102. Team-Based Learning

A large body of research finds that active learning approaches result in larger learning gains than traditional lecture approaches. In this episode, Dr. Kristin Croyle joins us to discuss how she transitioned from  explore using interactive lecture to collaborative learning, and then to team-based learning. Kristin is a Psychologist and our new Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at SUNY Oswego.

Show Notes

  • Johnson, R. T., & Johnson, D. W. (2008). Active learning: Cooperation in the classroom. The annual report of educational psychology in Japan, 47, 29-30.
  • A discussion by Dan Ariely explaining why asking for shorter lists of positive features in a relationship can engender positive feelings appears in this March 24, 2014 video clip.
  • Michaelsen, L. K., Knight, A. B., & Fink, L. D. (2004). Team-based learning: A transformative use of small groups in college teaching.
  • Team-Based Learning Cooperative
  • Epstein Educational Enterprises, What is the IF-AT?
  • Sweet, M., & Michaelsen, L. K. (2012). Team-based learning in the social sciences and humanities: Group work that works to generate critical thinking and engagement. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Croyle, K. L., & Alfaro, E. (2012). Applying team-based learning with Mexican American students in the social science classroom. Team-based learning in the social sciences and humanities: Group work that works to generate critical thinking and engagement, 203-220.
  • Deslauriers, L., McCarty, L. S., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(39), 19251-19257.
  • 74. Uncoverage – David Voelker – Tea for Teaching podcast episode discussing the uncoverage movement in history, March 27, 2019

Transcript

John: A large body of research finds that active learning approaches result in larger learning gains than traditional lecture approaches. In this episode, we explore one faculty member’s transition from using interactive lecture to collaborative learning, and then to team-based 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 Dr. Kristin Croyle. Kristin is a Psychologist and our new Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Kristin.

Kristin: Thank you.

John: Our teas today are:

Kristin: Earl Grey

Rebecca: I am having Mama’s work tea, because Ada made it this morning and she calls it work tea, which means she pulls the tea bag tag out and puts it in the big cup. Also, it’s just my normal English Afternoon. But, that was a better story.

John: And I’m drinking Spring Cherry green tea.

Rebecca: We invited you here today to talk about collaborative and team-based learning in your classes. But before you do that, you’ve noted that you had a strong preparation in teaching before you got started. Can you talk a little bit about that. We’ve talked a little bit about that on the show before and how a lot of faculty aren’t prepared…

Kristin: Um hmm.

Rebecca: So, could you talk about how your preparation may be informed what you’ve done.

Kristin: My graduate program, I went to the doctoral program in clinical psychology at the University of Montana in beautiful Missoula. And that program takes the preparation of their grad students very seriously, but across several areas not just in clinical work and research, but also knowing that some of them are going to end up in positions in which there will be teaching. So, while I was there, that very first semester I was brought in, they had a structure for teaching their introductory psychology classes where graduate students were assigned our own classes where we were the instructor in the classroom, but we had a supportive network around us. So, the syllabus was already there, the textbook was already there. We collaborated in writing tests. We had a structure of TAs that supported us and they would have recitation sections in which the TAs also received development. And we joined in that so we could see how more hands-on kind of things could be done with students in smaller groups. We even assigned our final grades together. And some of those pieces are pieces that are areas of skill that people don’t often think about developing. So, that first semester, all I had to do was think about working within the structure: How am I going to handle the day-to-day teaching and learning in the classroom? I didn’t have to worry about course design because the course was already designed in front of me. And I also didn’t have to, at the end, think: “When you assign grades, is that rigid? Do you really have to follow the exact, you know, 90/80 that it is in the syllabus? Or what if there are natural breaks around 88 or 89? Is it okay to flex that? What kind of power does an instructor have that is fair to students and evaluation?” I got to do all of that in a collaborative setting with a very experienced faculty member as a guide. There was also a credit-bearing course for teaching psychology that we were encouraged to take… which I really enjoyed. And then I was given opportunities to function more independently. When they needed a stats teacher over the summer, and they knew I was living there over the summer, I got to teach on an adjunct basis, but still with the support of faculty around me. So kind of putting students in the deep end, but with a high level of support around them, I felt very prepared when I was done with the graduate program to enter into an assistant professor position. And I still appreciate the preparation that they gave me.

Rebecca: I think with the preparation like that you’re probably far more willing to experiment and do new things as a faculty member too and to maybe even break away from what faculty around you are doing. Do you find that to be the case? Or were there other faculty doing some of this collaborative work in the department that you were in?

Kristin: Yes, and no. One of the experiences I had at my previous institution, which was the University of Texas – Pan American that then transitioned through a merger to be the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. I was talking with a colleague in another department about the kinds of things we were doing in the classroom. And I still remember him saying “Oh, I didn’t know you could do that in the classroom and that was like teaching.” He had a very restricted idea of what teaching was, and what would be acceptable to colleagues, which he had never had the opportunity to test with other people around him. And that was something that I arrived from day one… that you talked about your teaching… that you can do many different things in the classroom. And it’s all teaching, as long as you are trying to work with students to create a learning environment and they are learning, then it counts as teaching. So I did come in with a much more flexible idea, then certainly some of my colleagues who hadn’t had an opportunity to ever have those discussions. And of course, some people are hired into departments in which those discussions don’t ever happen, so they may persist with those misconceptions for many years.

John: Or throughout their entire careers at times. [LAUGHTER] The scaffolding that was provided is really nice, because we’ve talked to a few people who’ve been in teaching training program or had some training in graduate programs. But usually, it’s not quite as structured as that and that’s a nice feature.

Rebecca: Yeah, I came from a program like that, but it was like very front loaded. It wasn’t that ongoing…. So I felt a lot more prepared, because I did have a lot of those experiences, but I didn’t have that same kind of supportive network throughout. Which is incredibly valuable.

Rebecca: So, you want to take us through what some of your collaborative experiences have been in the classroom and the ways that you set up some of the team-based learning exercises, maybe starting with what are those?

Kristin: Sure. So kind of the way that I journey through my teaching, particularly when I was an assistant professor, I felt comfortable in the classroom, but I didn’t feel expert. I felt like I was still trying to figure out what was going on, which is a perfectly fine way to be and a good state for learning to occur. So I felt like I was a talented lecturer, like I can engage students. I teach in psychology, I also think psychology is naturally very engaging, but part of that is because I really love the field. So, I felt like I could engage students and that they would listen and that they would be interested. But I started to become dissatisfied that there was always a core of engaged students and I had no idea what was happening with the other students in the class. And then sometimes I would be disappointed when we have tests or homework. Everyone said they had no questions. Clearly that was wrong. I was wondering how do you engage the majority or all of the students in their learning so that they aren’t coasting through class believing that they understand until they really don’t. And then I also felt like I was kind of fooling myself into thinking that students were with me when they were not with me. So I had an opportunity at that time to do some intensive cooperative learning training along the model of Johnson and Johnson collaborative learning. And that model from the University of Minnesota, it focuses on the importance of cooperation in the classroom, and that in cooperative settings, students learn more, develop a stronger sense of self efficacy around their learning; that they together are able to achieve more than they would individually. And it also has impacts on retention… that if students are feeling like they are individually known and valued in the classroom by their peers, they’re more likely to continue showing up to class and to develop relationships outside of the classroom that supports them along the way. So through that training, it was intensive, it was like eight hours a week, one day set for several weeks. The very first day, I could see what a difference I was going to make in my classroom. So, for example, I was using group assignments in class and they had all the same disadvantages that group assignments and most classes have, because I had no idea how to structure the group work so that it would be successful. I was doing group work to save me grading time, honestly.

Rebecca: That’s why a lot of people go to group work.

Kristin: Yes! Without understanding that all I had to do was some structural changes, and then it would actually be effective for learning as well, instead of just saving me grading time. In that cooperative learning training, I learned how to structure intensive group work that could be the length of an entire semester, or it could be the length of a single class day. I learned how to structure less intensive moments of team time. So how do you do a think-pair-share that works versus how do you do a think-pair-share that doesn’t work very well. So, that within the course of that training… actually just within a few days… I suddenly had, instead of 10% of the students in the class engaged on a daily basis, I had 100% of the students engaged on a daily basis. So, that was a huge breakthrough and I continued that way for several years.

John: What were some of the structural changes that you made that did lead to increased engagement?

Kristin: So, the cooperative learning approach of Johnson and Johnson, is kind of theoretically heavy, in the sense that they outline the pieces that are necessary for strong collaboration to occur. And then they turn it over to you as the instructor to say, “How do I build those pieces in?” So, for example, they emphasize positive interdependence as one of the essential components of cooperative learning… that when you create a group and a group activity for them to do, the activity has to be structured in such a way that each person is necessary to contribute. You can’t structure it in such a way that you can have three people talking when one person is only needed, and there are specific recommendations on how do you structure it so that everyone is needed. At the same time you have to build an individual accountability as another required component, so that, even if each person is needed, people can still slack off, say, “Yes, you all can’t do as well without me because you need me, but I don’t really care about what is happening here.” There has to be a level of individual accountability that’s also built in. Along with that, some of the skills that I thought were most important, they build an emphasis on group processing and social skills, so that if you have people consistently working together in class, they may not have developed the social skills to do that effectively, especially over time. You can work with someone for two minutes on a think-pair-share and really be bad at social skills. But, if you have to work with them over an extended period of time on a project and things are going south in terms of group conflict, it’s the instructor’s responsibility to help them to develop the social skills to work together. For example, on the first day of class, when I first start having students talk to each other so that they know that’s going to be a pattern in the class, I give them something quick to talk about. And I say introduce yourself to the person next to you… spend two minutes talking about this. And then I’m going to ask you about what you talked about. And then I run around the class real quick… pair up people who aren’t participating, introduce them to each other so that they understand this is a part of the class. So, then I follow back. So, what pieces are important there? …that I explicitly instruct them, you turn with your body… you actually make eye contact. And I will point out as people first start doing this, look at these two people, they are looking at each other, because many times students won’t do that, and it’s very hard to have a cooperative interaction if you don’t make eye contact… and I will say, “Who was the person you talked to? Tell me their name.” So they understand that I was serious when I said, introduce yourself, tell me something about them and that there’s individual accountability through just random calling on… that they need to participate in the cooperative portion. And then there’s also the self-reinforcing aspect of it that five minutes later, when I say to talk about something else, they realize they already know somebody in class, they have a connection. The next day, when I come in, they’re not quiet, they’re already talking to each other, they’ve created those connections.

John: A nice thing about that, too, is for people who are uncomfortable talking about themselves in class, having one person tell you something about the other person, it’s a little bit less pressure, it’s a little less revelation to the whole group. There’s some evidence that that type of thing is more effective in providing a more comfortable environment.

Rebecca: Kristin, can you also talk a little bit about a specific example of a cooperative activity where all of the members are held accountable, and all have a role? …just to provide an example for people who have less experience.

Kristin: So cooperative learning can be divided into informal and formal cooperative learning. Informal cooperative learning tends to be much shorter activities that can be done kind of on the fly if you already have an idea in your mind of how you might want to do that. Formal cooperative learning tends to be more intensively structured… longer-term activities. So that could be a single class session. If you’re going to do an activity that takes an hour, that would be more formal… or if you’re going to do something that takes an entire semester. The pair-and-share that I just talked about is an example of informal cooperative learning. Something like a jigsaw classroom activity can be structured as a formal cooperative learning activity. And it already shares almost all of the components: there’s individual accountability, because each student is given a specific role. There’s also positive interdependence, because the success of everyone depends on each person doing their role. So there are ones that are already structured with a built in component. The pieces that aren’t built into something like a jigsaw classroom activity, would be the group skills and group processing, and the ways that you can build that in. You can, for example, ask groups to reflect on what went well. I typically emphasize that more than asking them to reflect on things that went poorly, because asking to reflect on what went well tends to maintain a positive atmosphere, but also helps them to cover both bases at the same time anyway.

Rebecca: …or realize that my list for what went well is not very long… [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: Right. So, a common group processing thing I would have students do after their first more lengthy or more formal cooperative learning activity would be: list three things that your team did well together and one thing that you could improve on. And another thing I might ask them to do is to provide positive feedback to each member of the group at the end of the activity. And the kind of feedback that they provide is usually pretty specific, and helps to shape their behavior throughout the rest of the semester. So when they say things like, “I like it when you disagreed, and you said that this other thing would be a better way to go” that provides important feedback, and it helps to encourage better processing going forward. But I will go around and give individual social skill feedback too. But it’s usually things like, “Oh, I see you’re sitting so far away from your group, I’m not sure they can hear you, let’s scoot your chair in so that they can hear you.” Or I might ask, “Oh, do you know this person’s name next to you? What’s her name?” …and we’ll make sure that people maintain the social and cooperative connections that enable to do that kind of good group.

John: Just as an aside, it’s useful if you’re asking about things that went well, to keep the list fairly short. I’m reminded of a study that Dan Ariely talked about where they did a controlled experiment where in one case, they asked people to reflect on three things they liked about their partner and another case to list 10 things I liked about the partner, and then they surveyed them on the quality of the relationship. And those who were asked about three things generally rated their relationship with a partner fairly high. But when they were asked to come up with 10 things, they struggled with that and they rated that relationship lower. So keeping the list short…

Kristin: Right.

John: …is really good so you don’t…

Kristin: There’s kind of analogous thought about keeping things like gratitude lists. If you list too much stuff, it can have a negative effect, because you start to identify things that you really don’t think are that important, and it makes you think the whole thing is less important.

John: And if you want to get the opposite effect, ask people to list 10 things that were bad, and then they’ll struggle beyond the first few. You talked about having continuous relationships or persistent relationships with collaborative learning. Did you try to keep the group relationships consistent for the same groups throughout the term? Or did you vary that?

Kristin: I varied it. There are some good data to suggest that in collaborative learning… they refer to them as base teams… that base teams have a persistent positive effect, particularly on things like student engagement and retention throughout the semester and throughout the year…. that you have a team that is expecting you every day. But when I was doing cooperative learning, I didn’t restructure my courses. I restructured the day. Does that make sense?

Rebecca: Um hmm.

Kristin: So I didn’t have a reason for base groups. And I felt strange imposing them on the students without a reason. Besides, they would maybe be socially a good idea. I had to completely rebuild my courses from the ground up before I started using base teams. And that’s when I transitioned to team-based learning.

John: …and in team-based learning, persistent teams are recommended as part of the process.

Kristin: Absolutely.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about this transition to team-based learning. What prompted you to introduce that? …and how it worked?

Kristin: So I was happy with how courses were going. People were interested and engaged. I had students telling me, “I know every single person in this classroom.” and when you’re teaching a class of 30, or 40, or 50, that’s unusual. “I know everyone in here, I feel really supported.” I feel like things were going well. But I was unsatisfied with what I was teaching. I wasn’t clear, in my own mind, about what persistent learning outcomes I wanted for my students. I had not sat down and really thought through if I were to follow up with a student in a year or five years, what would I want them to recall from this class? What would I want them to be putting into use in their lives or in their careers? I had never thought that through. And I was fortunate enough to run into team-based learning at that time, right as I was primed to start thinking about this questions. Team-based learning originated by Larry Michaelsen. He was coming from the perspective of enrollment increases. He had been assigning some pretty challenging work. He was a faculty member in business. And as his course enrollments increased, he started to wonder how can you maintain the same kind of interesting, really challenging in class… by case work, for example… with a large enrollment. So he developed team-based learning to address that piece, but it also requires you to completely rethink the design of the course. And to start from the course outcomes: “What do you want the persistent outcomes to be?” …and then structure the course forward in that way. So in team-based learning, after you make a decision about your course outcomes, and what you really want students to be able to do, then you structure the course in a modular fashion. And each module has certain steps. So the beginning is student preparation, then when they come into class, you test. You say, “okay” …and it’s called the readiness assurance process. So you want to know what students are ready to do after they’ve individually prepared, and what they’re not ready to do. So they prepare, they test. And then, since it’s a team focus, they also test as a team. After that you have a good idea as an instructor, what are they ready to do? What are still the fuzzy areas? What do they really not get at all? What are their competencies as a team already, even if every individual student doesn’t have it, and then you can do some corrective lecturing, basically, so many lectures that fill in some of the gaps. And that’s all part of the readiness process, because you’re getting them ready to do some interesting application work in class. And the rationale for that is… and actually what I had been doing prior to that, was giving interesting application material to work on at home individually, while doing lecture and cooperative learning in class. But the interesting application material was actually the heart of the course, and the much more challenging piece. So it was better to bring the hard piece where they needed support into the classroom. And the piece they were ready to do, which was to do their own self study back into their own lives. So you do this readiness assurance process to make sure they are ready for interesting application, and then the majority at the time for the module you spent on application. Doing that after I had already worked with cooperative learning was really helpful, because all of that application work is done in a team setting. So when you already have some experience with how to build teams, how to maintain and develop their social skills, that’s really, really, really helpful. That’s a short version.

John: One of my colleagues, Bill Goffe, who was on one of our very early podcasts, noted that when he gave the group test, the performance always went up significantly, so that they could see the benefits of the peer discussion that was part of that. And he was really impressed with it. And he noted that, oftentimes, if a student didn’t show up for class one day, they get a hard time from their classmates from the group because they let the group down. And he said his attendance had never been better than when he was using a team-based learning approach.

Kristin: Absolutely. And a lot of people who do team-based learning, use the same methodology for doing the team testing, which is honestly really cute. It’s a scratch-off form. And the scratch-off form is used so that the team gets immediate feedback on each option. So on any particular item in a multiple choice test, if they want to select “B” they scratch off “B.” If it’s not there, then they continue to scratch until they get the right answer. For one thing, they love it. But also they are getting immediate team feedback. If this person is not speaking up, if they say I think it’s “B” and then they stop advocating and then it turns out to be “B” later than the team immediately knows, by the time they get to the next question. “Okay, we need to incorporate more feedback from all of our team members, wait a minute, this person who’s not speaking up actually has a lot to say.” In the course of just a few multiple choice questions, it brings their team development forward leaps and bounds. And they kind of have fun with a scratch off, which is also a bonus.

John: And it also gives them incentives to come prepared and to listen to other people in ways that they might not otherwise.

Kristin: Yeah, and their team will give them grief, if they say “Oh, I don’t know, because I didn’t read,” their team members will be like, “But we are depending on you, you need to read, we all read.”

John: And it also gives them a little bit, perhaps, of improvement in metacognition because they’re getting that immediate feedback, and it’s being coupled with the reactions of the peers. So if someone was insistent on a wrong answer, and they dominated that discussion, they might be a little more careful in the future and more willing to listen to the other people and reflect.

Kristin: Exactly, and it doesn’t have to wait till next week, it can happen right away. Right on the next question. The team application activities are also structured in a particular way. In team-based learning, they talk about the four S’s for the application activity, the first one is that you have to select a significant problem. So what they’re working on is something that will be important to them, something that they will identify with, or that they recognize is worth their time in thinking about and trying to think through. The second one is that they need to be working on this same problem. You can’t say teams one and two are working on this, three and four are working on this, five and six are working on this. Third one is that they structure in so that they make a specific choice as the outcome. Because it’s easier to solicit team feedback if everyone is making a specific choice rather than having kind of an open-ended narrative response. And it helps to stimulate whole group discussion as you’re moving. Now it can sound like it’s limiting to say that you have to make a specific choice, but you can do in a very broad way. And the fourth one is simultaneous reporting. So all the teams are asked to report at the same time on what the choice was that they made, so that they can’t piggyback off another team who’s putting in effort. So, as an example, one of the courses that I taught in the psychology major in Texas was the tests and measurements course in psychology, and test and measurements starts with a stats review. They’ve all had statistics, it usually comes prior to tests and measurement. But it’s the first time that they have an opportunity to work with statistics in kind of a decision-making way. So you start with a stats review. So one of the activities that I would do, I gave them two hypothetical first-grade teachers with how many questions 10 of there students got right on a spelling test. And the two distributions had the same mean, but one was fairly normal, and one was highly skewed. So they had to do their quick statistics review… Do the mean, median, mode and standard deviation describe the shape of the distribution. But the question I was asking them was, “If you were the principal, which teacher would you offer an after-school tutoring program to for extra pay? And which teacher would you potentially nominate for a teaching award?” They found that question to be a really interesting question. For one thing, students think a lot about what good teaching is, and what constitutes a good teacher. So they already come in with very strong opinions. And they also understand the complexity of, you know, if everybody’s passing but people aren’t excelling, is that good teaching? Whereas if most people are failing, but a few people are getting an “A” is that good teaching? …and how the data contributes to good decision making, but can also be kind of manipulated to contribute to decision making in not such a good way. So instead of just saying, “Let’s review the stats, here they are,” it was a question with a specific choice that they simultaneously reported on. And then we could discuss together. And of course, their answers are different. There’s different rationales in both ways. So then we could discuss together what their rationale was, if they want to debate they can debate a little. It generates a lot of student enthusiasm, and everybody’s doing it instead of just 10% of the class.

John: And once they’ve committed to an answer, they have a stake in and they really want to know, that’s something we’ve seen a lot of things we’ve talked about in the past, too.

Kristin: Absolutely.

Rebecca: When you were doing the team-based learning, were you sticking specifically to problems that were on a class-by-class basis still, like you were discussing in the co-operative setting, or were you doing some longer term activities that went across multiple class periods?

Kristin: I had the… what I consider gift… to often be teaching in a three-hour time slot, which is my very favorite time slot. So I would have activities that would extend two or three hours, but typically not between classes, I found that to be more of a sweet spot, at least for me. At my previous institution we had a very high commuter population. And I promised, in both models, that I would never ask them to do something out of class with their teams, that was one of my rules… that it was just simply too burdensome for students who have multiple outside of school commitments… family and work, or living potentially 150 miles apart, which was not unheard of. I promised them no out of class stuff. I structured that intentionally so that the individual preparation that they were doing, they could do anywhere on their own time schedule, but they were expected to be there. And their team expected them to be there to be able to engage in class. And it was also one of the ways that you talk people into it, when they say “I worked with other groups who were all slackers and we would always set times and they wouldn’t show up.” And I said “That’s not going to happen in here. We already have a time we’re all going to show up together.”

John: And the philosophy that’s very similar to the flipped classroom approach where you let students do the easy stuff outside and then give them assistance with or have them work in a framework where they’re getting more assistance with the more challenging issues.

Kristin: Absolutely. I think TBL [team-based learning] is definitely a flipped classroom approach.

Rebecca: I think the other thing that helps too with that model… of making sure you’re not working outside of class… really helps students with really different backgrounds start working together, because you might have students who are more traditional who are on campus. And so for them to meet outside of class is often not such a big deal. But then if you have students who are working or have families, and there’s a disconnect in the class, even, between those two populations, that helps make that more obvious and work a little bit better,

Kristin: Right. Absolutely. Yeah. And I didn’t want to set up anything where people were made to feel like unvalued team members, because they couldn’t do what was asked of them because of other commitments. Since that was in my control, I wanted to make sure that people felt welcome.

Rebecca: I’ve tried to even do that with long-term projects. In the field that I’m in, we tend to do things that go across class periods, but there’s always the “Are we going to do this outside of class or are we going to do this inside of class, and I try to have them do anything that needs to be collaborative, and decision making, in class, and then things that can be done on their own, even if that means doing some creative work, or whatever, outside of class. But those are independent things that can be done for the same reasons. And I find that students will try to manipulate that system, so that they’re gonna: “Oh, we’ll just do it outside of class, because we don’t want her to know whether or not we’re on top of something,” or whatever. But I call them out on it, because it’s really devaluing some of that exact thing. People have other commitments and things.

John: You mentioned, you started to use a backwards design approach where you started with the things you want them to remember five years later. Did you have to cut back on the breadth of the coverage in the class, to some extent, by doing that?

Kristin: Yes, I did. When I was going with the straight up cooperative learning approach, I did not have to cut back on the content at all. Without the full redesign, I found I could cover the same amount of material in straight lecture versus in a cooperative setting. But it was all coverage. It was just a different kind of coverage. When I approached it from a backward design perspective, and I really was able to focus on the objectives that I thought were important, I did have to reduce the amount of things that we were covering. I have no regrets about that, of course, because I completely recognize that covering material isn’t just covering it. What are students going to do with something I covered in class? They didn’t cover it, I was the one who was learning it and talking about it. So I’m much happier with an approach in which I am consistently hitting on the objectives that I really want them to recall, and that they are working hard to apply those throughout the semester.

John: If they’re not going to remember it passed the final exam, covering more material isn’t terribly useful.

Kristin: No.

John: We talked about that in a previous podcast with David Voelker, who talking about the coverage approach in History…

Kristin: Right.

John: …which is the same logic.

Kristin: Exactly. And I actually now consider that to be a complete waste of time. So why am I spending class time on something that I actually don’t really care if they remember, it’s not the most important thing to me, and they really don’t care if they remember.

Rebecca: You have some compelling arguments for why team-based learning and collaborative learning are good options. If one wanted to start moving in that direction, what would you suggest their first steps be?

Kristin: For team-based learning, there are a couple of great books that are very easy to approach. There are several great resources for team-based learning. Larry Michaelsen published a book in 2008, for example, that covers that from front to back. It gives examples of applications in different disciplines. There’s also a book published a few years later on team-based learning in the social sciences and humanities. That also covers the basics, but has applications that are more specific to social sciences and humanities. Team-based learning has really caught on in medical education and in business education. So in the original book, there are more application examples that are in MD preparation or in business schools. So if you’re looking for other examples, the second book might be a good choice as well. And that one is edited by Michael Sweet and Larry Michaelsen.

John: And in fact, I read your article, or

Kristin: Oh, did you?

John: …your chapter in there as background.

Kristin: I’m glad someone read it.

John: Now I have to read all the others. But, I, at least, did read that. It was very good. So for faculty who are moving to this, what are some pitfalls that they might run into? Or what sort of problems might they encounter?

Kristin: Team-based learning as being a much more structured approach… Michaelsen does a really nice job of laying out the pieces that he thinks are critical. And I agree they are critical. So, for example, he talks about explaining, and testing the model with students on the first class day, and you cannot skip it. So the very first class day, I give students an example individual application test, like they would get for their readiness assurance. It includes basic psychology knowledge that may or may not be present in the culture. So they have some chance of getting some of them right and some not. And then I have them do it as a team. And the team scores, of course, are always dramatically higher than the individual scores. And the team testing process is so much better. [LAIGHTER] It’s more pleasant and interesting and collaborative than they expect it to be. That simply going through that, it allays many of their fears about what a team is going to be like to work with. Plus, when they see that the team has tripled their individual score, they’re like, “Hey, maybe I could depend on other people to help me learn, and maybe this will pay off for me.” So going through an explanation of what the rationale is, having them experience it a little is really, really critical in helping them stay open minded while they experience it. And then regularly throughout the semester, I will keep reinforcing them with those messages. I’ll say, look at this amazing thing you guys did. You used all the intellectual resources around you, and you analyzed this difficult problem and came up with some great solutions. I’ll remind them how much they’re learning and what kinds of challenging tasks they’re able to do as a team when they have the preparation to do it, which helps as they’re starting to think “Well, wouldn’t it just be easier if I could do this by myself?” It helps them to kind of remember, ”Well, yes, but you wouldn’t be doing this, you would be doing something not as challenging, not as integrative.”

John: and probably not learning quite as much either&hellp;

Kristin: Yes. He also emphasizes an aspect that is also emphasized in cooperative learning… of helping the teams develop and giving them feedback, helping them give each other feedback. That’s also really critical, especially very early in the semester, as they’re starting to develop group norms and bond together to make sure that you don’t short the time in class for them to have some group processing time and to build their team skills. So, for example, when I taught last spring, I had a student who came to me after I think it was the second week. So it’s very early in the semester, and she said, “I really need to reassigned teams. My team hates me, they won’t make eye contact with me.” She was really upset. And I’m reluctant to reassign people teams, because often what they’re experiencing, they take with them. It’s not always a function of that team process. So we talked some, and I tried to get a handle on what she was experiencing. I knew where she sat, I had an idea of the team composition. And I asked her to try one more day, just one more day. And then we would talk about reassigning her teams. And that day, I was sure to build in plenty of time for group processing, where they talked about what they were doing well as a team and something to improve. Their team turned around immediately. She was a relatively assertive person, which I already knew. I knew that she could handle this. So she went back to the team. She was able to talk with her team about not feeling heard. They immediately turned around in the way that they were with her. And by the very next class day, they were a relatively high functioning team. They did well all semester. They brought doughnuts for each other. I mean, it was a really nice supportive group. What they needed was the time in class to do some processing. And if I, as the instructor, had been moving too fast, and not giving them time to do that, and not giving them a prompt to do that, it would have been a really negative experience for her. So, also building in time for the team to develop and prompts for them to do that.

Rebecca: So you mentioned liking to have a three-hour teaching slot.

Kristin: That’s my favorite. It’s not required.

Rebecca: So, in that amount of time, how much time would you designate towards this group processing, for example, to give people an idea of what that proportion or the amount of time to dedicate so that you don’t shortcut it and you don’t rush through it?

Kristin: If I were to do an activity that might take an hour, I might spend 10 minutes for group process, it doesn’t have to be very long, or even five. And you don’t have to do it every time, you could do 10 minutes after the first one or two more intensive activities, and then not do it for another few times… and another five minutes just every so often to help them resolve their underlying dissatisfactions and to recognize that what they’re doing is not just application activity, it’s also group interaction. So please take time to do both. Another really important required component that I didn’t mention is peer evaluation, I always incorporate peer evaluation as part of the grade.

John: How did you form the teams in these classes?

Kristin: They’re heterogeneous, first, with a very open process so students can see it happening and know there are no shenanigans… that this is all very open… talking about the rationale that people of different backgrounds bring different strengths. So you want a group that has people of different backgrounds, so you can have a larger kind of learning base between you. So usually, I’ll pick a few characteristics that might be important in that kind of background. And I will line them up around the room based on those characteristics. And if it’s 200 people, it’s a really long line. And then we count off. So when I teach introductory psychology, students who have had a high school psychology class usually are starting a big leg up on the other students. So I’ll include that as a characteristic. Sometimes I’ll include the distance that people are coming from, because then they have different experiences, depending on what class I might also include if their student athletes, just because if you put too many together in a team, then they’re all gone on the same day. They have interesting backgrounds, but they also have patterns of attendance and of absence that need to be adjusted around. And we’ll count off all the way around so people can see how the teams are made. But heterogeneous teams are really, really critical. Having students with pre-existing relationships will throw off the team process in a way that automatically excludes people that don’t have pre-existing relationships… plus they tend to be lower performing teams. And I don’t want to set that up on purpose.

John: One of my colleagues once did this in a class of, I think it was about 350 students, but he just sorted them alphabetically. So he had them organize himself that way, and it was a fairly long process. But, it was kind of amusing for those of us wandering by and just seeing…

Kristin: …this huge line… Yeah.

John: He didn’t do it that way In the future, he used other criteria.

