [LAUGHTER]

Karen: Oh, hi, honey! [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: She’s listening to you.

Karen: Oh, I love that.

John: And until you can go to the bookstore, [LAUGHTER] you can order 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos. It’s a wonderful book, and for those who are creating videos, either for the first time, or who’d like to do it more efficiently, it’s a really great resource and you can get that from Amazon or directly from the publisher. In fact, there’s a discount code that we’ll list in the show notes as well.

Karen: Great. Thank you.

John: Also, we just discovered we had a mutual friend in common, Leighanne Penna, who I worked with at Duke many years ago, and you went to grad school with.

Karen: Leighanne and I were at UMass Amherst back in 2004 together, and we recently reconnected. She’s in Greece, and I’m going to help her campus do some work with transitioning from land-based to online education. It’s really interesting. They’ve made that shift, and now they’re interested in helping faculty develop those emotional connections online, which I’m really excited about, and I hope others will recognize the importance of doing that as well. But it was great to reconnect with her and to find out about that small-world connection.

John: We always end with the question, “What’s next?” which I think is a question we all have in mind these days.

Karen: So, what’s next for me is [LAUGHTER] some puzzles, watching the Masked Singer with my 11 year old and my husband who are home with me, walking my dog, those are part of my daily routine. And in terms of higher ed, I’m hoping to continue to do more to share this message of the importance of becoming trauma aware in our teaching, whether it’s online or possibly land- based in the future, and just reminding folks that empathy is within all of our scope of practice, no matter what our background and expertise, we can always practice empathy, and hoping to help as many folks as possible. That’s something I enjoy doing, it helps me to stay well, and hoping to just keep serving in whatever way I can.

Rebecca: Thanks so much for taking us on a journey from trauma all the way to hope. [LAUGHTER] It was a really nice conversation.

Karen: Oh, well, yeah, I appreciate that. And it is tough to talk about sometimes. And I know I think that’s one of the reasons that we avoid it, and I have a lot of empathy for folks that sometimes they’re just not ready to come to that conversation, but it is important. I think, that those of us who are ready and prepared to engage in that conversation and to start educating others.

John: Thanks again, especially for joining us on such short notice and it was great to talk to you again.

Karen: Thanks, everyone.

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

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

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130. Radical Hope

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

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

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

Kevin: Thanks. Great to be here with you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

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

Rebecca: Excellent.

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Or perhaps themselves. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Right.

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

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

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

Kevin: Right.

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

Kevin: Yeah.

Rebecca: It’s certainly not comfortable.

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

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

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

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

Kevin: Yeah, what a radical concept.

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

Kevin: Very on brand, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: That was a good choice.

Kevin: Exactly.

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

Kevin: Yeah, absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin: Yeah.

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

Kevin: Right.

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

Kevin: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: I get that all the time.

Rebecca: Yeah, me too.

Kevin: What have we conditioned them to do?

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

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

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

Kevin: Oh, thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

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129. Pandemic Planning

The sudden switch from face-to-face to remote instruction in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic caught many faculty, students, and colleges by surprise. Until a vaccine is available, regional or nationwide campus shutdowns may occur during the fall semester. In this episode, Dr. Josh Eyler joins us to discuss what faculty and institutions can do to help prepare for future transitions to remote learning. Josh is the Director of Faculty Development and a lecturer in Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. Josh is also the author of How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective Teaching.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: The sudden switch from face-to-face to remote instruction in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic caught many faculty, students, and colleges by surprise. Until a vaccine is available, regional or nationwide campus shutdowns may occur during the fall semester. In this episode, we discuss what faculty and institutions can do to help prepare for future transitions to remote 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: Today our guest is Josh Eyler, the Director of Faculty Development and a lecturer in Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. Josh is also the author of How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective Teaching. Welcome back, Josh.

Josh: Thanks very much for having me. I hope you’re both doing well.

John: It’s good to see you again. Our teas today are:

Josh: I’m just drinking water today. [LAUGHTER] Hydrating.

Rebecca: I have Lady Grey.

John: And I have Irish Breakfast Tea today. Most of my teas are up in the office safely locked away.

Josh: [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: By contrast I have a really good array, so I’ve been having a bigger selection since then.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about the situation we’re now in. This is only the second time that Rebecca and I have been recording from different locations because of the social distancing that’s taking place now, the second time during this event at least, and we’d like to talk a little bit about that. In the last few weeks, most colleges throughout the country and much of the rest of the world have suddenly had faculty transition from their usual instruction to remote instruction, with very little planning and prior notice, and many times for the very first time for faculty. How has this been going at the University of Mississippi?

Josh: I think it’s been going as best as can be expected. The faculty have really done heroic work, they’ve taken it very, very seriously and are really placing our students’ well being and welfare and learning at the center of the process. You know, it’s hard to learn… and that’s true for me as anyone… it’s hard to learn new modalities in such a short time. And they’ve all handled it with such grace that it’s been really inspiring, and so we dealt with hiccups and technical difficulties and things along the way. And the scale of it with 800 faculty is pretty enormous, but it’s gone relatively smoothly as far as that goes.

John: I think our experience is about the same and we have, I believe, about 800 faculty and I’ve been really impressed with people who had never used Blackboard, or Zoom, or Collaborate, or other tools, to step up and learn that within a really short time. One thing that was somewhat fortunate is it hit right before our spring break, which gave people some time to, not so much take a break, but to learn some new skills really, really quickly, and I’ve been really impressed with how they’ve stepped up.

Josh: Yeah, me too, and I hear similar stories from across the country. I mean, in many ways, faculty were given zero time with very strict parameters. It reminds me of that scene in Apollo 13, where they have to take bits of things that are around the cabin and make the carbon monoxide filter. It’s very, very similar, I think, in that faculty were given very strict parameters in some ways, technological capacity and frameworks that they hadn’t worked with before and said, “Okay, now we have to meet our students and help them through this crisis,” and they’ve all handled it just so brilliantly, I think.

Rebecca: As someone who’s been sitting a little bit on the sidelines because I’m not teaching this semester, it’s been really interesting to see faculty from across institutions and across departments working together to troubleshoot and help each other out. And the communities that have formed online of faculty across the country and across the world has been really impressive to me. It’s sad that it took a pandemic for that to occur, but I hope that some of these communities will maintain.

Josh: I do too. Yeah, and I’ve noticed that as well. I think that the community building has been an important element of this, I think, where higher ed recognizes that we’re all in this together, and we’re all in a very similar situation, so how can we work together to make this the best experience possible given the circumstances?

John: There’s that nationwide Pandemic Pedagogy Facebook group that I’ve seen lots of people have been joining. In our institution, Donna Steiner created a local Facebook group for people to share issues and stories and so forth, and just this morning, someone asked how they can work without a document camera and someone posted an image they found elsewhere of a document camera created by a smartphone wedged in between two cans of soup, [LAUGHTER] holding it in place above paper that then works through Zoom or some other application. It was impressive to see people coming up with interesting and creative solutions, sort of like as you described in that Apollo situation. So what have been some of the most difficult transitions for faculty and for students as well that you’ve observed?

Josh: Well, you know, the scale of this is one of the biggest obstacles across the university, helping folks, just that kind of scale. Within that there are subsets of obstacles. So for example, my wife is in the art department, art and art history. She teaches drawing and 2D design, so that’s a very difficult transition to make, much the same way that lab courses and sciences are hard to transition. So, there have been very specific kinds of obstacles as well as just the mass transition to unfamiliar platforms that we were talking about a second ago. So some of those have been, I think, really tricky. For students, you know, I think students and faculty together are wrestling with the disruptions, the emotional and psychological turmoil, a lot of the stress that comes along with all of this. I do think that students in particular are struggling with now taking five courses in an environment that they weren’t expecting, that are probably using different technological tools that the students may or may not be familiar with, and navigating all the syllabus revisions and all of the workload revisions as well. And so it’s a lot, and it’s one of the reasons that, I know that in our workshops that we were holding for faculty, we were strongly recommending asynchronous courses and asynchronous modes as the most equitable for students who were suddenly juggling all those things together. Not to say that you couldn’t have synchronous elements, but that those should probably be optional for the students who couldn’t be at the same place at the same time. And so yeah, they’re juggling a lot.

Rebecca: I think one thing that’s been overlooked by a lot of faculty is actually the complexity of students learning so many different tools because faculty aren’t using something consistent across classes. I think that learning curve is actually pretty substantial and can be really overwhelming, especially because a lot of faculty assume that students, just by nature, know how to use these digital technologies, but like all of us, if it’s not something you haven’t used before or aren’t familiar with, especially in this way, using it as a learning tool, for example, then it’s new.

Josh: I think we make those assumptions too often about students and technology, and the best metaphor for this comes from Todd Zakrajsek who said, “We all grow up in a world with cars, and yet we still have to learn how to use them.” So just being in a world that has technology and having been in that world from birth does not mean that they don’t need to learn how to use some of those tools, and so I think that’s important. The other obstacle for faculty working remotely, we all were just talking about with partners and with children in the same house, and I think that there’s a lot of work-life balance conversations right now, a lot of equity discussions, and I think that’s really important on the faculty side, as well, that we think about. A great piece in The Chronicle about not buying into the over productivity hype about this time. We need to take care of ourselves and our families and our students, and so that’s a baseline that, if we hit that, that’s good, that’s productive, and that’s on target. There’s so much that people are juggling right now.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think that people who are in caregiving roles, whether they’re parents or if they’re caring for older parents or family members, are in that predicament of complete life work overhaul… upside down… and it’s really challenging to balance all of those things but then expecting to then do all kinds of extra productivity is crazy. And when you see things like that on social media, I’m thinking, “What? I can’t get an hour and a half of work done, like what are you talking about?” [LAUGHTER]

Josh: Exactly. I don’t want to see what famous works were written during quarantine. I just want to get up in the morning and make it through the day.

Rebecca: I was like, “Oh, I got to read one whole article today, that’s huge.”

Josh: [LAUGHTER] Right, exactly.

John: In my case, I thought the default option would be to move entirely remotely, but fortunately we had a little bit of notice in my class, so I brought the issue up with my classes, and actually they preferred, at least as an initial position, to continue meeting synchronously, and they stated they all had the technology. I said, if anyone has any barriers to let me know, and it will be optional, and there’ll be other mechanisms if you can’t, but one of the things that I know they were concerned with is… at least a couple of the students said… they chose to take face-to-face classes because they have tried distance learning and it didn’t work well for them, and they preferred to maintain that type of consistency. And I said we’ll keep revisiting it, and I’ve been revisiting it at least once a week, and so far that’s what they want to do, but things may change if they start facing more barriers, but I am providing a mechanism for doing that, and I think it’s important to see what your students would like too, and to work with something that works for everybody.

Josh: Well sure, and I think the most important thing that you just described about that plan was your communication with them. And so I know many folks who are teaching small seminar-based classes where they all as a community decided that they could meet synchronously, and that works as long as it continues to work. So, I think that as long as there are ways for people to communicate that and they feel comfortable communicating that with faculty. On the other hand, the 200-person intro bio lectures is a little bit trickier. So yeah, I think just as long as we allow students the flexibility, which you are doing, so I think that’s great, then helping them to retain as much sense of normalcy of the learning environment as possible, because you are right, students didn’t ask for this any more than we did, and many of them want to be together in the classroom talking about Shakespeare or learning about evolution.

John: And it helped that they all had good broadband access, and they all had devices that made it possible for them to maintain that sort of normalcy up to this point, at least.

Josh: That is a relatively… well, it’s not a new addition… but it’s an issue about inclusive teaching that is getting a lot of spotlight for very good reason: that many students can’t access the internet in such a way to participate in synchronous courses and lots of other overlap between equity, class, and technology, I think, that are really important, and we may have let slip away from the conversation before this, but now it’s front and center for us to think about as a community.

Rebecca: In terms of inclusivity, one of the things that I’ve been exploring that I was surprised about is accessibility, which is an area that I focus a lot of my own attention on in general. So I’ve been doing some analysis of some of the accessibility practices that we’re doing, how to make sure that faculty are keeping up on these things, and so I was exploring a little bit what the students’ side of some of these experiences are like. I had just assumed, for example, as an instructor, because I’ve never been in the student seat of this particular thing, that the Blackboard app would have the same accessibility features as the Blackboard website, for example, and they don’t. We might not know that students are relying on their phones, for example, to get more accessible materials, and if they use the website they can get them, but if they use the app, they can’t. And if we don’t tell them that, they don’t know.

Josh: Right. Accessibility is something that I’ve spent a lot of time with as well, and I do know that it often plays second fiddle in some of these conversations, and it’s also having a spotlight cast on it right now.

John: On Twitter, you initiated some conversations about how we plan for this, should this continue into the summer and perhaps fall. You mentioned three scenarios. One is that we reopen, we go about business as usual sometime between now and the fall, and then we see spikes a bit and things come back again. Or a second one where we’re sheltering in place, or a third one, which is we go back to normal, which, you note, is probably the least likely of those scenarios at this point.

Josh: I know a lot of people are desperately hoping that that’s the case and deep down, so am I, but I also know that it’s much less realistic. And I’m certainly not a scientist, but I follow a lot of scientists, I read their work, and I trust in what they’re doing as experts. And so most of the models show that because it’s a seasonal disease, that even if we minimize the cases during this first wave, that it will spike again sometime in the fall or winter, or both, which suggests that, without knowing the intricacies that biologists know about that, it strikes me that higher ed desperately, at this moment, as soon as possible, needs to just start planning for contingencies. What would our enterprise look like in all those different scenarios? And so I think it ranges from planning for fully online courses from moment one, for both the summer and the fall, to planning face-to-face courses with contingency plans, solid, not the sudden emergency shift that we just did, but solid, well developed contingency plans in the event that we need to resort to social distancing for some period of time. And there is some discussion of the possibility of localized intermittent social distancing, so the kinds of things, in other words, that would affect some colleges but not others, and at certain periods of time, and then that would flip flop. And so the idea that you might be teaching in a classroom and then have a month where you’re not, and then you have another month when you’re in, that’s fully possible, given the range of different models that scientists have put out there. So, I think without knowing what’s going to happen, to really build a bright future for higher education we need to have really well developed plans for all the possibilities.

John: I’ve been reading quite a bit about this, and there’s some question about the seasonality of this, because one of the things that’s happening is it’s hitting the northern and southern hemisphere pretty much equally, so it doesn’t seem to vary that much with temperature as many other types of flu, for example, have varied.

Josh: Exactly, yeah.

John: There’s a lot of unknowns about this, but we should plan for contingencies now. What are some of the things that faculty can do to get ready for such eventualities in either the summer or the fall?

Josh: Well, I think, and this is an important role that teaching centers and instructional designers can play too. One thing that should happen as soon as the semester ends, is to really assess what worked and what didn’t for their particular courses. I have a friend from Rice and I saw that she was saying that she found this tool that works so well that even when she goes back to teaching normal face-to-face courses, she’s still going to use it. That’s really important information to know and to be thinking about… so, assessing what worked and what didn’t and building on the successes. I have another friend who is essentially doing mini-podcast sessions for his students and then tying activities to it. So he’s a tried and true medievalist, no technology for him, just recording his voice and then activities tied to it. And so something like that, assessing what really would work and then since there’s now time to plan, tying it to the most effective teaching strategies for these environments. So, let’s assess what you were most comfortable with and what really worked for you, and now let’s add to the mix ways that you can more effectively design assignments and activities and other assessments utilizing those tools that work. It’s got to be a very quick assessment of pros and cons and then proactive planning pedagogically.

Rebecca: It seems to me, then, it would be really useful to be thinking about this now as a faculty member, because you could be asking your students for their feedback on what’s going on, and obviously, you could be doing it now so that you could make some adjustments and things as the semester goes on, but also for future planning moving forward.

Josh: Right. I think that’s a really important component of this, hearing not so much what students felt about the teaching, because I also think faculty need a break on the normal evaluation structures that are in place, but I do feel the faculty should be free to get whatever formative feedback they want about their teaching. But, I do think that feedback at an institutional level from students about all the mechanics of all this, what worked, what didn’t, what failed, what really flew under the radar as being a super successful tool, something like that, that’s really important, and that can definitely help with the planning as well.

Rebecca: So one thing that I was thinking in terms of having student voice involved, not just at the institutional level but in your own classrooms, might be about particular tools or what parts of the things that they did helped them feel more a part of a community or reasons why they might not have felt like they were a part of a community. Not really putting it on you as a teacher about like, “What did I do well or not as a teacher,” but rather, “What kinds of structures might work well in circumstances to help facilitate some of the things that we miss when we’re not face-to-face?”

Josh: I think those are fantastic ideas, and this ties back into the teaching center conversation, because I think that one way that we could help is to help faculty design those surveys. Some LMSs have a function where you can kind of load survey questions into a cloud and faculty can pull them out to build their own tool. So, I think that kind of feedback is going to be critical, and the teaching center can take some of the burden off of individual faculty by helping design some of those instruments, or at least advise on ways to do it because I think an individual faculty member getting that feedback for him or herself is essential in this case, and that’s separate from a kind of formal teaching evaluation or formalized summative feedback as well.

Rebecca: What are some of the things that you’re hoping, as we plan for the future and we have time to actually plan for a circumstance like this moving forward, that you hope teaching centers roll out that maybe they weren’t able to roll out when there was such a time crunch?

Josh: I think you sort of highlighted it a little while ago. I think that there’s an open door for universal design for learning and accessibility in ways that are more holistic. So those conversations tend to be either very specific or isolated in different kinds of workshops, but here, I think you can lead with some of that, and you can also lead with inclusive practices, and I think that that’s kind of an open door for work that teaching centers can do. Not that there hasn’t been interest or that that hasn’t been happening, but given what we see, and over the course of this crisis, we can now lead with those elements because it becomes clear how central they are to the work. I’ve said it a million times, it feels like, over the last two weeks, that at the end of the semester, students aren’t going to remember content as much as they are the community that you built and the care that you showed and the work that everyone did together, and so I think that that has helped to really frame some of these issues in a really important way. So I think that’s certainly true. I also think that, and I’ve experienced this myself, and I know that I hope it will continue, and I strongly believe that it will. A lot of this work for teaching instructional design sometimes gets taken care of in silos in different corners of the university. And I know here, those get broken down completely. I was working with people I hadn’t even met before, and I mean that seriously, I had not met them and they are amazing, and we worked together. We met at 7:45 in the morning during the transition week, and we met at 5:15 every night and we’re in constant communication in between there, and really deployed to prioritize the work that needed to be done that day, and that, I hope, is something that continues, that certainly different instructional designers and different folks within teaching centers have different areas of expertise, and so it can be kind of liaisons with STEM or humanities or whatever, but coming together and seeing it as one project, improving teaching and learning across all corners of higher ed. I hope that that continues.

John: One of the things we’ve been doing is we’ve been having open office hours for faculty where we have people from many support areas all coming together. Rebecca and I have been there as well as some other people working with us. Some people from our campus computer technology services have been there and some of our instructional designers have been there, and when people have elaborate questions, we send them off into a breakout room where they work with someone over a longer period, and the others’ shorter questions are answered by whoever is best suited to answer that particular question, and that’s been working really well, and it’s been really nice to see that cooperation.

Josh: Yeah, I completely agree. I think people are recognizing that teaching centers have a lot to offer in terms of thinking about policy as well. The pass-fail debate is a great example of this. On the surface, pass-fail is a policy issue that connects to the catalog and the handbook and lots of other things, but beneath that there have to be people on campus who have an awareness of the research on emotions in learning, on how grades have an impact on learning, even in the best of circumstances, and related issues to that. And so I think teaching centers have gotten called on both to contribute to those conversations and even shape them at some universities as well, and I hope that that is a recognition for the work that teaching centers do that continues.