Kristin: I’ve had colleagues that I’ve talked with that think that this is a long process. It’s not. You can sort 200 people in 10 minutes, and then you’re done for the whole semester,

John: Doing it alphabetically…

Kristin: takes a lot longer.

John: …can be more challenging, because they were self forming that… it didn’t convert rapidly.

Kristin: The other thing I never do is I don’t put the students who didn’t come the first day into a team, because there are characteristics about why they didn’t come the first day. If you put them all together in one team, they share some of those characteristics… It tends not to be a very high performing team. So I make sure they’re sorted out among the other teams. But that was one of the things that I learned in cooperative learning. That, before I did cooperative learning training, and I was assigning group work, I would assign people based on if you didn’t come the day we did the assignments, you were in another group. And that group typically did not do very well. And as an instructor, it’s my responsibility to create a learning environment in which students can excel, it’s on them whether they do their part. But if I’m setting up a team in ignorance, with predictable characteristics, so that they’re going to have a failure experience, that’s on me to correct. And it’s not on them. So afterwards, I felt guilty when I had come to a new realization. But, yeah, it’s my responsibility to set up an environment in which those students can be successful in their teams.

John: In your chapter in that book, you mentioned that when you switched over, it did affect your course evaluations a little bit. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Kristin: Just a little bit. But yes, it did. So when I was doing straight lecture, I was shooting for engaged lecture. And in psychology, you can build in little experiences, especially in introductory psychology, where the topics are changing frequently, you can always build things in that are kind of interesting. You can do a little optical illusion here and a little bit of memory trick there. And there’s these ways to build it in, but it is still basically straight lecture. And I got high evaluations for that. I was careful about trying to build those in every day, you know, every few minutes. And when I went to cooperative learning, where it was essentially the same approach, but in in a much more engaged and cooperative fashion, those evaluations stayed very high. Students knew each other, they were happy in class. When I went to team-based learning and I was actually asking every student to participate all the time, and be prepared in class in a way that their contributions were much more obvious than mine. My evaluations did drop just a little bit, not a lot, but a little. And I am grateful that I was teaching in a context where I knew that my department wouldn’t care. They were more interested that I was doing good teaching. And they understood the many factors that influence student evaluations. But I also recognize that it’s incumbent on me to help students understand how they are learning, what kinds of things encourage learning and retention, and then you kind of let the student evaluations fall where they may.

John: When I read that, it reminded me of that study that came out a few weeks ago from Harvard in their physics program, where they found that students in active learning classes did demonstrably better on tests, but they perceived their learning as being lower. So there was a pretty strong inverse relationship between their perception of learning and actual learning. That seems to be fairly common, there have been a number of other studies where what students think to be most effective, is often not what most enhances their learning.

Kristin: Right.

John: Do you have any other advice for our listeners, who might think about using either collaborative or team-based learning in their classes,

Kristin: The one thing I would say is that teaching a cooperative learning or a team-based learning structure class is a lot more fun. You have to be willing to give up control, because when you’re lecturing, you have absolute control… meaning even that students can’t ask you weird things, because you haven’t opened the door for that to happen. But when you structure the learning experience, and then you give up the control to the students, it is an exciting environment to be in. I wasn’t as tired when I was coming out of class. I was energized, you could feel the difference in the room just walking into class… they were excited and talking with each other. When I would circulate around before class started, they’re talking about the class instead of talking about other stuff. It completely changes the environment in the classroom in a way that I think really matches what I expect out of a university education for students, it creates a environment of intellectual enthusiasm around the topic that you’re teaching.

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

Kristin: That’s a great question. So right now I’m 100% administrative. And since I’m in a new position, in a new institution, I’m gonna spend some time figuring out all the newness pieces. But I’d like to go back to the classroom, at least for a course here and there when I can. There’s nothing different about students than there is about people. So I also think often about how what we do in the classroom, what we understand works and what we understand doesn’t work, how that applies in administrative settings as well. We know for example, that people tend to try and find the shortest path. So if they’re trying to learn something, they want to put in the least effort to learn it. If you ask a faculty member to do a task for the department, they are obviously going to choose the easiest path to do that… not necessarily the best path. So how do I take the experiences of learning and teaching, that in some ways are better understood to an environment of administration that in some ways is not as well understood? What kinds of lessons can I apply there as well?

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much. It’s been a really interesting conversation. I’m sure it gives a lot of people things to think about as they move forward in this semester and future semesters.

Kristin: Thank you.

[MUSIC]

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

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

94. Open Reflection

Students can provide useful feedback on instructional practices and class design when they are asked, In this episode, three students from John’s spring economics capstone class join us to provide their reflections on the class’s experiment in developing an open pedagogy project. Our guests in today’s episode are Maria Aldrich, Victoria Heist and Charlie Tararzona.

Show Notes

Transcript

Rebecca: Students can provide useful feedback on instructional practices and class design when they are asked. In this episode, students join us to provide an open reflection on one class’s experiment in developing an open pedagogy project.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

John: Our guests today are Maria Aldrich, Victoria Heist and Charlie Tarazona, three students who participated in the creation of an open pedagogy project in one of my economics classes this spring semester. Welcome.

Victoria: Thanks for having us.

Maria: Thank you.

Charlie: Yep, excited to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

John: None of you are drinking tea, are you?

Maria: No.

Victoria: No tea.

Charlie: No tea today.

Rebecca: How regretful. [LAUGHTER]

John: It happens with many of our guests. I’m having ginger peach black tea.

Rebecca: And I’m drinking Lady Grey. The issue is our tea selection is no longer close to our recording studio. It’s a problem. It’s an epidemic now with our tea choices.

John: …now that we’re recording in this little closet in a building next door, where at least we don’t have toilets flushing every 30 seconds or so that we have to edit out.

Rebecca: So John, can you start first by explaining what open pedagogy is, to kind of frame our discussion?

John: Going back a step further. Last year, I saw a presentation by Robin DeRosa who presented on this at the SUNY Conference on Instruction and Technology and she made a really compelling case for some of the advantages that open pedagogy projects have. And open pedagogy just involves having students create content that is open and shared publicly with the world.

Rebecca: So what class did you do an open pedagogy project in?

John: This class is a capstone course in the economics department here. It’s taken mostly by seniors and a few juniors. And it’s a seminar course in economic theory and policy. It’s one of our smaller classes. And we had only 27 students in this capstone, this semester.

Rebecca: So why this class?

John: Because the students were ready for it. The course builds on all the courses that they’ve had up to this point and it allows them to pull together material they’ve learned in all of their prior courses, as well as the cognate classes in statistics and math and so on.

Rebecca: So what kind of project exactly did you propose to these students?

John: I originally proposed two options. One was to do something on behavioral economics, because past classes have found that to be a lot of fun, and another one I suggested was they could just pick current topics and work in small groups and create papers on that. Turned out that they really didn’t like any of those ideas and given the nature of open pedagogy, I left it up to the class to decide what their topics would be. And I think it was actually Charlie, who came up with the idea. And would you like to tell us what that was?

Charlie: I know you had mentioned in the beginning of the class the idea of open pedagogy. And I found that pretty interesting because it seemed like a good opportunity for us as seniors and juniors to really put what we had learned out there. And also, in terms of topic selection, you gave us the opportunity to really choose which topics we wanted to talk about. We ended up choosing the topic of intergenerational mobility and economic inequality. We focused more on the economic inequality aspect of it in the end. But yeah, like I said, it was just a good opportunity for everybody to really finish their college careers with something that they can show.

Rebecca: Dr. Kane is going to close his ears now and you guys are going to tell us exactly what you thought when he said, “Hey, you’re going to write a book.”

Victoria: I was hesitant at first, just because group projects are kind of daunting, especially in economics. However, a collaborative group project was exciting to do… to see all of our work put together. As economic students it isn’t something you really see, it’s usually individual work.

Maria: Oh, yeah, I would agree with Victoria. I was kind of hesitant at first, especially because it was something new for our class so I figured there are probably a lot of kinks that needed to be fixed. So I was a little worried about not having everything fully figured out at first. I thought it was something interesting. It appealed to me because I like the thought that other people could read what we had written and we could have control of what we would want to talk about.

Charlie: And the topic and the idea of a book project really intrigued me… that it just let us put out there what we had learned over these past few years and gave us something that we can show in the end of it.

Rebecca: Were any of you scared?

Victoria: Not scared. I wouldn’t use that word.

John: Were you concerned?

Victoria: A bit concerned, just because I like doing my individual work. I feel stronger in that.

Maria: Yeah, I would agree. I think group work can sometimes be difficult to have for every class because everyone has a different writing style and everyone works on their projects at different times. So I think at first, you’re a little bit worried that not everyone will be able to work well together. But I found that in my group, we were able to work very well and we’re able to meet once a week to go over what we needed to work on for the week.

Charlie: Yeah, I found something similar to that experience. Whereas my group, after the first few weeks, figured out what we wanted to do, and when we could meet, and what was the most effective way for us to put the book project together? And I think it turned out really well.

Rebecca: So you’ve all mentioned groups, can you talk a little bit about what the groups were, how they were determined, and how that worked?

Victoria: The groups were groups of three from the class, because there’s 27 people. And then we’re able to email Professor Kane and ask if we wanted to work with anyone specific, like if we had friends in the class, we could work with them. But if not, or if we didn’t want to work with someone we knew, we’re able to randomize it.

Maria: I was put into a group of two other random people that I didn’t know, but we were able to set up a group chat immediately and communicate very well through that.

Charlie: I actually emailed Professor Kane about being a group in Victoria and we also included another student in that. I think it worked out pretty well and I was happy with how it turned out.

John: Before the groups were formed, though, the class decided on what the topics would be. So we had kind of a free-form planning session where we narrowed it down to nine topics you wanted to address. And then at that point, we knew how big the groups were going to be. And it worked out nicely with three people per group.

Rebecca: How did each group get assigned a topic?

Charlie: So the way we assigned topics was, we had created a list of the nine topics, and then each individual group could choose their top three, and then we divided them that way based on everybody’s top choice. If they didn’t happen to get their top choice, they usually got their second or third, I think that only happened for maybe two groups, and they seem to be fine with what they ended up with.

John: And going back a little bit further, it was a weighted voting scheme that you didn’t just rank them… that you assigned points, if I remember was it 10 points I gave you? And so if you really wanted to chapter you could bid all 10 points on that. And if you were indifferent, you could have assigned weight to your top three preferences and so forth. And it did work out really nicely where I think most groups got their top choice, but two of them ended up with their second or third choice, but it seemed to work.

Rebecca: How did you find collaborating in the end?

Charlie: I found that it worked really well meeting every week. We also had presentations every week that we gave on specific topics that we’re talking about during that week. So that set the initial schedule for us to meet every week and talk about what we were doing and what was going on. Also with the book project at the time, in terms of organization, I found it very laid out and simple.

Rebecca: That sounds like you had a writing group that met that frequently, but it also would be more of like a study group as well?

Charlie: Yeah, I would definitely say it was a mix between a writing group… a study group. Your group members ended up being the way, if you wanted to succeed in the class, like that was the way to do it was to work cohesively with your group members.

John: And it should be noted that they had other tasks in the class as well, where they selected topics that were presented each week and each group was responsible for presenting an article or a research paper on a topic, some of which were related to the book and others were completely different. The groups were persistent across all the assignments and involved more than just writing the book.

Rebecca: How’d you get feedback to make sure whatever you’re putting out in the public was good enough?

Maria: Well, we mainly used Google Docs. At first, we tried to use hypothesis. But that wasn’t really working out well. So we ended up just going back to Google Docs. And each group would be given a couple of chapters to review each week. And they would write a couple comments in that chapter as well as some comments made by our professor and we used that and we also used each other’s feedback to make those edits.

John: How did that work? Where the comments helpful?

Victoria: No. [LAUGHTER] Just because I’m very protective over my work, which I know I should be open to criticisms. However, I got some comments sometimes I was just like questioning, like instead of “what about this article that you might want to look at” it would be “change this word,” where I know we emphasized that often in class many, many times, but still people would persistently do that.

John: I hope that wasn’t from me. Was it from me?

Victoria: Oh, no. Well, if you wanted to do that, you’re the professor. You can do that. But you also give us feedback that’s helpful. Whereas, students I feel like if they’re rushed or doing it, like 20 minutes before the class, they’re not going to look at me like, “Oh, what about this topic that might be interesting to consider.” Instead, they’re like, “Switch this word.” That just might be the students in the class too, just because we did have a lot of work in the class. And I found that because our group would meet to practice our presentation before the class, a lot of groups are doing their final work 15 minutes before the class.

John: Yes, the quality of the work did vary a little bit across the groups and across the individuals within the groups. Overall, there was some really high quality work, and all three of you did really well. But the quality of the feedback varied quite a bit.

Rebecca: So the feedback was generally done outside of class? Like not during class time?

John: Primarily, except for the presentations on the work where there was some feedback during the presentations.

Victoria: Yes, but I found that your feedback was most helpful, rather than the students.

Maria: Yeah, I would say I paid a lot more attention to Professor Kane’s feedback than some of my fellow students. Luckily, we didn’t have that experience. We had a lot of people give a sincere, really constructive feedback, but sometimes I’d be hesitant to take that feedback because I didn’t know that was the direction that I should be going in. But I definitely think our experience was a little better and our comments were more substantial, I would say.

Victoria: And I think next time maybe switching the groups that review the feedback might be helpful, because if you have one group that gives worse feedback, and you keep getting that, it’s not as helpful.

John: The way it was structured was each group reviewed and provided comments on three other groups, and we did that on three stages. And the class decided to maintain persistent groups there. I did give them the option, but I think it does make much more sense to vary it so you’re getting a wider range of feedback.

Charlie: I think the idea to keep persistent groups stem from the fact that we wanted to have somebody read the paper and then continue to read the paper throughout the weeks when we were supposed to be improving it or making it better. So then they could also see the changes we were making. And I agree with my classmates where I think we can say that it didn’t work out too well. There’s some groups just didn’t happen to give feedback that was too good.

Victoria: I also think part of it was the length of the papers because each of us had to review three full papers for the weeks that we did that, and three 20-page papers is a lot of reading to do on student written economics. And I think maybe in the beginning it was helpful to read all three, but maybe as time went on to scale that back a little bit, so we don’t get burnt out.

John: More detailed feedback on a smaller number of papers.

Victoria: Yeah because at first, I find myself doing it too. Like the first paper, I’ll take the time to read every single word and provide helpful feedback. But I can see myself not doing as much on the third.

John: I gave feedback in three different ways. The first time I gave video feedback, and while I’ve heard that that can be really efficient, I was taking about two hours or so per paper. And that was really slow and people really didn’t like the feedback that much because some of the feedback was fairly long in terms of the suggestions. So, I probably gave a little too much feedback. The second was with comments embedded in Adobe. And the third time I just basically went along with everyone else and provided the feedback directly in Google Docs. And the nice thing about that is I was able to see some other suggestions and sometimes I’d say, “Well, maybe that’s not such a good idea.” Because in many cases, the original draft actually made more sense than the feedback.

Rebecca: What way did you all like feedback better?

Charlie: I think the best feedback I received was actually in class feedback when I would go to Professor Kane and ask him, “Hey, you know, this is what’s going on with my paper. Is there something else I could look at? Is there another source I can find?” I found that to be the most effective in helping me write the paper. I was also a fan of the comments in Google Docs, they were pretty helpful.

Maria: Yeah, I think the most helpful feedback were the comments from Google Docs because, for that last draft, I was able to go through and resolve any comments that I had made the changes to and that just helped motivate me to make my draft a really good copy. And then I would say that I was really against the video feedback because I personally like to review feedback multiple times. I like to go through it and make changes to it. And I found myself just typing up his comments at the end of the doc so that other teammates could see it as well. So I was definitely against the video feedback and prefer the Google Doc comments.

Victoria: Yeah, I prefer Google Docs as well, just because I could see where exactly you wanted the changes done. It gave more specific feedback and then it also gave the students validity I guess, like this should be changed. Like I made a comment in one paper and said, “I think you mean a different word.” And they just resolved it and moved on. But then Professor Kane came through and said, “Yes, I agree.” And I think that you agreed, and they now are aware that yes, those changes need to be made.

Rebecca: I think sometimes when a faculty member responds to student comments in a way that it also helps students know how to make better comments. So it would be interesting to see how another round of that would have gone after Dr. Kane had responded to some of those right? To see if the comments were better the next time around.

John: Yeah, I think I should have done that from the beginning. And I’m sorry, I didn’t. But in the future, I’ll probably use Hypothesis. Now that we have Hypothesis in Blackboard it will be much easier. Among the problems we had is that people had some trouble making comments on Google Docs because they also had edit access to those and they couldn’t mark up specific text. And with PDFs, that was a bit of a problem given the way the browsers were set up that they had to change a program in order to make comments on PDF documents. So now that we have that in our learning management system, it’s going to be much easier to do that and the comments will be a little more persistent, because one of the issues was people were, as you mentioned, resolving comments sometimes before anyone else had a chance to see them. And the strategy was to have the draft documents with the comments copied over to another folder, and they were only supposed to make changes in their working document, not in the documents used for comments. But there were three or four people who through three drafts, just didn’t quite get that notion and I’d see the email saying that comments were resolved, and I would go back in and unresolve them. But in any case, there were some problems with those. That’s an issue that I think has to be worked out a little bit more efficiently.

Rebecca: Beside some of the technical issues that we mentioned, what were some of the biggest challenges of working on a project like this?

Charlie: I think one of the bigger challenges was keeping the cohesive idea behind the whole book where the topic we had chose was income inequality and we also had talked about intergenerational mobility. But as the book progressed, we kind of saw that portion of the book fall off a little bit where chapters were really focusing on the income and economic inequality topic.

Rebecca: So is that something you discussed in class to keep everybody on track?

Charlie: I think we mentioned it at one point towards the end, we’re just like, “Okay, are we going to keep this? Are we going to not keep this?” And I think we agreed, we could talk about it but we won’t make it a major portion of the book.

John: There was also some scaffolding on the project… that it didn’t just start with people starting to write, groups were first asked to put together a bibliography, and then an annotated bibliography, and then an outline of the chapter, and then the actual writing started after they had feedback on each of those steps.

Maria: I would agree with Charlie, I was definitely worried about the cohesiveness of the entire book. But for my group, specifically, we did a very broad topic, the global trends of economic inequality, and for myself, it was really hard to find relevant subjects to talk about because it was just such a broad topic. It was really hard for each of us to find something that we could spend a large amount of time writing about. So I’m not sure how the other groups felt. But for us, it was definitely hard narrowing down what we specifically wanted to talk about, and then to find resources that were recent enough to include.

Victoria: Yeah, I agree with you on that. I think one change I would make after we figure out the specific topics, you can go deeper in that because it’s hard as a group to form a thesis statement or very cohesive argument because we ended up doing more of a timeline than like an argumentative paper because you have to split it up.

John: Your topic specifically was on what?

Victoria: Tax-structure and income inequality. So basically, we looked at early 20th century, later 20th century, and the 21st century, and how the changing tax structures led to increasing income inequality over time. So that’s kind of how we split it up. But I think if I was to do it again, I would take a different approach to it, because I did the first section and finding information on World War One income inequality is much harder than it seems. So I struggled a lot with that too.

Charlie: Yeah, in terms of how we wrote our chapter of the book, I’m usually a fan of writing papers that follow a timeline as an explanation but that’s just a personal preference. It doesn’t work for everybody. So I can definitely see how making the cohesive argument along with following that timeline can be pretty difficult.

John: In your chapter, I think the timeline made a bit of sense. We were talking about the evolution of it and the transitions in your chapter were pretty smooth. I don’t think that worked as well in all the chapters, quite often it looked like they were three essays…

Victoria: Yes.

John: …chopped and pasted together.

Victoria: There was this one paper with a bunch of sub topics, but it wasn’t cohesive. And I was reading it and it just did not make any sense to me how it was organized. So that was one of the suggestions I made… maybe taking a step further in class and presenting maybe our papers a little earlier.

John: In more stages…

VICTORIA. I was just trying to read it and I just could not make sense of the organization of it, where maybe if we caught that earlier we maybe could have made better paper.

John: I was giving them feedback in several groups… that sort of feedback… that they need to smooth out the transitions and have a more logical structure. But some groups responded really well and did a nice job with that, other groups were a little more reluctant to do that.

Rebecca: Perhaps some groups will respond really well to some peer pressure. [LAUGHTER]

John: And having the presentations in class would have helped do that. When people in the class were saying, “This is just too disorganized.” And most of them got better by the end, but it was a stretch getting there.

Rebecca: So you’ve talked a little bit about some of the challenges, but what was really rewarding about working on this project?

Victoria: I found it really helpful to work with the group. I had Charlie and then another student, Junweii, in my group and we all read each other’s parts. I know I went through the document and made comments for my own group too. And we were all able to bring it together, make comments for each other, ask each other questions about like what sources to use especially too. And it was easier in that regard than an individual paper. Because if you make a mistake and you don’t realize it, no one’s there to help you, it’s just you. But here we have people to help each other.

Charlie: Yeah, I always find it beneficial to complete a task with other students also trying to complete the same task as you. It just makes the learning more interesting. And you’re more willing to go and spend the extra hour looking at the document to just make sure you understand what you’re writing, but also that it fits with whomever else you’re working with. I found it really beneficial or satisfying just the fact that we, like I said, could create something that any ordinary person could probably read and understand what was happening.

Maria: Yeah, I think the most rewarding part for me was just seeing that finished product and getting you know, positive feedback from Professor Kane and from my other group members. I think working in that group setting helps to motivate me to do the best of my ability. And I think it was just rewarding at the end to see everything come together well.

Victoria: I think it gave us all a deeper understanding of the material too because, instead of writing it yourself… because you can write something and not understand it. I’ve done it many times. [LAUGHTER] But when you’re sitting in a group, getting a presentation ready, you each need to understand the material. So you’re explaining what you learn to each other. And that’s something you don’t get by yourself. I found that really rewarding.

John: What about the public nature of the project? The fact that this will be out there, it will have your names on it, and it could be out there indefinitely.

Charlie: I found that portion of the project pretty intriguing and exciting. Just like I said, you can go out there, and obviously we’re college students, we’re looking for employment after this. So just showing an employer, “Hey, I’ve written something that’s been published. It’s out there, you can go read it for yourself and see what you think.” It gives something for the students to show.

Victoria: Yeah, it made it exciting because we knew what was at the end of the project. Rather than just a finished paper, we actually had something to like prove ourselves, like we did this.

Maria: I think for me, it was cool to know because at the end of the semester, I’m able to go to my family and say, “Oh, here you go. This is something that I worked on all semester long. Here’s something that you can read and you can better understand what I’ve studied for the past four years.” So I think it was helpful that I was able to show my family I’ve worked hard on this. This is something that is to show for that.

Charlie: I would definitely concur with that. Economics as a topic isn’t really discussed when you’re talking just with family members, so many of them don’t understand what you’re talking about. And you’ll try, but it’s hard sometimes. So to put something together that they’d be able to read and understand, I found that pretty satisfying.

John: And how did the class select the audience for this? What level was it written for?

Victoria: Students with a background in economics I think we decided on. But we came together as a class and decided on that. But you need economic background to understand some of the things we wrote.

John: But at an introductory level, so it wasn’t written at an advanced level. It was written for people who’ve had an economics course somewhere along the way.

Victoria: Or just no background. You don’t have to go to college to read the book.

Rebecca: How would you change this project in the future? We touched on a couple of things here and there, but do you have any other key things that, if the same exact project were presented to another group of students, how would you change the structure? Or the way it’s organized? Or the way that it’s presented the first day?

Victoria: Thinking about the class as a whole rather than just the book project, we did weekly presentations which was a lot of work in itself. So I would probably minimize those and focus on the book. Because we were sitting there reading 20+ page economic journals every week and making a presentation on it and doing the book project. So I think having more time dedicated to the book project and presenting on that material, rather than just economic journals that people have written, like it gives background, which is helpful, but maybe a little less, or maybe shorter ones, or ones that are just easier to understand. Because I know a lot of times you would say, like, “I know you guys don’t understand this, it’s challenging. But we still need to know it.” Like you would explain it in class, which would be helpful, but reading something you don’t understand is really difficult for students… in economics specifically. That’s challenging.

Maria: Yeah, I would agree. I think, at the beginning of the semester, it was a lot of work to have to juggle both the presentations and the book at the same time. So I kind of like the idea, I’m not sure if it was you Victoria, who mentioned it in class, of doing the presentation one week and then the next week working on the book and having class time devoted to the book in the week after. I think that would have been very helpful too because we did meet as groups, but if we were able to meet in a class setting than I think other classmates will be able to make comments on your chapter and offer advice. I think it would just help overall with the workload that we have.

Charlie: I also agree with that. I think the improvement can be made where we’d work on maybe a random topic every other week, and do a presentation on that, and then also incorporate the book project into that. I think it would help with the cohesiveness of the book along with just feedback and all the other problems that we had discussed.

John: One of the things I had suggested at the very beginning, you may recall, is I suggested one option is to spend the whole class focused on this. Another option is just to do it the way it was done in the past, or something else. And the class actually voted for the something else. Now having had the experience, the something else didn’t work quite as well, and that more class time should have been devoted, I think, to this and I saw that too.

Victoria: I think we’re just looking for something exciting. Like yeah, it’s a book project like we know what we’re going to do with that. But the presentations just added something else, but if I went back to a book project because then we could have taken the steps at a slower pace too, like the annotated bibliography, like the topics, we could have taken way more time with that than we did. Because once we did that very quickly, and then went into presentations, and then we just had due dates instead of meetings in class.

Maria: Yeah, I think for us, what appealed to us with this combination of the book and the presentations was that the presentations offered structure for us when we knew what we were getting with those presentations. We knew each week that we’d come in with the presentation. And I think with the book, we were excited because it was something new and different and I think we were a little too hesitant to go fully and choose the book, because we weren’t sure what we would be doing in class. We weren’t sure how we would be tested on that. So I think the combination of fields lost because we were able to have that structure, but we were also able to try something new.

Charlie: I know for some of the students in the class they had mentioned to me… they were hesitant to get rid of the presentations weekly because they were a fan of learning something new every week and learning a different topic, not just focusing on the book project. They really wanted to increase their knowledge base by just learning about multiple fields of economics. So I think that’s why we ended up going with what we went with in the end. But I think we all could all agree that if we had done that every other week, it would have been more efficient.

John: I agree. And I think some combination might be good for the reason you mentioned, but more class time devoted to it would be helpful.

Victoria: Maybe at first too, do a presentation. Like the first presentation, I don’t know what week that was, but maybe keep that one because when our group really met each other, we worked together, and then we planned a time every week where we would meet.

John: And if this is done again, and that will be if the class wants to do this in the future, perhaps that first topic for the readings could be related to whatever they choose to do so they’re actually doing some scaffolding with the presentations then.

Rebecca: I had something similar in my classes before where a team formed early on. We did something small, low stakes, to figure out how to work with each other and what doesn’t go well. So that when we did something a little more high stakes, you already knew what the wrinkles were going to be so that you could plan for that moving on. So it sounds like your presentations served that purpose, whether or not you intended that to happen or not.

John: But it became a lot of work when it was done every week, in addition to writing a book.

Victoria: That was difficult.

Maria: Yeah, I think it just helped to make us all more comfortable with each other and more comfortable speaking in front of the class.

Rebecca: So the big question is, of course, should other faculty do this?

Victoria: Yes, I’m working on my honors thesis right now, which is kind of what you would do in a traditional seminar. And it’s very difficult. So just having people there… write it with you… know what you’re talking about… You can ask them questions. In our group chat, we often ask, “What would you recommend for this part of the paper? Or what articles do you think are appropriate for this?” If you’re doing it by yourself, it’s very difficult. And the overarching topic… I feel like in a lot of seminars, they have that. It’s a topic for the seminar, but it doesn’t really filter through as well as the book project does, because we are all cohesive, all of us together working as a class of 27 people, which you never see. So, I found it really helpful and I liked it a lot. And it wasn’t like a crazy amount of work. You did the work, and you study, you did the presentations, and you wrote a paper, but it didn’t take you hours every day to work on. I feel like I learned more in this class than I have in other classes that I write individual papers for.

Maria: Well, I think I would partially agree and partially disagree with that. I think as a class, we all appreciated that Professor Kane was willing to change like the class structure and was willing to try something new. And I think that was definitely intriguing for us and provided something different as our last economic course. But I think if I had done my own topic paper, I think I probably would have learned a little bit more, I think just I would preferred that. But I think it was still important to get this experience and try something new.

Charlie: I think I would definitely suggest it to some other faculty members to maybe try this out. Like Victoria was saying, working with a group is pretty beneficial. And I feel like, from a personal standpoint, I learn more when I’m working with other people who I can ask questions to, get feedback from. Really, it helps your understanding of the class. In terms of incentive, I find that I wanted to work on the book project because you had that end goal of, “This is something that I can put out there and show to somebody.”

Victoria: Yeah, but at the same time, group work can sometimes be the worst thing that ever happens to you. Like we got really, really lucky because I know Charlie, we’re friends so we were like, “Okay, let’s work together. We’ll just get one random person.” Junwei was like such a blessing. We just work together so beautifully, but I feel like if we had someone that didn’t want to do the work… wasn’t willing to put in the work… didn’t show up to meetings… that would ruin the project for us. So I don’t know how you could fix that. But just if there’s a good group, it works. If there isn’t, I feel like it wouldn’t work as well.

Rebecca: So good to write one book during your time here, but maybe not many books. [LAUGHTER]

John: But there could be other things. For example, they could have been podcasts that were created. They could be collections of essays.They could be video projects that are put together by groups. So there’s a lot of different things that could be done.

VICTORIAL: Yeah, I would throw that out there. If you did this again with another book, like, yeah, you can write a book, but you can also do that… a different kind of form of the same kind of structure. That would be interesting.

Maria: I would be interested in doing some type of podcast because I know some of my friends in their classes have been required to do podcasts. And I feel like you have to prepare really well for that. So I think maybe that would have forced your teammates, if they weren’t doing the work, to do the work so that they wouldn’t get to the studio and not have anything to say. So I think that would have been another really cool option.

Charlie: I think it would be a good option for capstone classes, just because I know for a lot of majors, you hear what the capstone is about for the three years before you even get there. And I know personally for me, I’m also trying to get a political science degree, my capstone is next semester, like I’m already dreading the 25-page paper I’m gonna have to write. So to switch it up and have the students maybe not know exactly what they’re in for, I think it gives a little bit of an intrigue and like, “Okay, this isn’t just the I’m going to go and write a paper all year. It’s something else that I’m going to do.”

Victoria: Yeah, it’s more fun. I’m more willing to write a paper that my group members are in. Like we can all see each other too in the Google doc and talk to each other in the chat… be like, “What do you think about this part?” Or like Charlie can watch me while I’m writing my part of the paper and say, “This is good. Maybe change this. Or bring this sentence up.” You don’t do that in individual papers and even if you write an individual paper and have peer feedback, it’s not the same as having it right there, real time, or just people caring more because it’s theirs too.

John: We did have some issues with that early on though, in the first draft or two, because there were some people who really didn’t want to try using Google docs for writing. And were any of you involved in that?

Charlie: So, I’m not opposed to Google Docs. [LAUGHTER] I had just always used Word documents before. So it took a little bit of getting used to but once you commit to it, it’s a really nice thing to have in your repertoire. Google Docs, I feel like, is used by countless numbers of people, companies, places, businesses, the college. So honestly, as a student, you should just take the incentive to try to get to learn it. And once you learn it, it’s really beneficial to you.

John: One of the problems was that some people were writing in Word and then uploading it to the drive and that made it really hard for other people to edit. And eventually everyone switched over, but it did take a few iterations with some people.

Maria: So yeah, I think there were a couple of challenges with having different drafts because people made comments on separate drafts. So I think just sending out a reminder email would be helpful and letting people know because I know I think I made my changes on the wrong draft the first time and we had to send an email right away to have him fix that. So I think just having it set up all before the due dates like before you mention it in class would be really helpful too.

John: Yeah, there were some rough spots. This was new for me too.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up our podcast by asking what’s next for each of you?

Charlie: This December, I’m looking to graduate from Oswego, which is exciting for me. And after that, I’m not really sure what’s going to go on. We’ll see.

Maria: Well, I’m graduating this Saturday, and I’m going to be moving down to Florida for a little bit and doing an internship there.

Victoria: I’m also graduating Saturday and I’ll be working at HSBC this July in their graduate development program.

Rebecca: Sounds like exciting futures for each of you.

John: What are you doing in Florida? An internship where?

Maria: I’m doing the college program, the Disney College Program.

John: Oh, wonderful. Maybe I’ll see you there at the OLC conference. Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure working with you all semester. And thank you for joining us.

Charlie: Thank you for having us.

Victoria: Thank you.

Maria: Thank you.

[MUSIC]

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

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

93. Reflective Writing

Formative feedback, reflection, and practice are all essential to improve our skills. In this episode, JoNelle Toriseva joins us to discuss her approach of combining faculty and peer feedback with reflective practice to improve student writing skills.  JoNelle is a writer and an Assistant Professor and Director of English Communications and Media Arts at Genesee Community College. JoNelle has won the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry from Cutbank. Her work has appeared in The North American Review, Salt Hill, The Literary Review, The Saranac Review, The Cincinnati Review, Descant, and JACKET, among others, and included in Days I Moved Through Ordinary Sound published by San Francisco’s City Lights, and Best Canadian Poetry in English.

Show Notes

  • JoNelle Toriseva
    • Assistant Professor and Director of English Communications and Media Arts at Genesee Community College.
    • winner of the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry from Cutbank (The Literary Journal of the University of Montana). The judge for that prize was Oliver de la Paz.
    • Selected by Shane McCrae, J.R. Toriseva’s Barbed Water, was the winner of Saudade’s annual poetry contest, and is now available from Argus.
    •  Toriseva’s work has appeared in The North American Review, Salt Hill, The Literary Review, The Saranac Review, The Cincinnati Review, Descant, and JACKET, among others, and included in  Days I Moved Through Ordinary Sound published by San Francisco’s  City Lights, and Best Canadian Poetry in English.
  • Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) at GCC
  • 2. The Metacognitive Cafe Online Discussion Forum – The 11/8/2017 Tea for Teaching podcast with Judith Littlejohn that was referenced in this podcast.
  • National Novel Writing Month

Transcript

John: Formative feedback, reflection, and practice are all essential to improve our skills. In this episode, we examine one professor’s approach of combining faculty and peer feedback with reflective practice to improve student writing skills.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guest today is JoNelle Toriseva, an assistant professor and director of English Communications and Media Arts at Genesee Community College. JoNelle has won the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry from Cutbank. Welcome JoNelle.

John: Welcome.

Jonelle: Thank you. Very happy to be here.

John: Our teas today are…

Jonelle: Bombay breakfast.

Rebecca: That sounds tasty.

Jonelle: Which I get from Jasmine Pearl, my favorite tea company.

Rebecca: Yum. I think this morning I have black currant.

Jonelle: Mmm, nice.

John: And I have ginger tea.

Rebecca: Yum. So we invited you here today to talk a little bit about reflective writing. Can you talk a little bit about some of the kinds of classes that you teach and how you use reflective writing as part of that practice?

Jonelle: Yes, well, I came to academia through being a community artist. So I went to a lot of schools, and a lot of community programs… prisons, different places and taught writing in very different situations and in coming from that background, building community was really important, and also goals. So when people want to write, they want to write for a variety of reasons. And so to help people get what they wanted out of these community writing courses, I would have people tell me their goals. And I had done some reading in how to help people achieve their goals and a big part of that can be having people write down their goals. So my whole reflective writing practice has come out of goal-setting, and having people write their goals and then share their goals with each other and learn how to achieve their goals. Some people like to break it down step-by-step, other people haven’t told another person what they wanted and haven’t experienced that kind of support that comes when you share what you really want to have happen. And a lot of magical results can occur when people talk about their goals, write down their goals, learn that other people will help them achieve their goals. So this reflective writing came out of that I learned that that was working, and that was helping people. And I thought, “Oh, why don’t we do this three times a semester. So people can kind of check in with themselves, and people can adapt what they’re doing if necessary.” Sometimes people come into a class with one set of goals, and they’ll realize, “Oh, no, what I really wanted to do was this, or that.” So I have different points in the semester when they can go in and adapt, and rewrite, and edit their goals.

Rebecca: How important is that piece of community and sharing of the goals as part of this reflective process?

Jonelle: It’s highly important. And I didn’t realize how important it was at first, but a lot of people haven’t had the experience of supportive community before. And so just stating a goal out loud… First of all, the person has to figure out how they’re going to put that into words and they can help them plan a little bit more what that goal might look like if they are actually thinking about it. A lot of people come to writing and they want to write a bestseller. And they may not have thought it through. But once they have to state their goals, they break it down, “Oh, I want to write in this genre.” Or some people will want to write a memoir about their family history and so they’re not really looking to write a bestseller, they’re looking to write something that honors their ancestors. So it helps people understand exactly what they’re trying to get out of their writing practice.

Rebecca: How do you make sure that students feel safe to share those goals and actually are taking that goal sending really seriously?

Jonelle: I do it by setting standards and also doing it right away in the course. So people see what is expected. So they’re still, at the beginning of the course, they’re still meeting each other and getting to know each other and so it’s just part and parcel of what happens in the course, it’s one of the expected criteria: that they respect each other, that they listen to each other, and that they respond in a positive and supportive manner. So I set the tone right away with it. And people respond really well to that because I find that people, they’re coming to school, they’re coming to class for a reason, they do want to get a certain thing out of it, and they’re able to say what it is that they do want to get out of it. And I also set it up ahead of time that they can’t say, “Oh, I want an A in the course.” We talk about breaking down what the writing process is, and so they’re working on specific goals. Like one person may have to work a lot on transitions, or one person may be working on creating an edited draft that can go to a certain publication. But no matter what that goal is, it’ll be broken down into chunks that are manageable and also skill related.

John: Are these online or face-to-face class?

Jonelle: I do it in both. So if we’re in a face-to-face class, I’ll have them do a writing assignment and then they will share with a neighbor close to them. If it’s an online class, they will do a post about what their goals are and then they’ll respond to two other students posts. So they’re doing one-on-one sharing with each other in either mode.

Rebecca: What are some tips that you have for other faculty in helping students prepare to write those goals?

Jonelle: What I usually advise people to do is to have a time set aside for individual reflection. So they’ve been thinking about what they want out of the course, we’ve been talking about what constitutes the course, what kind of skills they’re learning. And then we’ll do five-minute writes on them in their own process on them and their goals, and so they’re used to already doing short writing sprints about these goals. So we do practice and then also I have examples of what other students have written for their goals so they can kind of see the level of detail that goes in, and it’s something that’s very practical and it can be used as a “to do” list. And I also share with them my own writing goals so that they know everybody might have a problem getting started, or ending, or writing a good conclusion. So I’m very honest with my own writing process and I think that helps them also be honest about their writing process.

John: Some of your work is in the accelerated learning program or the ALP program at Genesee Community College. Could you tell us a little bit about that program and those classes?

Jonelle: Yes, Accelerated Learning Program is really exciting. It’s a process of where you just sit side-by-side with learners and help them achieve what they want to achieve. It’s something that I first learned how to do in graduate school at Mills College in Oakland. As part of my graduate school training, I was tasked with teaching a small seminar group of students who were selected from the freshman first-year writing course. So I had a group of six students from this writing course who I would go to class with, I would go to their composition course with, and then I would meet with them as a group and teach in seminar style weekly, thesis statements, organization, researching skills. Whatever the teacher was teaching in the one-on-one course, I would supplement and also do some more extensive teaching as the students needed it. And then I also met with each of the students individually weekly and talk to them about how their work was going, how their classes were going, supporting them if they needed any kind of academic help. And this kind of one-on-one, close involvement really helped these students because they knew there’s somebody that they could talk to, and that there was somebody that could get them help. And a lot of the problems that these students were having were not cognitive problems. They were just not as well read as some of the other students and they didn’t have some of the same training. One of these students also didn’t pick appropriate material to write about. For some reason this person only would talk about and write about Bruce Lee. So no matter what we’re talking about, she would only write about Bruce Lee. So I worked with her a lot and helped her widen our writing scope. So things like this, people that just didn’t have some of the same experiences as the other students in the class.

John: So the classes are for students who are in need of getting them up to the level of the courses, but it’s accelerated because they’re working with the regular classes, but getting additional assistance within that environment so that they don’t get behind in their progress?

Jonelle: Exactly, yes. So what was being done at Mills College then started being done across the nation in different ways, different people started different programs. And the program that we accepted and did for GCC is Accelerated Learning Program. And in that program, it’s a little bit different than the one-on-one tutoring, but it has a very similar philosophy. And in that course, a student will be enrolled in English 101, and then they will have another course called English 100 that gives them supportive training and workshopping directly from that 101 course. So it’s roughly half of the amount of students, there’s 12 students in it and they get individualized workshops on whatever topic they need to have more reinforcement on. And it addresses non-cognitive issues and addresses skill-based issues as well. So a student takes a credit bearing course along with a non-credit bearing course at the very same time. And we found that this improves retention, it improves class performance, it gives students a lot of confidence when they’re in that English 101 class and gives them the start that they need to catch up work that they didn’t have, for some reason, in their high school experience.

Rebecca: Do you find that the role of reflective writing is different with these students? Or do you do more reflective writing with this group of students?

Jonelle: Depending on the group, depending on what they need, but a lot of times writing about their thinking can be incredibly good for them because they’re able to learn how to follow their thought—and that writing is thinking—it gives them bigger writing muscles so that they’re able to write for longer periods of time and write for bigger projects. They learn how to write themselves into a project so that they know how they’re going to address it, how they’re going to shape and form the narrative, what kind of sources they’re going to be talking to. A lot of writing is the writer in conversation with texts that have gone on before or texts that are currently being created. So it’s kind of part and parcel of the writing process in many ways.

John: So you also teach classes on writing for science and business, do you use similar types of reflection in those classes as well?

Jonelle: Yes, I found that a lot of writing is very similar in that you follow many of the same kinds of steps and ask yourself many of the same types of questions. So if you’re writing an academic paper about theater, or an academic paper about a biological situation, or you’re writing something in the field of chemistry, your approach is very similar although your results are going to be very different. But a writer always has to decide how they’re going to frame their writing, how it fits into the landscape of the current writing in the field, how they can work to improve their writing. So the reflection works for any sort of writing that someone will do.

John: What’s the feedback and revision process that you use in your classes?

Jonelle: Many different layers… the first feedback is, of course, given by the writer themselves, the writer talking to themselves, talking to their piece, and this can be done in whatever way is best for the writer, either verbally or on paper. Then the writer will do peer feedback. So they’ll be reading their work to a peer and a peer will be reading a work to them, and they’ll give their views and also ask questions. So it will be helpful in the developmental stage to get more questions about what is actually on the page, what could be on the page, what needs to be on the page, and then going into revision where the student will work with me, or work with tutors, or work with each other on sentence crafting. Are the sentences crafted the way they need to be? Or do we need to have more sentence variety? How is the point-of-view working? Does that need to be shifted? Are there places where the focus is dropped? Has everything been included that needs to be included? Those kinds of questions get answered. So we go from the larger, macro view to the micro view, looking at, you know, is everything in place? Is everything nailed down? And that will be through working with themselves, through working with me, through working with each other, through working with tutors, and then going back to model texts and looking at their work in comparison with other papers. Are they meeting the standards? Are they meeting the scope? Taking a look at how they measure up to other writers out there. So there’s lots of different layers of reflection and feedback that go in. And hopefully that process is continual, and they will keep doing it after the class as well so they can continue to improve as a writer.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit more about the relationship between an iterative revision process, and reflection and reflective writing?

Jonelle: The reflection is what will help a writer have an increased amount of success throughout their career. So when a student is writing a paper for 101, that’s one paper, but if they realize the steps and realize how this writing will connect to their future writing, then they’re able to set themselves goals, meet these goals, so they can become a better and better writer with each paper and with each writing experience. Because we’re not just training somebody to write a good research paper for a first-year class, we want them to be able to also work well at the transfer institutions, go on and work well at the masters level, at the doctoral level. Writing is a process that we continually redefine for ourselves and we continually have to get better at. So it’s this lifelong skill and the reflective writing helps people take baby steps in that larger arc of the lifelong writing, hopefully.

Rebecca: You talked a little bit about model writing. Do you use your own writing or your own process and the ways that you struggle through your own process as a model for students as well?

Jonelle: Yes, I definitely do. I tell them what’s worked for me, what hasn’t worked for me. A lot of times my talk about how I’ll do short chunk writing like write for five minutes, write for 10 minutes, write for 15 minutes using the kitchen timer when writing gets hard to do. Also taking breaks, how I motivate myself to write if I’m in a really bad funk, and this makes them laugh and also makes them realize, it’s a very human process. So a lot of being a writer and improving your writing is just learning how to work with yourself and talk with yourself so that you keep on getting better, you keep on going back to the writing process and treating yourself with kindness is important.

Rebecca: Something that seems to be coming up in the way that you’re talking about is also the need to see yourself as a writer. So it seems like the reflection is a way to help students start to identify in that way.

Jonelle: Yes, that’s a great, great insight. A lot of people have to be given permission to write or they have to give themselves permission to write in some way. If I’m teaching a creative writing class, often I’ll have people introduce themselves to each other and say, “I’m a writer,” and then they’ll hear it back. And just that ability to say that they’re a writer and be seen as a writer can be incredibly motivating and supportive for people. So yes, it’s important for people to be able to just be able to state that they are a writer. And so many of us are writers in so many different areas that it’s important for people to inhabit that role for themselves.

John: Sounds like a lot of this is building a growth mindset in students, especially students who perhaps may have struggled earlier with writing to let them know that they can, in fact, become more proficient through working on this.

Jonelle: Yes, yes. And that is something that is going to come from inside of them. We want to build up that writing muscle, that writing ability so that they do well in this class, but that they also do well in their next classes, and that they have resources of people that they can reach out to when needed if they come to a standstill. But yes, it’s creating lifetime learners and lifetime writers who will be there for each other.

Rebecca: I’m particularly interested in the student response, especially from students who are in an English 101 class, who don’t identify themselves as a writer to start off and are not in some sort of major where writing seems obvious.

Jonelle: Yes, writing has become such a big part of our lives. We text all the time, we are writing emails to each other. It’s so important that we can present ourselves well in writing and that we can understand what audience we’re writing for. So we talk about all the different writing situations so that they’re aware of how much they are writing, and I tried to use topics that are interesting to them: food, music, things that we all have in common. And so they’re talking with each other, they’re seeing each other as writers, they’re reading each other’s writing. And they start to realize, “Yes, I’m part of this community too. And I can define my role as a writer in my own unique way.” It’s fun to see them blossom, and also redefine the role of writers… a serious role… someone in an attic with crazy hair, or is it somebody writing a text… They can see themselves as a writer in their soccer playing… concert going. If they’re a math major, if they’re a science major…. Everybody writes, so they can see the role of writing in their fields and in their lives.

Rebecca: I think that sometimes faculty even don’t have that identity, despite the fact that they might do a lot of writing and maybe even a lot of publishing. They don’t always recognize themselves as writers.

Jonelle: Right.

Rebecca: And that makes it difficult to filter down to students if you don’t also see yourself as a writer.

Jonelle: Right, and it’s important for people to give themselves credit for the writing and the thinking they do. And also all that goes into writing an article, they may do things just automatically and not realize all of the steps that have actually gone into what they create and how complex it is. So they can sit back and give themselves a few kudos. And I find many departments will have weekly meetings where they will have people read papers, and that can also highlight what’s happening in their academic field and give a spotlight on the writing and the writing process. And that also helps build community.

Rebecca: How have your colleagues responded? Do other colleagues use similar approaches? Especially maybe some of this goal setting strategy that you laid out at the beginning.

Jonelle: Yes, I find that a lot of people do reflective writing in their own way. One of my colleagues, Marie Iglesias-Cardinale, has students write letters to themselves and to her and that is another way of framing the reflective writing. So you can do it in many different ways and have it work in a way that is more natural to whatever subject you’re doing, or also to your personality too. Some people like the journal writing, some people like the epistle letter writing, some people could frame it as a podcast, some people could frame it as a selfie, a writing selfie. So people can do it in a variety of ways. And a lot of my colleagues here, Judie Littlejohn, does a lot of metacognitive work and having students look at their learning, which is what this is also having students look at their writing. And I think that more and more people are coming to realize that people have to train their brain to learn a subject or to write a certain format that they’re going to be writing and that our brains are so plastic and able to respond to these tasks that we set before them in a way that is only helped by self reflection.

John: Judie was a guest on our second episode actually. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes. But it does sound like much of what you’re doing is helping students become more metacognitively aware of what they’re doing and processing their own learning much more actively.

Jonelle: Yes. And it helps them get tasks done in other places. So if they can remember “Oh, I did these steps for this paper. What if I start doing them for this article I’m writing?” This is a way to get into that so they can fall back on past successes to have future successes. But a lot of times we have to train ourselves to write in a new way for a new writing task, and that can be daunting. But if you’ve had success before, you can talk yourself through the new tasks.

Rebecca: Good advice to remind ourselves during a summer writing sprint perhaps, right? [LAUGHTER]

Jonelle: Yes. Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve recognized over time doing reflective work with my students is, needing to give and dedicate class time to that activity. Because we know that it’s important to student learning, but students can see it as a throwaway kind of an assignment if you don’t actually dedicate time and effort as part of the actual in-class time. Because if it’s just a homework assignment, sometimes it’s not taking quite as seriously.

JONELL: Very true. And also having them be in conversation with each other helps them with the process as well, I think. So it’s not just that they’re spending time on the project, it’s that they’re doing social interaction, and that social aspect of learning can be so crucial. And they may not have the confidence yet to talk about their work at home or with their friends. But if they’re in a class, they all have to be doing it, there’s this is kind of group impetus that can help them reach that point.

John: That type of peer support can be really helpful in helping them work through difficulties.

Jonelle: Yes, and they may not have that kind of support anywhere else. So that’s why I think it’s important to have it be a part of class because they may not have outside support in their family or among their friend group. So for us to build that academic dialogue is so important for them to see themselves as writers, and to give credence to what they do, and to make space for what they do.

Rebecca: One of the things that I find challenging not only with writing but also, I teach design so we do the same kind of process with visual work, is to help students move from the “pat on the back” motivational feedback, to actually critical, useful feedback so that they develop those skill sets so that they do start to have that community of practice around them outside of a classroom setting. Do you have any tips on how to help move students in that direction?

Jonelle: Well, I think that continued conversation is really important. I will model what kinds of feedback that they should be giving. If it’s an online class, they have to have 350-words in their response to make sure that they have a level of detail and also to give them a rubric so they have to address the elements. I don’t know what they would be for design, but say for a piece of fiction: that you’re looking at dialogue, you’re looking at plot, you’re looking at characterization, theme. So if they’re incorporating some of that vocabulary into their conversation, that can also be a starting point for a future conversation. They’ll be looking for the line in something else, but they’ll be looking for a round character versus a flat character in something that they’re looking at outside of class. It’s kind of creating that atmosphere for the magic to happen and then hopefully, it translates outside of class too.

Rebecca: To round out some of our discussion on reflection, can you also compare the early kinds of reflection that you do in your class versus ones that happen at that midterm or later on? You mentioned those briefly at the beginning, but we didn’t really explore those opportunities.

Jonelle: Yes, the first reflective writing is mostly just goal setting, what they want to get out of the course. And I originally started them on that because students will come into a creative writing course and they may have ideas of writing an entire novel in a course when they haven’t written anything at all before, and then they may leave the class upset with themselves… they haven’t finished a novel. So I try to find out why they’re really in the course at first, so that I can help them achieve the goal that they want to achieve, knowing that I may have to give them resources outside of the class later on. Say they’re writing a novel, that can be like a five-year journey. So it’s something that we can’t address just in 16 weeks, they’re going to need to have something outside to keep them going. So I take a look at what their goals are. And this writing is pretty short and it may not be as nuanced. And then as we go throughout the semester, I devote midterm and end-of-term writing reflection, and those ask more detailed questions, and I have them give more detailed responses. And by then they’re more comfortable with each other as well, so they’re more willing to call each other out if they’re not meeting their goals, if they’re not putting in the writing time, if they’re not putting in the work with their workshop group, or if they need to be doing more editing or revising. They’re more willing to see that in themselves and sometimes they’re more willing to see that in each other but I find that if they can look at one of their peers and say, “Oh, your peer wants this and yet they’re doing this.” They can say like, “Oh, well, I can see easily how you should change this.” Whereas what they don’t see that as readily in themselves. Why I have them work with each other is so that they can see how each other have a different approach to a writing problem, because they’re often able to solve each other’s problems easier than they can solve their own. But then they’ll see, “Oh, I just need to do this. Like maybe I need to wake up and go to a coffee shop instead of writing in the kitchen. Or maybe I need to go write in my car at lunch instead of going to the cafeteria because I’m just going to talk with my friends and not get what I need to get done.” The reflection process becomes longer… more questions… more involved as the semester progresses.

Rebecca: Do you have your peer feedback groups change over time?

Jonelle: Yes, I always mix those up. Otherwise they get complacent with each other and the social interaction kind of overplays that artistic interaction. So always mixing it up.

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

Jonelle: Well, I’m always creating different writing communities. One of the largest writing communities that I really love, and I love to tell people about is National Novel Writing Month where everybody writes a novel in November and it creates a huge community. It’s fun, it’s free. So if people are interested in writing, I suggest that they look at nanowrimo.org. And it’s something that I always love to do every November is to start a novel and to write with other people in community. So you’ll be seeing me in November in the nanowrimo world doing that.

Rebecca: That sounds fun.

Jonelle: Yes, it’s very fun. You can do other projects also. It’s fun to have that group impetus of working together.

Rebecca: Cool, well we’ll look forward to seeing what that novel looks like then.

Jonelle: Thank you.

John: Thank you for joining us.

Jonelle: Thank you, have a wonderful day.

Rebecca: You too.

[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.

85. Small-Group Discussions

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

Show Notes

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

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

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

Dakin: Hi. Good to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Dakin: Yes, I am drinking Sleepytime Vanilla today.

Rebecca: That sounds yummy.

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

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

John: Okay.

Dakin: Nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dakin: Yeah, very much so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dakin: Two months ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

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

71. Small Teaching Online

Face-to-face classes have been offered for centuries. Online instruction, though, is relatively recent and many faculty that teach online have little prior experience or training in online instruction. In today’s episode, Flower Darby joins us to explore some easy-to-implement teaching techniques that can be used to help improve the learning experiences of our online students.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Face-to-face classes have been offered for centuries. Online instruction, though, is relatively recent and many faculty that teach online have little prior experience or training in online instruction. In today’s episode, we explore some easy-to-implement teaching techniques that can be used to help improve the learning experiences of our online students.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Today our guest is Flower Darby an Instructional Designer an Adjunct Instructor in several disciplines and the author (with James Lang) of Small Teaching Online, which is scheduled for release in June 2019. Welcome Flower.

Flower: Hi John. Hi Rebecca. Thank you for having me. I appreciate that. It’s good to be here.

Rebecca: We’re really glad that you’re joining us as well. Today our teas are:

Flower: I am drinking Builders tea. Good, strong cuppa here.

Rebecca: Sounds yummy.

John: We have some of that next door. I am drinking ginger peach gree n tea.

Rebecca: I have my Golden Monkey again today.

John: We ran a faculty reading group here in the Fall semester of 2017 based on Small Teaching. Many faculty found that to be highly inspirational and we had over 100 people participate in that. One of the things that came up quite a bit is how this might be applied online. So there’s a lot of people interested in your forthcoming book. Could you tell us a little bit about how this book came about?

Flower: Sure. So Jim Lang came to my campus—Northern Arizona University—in January 2018 and delivered a talk on Small Teaching and as we know, the book has been very impactful for faculty around the country and around the world. And while he was at our campus, when it came time for the question and answers, somebody raised their hand and said, “Sure, but how do you do this online?” And Jim’s immediate response was, “That’s the first question I always get at every talk that I give,” and he said, “I don’t know. I would need a co-author because I don’t know how to do this online, but that would be a great book.” So I thought about that for a few days and then I approached him and I said, “Pick me. I would love write that book with you. I can see the value of it, I can see the need for it.” So that’s how the conversation began.

Rebecca: How does this extend the approach that was used in Small Teaching?

Flower: Well, it follows the same principles for certain that there is learning science that we can draw on to help us make the everyday decisions in our teaching and learning that have really an outsized impact on student learning and outcomes. So there are little things that we do on a day-to-day basis and we can draw from the research to discover what will have the most impact. Again, understanding that in order for faculty to really be able to implement something new, it’s got to be feasible. It must be doable. The daunting overhaul of a major course redesign is so off-putting that most faculty won’t get around to it, myself included. When I have gone to multiple workshops and conferences and sessions or read about an approach. And I, “That is a great idea,” and I spend about five minutes thinking about how I might incorporate that into my class and then I say, “Too much work. Too much time. I don’t have that time available. I don’t want to implement something that’s only half baked,” and the idea gets left out. So in our online classes, there are so many things that we can do that are on that small scale but will have that outsized impact on our students’ engagement and their learning. And so that’s what this book sets out to do, is to explain a lot of those principles and draw on the research that we have to show faculty how they can make these changes in their online classes.

Rebecca: We’ve talked many times on our podcast about the lack of preparation for faculty teaching in general and that’s certainly true for online teaching. You might have taught a face-to-face class, and then all of a sudden, now you’re teaching an online class and boom, you have to figure it out. Can you help us think through what are some things that faculty can do as they’re new or getting used to being an online teacher?

Flower: Sure, and I think that’s really the point here. Centuries, millennia, compared to the way that we teach and we coach and we mentor face to face, or even as we’re doing here using video conferencing software, but it’s a real-time interaction. Well, online teaching is very, very recent, say 20 years or so. And faculty don’t have the experience that they bring into the physical classroom. You may have heard of the phrase of the apprenticeship of observation coined by Dan Lortie. And this is the idea that by the time a teacher steps into a classroom to teach, he or she has had years and years of experience in a physical classroom being a student and observing what happens and how things go and thinking, if somebody chooses to be a teacher, then they’ve clearly put a lot of thought into how they want to teach. Well, we simply don’t have that for online. I do expect this to change in coming years. But the fact is right now that most of our faculty have either never taken an online class or if they have, it may be a very limited experience, not the years and years that they came out of K-12 with. And the same, quite frankly, is true for our students. They’re also pretty inexperienced at an online classroom. And the way this pans out is that literally faculty and students both don’t know what’s supposed to happen in an online class. They don’t have the social norms, they don’t know what the classroom looks like. If you think about it, when you walk into a physical classroom to start teaching, you know what’s in the room and you know what’s supposed to happen. You see the desks or the tables, you see a lectern at the front, you see a whiteboard or a projection screen, and students and faculty understand what is supposed to happen. Students go and sit in the desks, they face front, they wait for the faculty to come to the podium. It’s rare that a student would walk into a classroom and at the beginning of the hour, just step into the lectern. Students know that’s not what they do. But my argument is we don’t have that kind of social norming convention for online classes…yet. I think it’s coming, but right now many of the people who find themselves in our online learning environments go into that space, and they don’t know what things should look like, they don’t know where the light switch is, they don’t know where the desks are, where the whiteboard is. So just that whole lack of experience is rather disconcerting. And it’s hard to know what to do. Faculty don’t have experience—they have haven’t seen models, students are equally unprepared—so there’s a lot of work to be done here just to understand what should happen in an online class, what the furniture is, where it should be to facilitate learning. That’s where those gaps happen for faculty. You ask, “How can faculty prepare themselves?” I could talk for days about that question. It’s a growing need and some institutions are beginning to recognize the importance of doing a much more thorough job of preparing faculty to teach online. But I will argue that those institutions are still pretty few and far between. I would say, based on my research and my experience, the vast majority of faculty who are teaching online have not had specific development in that area. They have not observed peers’ classes. In fact, what can happen is a negative effect. Very commonly, when faculty begin teaching online, they are handed somebody else’s content. We’ve seen that happen and that’s a mercy in a way because that way faculty who are new to teaching online don’t also have to develop the course. But what can easily happen is that the content that might be given to a new faculty member might not actually be exemplary in the design and the delivery of that material. So then what happens is the only experience that faculty get is observing the content and the structure of a less than ideal example and then that’s the model that they have and they think, “Oh, I guess this is how it is”. So work can be done on developing better exemplars, better development programs. I believe, as faculty are coming out of online graduate programs down the line a little way, I believe, will have better experienced faculty and students. A lot of research going on in this area, but that work is all to be done.

Rebecca: As you were talking, I thought, you provide a nice model, it’s a nice way of thinking about it, you don’t know where the furniture is.

Flower: Mmm-hmm

Rebecca: It sticks with me. I was thinking about that the experience that a lot of faculty and students have is more in the realm of social media and so they’re looking for cues that are similar to those kinds of environments. The activity that’s happening in those environments is really different than the kinds of activities we would expect to happen in an online platform for learning.