Rebecca: Yeah, one of the other things that came up in the Twitter conversation that you started, Josh, was about the need for trauma-informed pedagogy moving forward related to this particular instance. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Josh: Sure. I’ll admit it right up front, I’m in no way an expert on that. I learned a lot from Karen Costa, who actually brought that up in that thread, and so she’s taught me a lot. I think trauma-informed pedagogy is, if you imagine a Venn diagram, it’s in the overlap between inclusive teaching and the way we understand that emotion affects cognition, and so it occupies that middle space in a really important way. Normally when we talk about trauma-informed teaching, we’re talking about developing teaching practices that would provide access to students in our classrooms who may have experienced trauma in the past. And content warnings or trigger warnings are the most visible elements of that conversation nationwide, but there are lots more. But here we are actually seeing not just nationwide, but worldwide trauma. And so now it’s moved from, in faculty’s minds, “Hypothetically, I may have students in my class who have been affected by trauma and so I should prepare for that,” to many, many students who we will see in our classrooms from this point forward will have experienced a global trauma that we need to now account for. So, that moves beyond what we know genuinely helps decrease an emotional response. In the book that I wrote, I have a chapter on emotion, and there’s a piece of that chapter that deals with what happens when our emotional responses surpass our ability to regulate them. And everything we know about cognition at that point is that it shuts down, and so we have to help students mitigate that response in order to get back to learning. So, that’s at the core of trauma-informed education. Empathy is at the core of that, but there’s more specific things that those who do this work and write about trauma-informed pedagogy know with much more depth than I do, but creating space to make meaning from what is happening. One of the major tenets of trauma-informed pedagogy is that those who have experienced trauma can get caught up in a spiral of helplessness when confronted with the work ahead, in other words. So, helping them process that, making meaning of what has happened globally rather than ignore it, and building the meaning making into the work, accessibility issues, understanding absences and understanding some difficulty with deadlines as the responses spike. So I would encourage folks to go out and look at the experts. I learned, again, from Karen Costa. She writes a lot about this, but The Body Keeps the Score is a book that I know a lot of folks who do this work really recommend, not strictly about teaching, but it’s a very insightful book about what happens to a body that has experienced trauma, so that’s definitely something to look into. But, I guess the moral of the story here is we’re going to have to be much more attuned to that work going forward.

John: One strategy that a number of people have suggested is having a discussion forum or some form of reflection where students are able to share their thoughts and their reactions and their concerns. Do you think that would be helpful in this context?

Josh: Yeah, I think so, but with a caveat that most faculty are not clinical psychologists. And so certainly reflection is a key principle of trauma-informed pedagogy, there’s no doubt about it. I think working with folks who know this area of research in designing a reflection assignment is absolutely key, because those of us who are not clinical psychologists would not be prepared for what could happen if we delve into that, and then it opens the floodgates of emotional response that we are not ourselves trained to help mitigate, and so that can happen in any semester, in which case, we work with folks to try and get students to the right resources. But in this particular case we want to be careful about the construction of those assignments, not that we shouldn’t do them, but that we need to be attuned to that.

John: And also to be aware of what types of support services are available on campus for those who are experiencing trauma and difficulties.

Josh: I think that’s very important to think about. I know my university has them up and running, but certainly it’s not the same as it was for students when they were on campus. So, those folks are doing heroic work, but the situation has shaped that work in a very specific way.

Rebecca: I think one thing that’s surfaced a lot in the conversations, with our faculty anyways, and I think I’ve seen in other conversations that are more national and more global in nature, is so much more awareness of the basic needs of students not being met: food, shelter, etc, health care, and also the emotions that play into learning and really having to deal with the basic needs and basic emotional needs before getting to the work of learning. We’re all now in this space trying to figure out what exactly that might mean in our individual classes or subject areas. I think it’s something that we’re all more aware of than we had been prior to this.

Josh: Well, and I think that this situation has brought that to light in a way that, once it’s a part of the conversation, I don’t think you can ever undo it. And so there have been folks who have been screaming this from the rafters for a very long time, Sarah Goldrick-Rab in the Hope Center and Jesse Stommel, and so many people have been doing their part in calling attention to this. But now, I think you’re absolutely right, Rebecca, that there’s more widespread recognition, not just that those things are realities for our students, but that they have a significant impact on the work that students can do and the learning that can happen. And so marrying those two together has been critical, I think, both to help them over this obstacle. I’m hoping very hard that it continues to be a part of the way we see our work as teachers in the classroom, that this didn’t just start happening in early March, it’s always been a part of our students’ experiences of education, and so we need to keep that in kind of the forefront of our minds.

Rebecca: I think another thing that surfaced along these same lines, that pandemic has caused us to confront, is perhaps we all try to cram too much into our classes in the first place. And really thinking about how much content is there and what’s absolutely necessary as we try to scale back and shift gears and things like that. I know that there’s a lot of conversations about what can be edited or cut, and perhaps those were critical conversations that maybe should have happened previously, but are now happening out of necessity.

Josh: I think what you just ended with there is exactly the point, in that many of those conversations and, you know, I’ve led course design institutes and this is always something that we talk about it, you can do an exercise about trimming content, but until it becomes an absolute necessity, it lives in a kind of theoretical space. “Well, that’s a great idea, but you know, I still had to teach Moby Dick.” But now folks were faced with what is absolutely critical for students to know, and what can I dispense with in terms of supporting their learning, and so I think that, I hope too, has a long lasting effect.

John: Many people have been teaching the same way for 20 or 30 years, but when faced with this, they’ve had to significantly revise what they were doing. Might this provide a nice opportunity for faculty to grow and expand their tool sets so that they can be more productive? You talked about that a little bit before, but maybe we should leave the conversation on the bright spot of the opportunities this may present for the future in terms of faculty development and faculty discovering new ways to work with their students.

Josh: Sure, I absolutely think so. There are tons of stories of folks who didn’t know about something that existed, discovered it, and now are doing really fun things with it that are helping students. What I think we would envision, hopefully, is that folks would find things that they are really drawn to that, when they return to the teaching modalities that they’re most traditionally teaching in, that they utilize those tools that they found that help their students to learn, that we can take lessons from this time, and that should be one of them, I think, that we can stretch our conception of what good teaching is, or what can help us teach effectively, and really think about that for all of our teaching purposes going forward.

Rebecca: Do you think there’s other big lessons from this that we can take forward to stay on more positive notes?

Josh: The fact that we have placed students at the center of this conversation, I think, is an important lesson, and it’s one that I hope higher ed doesn’t forget. Also, something I said recently, but I’d want to echo here, is that the silos have really broken down in ways that are beneficial for higher ed, people who normally don’t work together are working together in trying to craft the best possible way forward, and I think that that’s an important lesson too. I’m sure you both know this well, that making change in higher education is really hard, and often the most daunting prospect is, that’s the way things were always done. And that’s a different office, right? That’s a different silo that takes care of that, and both of those have kind of been fractured, the way things have always happened can no longer be because we’re in a new reality, and the silos just don’t exist anymore, and so I hope that higher ed can take that lesson forward.

John: Tear down some of those silos a little more permanently, perhaps.

Josh: Right, right. Absolutely. And it’s also showing just how permeable those boundaries were from the beginning, I think.

John: One thing that’s come up with some students and some faculty is a question of whether we might lose weather-related cancellations in the future. I know sometimes people get excited when there’s a snow day or something similar, but might this mean those days will disappear?

Josh: Yeah, that’s a hard one to say. I think that here’s the likely outcome if we go all the way back to the planning scenario. A likely outcome, I would hope, in planning for contingencies is that folks are told to build their face-to-face courses with these kind of hybrid fallback models. And so going forward, it is possible that those will exist on a wide scale in higher ed, so if there is a snowstorm, faculty could get guidance just to kick those contingency plans into effect, or they may say that that’s optional. When the snowpocalypse hit Northern Virginia a few years ago, I think that they all had to develop contingency plans because they were canceled for weeks at a time, and I know that when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston when I was at Rice, there was a lot of talk of alternate assignments, digital resources that we could find, so things like that. So, this is something that I think individual campuses have been thinking about when the situations have arisen, and now we’re talking about those decisions on a much wider scale. I am an optimist by nature, I wear rose-colored glasses, I freely admit that. But the fact that you have a school like Tulane, whose former president was writing in The Chronicle last week, that came back from Katrina, and is a thriving university. We have institutions, even groups of institutions that have faced major crises before, and they have come out even stronger on the other side. If we continue to work together in higher education, we can have that same recovery on a broader scale. So the fact that these institutions have succeeded, that gives me a lot of hope, I think, for what we can do as a community, and a recognition that this isn’t the end or even beginning of the end. It’s a way of rethinking what we used to think of as normal and learning lessons that we can take forward.

Rebecca: Sometimes it takes a big disruption like this for us to realize that we need to think in different ways and that little boost in that direction isn’t always a bad thing.

Josh: As long as we capture those lessons and learn from them, I think that we can build a bright way forward, definitely.

Rebecca: So I think then in terms of snow days, if they’re going away, then we just need to make sure we build in rest days or something into our schedule going forward.

Josh: Well, I’ve worked almost exclusively in the south. So I haven’t had a snow day since I was in high school, I think. But yes, I agree.

Rebecca: We just really want just one.

John: Do you have any other advice for our listeners?

Josh: I just wish everyone luck. I mean, everyone’s trying their hardest in working this out, and we’re going to get through it, and we’ll move into the next terms with clear eyes, I think, as to how to move forward.

John: So we always end with the question, as you know. What’s next?

Josh: That’s the most loaded question at this time, I think. I don’t know, but what I hope is next is recovering and rebuilding. That’s what I hope.

John: Thank you. This was wonderful, and thank you for doing it on such short notice.

Josh: No problem at all, I appreciate the invitation. I hope you both are well.

Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you so much, Josh. This was a really good conversation, an important one to have right now.

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

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

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128. Cultural Acclimation

International students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities often face a multitude of challenges related to cultural differences and language barriers. These challenges can have an adverse impact on their academic performance during their adjustment process. In this episode, Don Donelsen joins us to discuss how the graduate business program at the University of Miami is working to ease this transition.

Don is a lecturer in the Miami Herbert Business School at the University of Miami. He is a recipient of a Spring 2016 University of Miami Excellence in Teaching Award.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: International students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities often face a multitude of challenges related to cultural differences and language barriers. These challenges can have an adverse impact on their academic performance during their adjustment process. In this episode, we discuss how one graduate program is working to ease this transition.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

John: We should note that this podcast was recorded in the third week of February 2020. Many of the plans that are discussed here have been altered as a result of the nationwide shutdown of institutions of higher education since the onset of the global pandemic.

Our guest today is Don Donelson. Don is a lecturer in the Miami Herbert Business School at the University of Miami. He is a recipient of a Spring 2016 University of Miami Excellence in Teaching Award. Welcome, Don.

Don: Hi. Glad to be on.

Fiona: Today’s teas are… sweet cinnamon spice.

John: Are you drinking tea?

Don: I’m not drinking tea, but I do actually have a gift from a former student.

Fiona: Oh.

Don: I was told it was Chinese tea, but then other Chinese students said this is not Chinese.

Fiona: [LAUGHTER] Well, you can say we’re drinking tea and you’re looking at tea. I guess that counts.

Don: I am looking at Green tea.

John: And I am drinking a ginger tea. We’ve invited you here to discuss a program that you have proposed and are working on at your institution to help students from China adjust to cultural differences in how classes in the U.S. are taught. What prompted your interest in this issue?

Don: We’ve had a large influx of Chinese students at the University. That’s probably the main impetus on what prompted this. I asked our institutional people for some data, and just in the graduate business program, we had our Chinese population double just in the last year. So we’re up to about 400 and something in the graduate business program, and undergrads, we have about 1500. And we’re not a large school, that’s about 15% or so of the entire population. So I’ve seen noticeable increases in Chinese students in classrooms, especially in the STEM specialized master’s programs, which they’re very attracted to, for some visa reasons, and perhaps other reasons. And so I actually had a section, there were 16 students, 15 of whom were from China, not by design, just this is how many Chinese students we have and sometimes that’s how it worked out. And I started noticing some differences in how the Chinese students were interacting in that class when they were mostly surrounded by their peers from China than the Chinese students who in the past there was one or two Chinese students in a section of 19 or 20, but now there’s four or five. This semester, actually, I have more than half in every single section from China. And so I started noticing that in that one section, it was all Chinese students except for one from South America, the interactions were a bit different. And then discussions with colleagues, how to improve teaching… The courses that I teach are classes on critical thinking, and problem solving and communication. And so the class participation is an enormous component of the class, we teach critical thinking by forcing people to do critical thinking. And so the trope, I guess you might say, not just the Chinese students, but a lot of international students in general, is that their language barriers are most pronounced in a class like that, and they participate less in class discussion, and they have difficulties with communication. Most of them, in my experience, have been difficulties that only they perceive, difficulties that aren’t actually barriers. But all of those issues I found true with the Chinese students but amplified to a much greater degree, and that’s the general consensus among colleagues. And so, as the numbers started to grow, we actually created a course, a different numbered course from the core course that I teach in the graduate program, exclusively for non-native English speakers, because putting them on the same curve is really problematic to their grades when there’s a heavy written component. But at the same time, we have academic standards that matter, I can’t just give them a separate session, so we created a separate course. And so it’s different numbered, and it’s essentially the same course title except for non-native English speakers. And so as I had the accidental almost all Chinese student class last semester, I said, “Hey, I should probably take advantage of this opportunity to test run in the spring semester,” which is now, when I’m going to have by design a class of all Chinese students. So I started really trying to identify “Why would they participate when they did participate? Why didn’t they participate?” Trying to break down what it was that caused these issues that most faculty here observe with their reticence to participate and lack of comfort with speaking up.

Fiona: Can you talk a little more about the general differences between classroom interactions that you’ve observed in students from China as opposed to perhaps students who are mostly American?

Don: So it’s actually changing now, because of some of the stuff we’re doing. Where we were at to begin all this was they pretty much do not participate in class discussions. It’s very rare that they do. If you go full Socratic method and just start calling on people, some of them will participate when called on, but it’s clear that they’re uncomfortable with it, they don’t quite know what to do, and some will just refuse, even when called on. There will just be a minute or two of silence while they try to think of something or they kind of punt. And so with class participation in most of our courses in the graduate program is 20 to 30% of the grade, it’s a significant problem that inhibits their success.

Fiona: And I think you’re suggesting that there are multiple factors involved in this reticence. So, it’s not simply a language-based issue, but also a cultural issue that expectations around classroom culture differ so much that students really do feel unable to participate in a culture that feels so different from the one they’ve just come from.

Don: Exactly. So I started talking to students, one of the things I noted that was interesting was they’re very comfortable speaking after class, one-on-one, very frequent after class. And as I started having more Chinese students in my classes, it began to be a problem, actually, because I didn’t have enough time in between classes to field all of their questions. And so I thought that was interesting. And then in the few instances in which they had to give presentations, so an assigned presentation, like a stock pitch or something, they did remarkably well, mostly. And in fact, if I went and correlated my grades based on nationality, I strongly suspect it would be zero on the presentations, whereas on class participation it was a very strong correlation, so that got me curious. And I started asking them, “Why are you comfortable speaking to me outside of class?” which I’m very appreciative of. The Chinese students in particular here, some of them… I could put a cot in my office because of how frequently they would come to my office hours. And so it was clear to me that it wasn’t an unwillingness or a lack of care, which made me even more curious because some faculty misinterpret their classroom behavior as an unwillingness or lack of care. And so I started engaging and asking questions about participation, and the conversation just kind of grew, and I learned that the way that they do education in China, and there was some various experiences described, but pretty much all of them described an educational environment that they were brought up in, in which there is no mandatory participation as part of the grade. When participation is expected in class it is almost always in the form of a show of hands, and in no instance did any student describe a situation in which they had an open class environment where they would, without being prompted, speak up and make a point or something. In fact, the word that was consistently used by students, when I asked them what they think about speaking up in class, is “rude.” They think it’s rude. They look down, because looking up at someone is considered to be a sign of disrespect in many aspects of their culture. And so some faculty misinterpret it as they’re disengaged or they’re on their cell phone, but they’re actually fully engaged. They just think that that’s what the expectations are. So they think it’s rude to interrupt the class, they think it’s disrespectful to make eye contact. And so there’s a signaling problem, essentially, the normal ways that we would evaluate students to assess understanding, to assess engagement, don’t really work well without some explicit addressessing of these issues with the Chinese students. In addition, one major cause that we found was that their education is, perhaps not surprising to some people, but their education is designed around the idea that there are black and white answers to everything, there is very little gray area, their evaluation metrics appear to be almost exclusively objective, multiple choice, or true and false. Even in their English language classes it’s objective metrics… which of course, we all know the English language, for good or for bad, there are no objectively correct things, but they believe that there is a single correct way to make a statement in English, and so that causes a lot of hesitation in class because some students, they want to participate, but they spend time trying to figure out the right way for me to say this. Some other issues related to these issues with they’ve been taught that everything’s black and white… and even the English language is… they fear embarrassment if they mispronounce a word. They tend to be self conscious of their accent in ways that I don’t find as common with Latin American students or Indian students, who also are prone to having some self conscious issues with accents and like but not to the same degree as to Chinese students. I think it’s because they think there is one way to say it. And so there is a fear of embarrassment wherein it’s hard for them to grasp that they can’t be embarrassed because there’s really no bad answer when we’re having a Socratic discussion. And so fear of embarrassment was a contributor to these issues as well and a lack of specific directions. And so one thing that I found most startling, as I was going through these informal focus groups with Chinese students, is the number of them who could not articulate what class participation means in any way that aligns with what we know class participation to mean. Many of them thought that class participation simply meant showing up and that they would get their points from that. About half of them actually had no idea that their grade would be impacted by class participation, and the frequency and quality of that participation. I spoke with one second-year MBA student who I’d had in class last year for some insights from him, and he expressed that he was in that path, and he had no idea that class participation points mattered. And it pretty much put him in the bottom quarter of the class for his first semester, and then he eventually figured it out, and now he’s in the top quarter of the class, but that was just very upsetting to me. That was the point at which I said, “Okay, we are failing these students. It is not incumbent on them. We are not putting them in a position to succeed.” And that was the real fuel to the fire… to actually do some programming and create some initiatives to try and prepare these students for success better.

Fiona: There is so much about academic culture that feels straightforward and self explanatory until an experience just like this, when you realize how much of what we expect goes unexpressed, or unexplained, or is invisible in one way or another. So how did you begin tackling this enormous and multifaceted issue?

Don: I just made a checklist of all the things that we identified as causing these problems, and it was clear to me that we needed to be active. This was a significant enough problem with deep roots that it wasn’t as simple as just changing the way that we introduce our syllabus, and adding a five-minute spiel or something, it was much deeper than this. And so I proposed that we need to teach them how to be a student in an American classroom, especially in a program that requires Socratic discussion in most classes and is going to be 20 to 30% of their grade. So I proposed that we add a course to the orientation program that we have on how to be a student.

Fiona: And how detailed do you get in terms of approaching this from a metacognitive perspective? You explain to students the larger purpose of this kind of Socratic discussion, or do you simply dive in and have them start practicing? What approach are you imagining taking?

Don: My thoughts were kind of a two-half approach, wherein we first start off by teaching them what the expectations are. And so, exactly as you said, explaining to them things like “we value wrong answers.” John and I taught for many years at the Duke TIP program, and those students… very, very academically gifted… are younger, and so they can be very intimidated by Socratic discussion. And so I would always tell them that our jobs would actually be very boring if, every time we asked a question, the first student who answered gave a perfect and correct answer, and I don’t think that students would learn very much if that was the case. And so the idea is that we’re going to have discussions like that, kind of half teaching and half selling the importance and value to them in participating, accepting that there isn’t really wrong and right answers, we are moving a discussion forward. And when they successfully complete our program in a year or two, they’re going to be holders of a master’s degree in business and going to work in the business world, in which it will be expected that they put forward ideas that they don’t even think are necessarily going to work. Jeff Bezos at Amazon demands people put forward any idea they have, whether they think it’s going to work or not, and so we’re going to use case studies like that, a company they know, Amazon, a person they know, Jeff Bezos, and say, “This is who makes it to Vice President at Amazon, the person who’s willing to speak up in class and give a wrong answer.” So we’re going to educate and sell, really, participation and show them how to do it with some modeling. And so ideally, we will get some second-year grad students in their cohort who, through faculty recommendations, can be good role models and we’ll do some roleplay interacting with those students and demonstrate “Here’s what it looks like after extolling the virtues of it and demonstrating how we want to do it,” and then have them actually just do it, a mock class, and after that we would slowly morph from lecture into Socratic discussion.

John: And you’re planning to start this off with some type of bootcamp at the start of their year when they arrive, correct?

Don: So that’s actually complicated because we have lots of different programs. In business academia there’s been a seismic shift… really, like two years. It’s kind of startling, but there’s a major shift away from MBA degrees and a major shift towards specialized master’s programs. And so we went from having the MBA as our bread and butter, that was our main graduate degree program with I think we have like eight or nine specialized master’s programs now. And so there’s some logistics that have to be worked out because, you know, some of them have their own schedules, and there’s some departmental autonomy. Some of them are coming in July, some are coming in August. So they have a boot camp and then orientation, so those are separate. The idea is that as part of that boot camp, there will be a mandatory required course that is communicated to them, and it’s probably going to be two sessions. So I mentioned you haveb two halves, we’re thinking the best version of this would be overnight with a break in between those two halves with a case to go home with and prepare for this Socratic discussion.

Fiona: I’m wondering how you might incentivize an openness to failure or to wrong answers. Let’s say you’re not Jeff Bezos, don’t have someone’s employment in your hands. Have you experimented with, or thought about, or planned for ways to not just encourage students to take these sorts of risks in the classroom, but to actively acknowledge and perhaps even reward that sort of wrongful, rightful risk taking?

Don: Right, so, yes, and a couple of things I already tried out this semester with that all-Chinese section that I mentioned, I started off that class by saying “Nǐ hǎo, huānyíng lái dào wǒ bān,” which is a surely butchered way of saying “Hello, welcome to my class.” And then I asked them how many of them think I’m stupid because I butchered this phrase in Chinese, and, of course, none of them said that, and I said, “Well, that’s because you have context, and so the same thing is true for you all.” If there’s a student who’s born in Washington, DC, and has lived their entire life in the United States, and now they’re in a master’s program and they’re making grammar mistakes, I should rightfully judge them as having a lack of effort or some kind of problem. But for someone who is not a native English speaker, inductive reasoning does not allow the same kind of leap, and it would be illogical to assess someone on a personal level because they mispronounce a word or something. And so I said, “Just as you did not think lowly of me, or assess me to be incompetent or something because I butchered this Chinese greeting, you will receive the same benefits in your interactions with people.” And so they all laughed, there was a lot of laughter, and I think that kind of worked a decent amount, and then, and this might be unpalatable to some faculty members, but I have found with the Chinese students, they are extremely conscious of the opinions that their professors and peers have of them. And so it is very important to pat them on the back, especially early on. And so I started off with a low-stakes presentation, you know, one minute, because again, I found that when they’re provided with directions, and it’s required, and there’s a grade, they knock it out of the park, and then intentionally pointing out to good things that making them feel kind of safe, and that they’re not going to be embarrassed. Someone will mess something up, they’ll mispronounce a word or something and we’ll point out that it didn’t matter, and no one laughed at them, and that sort of thing. And so I found that doing that early on has helped in this section. And then in addition to that, the other main incentive that we’re playing with is changing class participation grades to more periodic updates, rather than what we typically do, which is just one of the last things that’s entered into our Excel spreadsheet probably after we’ve already gone on spring break, and because the updating of it in the feedback. And, John, I’m sure some of the other episodes I listened to that coincides with the importance of feedback on making better choices, and so not making it a surprise.

John: Letting students know that their lack of adjustment to American culture is actually harming their grades early on makes it much easier to adjust than when they find that out after the fact. So this will require some adjustments, not just from the students to adjust to American institutions, but also from faculty.

Don: Absolutely. If you’re a faculty member at an institution that wants to be a global institution, you have to think globally, and you can’t just expect every student to show up in your classroom Americanized. I think it’s kind of silly thinking really to just demand that the students Americanize themselves or westernize themselves and sink or swim because we’re not setting them up to have good outcomes, and that’s what we’re here to do.

John: We face some similar issues here. We’ve tried to focus on working on faculty to change the way they teach classes, but that only reaches the faculty who actually attend those workshops and students need to adjust to a wide range. And so I think there’s a lot of merit to this approach of working with students to help them get acclimated, especially perhaps in a business school where many of the students may want to go and work in firms where that type of participation and that type of activity is expected. So it’s also partly an introduction to American culture, as well as just American educational systems, which in a master’s program in business, would seem to be really appropriate.

Don: Absolutely. One of the drivers of the growth in specialized master’s programs for international students is STEM degrees get an automatic two-year work visa, which is very attractive. And so it’s pretty clear that, especially in those STEM credentialed degree programs, that their goal is to take advantage of that automatic to get employment, and it will impact them very quickly if they don’t acclimate to the classroom environment, which as you said, we do model business environments. And so I tell my students that we’re going to behave as though we’re in a consultancy meeting in class. You’re absolutely right. It’s beyond just a procedure for how to get grades, it is training for bigger things beyond the classroom.

Fiona: You mentioned that this program is focusing on masters level students, but the university also has a large number of undergraduate students. Do you think that this is a model that could be expanded to address that slightly different student population?

Don: I think so. Logistics would be an issue, of course, we’d probably have to recruit more help. But scaling aside, I don’t see much difference at all. I do teach a handful of undergrad sections every once in a while and the issues thinking back are identical.

Fiona: I have a slightly random question. Do students from China come to America with a pre-existing idea of what college is going to be like, what graduate study might be like? Is there any access they have to set up any horizon of expectations for them?

Don: This is not information that I got from our focus groups, but my observations, I strongly suspect that it’s something they don’t even think about. It’s kind of like you don’t know what you don’t know, and they’re startled to find that it’s not just what they have been doing for the last 12-15 years of education.

John: When they’ve been adjusting to a school system for over a decade, it’s pretty easy to base your expectations on what you’ve observed in the past.

Don: Right.

Fiona: I, too, interact with international students in a slightly different context, in an English literature department.

Don: Oh, that’s got to be tough.

Fiona: And many of the issues, especially that black and white thinking you’re describing, are amplified in my discipline, but I always do ask them partially by way of getting them to think about their own expectations, you know, “What were you imagining this class might look like?” And often they do have some sort of pop cultural version of what school might be like that emerges in a fascinating way. They have particular reasons for wanting to come to America in the first place to study, so I was just curious as to whether or not you had any insight into that version of things for Masters of Business students?

Don: No, I think they just value an American degree in business. Some of them do come from American undergrad institutions, and those students generally have already acclimated, but most of them are coming straight from China. Many of them, the day before orientation was their first day ever in the United States. That’s really scary, and so they show up at the airport and realize that they’re not nearly as good at speaking English as they were led to believe. And so I think there’s a lot of just very understandable ignorance of what they don’t know. We’re using a lot of social media, and we’re encouraging a lot of social media use, our Chinese students to communicate with their peers back in China, both as we find it’s a very good recruitment tool, and also to help with that kind of expectation.

Fiona: One of the other things I hear from the students I interact with who have come from China is their shock at how quickly Americans speak English, how fast professors speak in the classroom, and that’s a tougher one to handle in a boot camp class, I suppose. And I find myself simply trying to reassure them that they will be surprised at how quickly they adjust and they just need to give it some time and some practice, but it’s a very real source of anxiety for them in those first weeks of the semester.

Don: Yes, absolutely. And I’m glad you mentioned that because that is such a common… I mentioned before that students frequently will come up to me after class to engage and the mode interaction is asking for clarification on something that was said an hour prior in the middle of class that they didn’t understand. And in some cases, that’s fine. I can clarify, and it works, but in some cases, it’s like, “Okay, well, everything after that for the last hour, you didn’t get either if you didn’t understand that, and that’s really disappointing as well.” And so I make it a point, whether it’s an all Chinese class or not, I tell them that I want them to stop me if I’m speaking too fast, or I say something they don’t understand, that I want them to stop me and let me know that, and that I don’t think it’s rude. And in fact, I would be very upset to later learn that I wasn’t communicating effectively enough for them to gain understanding, and so that has helped a lot. It usually takes more than once of saying that for it to set in, but by the second or third class this semester, I’ve had pretty much every class someone stopped me and said, “I didn’t understand that” or, “my translator is not registering that word. What is that?” But yes, that’s an enormous issue.

John: Is lecture capture used there at all?

Don: I don’t use it.

John: Many of us use it. And I know in my econometrics class, before I flipped the class, I used to do some interactive lectures, and one of the things that mostly Korean students and occasionally Japanese or Chinese students noted was that if there were parts they didn’t understand that well, they could go back and play it back at half speed to make it easier to understand things, and that’s a nice accessibility feature for anyone who’s not a native English speaker. Another option might be to let students record things too, and then they could go back and play it back at a reduced speed until their understanding was able to keep up with the actual rate at which we speak.

Don: Interesting that you mention that because one thing that came from the Chinese students themselves in these focus groups was a pretty surprising number of them who said that we should ban electronic devices completely, because they said that they’re… so much more than American culture… they’re wed to their electronic devices. And they pretty much admitted that you are going to have some engagement issues unless you just forbid the electronic devices.

Fiona: It’s interesting that they can recognize [LAUGHTER] a certain sort of problem and are asking for help, I suppose.

Don: Well, they asked for help after the semester was done, and they made me promise to not name them if I implemented a ban. So there was some strategy involved, so that’s critical thinking.

John: But there is also the capability of a recorder which would not be that much fun to interact with. So…

Don: Right.

John: …there are devices that could work that would not be distracting.

Fiona: I’m really struck by the way in which you’re paying attention to a very specific cultural group here and you’re adjusting to very specific problems that that group has. You mentioned your checklist of things you know are happening and your desire to find the source of those things, but I can’t help but think that the adjustments you’re making are, in fact, adjustments that might benefit all sorts of students, all sorts of students for whom academic norms are a little bit hard to penetrate, or to understand, students who might have cognitive differences and struggle in discussion situations in particular. And so your particular intervention here seems to open out into a larger issue of what inclusive teaching might look like.

Don: Absolutely, and I’ve actually had that same thought. We’re singling out Chinese students, but boot camp, is there a problem with that? And is there some perception bias on our end that we don’t recognize these same issues with some other groups? But I think it’s very institutional, it’s not just culture by culture, it’s institution by institution. What we ended up finding is, because of our very, very heavy South American roots, our Latin American students are non-native English speakers who are native Spanish speakers, I think they feel more comfortable here than they might in many other institutions, and so you could have these same exact kinds of problems rearing their head, even maybe 100 miles north of here at another institution where there’s not a critical mass and those kinds of deep connections. We even offer some of our core courses in Spanish, and so I think they feel very comfortable. But it struck us that it wouldn’t take many changes in our circumstances for them to be in the same boat, perhaps, as we found the Chinese students. So you’re absolutely right.

Fiona: We do usually finish up by asking “What’s next?”

Don: What’s next is interesting, because the virus issues and so we are probably facing deferment of admissions to Spring 2020. And so what’s immediately next is adjusting on the fly as those things develop. But as far as the specific issue with helping students acclimate, where I would like to go next is just keep learning, keep having these discussions with students. So I had 20 something odd students participate in a pretty lengthy focus group session with me, that’s not enough, and so keep learning, start implementing some evaluation methods on ourselves. As John mentioned, sometimes it’s difficult to get faculty to cooperate with things but ideally, we would mandate standard language on class participation in all graduate syllabi, we would mandate periodic updating of their score on that. And we would even add in our reporting metrics, how the scores are changing in those classes that are doing that. Are they improving after we give them the first update, and so learning more about the students and the issues that they face so that we can better serve them I think is what’s next and really probably what always should be next.

Fiona: That’s great.

John: Sounds really good.

Fiona: Good luck with all of it.

Don: Thank you.

Fiona: Sounds like a very worthy intervention.

John: Thank you, Don. It’s always good talking to you.

Don: Thanks for having me, so much.

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

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

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126. Pandemic-Related Remote Learning

Over the last two weeks colleges across the U.S. have made the decision to shift all classes from face-to-face to remote instruction in an attempt to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In this episode, Flower Darby joins us explore the challenges and the opportunities associated with this transition.  Flower Darby is the Director of Teaching for Student Success, an adjunct instructor in several disciplines, and the author, with James Lang, of Small Teaching Online. She is also one of the developers of the Online Teaching Toolkit created by the Association of College and University educators (or ACUE).

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Colleges across the U.S. have recently made the decision to shift all classes from face-to-face to remote instruction in an attempt to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In this episode, we explore the challenges and the opportunities associated with this transition.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guest today is Flower Darby, Director of Teaching for Student Success, an adjunct instructor in several disciplines, and the author, with James Lang, of Small Teaching Online. She is also one of the developers of the Online Teaching Toolkit created by the Association of College and University educators (or ACUE). Welcome, Flower.

Flower: Hi, John. Hi, Rebecca.

Rebecca: Hi.

Flower: Thanks for having me.

Rebecca: Thanks for joining us quickly.

Flower: Absolutely.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are

Flower: I’m drinking a tall iced tea.

Rebecca: It can never be tall enough these days, right?

[LAUGHTER]

Flower: That’s right.

John: I’m drinking Ginger Peach Black tea.

Rebecca: I’m drinking English afternoon. Sometimes you just got to go with comfort.

John: This would be one of those times.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think so.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about the transition that faculty are having to go through throughout the country, and probably throughout the world, on fairly short notice to migrating classes from face-to-face to remote instruction. And a lot of faculty are really anxious about that. What advice do you give faculty in terms of where
they should focus their attention, especially if they haven’t done much work with online instruction?

Flower: I think the most important thing to start with is frequent communication with your students. Students are also very anxious, and so even if all you’re saying to your students is that you don’t know yet how it’s going to go, I think that that really puts students at ease, and the transparency will really serve everyone well. In addition to that, I know that centers like the one that you have there are offering all kinds of support workshops, tutorials, self-help, articles, all kinds of resources that faculty can avail themselves of. I’m not sure that the word is consistently getting out to faculty members. So, I would encourage you to turn to your teaching and learning center or your learning management system support area in order to find out what they’re offering. Schools across the country have broken down: Here’s the basics that you need to know to get up to speed with your LMS, especially for people who aren’t familiar with or don’t typically use it.

John: One of the nice things is how widely those resources are being shared. Look online and there’s lots of places, and your teaching and learning center is likely to be sharing them with you fairly regularly as long as you open their emails. [LAUGHTER]

Flower: I was working one-on-one with several faculty members yesterday in our drop-in support sessions, and my experience was that faculty didn’t know about all the websites that we launched last week and all the resources. So, as you said, John, one of the heartwarming aspects of this current situation is to see how institutions are sharing resources with each other very openly. So, as you said, do a little exploring, see what’s available generally online and what your own institution is offering as well.

Rebecca: I think along those lines, though, there’s also information overload because there is actually so much being shared right now. So if we’re looking for specific topics or subject matter related to this, what are maybe a couple of things that faculty should focus on to just get going?

Flower: That’s a great point, Rebecca, because I myself have felt that I’ve been in a blizzard of emails and resources, and distilling the awesome information into usable and organized material has been a real challenge this past week. So, again, I think the main thing at this point is to communicate. So, learning how to use the announcement tool in your LMS, deciding what is going to be your primary communication strategy, it might be that
you’re going to use email. Then the next thing that we recommend is getting your syllabus and a course schedule into your LMS if you haven’t already done that, and then third, understanding how to use the grade center to allow students to track for themselves how they’re doing in your course. Those are communications, uploading basic files or putting basic, like I said, course syllabus type of information and then beginning to understand how to use the grade center. That would be my recommendation.

John: And in terms of the syllabus, perhaps an updated or some type of addendum for the syllabus might be useful to let students know how things might be modified given the shift in instruction, right?

Flower: Great point, John. Faculty, while we don’t want to let go of or change our learning outcomes for the course, it is absolutely the case that many of us might be modifying what the original plan was, we might be changing the structure of tests and quizzes or creating new and different assignments. So yes, I love that idea of post an updated or an addendum to syllabus. And of course, maybe you also include a prominent statement that says “Subject to change with appropriate notice” to the students. One of the things that I’ve always communicated to my students is that if I make any changes in the syllabus or the course schedule, it will always be to your advantage. And I think students appreciate that sort of sense of security, that knowing things could change, but it will be done to help them if needed.

Rebecca: I think one of the other things that faculty are feeling a little overwhelmed by are all the possible tools and technologies that they can use, right, and sometimes this is opening wide doors of possibilities that they didn’t know existed, but then also, there are so many possibilities… “And my colleague here is using this tool and
my colleague over here is doing this tool, should I be doing that, too?” ends up being this common question, and I know my response has been “Don’t introduce too many new tools because information overload or that now there’s a whole learning curve there.” What are your thoughts on this? There’s so many tool possibilities.

Flower: Sure, Rebecca, I think we’re exactly on the same page, and I’ve been doing this kind of support work for several years now. And my philosophy really does align, as you might imagine, with the book, Small Teaching Online, and James Lang’s original , which is to start small. In terms of technology, I always recommend faculty to choose
something that they themselves are comfortable with, and to not make the mistake of trying, as you said, either several new tools, or possibly trying a tool, a technology, that is so sophisticated and complex that it’s outside of faculty’s comfort zone. So, I’m a big fan of deciding something that you feel comfortable with… starting small. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is we’re kind of in triage mode, I mean, pretty clearly right now,
but maybe four weeks from now, we may have settled into a better rhythm and you may be able to add or layer on additional approaches or technologies or different ways of engaging with your students. Again, as long as you’re communicating with your students, this is what we’re going to start with. And then later on, if you have the bandwidth personally to learn something new, or maybe after surveying what your colleagues are doing, you identify and isolate the one thing that you really want to bring in. Definitely keep it simple and understand that if you as
faculty are not comfortable using a tool, it’s going to create additional challenge for yourself and for your students as well. So stick with what you’re comfortable with.

Rebecca: I think that’s really good advice, and sometimes faculty just need a little reassurance that what they know is okay.

Flower: Absolutely. For sure.

John: Might you also recommend that they check with the students to see how it’s working and ask them if they have any barriers to whatever they’re doing? We have some people in the region who live in areas without broadband, or there’s some people who are living in households where they can’t afford wireless.

Flower: Yeah, there’s a really robust national conversation going on, which is helpful to really think about the student experience. Once again, I think it’s really important to remember that we’re all people and worldwide this is a weird situation, and everybody is under unusual stress and anxiety. And so another one of my basic rules of advice or guidelines here is to practice empathy and flexibility as much as you can. And so that said, I’m seeing contradicting opinions or different approaches, I should say, “Should we be asking students what technology they have available? Or should we not? Is that too intrusive?” I think, again, being transparent with your students and saying, “Hey, we’re going to try this, and if it’s not going well we will figure it out, we’ll change the plan,” can be a really helpful way to go. And then the other guideline that I’ve been sharing with faculty is to go low tech as
much as possible. So I know many faculty and many institutions are suggesting synchronous, live lecturing, audio and video options. Those are actually the hardest and most complicated, and the most prone to fail or challenge. That’s the peak of what we could be doing. In order to ensure the greatest accessibility, including both student access to technology and also any students who might be using things like screen readers or other tools, going lower tech and
using the tools and functions that are within the learning management systems, such as PDF readings and online discussion forums, and quizzes and assignments, those are actually the most possible to create success. Again, for the moment, it may be that later, after you’ve taken the pulse of how your students are doing, you might add more. Or you might host optional synchronous sessions, maybe a virtual office hour or a review session. But for the most success, I recommend going low tech, aiming for the lowest common denominator.

John: And that would certainly satisfy lower bandwidth requirements for people who might be on slower connections.

Flower: Absolutely.

Rebecca: What are some things faculty might want to think about if they know that a lot of their students are using mobile technology rather than desktops and laptops? So in addition to this lower tech approach, are there other things that you would recommend when you know screens might be small that our students are relying on?

Flower: Great question, and I’ve long thought that higher ed is way behind the curve on mobile learning. If you look at industry or corporate training and professional development, there’s some really great mobile apps now. I’m not
saying that now is the time to go out and find a new mobile learning app, let me be clear about that. But I think higher ed has some work to do here, just a couple of simple strategies to consider. First of all, keep in mind the powerful computer that the smartphone is, and again, you have to be careful not to assume that everybody has a smartphone, but it can be a really interesting tool. Maybe students will record video reflections on their smartphone camera, the tablet camera, and upload those or maybe instead of a long, robust written assignment, maybe
you’re going to be okay with little blurbs of text that students can type with their thumbs on their device. It’s a time for flexibility, for creativity, for rethinking the way that you normally do things, and just embracing the adventure, really.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve thought a lot about too is making sure that you’re not putting too much emphasis on things that have nothing to do with your learning objectives. So if grammar and spelling really isn’t part of your learning objective, then some forgiveness over mistyping,[LAUGHTER] and maybe using voice commands and
things like that and using voice to text maybe is appropriate in this case.

Flower: Yeah, Rebecca, I think this is a time to rethink everything, honestly, in higher ed. And I’ve been thinking hard about “What are we going to reflect on looking back when we’re through this immediate crisis situation?” Absolutely, I’m a fan of: if the scholarly citation isn’t really needed for this particular demonstration of student knowledge, then maybe you don’t need to require that. So, I would invite faculty to really critically examine all of their usual practices because it’s not the use right now.

Rebecca: What are some of the questions that you’re getting hammered with?