Flower: Right, that’s a great point. We interact with other people so much online and on our devices using social media and what’s interesting to me is that we can really engage with people in those online spaces. Somebody tweets something that’s a little bit incendiary or provocative and you get all kinds of people jumping in and commenting and you know, sometimes things get heated, or a really heartwarming moment is tweeted or shared on Instagram, and people are all over that post. But the opposite is kind of true in our online classes. Indeed, I feel like we could bring in some of the techniques from social media into online classes. I’m not saying that faculty should all have a component of Twitter or Instagram in their online classes, but what I’m saying is that it’s possible to deeply engage people in online interactions. And that’s not a feature that, I would say, generally characterizes online classes—we usually hear the opposite, that it’s not engaging, it’s difficult to drum up those discussion posts—and I feel like if we could draw some of those principles from how we interact with people online, in social media, of using our devices, if we could bring those into the online classes right away, we’ll see more engagement and engagement precedes learning. Students have to want to be there in order to learn when we’re engaging them and if you could imagine posting a discussion post and then you can’t wait to see what people are responding. We do that all the time on Facebook or Twitter sending something out and then, “Oh let me see! Did people like that? Did people say anything?” And we just naturally are drawn into those spaces to check and see what are people’s reactions? Well, if we could design that kind of a discussion board for online classes, where it’s so interesting and engaging that people want to rush back and see who’s talking to them, who’s replying to them, that would go away way to improving the online learning experience for both faculty and students.

John: That’s not an experience though that many people teaching online find in their discussion forums. Are there any hints or tips that you can give people to make their discussion forums a bit more engaging so that students don’t wait until the last minute to do the standard three posts or whatever is required in that course?

Flower: Great question, John, and a big one. And again, thinking about Small Teaching ways of making small changes, I heard of an example recently where faculty asked students to reply to their peers posts using a GIF that just represented—one of those funny moving little images that sort of expressed—their reaction. And that’s an example of bringing in new ways of engaging and it’s not rocket science. It’s also perhaps a little more fun, which is important to bring into an online class. A great way of sort of getting students to think differently. But if that idea doesn’t resonate with you, maybe you might want to try offering options in your discussion board questions. I’ve supported over 100 faculty, I might even say, hundreds of faculty in the design and development of their online courses and what I see sometimes is one question for students to answer and oftentimes it’s kind of black and white. It’s hard to discuss a question like that. So first of all, craft questions that are discussable, that there’s some debate around that you can make different arguments or points of view. Tie those questions to students’ experiences. How is the content impacting them personally? Where do they see these concepts in their own life and experience? And, even better, provide three or four different questions that students could choose to respond to and then ideally, everyone isn’t all talking about the same question, so that’s more of a natural way of fostering some conversation in an online discussion.

John: One of the nice things about tying it to personal things, I would think that that would also help build more of a sense of community within the group because the students get to know each other a little bit better, which may affect their engagement in other activities,

Flower: Right. Anything that we can do to increase the value and the relevance of what we’re asking students to do online is hugely impactful, and it doesn’t have to take much. I have a colleague who teaches an online First-Year Seminar course, which in a way is a bit of an oxymoron because First-Year Seminar courses are often designed to really hook in our first-year students who are transitioning to university life, but she was tasked with developing and teaching a really highly engaging and supportive Freshman First-Year Seminar class. And one of the things that she does is she brings in a discussion board and one of the prompts is, “If you could be a superhero, what would your superpowers be?” And again, maybe on the surface some people might think that’s a bit trivial, but what she’s doing is she’s getting students to talk about character traits and hero qualities and concepts that rely and relate to the material that they’re engaging with… yet in a fun and a more personal way. And it certainly does a lot to foster those relationships that are so important for online classes to build that community. Absolutely.

Rebecca: I think one of the methods that we hear a lot about in terms of online learning is the ability to do quizzing and retrieval practice and interleaving through quizzing. But are there some other ways that we can integrate some of these evidence-based practices that aren’t maybe the typical solutions that we tend to think of online?

Flower: I think one of the most underutilized functions of the Learning Management System is what we call adaptive release or conditional release. And I actually want to pause here and say that these Learning Management Systems have come a long way in recent years, and they still have a long way to go. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca and John: Yes. [LAUGHTER]

Flower: For many faculty and students, the functionality is lacking, the furniture is stark, they’re not attractive places to be and as I said earlier, engagement precedes learning. If you were to ask yourself for online faculty who are listening, “Do you want to be in your online class?” I suspect many faculty would struggle to answer with a resounding “Yes.” And so here’s a shoutout to our LMS developers to think about space design and the experience of students and faculty in these spaces. Having said that, there is some very interesting functionality that is oftentimes underutilized and I would argue that’s because, again, faculty may not have the preparation and the exemplars to begin teaching online. With adaptive or conditional release—it’s called different things in different systems—you can set a task that then opens up the rest of the content in that module. And I love to use this. You can use it equally effectively at the end of an online module or at the very beginning to open the next module. Now what you can do with this is you can embed retrieval practice exercise. Or, you know, drawing from Jim Lang’s book, Small Teaching, a predicting exercise works equally well. A curiosity provoking exercise, and all it really has to be is an assignment where students submit whatever it might be. A two sentence summary of what their big takeaways were from the previous module, or predicting what might be in the coming module or posing some questions… this can be written, it could be a recorded submission for students who might find it easier to talk through their ideas. Once students submit that element, then the rest of the module opens. Before they do that they can’t access any of the content. These things don’t even have to be graded, you can just set them to be worth zero points, but they are mandatory because the students can’t proceed with the content until they submit them. So when you think about that feature, there’s a lot of creative things that you can do that don’t impact faculty grading time. That’s a big tenet of the new book is we can’t overburden faculty with grading and yet tie into those practices that we know from the research are effective.

John: One of the chapters of your forthcoming book is on fostering student persistence and success. Could you give us perhaps a strategy or two that might be useful in encouraging student persistence? Because I know one of the problems in online classes is they often have higher drop, fail, and withdrawal rates than face-to-face classes. What are some techniques that faculty can do to help improve student persistence in the class and the program?

Flower: That’s right, great question. As you point out, the attrition rates in online classes are remarkably higher. And we also find that for students who are less prepared for higher education, if they don’t succeed in that class, then the odds increase dramatically that they won’t actually persist and attain a college degree, and that’s a problem. But as I was saying earlier, a global concern is that online classes are not nice places to be. And if your listeners have any pushback on that, please feel free to reach out and engage with me on that assertion. But what can we do to just make the place a little more pleasant? How can we be warm and friendly and supportive and encouraging? How can we allow our humanity—even our personality—to show through? I was speaking with a good friend and a colleague of mine just a few months ago when I was delivering a little talk about this book and he was telling me though he’s been teaching online for 10 years, that he’d never thought of just being himself in his online class. And he explained to me that he loves teaching in person—he’s quite a character, super dynamic, very engaging, funny, loves to interact with his students in the classroom—and yet, he told me when he goes into his online class, it’s like a robot. There is no trace of his personality. And other people are saying this too, just be yourself in those online classes and make a deliberate effort to infuse warmth. But a specific strategy that people might want to try is to assign a goals contract as one of the items that are due in the opening module—or the orientation module—and a goals contract, you’ll see different kinds of variations around, but here’s the two pieces that I really like. A lot of people are talking about assigning sort of a memo of understanding or a contract where students agree that in this online class, they should schedule set times, they should plan on X number of hours per week, they should reach out immediately if they have questions. People are doing that. I like to embed a different element as well, which is to require students to set a couple of goals and it can be literally two. What are two goals that you have for your learning, or your success, your ability to earn an A in this class? And then an interesting twist is to ask students to identify one potential challenge. It’s still the case, I have my students all the time saying, “Well, my computer is in the shop, [LAUGHTER] it’s sort of all of a sudden, it busted and now it’s at the technician and I can’t do my online tasks.” So helping students to think in advance about a scenario such as that and of course, in that particular case, many campuses have computer labs or libraries where students can go and access another way to get into the course but maybe they haven’t thought about it in advance. So in the goals contract, ask students to set two goals, identify one potential challenge that might come up, and identify a strategy for how they can address that particular challenge. And certainly, identifying one challenge is not going to cover the range of things that happen in life during the course of an online class, but I think it sets the tone to get students thinking that one little hiccup doesn’t mean that we’re all done with this online class and we just have to sort of fade away and stop participating. And then what you can also do, periodically throughout the class, is you can ask students to revisit those goals that they set for themselves. How are they doing with that? What kind of progress are they making? Are there some strategies that aren’t working for them? Do they need to recommit to the intentional and deliberate scheduling of their class time? Just helping students be very explicit about what their plan is to succeed and finish the course.

Rebecca: What I like about what you’re saying is, it switches from really having the faculty member impose everything, and have the students be co-authors of the class to some extent, and they have some ownership over the space, which generally means that they’ll probably commit more.

Flower: What we know about online learning is that students must have a higher degree of self regulation, self direction, they must be more motivated, and be able to manage their time well. And if students don’t have those things, it’s much less likely that they’ll persist and finish an online class. And yet, when you think about it, online classes work directly against a student’s ability to do those things and here’s what I mean. When you are teaching in person, when you’re a student in an in-person class, you know that every Tuesday and Thursday at 9:30 you’re supposed to be in the classroom and it’s a natural way to help students hold themselves accountable for doing the work. Now I know sometimes students come to classes and they’re not fully prepared, but there’s still that built in mechanism where they’re going to be in the same room with their faculty member with other students. There’s a social element of accountability that’s like, “Well I know I’m supposed to show up and I should have my stuff done,” or “There’s a test next week and I need to be ready.” Well those real time interactions and those interactions with physical people don’t tend to happen in the typical asynchronous online course. Very often—I would say 99% of the time, probably—an online student is sitting at home by himself or at the coffee shop by herself. If she has a quick question about something, she can’t do what she does in the classroom and say, “Hey, did you understand what we’re supposed to do on that particular assignment?” or “Hey, faculty member, can you just re-explain that? I’m not quite there yet.” There’s no way to get that immediate response, that immediate quick guidance that might take two minutes in a physical classroom. So, students don’t have the accountability, they don’t have the physical presence of the instructor or the student, and so we have to go above and beyond in our efforts to build in structures that help students develop the kinds of self-regulated skills, the kinds of self-directed learning skills. Many of our students are not coming in with those skills already but we know students who do have those skills will be much more successful, so let’s build that into our curriculum. Let’s help them develop some of those, let’s talk to them about the importance of monitoring their own learning, and let’s structure exercises that will help them to do this. I’m pulling a lot of this material from Linda Nilson’s book—It’s called Creating Self-Regulated Learners—Although that book is not necessarily focused for an online environment, I think it can be hugely helpful to our online students to be very transparent with them about the importance of developing these habits, these behaviors for success. And as I said, structuring exercises and graded assignments that help them to do that, to hold them accountable.

Rebecca: Following up with what you just said, there’s a chapter in your forthcoming book called “Creating Autonomy.” Can you talk a little bit about small ways that we can give students autonomy in the classroom and in an online space?

Flower: Sure. And again, let’s be sure to keep that focus on small, doable, feasible changes, things that you could do in maybe a 15-minute work session and have it rolled out for your online class. One thing that we could do is to develop a self-enroll group structure. Many online faculty like to bring in collaborative learning tasks to, again, foster that community and the peer to peer instruction and learning that is so important as we know, but I think oftentimes we sort of assume that what we should do is purposefully group students, and there’s certainly value to be found in designing purposeful groups. But what can also be very interesting is to allow students to enroll themselves in groups that might cover a range of different topics. For example, sometimes I teach Educational Technology online classes. And if I were teaching that class today, I might offer five different groups that students can sign up for on a first-come first-serve basis. And one might be virtual reality, and one might be mobile learning, and one might be writing in digital spaces. So students could naturally choose a topic that they’re more interested in pursuing and when students have that level of autonomy, to make that choice of what their going to focus on, that’s one way of embedding just an opportunity for students to exercise that autonomy. Another even easier way I’ve already mentioned here is to offer students a choice between whether they want to submit a written task or whether they prefer to record on video or audio. Students carry these amazing devices in their pockets all the time with high- tech recording equipment embedded right in them. And students love the freedom of just being able to talk through their ideas, their responses, you can get a much more authentic response from students. Teach them how to use the recording software, or how to upload the video or the audio clip into the LMS and now you’ve got an easy choice that you can give students. If you prefer to write this, go ahead. If you prefer to record it, do it that way.

John: One thing that struck me is I used VoiceThread last year in an online class and I expected they’d actually use the video option with it very often. I gave them the choice of whether they use just voice or voice and video or use a video recording and yet none of them ever presented on video, which surprised me, given how common that is in social media. Why might that be?

Flower: Well, sure. I also require video discussions in some of my classes. And what I have learned is that people are nervous, especially in an academic setting about how they come across on camera. I feel like audio is a little bit less threatening, but sometimes people don’t like the way they look. And, you know, faculty too. [LAUGHTER] A lot of faculty are uncomfortable with recording on a video, and yet, it’s the way of the future. So right now, currently, I’m teaching my graduate level class on technological fluency and leadership. I require those video discussions and I say to them, “Are you nervous about doing this? Well, I want you to do it anyway,” because video interviews right, over Skype, or Zoom, as we’re doing here today, or video resumes. These are a thing that are happening and helping people to get more comfortable with showing their face on camera. I also talked to them a lot about the importance of seeing their peers faces and how much we can learn just from that. In the program that I teach now, students tend to take classes with the same people. But in my class, they always say, “I’ve never put a face to a name, how nice it is to see you,” and it makes a huge impact in terms of that community element. But I talk to my students very explicitly. Now, it’s also really important to think about situations where a student may not want to represent their face and there can be very good reasons. I had a tragic situation just last year where a student did not post the video, she posted a static picture of herself. I came to find out at the end of the semester. When she did that I was like, “Oh well, dock a few points, whatever. That was weird. Why’d she do that?” I later found out that she had been in a domestic abuse situation and she was ashamed of the way that her face looked because it was still very visible—the damage—and it just struck me to the core. An arbitrary decision that I made that it’s so important to talk to each other and look each other in the eye and she had a really, really strong reason for not wanting to do that. So back to that topic of offering a choice, what I do now is I tell my students, “If there’s a really good reason that you don’t want to show your face on the video, please send me a quick note. You don’t even have to tell me details, but just explain that you’re going to choose to do this other thing instead,” and posting a static picture is still pretty effective. So I think it’s very important to remember that our online students are people. They have lives and we need to be thinking about the decisions that we’re making in our teaching and how that might come across to a student… how it might induce anxiety in ways that we never anticipated.

Rebecca: One of the things that I wanted to follow up on and see discussed, the self-enrolling groups and collaborative work online. I think we have clear ideas about how that might work in a physical classroom, but not always a good clear way of how we can coach students through collaborative learning online. So even small, quick things that came up in Small Teaching, like Think-Pair-Share, you can envision how to do that in a classroom, but maybe have no idea how to do that in an online classroom.

Flower: It’s a great question, Rebecca. And I know that there’s actually a lot of pushback from online students and sometimes online faculty about the value of collaborative learning activities. It just so happens that my husband is in an online Master’s program right now and so I’m living with the student experience. And it’s frustrating to our online students—many of whom are not traditional 18 to 24 year olds, they might be returning adults—and one of the reasons (in fact, a primary reason) that our online students choose that modality is because they have busy lives. A big percentage of our students have jobs, families, obligations, and they need to do their work when they have time. That might be 8 pm, that might be 11 pm after all the kids are in bed. It might be 6 am, I like to do my online class at 6 am. When you require students to work in groups in an online setting, you’re removing that degree of scheduling flexibility that students value in an online class. So if you choose to require online activities, I have certainly moved towards lower stakes and opportunities that don’t require real-time meetings between students online. And you mentioned a great one. Think-Pair-Share can be set up in an online class. So there’s lots of ways that you can do this but the first thing that came to my mind is you could set up groups of two, and you could auto-enroll students in a group of two, and then they have their own individual discussion boards. In most Learning Management Systems when you have groups you can have kind of a private discussion board where students can interact with each other there, or I’m a big fan of letting some of the learning come outside of the Learning Management System. So let students know who their buddy is, have them exchange phone numbers, and they can just talk on the phone. Sometimes we forget those simple solutions. But a Think-Pair-Share—and so many ways that you could set this up, you could change it from module to module so people are always working with somebody else—just share an idea, discuss something, take it offline, come back and just write or record a quick summary of how that interaction went. When it’s not such a high stakes assignment, students can better engage in those opportunities. It’s so much easier to find 15 minutes to talk with one person than it is to find an hour with four working adults who all have family obligations. So I love the idea of lowering the stakes and embedding lots of little opportunities for students to work in pairs or in groups of three where it’s easier to coordinate. There’s less pressure about the online group member who never does the work—sorry, but that’s a thing—and just help students see other ways of interacting. Now, with my instructional designer hat on I want to remind us of the importance of making sure that online collaborative work aligns with the outcomes of the course. Very important to think about why you’re asking students to work together. Does this actually relate to what you want them to learn and get out of the course? Very important to pause, ask yourself some of those questions before you randomly assign group work because we should have group work, which I’m guilty of doing. [LAUGHTER] It’s an easy thing to do, “I guess we should have group work,” but really pausing to think carefully about the purpose of that. And then again, maybe thinking creatively about those lower stake ways of connecting students and facilitating some more authentic interactions. Maybe they’re going to text each other. That’s fine, they’re talking. We do a lot of talking on text these days. Help students connect in ways that are not so stilted, which is often what we see in the use of the discussion board and the LMS.

Rebecca: I found that too, I use Slack a lot in my classes, because it’s a common platform for designers and people in that realm to communicate professionally, and they love it. It’s convenient, it’s on their phones, takes it away from a clunky interface…

Flower: Sure.

Rebecca: .. some of the LMS’s have and it’s really productive. And they’re able to do that midnight chat with each other.

Flower: Yes, absolutely. Again, let’s think creatively about tools that students already have. I honestly believe that a lot of Learning Management Systems actually raise barriers to student learning because most of them—although this is getting better—most of them don’t have a super robust mobile app and so a student, really to engage with coursework, has to find a place where they can sit down and log into the computer and access the course and jump through a million hoops before they can even get to where the learning is. Whereas if we take some of that learning into apps that they’re already using or things that they’re doing on their phone anyway where it’s in their pocket, we can communicate in real time. Now I need to exercise caution here because many faculty think, “Oh great. I’ll do Slack, and I’ll do VoiceThread, and I’ll do Flipgrid, and I’ll do Twitter, and I’ll do Pinterest, and it’s just going to be so interesting and fun.” Well, if there’s a reason for using some of those tools, absolutely. If those tools are just shiny entertainment—bells and whistles—then you may want to think again. Another important consideration if you’re asking students to use tools that are not in the Learning Management System is whether those tools are fully accessible for students, whether there’s any fee that’s involved, whether students might have to set up a new account with a new password, that might just be a hassle. So really you want to think carefully about what you’re asking students to do. Are the tools fully accessible and usable and cost friendly? Do they support your learning outcomes? And yet, if a tool that you’re thinking about using passes all those tests, then by all means jump right in. This semester I’m using Remind which is the simplest tool on the planet and the most effective. [LAUGHTER] It’s more in use in K-12 currently than in higher ed. It’s simply a text app that anonymizes people’s phone numbers. So I invite my students to sign up for my Remind list. I don’t require it. But then I can easily send a quick little 140 character reminder, “Don’t forget this assessment is due on this particular day,” or “New content has just been released. Login when you get a chance.” The message goes right to where the students are and because I make it optional, nobody is required to have the annoying instructor on their phone all the time. But students who want some additional support with managing deadlines and the class experience really appreciate the use of the simple tool called Remind.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that we know from a lot of evidence-based practices and books that have come out—including Small Teaching—is that frequent feedback is useful. But we also know that frequent feedback can seem really daunting to a faculty member, and time consuming. So are there ways that you would suggest managing some feedback opportunities online, but keeping it easy, quick, and reasonable?

Flower: Sure. Another great question. Another underutilized approach—at least in my experience supporting the faculty that I work with—is the ability to embed feedback into auto-graded multiple choice or true- false types of quizzes within the Learning Management System. So in most of these systems you can design feedback that will show up for students as soon as they submit the quiz. You can set those quizzes to show students which questions they got right or wrong and in the wrong answers you can embed feedback that says, “Please review pages 32 to 35 of this chapter. That is where you’ll find this information.” Similarly, you could encourage or embed challenging feedback and by that I mean, “Great, you totally know this material. If you’re interested in learning more, you may want to check out this website or this resource,” to offer students a range of experiences and engage students at their different levels of experience with the content. To be fair, setting up that kind of embedded feedback takes a little bit of time in the first place, but many of us teach those online courses over and over again, and once you’ve done that work, you can benefit from it time and time again. If you’re not sure how to do that in your Learning Management System, just about every institution has a Learning Management System support team with instructional designers or system admins, help desk folks who can walk you through the creation of that kind of embedded feedback. And it’s timely, it’s right there when the students are thinking about that problem in the first place, it’s relevant, and it’s a great way to automate some useful feedback for student learning.

John: You have a chapter in this forthcoming book on developing as an online instructor. Are there some general suggestions that you can give to faculty who’d like to improve and develop new skills or improve skills as an online instructor? Besides buying the book, of course. [LAUGHTER]

Flower: Right. Great question. Again, what this comes down to for me is that it’s just new. It’s just new for a lot of people. And to be honest, I suspect that many online faculty didn’t really set out to be great online faculty and many faculty are not finding the experience quite as rewarding as they might find the classroom experience. In fact, I have some data to back me up on that. The 2017 survey of faculty and information technology from EDUCAUSE Center of Analysis and Research found that of over 13,000 faculty respondents, 91% said that they don’t prefer to teach online. 9% said, “Great, I love to teach online.” That’s 91% of us who would rather teach anywhere else. [LAUGHTER] So how can we cultivate that joy, that buzz that we get in the classroom? We love teaching. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be doing it because we don’t get paid enough. How can we cultivate that for ourselves? Now a barrier or a common challenge is time. Who has time to go and learn how to do a whole new skill? It’s different than teaching in person. But there are, again, small things that we can do to increase our awareness. One of the most effective things that you can do as an instructor is to seek an experienced and a thriving online instructor and ask to shadow that class. Ask to be added into that class shell and just observe. How does that person interact with students? What are the structures? What is the teaching? What happens while the class is in session? That can be hugely impactful, it’s usually free, [LAUGHTER] and faculty can invest the amount of time that they have. In fact, this is how I first got started with online teaching over 10 years ago, is before I was going to teach a class. Luckily, this offer was made to me the semester prior to my first online class, just to observe another class and see what happens in there. Simple structure could easily be set up for faculty who are scheduled to teach a new class in the Fall, have them observe or shadow a class in the Spring or the Summer, and yet an often overlooked solution. Certainly there’s lots of online resources. There’s podcasts like this, there are blogs that people are writing about innovative things that they’re doing, but sometimes just finding a thriving online faculty to interact with, shadow, observe, be mentored by, can be the most effective way to learn how to do this better.

John: I even sometimes encourage faculty to join a MOOC, because often you can find some interesting practices there that scale without necessarily requiring much effort on the part of the instructor.

Flower: That’s right. That’s one of my other recommendations and I hope I haven’t given all of the book away here. [LAUGHTER] But one of the other recommendations in that chapter is just to take an online course in whatever form that you can. Whether it’s a MOOC, a lot of organizations like the Online Learning Consortium, Quality Matters, offer online professional development opportunities for faculty. Even if it’s not about teaching online, just go take a class that is online. Or maybe personal interest. Sign up and take Spanish online. And having the experience as an online student is hugely impactful to help you understand what your students are going through. Even as a faculty if you’re taking a course and you’re reading the instructions going: “Now, what am I supposed to do with that?” Immediately, you have much more clarity about what your students might be experiencing and then you can take steps to address those kinds of gaps or areas of concern that might be in your own class… that you may not have previously seen before.

Rebecca: I think the recommendation of taking a course outside of your normal domain or area of expertise is key because you’ve got students who are in an environment they’re not familiar with, with a topic they’re not familiar with. And so to kind of simulate that, I think is key.

Flower: Right?

Rebecca: I know I’ve done that in the past and it’s like, “Oh yes, I forgot what it was like to be a beginner.”

Flower: Absolutely. In fact, I had a really interesting process or experience this past fall semester where I was supporting a redesign in a large cap biology class of liberal studies—or general education biology class—large enrollment. My background is in English literature… the humanities. I don’t think I ever took a hard science class in college because I did an honors program where we could do more sort of ethical concerns related to science. But I went to that class frequently throughout that semester and I clearly remember the first day. 240 students and me and I was sitting in the lecture hall with the students and it was just very, very impactful. Putting me in a situation that was foreign to me—I don’t teach large cap classes, I don’t know a thing about biology—I do now, I know a little more [LAUGHTER]—But I was a novice learner in a very foreign environment and that’s what our students are in our online classes, which is really quite anxiety producing if you think about it. Going into an unknown space, not knowing what’s expected, you don’t know how to get ahold of your faculty member a lot of the time. So just being intentional about helping students be more comfortable and more at ease in our online classes—be more available to them—can make a big difference. And again, you get that insight differently when you choose to place yourself in a situation where you’re a novice, and you’re not really sure what to expect. That’s a great point.

John: Are there any other topics that we should address that we haven’t raised yet? Anything else you’d like to emphasize?

Flower: You know, really only one thing comes to mind and that is an insight that I had literally this past week, which is that I feel like sometimes online faculty—myself included—have somehow developed the notion that we don’t really need to talk with our students. And let me explain what I mean by that. Again, I’m teaching an eight week—it’s an accelerated graduate level course right now—I’m busy. My students are busy. And on a whim a couple of weeks ago, I said, “Well, I know you have this assignment coming up by Sunday night, I’ll be available on Saturday between the hours of 1 to 5pm.” I don’t like to work on Sundays. I tell my students that if you want to just pick up the phone and call me on Saturday, go ahead. So that weekend, I did. I had a student who called me and she was a chatty Cathy, and we stayed on the phone for quite some time, but she got a better understanding of the assignment and how to be successful. Well two weeks later, which was this past weekend, it was my daughter’s 11th birthday and I was right in the middle of finalizing all the food preparation and everything else. And lo and behold, there’s my phone ringing and I can tell that it’s not a connection of mine. And I went, “Uh-oh, it’s one of my students,” [LAUGHTER] because I had said Saturdays 1 to five and that same student who had called me a couple of weeks prior called and we had a great conversation. 15 minutes, I was able to keep chopping the carrots while I was talking with her. And it just occurred to me, that wasn’t really a convenient time for me personally because I was doing that final party prep, but so what? The student needed help in that moment and just taking the time to answer the phone and talking through a couple of quick questions, it was helpful for her, and it just got me thinking about how, you know what, I don’t think a lot of us really talk to our online students, like, literally talk on the phone. I know some faculty have the online office hours, I know people are using video conferencing systems, I’m available, but one of the things I’ve started doing is just saying, “Hey, if you have a quick question, just call me. We’ll talk it through.” And sometimes a five-minute conversation can ease that student’s anxiety and answer a few questions. This happened to me again yesterday where a student was like, “Before I submit tonight, can I please just check in with you?” I talked with her while I was commuting to campus and it’s just a way of talking person-to-person, humanizing the online learning experience. But like I said, I think somewhere along the line personally I had formed this opinion that we don’t actually talk to our online students. And I don’t know why that’s a perception because if you’re teaching in person you talk with your students. If there’s somebody who has a question after class, you stay a few minutes after and answer those questions. But I think for online faculty somehow we’ve missed that connection and it can be a powerful and so simple solution to helping our students thrive and succeed. I think faculty and students both overlook some of those simple solutions. It doesn’t have to be a long, tedious, written interaction in a discussion forum. It could be a phone call, and so much can be conveyed through the tone of voice and emphasis, just as I’m doing here today. And as we all do, when we’re teaching live. Just picking up the phone and calling the students or inviting them to call you. Simple, powerful.

Rebecca: I think you’re pointing to something that I know I’ve experienced even though I don’t teach online regularly. It’s just online communication is always written and it feels daunting and it feels really time consuming. And it feels like, “Oh I got to sit down and dedicate time to do this.” So it’s nice to be reminded that there’s other ways to respond.

Flower: Just in my own work somewhere along the line, I forgot about the phone in my day-to-day job. My full-time job is as an instructional designer and it seems like we never just pick up the phone anymore. It’s always email. And as you said, it just takes longer, especially if you have a little bit of confusion and you’re going back and forth on email. I literally in the past few months, I’ve just remembered how to pick up the phone and call somebody. Have a five-minute conversation, you get your questions answered. And just reminding ourselves of the importance of real- time interactions sometimes, and moving away from the requirement that everything needs to be written all the time. I’m a big fan of video announcements, I do that all the time in my online classes and again, the reason I do it is because tone of voice, inflection, emphasis, and funny faces sometimes, or just emphasis where I might just kind of widen my eyes a little bit to explain that, you know, “This is really important. Pay attention and focus.” Just finding these other forms of communication apart from writing can make a big difference in the online learning experience as well.

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

Flower: Well, I’m not quite done with this project. [LAUGHTER] So I’m wrapping up this book development. But what’s really making me passionate now is to really focus on being a crusader for online education. It’s undervalued. It’s under-supported. I know that faculty don’t see the joy of teaching online and I know that students approach it the same way like, “Well, I have to get this degree and I guess this is a convenient way to do it.” I just want to advocate for how online learning and teaching can be impactful, can be rewarding, and joy giving, and you don’t see that reflected even in the coverage of teaching in higher education. Most of the time, the focus is on what we’re doing in the classroom and that’s so important, but there’s a big gap. What are we doing in our online classrooms? I just want to move into that space and encourage people to think about how they teach in person, and how to do those things in their online classes in ways that are not so daunting that they never get around to it.

Rebecca: This has been really great. I’m looking forward to picking up your book and maybe thinking about teaching online. [LAUGHTER]

Flower: That’s right. And if you don’t mind, Rebecca, I’ll just pick up on that, which is that again, I think a lot of faculty don’t say, “Hey, wow, what a cool opportunity. I totally want to teach online.” For many faculty it’s a daunting prospect, “I don’t know how to do this.” But it can be a really great way to reinvigorate your teaching—to find new ways of finding and addressing those challenges. Keep in mind institutions have the support professionals, instructional designers and such, who can help if you’re thinking about moving into online teaching. Talk with some of those faculty support folks, talk with your colleagues, and jump right in. It’s more fun than a lot of people think.

Rebecca: Well thank you so much for joining us today.

John: Thank you.

Flower: Thank you. What an absolute privilege and honor to be here. Thank you.

[Music]

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

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

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

70. Dynamic lecturing

The lecture has dominated instructional practice for several centuries. In the last few decades, though, the lecture mode of instruction has often been criticized by advocates of active learning approaches. In this episode, Dr. Christine Harrington joins us to discuss evidence on the effectiveness of lectures and how we can create lectures that better support student learning. Christine is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at New Jersey City University and the author of Dynamic Lecturing and several other books related to teaching, learning, and student success. Christine has been the Executive Director of the Student Success Center at the New Jersey Council of County Colleges.