Flower: Faculty have different levels of experience and comfort, and so some faculty are like, “Okay, I already use the Learning Management System, help me think about additional ways to engage my students online.” The necessity of building and creating and maintaining community cannot be overstated. Again, especially in precarious times such as
these, so many faculty want to know how to engage and interact meaningfully with students. Then we also have, of course, the very predictable question about “How do we do what we do in person such as a lab, or a studio or performance class or field work experience? How do we do that in an online setting?” That’s complicated and challenging, but faculty are resourceful and creative people, and I know that they’ll figure it out. The main takeaway for that question is really identify what the learning goal is for that activity, and then think creatively about how students can achieve that learning in an online or remote setting. Now, keeping in mind that it may be the case that you start to have students do some kitchen sink science labs, or some living room dance moves, or whatever it might be. Students don’t have to stay in the learning management systems, again, with their devices, they can capture video, they can take pictures and upload the evidence of what they did. Just a matter of really focusing on that learning goal and then thinking about the activities that will help students… and again, we have to be careful
not to assume that all students have all the things, that providing options for students to achieve that learning no matter where they are.

Rebecca: Can we circle back to this community piece? You’ve mentioned facilitating community is really important. You’ve talked a lot about communication. What are some ways to get students to come together and feel like they’re still a cohesive whole, rather than disparate people who have been dispersed across the world or across the nation?

Flower: So, before all of this happened, if you’re familiar with my work, you may know that I’ve really focused a lot on increasing the social connections in online classes because there is an inherent distance. It is most often the case that students doing online classwork are by themselves sitting at their home desk or at a coffee shop. It
is unusual for students who are doing online classwork to be sitting with another student or with others. And so just really thinking about that physical isolation, and then thinking about how we can’t use the non-verbal cues that we use when we’re in the classroom. So if we’re explaining something as we’re presenting a mini lecture, and we see a whole bunch of furrowed brows or we see that students are clearly off daydreaming about something else, we can
adjust our approach, we can stop, slow down, re-explain, ask the students what their questions are, and we don’t have that real-time feedback in an online environment. So it’s just very important to be really intentional to cultivate that. It can absolutely be done, you think about how we interact in social media settings. We can engage with other people in online situations, but it takes a little bit more intentionality. So, be visibly present for your students, post those announcements, return assignments, timely answer emails… students still say all the time
that they just wish their online instructors would answer their emails. But those are just ways that you want to be visibly present, posting in an online discussion forum, those kinds of things. And then encourage students. You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if it might be helpful to just create a discussion forum just to say “What’s on your mind right now? How can we help? What are you dealing with? What are the challenges?” and just encourage people in
the class to interact with each other as people.

Rebecca: Wait, we’re all people? [LAUGHTER]

John: Students don’t always have that perception of their faculty face-to-face. This is a nice opportunity to open up in ways that perhaps you haven’t done in the past.

Flower: For sure.

Rebecca: I think a lot of faculty will be teaching remotely from their homes with their own levels of distraction and pets and kids and relatives.

Flower: Yes.

Rebecca: Other habitats, right, to their households, just like students. And I think the more that we can share that and that we’re also trying to manage, or even strategies that we’re using for managing that, could actually be useful as a model for students as well.

Flower: I read a really funny, the beginning of what I think will be a series in The Chronicle of Higher Ed this morning, and it was basically, I think The Chronicle has now dispersed to all working from home. And this one reporter was just describing the challenges of sharing a house with three other working adults and two pets that
don’t get along with each other, and trying to be professional, and be on video conference calls or whatever when the cat’s rear end is brushing against the monitor. [LAUGHTER] So I do think, Rebecca, your point about being really authentic about the challenges that we’re all facing, and again, just practicing flexibility, both for your own approach, and then encouraging your students to do the best they can and you’re there to support them. I don’t think
we can message that frequently enough.

Rebecca: I certainly had cars getting drawn across my keyboard yesterday. So… [LAUGHTER] And up my arm and on my head. [LAUGHTER]

Flower: It’s a challenging situation, and this is just one aspect. You think about the potential financial impact that students and their families might be facing as so many businesses are shutting down right now. You think about if a student becomes sick themselves or somebody in their family becomes sick, there’s so many potential challenges
and barriers. I really think this is a moment for humanity to shine without overstating that, and just supporting each other and being willing to be as flexible as we possibly can, helping students achieve the learning, holding them accountable, but being really willing to flex and empathize as needed. I guess I would just reiterate that we should be kind to ourselves, we should not expect to be online teaching rockstars, we should remember that this is not online teaching as we traditionally think of it, this is a triage mode remote delivery of instruction. And we can’t become really well developed online teachers on the spin of a dime. So be kind to yourself, be patient, take it slow, do what you know how to do. It may be the case that in coming weeks, you can add more, you can become more educated as you avail yourself of the resources that your center and others are providing. But ,just kindness is all that I can really recommend to yourself and to your students.

Rebecca: I think that’s a perfect note to end on, and a good reminder that that flexibility goes both to yourself as well as to your students.

Flower: Absolutely. These are unusual times. We’re all freaking out about lots of different things. And so we have a job to do, and students have a job to do, and we can band together and support each other. I’m just thinking about what movie will be made by Hollywood. [LAUGHTER] I mean, there’s got to be tons of movies that will come out after
this, but specifically about higher ed, that would be interesting. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I think the term you used earlier was weird times, and I would agree, we can all be together in these weird times. [LAUGHTER]

Flower: Just practicing basic humanity and consideration for your fellow human beings, I think, is gonna go a long way.

John: It was just so much nicer reading Stephen King novels than it is to live in one of them.

Flower: That’s true. This is bizarre. Let’s just admit that and determine how we can best move on.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for the tips, and also just allowing us all to realize that we’re not alone.

Flower: That’s a great reminder, Rebecca, we are not alone. Let’s help our students feel like they are not alone, and we’ll get through this. We’re resourceful people.

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

Flower: So, John, just this morning I offered and was encouraged to write a new column for The Chronicle. Now, I haven’t written it yet. But the tentative title of my new column, which I hope to develop in the next couple of days, is “Okay, So You’ve Pivoted Online. Now What?” and I really want to talk to people about, there was all this adrenaline, and all this frenzy and excitement, and then after we get through this rush, I can imagine that people might begin to deflate, they might become discouraged, the prospect of finishing this semester, it might not be really energizing to people. So I would like to write out some suggestions for regaining your energy and your enthusiasm and discovering the benefits of teaching remotely in this particular situation. We’ll see, I haven’t written that yet. We’ll see.

Rebecca: Yeah, I know that some of the conversation about graduations, and in my department it’s senior exhibitions and things, those kind of capstone moments that are really special and how we can make them special remotely, maybe they’ll be extra special.

Flower: So much opportunity for creative thinking right now. I’ve been wondering if this is going to be the demise of the higher ed conference or other industries as well, if we’ll ever get back together in person or if we’ll find so many other ways to interact virtually that things might be really different from here on out.

John: I know in our workshops, we’re seeing a lot of people coming in over Zoom that we’ve never seen before in workshops, and we’re hoping to see a lot more of them in the future. So, it’s opening up this type of remote access to people who have never tried it before, and that’s a really positive aspect.

Flower: Yeah, I love the focus on the opportunities that this situation is affording us. And then let’s think carefully, when we get to a point that we can kind of look back on the situation, I think higher ed leaders really need to be thinking critically about what needs to change to support effective teaching with technology, because if
there’s one thing we’re learning here, it’s a staple, it’s a support that we can’t do without. And yet many institutions don’t really support the effective use of technology in our teaching in a really sort of simple and sustainable way. So I’m, I’m encouraging, again, specifically leadership in higher ed to think critically about centers such as the ones that we live in, and about the role of instructional designers and “How do we make this much more of a core function in support of our institutions?”

Rebecca: I hope those conversations start.

Flower: I’m gonna do everything I can, talk to everybody I can about it. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Agreed.

John: And I think those types of support are more valued than they ever have been before. I think a lot of people have discovered the instructional designers and the teaching centers across the country.

Flower: 100%. Again, that’s an opportunity that we’re being afforded right now is to help people see what we can do and access those people who haven’t come to our workshops before and demonstrate our value, a real opportunity to do that right now.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much.

John: Thank you. It’s great talking to you again.

Rebecca: Stay well.

Flower: Thank you, you too. Thanks for having me.

[MUSIC]

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

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

[MUSIC]

125. Peer-Led Team Learning

Many studies have found that peer-led team learning is effective in helping students learn. In this episode, Dr. Christina Winterton joins us to discuss her study of the factors that result in more productive relationships between peer leaders and the students they work with. Christina has returned to SUNY Oswego as a full time visiting professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, and was previously the Associate Director of the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program at Lemoyne College.

Show Notes

  • Julia Snyder, Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Science Teaching in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University
  • Jason R. Wiles, Associate Professor of Biology and Science Teaching in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University
  • Peter Arcidiacono (2020) 122. Differential Grading Policies. Tea for Teaching Podcast, February 26th.
  • Student Assessment of their Learning Gains (SALG)
  • Michelle Miller, Director of the First Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University.
  • Winterton, C. I., Dunk, R. D., & Wiles, J. R. (2020). Peer-led team learning for introductory biology: relationships between peer-leader relatability, perceived role model status, and the potential influences of these variables on student learning gains. Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Science Education Research, 2(1), 1-9.
    https://doi.org/10.1186/s43031-020-00020-9
  • Ryan Dunk, Graduate Student in Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University.

Transcript

John: Many studies have found that peer-led team learning is effective in helping students learn. In this episode, we discuss a study of the factors that result in more productive relationships between peer leaders and the students they work with.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

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

John: Our guest today is Dr. Christina Winterton. Christina has returned to SUNY Oswego as a full-time visiting professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, and was previously the Associate Director of the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program at Lemoyne College. Welcome, Christina.

Christina: Hi, thank you for having me.

Fiona: Our teas today are:

Christina: I am drinking green tea infused with raspberry, pomegranate, and strawberry.

Fiona: Amazing. I am drinking Tazo’s Refresh Mint tea with a wink.

John: And I am drinking Republic of Tea’s Spring Cherry Green tea. We’ve invited you here today to discuss the dissertation research that you’ve done on peer-led team learning in an introductory biology class. Can you first describe what is meant by peer-led team learning?

Christina: Sure. Peer-led team learning is an active learning technique that typically gets implemented in courses where there’s going to be a high enrollment of students, so a lot of the introductory sciences. I specifically helped with the peer-led team learning at Syracuse University. So the intro to bio course there had between 600 and 700 students for the first semester, and then it went to about 500/400 for the second semester. So with all those students, we still had two lecture periods. So all those students were in one of two lectures. So to supplement the lecture, we found a bunch of research on PLTL, and they implemented peer-led team learning at Syracuse University. And what it is, is it takes students who have recently and successfully completed that introductory biology course, they become peer leaders. So, they need to get a B plus or higher in the course, but then they also have to enroll in a one-credit course with a learning specialist. And our learning specialist at SU is Dr. Julia Snyder, who actually was a huge factor in implementing PLTL at all with Dr. Jason Wiles, who is the professor of intro to bio. So, the premise of peer-led learning or PLTL is you take the student who just recently and successfully completed the course, you give them a course about how to be a leader. So, it covers pedagogy, Bloom’s Taxonomy, different teaching styles. And then after they meet with the learning specialists, they are on their own to lead a 55-minute section of the supplemental peer-led team learning course. So, they get modules that they work through with the students. And it’s different than a teaching assistant or a faculty because, first of all, there are no grades involved. The peer leader’s not grading the students, they’re just there to help, and a big difference, a big key, is that the peer leaders are not provided answer keys to these modules. So, they’re truly acting like a fellow learner, a fellow student. They’re relying on what they remember, what their notes are, and they’re just facilitating the conversation. And as a group, the current students are working with this peer leader to construct new original answers and in that they become friends, and they talk more about their feelings and what they really think of certain aspects and how to work through it, and the peer leader is able to relate and share stories because they just took the course.

Fiona: Could I ask some very practical questions about how this works?

Christina: Yeah.

Fiona: So how big are the groups, the peer groups?

Christina: So each group will have six to eight current students with a peer leader.

Fiona: And these are sections that are scheduled along with the massive lecture courses.

Christina: Yeah. Yep, they’re supplemental. So it’s a co-enrollment.

Fiona: And they’re required?

Christina: They are not required. The literature breaks it down with different incentives for different universities to have the peer leaders and the students both choose to be in peer-led team learning. So, for the leaders, typically it’s a learning credit or a leadership credit, and it’s a resume builder. It’s a way for some of the students who are going to maybe take an MCAT to refresh themselves on the material. And then for the students, a lot of the times it’s connected to maybe a portion of extra credit. So that’s the different carrots.

Fiona: Yeah, that’s fascinating. And I want to talk very, very much about the way you assessed this program, but could you give us maybe an example of a teaching technique or something that the peer leader might learn in the one-credit course you were mentioning they’re a part of?

Christina: Sure. I was lucky enough to be able to fill in for Dr. Snyder sometimes when she was out. One of my favorite lessons that we did was as the instructor for the day, I stood up in front of the classroom and all the leaders all had different pieces of paper. And I said, “Okay, listen to what I say and do it as I say it.” And then I said aloud instructions, “Fold the top of the paper to the right towards the center, make a triangle on the side, do it again with the other side,” and I verbally gave them instructions on how to fold a paper airplane. Well, obviously, that didn’t go so great. So I said, “Okay, keep that to the side.” I didn’t even tell them what they were making. They were like “What am I doing?” So they put it to the side. The next thing, I gave them a handout that it said “Step one, fold this” and it was just written instructions. And then for the final round, I put it on the doc cam and folded it with them. And then we looked at the three different outcomes, and we talked about different strategies used to teach or explain. “Did everybody do it the best the last time? Did maybe somebody do it better the second time? Is that right? Is that wrong?” And we talked about different ways to convey the same information to different groups of students when they’re actually leading a session.

Fiona: And do the peer leaders who are forming a cohort of their own essentially, as they’re going through this…

Christina: Yeah.

Fiona: Do they report back through the semester with questions or problems, does that fold into this?

Christina: Yes, I know that Dr. Snyder, as part of the course, she had them keep journals. And so they would reflect on the session. And each leader really only had one group of students. So they knew their names, they knew their habits, they were able to write really good reflective journals and keep notes on “They liked this module or they didn’t like this module. You know, they really liked the debate that we did this week.” Or next week they’d say, you know, “Those concept mappings?…the students struggled, but I think I personally saw them learning even though they didn’t.” So we were able to get really good insight on the models just from those journals.

John: There’s a lot of research that shows that peer instruction can be really effective. What makes it so effective?

Christina: What makes it so effective is actually what my research honed in on, because I was obviously a member of this Biology Education Research Group at SU and I saw Dr. Snyder and Dr. Wiles doing all these really cool things with PLTL. And I know it got results in the form of the research coming out was saying the students enrolled in PLTL had higher grades than their non-PLTL peers, because like you asked, it’s not mandatory. So, some students were in it, and some students weren’t. And you’re able to see the difference in final grades. And I just wanted to know “Why,” right? “What is it about the session? Is it the environment? Is it that there’s no faculty? That it wasn’t in a lecture hall? (It was in a small library room.)” So I just wanted to figure out what about the interaction made it so effective, and I thought like you’d ask that it would have to have something to do with the dynamic between a student-to-student rather than a student-to-faculty. So I was reading up on some literature trying to find out in particular for the STEM fields, what makes peers help each other more. And that led me to some research on role models and relatability and seeing someone you can relate to be successful or do something you want to do. So that led me to develop my question of “Is the PLTL setting enough to leave a student calling their peer leader a role model by the end of this? And what makes up a role model? And did it have an effect?”

Fiona: Don’t keep us in suspense.

John: Although maybe we want to save the answer until a little bit later.

Christina: That’s another question. Yeah.

John: So make sure you listen to the end of the podcast to find out what happened. [LAUGHTER] So you talk about, in your dissertation, the importance of education in the STEM fields. Why is it important to focus our attention on STEM programs?

Christina: So it’s important to focus on STEM programs in particular during the first year or so of college when the students are choosing their major and deciding if they want to pursue STEM after they get a sample of it because the highest rate of students leaving STEM comes between the freshman and sophomore year. So a cause could be what they perceive to be an unwelcoming, large intro course. They come from high school where it’s a smaller class, students know each other, the teachers know them, then you go to the lecture hall and nobody sees you and attendance doesn’t matter, you know. So we can make it feel welcoming and inclusive and that your voice is being heard. And if you have a question, don’t be afraid to ask it and other people struggle as well, then maybe we can keep them and say, “Okay, I still want to pursue this. I got through first year and now I’ll be able to choose an elective that hones in on my specific interests.” So, we particularly don’t want to scare them away with large intro courses, because the overall number of degrees conferred in STEM in the United States is lower than China and Russia and other countries comparable to us.

Fiona: And we also know that the struggle to complete let’s say, STEM is not evenly distributed across different sorts of student groups. That attrition that you described…

Christina: Absolutely.

Fiona: is exaggerated in certain underrepresented groups.

Christina: Absolutely, actually, again, we’ll speak to some of the amazing people I was able to work with while I was at SU in that Biology Education Research Group, one of their studies specifically showed that peer-led team learning closes the gap between underrepresented minorities and their peers in the course. So peer-led team learning can provide this avenue to level out the playing field.

Fiona: Did you have any experience with peer-led learning yourself in your own education?

Christina: I didn’t actually, no.

Fiona: Everything you’ve described makes so much sense. Motivating students, making learning spaces accessible to students.

Christina: Yeah.

Fiona: And I can’t help but think what would be different about my educational path if I had had peers involved in the process in some way?

Christina: Yeah. And I actually went to SU myself, and this opportunity wasn’t available. So it’s fairly new.

John: I started doing it after quite a few years ago, maybe 12/13 years ago, I went to a conference. And I wish I knew who presented this. But there was an experiment, and I believe it was a chemistry class, where they introduced your instructors and they measured the students’ performance for everyone, including the TAs. There was a larger group, and they had larger sections, but they had graduate TAs and they were using undergraduate TAs for the first time. And they measured the increase in performance of students from the beginning to the end, including the TAs, and what they found is among the undergraduate students in the class, the graduate student TAs, and the undergraduate TAs, the undergraduate TAs actually learned the most, and the students who work with the undergraduate TAs had larger learning gains than those who work with the graduate TAs, which is very consistent with the types of things that are being found here. There have been quite a few studies, and I wish I knew some of the citations off-hand, that have found similar effects. It’s interesting. I should also note, in a podcast that we released on February 26, we talked a little bit more about the dropout rate where we specifically looked at the gender difference in dropout rates, and that women are disproportionately likely to leave the STEM fields in response to the relatively lower grades that they receive in the STEM field compared to other disciplines, even though their grades were higher than males in the classes, at least in that study. So the lower performance that many students experience in the STEM fields does seem to be a pretty significant deterrent for, as you said, underrepresented groups. Also, for first-gen students, it seems to be pretty significant in a number of studies. So we’re losing a lot of people who could be really successful in these fields, and as you noted, we’re falling behind other countries. And as we close our borders to the people coming from other countries that could seriously hurt us in the STEM disciplines if we don’t bring more people through here or eliminate some of the barriers to foreign students entering.

Christina: Actually as part of my research, when I was delving into some of the psychology research that came up because I was looking at perception and role models, so we went past biology and education into a little bit of the psych realm, and there was one study that just laid it out really clearly like exactly what you’re saying. And it just got me so interested because their study specifically aimed to put students in a situation and give them exposure to things that would specifically counteract the two prevalent STEM stereotypes and identified the two prevalent STEM stereotypes as: 1. STEM is for white European males, and 2. STEM is only for those who are innately gifted at it. So, that really caught my attention because as an advisor, and as a professor, the students have come up to me a lot of times in STEM courses and said, “I got a bad grade on this. I don’t think I’m good enough at this. I studied for 50 hours that week.” And they always put an emphasis on how hard they had to work to get their grade as if it’s a bad thing. And it really just speaks to that that they truly think that people who are successful in the fields are just born with it and that even your professors never had to put in work. So now after reading that article, I always try to directly counteract those stereotypes for them as well and say, you know, “I have to put in a lot of work to maintain too, you know, it’s normal. And it’s not just for those people and don’t give up, everybody has to put in work, even though they don’t maybe show it or maybe you don’t see that.”

John: And that’s where the peers can be really useful because they just went through it. And serving as you said, as that role model, can be really effective in letting them know that this is just normal. This is how we learn.

Christina: Exactly.

Fiona: And I could see how hearing “This is normal, this is how we learn” might resonate very differently, if that comes from a peer than it does from a professor, even if you’re being…

Christina: Definitely

Fiona: entirely sincere and open.

Christina: Definitely, and especially from someone who has no power over their grades, or what’s going to be on the quiz, you know, so if they can just hear it from a peer.

John: And who not only had just been through it, but had been through it successfully and was able to do well in the course.

Christina: Yeah, and if they can share with them, how many hou rs a week they put in and how they prioritized it as well. That’s gonna all lead to part of the finding.

Fiona: You mentioned that you didn’t have any experience with peer-led team learning in your own education.

Christina: Right.

Fiona: Can you tell us a little bit about how you discovered this as a topic? And what made you decide that this is what you wanted to research?

Christina: Sure. So, I actually discovered this because I went to Syracuse University myself, and I was a biology undergraduate. But, then I decided to get a master’s degree in forensic science because the pieces of biology that I enjoyed most were DNA and genetics. So I pursued a Master’s of Forensic Science, and as a graduate student, I was assigned to be a teaching assistant in intro to bio. So I began doing labs, and as I mentioned before, Jason Wiles is the professor of Intro to Bio, so he was my supervisor then and he became my PhD advisor as him and I started agreeing on some teaching strategies and techniques. So, I saw the students as a teaching assistant in the lab. And the lab by itself is such a different feeling than the lecture. I saw 24 students at a time, not 600, so I was able to see that perspective when I was a teaching assistant, and I was giving them weekly quizzes and grades, and they could come to my office hours, and it was like a tutoring type thing. So, I saw that perspective of them. And then they implemented the peer-led team learning. In addition to the lecture in the lab, this became an option. And they started doing research on it, and Dr. Wiles was leading that research. And then when I chose to get my PhD, he still had active projects going on. And I was looking at those results of how come this increases their grades, and this does increase their grades. And then it just made me think: Why?

John: So that brings us to your study, how did you design a study to investigate these issues?

Christina: Alright, I went back and forth on the design for this a lot because a lot of the research was focusing on assessments, quiz grades, test grades throughout the course and final course averages. So, I wanted to include that because I knew that there had been good results as far as a positive benefit for PLTL and you could find this in the grades, in the difference between the grades. So, I knew I want to collect data on the final course grades, which is easy enough. But then I also wanted to hear from the students what they felt PLTL gave them in terms of their learning gains. So I used an instrument called the Student Assessment of Learning Gains. And I had the students fill that out. And I was able to use that to see their learning gains, and you calculate the total learning gains by just adding up all of their different categories. So, you ask them questions on a Likert scale, and then you get the summation, but I knew I wanted to do learning gains rather than just course grade because there’s a lot of different ways to get a good course grade: you could memorize you could just remember from the slides, you could just be a very good test taker and good at multiple choice. So I just wanted to see if they were truly learning and I really was drawn to the SALG because that tested the things that they were able to carry on to upper-level courses like their ability to connect concepts in biology to one another is one of the questions your ability to connect concepts in biology to other courses you’re taking. “How strong do you feel you could explain a biology concept to a family member? How strong do you feel that you could create your own position after reading a graph of results and defend your position of how you interpreted the graph?” So this was testing actual skills and true learning gains, not just their end course grades. So I want to look at both of those factors. So, I gathered up their final course grades, and I got the assessment of their learning gains as well.

Fiona: So, they provided assessments of their own learning gains.

Christina: Yeah.

Fiona: And the peer leader?

Christina: So, as I got thinking, like a year into the project, I was thinking, all right, my whole study is testing interactions between the students and student-to-student interactions and what makes a good peer leader. So first, I gave out at the end of the semester, there was a qualitative questionnaire one of the questions asked “Do you consider your peer leader to be a role model in any way? Please explain, yes or no.” So they gave me qualitative data there for why they saw the peer leader to be a role model. But then, as I got thinking that I wanted to do this interaction between them, I thought, why not ask the peer leaders, because this is all the student perception so far, Let’s ask the peer leaders, “Do you consider yourself to be a role model in any way? Yes or no? What makes you a role model to your students? Why do you think you’re not a role model?” And we’re able to look at those two qualitative sets of results and find the discrepancy so that if there is a difference between what the student’s looking for and what the peer leader thinks the student’s looking for, but they’re not providing, we can address that in the leadership course, and say, try to implement these strategies, try to display X, Y, and Z. So, we collected that qualitative data. And then in addition to that, I was also wondering, okay, maybe the student just likes that peer leader, like maybe they’re just a funny person. Maybe they’re just nice. So I thought it would be interesting to see how well the peer leader gets to know the student because as we discussed one of these benefits, this is a very small group of six to eight students, you can spend one-on-one time you see this person every week you talk outside of class. So, I also asked the peer leaders to fill out the Student Assessment of Learning Gains, but ask them to do it in regard to their students. So I said, “Alright, Jane, you had Joe as a student, fill out what you think Joe’s learning gains are.” And then I took Jane’s assessment and compared it to Joe’s assessment and found that the student and peer leader pairings who were closest together had the least amount of differences between their assessments had higher course grades and saw the peer leader to be a role model and relatable and higher learning gains.

Fiona: So very elegantly designed approach to this incredibly thorny, difficult, complex process of learning. And so you’ve essentially got two perspectives on a single student’s experience.

Christina: Yes.

Fiona: From their sense of perception, which is also a fascinating idea. There could be a difference between learning and a student’s perception of learning.

Christina: Right.

Fiona: But by having this very elegant combination…

Christina: And part of what led me to saying, you know, there have been errors in students’ self-reported data before, but perception is valuable, the student perception is valuable. And there are other studies that show if a student perceives themselves to be learning and doing well and happy in a course, they’re going to stay in the discipline despite whatever their final course grade is, and that only helps our retention.

John: But you also said that the people who had the better match that way also had higher course grades as well. So, that seems to validate at least the general nature of that instrument.

Christina: Right.

Fiona: Could we talk about these very interesting concepts, so the idea of being a role model, but also the idea of being relatable?

Christina: Yes. So, originally, the design of the project was on role models because there’s so much literature on role models to support it. So the role model question, the qualitative portion, was asked to the students and the peer leaders. But then, as I was analyzing the results of role model, relatability got mentioned so often that it almost seemed like it was a stepping stone to role model status, that to become a role model, you had to be relatable. So, I didn’t have those students anymore, so I did a follow up question to the peer leaders because we still had access to the peer leaders, their course was a little bit longer. So I was able to ask the peer leaders to write about relatability and how relatability came into context with their relationship with the students. So, for the relatability factor, we have the qualitative answers from the peer leaders. And for the role model factor, we have it from the students and the peers, but students were mentioning relatability in a lot of the role model answers.

Fiona: And what does relatability mean in this context?

Christina: So relatability, I was able to categorize into a few different codes and categories. So the students were calling the peer leader relatable. Sometimes it was very clear, they would say the phrase “In my shoes, you know, they were just in my shoes, they know exactly what I’m going through, they’re in my shoes.” Other times, they attributed it to a common career goal. So these are all bio majors. They’re all “I want to be a doctor and my peer leader is taking the MCAT. That’s what I’m going to do in the next year or two. So, I can relate to her because I see her doing this thing that I’m about to do.” What was interesting is that if there was a commonality there, it would always be a shared attainable goal. Like a “In the near future, I’m gonna do that.” It was neat to see that and it’s definitely an attainable goal of the students. Sometimes when you think role model, you think, “Oh, they need to be a famous celebrity and they’re rich,” so it was neat to see the students just saying “They’re a role model because they’re succeeding in what I see to be a hard path that I also want to do.”

Fiona: They’re a role model because “I want to be there next year.”

Christina: Yes. And I relate to them.

John: So we have all that evidence about the effectiveness of your instruction. But this is discovering why it’s working or what specifically allows it to work.

Christina: Right.

John: So, what does this suggest that in terms of developing your lead team leader program, what should that training focus on?

Christina: I would recommend that we share the results with the peer leaders and show them that in a lot of the student responses, when they were saying what they thought made the peer leader a role model, or the peer leader relatable, a chunk of them did say that they got a good grade in this course, and that’s what I want to do, and that’s my goal is just to pass. But, there was a lot more in depth answers than I think maybe I was even expecting, and it went into things like “They were just kind, they were nice. I could tell that they cared if I was learning, they stopped and adjusted the course to my pace,” and that’s a huge benefit that we don’t get in the lecture halls when you just have to keep going, and you’re not able to assess “Are all 600 students with me? Do they all understand?” And a lot of the responses just came up that there was a caring peer leader who truly cared if they were learning, and talked to them and asked them. So, I think that showing the peer leaders that would be a little bit of a difference, because I think a lot of the times it just gets focused on “Well, I did really well in this course.” So, here’s what I think, that there’s so many personality attributes that go into it.

Fiona: I keep thinking of Michelle Miller’s line, that teachers are professional motivators, fundamentally the role that teachers play in drawing out the learning potential in a student in some way. And this seems to point to that in some sense, that what matters the most to the students… yes, the content and skill development matter… but that, in fact, there was some other piece to the puzzle.

Christina: Yeah.

Fiona: That might be effective or emotional.

Christina: And motivate is a word that was frequently used, so much so that I used it as a code for the qualitative piece.

John: And I understand you just heard that a paper from this study is going to be published. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes, and we’ll list it as forthcoming until the paper becomes available.

Christina: Just got accepted. Yes, thank you.

John: Congratulations.

Christina: Thank you. The first paper shows the quantitative aspect, that students had a difference in either perceived learning gains or final course grade, if they saw their peer leader to be relatable and a role model. And then part two is coming up with the qualitative research that explains what those definitions were in the eyes of the students.

Fiona: I have a question that I think goes a little beyond the scope of what you were focused on. But it comes back to this idea of what being relatable means. And I’m thinking about that gap, that the attrition rate or the achievement gap or however you want to talk about that for certain sorts of underrepresented groups. Does your research suggest that the identity of the peer leaders might matter? We know representation matters. We know that this is part of envisioning yourself in a discipline or a field process that your research is getting at. And could you imagine the approach to setting up a peer-led team learning approach could be useful in like specific interventions?

Christina: Actually, that’s a really interesting question that you brought up, because a lot of the research points to that. And then I was expecting to see that, but it was the only time that that was really brought up about the identity of the peer leader was out of all the responses I had, I believe six times the student just said, “Because they’re my age” and interestingly, two times when the identity of the peer leader was brought up for the “No, they’re not a role model,” the answer was “Because they’re my age.” So, I thought that was a really neat finding, that some of the students are viewing age as this positive thing. And other students are using it to say, “No, they can’t be a role model to me. They’re my age,” and other students are saying, “Yes, they’re a role model, because they’re so successful, and they’re just my age.” So, I thought that was really interesting, and I’m not sure, there wasn’t any answers about ethnicity or even gender, and I’m just wondering if the students maybe felt a little like restricted because it was a written out response, and if I just looked at the data of the ethnicities of each group and did a comparison there, if maybe I would find something. But I didn’t go that far in this experiment, but it would be really neat to do so in the future.

John: That could be an interesting follow-up, just to see if the gender and race of the team leader affected the performance of people within the group if they’ve matched or if they diverged.

Christina: Yeah, I agree. I did look at if STEM major and non-STEM major, because in semester one of peer-led team learning, it could be used for any student. So, even if you’re not a bio major, you could be using it to satisfy your science elective. So, I was trying to see if there was a trend with the students who were STEM majors getting more out of it than the non-STEM majors, and we didn’t see a significant difference.

John: Interesting.

Fiona: You mentioned the fascinating finding that when the peer leaders’ assessment of the students’ learning and the students’ assessment of the students’ learning matched, that there was a definite correlation with the overall performance. Did you pull out any information about when there was a mismatch? Or was there anything interesting or useful about the opposite scenario?

Christina: Yes. The peer leader responses, in general, were always a little bit more informative and longer than the student responses. A lot of the time when there was a mismatch, the peer leader would leave a note at the end or something that would say, “This is what I think. But so and so didn’t come to class very much.” In those cases, there was a big discrepancy where interestingly, the student would say, “Oh, I learned a lot, high learning gains,” and the peer leader would put them at a low learning gain, and then there would be a big discrepancy, and I would try to see why and the peer leaders would say, “I never saw them, so I don’t know if they learned or not.” My research group at SU, one of my good friends, Ryan Dunk, who was actually on this paper that just got published, he helped me with some statistics for this. Another question that came up was, “Could it possibly just be that some peer leaders care more and know their students more?” But, we were able to find that there was no significant difference between the peer leaders or the section, so time of day didn’t matter and peer leader didn’t matter, so that was neat to find out too.

Fiona: Fascinating.

John: You mention that the participation in the peer-led team leader program was optional for the students.

Christina: Yes.

John: What proportion of the students in the classes participated in that?

Christina: I can answer that for the semester of the data set that I’m working with, it was after you eliminated students who either didn’t consent to research, or were under 18 and couldn’t be included into research. Out of around 650 of them, 241 participated in my study. So, that means that at least 241 were in peer-led team learning.

John: and it could have been more…

Christina: And it could have been a few more.

John: …if they chosenot to participate or were under eighteen.

Fiona: Are you currently, are you still crunching the numbers and figuring things out from all the data you currently have?

Christina: There’s a good three more publications that are all in progress in various stages. Review, sending it to a partner, and working with my advisor still.

Fiona: Yeah.

Christina: He’s still doing different projects too, though they’re still being studied.

Fiona: Do you think peer-led team learning can work across disciplines?

Christina: I do, and a lot of research was shown to back that. And it’s actually pretty interesting because it started in a chemistry class, and then other sciences picked it up, biology and physics. But, it’s expanded into mathematics, and computer science has had success. And other studies also supported the finding that it would work in smaller classes too. So, it could work at universities, it could work at colleges, it could work at private institutions. So, it just looks like it can work across the board.

Fiona: There’s still room to find out, room to experiment.

Christina: Yeah.

Fiona: We’d like to finish by asking you “What comes next?”

Christina: I think if I don’t answer that I’ll get those three publications out that my advisor is gonna… [LAUGHTER] I’m gonna hear about it. So all the publications.

Fiona: We very, very much look forward to the results from those various publications.

Christina: Thank you.

John: This was fascinating.

Christina: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here. It’s such a privilege.

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

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

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123. New Trends in Science Instruction

Science instruction in K-12 education has long been provided as if science consisted of a body of facts to be memorized. The Next Generation Science Standards, however, rely on an inquiry-based approach in which students learn about science by engaging in scientific exploration. In this episode, Dr. Kristina Mitchell joins us to discuss this approach and its implications for college instruction.

After six years as a director of online education at Texas Tech University, Kristina now works for a science curriculum publishing company and teaches part time at San Jose State University.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Science instruction in K-12 education has long been provided as if science consisted of a body of facts to be memorized. The Next Generation Science Standards, however, rely on an inquiry-based approach in which students learn about science by engaging in scientific exploration. In this episode, we discuss this approach and its implications for college instruction.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guest today is Dr. Kristina Mitchell. After six years as a director of online education at Texas Tech University, Kristina now works for a science curriculum publishing company and teaches part-time at San Jose State University. Welcome back, Kristina.

Kristina: Thank you. It’s good to be back.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

Kristina: Diet Dr. Pepper.

John: The same as last time. [LAUGHTER] I have a green tea today.

Rebecca: And I have a nice pot of brewed English Breakfast tea.

John: We’ve invited you here today to talk about the Next Generation Science Standards. How did you get involved with the Next Generation Science Standards?

Kristina: During my work at Texas Tech University in online education, I was doing a lot of consulting for publishing companies on their online and curriculum offerings, which led to a full-time job offer from a curriculum company that works specifically in K-12 and some higher ed science curriculum, and I learned very quickly that one of the newest trends in science education at the K-12 level are these Next Generation Science Standards that were created by college-level science professors in order to change the way we teach science to K-12 students.

John: How did these standards come about?

Kristina: I have to admit that because I’m relatively new to the science curriculum world, I am not an expert on their creation. But I do know that there were several panels of scientists from various higher education institutions that got together to try and figure out from the perspectives of different disciplines, “What do we want our students who come to university to know about science once they get there?” When I was in middle school, I don’t know how much you remember your middle school science lessons, but I remember dissecting frogs and doing our Punnett squares about genetics, but what I remember most is that we would learn those principles of science like Newton’s laws throughout the week, and then Friday, we would do a lab to prove that they were true. And unfortunately, that’s not how any of us do science. Being a social scientist myself, that’s not how I did science at the college level, as a researcher. So, the panel of experts from various scientific disciplines sought to change the way students think about science to think about it more as a process of investigation, rather than something you sort of memorize and then confirm.

Rebecca: The Next Generation Science Standards have three dimensions. Can you talk about those a little bit?

Kristina: Sure. So, these sort of three dimensions, or the three pillars of the way students are learning in K-12 about science, the first is they’re learning disciplinary core ideas. So these disciplinary core ideas are the core features of disciplines like physics or chemistry and the things that they really have to know about that specific discipline in order to build on that knowledge. The second one is science and engineering practices, so these are the ways we study science. And the great thing about the ways that we study science is that it doesn’t change across disciplines. Whether you’re a physicist or a chemist or a sociologist, you’re going to use the same types of scientific practices to answer your research questions. And then the final dimension, the third dimension, are cross cutting concepts. So, these are things like observing patterns or observing cause and effect, concepts that also span across all disciplines, not necessarily limited only to science. So it’s concepts that students can use to understand the world around them, regardless of what questions they’re asking.

Rebecca: Can you give us an example of how these three dimensions play out in a particular grade level?

Kristina: Sure. So when we’re thinking about what students are doing in science classrooms these days that might be different from the way we learned science when we were in seventh grade, students are doing a lot more investigation centered science. So, you walked into your classroom, your college classroom, and somebody walks in and says to one of your students, “What are you guys doing?” And your student might say, “Oh, we’re reading this chapter on…” Rebecca, I think you’re an art person, right?

Rebecca: Yeah, design.

Kristina: “So we’re reading this chapter on Photoshop,” and you ask them, “Okay, well, why are you doing that?” And they’d say “Well, because Professor Mushtare told us to.” In trying to get them away from that instead, the way they’re trying to implement science in the classrooms now would be to get students, you know, if they came into your classroom to say, “Well what are you guys working on?” And they might say, “Well, we’re trying to make a flyer for this project.” And you’d say “Why?” And they’d say, “Well, because we’re trying to figure out how we can make people more excited in this project that we’re working on.” So, getting students to start from the point of “What are we trying to figure out and why do we have to do this activity in order to figure that out?” …rather than “What are we memorizing, what are we learning because the teacher told us to?”

John: So it’s more of a project-based learning or inquiry-based approach to the discipline.

Kristina: Absolutely. And we’ve seen that a lot emerging in higher ed. So, it’s really great to see it reflected in the K-12 space too.

John: But it’s important probably for faculty to be aware of this, because if students are starting to use this approach, as they move forward, they might expect to see more of that in higher ed, where they might see it as a step backwards if they have to move to something that involves more rote learning, for example.

Kristina: Exactly. We’re seeing a lot less “sage on the stage”-type activities, both in K-12 and in higher ed. So it’s really important, I think, that we all kind of know what both sides of education are doing so we can at least know where our students are coming from.

Rebecca: How do you see this new approach helping students be better prepared for college?

Kristina: Well I definitely think that the idea of empowering students to be in charge of their own knowledge is really important. Sometimes I find that a struggle that my students have is doing this sort of figuring things out on their own. If I don’t give explicit instructions with explicit rubrics, they sometimes feel very lost. And so empowering them to recognize themselves as people who can ask questions and figure out the answers to those questions, that goes far beyond just physics class. That goes into just being a responsible and productive member of society. So, I think hopefully we can see students taking a little bit more ownership in their learning because of these trends at K-12.

John: Does it also perhaps give students a little more motivation when they have a goal in mind, and they know why they’re doing things rather than just doing it because their instructors told them to?

Kristina: Yeah, I would definitely think so. I definitely remember my seventh grade year not being passionate about the science, other than “Wow, cool. It’s a dead frog.” So thinking about empowering students to ask these questions might get them more excited about what they’re learning about.

John: In one of our earlier podcasts, we talked to Josh Eyler, who emphasized the importance of curiosity and nurturing curiosity and this approach seems to be very nicely tied into that.

Kristina: Absolutely. And I think about my own political science classroom. One of the fun activities I’ve done and I swear the first time I went through it, it was one of those days where I thought, “Ah… I’m tired. I don’t have anything that I’m interested in lecturing about. We’re almost through this semester, what am I going to do today?” And so I decided, I’m just going to have the students write questions on index cards related to political science and hand them all in and I’ll answer all of the ones that I can. And that was one of the best days of class. I’ve recreated that many times in semesters. And so seeing that these Next Generation Science Standards where we’re trying to get students to think there are some things you learn about each discipline, but there are some practices and concepts that apply everywhere and you just learn how to ask the right questions and you use these concepts and practices to answer them. It’s something that I’m using in my political science class, even really, before I realized that I was specifically doing so.

Rebecca: Do you have any idea how students are responding to this curricula?