Show Notes

  • Dr. Christine Harrington Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at New Jersey City University (NJCU) Previously served as Executive Director of the Center for Student Success at the New Jersey Council of County Colleges (NJCCC)
  • Todd Zakrajsek – Co-author of Dynamic Learning
  • Dr. Neil Bradbury – Professor of Physiology and Biophysics at Rosalind Franklin University of Science and Medicine
  • Bradbury, N. A. (2016). Attention span during lectures: 8 seconds, 10 minutes, or more? Advances in Physiology Education,40(4), 509-513.
  • Richard Mayer- Professor of Psychology and Multimedia Learning at University of California at Santa Barbara
  • Mayer, R. (2019). How Multimedia Can Improve Learning and Instruction. In J. Dunlosky & K. Rawson (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Cognition and Education (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology, pp. 460-479). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108235631.019
  • New Jersey City University Ed.D. in Community College Leadership program
  • Dr. Harrington’s book, Dynamic Lecturing can be purchased from Stylus Publishing and listeners can use promo code: “ETS20” (excellent teaching series) to receive a 20% discount on the Dynamic Lecturing book or Dr. Harrington’s other book, Designing a Motivational Syllabus

Tea For Teaching episodes referenced

Student Feedback tools

Transcript

John: The lecture has dominated instructional practice for several centuries. In the last few decades, though, the lecture mode of instruction has often been criticized by advocates of active learning approaches. In this episode, we examine evidence on the effectiveness of lectures and how we can create lectures that better support student learning.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Christine Harrington, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at New Jersey City University and the author of Dynamic Lecturing and several other books related to teaching, learning, and student success. Christine has been the Executive Director of the Student Success Center at the New Jersey Council of County Colleges. Welcome Christine.

Christine: Thanks.

John: Welcome.

Rebecca: Actually it should be “welcome back.”

Christine: Thank you for having me again. I’m looking forward to a new conversation.

John: Our teas today are:

Christine: I am not today.

Rebecca: I am drinking Lady Grey.

John: And I’m drinking ginger peach black tea today. We’ve invited you here this time to talk about one of your other books on dynamic lecturing. It’s not uncommon for people to argue that lecturing is ineffective, but it’s still one of the most common forms of instructional delivery. Why is lecturing so often discouraged?

Christine: This is an interesting question. I’m not really sure where this stems from but I think that the push for active learning started to pit the lecture against the active learning approaches, the collaboration. And I really do believe that there is significant value in both approaches and I’m not sure why it became an “either or” kind of situation. But unfortunately, it really has, and one of the reasons that I decided to write this book was because the lecturing is the most common method, you know, it’s still the tried and true method of faculty rely on all of the time. And yet, there are very few resources or support to help faculty be effective at lecturing. If you go to a professional development conference, a teaching learning conference, you’re hard pressed to find a session—unless I’m there, I guess – on lecturing. I actually haven’t seen another one yet—so there really are not any resources for faculty on this and it’s not really fair that it got such a bad reputation, because there’s not validity in that thinking.

Rebecca: So that leads to a good question. What is the research on effective lecturing?

Christine: So in terms of what is effective, I think one of the first questions that we need to ask ourselves is, “Well what are we talking about?” because much of the research that exists out there, if you’re going to research a boring, monotonous lecturer… who’s got the old yellow papers and just is reading and not even looking at the students and engaging them, or you’re talking about a lecture that is dynamic and the presenter is passionate and excited about the topic. We’re not always measuring the same concept. And that’s true in group work as well. So really, when we talk about teaching and learning practices, and we try to look at the literature about what works and what doesn’t, it’s very complicated because of the complexities associated with the teaching and learning processes. However, there is research out there that does support the lecture. What much of the research really points to is that the lecture is most effective for novice learners. For students who have very little background knowledge in the subject matter, they need to have someone who’s an expert present that information in a way that they can take it in so that they are developing that expertise and hopefully learning that content. If you ask them to just engage in what’s been called inquiry-based learning or case-based learning, the research really shows that that approach is not as effective if you don’t have the background knowledge. So what in essence happens is that well-intentioned faculty and teachers use that approach and end up wasting a lot of precious learning time, because the students in the groups aren’t equipped yet to be able to tackle those high-level questions and to figure it out without the guidance. There’s some interesting research out there on the importance of it being done well, but also making sure that the lecture is done before the group work is done, so that the foundational knowledge kind of sets the stage for some of those more what we call traditional active collaborative learning experiences. So if you want to look at novice learners, you’re going to see a strong correlation between the lecture working and student success outcomes. And then there’s something called the expertise reversal effect. What happens there is the more that you know about the subject matter, the less helpful the lecture is and the more helpful those more active collaborative learning group exercises are. I still today learn from TED Talk or a great lecture. But I’m also going to really get a lot of value—especially in my area of expertise—out of dialoguing with other experts and engaging those conversations because I have a strong foundational background. So it’s kind of interesting when we think about “Does the lecture work or does it not work?” it depends on who you’re talking about, in what subject, for what purpose, under what conditions. So it’s not as simple as a yes or no, but I will tell you that there is a significant body of research that says the lecture is effective. It’s not that we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, we just need to make sure we’re using that method effectively.

Rebecca: One thing that you hinted at, Christine, is that with lecture from an expert, there seems to be an opportunity to ask questions, which is why just reading about stuff maybe isn’t always sufficient. If you have that opportunity to ask questions of the lecturer or am I reading into something that I shouldn’t be reading into?

Christine: No, I think you’re right on track there. And actually, I think that’s part of the reason why live lectures are more effective than online lectures… because in a live lecture, you as the expert get to see the puzzled looks on the faces. So even if they’re not offering up the questions, you can say, “I think I need to throw in another example.” And students can ask for clarification along the way, so that you’re not just going on without them following and getting the concepts that you’re discussing. Lectures are not one-way kinds of teaching methods, but they really are two-way processes. Even though it seems heavier on the expert delivering to the student, the student can be very engaged and also asked to be engaged through questioning and other activities during the lecture.

John: And it’s not necessarily an “either-or” condition… that you can embed active learning activities in the lecture, right?

Christine: And that’s exactly how I would define a dynamic lecture: that you would incorporate what I’ll call brief active learning breaks into the lecture because we don’t want to just talk at students for a really long time… and let’s face it, as faculty, we could do that. And quite honestly, it’s the easiest thing to do, especially when you know your subject really well. And you can just walk in and start talking about your subject matter. But that’s not necessarily going to lead to the highest levels of learning. So when we look at what our learning outcomes are for the course, we need to structure our course in a way that’s going to help students learn and achieve those learning outcomes. So in order to do that, it’s really powerful to build in some brief reflective opportunities for students to engage with the content. And Mayer has really done a lot of work in this space, saying that it’s a cognitive focus that needs to be emphasized more so than an interactive focus. So the breaks don’t always need to be a social or group break. It doesn’t have to be a partner activity or a small group activity. Some of them can be independent activities. The key is that once you get a certain amount of information, you need to process that information and digest it and there are a variety of techniques that you can use to help students really learn that content. One of my favorite studies—which is a little bit disturbing, and in fact, I always say it hurts our feelings when we find out what it actually says—there’s a research study that compares students who had no pause in their lecture. So that the professor just kept talking the entire time sharing all the expertise in an effective strategy and an effective way. And then another condition where the instructor paused three times for two minutes each. So we’re talking about a total of six minutes during the class period that the professor stopped talking and during that time the research study was set up such that the students had to do what’s called a “compare and share” of their notes. They had two minutes to take a look at what their partner wrote down, fill in any gaps that they had, and engage in that. And at the end of the day, what they found out was that the students in the pause condition really outperform significantly students in the no-pause condition and it sounds exciting at first until you realize that “You mean, If I stopped talking for six minutes my students learn more?” like that kind of hurts their feelings. [LAUGHTER] But it’s true. Sometimes especially at the end of a class, we start talking faster and faster and trying to give more information as if that’s going to lead to high levels of learning. We need to keep in mind that students need time to digest and process. And it’s really important that we strategically and intentionally build in those opportunities for our students during our lecture.

John: And as they’re building their own mental models, just giving them a little time to process it and to compare notes takes advantage of peer instruction. You’ve got some reflection going on there, and you’ve got a little bit of retrieval going on there. So there’s a lot of evidence-based strategies that are embedded in that basic activity.

Rebecca: I think it also helps students who might start feeling panicked because they didn’t get everything in their notes… give them a second to maybe fill it in and then they don’t feel so panicked and they can focus again. If you get anxious because you feel like you’re behind, it’s really hard to focus.

Christine: Absolutely, and it is human nature for us. Our attention wanders, no matter how wonderful a lecture is, life is happening to you. Sometimes it’s easy to have mind wandering happen and you don’t want students to be penalized for that happening for a brief moment. So giving them opportunities to get back on track and refocus I think is really important. And John, as you mentioned before, there are several of these great learning breaks that you can use that are very, very much grounded in the research. You mentioned retrieval practice, for instance and we all know about the testing effect and how powerful that is. And I think we focus primarily on taking tests and encouraging quizzing—and that’s definitely an important component of what we should be doing in the way that we structure our classes so that students get to benefit from the testing effect—but quite honestly, we don’t have to grade everything and not everything needs to be called a quiz or a test. But if you ask students to do the classic, one-minute paper, for instance, that really is retrieving the content that they just learned and giving them practice at doing that will make it more likely that they transfer those actions into their world outside of the classroom, so that when they’re studying, they also engage in those same kinds of evidence-based practices.

Rebecca: I think a lot of times when you hear good lecturing, people think about TED Talks and maybe some of the storytelling and things that happen or the visual strategies that are used in those talks. Are there elements of those that come into strong dynamic lecturing in the classroom? Are there things that are missing from those that we should be thinking about in our own classroom?

Christine: I think you talked about something that’s really important: Storytelling. For ages and ages storytelling has been a way that we have learned and I think we have all been on the edge of our seats in a lecture that was based on storytelling. We want to know what’s going to happen next. And the lecture really can become the story of our discipline. And we can weave in personal stories and examples and things to make the content come alive for our students. It really puts it into context for them and helps them identify and see the relevance of the material that’s being discussed in their real world application. So to me, I think storytelling is probably one of the reasons why lecturing is so effective if it’s done well and you are weaving that in and mesmerizing your students with the chapter content. The the key element is doing that effectively. So I would say, “Absolutely, that is great.” Although TED Talks, when you think about them, obviously they’re online and they’re one directional still. So stories can be more just told by the storyteller and not have audience participation or they’re stories where you think back to your days in elementary school, where the teacher would pause and ask for you to get engaged in the story and maybe predict what would happen next, and to think about examples from your own world. And I think that’s what we can do in the live lecture, sitting there with students face to face we can give them those opportunities to do a prediction. “What do you think this research study is going to find? What is the key finding going to be? You heard how the study was set up, what are the implications of that?” You’re getting them to think about it and to be really engaged in the story and participants in the story, I think is one of the areas where we can as faculty enhance the effectiveness of the lecture.

Rebecca: How does a faculty member learn to be a better storyteller?

Christine: I think that some of that’s natural, I think some of us are more naturally better storytellers than others. But one of the strategies that I suggest to faculty is for you as the expert to take a step back and to think about what are the key elements of your story? Or what are your big ideas of your lecture? Because it’s all natural, and it all flows to you as an expert, because you know, this material so well. But for your students who are getting exposed to it for the first time—or maybe on the second or third time hearing this content—they don’t know what the big ideas are. So I think that one of the strategies that faculty can use to become better storytellers is to almost map out what are the many chapters in this book that I’m telling, right? Who are the characters and the main players? What are the big theorists that we’re going to talk about? Or, what are the big researchers that we’re going to discuss? And what are the key variables—or the factors really—that are going to comprise this story? I think one of the most helpful things you can do as a faculty member to strengthen your lecture, is to step back and identify what are the three big ideas or major elements of this lecture for today. And if you’re able to do that, and then clearly communicate those to the students in the beginning and throughout every time that those big ideas are getting introduced, that will really help students hone in on the most important elements versus getting lost in some of the details of the story.

John: That’s one of the ways it helps reduce the cognitive load of the students so they can focus on those key points, without getting lost in the details that they’re not quite ready to incorporate into their models. What do we know about student attention and how we can keep student attention during a lecture? I know sometimes when I have a large class of 3 to 400 some odd students, sometimes their attention will wander. What can be done to try to keep that, a more constant level of attention and focus?

Christine: Well I don’t know what you’re doing, John, I don’t have that problem. [LAUGHTER] No, only kidding. [LAUGHTER] Attention during a lecture as an interesting topic. You know, I’ve been going around the country doing a lot of presentations on dynamic lecturing. And as you know, my colleague and co author, Todd Zakrajsek speaks on this topic quite a bit. He said, “Christine, try this out when you go present. I want you to ask the audience how long a student can pay attention during the lecture.” He said, “Just throw the question out there and see what they say.” And I have done this and he has done this, you know, we’ve compared and shared notes of ourselves and immediately people are throwing out numbers. It doesn’t take very long at all, the numbers usually start out like and hover in that 15 to 20 minute range —although I get, you know, some wise guys in the audience a 90 seconds and some others who are more optimistic, saying larger amounts — but immediately they’re throwing numbers out. So I said to Todd when I was writing the book, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I’m usually pretty good at finding the research. I can’t find the research on this topic.” I said, “I heard this over and over. I’ve been to professional conferences where the presenter has said 15 to 20 minutes is all that folks can maintain their attention for, so you’re going to have to change things up if you want them to stay attentive and I couldn’t find it.” And we had this really deep conversation about it. And he says, “Now go and ask those audiences, how long would a student be able to pay attention if they were reading” and immediately you hear silence for a minute, because they’re processing and they’re trying to decide how long it would be for reading. So you don’t get answers right away. What almost always happens is somebody says, “It depends” pretty quickly. Or if they do say any numbers — and they do sometimes — they’re usually saying it in a much more tentative voice, lower, not as loud and enthusiastically, and not with confidence. Todd and I will say to our audiences is, “Why is that? Well doesn’t it depend for both the lecture and the reading?” It depends a lot on whether I liked the book, if it’s written in a way that I can understand it, am I able to take it in — if I’m reading a really dense, heavy textbook in a subject I don’t know and I don’t understand what I’m reading — I’m going to be done with that in a couple of seconds. But if I’m reading something that I really enjoy, and I have some background knowledge on and I’m able to take in and I care about, then I’m going to read for hours at end. I mean, you could be on the beach reading all day long, right? The same is true in a lecture. There really is no magical number about how many minutes a student can pay attention to. It depends on how much they care and their personal variables as much as the professor variables. Obviously, the attention span would be longer in an interactive, engaging presentation versus a monotonous boring presentation. The folks who talk about the 15 to 20 minute mark, it’s really not based on the research. However, there is some mind-wandering research that does say that students report higher levels of mind wandering in the second half a class as compared to the first half of class. It seems that there is a small drop around that 20 minute mark, that may have been where it came from. But, I have to be honest with you, some areas I can tell you those robust data or we have like hundreds of studies — this is a handful of studies, we don’t have an enormous body of research in this space — but the good news is, is that it started to get people thinking about: “I guess, if we need to keep students attentive, then we need to switch things up.” And I don’t think that was bad practice. Despite it not being founded on good research, I think that the result was probably positive if faculty were in fact incorporating some active learning break that could be advantageous for student learning.

John: Actually, this is a topic we talked about in an earlier podcast. In Episode 16, one of the people we interviewed, Neil Bradbury, had written a paper on attention span during lecture because he was faced with the same thing. He kept being told that you should keep your lectures or videos to 10 to 15 minutes or so at the most. And so he went to try to find the research and he published this in the Advances in Physiological Education a couple years ago. He found that it was based on a study that was really just looking at note taking and it was done in one class and it was based on an analysis of students’ notes and how much they wrote during different periods of the lecture, which had very little relationship necessarily to the importance of what was being discussed and so forth. And that became cited over and over again in other studies, and then people just started repeating it without ever seeming to go back and analyze that. And I think there was another podcast where someone had looked at attention on videos, he was looking at how effective videos of different links were on student learning — it was in chemistry, I believe. There really isn’t much research on a student attention span. And that obviously will vary, as you said, with the quality of the presentation. The students are willing to spend hours watching movies, we don’t see them walking out or starting to chat with their friends 10 or 15 minutes in, normally.

Christine: Right. And I think that some of the online video research that people rely on is sometimes is for non-educational purposes, so they’re looking at the attention span of someone watching a video from a marketing perspective. But when there’s no grade attached, we’re in a different situation. Hopefully we’re with an audience that has some motivation, they’re in the class, they’re in college, so their motivational level, I think, is very different than a consumer. I think it’s problematic that we’re trying to bring all of this really heavy, deep content into these like very brief news clips. But don’t think that this is the way that students are going to learn best. I remember I was working with someone and they were convinced they had to be two minutes or less. I’m like, “What can I accomplish in two minutes or less?” I mean, I can give you a quick news flash, but if you want to have deep learning, we’re going to have to have a deeper conversation. And I suspect you’re going to want additional examples from me, and you’re going to want me to share the relevance and that will actually help you. So, I think online videos are not as engaging as in-person videos. We probably do need to have them maybe in shorter chunks, but the key is is trying to bring their attention back and your initial question was, “How do you maintain their attention throughout?” And one of the strategies I think that we’re all very aware of is that we need a hook or something at the beginning of a presentation or beginning of a class. But we don’t really think about the hook throughout the class. So I advocate for faculty to go back to those three big ideas that I asked them to identify and identify a hook or an attention grabber before you introduce each big idea. It can vary, I get kind of silly in my classes sometimes, and we’ll use hand gestures and things of that nature. But for the faculty member who’s not comfortable doing that, you can do something as simple as saying, “Here’s big idea number two coming your way,” right? Because it doesn’t have to be that complicated. So I think the idea is that our lectures just like textbooks are filled with more important content and less important content and when we’re talking about the more important content, the chapters bring attention to that with bold headings and things of that nature. What are we doing in our lecture to help them see? Where is the bold heading of our lecture? Do they get to see those subheadings? Can they figure that out or are we in a little rabbit hole of detail somewhere… that they don’t necessarily even need all of that information?

John: In one of our earlier podcasts, Alex Butler was using an example where there were certain key big ideas in his class and he used images on that. And he put those images on whenever there was an application of those big ideas. And that sounded like a really nice application continued over the whole semester, not just within a single lecture, even.

Rebecca: I couldn’t help but hear as you were talking, “accessibility, accessibility, accessibility.” because structured content is one of the biggest themes of accessibility — or one of the biggest principles to make things accessible digitally — but you’re talking about the same exact concept in a lecture. What is the skeleton or the outline of what we’re talking about so that people can kind of fill in the blanks? And sometimes you have to make that obvious to someone who doesn’t have the expertise that you have because it’s obvious to you what those are.

John: To develop the scaffolding that they need to make sense of it all to fit it all together.

Rebecca: And an outline is like a scaffolding.

Christine: That’s excellent. Yeah, I love it. That’s an excellent point. That’s terrific.

Rebecca: I was wondering, Christine, if you could talk us through one of your lectures, one of your classes. What does it look like? What does it feel like?

Christine: Sure. So I begin class with an activity called “dusting off the cobweb.” So the first thing that I do is, they know as soon as we walk into the class together, they got to put their books away, their notebooks away, and they need to just rely on their brains to engage in practice retrieval. And the question on the table is, What did we talk about last class? So they have a minute and a half to begin that exercise. And they’re talking with a partner and they’re trying to remember what they recall from last class. After about a minute and a half or so then I have them open up their books and their notebooks and fill in any gaps. So they’re going to continue to talk about What did we talk about? And at this point you hear, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I forgot about that” and I’m sitting out there thinking, “Yeah, I can’t believe you forgot about it, but I’m glad you’re remembering now.” So about three minutes or so passes, and then what I do is I’ll randomly call on students. I’m not a fan of randomly calling on students if you don’t give them processing time… talking about accessibility issues and students with disabilities and processing information in a different way. But after I gave you three minutes to do what I call a fairly low-stakes engagement, I think you’re all fair game. So I’m going to call on you and you’re going to remind us of what we talked about from last class. So now we spent about another five minutes or so recapping some of the highlights. If they don’t mention something that I think is particularly important for us to refresh on, especially given the new content that we’re going to do, then we do that. So I always begin with this because what that does is it activates their prior knowledge so that they’re ready to take in the new information and the new information will be easier to learn because it can stick onto that previous knowledge that they just learned from the last class. So that takes about, you know, five or seven minutes or so. The next thing I usually do in my lectures, I shift to a reading assignment so they usually have some kind of reading assignment — might be a journal article, might be the chapter — and they have questions that they need to answer. This is another activate their prior knowledge kind of activity and holding them accountable for the reading and learning outside of class so that I’m not having to spoon feed everything to them. So now we spend another 10 or 15 minutes where they go over those questions, and this will be with a different partner, and I actually go around the classroom and do spot checking of their assignment while they’re engaged in those activities and I grade them — they’re, you know, low stakes kind of grades, but I grade them nonetheless. So it keeps them on track and it really keeps them focused and interesting that you mentioned that the visual image before because sometimes I’m asking them to do their reading assignments in picture format, like I want them to use either SmartArt or graphics or images because otherwise I find that they’re trying to like copy content that they don’t get. So I’m trying to get them to digest the content as best they can when we’re working together. So then when we’re done with that, now as I spot check, I can see which topics seem to be the ones that they got pretty well. And I still will go over them, but in a much briefer way versus the topics that I could see that they might have been struggling with and they had questions like, sometimes I’ll be walking around, it will be like, “Dr. Harrington, I really didn’t understand this question” and that might be a theme. So then that’s the one that I’m spending a little bit more time on. It’s kind of a very modified version of the intro teaching. It’s not quite exactly following that model but I’m using that reading activity to kind of guide the lecturing and then during the lecture, I will identify what my three big ideas are and I usually do some kind of gesture. So I’ll introduce it with like a gesture about whatever the topic is, get them really excited. I get a little loud and excited, “It’s big idea number one time!” and then I go into the content and then I always have a practice opportunity after it. So after every big idea — and that varies, it might be as simple as a turn and talk or one-minute summary. Sometimes I put them into smaller groups to do like a case study or to develop and answer Socratic questions related to the content. So that piece will vary depending on the nature of what it is that I’m talking about — and I’ll repeat that through the next two big ideas. And then at the end of class I usually will do a very quick — it might be only five minutes — like a preview of the next chapter to make it a little bit easier for them to read. So I’ll highlight stuff, I know that a content’s coming up, let’s say it’s the learning chapter in psychology. I know classical conditioning is often challenging for them to wrap their hands around, I might give them an example and expose them at least to some of the vocabulary and the language that’s going to be in the chapter so that they’re all set and ready to roll with the reading assignment for the next time. That’s kind of what a typical lecture would look like for me.

Rebecca: Thanks. I think a lot of times we often hear some best practices but don’t really take time to think about how that actually plays out throughout an entire class period.

Christine: Mmm-hmm. In the back of the book, you’ll see that there are lots of forms that I have created for faculty and one of them is the sequencing. So, on one of the forms, I’m asking them to plan by identifying: what are the big ideas? How are they going to draw attention to those? What examples are you going to give? What kind of active learning break are you going to give? And then there’s another document that helps them sequence the activity: to always begin with some kind of introductory activity, and then going through those three big ideas and at the end, some kind of concluding activity to get them set for the next learning adventure.

John: Those worksheets and forms that you provide at the end of the book are superb, and that alone is a good reason to buy the book, in addition to all the other wonderful content included in it.

Christine: Thank you.

John: For those people who use multimedia in presentations… who use PowerPoint or visual imagery or perhaps videos, do you have any recommendations on how multimedia could be used or how presentations can be designed to more effectively maintain student attention?

Christine: Absolutely. I think that this is another area that’s gotten the baby thrown out with the bathwater. You see all these sessions, Death by PowerPoint… that PowerPoints are overdone, and sometimes people are rolling their eyes if you’re going to use a PowerPoint. Well again, the PowerPoint is an incredibly effective tool, if it’s done well. If it’s done poorly, it’s an incredibly ineffective tool. We need to make sure we’re using evidence based practices for creating the multimedia, whether it’s slides, videos, whatever tool it is that you’re using. And this is an area that has a robust amount of literature. Mayer has done, I think hundreds of experimental studies on what works best with multimedia presentations and has really found that adding visual images really enhances learning. In psychology, we have a concept called the picture superiority effect, where our memory for pictures is stronger than our memory for word. Something I didn’t mention before in terms of my presentation, my lecture, I always have the PowerPoint as my visual backdrop. It’s not our textbook on slides, it’s really a visual story. It’s kind of like the picture to the storybook. That’s what I view the multimedia presentations to be. So if you look at his research, basically you should have one big giant image and maybe a couple of words associated with that image, and that would be the best PowerPoint slide. And I joke with a lot of my faculty colleagues and I’m like, “Look, I know that I’ve had those slides with so many bullets.” In fact, I’ve heard professional say you’re only to have so many bullets and so many words. Well again, I can’t find any research on any of that. No, stop the bullets, stop the words, go with one big image and just a couple of words. But I said to my faculty colleagues, “I know I too have had slides that had too many words on them. And I’ll tell you exactly why that was the case. It was because I was just starting to teach that class and I didn’t want to forget something. So it was a tool for me, it was not a tool for them. What I learned to do is to have two separate tools, I could still have my additional notes if I didn’t want to forget something. But it is not a visual aid to put it there because it’s not helping them, it’s hurting them.” So to create a powerful presentation really means you need to think clearly about what images are best going to communicate your content, and then to put that up on the board as a visual backdrop, and then take any notes that you need to put it aside and it can be helpful to share those notes. Again, going back to the accessibility issue, if you have notes, why not share them with students? It’s a good idea to share them, but they’re not visual aid for your lecture. Because students can’t do what Mayer called, the redundancy principle. But I actually like to call it the be quiet or shut up principle. We can’t listen and read at the same time. So if you have a slide that has a lot of words, you have students saying, “Hmm, should I be reading this? or should I be listening to what that person is saying? I can’t do both at them same time.” And what usually happens is nothing, so you don’t get anything out of it. If you do have to use a lot of words on the slide, which I think would be a very rare occasion, then you should shut up and let them read it or read it together — I don’t think it matters one way or the other. I’m not familiar with any research that points you in one direction — and then describe it, but don’t talk over your slides. That really is problematic for learning. It’s not even that it’s not helpful, it’s actually harmful to learning.

John: In presentations, instructors will often use some technology to get feedback from the students. What are some effective ways of getting feedback from all of your students or for many of your students, during a presentation?

Christine: Well, I think that the technology tools available today really allow us to engage our students in a new way. So whether you use something like a Poll Everywhere, or a Kahoot! tool or clickers, or asking them to engage via Twitter, there’s so many tools out there that can get students engaged. And I think especially with large classrooms, if you’re trying to lecture, sometimes you don’t know whether they understood the concept that you described. And even asking a quiz question about it, and having them answer it via technology can show you and them whether or not everybody’s kind of on the right track. Now, of course, whenever you introduce technology, you also introduce the possibility of increased distraction. So you have to be mindful. I think that you want to be careful about it. And I think students often respond well to faculty when they believe that you really care about them and are interested in them being successful. So by sharing the rationale and structuring it before you begin to use those tools — and you might even make a joke about it and say, “Look, I’m going to be having you pull out your cell phones but you’re going to also have to put them back, you know, so we’re going to be like on cue here, it’s out, in, you know, like bring them into the class, put them out of the class.” — So I think it is important for us to recognize that the temptation to be distracted is going to be high once we start using their cell phones, because there could be a message on there that they all of a sudden pulls them into a different direction. But the value of getting everyone engaged is powerful and some faculty will even count those to increase their accountability throughout the class and to keep them more focused on the questions if they do count in some way. But I think you have to be careful about that because some students may need more time on task to learn that content. So if I didn’t get it in five minutes, I don’t think I should be penalized. So, it is a tricky process and I think you just need to know your students and what works best in your classroom. But there’s so many great tools out there that really allow faculty to engage students throughout, and engage them in the practice retrieval actions as well.

Rebecca: So one of the things that faculty always want to know is whether or not they’re doing a good job. So how would you recommend faculty get useful feedback about the quality of their lectures and maybe tips for improvement?

Christine: Yeah, I think this is a really important point because I have heard about some faculty actually getting poor evaluations just because they use the lecture. So I think that we have to do a variety of things. First of all, we need to, A: educate our peers, and obviously our chairs and deans and whatnot, about the value of the lecture. And then we need to then figure out well, how can we best evaluate whether or not a faculty member is doing an effective lecture or not? In the back of my book, I also do have a chapter on evaluating lectures and I think that the listeners would probably find it valuable to go through that to see. Because what I basically have done is, taken all of the research-based practices and turn them into kind of self-evaluation or peer-evaluation questions. You can also engage in self assessment as well as the peer assessments, I think both are critical to have you really think about. I think it’s essential that we talk to the person who’s observing us ahead of time so they have context for what’s happening. So to have kind of a pre-meeting that really describes what’s happened and transpired in the class before this isolated lecture that you’re coming into, so that they know any of the story about why it is you might be doing what you’re doing. And also to ask them specifically: “You know, I’m trying out this new brief active learning break, we haven’t done this one before. Maybe we’re going to try asking one another Socratic questions, could you help me be another pair of eyes to see, were people engaged in this? Were they struggling? Were the instructions clear? Were they taking the ball and running with it right away or where they fumbling and not really knowing what to do immediately and needed more guidance?” I think that there are so many strategies, it’s not like there’s a wrong or a right way to do it exactly. I think that the key is, are you integrating the research based practices in a way that supports the learning goals of your class? So really keeping hyper focused on the learning outcome that you’re trying to accomplish that day.

John: So we always end with a question: What’s next?

Christine: Well, I mentioned to you before that I just took on a new position, so I’m now at New Jersey City University. I am a faculty member and also co-coordinator in our brand new (Ed. D.) Community College Leadership program. So as part of this, I mean my primary focus is going to be obviously the launching of this new program, some of this includes curriculum development, and marketing, and recruitment. And I’m really excited to get this program off the ground because we really need to build the leadership capacity in the community college sector, at all levels. So very excited about that. But I do have a new book that I’m going to be writing, I actually just got the contract last week, it’s going to be about the guided pathways movement, which is all focused on increasing student success completion rates. And it’s primarily a community college initiative, although, many of the four year colleges also have been getting into the space, and the book is going to be focused on engaging both full- and part-time faculty in Guided Pathways Leadership. So to get them engaged in this movement, and to really see themselves as leaders in the student success reform efforts… so really excited about that and I have some other potential things in the mix to that hopefully will pan out as well. But lots of great stuff happening for me, so I really appreciate this opportunity and look forward to staying connected with both of you.

John: We really appreciate you joining us.

Rebecca: Yeah, we always have a lot of fun and walk away thinking about a lot of things we can start doing to improve our own classrooms.

John: And you can find Christine’s books at Stylus Publishing, and I believe there’s a discount code available for our listeners.

Christine: Yes, if they put in ETS — which stands for excellent teaching series — 20, they will get a 20% discount on the Dynamic Lecturing book but also the Designing a Motivational Syllabus, and I believe it’s going to work for all the books in the series that will eventually come out. So it will be a 10 book series once all of the books are out and published, but ETS20 would be that discount code.