Kristina: So every individual curriculum and program is going to be a little bit different, but they are all going to tie into these main ideas. And one thing that we’ve seen in student performance and student preferences is that the students really like doing things in class, having activities and hands on specifically to science. Of course, that often means labs. But one thing that I often talk to teachers about and get a lot of really good feedback on is the idea that we kind of think of doing science looks like it’s in lab coats with safety goggles, but we all know as researchers ourselves that science looks like talking sometimes. And sometimes it looks like asking questions, and sometimes it looks like taking notes or revising models, and getting the teachers and students to realize that that’s all part of what doing science is. They get really excited at the idea of doing science themselves. Of course, they like to see things explode in class, but sometimes just getting them the opportunity to have discussions with each other. It’s amazing to me what the middle school students are capable of, and our elementary age students, what they’re capable of. I have kids myself and I didn’t know that they were learning such higher level concepts of science in class.

Rebecca: There’s big movements to move STEM to STEAM. Is the humanities represented in this new model?

Kristina: So, when we think about STEM, that’s kind of what everyone’s prioritizing these days: the science, the technology, engineering and mathematics… and the A to add it to STEAM would be the arts. So the idea that the arts are also important, but I think there are some key pieces missing here. When we focus exclusively on STEM and on creation and innovation, that’s really good. We need creation and innovation. But as I feel like sometimes we’re learning right now, without a good background knowledge of history, we might be creating and innovating things that either already exist, or have already been tried, or that don’t have a good basis in what we’ve experienced as a society. It’s like they said on Jurassic Park, you spend so much time wondering whether you can and you don’t stop to think about whether you should.

Rebecca: So you were just raising that question about ethics and things like this. So,how do you see this curriculum evolving so that the humanities are better represented or integrate more into our integrated learning in K through 12?

Kristina: Well, one thing that I think is really great about the NGSS is that it definitely starts to sort of de-silo the disciplines of science. So, when we think about physics and chemistry and earth science and life science, when I was in school, those were all completely separate years, both in middle school and in high school. And the NGSS standards definitely start to recognize that we can’t silo our disciplines like that because they have so much to speak to each other. Some questions you need many disciplines of science to answer. And so I’m hoping that slowly, more and more curriculum writers will apply that same standard to the humanities, to the social sciences, and to the arts, the idea that nothing can truly be siloed because social science speaks to even questions like “What scientific research do we do? What research questions do we ask?” That can’t be explained using natural sciences alone. Because yes, natural sciences might seem really unbiased, but we’re asking certain questions and we’re not asking others. So using social science and humanities to help answer those bigger questions. I’m hoping that we see less siloing across disciplines over time. And even at universities, we’re starting to see increases in things like cluster hires, where multiple people from different disciplines all come at a sort of similar question, kind of like what we’re doing here. We’re three people from very different disciplines. But we’re all interested in the question of, you know, what makes teaching good or bad.

Rebecca: One of the questions that’s risen a lot in higher ed, and I know as a popular conversation on our campus, is about fake news and debunking pseudoscience. Do you see that this curriculum helps with that,? …perpetuates that?

Kristina: I think that’s a really good question, and kind of a difficult one, because I think it’s really important to teach students how to interpret the world around them, and what science is and how it’s done, because that can help us determine the validity of the information that we get. But I also think, like we were just talking about, there is a move away from rote learning, from the idea that an expert in a field tells us what is true about that field and we learn it. The fact that we’re moving toward anyone can be an expert, anyone can do the research themselves, anyone can ask questions. Sometimes, I also worry that that pendulum might swing too far, because that’s sometimes where we get people who go online and find whatever Google can tell them about vaccines not being safe or about climate change not being real. And because they feel empowered to be their own expert, they’re treating themselves and their research as equivalent to people who have devoted their lives to getting advanced degrees and who know the answers to these questions. And so I worry that maybe we’ll see the pendulum swing a little too far in the other direction, but I’m not sure.

Rebecca: Based on knowing what you know about higher ed and what you know about this science curriculum, what do you think faculty should be thinking about in terms of what their students might know or might not know, or how they might know differently than they did before?

Kristina: I think that it’s important to teach students what expertise is to begin with, when we think about what it means to be an expert and know something. So, when we go back to those next generation science standards, and think about those three dimensions, the disciplinary core ideas, to me, those are the things that experts already know and that we can accept as the core ideas of each discipline. So, starting from that point and saying the question of vaccine safety has already been established, we know that the vaccines that are here are safe. That’s a disciplinary core idea. But now let’s use our science and engineering practices and our cross-cutting concepts to think about other types of preventative medicine that maybe don’t have the same consensus or new types of vaccines? How would we know that those are safe or how would we know that those are effective? So, I think it’s important not to forget about those disciplinary core ideas that are things that experts have already figured out questions that have already been settled, and then allowing people to start from that point and ask their own questions and do their own research using the scientific method.

John: Changing the topic just a little bit, we get a fair number of people who are interested in the STEM fields when they’re in middle school and even high school, but then they get to college, and all of a sudden, they have to start taking calculus classes, and Matrix Algebra, and Organic Chemistry. Is there any way that perhaps lessons learned from this approach could be used to make college classes more effective and not having so many people get lost along the way once they hit these courses that have been traditionally a bit of a barrier to progress in those areas?

Kristina: That’s a really great question, and we even see that in political science. I teach our research methods class in political science and it has just the tiniest bit of statistics in it. And students are like, “Why am I doing math in a political science class?” And then of course, in graduate school, we’re seeing increasing amounts of quantitative knowledge needed to finish graduate programs and then to compete on the job market. So, I definitely think that the rise of math as something important is a deterrent to some students who might otherwise be interested in entering STEM or social science fields, but I think that also comes down to the pendulum again. I think that it’s important to realize that quantitative methodology is a method of understanding scientific questions, and you don’t have to use quantitative methodology to answer every scientific question. Some of them can be answered using qualitative methods, and even discussing political theory or other types of theories in other sciences or in the humanities. I think it would be good if we could open up the doors a little bit to people who have really high level intelligence and interest and curiosity, but maybe don’t have an interest in math. I think both by making math more accessible and less required, we might be able to get some really interesting new perspectives in our college level courses. I don’t like the idea of using hard math classes as a way to weed students out. And I think that’s sometimes what they’re used for, because I took Matrix Algebra in grad school, and it was really hard. And I’ve never used it since that class… ever again. So it’s not as though it was a skill I needed to be a PhD in political science. It felt more like a class that was used to weed out students who weren’t as interested or weren’t as good at memorizing how to do Matrix Algebra.

John: The point I was trying to get to, I think, is that perhaps if more of these inquiry-based methods were used to motivate the material, it could help get past that. I actually had a similar experience with Matrix Algebra. And when I was learning, I was able to do the proofs and work through it, but I didn’t really understand it until I started using it in econometrics and other disciplines, when all of a sudden it just made so much sense and why all those theorems were there and useful. But we lost a lot of people along the way there. And perhaps that’s something we could build into all of our classes to help motivate students and not just hit them with a lot of theorems and not necessarily even just rote learning, but a lot of inquiry for which the motivation may not be obvious to people when they take it.

Kristina: Definitely. And I think that when I teach my Statistics and Research Methods class, it always is easier for the students, and they always do better, when I tie the math we’re doing to a real question. So even something as simple as “We’re trying to figure out whether the average American is conservative or liberal,” and this is our question that we’re trying to figure out. Now we need to do a difference of means test to figure it out. And so that would be, going back to what we were saying earlier, the idea of you walking into my class and asking my students what they’re doing. Well, they could answer “We’re memorizing how to do a difference of means test from chapter 12 because Dr. Mitchell told us to,” versus saying, “Well, we’re trying to figure out what the ideology is of Americans from different regions, so we have to use this mathematical test so we can answer that question.” So really about framing it in terms of “What are you doing and why are you doing it?” and making sure that we know that the students would answer in a way that gets them excited about the material.

Rebecca: I think context is everything. The real world problems that you’re talking about in the new science curriculum is not unlike the kinds of things that you’re talking about in your classes or even when you have to use math in design class. So, a lot of visual arts students think math is completely irrelevant to them, but when it’s put in context, when you need to do certain things, all of the sudden it makes more sense. I teach a creative code class and we do fairly complicated geometries there, actually. And if you can see the results, sometimes it makes a lot more sense to some of our students.

Kristina: Exactly. So the fact that they would know why they’re doing this and it’s to accomplish a specific goal, rather than just “We’re memorizing this because the professor told us we had to, it was going to be on the exam.”

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Kristina: Lord, help us for how many times we hear “Is this going to be on the exam?” That seems like the motivation for trying to learn something. And it would be great if we could move it away from that being the motivation, toward the motivation being “Well, we’re trying to learn this because it helps us figure out this question or this design problem.”

Rebecca: Or the motivation, like, “Hey, I really need to understand this mathematical principle, because I really want to know the answer to this question.”

Kristina: Exactly.

Rebecca: And that leads to where they actually start asking for the things that we’ve prescribed previously. [LAUGHTER]

Kristina: Yeah, and it becomes just a tool to figure things out. And if they want to figure the answer out, then they’re going to need all the tools.

John: Could you tell us what this would look like if we were to stop by a seventh grade class, and this was being put in practice?

Kristina: Absolutely. So if we think about what a seventh grader might be doing, so if we start from that point of the goal is to figure something out, and maybe they’re learning about Space science. They’re learning about Earth and Space and trying to figure out “Why do some objects in Space orbit other objects?” …like “What does that mean? How does that happen?” So, one really fun activity that I’ve seen middle schoolers doing is they have these embroidery hoops and these marbles. And so what they do is they put the marble in the embroidery hoop, and they sort of spin it around on the table. And so the marble is swirling in circles and then they lift the hoop and marbles start shooting everywhere. So it’s very funny in a seventh grade classroom, because you got kids running everywhere trying to chase their marbles. And so at first, they’re just having fun, tracking which way the marble goes and trying to figure out when they lift the embroidery hoop which direction will the marble head, and then eventually they start realizing, “Oh, well, the marble kind of wants to go straight, but the embroidery hoop is keeping it going in a circle.” So, if we think about the sun, with the planets orbiting it, if the sun suddenly disappeared, Earth would kind of want to go straight out in whatever direction it was headed. But because the sun’s gravity’s in the middle, it’s keeping Earth going in a circle around the sun. And so they start putting these pieces together and eventually they come up with this idea of the relationship between inertia, which keeps the earth going, and gravity, which is what keeps it in that same orbit. When they think about what is the core idea they’re learning about, well, they’re learning about orbit, but the way they’re figuring it out is by looking at this small model of what is actually happening at the planetary level. And that’s really reflective of the kinds of things that scientists do in their labs. We’re running models that try to simulate what’s happening in space, or what’s happening in the political world, or whatever discipline we’re doing. We’re trying to create these models to help us understand it. And so that’s what the students are doing, too.

John: That reminds me of a talk that Eric Mazur has given in several places, including at Oswego, where he talked about the Force Concept Inventory, and how, while students were able to plug numbers into formulas and solve problems very well, when they were asked about questions like that, specifically, if I recall, “Suppose that you’re swinging a rock on a sling, and you release it, what would the motion look like?” And basically it ends up flying in essentially a straight line… well, other than the effect of gravity. But when people were asked that, they would bring up things that they had seen in cartoons where they expected it to loop through the air, perhaps as it’s moving. That’s actually one of those things where people in really good institutions who had taken a college class had some really poor intuition. And this type of practice can help prepare them with better intuition on which to build later.

Kristina: There was also a video at, I think it was Harvard’s graduation, where they asked a bunch of STEM majors who had just graduated if they thought they could make a little circuit that would light up a light bulb. And so they handed them everything they would need to do, and everyone’s like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, I got this no problem.” And they couldn’t, they couldn’t figure out how to light the light bulb up, because as much as they had done the math in class, they just had never really done the practical aspect. And so getting students hands-on to do the things with those science and engineering practices in whatever discipline we’re in. It’s really important to get our students in the driver’s seat to start practicing what they’re going to be doing when they leave the classroom.

Rebecca: It also seems like having multiple pathways to the same information is a good way to play with our memory, and make sure that it sticks and it stays there. So, something that’s embodied, something that you memorize, something that’s a couple different kinds of examples.

Kristina: Exactly. Maybe it can move it from our short-term back to the long-term memory to help us keep that knowledge.

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

Kristina: So I think I’d really like to start exploring what this does look like in a classroom setting for myself. So rather than just focusing on what it looks like for students in K-12, I’d like to see if I can use a similar style of teaching in my political science classroom, and just see what kinds of evaluations I get and how the students like it. I think the idea of getting rid of these silos and recognizing that we all use the same practices and concepts could help us with keeping our college experience for our students interesting and consistent. And we start realizing that they’re going to learn in each of our disciplinary core ideas, but there are a lot of things that we all have in common. So, I’m really going to try this semester, maybe my student evaluations will suffer greatly, but we all know from my past talks that they’re biased anyway. But I just kind of want to see what it looks like if I let my students take a little bit more of a driver’s seat in asking the question, “What are we going to figure out? What do we want to know about the world?”

Rebecca: Do you have a piece of this semester that you’re most excited about that you already have planned in this domain?

Kristina: Well, I’m doing the research methods class this semester, which of course, involves some math. And I think that I would like to use their ideas about what kind of data we should be looking at and what kind of questions we should be answering. Because I think that’ll make it a lot more meaningful for them, rather than if I say, “We’re going to look at the American national election study,” letting them figure out “What question do you want to answer?” And then I’ll teach them whatever method it is that they need to know in order to answer that question. So, we’re going to try it. We’ll see how it goes.

John: In a past podcast, Doug Mckee talked about a similar situation in his econometrics class where he was using a time-for-telling approach. Where basically you face students with problems and let them wrestle with it a bit before giving them some assistance and helping them resolve things, and there’s a lot of evidence that those techniques can be really effective.

Rebecca: So, it sounds like well wishes on your new adventures. [LAUGHTER]

Kristina: Thank you.

Rebecca: Thank you so much for joining us.

Kristina: Of course, this is great. It’s always great. I think eventually I’ll have to come visit y’all.

John: That would be great. Well, thank you.

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

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

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122. Differential Grading Policies

Students generally receive lower grades in STEM classes than they receive in other disciplines. In this episode, Dr. Peter Arcidiacono joins us to discuss how these differences in grading policies across departments can help to explain the relatively low proportion of female students majoring in many STEM disciplines. Peter is a Professor of Economics at Duke University.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Students generally receive lower grades in STEM classes than they receive in other disciplines. In this episode, we investigate how these differences in grading policies across departments can help to explain the relatively low proportion of female students majoring in many STEM disciplines.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Peter Arcidiacono. Peter is a Professor of Economics at Duke University. Welcome, Peter.

Peter: Thank you.

John: Welcome.

Peter: Thanks for having me.

John: Our teas today are…

Peter: Green tea. I got it specifically for this conversation.

Rebecca: Excellent. I have English afternoon.

John: I’m drinking Spring Cherry Green tea.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s a little switch for you.

John: I’m looking forward to the spring now that it’s 10 degrees outside here in Oswego in January when we’re recording this.

We’ve invited you here to talk about your December 2019 working paper co-authored with Thomas Ahn, Amy Hopson, and James Thomas, on Equilibrium Grade Inflation with Implications to Female Interest in STEM Majors. In this paper, you know that disciplines with harsher grading policies result in higher earnings than the earnings received by those majoring in disciplines with easier grading policies. Can you first describe what you mean by harsher grading policies?

Peter: Well, harsher grading policies… you look at average grades in STEM classes and economics, they tend to be a lot lower than in the other social sciences and in the humanities. In the school we look at, which is University of Kentucky, it’s a third of a grade lower. And that holds true across many other colleges I’ve looked at, be it the Duke University or Berea College, it just seems to be a general pattern that the STEM classes and economics tend to have lower grades. And in fact, there was a very nice book written about this with Duke data called Grade Inflation: a Crisis in Higher Education or something like that written by Valen Johnson a few years back, and it was making that exact point about the big grading differences across disciplines.

John: How does your model explain the grading differential across departments?

Peter: Yes, so that to me is where the big contribution of the paper lies, though. I don’t think our model’s particularly satisfactory in this regard. I think lots of people have noticed in the past these differences in grading standards. Where I think our contribution is, is thinking about how those grading standards impact different groups of individuals, but also in what you just asked about: What are the sources of this? And I think a portion of it is certainly demand for courses. So, at the school we look at, the STEM classes are twice as big as the non-STEM classes. An analogy from my own experience… when I first got to Duke, no one signed up for my grad labor class. And that was a bit of a disaster, because that would mean I’d have to do a new prep for some other course. And what I did is I bribed two students to take the class. And the way I did that was I said, “The class is going to be: we’re going to write a paper together.” And it was a great experience for them. They did get a paper, they had a revise and resubmit when they went out in the job market. And what do you know, they both got A’s in the class, but now I’m a little more popular. Not everyone gets A’s and I’m not co-authoring papers with everyone in the class. So I think part of it is these differences in demand for the classes affect things. You hear about weed-out classes, they’re weed-out classes because there’s plenty of students who are interested in taking that class, so they can afford to do that. If you’re in a discipline that has low demand, you’re not going to have a weed-out class because you’re not gonna have any students. So, I think that’s a portion of it. A portion of it can also be things like differences in preferences, maybe it is the case that some disciplines are just meaner than other disciplines. And a third component may be that it’s just easier to grade those classes, it might be easier to grade a math problem than an essay. I’m a little skeptical of the last one, in part because when I talked to high school students, it doesn’t appear to be the case that the math classes are that much easier than the humanities classes, for example, or grade that much harder than. And I think part of that is in high school, you have to take those humanities classes and when you get to college, you have a lot more choice and that influences things.

John: This also seems to relate to the academic labor markets. Because there’s so much demand for classes, there’s often more demand for faculty. So, faculty are not under as much risk of losing their job if they don’t fill their classes. While in markets in those disciplines where grades tend to be lower, labor markets tend to have a little more slack in them. And faculty perhaps may, using the analogy you used before, have to be a little more generous to make sure their classes fill so they can keep their jobs, particularly when there’s a large component of adjunct faculty and contingent faculty.

Peter: I think that’s exactly right. I’ve heard some economics professors brag about their low teaching evaluations. I just thought they can get away with that in other disciplines.

John: And we see that in many STEM fields as well, at least anecdotally… certainly not on our campus…[LAUGHTER] But certainly many STEM disciplines do have that reputation of bragging about keeping their grades low and having high standards and such things.

Peter: That’s right. You know, in my view, it’s when you change what you grade around, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the standards… how much work is required in the class may stay the same. And that’s where, I think what’s interesting about men and women, is that women actually study much more than men. So, if you change the workloads, that’s more of a deterrent for men than it is for women. So, you can think about different mixes of either giving high grades but with high workloads, or lower grades, with lower workloads and student life, on average being different between those things, but they won’t be indifferent between men and women. At least on average. Obviously, this is just an on average statement. There are some women who are not interested in studying hard, and some men who are. On average, that appears to be the case.

John: And you do know, though, that the STEM disciplines not only assigned lower grades, but they also require larger workloads based on the survey data you were looking at, I believe.

Peter: That’s right, substantially higher workloads. And that was my own experience… that where I went to college, I guess economics hadn’t quite crossed over to STEM at the time, but I started as a chemistry major, and there the formulas are a lot more complicated and you had to memorize them. In economics, I didn’t have to memorize the formulas and they were much simpler than those in the chemistry major and I had to work a lot harder in those chemistry classes.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how the difference in grading policies impacts underrepresented groups in these different disciplines? So in STEM, for example, where you’re saying there’s these stricter grading policies, there’s less women, there’s less underrepresented groups in general.

Peter: That’s right.

Rebecca: How do those things connect? Can you talk us through that a little bit?

Peter: Yeah, actually I had caused quite a stir here at Duke back in 2011, talking about underrepresented minorities, because you do see, for example, African Americans at Duke… They came in just as interested in the STEM classes in economics as white students, but they left at a much higher rate. And so the negative headline was something like, you know, “Potentially racist study says Black students are taking the easy way out,” and that was not the case. It was that they’re coming in with different levels of preparation, due to pre-college inequalities. We have serious differences in pre-college education. And that’s resulted in this coming in and then finding that it’s very hard to succeed in the STEM disciplines. For women, the story is different. And there, because women come in just as prepared as men and are interested in studying a lot more. For them, it’s not the workloads that are affecting this, but more the lower grades themselves, given that they’re working so hard, and then to see these low grades seems to have a bigger effect on women than men. I think one of my very interesting result from some of the work that Stinebrickner and Stinebrickner have done is actually asked men and women, “What grades do you expect you’re going to get?” And then they’ve showed them their grades later and said, “Now, that didn’t work out quite as you expected.” They got lower grades. Why do you think that was, and men were much more likely to say it was bad luck. And you could see that they actually believed it was bad luck, because they continue to take the same classes where they were getting low grades, and they didn’t change their study habits. Whereas women were much more likely to say that it was something about them, either that they needed to study more, or they weren’t as prepared as they had hoped to be for the class. And then you can see that they ended up being more likely to switch to different types of classes and to change their study habits.

John: I think you also found that women tended to not just equally prepare, but I think women came in with somewhat higher GPAs, if I remember correctly.

Peter: They do come in with higher high school GPAs, for sure, and they get better grades in college than the men, both in STEM classes and in non-STEM classes.

John: So the difference seems to be that women are more sensitive to the lower grades or they tend to blame themselves for the lower grades, while the men tend to be less cognizant of the fact that they may be the cause of the lower grades.

Rebecca: I feel like I’ve been socialized to blame myself for not being adequate.

Peter: Yeah, it’s been remarkable, you know I have five boys. And they’re not socialized that way, despite my best efforts to get them to really care about their grades and to think that studying even matters. Here I am, a researcher who knows that studying matters, and yet some of my boys are convinced that if they do poorly, it’s bad luck. It has nothing to do with their studying.

John: One of the things I assigned in my labor class is a reading from, I think it’s a sociologist, who noted that women seem to be more concerned with what she termed “local status,” while men tend to be more concerned with “global status.” Basically, the argument is that men tend to be more concerned with their income expectations and the impact that the courses in the majors have on their grades, while women tend to be much more concerned with the relative grades and seeing grades as a perception of their worth or their value in some sense, which makes them much more sensitive to that grading differential between majors. While men tend not to be as concerned about their local standing, their relative status, while they tend to be more concerned with how the degree will impact their future earnings.

Peter: And I think it’s compounded by the fact that I don’t think people know when they go to college how different the grades are. I think that they figure it out rather quickly, but at first they just don’t know that they’re graded so differently. I mean by the time they figure it out, they’ve already made the switches, which is too bad.

Rebecca: So what do we do so that there’s more representation in these disciplines?

Peter: Well I think at a minimum, that universities should at least have an obligation to tell people, “Here’s what the average grades are in these different classes,” so that students can make informed choices. I personally am in favor of doing something where, like they did at Wellesley, where they put in something that either capped the average GPA in the class, or having all the classes that are above a certain size give the same median grade so that people are not having their decisions distorted by the fact that one department is giving lower grades than another department. It’s not as though they’re learning less in these STEM classes, just because they’re getting these lower grades. They’re actually working very hard in these classes, so, it would be nice if that was somewhat remedied.

Rebecca: I wonder if even knowing the information across institutions and knowing that people get lower grades in these fields, no matter what school they’re at, would actually be useful to those groups.

Peter: Oh, I think it’d be very helpful. Yeah.

Rebecca: Not just within your own institution.

Peter: That’s right. Yeah, I think that’d be great. Because then you know what you’re getting into. And maybe when you get that B in the economics class, you’re not feeling like you failed, that that is a much more typical grade than what you expected.

John: I think a lot of people might object to the notion that there should be the same GPA on the grounds that you’re forcing students into this curve where if you happen to have a class that does really well you might be lowering their grades, which doesn’t always happen in the STEM field, but I think there might be some resistance to that. But the notion of transparency and making people more aware of that early on might help reduce that differential effect by gender.

Peter: That’s right. And I think also making departments aware… the implications that the level of their grading has on things like the gender composition, should matter. I don’t want the way I grade my class to be a deterrent for women taking economics classes. I think that that’s bad. And I’ve changed the way I grade a bit in response to this. If other disciplines are going to give much higher grades, and I want to have a good gender representation in my class, I’m still assigning the same amount of workload. So I’m not making the classes easier, but I am changing the level that I’m curving around, and I typically teach a class that has over 100 students in it.

John: And this is especially important because a large share of the gender differential in earnings is tied to major choice, because the fields that women are more likely to enter tend to offer much lower wages on average, while the STEM fields tend to offer much higher wages. So the differential impact on major choice has quite a bit of an effect on the gender wage gap.

Peter: That’s right. And this is potentially a very low- cost way, at least from a pure financial standpoint, to changing that. It’s not going to solve all of the gender issues in economics or in STEM fields. It’s not going to come close to solving it, but it can put a dent in it, where it’s often very costly to change something like that. Changing a climate is expensive and difficult.

Rebecca: I think I would have been one of those students that would have moved. I’m a person who does a lot of coding and things and could easily have been in computer science. But I’m not, I’m in graphic design, and it’s a field that is much more populated by women. I got much higher grades in the things that I did, and I was very sensitive to grades. So as a student, if it was something that I didn’t do well in, then I thought I couldn’t do well in. And I had a very fixed mindset when I was earlier on in my career. Obviously, it’s much different now. I do much different things and explore other things. But at that time, I think I was incredibly sensitive to that. If you came in as an A student and then it’s like, all of a sudden you’re not getting A’s, it’s like “Woah…”

Peter: Yeah.

Rebecca: “…maybe college isn’t for me, even.”

Peter: Yeah. And that’s just really unfortunate that decisions will get based on nominal differences in these grades, that don’t really have content outside of something that is relative, relative to whatever the professor’s curving around. Another advantage to doing something like this, too, is potentially getting spillovers. Because once you change the gender composition a little bit, then that makes the environment more comfortable. And then that can have multiplying effects.

John: So, why don’t departments want to do this to improve the gender composition of their classes and to get more students in their classes and persisting to graduation in their majors?

Peter: Well, this is sort of where the equilibrium aspect comes in. Because even if you want to do this, everybody ends up ratcheting up their grades, because some departments really need more students. And in order to attract students, you’re going to have to do something if the students don’t have an innate demand for your field. And people have been talking about this for some time, that demand for the humanities has been falling and what to do about it. So, I think that the pressure’s sort of on both sides, even if the STEM departments decided, “Look, we want to have our grades be a bit higher for this reason,” that’s going to lead to response by non-STEM professors as well. So I think it’s hard to get rid of the grading differences across fields, absent doing something that’s pretty draconian.

John: By imposing a grading standard that’s equal across departments.

Peter: Exactly.

Rebecca: I wonder if initiating conversations between the humanities and STEM fields about the interdependence there actually are on those two fields and that people in the humanities should learn things about STEM and people in STEM should learn things from humanities and that there could be more of a relationship there that would actually help start to equalize some of those needs, because there could be some referrals to certain classes or other things that might help boost some of those relationships. I don’t know.

Peter: That’s right. So right now we’re playing sort of a non-cooperative game and move it more towards a cooperative one. Yeah.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s competitive rather than thinking about “Why are we at a liberal arts institution? And what does an environment like that or general education offer?”

John: Well think about what would happen, though, if grading standards were relaxed in the STEM disciplines. More students would major in them, enrollments would tend to fall in the non-STEM field, and that would tend to lead to fewer jobs for non-STEM faculty. And maybe that’s not something that departments would react well to, and they face the same incentive to just inflate grades.

Rebecca: I don’t think my suggestion was necessarily to do something about the grades directly, but rather to start helping to increase some demand for humanities and helping out some of those…

John: You mean, more interdisciplinary programs?

Rebecca: Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about, even for my students, the benefits of them exploring a lot of different disciplines to be more effective in their own, and understanding how other people problem solve, and think through problems, and explore the world.

Peter: I really like that too because if you end up providing these skills that are then rewarded in the marketplace through taking some of the STEM stuff, but combining it with the humanities, that will increase demand. And then that will naturally even things out a bit more.

John: And you could move more from STEM to STEAM.

Rebecca: Hey, I didn’t say it, but I’m totally a STEAM gal. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well I was expecting that at any moment. And just in case some of our listeners don’t know what STEAM is, would you like to…?

Rebecca: Yeah, included the A …it’s for the arts, [LAUGHTER] which I am a part of.

Peter: Yeah, they’re doing that at my kids’ high school, you know, having a STEAM program to try to get that integration happening a bit more.

Rebecca: There’s some research happening about the need for these creative outlets to help with innovation and things in STEM fields. So, there’s certainly some research suggesting this interdisciplinary approach to all of our disciplines could actually improve the work that we do.

Peter: Makes sense.

John: And many STEM students tend to specialize as much as they can in their field. So, that broader training could be useful in the future in making them more creative perhaps.

So, we always end with the question: “What are you doing next?”

Peter: Well, it’s been interesting, nothing quite related to this. I got derailed because I’m actually an expert witness in the Asian American discrimination case against Harvard, and that is taking up all of my time. We released a couple of papers on legacy and athlete preferences at Harvard, and we’re going to be writing some more out of my reports for that case. That’s what’s keeping me busy.

John: Very good.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us, this was really interesting, and I hope that it launches more conversations across disciplines.

Peter: Thanks for having me, I really appreciate it.

John: Thank you.

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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Savannah Norton.

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121. Persistence Scholars

A college degree generally results in higher incomes, more pleasant and more stable jobs, greater life satisfaction, and lower unemployment probabilities. Many students that enter college, though, leave without a degree, but with high levels of student debt. In this episode, Dr. Michelle Miller joins us to discuss an innovative program she helped develop at Northern Arizona University in which faculty members work together to discover ways of helping their students successfully complete their educational goals.

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

Show Notes

Transcript

John: A college degree generally results in higher incomes, more pleasant and more stable jobs, greater life satisfaction, and lower unemployment probabilities. Many students that enter college, though, leave without a degree, but with high levels of student debt. In this episode, we discuss an innovative program in which faculty work together to discover ways of helping their students successfully complete their educational goals.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

Michelle: Hi. Thank you. It’s great to be here.

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

Michelle: I sure am. I’ve got a… I think it’s some type of green tea. It’s actually imported from China, so I can’t read the label, but it tastes great. [LAUGHTER]

John: I have Forest Fruits green tea, which I picked up at the OLC conference in Orlando.

Rebecca: And I have vanilla coconut tea.

John: We invited you here to talk about the Persistence Scholars program at Northern Arizona University. Could you tell us about this program?

Michelle: Yeah. So this is a faculty professional development experience that works very much as a blended course, and it’s run for the past few years. And it was something that we developed and designed right in our institution to address, as you can probably guess from the name, student persistence, and broadly speaking, student success. And to do so in ways that would complement programs that we already had in the works, as well as some other more traditional kinds of faculty professional development programs and courses that focused more exclusively on teaching or course design. So, that’s how we brought this into this space. And it’s been a really exciting experience to get to build this from the ground up and to run it with a number of cohorts of our faculty at Northern Arizona.

John: Could you tell us a bit about how the program was structured?

Michelle: Maybe I should back up a little bit and tell you a little bit more about some of the roots of this program and why there was such great support for it from the beginning. This came out of some real brainstorming. I was in a group a few years ago that was charged with just really open ended brainstorming about this topic of student persistence. And as you can imagine that, from an institutional standpoint, that fits into some very important questions, such as retention, especially retention from the first to second year which, those who are in this arena know is a really critical area for ensuring that we keep the students who we recruit to our institution and ensure that students can accomplish the goals they set out to when they sign up with us. So, I was in this group and as I said, we had this very open ended charge of saying “What else could we do to support student persistence?” And because of my background with the First Year Learning Initiative, which is another kind of student success initiative at Northern Arizona, my perspective is always “What about the faculty? What about the academic side of student persistence and engaging faculty in advancing that, and getting excited about that question?” So, together with some of the other folks I was working with, notably John Doherty, who I’ve collaborated with a number of times on student success initiatives, we got to thinking, “Well, how could we reach out?” I had seen quite a number of programs or appeals to faculty, which really came at it from a very emotional, or sort of heart perspective, saying, “You know, really think about your students, have compassion for the backgrounds that many of them come from and the challenges they’re facing.” And I think that’s wonderful. That’s great and conventional wisdom about how to recruit people and get them excited about something. They say “Speak to the emotions, get to why.” Well, I think that’s true. But, faculty are a bit of a special case. I think that we’re wired a little bit differently [LAUGHTER] in some ways. And I think that we have to come at this intellectually as well. So I said, “What if we had some kind of a program that would bring people in and really engage them in this very rich scholarship that’s around, not just teaching and learning, but also everything we’ve come to know about the factors… institutional factors… psychological… social factors… all these things that play into students persisting until they do attain that degree?” So, that was the idea. Now it sort of went down on paper and sort of stayed on ice, stayed in a file drawer for a few years. But then my leadership came back to me and said, in the context of some other things we were doing, they said “Wait a minute, what about this program that we had thought up?” And at that point, we were able to really put it together and make it happen.

Rebecca: What are some of the things that you covered as part of this program that would be different than the first- year program that you’ve ran, or other things that are focused on pedagogy?

Michelle: We tell faculty when we recruit them in that this is not the place to start if you do want that traditional, like, “How can I improve my classroom?” teaching, or “How can I brush up on these skills?” We have lots in place for that. So, what is different about this is that it does focus on the scholarship of persistence. And you know, from my background, I’m a psychologist, I’m a research psychologist by training. So I actually didn’t know, and I started to get into the course design and student success game. I really wasn’t aware of just how much really good quality scholarship has gone into this and how people have thought about and really committed to many books and articles, all this knowledge that they’ve come up with, or what impacts student persistence and what institutions can do, what faculty can do. So, it does have that flavor of a slightly different content area that, again, many of us are just not aware of, even if we care a lot about teaching in our own discipline. And I think what’s also different about it is that it doesn’t take a traditional kind of workshop or book group kind of approach. I think those are really, really great. We all see great examples of those in faculty professional development, but this was structured as a blended course, specifically. So it’s designed with a kickoff workshop that lasts about a day. And then we go online and do just some very structured weekly modules, largely focusing on some readings and discussions and one culminating project. So, I think that, as well, is something that faculty rarely have the opportunity to engage in. I think there’s some national programs out there, for example, ACUE’s program… that’s online, but that’s also a full year. And this is a little bit more compact, and I think it’s designed in a way that’s a little bit more manageable with a typical teaching and research load that faculty have.

John: And you also had people do some visits to various places on campus too, as part of that, I believe.

Michelle: Right. This is the culminating project which we tried in the first few iterations to kind of refine this and I think we ended up with something that’s really a standout and here I have to credit my leadership K. Laurie Dickson. Dr. Dickson is a colleague of mine and part of the upper leadership at Northern Arizona University. This was her idea and she really encouraged me to develop this. We didn’t want to have, as a culminating project, kind of a very typical five paragraph essay or research project or something like that. We wanted to push faculty out into some areas that were particularly new. And we wanted to have them engage in some perspective taking on angles and aspects of the students experience and the university experience that they just normally would never do. So we called this the field project… so, a very generic name, but here’s how this played out. It was up to them to design an experience. It didn’t have to be lengthy… didn’t have to be some gigantic multi-day thing, but just something that they could go and do and experience, and then write about it from a very first person, very subjective perspective. And also, we did ask them to kind of tie it back to some of the readings that we had done and some of the concepts that we had seen over the course of the experience. The examples of what faculty came up with were just… it’s mind boggling, the creativity that people brought to this. Now one of the popular ones was to simply go on a campus tour. Now, how many times do we as faculty ever do that? And I mean, I work in a building where the campus tours originate. So, I see them every single day going and coming, the parents, the students and everybody, the student tour guides. And it’s just never occurred to me to ask, “What are they saying? What’s the little back conversation? What’s the mood like among people who are on these tours? What do we tell students and their parents, as they’re coming into our campuses?” So people could opt to go on one or more of these tours, you could also go on a department specific tour, which is also a fairly popular twist, and then reflect back again on “What does this tell us about what it’s like to be a student here?” and to start taking that perspective as a student and thinking about “What would affect my likelihood of persistence?” So that was one, but we’ve also seen many other options on this as well. One very creative faculty member decided to go out physically to these different student support spaces and organizations. And we all read about those, I know I do, I get the email that says, “Oh, here’s the center that we have for veterans. Here’s the center that we have for Native American students. Here’s where you go, if you need help with writing.” Well, we see those, but what do they look like? What do they feel like? Are students there when you visit, and what sorts of activities are taking place there? And she actually put her reflections together as a photo essay. So, she took pictures of the spaces, she thought about the look and feel of the spaces, and through that she demonstrated that she was taking this new perspective. And this was not an art or design professor, by the way, her specialization is in foundational math, so you can see they’re crossing out into other disciplines. So, even something like observing a class that’s not yours outside of your discipline, you can make that work as well. If you come at it from this perspective, not as like “I’m here to critique the teaching and get ideas for my own teaching,” but “What’s going on in the back row? What’s more clear, what’s less clear, how might the mood or the feel of the classroom change if I come over a couple of different weeks of the semester, and how does that seem to me?” So those are some of the things that faculty actually did to experience some of these things from the other side.

John: How many faculty were part of this program?

Michelle: We usually have run cohorts between about 12 and 20 faculty per semester. And I think we’re about four semesters in, so it’s not an enormous program. But you could see over time with a concerted effort and continued dedication to the program, continued support for it, that we’ve now directly engaged quite a few faculty from around the university. And I should say as well, here’s another little twist that I was not anticipating when we sat down to design this program, is that it’s not entirely all faculty either. We’ve also reached out to staff members, for example, people who work within our advising center or our academic support centers, which function as our tutoring centers on campus. In the first cohort or so I just received a request of somebody’s saying, “Hey, my staff would really benefit from this, do you mind if we have a person or two participate in it?” First I said “Well, okay, I wasn’t planning on that. But I can’t see why not?” Well, I soon learned that having that mix of individuals in the cohort is part of the power of it. Because you think academic disciplines are siloed, we are tremendously siloed in terms of units of student support across campus. To see the interplay in discussions and in meetings between people who work in these more direct student support roles, and people in more traditional faculty roles is really amazing. It really cuts across several of those silos as well just in the participation.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of the content that participants were surprised by that was counter to what their assumptions were?

Michelle: One of the challenges in pulling the content for this was that I did have to be really, really selective. Being excited about this, of course, I’ve got 100 articles and things that I want to share, and all these concepts to lay on them, and I went with just a very, very few that I felt were the most powerful and the most backed by research. I would say that one of the ones that surprised them, maybe pleasantly so, is some of the academic work around lay theories and belongingness, which is related to mindset. And probably a lot of your listeners are familiar in some way with those. But, in particular, the work of David Yeager, he’s one of the major researchers in this area. His work focuses on how you can communicate to students that things like intelligence and the potential for academic success are not fixed, they’re something that can be built up through effort. A piece of this is normalizing struggle in a way that, just because you get to campus and you feel lonely, and you feel overwhelmed, that a lot of successful people start out that way, so don’t quit. And what’s I think surprising to faculty and definitely was to me as well when I started reading the work is just how powerful some relatively small interventions can be. Just going through, say an online module that exposes students to some of these mindset concepts can result in statistically significant changes to the likelihood of persistence, retention, and things like that later on down the line. So, I think I was surprised, and I think many faculty are surprised by that as well. And that that work is really high quality in terms of the scholarship behind it, the statistical analysis, how the studies are set up. That’s another kind of pleasant surprise too.

John: A while back, we had Angela Bauer on the podcast, who’s now at High Point University. And she had an intervention in the chemistry department there, where just growth mindset messaging that was delivered by slides that were used by all the people in the department eliminated the achievement gap there. So it was a remarkably powerful effect, which is very consistent with what you’re describing there.

Rebecca: Can you talk about a couple of other small interventions that faculty can implement that are really powerful?

Michelle: Another theme that’s come out of the work on this has looked at the effect of structure… increasing course structure so that, for example, instead of the two midterms and a final, we have those distributed smaller assignments over the course of the semester. And that’s one of those things that there’s got to be a dozen good reasons, from the memory research all the way down to mindset, why this is a really good and powerful thing to do. Now, whether that’s a small intervention or not, that could be a matter of perspective, because for some people, if their course is designed in a completely different direction, that could be some major overhaul there. However, I should say that many of the faculty, in fact, most of the faculty who participate in this, are part of our First-Year Learning Initiative already. In fact, that’s kind of why we decided to develop the program as strongly as we did, is we felt it was a really good complement to those courses that were already part of this initiative we have to ensure really best practices in design for key first-year courses. So, many of those courses are already supposed to have that type of design. But this is a way to continue to engage faculty, particularly those who maybe weren’t on the scene when that course was first designed, they show up and they’re saying, “Why do we have all these grading quizzes?” or “How come it’s set up this way?” Well, this gives them some of the backing behind doing that. I think as well, some of the things that we can look at are simply the communications we have with students. So, that’s another area where I think it may be a little bit under the radar, just how important this stuff is for student persistence, that it’s not even the course design or how the course is taught, just the words that get exchanged in, say, office hours, or the tone of the email that you send to a student to respond to them when they write to you with a question. I think that an experience like this gets us to stop and think and say, “How can I tweak my phrasing or bring in some of that good perspective taking to make those communications either more compassionate or gentle?” or to communicate something like a growth mindset that, “Hey, it’s not a matter of whether you got it if you don’t, we’re just going to jump in where you’re at. And with effort, you can succeed at this.” So, I think those are some of the key things that we can bring in as faculty to affect this very big issue of persistence.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about things that you do in the kickoff workshop? Can you talk a little bit about some of the things that faculty come in knowing or not knowing or mis-knowing?