Rebecca: Well, thanks for joining us. We always have a great time.

Christine: Well, thank you. Always my pleasure, I appreciate it.

John: Thank you.

[Music]

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

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

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

66. Just-in-Time Textbook

What would you do if you are scheduled to teach a class of 75 students and discover that several very expensive textbooks would be required to address the full range of course topics?  In this episode, Dr. Jessica Kruger rejoins us to discuss how she responded to this challenge by working with her students to  create their own textbook. 

Jessica is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior at the University at Buffalo.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: What would you do if you are scheduled to teach a class of 75 students and discover that several very expensive textbooks would be required to address the full range of course topics? In this episode, we talk with someone who responded to this challenge by having her students write their own textbook as they progressed through the course.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Our guest today is Jessica Kruger, a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Community health and health behavior at the University at Buffalo. Welcome back, Jessica.

Jessica: Thank you. Happy to be back.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

Jessica: Not today, but maybe a little bit later to relax, thinking about all of this stuff I need to do before the start of the semester. [LAUGHTER]

John: …and I am drinking Rose Garden Black Tea that you brought back from…

Rebecca: …Epcot. So I’m drinking the same thing. We’re having a tea trial this afternoon.

John: It’s one of the blends that they only sell at the Twining store in Epcot I believe…

Rebecca: …Yeah, and it’s a nice counterbalance to the lovely weather we have outside.

John: We have invited you here to discuss the open pedagogy project that you ran last semester in a class with 75 students. Once again, scaling things to a higher level than people normally do it. Could you tell us a little bit about that class?

Jessica: This class is a 300 level public health course. It’s titled Methods and Mechanisms in Public Health. It covers three main topics, so we start out with environmental health and then we move into information about health theories and health behavior theories and then we end with disparities. And so with this class, there was not one single book that would encapsulate all the topics. Instead of having the students buy three or more different books, I started to think, well, what else could I do?

John: The natural thing is to have them write their own book…

Jessica: Of course, why not?! I think the cost of textbooks are continuing to rise, and especially with this sort of course that specialized with these three different areas. I don’t think I would ever find a publisher that would make something quite like that. So why not write your own?

Rebecca: How did you pick the topics that were included and how did you get going on this project?

Jessica: So I actually heard about open pedagogy and writing a textbook with your students at the CIT conference that happened last year, and I was really inspired by Robin de Rosa and what she had done. And so immediately after hearing from her, I thought, “I bet I could do this.” At that time, I don’t know if I was deranged because it was the end of the semester, or maybe it was a stroke of brilliance. Probably a mix of the two. But I thought, let’s figure this out let’s see how to do this. And so, as I was looking over the syllabus and the topics, I started flipping through their textbooks, I started looking at other resources that were available and began to put the topics together and I broke it down by the weeks of the syllabus. So my students were actually writing the textbook before they learned the content. Which for them, was very scary and for me, a little bit scary too. But the great part is they actually had to go out they had to find resources, they had to put it together. And as I was building this, I created Google documents and made skeleton outlines for the chapters and that’s how they kind of got started.

John: So you created the skeletal outlines and then they fleshed it out?

Jessica: Yes, literally. The outlines were a title of the chapter, some objectives, and headings, different headings of sections. I attach some information in each Google Doc, some resources that were out by the CDC or other peer reviewed sources that I thought could be helpful. And of course, I invited them to come meet with me, especially if they have no clue what I was talking about with this topic.

John: …And within each week, did you have a subset of students work on it? Or did you divide it up among all the students? How did you arrange that?

Jessica: So in this class, my very small class of 75, which is actually my smallest class this past semester, I broke them up into groups of four to five students. They didn’t get to choose their groups, but they did get to choose their topics. As they went through and looked at it, we broke it down and said, “Okay, this group decide what is your top picks,” and they could choose. And they knew the order of the chapters, so if they wanted to get it done out of the way, they could do it at the beginning of the semester or wait till the end. And so each group worked together to make a contract, divide up the work and choose how they’re going to execute this.

Rebecca: So what worked well about that method and what didn’t work well about that method?

Jessica: Oh, students love group work. We all know that they love group work, right? If I could figure out the secret to making it go smoothly all the time, I guess I would probably be a millionaire. But nevertheless, I think there was some strategies that did work well. And the fact was, I had the maker group contract. Barbara Oakley actually has a article called “How to work with a couch potato,” and in that article it talks about how to deal with someone who’s not pulling their weight and how to create a group contract that’s actually useful. And so the students worked together with their group and talked about how they’re going to evaluate each other. I didn’t set a peer evaluation, they did, and they also broke up what they’re going to do. So as they’re creating this chapter they would all right in a different colored text. So one student was green, one student was orange, and so they can see visually what each person did. And my caveat was, if someone drops the ball, they drop the ball, you don’t have to make up their work, as long as it’s stated in the group contract, that is fine. If they don’t do the summary they don’t do this summary, your chapter doesn’t have a summary. That’s okay.

John: How did that work? Did everything get completed?

Jessica: Actually, we only had one chapter I believe that doesn’t have a summary and most everyone did their part. There’s always some squabbles back and forth. There were some groups who did really good strategizing and had someone go back through and create one voice for it, other groups didn’t. But overall it worked out quite well breaking it up that way, but also giving them that out, realizing that they didn’t have to make up something that someone else didn’t do.

Rebecca: So how did you handle chapters that weren’t fully complete and you needed the other students to read those chapters?

Jessica: I had a wonderful TA last semester, and the chapters would be due about a week before they needed to be put on to UBLearns. She would alert me to anything that was going on or anything that should be changed and I would look over the chapters. And then I would bring in some other content or modify it. But overall they actually did a really great job of putting this together and finding sources…

John: …you mentioned UBLearns…

Jessica: …UBLearns is actually our Blackboard learning management system. So they would offer it in Google Docs, and then I would take that and create it so that they could comment on it, but not actually edit it. And this allowed them to get feedback from their peers, which we plan to preserve the feedback for the next time is classes taught, so this book is a living continuing iteration.

Rebecca: So as the students were reading the chapters as assigned reading, is that when they were providing the comments and the feedback?

Jessica:Yes, they would go through and we had some very astute grammar students that would go and pick commas, and also asked for more explanation, which was excellent. I could actually use that in my teaching to talk further about areas where I could tell that students needed more help.

John: Did the original writers go back and fill in some of the gaps at that point?

Jessica: Sometimes they did, but for the most part, we left it as is. We used version one and the plan is for the students who take this class next to take those comments, continue adding, continue changing, and revamp the book. So there’ll be multiple versions for each semester that it’s taught.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how you handled copyright and giving credit where credit is due for each of these chapters and how you might handle that in future iterations?

Jessica: Overall the class work together to figure out their creative commons license, and what they chose was a CC BY-NC-SA. Which means, people must attribute and give credit, it’s non-commercial and it’s share alike. We talked about this as a group, we learned about copyright and they all actually signed a contract as if they were publishers, as they are. We discussed how to attribute content, some chapters did it one way some chapters did it another way. So you’ll see in tech citations in some areas and and others you’ll see, “this was modified from the CDC website at this location.” And so some of it was actually openly sourced information that was reused. Now, this is their first time writing a textbook, so can I stand behind that everything is completely cited perfectly? Absolutely not. But they did a good faith effort to make sure that their information was cited properly.

John: …and there is a little note at the bottom of each page listing sources and saying that, to the best of our knowledge, this is not subject to copyright. If you find anything that appears to violate it, please notify us. So there is a procedure for addressing that stated on each page, I believe?

Jessica: Correct.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how the groups decided to evaluate each other?

Jessica: Yeah, I think group evaluation and teamwork is such a challenge. I myself, despised group work as a student, and as a faculty member sometimes I’m like, “Ah, I know they need to work with others, but…” But really having them create their own contracts and having them evaluate each other on their own terms, so some groups decided that “we will do everything perfect and we will come to every meeting.” No, that’s not a group contract. That’s not something that you can actually achieve. But what you can achieve is open communication, and so most of the groups actually used GroupMe or other tech tools to stay in contact, they would set up meetings sometimes before after class. They would also work on the Google Doc in tandem, you can actually see when someone else is working on a Google doc and point out different sources to each other and discuss how they’re going to put it together. And so that allowed them to evaluate each other and most students gave each other pretty high marks in peer review. And I don’t know if that’s because they all like each other and they’ve all been in multiple classes together, or if it’s actually how they feel that this came together. But overall, it happened, it got done and so I do think they work together pretty well. Some groups obviously better than others depending on their strategy, but having them create the contract I think is the important aspect that I found

John: And you were able to monitor that by seeing the colors of the contributions?

Jessica: Yes. So I had them color code their contributions and if they didn’t color code because someone was an editor or whatnot, they would note that so they knew what each person was doing. And then before I would send it out to the class, I would take out all those colors and do some type editing. But overall, each of them were contributing and most of the students in the class are juniors and seniors, so they’re upper level students.

Rebecca: Did you have students evaluate each other at the end of their contribution, or at the end of the semester?

Jessica: It was at the end of their contribution, and it’s fascinating because I asked them during that process, not only to evaluate themselves, but to evaluate this project. And it’s fascinating because as I’m going through it, I’m looking at it and asking them, “Do you think other classes should do something like this?” And about 50% said no, at that time. I was like, “Oh my goodness. Is this going to fail? What’s happening? Why do they despise this so much.?” But, at the end when we did an overall evaluation, it was actually overwhelmingly positive, it was all positive about the whole project. So it just goes to show you that as you’re in the thick of something, you may see it as challenging, overwhelming, but in the end, when you see that final product, when you see that 19th chapter for 200 page book that you’ve created with your fellow students, that’s powerful.

Rebecca: You ended up getting your book printed and copies distributed to each of your contributing students. How did you pull that off during the semester you were writing it?

Jessica: Very carefully. I worked very closely with my TA and I spent countless hours editing and making sure pagination was correct. I think in the end I probably put in a whole work week just getting that together and working with the university printing service. I sent it in, it was excellent. I’ve never printed a book before not knowing how to do anything like that, and thankfully our university had some funding to allow me to print books for all of the students. And to see their faces when they got that book, was just outstanding. I actually created a celebration and so I invited the Director of the program, the Dean, the Chairs, and even people from OER Services at SUNY. And the students walked into a cake and people clapping for them, and then I reveal the printed book.

Rebecca: So you had to have had the book finished multiple weeks before the end of the semester to make that happen?

Jessica: Well, I was hoping to have it finished sooner. But you know, life happens, and so they actually got it on the day of their final and their first question is after it’s revealed is, “Do we still have to take a final?” In fact, they did, but it turned out alright. So it was the day of their final which was a week after the end of the semester. But it all turned out fine, everyone was happy, and they got to eat cake.

John: What proportion of their grade was based on this collaborative work?

Jessica: It was actually about 10% of their grade… [LAUGHTER]

John: [LAUGHTER]… low stakes assignment, relatively, for writing a book.

Jessica: It was very low stakes, which, as you choke on your tea, I couldn’t believe that they would do it for 10% of their grade. But in fact, when you take all of these small pieces of writing and put them together, it actually wasn’t a huge whole. When you have 75 people writing a little bit at a time, they got into it when they had to do it but when they were done, they were done. So it was actually just a small percentage of what they had to do. I like to use non-traditional teaching techniques and experiential learning, and so this class also took a field trip and did a lot of other exciting teaching techniques. So this book was something that was a small percentage of their grade.

John: [LAUGHTER] That’s impressive.

Rebecca: How much time do you think each student actually spent on the writing that they contributed?

Jessica: I would speculate a few hours. They were writing in chapters and I didn’t give them page limits, which was interesting because most groups wrote about six pages on average. But then you had some groups write more and they were allowed to put pictures and videos and diagrams because some of these are models. So some of the chapters were far longer and some students are more lengthy writers, some are more succinct. And so it just depended on the group and what topic it was.

Rebecca: Did they also have to present their chapter?

Jessica: They don’t have to present their chapter but they did have to read the chapters. The whole test was based on the book and the presentations that I gave during class on the content.

Rebecca: What advice do you have for other people who might want to take on such an adventure?

Jessica: [LAUGHTER] Ah man… [LAUGHTER] I think you should do what sparks your interest and you should really follow your passion and if this is what you want to do, proceed with caution, but dive in. That seems to be my approach to a lot of these quote unquote weird pedagogical techniques that I like to use. But this was really a joy. It was a lot of work so much work, not only to set it up and get it ready, and then convince students to do it for only 10% of their grade. If you would have seen their faces but, I said, “Hey, guys, guess what? We’re going to write a textbook.” They all looked at me like I was insane. And so did my colleagues. [LAUGHTER]

John: [LAUGHTER] That was gonna be another question. Has anyone there considered following up with this and doing something similar on their own?

Jessica: I have not had anyone take me up on that. I’ve had a few people asked me, “Do you think others should do this?” And my answer is usually, “You should think about it.” It’s a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding the students get so much out of it. For my evaluations, the students not only said that this helps them learn the content better than a traditional textbook, because it was written by other students, but it also helped build their confidence. They were writing a book, and now they can put that on their vitae, and all the students were so excited because they’re going to take it home to their parents and show them what they’ve done in class. They also talked about just that it was new and novel and how that makes them excited about it. But it depends how much time you have, how patient you are, and what the topic area really is.

Rebecca: When you go to do a revision next time you teach the class, do you expect your time costs to be the same, or do you expect it to be a bit different now that you have a structure?

Jessica: I think now that I have a process and understand how much time it’s going to take versus saying, “This will be fine. It’ll work out well,” I think it will take a little bit less time. But I think with that you also have to get students buy-in, because it’s not completely new, it’s something else is someone has created. And sometimes that’s more challenging to add to it, to modify it to make it better. But I think it’s a good exercise in teaching students the importance of revision and adding to something and building it.

John: Did any students object to having the work being posted publicly, or were they all happy with that?

Jessica: They were actually really excited. When we first were doing that hey said, “So where is this going to go?” I said, “Well, it’s going to be public. Everyone’s going to be able to read this.” And they looked at me, and at that time I don’t think they really understood what open source was, completely being on a website in the Lumen platform, being able to see this content. But once it was printed in a book, they said, “Well, where does it go next? Are we going to print more of these is in the library?” I said, “Well you just wait.” And then I was able to send them the URL, thanks to the SUNY OER Services who put it together, so that the students can now show it to their friends and post it digitally and share it.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] What kind of kool-aid did you hand out the day you’re talking about this assignment? [LAUGHTER]

Jessica: [LAUGHTER] Well, I should mention that all of these students were actually students that I’ve had previously and I think having that level of trust and understanding that, “you never know what’s going to happen and Dr cougars class, just be ready to roll with it.” I don’t think I could have done that with students that I haven’t had for multiple semesters. So that trust and rapport was really important and saying, “You can do this, I believe in you. Let’s do this together.” I think without that, this would have been more challenging and students would have said, “Who cares about that 10%, I’m out.” But in this case, they understood and they followed along and they were happy to do it. It was something of a challenge. I think some of the comments in which students told me about this, were just amazing. One of the students said that they generally felt this was a great experience and a wonderful opportunity and that experiences like going on field trips and writing a textbook was exciting, and made me feel like a kid again in elementary school. It makes me more motivated and looking forward to learning experiences. So I think having novel experiences and having something that’s new but also exciting and exhilarating and gosh, a little challenging, is good for the students.

John: …and they’re actually creating something themselves, which by itself should be a little bit more motivating than passively consuming a textbook that someone else created.

Jessica: Exactly.

Rebecca: I think the report that you mentioned earlier is important too. I think that’s an interesting component to this particular project that some people might not realize how important that that can be. But having that little bit of trust to go on a bigger adventure, then maybe they’d be willing to otherwise, I think is key, but something that we all can be thinking about.

Jessica: Oh yeah, I think it’s so important to make connections with your students and people do it in many different ways. I’m usually known as being (taryn?? 22:00), that shameful word in academia. But in fact, I think it’s so important and that’s how I can get so much buy-in from students and get them to join me in these learning adventures that we tend to go on.

John: We do have a note to ask you again, to come back at some point and talk about the field trip, things that you do with these large groups of students as well. But I think maybe we should leave that for a future podcast, if you’re willing?

Jessica: Excellent. Sounds great. I love being on the show.

Rebecca: I don’t know if I dare ask our final question. But we always wrap up by asking what’s next? [LAUGHTER]

Jessica: [LAUGHTER] What’s next? Well, this semester I vowed to focus and more self care and I’m actually teaching a new course called Stress and Population Health. And so with that course, I’m trying to take my own advice, which is sometimes the most difficult, and only doing a few crazy activities during the semester. So my students will go on more field trips, they will do some experiential learning, but they’re also going to be focusing on stress within the college campus, and performing some stress reduction tabling around public health and also learning a little bit more about meditation and how overall in the US we’re a little bit too stressed. So with that, I think “what’s next” is we should all take a little bit more care for ourselves, to be around for students and to give a little bit more. So, that’s where I’m putting “what’s next.”

John: That sounds like a good strategy and perhaps chance to relax a little bit and I believe that when I hear about it later, at the end of the semester. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] You have to remember that it has to be in comparison to, you know, someone’s lack of stress is really dependent upon how much stress they generally pile upon themselves.

Jessica: [LAUGHTER] Exactly. So, I’m only doing half of what I typically do in my crazy teaching. But still, I think it’ll be fun, exciting, and I’m looking forward to another great adventure and semester.

John: …and you’re also doing a COIL course at some point, aren’t you?

Jessica: I have currently already done one COIL course and I have actually just created a another COIL connection in Jamaica and have plans to create additional COIL connections so that we can actually compare components of health cross culturally and cross nationally.

Rebecca: Sounds really cool.

John: …and we should note for listeners outside of New York that COIL courses are Cooperative Online International Learning courses where classes pair up with classes from other countries.

Rebecca:Thank you so much for joining us again, Jessica and sharing with us how you rolled this project out and giving us all a little bit of inspiration and a little motivation to do some of this work ourselves.

John: Yes, thank you. I’m still amazed by the 10% but I looked through much of the work that your students have done, and it’s a really impressive work.

Jessica: Thank you. They’re very impressive students. I’m honored to have work with such amazing people. It couldn’t have been done without them believing in themselves and believing in what we were doing was important.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer and Jacob Alverson.

[MUSIC]

60. Inclusive Teaching

Are your class conversations dominated by a small number of voices? In this episode, Dr. Danica Savonick joins us to discuss a variety of class activities that support an inclusive learning environment and promote equity in participation while increasing student learning. Danica is an Assistant Professor of Multi-Ethnic Literature at SUNY Cortland, and a recipient of the K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders award, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in Women’s Studies, and a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship.

Show Notes

Studies of bias in the classroom:

Transcript

John: Are your class conversations dominated by a small number of voices? In this episode, we explore a variety of class activities that support an inclusive learning environment and promote equity in participation while increasing student learning.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

Rebecca: Today our guest is Danica Savonick, an Assistant Professor of Multi-Ethnic Literature at SUNY Cortland. Danica is the recipient of the K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders award, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in Women’s Studies and a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship. Welcome, Danica.

John: Welcome.

Danica: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

John: Our tea’s today are…

Danica: I’m drinking a coconut lime seltzer.

Rebecca: That sounds pretty good.

Danica: It is.

Rebecca: It’s a good alternative to tea, I suppose.

Danica: I think I’m pretending that I’m on a tropical island or something.

Rebecca: Yeah, the weather around here would make me want to do that, so perhaps it’s the same there.

Danica: How far away are we from from each other? I’m here in Cortland, you’re…

John: About an hour and 45 minutes, I think, by car.

Danica: Okay.

Rebecca: Very rainy today.

Danica: Yeah, and I hear we have some snow coming up in the next 24 hours or so, so should be interesting.

Rebecca: I have the Prince of Wales tea.

John: …and I have a holiday tea from Twinings that I picked up in the tropics in Orlando at the Online Learning Consortium a few weeks back.

Danica: Sounds yummy.

John: It is good.

You’ve written quite a bit on creating a supportive environment for discussing issues of race, class, gender and sexuality. Let’s first talk a little bit about the context in which you address these issues. What courses do you normally teach?

Danica: I generally teach American literature courses. Sometimes those are general education courses, sometimes they are within the English major. I’ve also taught a number of writing classes that are a little bit more interdisciplinary in nature, and regardless of whichever course I’m teaching I like to give them a theme or put my own little twist on them. For instance, if I’m teaching a writing course, this semester the topic is the purpose of education and so we’re drawing from a wide different disciplines… people who’ve been writing about different learning methods and then when I teach English courses, some of the topics I like to do are the arts of dissent and we’ll look at the theme of dissent in American literature. This semester I’m currently teaching Intro to Multicultural Literature, which has been super fun and then next semester I’ll be teaching a graduate course on feminist world-making, which I’m really excited about.

Rebecca: Well that sounds really exciting.

John: What are some of the challenges you face in discussing some of these issues in your classroom and trying to have productive conversations?

Danica: Well, some of the problems that I’ve noticed are consistent regardless of what classroom or what school I’ve been teaching in, but some of them vary according to the student population. But one of the most common problems that I see is just a lack of student participation, or if there is participation it’ll be the same two or three students who dominate the conversation… and actually just this weekend when I was home for the holidays I was talking to my family about this—my aunt is auditing a course at SUNY Purchase—and she was saying that the same one or two students speak every single class period and she’s curious about what the other students have to say and what they’re thinking… and even my grandmother who was at Brooklyn College in the 1950s… she said she remembers feeling too scared to talk in most of her classes… and so it was only one or two of the… I guess… the brightest and most vocal students who would talk in the classes. And then, of course, as I started teaching I started to notice this as well and I think it’s every new instructor’s nightmare probably that “What if nobody talks? What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do with all that silence?” And so, I guess the main problems I’ve been trying to address are not having the same one or two students dominate the conversation but having really every voice be heard in the classroom… and the more I’ve thought about it and the more I’ve come to study classroom dynamics the more I’ve realized it’s not entirely the fault of the students in those situations, and actually quite often it is the shared responsibility of both the professor and the students to create a kind of environment where everyone feels like their voice matters and that they have something that they can say… that they won’t get shot down by the professor… that they’re not intimidated by their peers and whatnot. So a lot of my work has been trying to increase participation in classrooms and also because my focus is often on race and class and gender and sexuality in literature, we have to figure out how to have productive conversations around those really difficult issues. And for a lot of students, it’s their first time talking about these issues and so we’ve had to establish ways that we feel comfortable talking about those important questions and issues.

Rebecca: I was actually just gonna follow up to what you were saying… really curious about the emphasis on the first time students have talked about some of these things, and I think that that’s really important. We’ve been having a reading group on our campus with a book called Race Talk and that’s something that we’ve mentioned pretty frequently: that a lot of these students have never been in a context to have a conversation about race… a lot of the faculty have never been in a situation to have a good conversation about race… So, when it’s someone’s first time, how do you help that be productive and feel safe? Because you have to be vulnerable to be in those situations.

Danica: Definitely. One of the most effective things that I think I’ve done is tell students that we’re inevitably going to mess up in these conversations because our educations have not provided us with the language and the grammar and the vocabulary for talking about conditions of structural inequality… and so I make that the baseline or the premise. We know we’re gonna say the wrong thing and we are likely going to accidentally offend someone and so as a class what we do is establish protocols or ways that we want to collectively address how to handle those situations and we come up with a set of community guidelines and principles and ideas that we agree upon for how to behave when we realize that, “Oh no, I could have said that better. I wish I hadn’t said that…” or if one student feels offended by something and so I think that has really helped, especially for students who are having these conversations for the first time; they know that it’s okay to say the wrong thing and we have an established procedure in place for how to deal with those moments.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how you set those guidelines up and how students participate in that process?

Danica: Yeah, definitely. This is one of my favorite things to do every semester is have students co-author a set of community guidelines in order to foster inclusive discussions of difference. Because I want every student to understand that their voice matters and I know one of the reactions that you can get is students can start feeling alienated if they say the wrong thing. They can disengage. They can start thinking that I don’t have a place in this conversation. …and so one of the ways that we create that environment is we’ll co-author this set of community guidelines. Rather than having students write them from scratch… I think that can be really difficult… so, instead what I’ll do—it takes about I would say half of a class period to maybe half an hour, could be 40 minutes, it depends on the size of the class—I’ll print out some really basic guidelines, four or five things that I think might work well in the class as principles that we might want to agree to abide by. So things like we won’t make assumptions about anyone in the class’s race, gender, ethnicity, things like that, and we read over them as a class. I usually project them at the front of the class and they also have them in front of them on a piece of paper and we’ll read through them as a class. They can ask questions… they can ask me to define a word they don’t understand, and then I give them about ten minutes to read through them quietly on their own with pen and paper and cross off and edit and add and remove anything that they don’t like about the guidelines… to add additional guidelines… to change the wording of certain guidelines… and then rather than calling on students individually and having to put them on the spot, I have them work in pairs of two to go over some of the amendments and edits and adjustments that they would like to make and then after five minutes or so we go around the class and each pair presents one or two amendments that they would like to make and so it really ranges from adding different adjectives and verbs to adding whole new amendments or saying that they didn’t like one of the ones that I put up, which is totally fine with me. The idea behind not having to ask them to do it from scratch is just that they have something to work with—it’s not that I’m wedded to those particular principles, I just wanted to give them some kind of language and some kind of grammar for how they might formulate the different community guidelines.

Rebecca: It seems like the pair scenario would help to mitigate any issues that might arise from a dominant group dominating the rules.

Danica: Yeah.

Rebecca: That was gonna be my question but then I realized as you were talking that that might actually be how you solve some of that issue.

Danica: Yeah, and it’s pretty egalitarian. We go around the room and each group says something, even if it’s by the time we get to the end sometimes the groups are like, “Well, everyone already said what we were gonna say, so we just wanted to agree that we really liked the amendment that this other group made.” And so that way each pair gets two or three minutes to add something, to say something, and then we move on, and so it’s not like one pair gets to really dominate. The other thing I forgot to mention is students go home, they have at least one or two evenings to think about the guidelines that we came up with. They have access to them. They can open them up at home and it’s not until the beginning of the following class that we ratify them, and often when we come back together at the beginning of the next class they’ll have thought of one or two things that they want to adjust and once we make the final edits and adjustments then we as a class decide that we agree to abide by them.

John: Another nice thing about doing it in pairs is when people are speaking it’s a little safer because they’re representing their group; they don’t have to take a stand and it makes it a little more comfortable perhaps for those who might have been reticent.

Danica: Exactly.

Rebecca: I like that you have the ability to review over a couple of days as well because that also gives students who don’t want to speak up the opportunity to email you or communicate with you separately too, right?

Danica: Yeah, definitely.

John: How well have the guidelines worked? Have students responded well? Do you get more buy-in to the guidelines since they created them?

Danica: Yes, absolutely. I was really surprised the first time I did this. I was like, “This is one of those wacky pedagogical experiments; I might fall flat on my face, they might think that I’m an alien from another planet.” But, they were so enthusiastic and I’ve actually had students from former classes say “That was one of the most meaningful things that we did that semester. I think about that a lot. I wish more teachers did that…” and so I’ve gotten really positive feedback on it and it’s also fun. It’s always one of the best conversations that we have throughout the semester. And you know it turns out that they have a lot to say about the issue. Actually, I often do this assignment when we’re teaching a work of literature called Citizen by author Claudia Rankine, which talks a lot about microaggressions… and students have witnessed and they’ve experienced these microaggressions in the classroom and so they’re eager to have a chance to participate in crafting a classroom that isn’t going to have these kinds of uncomfortable and awkward moments. I also should say that when we do this I share with students beforehand several of the studies that have been done recently on classroom participation and who feels most empowered to speak in the classroom. So, there’s been a lot of studies done on gender and the experiences of students of color and what a lot of these studies have found is that those voices that are most empowered to speak in mainstream media and culture are also the students who feel empowered to take up time in the classroom. And so I share this with students before we begin the community guidelines activity and they’re always really interested. I have the sense that some of them have witnessed or experienced or might have some sense that these things go on, but to actually see the research and to see the findings and to see these massive studies that have been done, they’re just interested in it, and especially because my classes are about race and class and gender and structural inequality, I think it’s fascinating for them to see the way that what we often think of as huge systemic issues can come to influence who speaks and who participates in the classroom as well.

Rebecca: Maybe we could share those citations in our show notes?

Danica: Certainly.

Danica: You’ve used something called Commons in a Box. Could you tell us a little bit about what that is for people who are not familiar with that?

Danica: Sure, it’s a free open-source learning and writing platform. It came out of the CUNY Graduate Center. It’s a combination of WordPress and BuddyPress, and so it’s this easy to install package that allows you to create digital learning spaces, and so different universities have taken it up to do different things. Often I’ll see institutions using it as a space for their professors to host course websites. They might want to have some kind of blog that features student writing. They could use it for digital humanities projects… and it’s free and it’s open source and so all you really need is server space. As often as possible, I’ve tried to host my courses on either Commons in a Box, or currently I’m using an installation of wordpress.org as an alternative to using Blackboard or Canvas and I could talk a little bit about why if you’re interested.

John: Yeah, could you tell us a little bit about what the advantages of this is compared to say one of the common course management systems?

Danica: Sure. I see the primary benefit of these platforms as they help students to develop transferable skills that are going to aid them in the world beyond the classroom, and so I’ll talk a little bit about what I mean by that. WordPress is one of the most common platforms on which the websites in the world are built .The latest statistic that I saw was something like 30% of the world’s websites are built on the WordPress content management system, and so I like to organize my courses on WordPress so that I can familiarize students with how websites are put together… how you can build them… how they think… how they organize information… and so what I try to do throughout the semester is scaffold students’ interaction with the platform. At the beginning it’s pretty user friendly: they create an account, they are able to log in to our site and then gradually they start going into the backend (which WordPress calls the dashboard) and they start creating their own content. So, they get to experience the process of going back and forth between the backend and then the front-end and seeing what that process is like and how information is organized on the WordPress platform. So, they start creating blogs and then what I like to do towards the end of the semester is deconstruct our class website and take it apart and break it and redesign it with students so that they can see, first of all, how easy it is to build a website. A lot of my students are new to this. They’re not necessarily computer science majors. They haven’t taken computer science courses, and so they’ve interacted with a lot of websites but they haven’t really gone in and thought about how they might build their own and so I show them how our course website is built and we redesign it we do all kinds of things and then often for students’ final projects they will have the option of designing a website related to something that we have done in the course and they often choose that option. They like it… they like getting to experiment with WordPress. For most of them it’s their first taste of the platform and several of them have said that they’ve gone on to learn more about WordPress because they’ve become really interested in it and I see this as a really great opportunity for students first to think a little bit more critically about how the internet works and how these pages that we’re constantly interacting with… how they’re constructed… and also to develop a transferable skill that could become a really valuable part of their resume and the skills that they will bring to the work world. Being able to build websites on WordPress is huge and so I find that starting that process early can be really helpful. It also creates an opportunity for us to have conversations like why is our course built on WordPress when all of your other courses are on Blackboard and we get to talk a little bit about what Blackboard is and the different ways that content management systems, especially in higher education, work to structure certain kinds of relationships of teaching and learning.

John: Does the institution host WordPress, or are you hosting your own instance of it?

Danica: Ideally, the university will host it. When I was at CUNY they have a really strong culture around open educational resources and free writing platforms and there’s a big community around that. It might exist at my new institution—I have to do a little bit more work to find it. As far as I know there’s a lot of people that are using Blackboard at my institution. Ideally… best-case scenario… the university would provide server space and then you could have an installation of WordPress or Commons in a Box, but currently I’m using Reclaim Hosting and Domain of One’s Own in order to have a classroom commons installation that I’m using across the three different classes I’m teaching.

John: Do you use the open aspect of that? Is the students’ work public or are you keeping it closed to the classroom, or is that something decided on a case-by-case or class-by-class basis?

Danica: Yeah, that’s a great point, thanks for bringing that up. It varies. Parts of the class web sites are public, parts of it are private… and another benefit of working in a quasi-public, quasi-private space is that it allows us to have conversations about what information students are putting on the Internet and what they want visible. What do they want to become part of their professional digital identity? What do they want to show up in search results versus what do they not want to show up in search results? So, we have a lot of these conversations early on in the semester when they’re establishing their accounts. We talk about the risks and the repercussions versus the benefits of using their real name to do the blogging that they’ll be doing on the site, and then for their final projects… often, but not always, I would encourage them to use their real name because they put a lot of time and effort there carefully revising these projects and they are deliberately constructing them with the idea that they’re going to be writing for a public audience. But, of course, in this climate of anti-immigration that we’re living in, you have to be super careful about what you’re encouraging students to put their name on and so I always have conversations around that. There’s always an option never to use your real name. You can always use a pseudonym for the blogging and for the final projects. You can always submit solely to me instead of publishing to a public audience, because I understand there are severe risks and in some cases they will outweigh the benefits of creating something publicly.

John: And we should note that you have an article in the describing your work here and we’ll include a link to that in the show notes as well.

Rebecca: You mentioned student blogging. Can you talk a little bit about how the student blogging is used in your classes and how that augments student learning and how that might facilitate some of these conversations that might be tricky to have?

Danica: Sure. I love student blogging—I don’t know how I would teach these courses without it. My courses are structured around the blog—it’s one of their major assignments, and so for every single class two or three students are assigned to blog about the assigned reading—I think the requirement is something like 800 words or so—and that they have to do a small close reading… so an analysis of the excerpt of whatever literary text we’re reading and it has to end with two discussion questions, and for every student who isn’t blogging. So, the majority of the class they have to leave a comment on those blogs before our class period starts, and so the blogs are due at noon the day before class and then students have from noon until our class period to leave their comments and then the way the course is structured the same day that those three students are blogging… so they’re each writing a blog… they are also facilitating a class discussion… a ten-minute activity… or it can be a presentation… it can just be more of a conversation. They have ten minutes at the beginning of the next class to do whatever they want, and I encourage them to make it the best lesson plan that they have ever seen or the way that they want their ideal course to be structured, and so I encourage them to try things like think-pair-share or to do interactive activities and it’s really exciting to see, first of all, the things that students choose to blog about, because with the readings that we’re discussing there’s so much that you could talk about. I have certain things I want to talk about but those might not necessarily align with what students are interested in within the text, and so having these open-ended blogs allows students to identify what it is they’re most interested in; it allows them to get feedback on their writing from their peers prior to our class session. One way that I’ve come to think about the blog… that I talk to students about it… is as a rough draft for a paper. They’re putting out a thesis… they’re putting out an interpretation… they’re providing some evidence from the text to support it… and then they have this tremendous opportunity to get feedback from all of their peers… and so in the comments the other students will be like, “I really like this point…” “I have another example that can help you support your point…” They might raise objections; they might raise counter points: “Well, have you thought of this other thing?” And so it’s a really great way for them to increase the quality of their writing and their ideas by getting feedback from their peers. Actually, this happened just in our previous class, a student was using a term “devaluing” to talk about sexuality in one of the books that we were reading and a lot of his fellow classmates were saying that word wasn’t working the way that he thought that it was working. So, in his facilitation he kind of talked through the feedback that he got and as a class we came up with a better word that would more precisely name the kind of relationship that he saw developing in the literary text, and so with the class facilitations it provides students with an opportunity to practice their public speaking and to practice standing up in front of a classroom. A lot of the students say that they’re really nervous at first, but that they’re glad in the end that they did it and they always get through it and we always manage… and so this kind of pairing of the blog with the in-class facilitation really teaches students that they are active knowledge producers and that they have something to contribute to the class and that their voice matters. They know that they’re not allowed to just disappear and sink into the background—they’re actually the ones up there in front of the class leading the lesson and it’s interesting to see actually the ways that it increases their performance once they’re back in the chair of the student, because they know what it feels like to be up at the front and so they’ll put out a question and they then get to experience what it’s like to have no one raise their hand and so they become much better as students and much more engaged once they return to their seats and resume that more traditional role of being a student. I never know what students are gonna do for their facilitation. They don’t have to run it by beforehand, so it’s always exciting. I don’t know what they’re gonna do in class today and it’s really made my role as an educator different and I’ve had to learn to listen really carefully to the things that students are saying when they’re up there presenting and my job becomes connecting what they’re saying to the main ideas and the main skills and the main topics of the class. So, for instance, if a student is giving a presentation I might interject and say that’s a thesis statement,… what you just said… you just made a thesis statement and then they start to recognize learning how to make an argument, how to make a thesis statement is one of the skills of the course, but it takes a long time or they’re not quite sure what I mean by that, but when they’re talking they’ll just do it naturally and so my job becomes pointing out to them that they are already doing the things that we’re learning about and just helping them recognize better the ways that their facilitations are connecting to the themes and the skills of the course.

Rebecca: I wanted to circle back to the leaving comments for other students—so they do the close reading, they post about that and then students comment on it. When they’re commenting, how do you help students learn what a good comment is?

Danica: Yeah, that actually becomes a topic of discussion early on in the semester. They’re given a few guidelines: it should be, I don’t know, a hundred and fifty words or so; it needs to make a contribution to the post; it can’t just be “I liked your post” or “I didn’t like your post,” and then what I’ve tried this semester is we implemented—kind of halfway through the semester—this rule that each comment needs to provide a quote from the text so that the commenter is either supporting providing further evidence that will support the author of the blog’s claim, or providing a counter example. One of my students last class, he said “Conversation makes the best interpretation” and I really loved that because they’re starting to learn through the commenting the ways that all academic writing is a conversation among various viewpoints and that when they’re writing a scholarly paper… when they’re writing a research essay… they are inserting their voices into larger conversations; they’re in dialogue with people. It’s not like you write a paper in a vacuum; it’s actually a synthesis of all these different viewpoints and ideas and so I see the commenting as kind of a rehearsal for class discussion. So when we show up in class, say, for instance, students aren’t being particularly talkative, I can say, well, you said this in your comment, and so I know that they’ve already engaged with the ideas and it allows often our class conversation to reach a higher level because they already know what several of their peers’ interpretations of the text are; they’ve already thought about them; they’ve already thought about the pros and the cons and how we might need to complicate some of these analyses; and so it just takes our class discussions to the next step.

John: Do you do anything to ensure that everyone responds to a certain number of posts to make sure that you don’t see everyone replying just to one other post to make sure you get some balance there? Do you have a mechanism for doing that?

Danica: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, for every class students have to comment on at least one post; they’re welcome to comment on more than one, but the requirement is one comment prior to class. I don’t have a mechanism for ensuring that. The class is 25 students, if we have three bloggers, one blog might get ten comments and the others might get four or five, and one way to kind of address that in the classes is encouraging students to think about their blogs, think about the title of the blog, think about the content of the blog, think about how they’re competing for the attention of their peers. I encourage them to say, “Okay, your peers have three blogs to choose from, how are you gonna get them to read yours?” It’s a way of getting them to think a little bit about audience and what is the function of a title. What is the work that a title can do? …and from that introductory paragraph how can they give their reader a sense of what their blogs gonna be about? How can they convince their reader that there’s gonna be a good payoff that their blog is worth reading? And so it’s interesting to see the different ways that they try to attract the attention of their peers. Because they do want those comments and I find they get excited about the different feedback—they’re not required to respond to the comments, but they do often… which, yeah, it’s always exciting to witness. I try to linger, I lurk a little bit on the blogs and I’m often not interjecting in the conversations, but just kind of reading through them and that’s actually the other benefit is that it ends up serving as a mode of formative assessment because I can see what they have understood from the readings and what might be missing… what might be the things that I need to address in the time that I have—what’s not quite getting through to them, either in terms of aspects of the reading that they overlooked or in terms of the skills. So, if I tell them that your blog needs to have a main point; it needs to have a thesis, and I’m seeing that they’re not quite doing that I can then adjust my lesson plans so that that becomes the focus of the next class and I can use their blogs, their own words as an example to say, “Okay, how could we give this blog a stronger thesis?” …and so it’s quite common that we’ll end up editing or revising some of the blog posts. They get projected up on the screen and students, because we’ve created a culture that they’re constantly giving feedback on each other’s ideas, students feel a lot less embarrassed or they understand that we’re all trying to become better writers and so they’re okay with it if I project their blog post and we talk through “What are some of the pros? What are some of the cons? How could we strengthen this?”

John: And it’s a much more authentic learning experience having them focus on audience and trying to build a strong thesis statement.

Rebecca: It seems like the blog post assignment really primes students well for the final projects that you had mentioned earlier that have a public audience because they’re already practicing writing for a specific audience and it’s another writing for a more general audience, I would assume. Can you talk us through that a little bit?

Danica: The final projects for my class often vary, but they’re usually collaborative… they’re usually digital… they’re usually public… they’re usually some kind of creative student-driven element. It’s usually students identifying the topic and then running with it, whether that’s a research blog or whether that’s currently my students in Intro to Multicultural Literature are co-authoring a glossary of key terms for literary studies—I have never done this before. It is a total experiment—I don’t know if they know that this is my first time doing this, so it’ll be interesting. I don’t know if they’ll hear in this podcast, but whatever, it’s fine. So I’ve done different versions of these collaborative public final projects. They vary sometimes based on the content of the course, students’ level of preparation, what are the aims and objectives of the different courses. It’s a little bit different for a basic writing composition course versus a more advanced literature course… and so one of the format’s I’ve done is have students co-author scholarly articles that they would submit to an actual journal, and so I did this in one of my freshman writing classes. We spent the entire semester talking about contemporary issues in education… so related to technology in the classroom… active learning versus lecturing… conditions of educational equality in segregated schools… and about halfway through the semester they were put into groups and they had to identify a research question. They did an annotated bibliography, they developed a whole research project, and then they made it into an article, a short article that they submitted to the scholarly academic peer-reviewed journal Hybrid Pedagogy to see if they could get it published or not, and I had been in contact with the journal’s editors since the summer before the class, so they knew this was coming. It would not have been possible if I hadn’t been working with them because they knew there was gonna be a really quick turnaround time where the students needed to know if they got revise and resubmit, if they got rejected, or if they got accepted… and I knew that this was a wildly fanciful or an unrealistic expectation to ask students to get a scholarly journal article published—these are basic writing students at Queens College—a lot of them are first-generation students… they work jobs… they are English language learners… and so in addition to reviewing of the conventions of English grammar and how to write a paragraph… how to write an academic paper… all things that were new or needed to be reviewed… they were also trying to get their writing published in a major publication… and so what ended up happening with that is that several students got revise and resubmit. But by the time they did it was the end of the semester and finals were happening and so I tailored the assignment a little bit towards the end. I tweaked it, because all semester I’d been telling them “these blogs are important, these things that you’re writing your research, everything, all of this matters because people are actually going to be reading this and you want them to take it seriously and you want them to listen to you. You don’t want to lose their attention halfway through.” … and so we needed to come up with a way that they would still get published even if they chose not to endure the editorial feedback loop of revise and resubmit, or the accept with minor revisions, and so what we had them do is they took the feedback that they got from the editors and several of the groups chose to post to HASTAC.org, which is a tremendous resource. It is an academic scholarly network of 15,000 plus members of scholars and students and academics and artists and activists and so there’s a special group within HASTAC that showcases and features and highlights the writing of undergraduates. So many of my students ended up submitting their final blogs there, but one group did continue—they kept revising their submission and going through the queries that they were getting from the editors and then the copy editors and just all of these stages of the writing process that were very new to them. This is a required writing course… no one showed up at that course eager to do all these drafts and revision and the skills that we teach in a basic writing course… but they continued in that editorial feedback loop for about a year after our class ended and then in August of 2017 their article was published in Hybrid Pedagogy, which was very exciting and so that is now something that they can put on their resumes and I was just so impressed with them for sticking through it because we know everything that goes into writing a journal article but for them they didn’t even know at the beginning of semester what a peer-reviewed journal article was… and so it was like a huge learning process. So, that’s one of the formats of these collaborative public final projects: submitting something to an established publication, which required a lot of willingness on the part of the journal editors to work within a really quick timeframe and the managing editor Skyped into my class several times and talked to students about the journal, helped them with their submissions, they got to pitch their ideas to him, it was great. Some of the other formats I’ve used that have also been good—I’ve had students write explicitly for HASTAC and that’s an opportunity for them to tailor their writing for a very specific community. So that’s something that we did this semester in the writing class that I’m teaching. We read so much about HASTAC… we read about its history. There was an article in Inside Higher Ed calling it the ethical social network and talking about their commitment to protecting their users’ data; we learned about who is a member of HASTAC, who are the different people who are reading it; how does the website organize information—by topic, by tags, by categories and so they were reading and analyzing the site itself before they even started writing their research blogs. So it was a similar process where they identified a research question and they authored blogs that were specifically going to be then tailored for the HASTAC audience, and so one of the big aims of that assignment was this skill of kairos and figuring out how to tailor your writing for a specific community of readers and figuring out what are the conventions? what are the affordances of this specific writing space? and how can I best get my point across to this very specific audience? So, that was useful in helping us have conversations about audience awareness and tone and how you make an argument; how do you convince someone that your point is right without alienating them. So that’s one example of having students write for HASTAC. …and the nice thing about HASTAC is that it comes with a built-in user community. You have sixteen thousand people who are visiting the site and reading things. The other kind of format for these public projects is what we’re doing now with the keywords. Students are co-authoring these individual keywords, they’ve identified specific words that have emerged that they’re interested in throughout all the readings that we’ve done this semester and through our discussions and through the blogs and the final product for that will be something that is hosted on our course WordPress site… so it’ll be a page or an offshoot—I’m hoping to write some kind of table of contents that will link to each of the student’s posts—hopefully there will be media, and so this will be something that they can then share. They can decide that they want to make it part of their professional identity, part of their portfolio, or they can decide not to—it’s really up to them. …and so one of the things that I’m constantly thinking about in developing these assignments is like how to actually connect students to audiences of readers and people who could actually benefit from a keyword entry on memoir or on ghosts… that’s another keyword, apparently we talk a lot about ghosts in my class… and this is coming out of the research that I’ve done on activist pedagogy and really thinking about the role of the teachers connecting students to audiences and people that could potentially benefit from the writing that they’ve been doing. So, thinking about these projects as both a benefit to the students in the class and also to larger publics and communities.

Rebecca: How have students responded to this sort of work? You know, you mentioned that, you know, some of the classes are required courses—students are not necessarily marching in excited to do these sorts of things… so it sounds like you’ve hooked them a little bit. What is their final response to these?

Danica: In general it’s been really positive. The jury’s still out for the semester. We’re gonna do course evaluations I think next week, so I’ll learn more. But in the past, I do a lot of framing around what we’re doing in part because I was always a very willful student and I did not like being told what to do. But if I understood why I was being told to do that thing then I would get really into it and really excited and so with these student-centered assignments and activities I’m always super explicit: this is why we’re doing this; these are what I see as the benefits of this; this is why we’re authoring a set of Community Guidelines; this is why you’re doing a presentation; you’re doing a presentation because public speaking is one of the most valuable skills that employers look for and so when I’m writing your recommendation letters I want to be able to tell them what a great public speaker you are and that’s why I’m asking you to stand in front of the classroom and facilitate this. Also, I should mention this semester and at SUNY Cortland a lot of the students are going on to become teachers and so it’s important to have these experiences at the front of the classroom. I think that being explicit really helps students, and the other thing I’ll say is that I often am explicit about how frustrating student-centered learning can be, and we talked about how it can feel difficult and how sometimes we just wish that the teacher would give us the answers rather than making us figure it out ourselves or making us work in small groups and so I try to create spaces for students to express those kind of emotions and reactions to things. I also try really hard in designing these student-centered assignments… to design… to create the conditions where for instance, we’re doing a collaborative writing project… I try to give them an assignment that actually requires multiple minds and that if they had tried to do that exact same assignment on their own the final product would not be as good as if they were doing it as a group. So I put a lot of thought into kind of carefully constructing these in a way that they will be oriented to succeed in them. Recently I wrote a blog on collaborative close reading, which is a really, really difficult skill to teach—it takes years, you know, for most of us to learn how to do close reading, but I’ve tried to create this assignment that had students work on it in groups, and so rather than having to notice all of a million different things that are going on in a passage of literature, they had a bunch of different minds put to the task and they were all looking at the same paragraph for 20 minutes and dissecting it and they were all contributing their different insights and so rather than having to go at it alone they were able to learn from the different perspectives that the other students brought to the text, and so I think just being really explicit about why behind everything has helped to ensure that the reactions have generally been positive.

John: How have other faculty responded? Have other people started working on building more productive conversations? Have other people in your department started working more on open pedagogy projects?

Danica: Well, I would hesitate to say anything explicitly about my department because I’m so brand-new. It’s my first semester in the department. But one thing that’s been super exciting for me has been to see people… especially with this recent blog that I wrote on collaborative close reading… it went viral on academic Twitter and people have been reporting back, because that’s one of the things that I asked them to do is let me know how it works… let me know if, you know, you have any suggestions for how to make it better… and almost every day I’m getting tweets from people at universities across the country saying, “I tried collaborative close reading and this is what my students did…” and they’ll post pictures of the passages that their students highlighted and so that makes me feel like I’m part of a community that is bigger than my own institution. So, when I’m running these, of course I hope that they will be helpful to my colleagues, but I’m also… I really feel like I’m part of a bigger academic community and part of that is because I post these blogs to HASTAC, and so it really is, people are a community of 16,000, however many users, but then it can get tweeted out. So, even if you don’t have a HASTAC account you can still read the blogs and there’s so many ideas about scholarship being really isolating, but things like that… and getting to talk to people and discuss pedagogy with people at different institutions makes it feel a lot less isolating. But in terms of your question about reactions of colleagues, I have been super lucky both at CUNY and now at SUNY in terms of support for the kinds of things that I’m interested in doing. These are schools with very strong commitments to education, where people are already interested in and talking about student-centered methods and curious and wanting to learn more. The other day I have my students write found poems—which is the genre of poetry where you take some kind of existing document—often it’s a bureaucratic document—and you make it into a poem by cutting it up and whiting it out and mangling it and turning it into poetry and my students created these awesome, awesome found poems; they were beautiful. So, we spent a day in class, I gave them whiteout… I gave them scissors… I gave them tape… They started as banal documents; they made them into stunning poems. They would bring in their tuition bills or song lyrics with offensive stereotypes in them—one of them brought in the transcript from the Brett Kavanaugh hearing and they took these documents and as a way of thinking about language and power they made them into these gorgeous found poems and so I went to the chair of my department and I said, ”Hey, you know, my students created these poems and I would love to have someplace to display them ‘cause I think they’re really awesome” …and not only did she give me permission to tear down what was on the bulletin board, she helped me do it. We tore down these old flyers that had been up there for decades and we put my students’ found poems on and so now we have this beautiful display in our hallway of student work and several of my colleagues have reported seeing students stop and read the poems and take pictures of it and so they’re excited to see their work has become part of this gallery. In general I’ve just been really lucky and fortunate to work with colleagues who are similarly invested in helping students. I did think of a few ideas for people who might not be so fortunate on ways that they could start doing student centered things. The first would be, and I’ve already mentioned this, creating a free profile on HASTAC.org because there are so many people out there doing really creative and exciting things in their classrooms… and connecting their classrooms to larger movements for social justice… and thinking about how do you engage students in really important discussions about contemporary social issues… and so HASTAC has been a phenomenal place for me to connect with other people who are doing that kind of work. I try to start small, and so something like think-pair-share is so easy… it’s taking an index card, giving students 90 seconds to respond to some kind of open-ended prompt, then they turn to the student sitting next to them, they share their responses and then we go around the classroom and I transcribe each group’s answer to the question on the board… and so their ideas become the material that I then get to teach the course through, and we crowdsource responses to some question related to whatever the topic of discussion is that day and something like that is so easy, it’s so simple—we have gone through… I would say we’re in the thousands of index cards in terms of my courses this semester. Because the students like it and they recognize that that changes the classroom dynamic. They recognize that suddenly it’s not just one or two students dominating the conversations. So, when they get up to the front of the class and they get to facilitate something I would say, I don’t know, 65, 70 percent of them choose to do think-pair-share because they recognize that it really lowers the barriers of anxiety about participating in class—everyone has 90 seconds to scribble something on their index card and it’s only an index card,— it’s tiny—there’s not any kind of pressure to write something beautiful and then that becomes just such an easy way to really transform the dynamics of the classroom… low cost… low time investment… and even when I’m thinking at the bigger scale of assignments and rethinking the research paper so that it’s not just being submitted to the professor, but it’s for a public audience, I try not to overhaul everything at once. So it’s like each semester I’ll try one new assignment. Not throwing everything away and starting from scratch each time, because it takes a lot of energy to do these things. And so thinking about how we can make small changes and experiments but not overwhelm ourselves or our students… and the other thing that I would suggest if somebody finds themself in a situation where they want to start trying these things but might not have the kinds of tremendous support that I’ve been lucky to have is… there’s just so much research out there on the effectiveness of student-centered pedagogy. We’ve read a lot of it in my course this semester on writing and education. We read a lot of the studies that have shown how positive of an impact it can have on students to discover ideas for themselves and to work in small groups and solve problems and arrive at answers rather than sitting and listening to a lecture. Just kind of having some of those studies in my back pocket—I’ve always felt that if I was called upon… you know, “Why did you do that? I can’t believe you let the students help assess each other’s papers.” I would have some things that I can cite, that I could go back to to say “Well, actually, it’s been shown that asking students to metacognitively reflect on the implications of their writing is a great strategy.” So that kind of thing has been really helpful for me in terms of thinking about relationships to colleagues and different reactions to this kind of pedagogy.

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

Danica: Well, at the small scale, I guess, we have this digital glossary of keywords that will be coming out from my multicultural literature students… going to learn all about ghosts and power and assimilation and why these words are important for how we think about and analyze literature… so really excited to see what they do with that… and then I guess at the bigger scale I’m working on a book on the activist pedagogy of teacher poets from the 1960s and 1970s, and I’m hoping that some of that work will help us really understand the ways that a lot of contemporary student-centered practices… things that we’ve talked about today… a lot of them emerged in the 60s and 70s and especially in relation to the critiques of power emerging from the social movements of that era from the women’s movement and the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War… and so I’ve been thinking a lot about how those critiques of power necessitated new relationships of teaching and learning and this was especially happening in the work of poets who I’m interested in and so that book is also considering the ways that interactions with students shaped American literature in ways that we rarely consider and also the tremendous role that poets and authors and especially feminist poets have played in creating a lot of the contemporary student-centered pedagogy that we know today to be so effective.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.

Danica: Yeah, it’s really fun to work on.

John: In some of your posts you’ve listed a large variety of techniques that people can try and we’ll include links to those in the show notes as well. Thank you, this has been a fascinating discussion and we look forward to hearing more about what you’re doing.

Danica: Thank you so much for having me, this has been really fun.

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for joining us. [Music]

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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.

55. Open pedagogy

Imagine an academy that values a public knowledge commons and supports and recognizes the academic labor required to develop, maintain, build and evolve that commons. Imagine your students actively contributing to that commons. In this episode, Robin DeRosa joins us to discuss open pedagogy, free textbooks, and the building of such  a commons.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Imagine an academy that values a public knowledge commons and supports and recognizes the academic labor required to develop, maintain, build, and evolve that commons. Imagine your students actively contributing to that commons. In this episode, we discuss open pedagogy, free textbooks, and the building of such a commons.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

John: Our guest today is Robin DeRosa…

Robin: That’s me.

John: …Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program at Plymouth State University. Robin is an editor of Hybrid Pedagogy and is a co-founder of the Open Pedagogy Notebook. She has also published on a wide variety of topics, including the Salem witch trials. Welcome, Robin.

Robin: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

Robin: Oh, I thought we were talking about teasing people for a second and I was like, I don’t have a tease. [LAUGHING] What am I teasing?

Robin: No, I actually have two cups of tea in front of me, which is how I like it. One is a ginger tea and one is a sunny orange because I have to stay away from the caffeine at a certain hour of the day, so I’m all herbal.

Rebecca: Sounds like a nice combination.

Robin: I know, I’m just taking one and then the other; it’s perfect.

John: And I have a Tea Forte Black Currant Tea.

Rebecca: I have a Jasmine Earl Grey, that wasn’t there before, so I gave it a try.

John: It’s been there for a year.

Rebecca: Wow, it’s been hiding under the big pile of tea that we have.

John: In exactly the same tray…

Rebecca: No…

John: I just refilled it today.

Rebecca: Oh, you know what, it was the box sitting on top that you didn’t take back after we refilled the tray.

John: Okay. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s where I got it from.

Robin: But your listeners are probably like, how could you not see a box, but if they saw this table, my jaw was on the ground; it is a really quite an impressive tea table that you’ve assembled here. You should be very proud.

Rebecca: We don’t mess around.

Robin: You do not mess around. I would use even other words but I know… public… this is some serious hardcore tea happening here. [LAUGHTER]

John: We invited you here to talk about your work with Open Pedagogy. For those that are unfamiliar, can you explain what is meant by Open Pedagogy?

Robin: Sure, which is such a funny question really because if there is a thing—and I could just say it—because there’s a lot of productive disagreement in the community about what Open Ped is; it’s one of the reasons that my colleague Rajiv Jhangiani and I started the Open Pedagogy Notebook because it’s more of a collage approach to defining Open Ped by people doing and practicing in different ways and then sharing that, but if I had to boil it down I would say it’s really about access, both to knowledge and to knowledge creation… so, the idea that we remove barriers to sharing resources and helping people access conversations and find pathways into education, but then we also try to find ways to amplify student voices to make them contributors to the Knowledge Commons and not just consumers, and I think it’s pretty salient right now as students are really in some ways maybe being pushed into these kind of training and competency models that are really about kind of downloading information and instead Open Ped suggests that we really want students to interact with knowledge and shape the world that they’re going to graduate into, not just train for it.

John: So they’re more actively engaged in the academic conversation?

Robin: That’s the idea. Right. In some ways there’s a lot of kinship, I think, with connected learning and with the idea of involving students in their academic and professional networks. Right from the beginning, because even as people who are new to our particular field, they have so much to offer and as an interdisciplinarian, we talk about that all the time that the outsider’s perspective is beneficial—it’s part of the reason you assemble an interdisciplinary team to tackle a problem and newcomers to a field ask sometimes questions that really can illuminate the challenges that a field is facing in new ways, so I have found that even the most beginning introductory students in a particular area have something to contribute both to the field itself and also in terms of helping their peers in terms of, for example, making educational materials. Students are really well positioned to make great educational materials ‘cause they understand better than anybody what’s hard to understand about a certain area.

John: They’re not subject to the curse of knowledge…

Robin: The curse of knowledge. [LAUGHTER] I have that curse, John.

John: We all do to some extent.

Robin: But it is true like when especially when I was teaching Early American Lit and you just finished your PhD and you start teaching and then you teach something for 15 years and no matter how gifted of a teacher you are, sometimes you’re like, “I don’t understand how they don’t understand this,” like “what’s hard about this?” and of course they really understand what’s hard about it, so when we did student projects where students were working on a textbook that we were crafting together, they really made some great materials for each other that I think were far better than some of the lectures I would have prepared or had prepared over the years.

John: So tell us a little bit about how you got involved in that first project you had?

Robin: I was at, ya know, one of those faculty development events that you guys might be aware of and they had brought in, ya know, a keynote speaker, and I don’t want to say I wasn’t prepared to be impressed, but it was a technology oriented conference and I was definitely one of those curmudgeons that was highly skeptical about how useful… or actually more skeptical about the ways technology was being deployed, so I was prepared to be mad, that was how I came in the room, and I actually still think that’s generally my positionality with technology is like, I’m pretty prepared to be skeptical at all times. But the keynote speaker happened to be Cable Green from Creative Commons and I had this really just pivotal “aha” moment when he was talking about the Creative Commons licenses where I realized that my students were paying 90 bucks every semester, each student, for access to public domain Early American Literature and my heart just sort of fell on the floor. It’s like why are we paying commercial publishers when all of this stuff is out of copyright. So, some students and I spent that summer before the next fall’s class rebuilding the Heath Anthology of American Literature out of public domain texts that we found online and we did not build a hearty replacement for the Heath, but we built a sufficient replacement and when we got into the class the students were super psyched that I had saved them 90 dollars, which is totally real money to my students and makes a big difference. They were grateful but they did not like the book, because it had nothing except public domain literature, so there were no introductions, no maps, no footnotes, no glossaries, no “Don’t worry, I know this doesn’t make sense to you, but let me walk you through it” kind of ancillary scaffolds. So, of course, it seems obvious now but at the time we thought we were rock star smart when we figured out like, hey, the students can make this stuff for the book, and so the students worked ahead, different pods of students would work ahead a week or two and build wrap around materials for that chapter and we got there the rest of the students would use it and, of course, it just ended up being 500 times better than the Heath Anthology of American Literature, partially because they were excited that their classmates were reading their work instead of putting it in Moodle or Canvas or Blackboard, where things go to die. So, they got excited about doing what David Wiley and others have called these non-disposable assignments and then they start getting creative, they start making little videos. Ee’d drop those in… two-minute intro to the Haitian Revolution or whatever. I put a little app in the sidebar called Hypothesis where students can annotate and so they liked that and then at the end of the semester people are like, “The best part of this class was the textbook,” which…

Rebecca: Which they made.

Robin: … they made… and they never said about the Heath anthology. So, that transformed my pedagogy partially because I was excited about making all sorts of access oriented changes in our program; we opened a food pantry at the same time as we did this, so we were thinking about lots of things in terms of accessibility of resources for students. But, in terms of thinking about not dumping my student’s work down the digital toilet every semester, it gave me stomach cramps when I first thought about what I had been doing. Every time I taught the course it was the same course, the student’s contributions weren’t transforming anything—it was no wonder that some of it felt dry to them. There was a lot of hoop jumping, and I still think I was a good teacher, that wasn’t like I was bad, but this idea of really empowering students to really, truly engage with the fields and the materials and shaping how the course runs has really changed everything for me.