John: Mis-knowing, is that a word?

Rebecca: I don’t know, I just invented it. [LAUGHTER]

John: It is now.

Michelle: Yeah. I love that term. So, there’s that kickoff workshop where we most directly start to query people’s assumptions, knowledge, and misconceptions about persistence, and to introduce them to this idea that yeah, this is a serious area of academic inquiry that’s interdisciplinary, and we can all access it for the benefit of our students. And in a blended course, it’s generally a good practice to offer face-to-face bonding and group cohesion experience first, before we all go off to our separate online corners. At this kickoff workshop, there are elements of it that are recognizable to anybody who comes to faculty development workshops, but I think there were some novel components too. I mean, one of the things that we do is, it’s simple, but it’s a really effective kickoff exercise. So, we would have either a sticky wall where people can put ideas, or we’ve sometimes bedded rooms that have whiteboard walls, and we have pens, and I say, “Okay, what are some things you’ve heard about why students don’t persist? Just give me reasons. You don’t have to endorse them. They could also be the things that we do here in the faculty meetings.” So, that’s a nice kind of permission giving, kind of opening, I think, to let people say things that they know that are maybe not backed up or they’re not sure, or they don’t agree with them, but they think they’re important to put and they’re also encouraged to put those ideas in groupings. So, there’ll always be some around economic factors, or psychological and social emotional factors, family support. So, we all write on the walls and have these things in front of us for the rest of the day, statements about what barriers there are… to keep that in the front of our minds of what really is affecting our students. As we engage with this work, there is a presentation component, but I really center that around five key claims. So, I think too, it’s important to come with this not just like, “Well, here’s some tips that you can have and some things that some people believe.” I say, “I am not neutral on this. And here’s my five beliefs and these underlie everything that we’re going to do. And you can agree or disagree with these, but I can back them all up, that this is what drives us” and you know, as faculty I think that’s appealing. We want to know what are those assumptions and just to list them off real quick, there are academic persistence matters, so this is important. There are disparities that both reflect and perpetuate inequalities, ethnic class, economic, that we do know a lot about how persistence works. So, that knowledge base does exist. That there are effective strategies for addressing those disparities, although they’re not easy or cheap, I’m not there to sell faculty on magic bullets or “Hey, if you just tweak with this one thing, everything will be fine,” because we all know that’s not the case. And then lastly that faculty do have the ability to positively affect persistence through their teaching, but also through those interactions that they have informally advocating for certain kinds of policies with the institution. So, I really present that. And then lastly, we have a hands-on data exercise. Now one of the things that I think can be a barrier for faculty as they want to get involved with this is we think, or we really don’t have, access to the information that is specific to our campus. So we also have an exercise where I bring in librarians, this is really great. They’ve supported me a great deal in this and we get people on laptops and say, “Alright, here are some sites to explore, national sites about student persistence, databases, article databases you can look at. Use these to uncover solutions, facts about student persistence right here, right now, just do this right now.” And we also get them access doing some basic working knowledge of our institutional dashboard for looking at things like pass rates or grade breakdowns which you can do, you can do it by course, you can do it by semester, you can do even more fine grained by student characteristics. This is all out there, but the vast majority of faculty just do not either know that or they don’t have that working knowledge. So, what I envision is okay, a faculty member can, if it comes up in their department, “Oh, hey, what can we do about this course that’s maybe a bottleneck or we think we’re ready to redesign this one over here?” They can pull the data for themselves and say, “Well, here’s how things changed when we brought in, say, a courseware system, or here are the students who are having the most difficulty, or if a student passes this course, here’s their likelihood of succeeding in this one down the line.” Faculty love that. And once that power is in their hands, I think that they really can carry that out. That’s all the stuff we do, and the kickoff that we have right there and how we establish that grounding for them.

John: It’s great that you have that data. Many institutions are very protective of data, even though it could be really useful in helping us learn about what works.

Michelle: Then to turn around and say, “Well, faculty are kind of in the way here, faculty are this or that?” Well, yeah, we do have to look at what have we empowered faculty to be able to do reasonably and in ways that are appropriate to their own discipline?

John: What are some of the myths that people come into this with in terms of what leads to students dropping out, or failing, or withdrawing?

Michelle: I don’t know if I’m ready to quite call it a myth, but there is perhaps a sort of counterproductive concept, which is the old “If we would just admit better students” who are, and I’m going to use a terrible phrase, “college material.” I mean, that phrase is awful on many different levels as we look at our students, who are these complex human beings, who’ve come to us willing to step up and try to do these incredibly challenging things to accomplish goals that benefit them and benefit our whole society. There is that. And I think an associated belief is, all of this should just be addressed in K-12. And aside from the practical issues there, especially if you teach at a public institution, which we are, I don’t think that’s right to just say “This has to be sort of repaired as a problem by the time it gets to me, or I can’t… or shouldn’t… do anything.” So that whole complex of beliefs about something didn’t happen before this student graduated from high school therefore kind of what’s the point and if the school wants to retain more students, we need to admit the more academically skilled students from the beginning. I say I’m not ready to call that a myth, that is because, yes, absolutely, things like the accomplishments and achievements, academic experiences you’ve had before you come to college. Yeah, those are all great predictors of retention. It’s not that that doesn’t matter at all. But a great deal of other things do matter. And I think that those are maybe where we want to redirect students. And I think as well among faculty who still have themselves a form of fixed mindset, that is really problematic too. And, you know, this really hit home for me. There’s a recent article by Elizabeth Canning and her colleagues at Indiana University Bloomington, titled “STEM Faculty who Believe Ability is Fixed Have Larger Racial Achievement Gaps.” Wow, just think about that for a second. They were looking at the beliefs that are in the heads of the faculty, not even their teaching or what they selected, or what they said to students overtly, but the beliefs they have about who achieves and why, and whether that capacity, that potential is fixed. That plays out in accentuating the exact types of gaps and disparities that we are here to shrink and get rid of. That is surprising and disturbing. And they also find there’s less student motivation overall in those courses. So, I think that that’s maybe another constellation of very counterproductive problematic beliefs that, “Oh, the students aren’t motivated. They don’t want to do the work, but maybe they can’t do the work, maybe they aren’t cut out for this.” If that’s in my head, that is going to leak out and infuse the teaching that I do. And then we have more of these gaps at the end of the day. Those are some of the beliefs that I think are more of an issue. I think less frequently, we’ll see some version of “Well, we’re maybe trying to come from a place of compassion and look at things like oh, family issues, caregiving responsibilities, jobs that students have to hold down in order to be able to support themselves and their families as they go through their education.” It’s great to acknowledge that, but then I think that sometimes faculty can then have this very kind of dead end view of it and say, “Wow, I don’t know if there’s any way this could work.” And yeah, there are only so many hours in the day and we can’t just say, “Oh, education can happen on the margin, no big deal.” But I think too, what we need to step back and look at those beliefs and say, “Well, what are some institutional policies? or “What are even some things written into my syllabus that accentuate that barriers, or put barriers up for students who have those responsibilities? Do they all have to be there? What can I take away that doesn’t get in the way of what students are accomplishing or what’s expected of them, but simply make some of these much more possible?” So that’s kind of a set of those ideas too.

John: One other point there is that students who are most at risk often end up leaving with a large amount of debt and have the most struggle trying to pay for it, putting them at further disadvantage. So, the more we can help these students to be successful, the better off they’ll be.

Michelle: Right. And so many faculty, I mean the faculty who I’ve talked to, and I’ve talked to many at this point, I really believe that they care. They do care about that issue… that deeply disturbs them and deeply bothers them, the idea of somebody leaving with tremendous amount of debt that’s going to limit their lives, and what if they leave with that debt and without the degree that they came for? That’s a tragedy. And I think that we can take that intention and that reaction and channel that into positive action.

John: What types of incentives were there for faculty to participate in this program?

Michelle: For those of us who do work in this space of faculty professional development, we know that that’s an issue. There’s so many demands on faculty time, and so it’s important to have that. So, quite simply, we have a small honorarium. And in fact, it’s small enough to where at first I thought, “Well, do we really need this?” but the feedback I got from my staff and also from faculty was that yes, this is important, if only as a gesture, that we realize this takes your time. So that was $150, and they came in the form of professional development funds. So it’s just enough to plug in, maybe get some books or help make up a gap in some funding for a conference. Those are some of the typical things that faculty use that for. So we have that, and as a kind of a less tangible, but still very important incentive was, as I said, this is part of the First-Year Learning Initiative. And so courses that want to maintain their presence in that program and kind of stay in good standing have to demonstrate this ongoing engagement. So, especially after the first semester or two, we started to say, “Yeah, this is a powerful program, and we really want to make this First-Year Learning Initiative participation contingent on doing this.” So many of the faculty who are there, they do come in because it’s really required for their participation in this bigger program. But, then we have some who come because they’re simply interested and they’ve heard good things about the program as well. So there’s a spectrum of those incentives, both tangible and intangible.

Rebecca: What are some of the students that are the most at risk for persistence? What students are we really helping by engaging in this literature and these methodologies?

Michelle: I think that for people who have some familiarity with the area of student persistence, no surprises here. It’s students who are first generation, as a large proportion of our students at Northern Arizona are. So there is that, there is kind of a constellation of socio-economic factors which can play out in everything from just simply the financial resources one has to attend college, all the way down to the quality of the schools, and the preparation, the pre-college preparation that you were able to get as part of the education you were provided in K-12. So, there is that. Students of color, students of color definitely are going to have a number of barriers and challenges that are going to play out in terms of persistence. And then there are, within particular disciplines, as many of us are familiar with… in particular disciplines where the gender representation or representation of women is relatively low, there can be some persistence issues there as well. So, in the more traditionally male STEM fields, engineering, mathematics and so on, but really, largely these issues of class, of race, and economic opportunity are what all are coming to a crux when students are in these crucial early semesters of college participation. That’s what we’re seeing.

John: It’s fairly early. You’ve only been doing this program for two years, but do you have any evidence of its success in terms of impacts on students?

Michelle: This is a very faculty- and staff-oriented initiative. And there are so many different factors that impact retention and that all go on at once. And by the way, that’s something that I’ve definitely learned as… when I got into this as well… is that there are just this enormous number of options, and even outside of the classroom. Then you have things like learning communities, residential communities, bridge programs, mentorship opportunities, all of these things are kind of getting into the mix sat once, which is probably not a bad thing to have all of these, but it does make it difficult to tease that apart when you look at something like overall retention rates or persistence rates for an institution. However, we have gathered some really systematic assessment data through our participants specifically. So what we did over the past few semesters is we brought in a kind of a pre-assessment so we could capture some very key things about participants’ knowledge and commitment to and ability to advocate for student persistence at the beginning… at the outset of this… before we did anything, and then at the end, after they’d done this about six to eight week program, and so there we do see some pretty dramatic changes and some really dramatic improvements. So, one in particular that stands out is that we asked participants how capable they feel to discuss and apply concepts from the research literature on persistence. And that is very, very low at the beginning. It’s about two and a half on a scale of one to five. And that went up to a little bit over an average of four on that same scale of five after the program. So, that’s something where faculty said, “Yeah, I feel like I can come into this as an informed advocate.” Knowledge about student persistence, that’s another area where the self-rated capability goes way, way up. And also, another thing we asked them is how capable they feel to identify and dispel some of the major misconceptions about attrition and persistence. So there too, the numbers are very, very similar. So we get positive comments, but I also feel like those quantitative ratings have really targeted what I wanted to change as a function of this program.

Rebecca: We talked a little bit about institutional concerns about retention and persistence. Why should faculty be engaged in this piece? We often think, “Well, that’s not our responsibility.” But, why should it be a faculty responsibility, in part?

Michelle: So here’s the thing. I think that this really fits with my experience over about 10 years of working on this at the institution. I think that so many of the initiatives that institutions spend all this money and their political and social capital on setting up, those live or die in faculty meetings. And I think that there’s very limited realization of that on the part of leadership. And it’s understandable because that’s one place where they don’t get to go. But I’ve sat in many, many, many such a meeting over my career. And here’s the thing, in my experience, it can just take one person who thinks that this initiative is misguided, or they think we ought to just admit better students that that should be fine, or they only care about retention for financial reasons. It only takes one highly vocal person to shut that down in that department and there may be other people who are sitting there who are interested in this… they’re saying, “You know what, I care. I think that social inequality is perpetuated when students don’t persist. I see real disparities, and I’m not comfortable with that. And I think this is a social justice issue.” Well, especially if that person is more junior or is not tenured, and the person who’s highly vocal is senior and is tenured, that initiative is not going anywhere. And I don’t care how much money you put into it, or what kind of big stipend is attached to it, it’s not happening. So that’s where I really had this vision as a designer of this program that I wanted people to be able to kind of raise their hand and say, “Well, actually, there’s some research that shows this”, or “I learned about this one concept,” or “Have you thought about how inequality is perpetuated, and maybe we should care for those reasons.” So, to equip and emboldened people to do that… Now that’s always up to them. They can take persistent scholars and come away with whatever conclusions that they want. I honestly come at it that way, that it is up to them to draw their own conclusions, but I do feel, especially given those things they tell us on our assessments, that we’ve done the best we can to equip them to go in to be those advocates. And it isn’t just teaching too. Don’t forget faculty, even though we can’t always affect things like financial aid or how drop/add policies are handled or any of that, we do have faculty senates, and sometimes we can weigh in on those issues. So, if we can bring pressure to bear in a positive way on our administrations, we usually think about it as “Oh, the administration is kind of leaning on us to support student success,” well that runs the other direction, too. And it can. And how does that happen? When we have the information because, again, faculty, we run on evidence… that’s baked into our culture, and that is who we are. So if you are the person at the meeting, you can say, “Well, I read this entire book by Vincent Tinto, who’s the most respected researcher in this area, I’ve actually read that book. And here’s what I took away from it. And so here’s why we should maybe give this initiative a second thought.” That’s what I think can be very, very powerful for creating change.

John: Faculty are well intentioned, but they don’t always know what they can do to be effective, and it’s really easy to blame the students when students aren’t successful. And we see that in lots of departments and lots of people. Providing them with information, I think, could start to make a big difference.

Rebecca: I think a lot of faculty are overwhelmed. They might be interested in these topics, but don’t have time to dig around and find the research and sort through it. So, having a curated opportunity like this is a good way to engage deeply with some key materials and come out of it with that perspective, which I think is really valuable. And we see that in other areas too, where we want to learn more about memory, or we want to learn more about learning strategies or whatever. If we can curate those things, then it’s often easier for faculty to engage and think about how they can individually commit to those ideas because they don’t have to sort through all of the information. It’s collated for them.

Michelle: And that’s just such a perfectly articulated way of describing what our design philosophy really was. And yeah, to say you can make a website or a giant compendium of “here’s a lot of suggested resources,” but it’s a different challenge to say, “Okay, you can assign three things. You can select three things for us to read over this three-week period. That’s it, what are those three things going to be?” And I did, it really did force me to really focus on quality and what was powerful. Yeah, that belongingness mindset lay theory piece was one, transparency was another that I selected. And really the last iteration to it, I also selected an excerpt from Lisa Nunn’s book, 33 Simple Strategies for Faculty. It is oriented towards first generation, but it really crossed over into so many practical applications of the research we were reading about. So that was a huge hit with the last cohort of participants as well. So being selective, having one targeted experience that you can simply share in a very informal way, rather than sitting down to write the giant literature review, I think that’s the sort of thing that we do need. And we did design it with that blended approach with that idea of maximum flexibility. Every week was its own modular piece where we did the same thing, so there wasn’t a whole lot of thrashing around about “what are the expectations” and so on. Even things like designing it so that it starts up about three weeks or four weeks into the semester and wraps up, like in the fall, we wrap up before Thanksgiving. That’s a big, big deal to faculty. If you coordinate it with the students’ semester, that’s just going to be too much. And you’re going to hit people with way too many demands right at their busiest time. So, that was also really appreciated as a factor that promoted faculty participation.

John: In an email exchange prior to this conversation, you mentioned something about the AR program at NAU that you’ve been working with and some results that were relevant to this discussion. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Michelle: It’s so funny, this faculty professional development program ended up intersecting with a completely separate piece of my research agenda right now. I’ve been working for the last about two years with our amazing cross disciplinary group here, the Immersive Virtual Reality Laboratory at NAU with Professor Norman Medoff and Professor Giovanni Castillo. They had designed, already, this program for organic chemistry so students get to actually manipulate with molecules and they worked with a chemistry professor to make actual meaningful assignments that would use that program in this really cool way. We even set up kind of a almost experimental study where we did the classic flip a coin and one section has access to the VR and the other section does not… it has a substitute assignment instead. Of course I’m interested in looking at the impact on student success. Well, I got into the data, and I looked at the overall impact and there is, there’s a reasonably consistent trend towards better grades in O-Chem. And also better final exam scores if you have access to this particular technology and way of interacting with the material. But then I started doing the subsidiary analyses and I was really surprised. We broke it out by first-generation status and first-generation college students, which was about half of our participants, in this case, experience improvements, positive impacts of this intervention that were larger and more consistently they were significant. All the measurements that we looked at were consistent in terms of the advantage that they got. And we’re working on writing this up for publication right now, and we did present them at a conference over last summer. And it’s really stretching my mind as well to try to say, “Well, why is that? What does that maybe communicate to students when we offer them this? How might it actually maybe shore up the experiences of students who have not had access to as good of a chemistry education, most likely, before they got to our university, compared to students who come from continuing generation families?” I was so surprised. And now there’s something that once again is telling me persistence has a lot to do with these other factors. Can we control them? Can we address them? Of course we can’t, as faculty, but we can look to discover ways that extend what we’re doing in the classroom or take particular approaches, and like so many of the interventions that we do in course design, this is one that doesn’t bring anybody down. I mean, if I’m from an advantaged background, I’m from a majority group, I’ve had this great background when I come in, I can benefit too, that’s fine, but somebody else is going to experience disproportionate benefits. And it’s maybe in a way, replicating a pattern that we’ve seen time and again with other ways of approaching these challenging foundational level courses.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.

Michelle: Thank you.

John: I’m looking forward to reading that.

We always end by asking, “What are you doing next?”

Michelle: Well, I have handed off the Persistence Scholars program. So while I’m still very proud of the work and feel very engaged with it, I have stepped away from the First-Year Learning Initiative, and as part of that the Persistence Scholars program is going to be led by a colleague of mine, Cody Canning at NAU, and I’ve handed off that program before as part of sabbatical and so on. So it is neat to build a program from the beginning that can be taken on and have it structured in depth enough to where you could take it on and then bring your own expertise and particular perspective to it. I’m still very engaged nationally though with spreading out these ideas about student persistence, learning and success in the first year, and looking at how we can take those and develop those in other places and really spread those efforts out, since I know so many of us nationally are just really fired up about this. So that’s where that stands right now. I’m working on a book right now with West Virginia University Press, with a very dynamic editor and a group of writers who are all working right now on writing about different issues in pedagogy in higher education. So that’s an honor, and I’m having a lot of fun with that book. So, memory and technology is what I’m writing about, and that’s something that springboards off a lot of the teaching that I do and some other writing as well. And that is something that I think is an issue that we see recurring now as being a very timely issue for people who are teaching. So that is taking a lot of my intellectual effort right now, and I’m looking at ways to keep engaging people in Minds Online, which, although it does have that specific technology angle, I think does pick up on many of these issues of promoting student success, and reducing disparities, and finding sometimes very surprising things that happen when we start to teach in new ways. So, that book came out around five years ago, it’s hard to believe, but I’m also looking at all the ideas and research that’s come out since then, and new applications that faculty have come up with. So, I’m looking at some new ways to keep that percolating along and kind of harness some of that energy we all have around that topic. So, I would say with that, just stay tuned or contact me to learn more, and we’ll see how that develops over the next year or so.

John: And when is this new book coming out?

Michelle: Oh…

John: Tentatively?

Michelle: It’s coming out after I write it. Let’s just say 2021. So it is well, well underway. We’re in striking distance of having that out in 2021.

John: And that’ll be part of the West Virginia University Press series edited by James Lang.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s always a pleasure.

Michelle: Likewise, it’s always great to talk about these issues with both of you.

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

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

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