Rebecca: There’s something that you’re talking about… the idea of building the textbook together, but then the course material is sort of the same from semester to semester and the materials are created by the students, so how does that continue to transform semester to semester so it doesn’t feel like it’s a one-off project… that it continues to evolve and it continues to be a value and that students continue to learn new things?

Robin: Such a great question and I get it a lot because people—I think in some ways mistakenly assume—that that first build was the exciting build, but totally that first build was the annoying build, right, because we got to do a lot of legwork tracking down these texts. We had to do a lot of copyright discovery, like “Can we use this version of Thomas Jefferson or not” and it wasn’t all that exciting, and that’s still ongoing. So Rebus community, who’s working on that textbook now, they took our version and they’re building it out; they’re still doing that kind of discovery in that initial work, and to be frank, that will never end. Even with Early American Literature you’re constantly discovering, changing excerpts, building things out, but to me what’s even more exciting is, for example, there’s a whole unit at the beginning of Native American Oral Tradition and asking critical questions about what’s the genesis of American literature. So, at the same time as I was teaching that that semester we had the Dakota Pipeline stuff happening and lots of stuff about water protectors and about native history so you can relate things to current events that way, but also think about when I finished the course, my colleague Abby Goode, who teaches Early American Literature, but very much from an environmental and sustainability perspective, she kind of remixed the whole book so that now it was about the environment in Early American Lit; they chose some different texts, they reframed the introductions. Her book, in my opinion, is quite a bit more coherent than ours was, which was more of just a collage of things. So, there’s all sorts of opportunities for how you shape and reshape, and, of course, what students are learning there, which is really the point of those survey classes in English is that there is no American literature; there is only the canon that you intentionally assemble. There’s a lot of politics and a lot of editorial choices and each semester it could look different and that’s an important lesson because the Heath anthology was not a neutral objective collection either and I think that’s been a helpful way for them to encounter the building of canon.

Rebecca: I think it’s really easy for people to imagine how this works in the humanities. Can you provide some examples or ways of thinking about being open in the same way in STEM or in business or other disciplines that might not latch on quite as quickly?

Robin: Yeah, and my colleague at Keene State, which is one of our sister institutions, Karen Cangialosi, published a wonderful article recently called “You Can’t Do That in a STEM Class,” which is basically the answer to your questions. We should just stop answering questions and you should go read that article now. But really, the open dcience movement is a huge movement, in some ways dwarfs open education and I think climate change is a really good example of this, but also just open access publishing, the idea that in order to have scientific breakthroughs we need to have the public sharing of scientific knowledge and collaboration in science and so bringing our students into that early as opposed to saying, “Here when you’re a student you’ll be confined to this one class and stuck in this one book, but then when you become a scientist we assume you’ll just understand how to become part of this larger, more public scientific community.” That makes really little sense. So, what you’ll see in classes by people who work this way in STEM, and Karen’s a good example, is that their students are working on issues that are of critical importance and they’re putting their research and ideas into the commons and asking mentor scientists to engage with them. So, we understand that our students are not always going to be doing top-level research; the next breakthrough in diabetes research is not necessarily gonna come from a sophomore. Although occasionally you hear those stories, right, but really what they’re gonna do is they’re gonna ask for guidance, they’re gonna ask for help, they’re going to amplify other scientists’ work and translate them for their communities so that a new generation of scientists can get access to the issues and that’s how we’re going to assure that our scientists are working for what I might call the public goods. So, we’re seeing lots of people using blogs for this purpose instead of just doing their labs in a vacuum or whatever, sharing some of that work and creating sites together, or working in experiential ways through internships. This is why I sometimes bristle about OER being kind of like a cheap or free textbook movement. It’s really very much about a public knowledge commons and how we bring students authentically into that, so when my students are out in the field… and I teach interdisciplinary studies now, so my students are pretty much not in the humanities, to be honest. I have lots of business students, lots of students working in marketing, lots of students in allied health, physical therapy; they’re all in my program, and the work that they do in our open textbook and with OERs is one thing and we do create all of our own materials for the program, but beyond that they’re also creating capstone projects that are generally online, often openly licensed; of course they hold the autonomy to make those decisions for themselves. At that point they’re pretty educated about how open they want to be and then they’re also working on applied projects out in their fields and I see all that stuff as part of the same way that we engage our students in the public world of knowledge.

John: And science is often taught, or at least it’s perceived by students, as this body of knowledge they have to memorize rather than this ongoing dialogue and a series of active research projects, and when they are more engaged in the process of making those connections it’s likely they’ll learn it better and they’re likely to become much more interested in the subject, because one of the main problems in the STEM fields is that students give up early on. But if they can see the relevance, I would think they’d be much more likely to continue onward.

Robin: Yeah, I think it’s a great point. I’m also the mom of a teenager right now who—is this gonna make my whole family sound bizarre? I’m not sure… but she’s got an obsession with taxidermy, so if you go into her room it’s all—I’m not joking; we’ve got boars, we’ve got bison, we’ve got deer, we’ve got every pelt you could imagine, and then her bookshelves are filled with skulls and bones…loves it. She’s out there digging for bones from the time she was little, researching which skull is this, what skull is that; she doesn’t like science, though; that’s what she tells me: she doesn’t like science. I’m like, you do like science, you nutty kid.

John: You’re kind of doing it; this is where a lot of science started.

Robin: That’s right, and so I’ve been waiting for her and she’s had great teachers here and there, but she really did finally have a biology teacher last year who helped her understand that she does love science, but before that she thought, I don’t really like these worksheets and I don’t really like memorizing these tables, and she’s an interactive person. So, I think there’s a lot of compatibility between open and active learning and experiential learning and high-impact practice and all these buzzwords. People call me an advocate for open, which I am, but really I’m an advocate for learners, like paying attention to the kinds of things they are constantly telling us that they need in order to be successful. While we’re over here shopping for some kind of software program, they’re sitting right here telling us, I’m hungry or I can’t afford my materials or I don’t feel like my voice matters or I don’t know enough to be useful here, so you just tell me what I need to know.

Rebecca: Or I’m not represented.

Robin: I’m not represented. That’s a huge one because when you transfer to this mode of learning, it’s a little bit the sort of Wikipedia model, although Wikipedia is a horrible example because of representation in Wikipedia and the stats we have on that, but the idea that you can pay attention to all the voices in your community but the open movement is really wrestling with this right now to figure out how much is about open and licenses and sharing and how much is about creating an ecosystem of inclusivity, access… the kinds of things that truly do shape a commons, which we mostly don’t have in education, so the commitment, I think, is for me is less to the technicalities of open and more towards the long-game vision, which is really about how do we bring more voices to the table to engage in the community for whatever the community’s needs are.

John: I wanted to go back to a point you made earlier; it reminded me a little bit about some behavioral economic studies and I haven’t thought about this before, but I think it’s relevant. There was some interesting experiments done by Dan Ariely a while back. Dan Ariely calls this the IKEA Effect and he notes that when Duncan Hines first started selling cake mix they sold horribly and the reason was you just added water, you stirred and you baked and people didn’t feel that they had created something, so they changed the mix so you had to add an egg to it and stirred and mixed in and baked it, but by the simple act of breaking an egg and mixing it in, it felt like they had created something in a way it wasn’t where they just added water. One of the experiments he did was he had people create these origami by following directions… of paper cranes and he asked them to evaluate how much they thought their creations were worth and then he swapped them and he asked them to evaluate someone else’s creation and people valued their own at roughly twice as high as the others across the board, and then he changed it in another iteration of this and he took some of the directions out… so it was really hard to replicate and objectively, when people evaluated the other people’s that time they rated the value of them much lower in terms of how much they were willing to pay, but because they put more work into building these things themselves, they rated their own creations much higher, and the simple act of creating something gives you this feeling of ownership and value that I think would be a useful part of this in terms of getting students much more engaged with the process and more engaged with their own learning.

Robin: Yeah, so I would say two things about that super fascinating set of stories that I’m totally going to use all the time, maybe tomorrow, when I speak with your faculty. So the first is that we run a customized major program where students create their own majors and the cake mix effect is enormous in our program; we have almost a hundred percent retention in our program, which I think is so very much attached to this idea that if you create it yourself that sense of ownership is huge. So, the one way I would revise your stories is the Duncan Hines model is kind of a slight of hand, right, you know, we could of just put the egg in there, and so that’s the part that I’m always wrestling with is this no hoops and mean it, so it’s actually kind of a big leap because in education we’ve known for a long time that we want to build student ownership, but we do a lot of tricks to kind of say, doesn’t this look like ownership, so how do we authentically do that instead of just sort of fake removing the egg and that’s where I think you see a lot of institutions push back—they are happy to make their students feel empowered, but they are not happy to empower their students.

John: That’s scary.

Robin: Yeah, it’s very scary and we talked about student-centered learning; when I started doing student-centered learning I was like, “Chumps, you are not doing no student-centered learning because once you center your students the whole course changes, falls apart a little bit.” It’s also the magic of tenure; it’s very risky to do a lot of the things that I’ve been blessed enough to be able to experiment with it, which have paid off, I think, hugely for our students, but there’s a lot of pushback sometimes from students and oftentimes just from institutional structures that can’t really accommodate learning that looks like this very easily, so that egg is kind of the whole thing there, right, and I love your metaphors; I’m gonna borrow them.

Rebecca: When you want to be authentic that also means that you have to be ready to completely change any plans; it’s like, oh, now we’re going down this rabbit hole that I didn’t know we were gonna go down, but I guess we’re going there and we’re all gonna go together and be open to that.

Robin: Some people are like wired for that, like my husband is a sculptor and that’s kind of the studio ethos, but so not how I came to teaching. I mean, I didn’t have my lectures written out but just super organized and when I would come to an epiphany it was always an epiphany that I had planned for many weeks… I think, “Oh my gosh, this reminds me of this thing, can you believe it?” And of course I knew all along that we were gonna be arriving at that epiphany, so when students would move in a different direction, even if I could tell at the time it was brilliant, you would have to pull them back to the place that you were going, but I have definitely changed my mode of operation because the content, really whatever you teach, it doesn’t exist in the world in 14-week packages, so the idea that you can’t do such-and-such because you’re going to miss this key fundamental thing is just bizarre when you think of the scope of knowledge, so I understand people wrestle with accreditation and we wrestle with standards and all these things are realities. But, for the most part, I think really radically meaning a lot of those buzzwords that we use is revolutionary. If you read your mission statement for your university and then you actually do some of that stuff, it’s gonna be crazy; nobody’s actually doing the things they say that they do, in my opinion.

Rebecca: A couple of weeks ago we had an episode about metaliteracy, which expands the idea of information literacy to include the idea of creation, so the idea of becoming more literate in the making of things as part of that information literacy process, which is clearly very connected to the idea of being open, especially when your students are creating this content and creating knowledge. The question that I have is one that I’m wrestling with currently as an educator who’s really about access as well, but I’ve been focusing a lot on access for people with disabilities in thinking about accessibility in that way, digital accessibility and learning those skill sets and where those come in and how do we make sure that things are visually organized and consistent so that an experience through these things that students are making is a good one for everyone who comes afterwards as well?

Robin: I am so happy that you asked that question because this has been my last three weeks; I have barely slept because I’ve started getting so excited. So, for probably the last year or so my own personal challenge has been to think about accessibility in terms of making our materials more accessible, so I’ve been learning about how screen readers actually work in order to fix my own syllabus to redo a lot of annoying things because I didn’t realize you had to use the headings to make things easier. So, I’ve just been learning that basic stuff and that’s been just a long, slow and interesting process. One of the last things that I really hadn’t learned about at all or hadn’t even really thought about was in giving presentations, which I give a lot, I had to think about slides… and so at Open Ed ‘18 in Niagara Falls… I wasn’t there, which is actually an important part of the story because one of the keynoters was Jess Mitchell, who is kind of a mentor of mine in terms of accessibility stuff—she’d be a great guest—and Jess gave a really moving and powerful keynote focusing mostly on inclusion in open and she is very much an accessibility advocate and what was amazing to me as someone who was not there and didn’t see a recording was when I looked at her slides afterwards I was able to experience really the whole keynote because they were designed to be accessible to folks who were in the room, text was organized in a certain ways and things were very clear and I came away really grateful for how she had set up these slides, which was interesting because they were really different than the kinds of slides I make. I had always prided myself on like “Robin made some fancy slides,” you know, they’re like just pretty and like visual impact and bold images, but because they were, I think, graphically designed in a lovely way, I mistakenly thought that that meant that they were actually accessible because they were clear in certain kinds of ways, but they weren’t, they weren’t set up well, so what happened was when I learned and saw in action some of the techniques that she was using, I started to look at this keynote that I was giving the other day—I had like two days left—and now the keynote was ready to go, all the slides were made; I looked at the slides and I was like, oh, crap, you know, no… So, I thought I’ll just redo these slides real quick, but what I ended up doing was really learning about the accessibility changed everything about how I approached the making, which actually ended up changing all of the ideas in the keynote in this dramatically productive way. So accessibility for me, of course, is not really just about like, oh, you have low vision or whatever; it’s very much part of this access broadly-writ idea… that openness… But beyond that because it’s built into how we build; it’s really about how we’re gonna design infrastructure and that is actually my passion right now; it’s less about making these materials—okay, so great, here’s an accessible material, great, they should be—but beyond that it’s about let’s just design an ecosystem now with access at the heart. So, in terms of accessibility, none of that sort of retrofitting one-by-one whatever, but also just what would happen with everything if access for the broadest array of learners was key. I was recently in Providence, Rhode Island at College Unbound, which is just a very cool program for adult learners completing college—they have to have least nine credits to start—but many of them have many more… and there are mostly students of color, mostly poorer students and mostly, I’d say, they seem like over 30 in age and they start their seminars with a hot meal and then after the hot meal they go into their different cohorted seminar rooms and tons of those students have their kids with them and the kids are just a normal part of the learning environment there and the whole place is designed around what kinds of access people needed, what times of day and what services in order to come here to learn and I just feel like everything about the content that we’ll produce and the ways we’ll set up schools and just everything will change if that’s how we build—we build around what I might call human beings, right, which is like the most innovative idea of all, right, it was not technology, it was humans.

John: Audience matters, as Rebecca is fond of mentioning on this podcast.

Rebecca: I almost did it earlier but I…

John: Well, I did it for you this time.

Rebecca: …I contained myself. [LAUGHTER]

John: But, It is important.

Robin: And it’s exciting, I mean, honestly, it’s just exciting because you do realize when you start thinking this way that it is again gonna change everything, right, you’re not just gonna put a caption on your video, it’s gonna be like every single thing is gonna change and that’s why it’s also important to say like, “Here’s how I still suck,” because you can’t just decide to do this and then be done. I’m just learning every single day, I’m messing up every single day and I think it’s better to kind of own that and think of it as a process, which is really invigorating.

Rebecca: To speaking about the process, how would someone get started? What advice would you give someone who is inspired to be more open in their process and the way that they teach and what they put out in the world? What’s the first step?

Robin: Well, the first thing I might encourage people to think about is what excites or interests you here? I think starting with a thing is not really the way to start. So, for example, a lot of times people will come down into our teaching and learning center (where my office is co-located—in the teaching and learning center). So, people will come down—“I need to start a blog with my students”—“Oh, okay, we can help you with that, why do you want to do a blog? “I don’t know; everybody’s blogging.” “Okay, we got to blog.” You really don’t have to blog; you could blog, we could help you, but I think having a sense of the goal: do you want to connect your students out to their communities? Do you feel like that would be valuable for your students? Would you like to lower some access barriers for your students? For me, there’s a lot of excitement that happens when I think about the hardships that we face in public education and trying to make a case for working in more public ways and what public work looks like, so I tried to start with what might excite faculty. So, you can do that on a one-on-one level or when I talk to large groups of faculty I usually start by helping them understand some of the implications of the high cost of textbooks, so if you just say to a faculty member, “That textbook costs a lot,” it’s too abstract. Usually they’ll just say, okay, this was 200 dollars and this one is $180; I’ve picked the 180 dollar textbook, I’m a good person… and they are… but showing them some of the data on what happens to students who can’t afford textbooks, and we have that data collected now and you can reach out to your librarians to access that data really quickly, talking about that with faculty and helping them see this as a social justice issue that impacts whether their students will pass classes, take credits, graduate from college, that I have found is persuasive, but then also talking about engaging their students in the world, really helping them to contribute rather than just consume, become better critical thinkers, all of those things are persuasive. Saying faculty don’t care about cost… I think first of all is not super true, but it’s also like we’re told all the time as faculty, cut costs. Cutting costs does not do wonderful things for learning most of the time. The things we’re asked to cut, especially in our public institutions right now. The age of austerity is decimating to innovation, in my opinion.

John: And the cost of textbooks has been rising at three to four times the rate of inflation for the last several decades?

Robin: Yeah, If you graph it out, I think the thing that I found most shocking was there’s the Consumer Price Index, you know, down below and then there’s the spiky line of the textbook cost and then if you map healthcare—it’s actually in between—it hasn’t been rising as fast as textbook costs, so I think people sometimes find that alarming.

John: Shocking, because that was also rising much faster than the inflation rate.

Robin: Exactly.

John: Going back to the issue of access, the students who have the most trouble affording textbooks often come from households where the parents have less education. Because there’s less early human capital development in those households, those students are already often starting at a bit of a disadvantage and many of them will choose either not to buy the book or wait as long as they can before buying the book. So, they’re far behind when they’re starting their classes and that would be a major factor in their retention on campus.

Robin: Yeah, actually some of this data that you’re talking about comes from the Florida Textbook Study in 2016, which is very persuasive for faculty, I think, but there’s some really new data—Eddie Watson out of Georgia, I believe, that just came out that shows that the benefits of switching to OER in terms of things like course throughput rates, grades and passing and…

John: the drop, fail, withdrawal rate, yeah.

Robin: …that the benefits are especially pronounced for students of color and for Pell eligible students. Some of our most vulnerable learners stand to make the biggest gains when they have access right from day one, and faculty recognize this when you talk to them about it because they are very used to having the small number of students in this side of the room saying, “My check isn’t in yet; I need to wait two weeks until I get paid,” or “I ordered a cheaper version that’s gonna be here in six to eight weeks” or whatever, so nobody’s surprised by it, but to realize that you are actually empowered to solve a problem in higher education is surprising to people and OER actually solves a pretty concrete problem and pretty quickly and the data shows us it solves it pretty well.

Rebecca: So what you’re saying is that OER is the gateway to open pedagogy?

Robin: Well, it’s so funny… [LAUGHTER] I have actually become maybe more famous in the community for saying the opposite because that is actually the party line: catch them with the OER and then show them the pedagogy, but as you’ll see in the faculty development talk that I’ll do here at SUNY Oswego tomorrow, I do that a little bit but definitely I think people are kinda like, “Okay, I’m in, yeah, sure,” and then you start talking about the teaching and learning and that’s when people really kind of come alive and then they shrink back again because they say, “Well, that’s you, because you’re techie and you’ve been doing this forever” because it looks overwhelming and I just want to tell them, first of all, I’m an early Americanist; there is nobody less oriented to this work than I was when I started, but I only heard about Creative Commons maybe like four years ago, like that was the first time I heard of it and now every single thing I do is related to this stuff. The learning curve is overwhelming at the very, very beginning, but the tools that you use and the ability to make these kinds of changes, especially if you do them incrementally. It is really within anybody’s ability and people should trust me when I say that because my husband is a sculptor—he’s a studio sculptor, teaches welding and that kind of stuff and he’s doing all of this now. So, he does OER, but he’s also doing lots of connected learning and his students have their own domains and he is somebody who for the most part does not really even enjoy email, so anybody can engage and I think we need good librarians and good instructional designers and we need to keep funding teaching and learning centers because paying big money to fancy software programs and outside contractors, these are sort of Hail Mary passes to save education. But, in my opinion, teaching and learning and instruction shows real benefits, but we don’t invest in it and we therefore can’t expect to get the full rewards that we could get if we were really focused on working with our faculty.

John: And a lot of the really powerful tools used in these courses are free, like Hypothesis, as you mentioned before. Do you recommend, for example, the use of Pressbooks for OER materials?

Robin: Yes, I’ve been very inspired by the Critical Digital Pedagogy folks out of Hybrid Ped and one of the things they talk about is analyzing your tools and I’ve been really trying, along with my work in accessibility—the other kind of learning curve for me right now has been trying to go through my own tools and gravitate towards not just free but open tools and that’s challenging in some ways; in other ways we’re all ready to go. I favor nonprofit companies like Hypothesis and Pressbooks is Open-source software; I use it through Rebus Community, which is a non-profit OER publishing community that’s developing now under the direction of Hugh McGuire, who was previously with Pressbooks and developed Pressbooks. So, I think the tools should not stress anybody out because the tools will be different next week, right? So, it’s not worth getting too worried if you’re like, this tool it makes no sense, okay, well wait till next week; they’ll be another tool, but it’s good to ask critical questions about if we’re really trying to not just save some cash but to maybe transform into more of a learning ecosystem that focuses on the public good, then we need to build infrastructure that has similar commitments to the kinds of content we might look at or the kinds of processes we might use in our pedagogy. That’s my goal now, is to transfer whatever I’m using into tools that have the same sort of investments that I do.

Rebecca: Speaking of infrastructure… We have infrastructure for students in teaching and learning the classroom kind of side of things, but we also need infrastructure to support faculty who want to be open and do open publishing and do this public good or public discourse methods in general. So what recommendations do you have for helping us move in that direction for public scholarship?

Robin: Yeah, but there’s a lot of myth-busting that needs to happen around open access publishing. Mostly faculty do have some pretty good autonomy, so the promotion and tenure processes that faculty will tell you, “I can’t publish in this journal because it doesn’t meet the impact factor regulations for my field.” Well, those are mostly coming from, like that old joke, “It’s coming from inside the house,” right? Really what this is is about faculty education to help faculty understand that it’s not in the best interest of faculty or knowledge to have the commercial publishing industry stranglehold on academic publishing, but of course faculty are concerned that there are quality issues, they think open access publishing sometimes is like, “I self-published this on Amazon” or whatever, so helping them understand that there are definitely low quality, predatory open access presses just like there are low quality, predatory commercial presses and helping people understand that what you’re really talking about is not whether it’s open or closed but what’s the peer review and what are you looking for in peer review. I think we’re seeing lots of institutions move towards open access policies that give faculty lots of autonomy in how they control their materials, but we need to do a better job educating ourselves about what’s wrong and broken in academic publishing right now.

John: SUNY has just introduced an open-access policy for the whole SUNY system very recently, and (at least at our institution) the upper administration, including the President, the Provost, and the Deans, have generally been very supportive, but it doesn’t always make it down to the departmental chairs and personnel committees and that’s a barrier that, as you said, we’re imposing on ourselves and it’s tough to get through, especially if you’re a junior faculty member coming up for tenure.

Robin: That’s right, and usually I tell administrators that I work with, it’s great that you’re supportive; please don’t tell anyone, you know, because we don’t want these to be top-down initiatives, they have to grow from the faculty and I don’t mean that again in the kind of Duncan Hines egg sense—like a fake way; it’s important that faculty steward the new era of academic publishing—that matters; that should not come from administration, should not come from state legislators. The state legislators are only too excited really to say, everyone must use OER. I went to our board of trustees and they were really happy to give us money for open and they said, we’re gonna pass a resolution that everybody needs to consider an open textbook—I said, thank you, I don’t want your resolution; I’m very grateful… Because it really is important that we do the education at the source which really is for the most part with faculty and actually with students, I think, is where it matters and we’ll grow it that way and the reason I have hope is that I’ve never talked with anyone for any length of time and had them say at the end, well that’s horrible and stupid. There’s lots of nitty-gritty problems to iron out and the open access community does not yet know exactly what the best path is for funding open access presses or all sorts of issues, but it’s very hard to find someone to say to you what you’re saying is horrible, so I think that we will see huge transformation in both OER and open access publishing in the next five to ten years, but we need to grow it with our people.

John: And some of the STEM fields have led the way there; the National Institute of Health and all their grants require

Robin: NASA, the White House….

John: …that things be publicly available and in public access.

Robin: Yeah, and of course those publishing models are a little bit different because there’s so much grant funding in science and the public has a right and that might be a little bit different than, say, a monograph by a historian. When we talk about open we always want to talk contextually, I think, and specifically about what makes sense for, I think, two groups: the public and the knowledge—thinking about both knowledge and users for every different example.

John: Where do you see open pedagogy as going in the future? It’s a relatively recent area and you’ve been very actively involved in this, but where do you see things going in terms of new and interesting directions?

Robin: I cannot answer that question because it boggles my mind… the question you’ve asked and I don’t think I can answer it and it wouldn’t help me to go away and think about it. I think what I could answer is where I hope things are going, and I feel very strongly that there needs to be a robust connection between open education and public education, and I feel like we are in a very dark time where our public education channels are being insidiously co-opted for private profits, and even in some of our public institutions you’re seeing the language of public just dissolve, so we’re seeing college presidents saying, “Yeah, that’s over, that era is over; we’re not going to get any more public dollars; it’s dried up; we need to get corporate money, we need to do partnerships, we’re gonna fund ourselves in these new private ways.” I think this is our chance to intercede in what I see is a very downward trend and I think open education has some really incredible possibilities for helping us articulate what public practice looks like and if we can articulate what public practice looks like, the fact of the matter is, and I do not think this is an argument, I think it’s a fact;—it’s true—I really think it’s true that it is in the public’s benefit for the public to fund the kinds of public work that we’re talking about here for both students and researchers and if we could help explain why by being a little more coherent for ourselves with what it means to work in and at public education and research, I think we’d have a better chance at making that case for the public. So that’s where I’m hoping to take all of this is to say really what we’re talking about here is a resurgence for public education at the K-12 level, resistance to the charter takeover and higher ed to say it’s time to reclaim a public mission for our public universities and fund them appropriately and realize that innovation comes from people and not from private, gated… Right now, the idea is that all things innovative thrive in the market and I think that’s because we’ve been intentionally starving and strangling our publics. Wow, that was like really radical.

Rebecca: That was good, yeah.

John: And it’s an important message.

Robin: I think it’s coherent and I think it’s persuasive; I feel people come alive when I talk about it, but we need also some national leadership on this both from inside education and inside government and I don’t just mean nationally,—the United States is in a squalid mess right now, which it is—but just even in the Obama years and whatever like who are our champions for public, where is that coming from? I’d like to see more mentors and like to see our college presidents use this kind of language—if you’d like to hire me to be your college president… [LAUGHTER] Call me. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Maybe that’s a “what’s next.” [LAUGHTER]

John: So, we usually end these podcasts by asking, what are you doing next?

Robin: Tomorrow, I will be here at SUNY Oswego. You know, the question of next is a really hard one; My own personal life has been changed so radically by this. I never saw myself leaving the English department, I never saw myself having a whole in some ways second career. I used to be asked to be department chair because it was your turn, not because I was anything special, and I would go under the table, you can’t make me do it. I declined everything. I really think, though, people with a grassroots passion for doing this work need support at higher levels in higher education. In terms of me personally, I started thinking about trying to step into some of those roles and I can’t say I feel sort of super personally excited about some of the aspects of that work, but I know that even though I see this as a grassroots movement,—and I do use that word—it’s really hard to change institutions, and in order to do it we’re gonna need to get people at every level to care about these kinds of things and so I’m inspired by people like Tressie McMillan Cottom and Sara Goldrick-Rab and they’re faculty, but they step out to set a national example, and I’d like to maybe think about trying to move this stuff a little bit more institutionally, as opposed to just inside of programs or with particular faculty development events. I’d like to see some institutions really step out and lead. SUNY is doing a great job. You guys have about 48 of your 64 institutions, I think, actively engaged and you are careening towards some system-wide impacts, partnerships with CUNY, statewide conversations; this is where I think things really get exciting to me.

John: The community college and SUNY have really been leading and they’ve been very active in doing this. The four-year colleges have been moving, but not quite as quickly and the university centers have a bit more inertia. So, SUNY has been making some really great efforts in providing incentives and doing a lot of encouragement and the workshops they’ve been funding have helped to try to get more grassroots movement, but it’s not as quick as many of us would like, but it’s much faster than it was a few years ago.

Rebecca: Incremental change is still change?

John: It is.

Robin: It absolutely is. Someone was telling me… Is this an economics thing about the parable of the ant, that ants are going up a hill? Okay, somebody on Twitter, you just sent me this,—I’m losing my brain now—but anyway, an ant is going up a hill and when because of the position of the ants eyes they can’t assess the whole hill, so all they do is at every point they could assess, I want to get to the top of the hill, and all they can assess is, okay, this is the next step that I take, so then the ant gets to the next step and it assesses again and that’s the kind of way incrementally the ant will get up. In that sense the ant doesn’t really even have to know where it’s going; it is just able to constantly resurvey and take one more step and I found that really reassuring when someone sent that over to me today. That’s kind of a metaphor for how you can keep going when you don’t always know exactly where you’re going, and also to your other point, community colleges are clearly the national leaders in this work and I find that really good for education because community colleges are actually really good at teaching and learning and it’s important to look at what they’re doing with open to learn our lessons, but also we can just learn a lot from partnering with our community colleges more effectively.

John: And they’re often the first point of access for first-generation students who may find it difficult to go directly into a four-year college, and they have many of the students who most need that sort of access.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for spending time with us and engaging us in this really great conversation; I hope that incremental change becomes much bigger increments as we hear more people and more people get on board.

John: And if you get one person in department doing it, it’s a whole lot easier to convince others to try.

Robin: There’s no secret trick or no secret sauce, it’s just people, so every time somebody as a human gets invested you actually get a lot closer to where you’re going, I think. It’s exciting, it’s exciting, and thank you guys for having me because this like fancy stuff and I feel very listened to and I’m gonna put all sorts of pictures on Twitter of myself in front of these microphones. [LAUGHTER]

John: Okay, well thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen, and Dante Perez.

[MUSIC]

49. Closing the performance gap

Sometimes, as faculty, we are quick to assume that performance gaps in our courses are due to the level of preparedness of students rather than what we do or do not do in our departments. In this episode, Dr. Angela Bauer, the chair of the Biology Department at High Point University, joins us to discuss how community building activities and growth mindset messaging combined with active learning strategies can help close the gap.

Show Notes

  • “Success for all Students: TOSS workshops” – Inside UW-Green Bay News (This includes a short video clip in which Dr. Bauer describes TOSS workshops)
  • Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc.
  • Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Life Sciences Education
  • Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 69(5), 797.
  • Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American psychologist, 52(6), 613.
  • The Teaching Lab Podcast – Angela Bauer’s new podcast series. (Coming soon to iTunes and other podcast services)

Transcript

Coming Soon!