58. Role-play

Do your students sometimes settle for a superficial understanding of your course course content? Role-playing activities can provide an opportunity for students to become more fully immersed in the academic dialog of your discipline. In this episode, Jill Peterfeso joins us discuss a variety of role-playing activities that can be implemented into a single class session or over a more extended period of time. Jill is an Assistant Professor in and the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Guilford College.

Show Notes


John: Do your students sometimes settle for a superficial understanding of your course course content? Role-playing activities can provide an opportunity for students to become more fully immersed in the academic dialog of your discipline. In this episode, we’ll discuss a variety of role-playing activities that can be implemented into a single class session or over a more extended period of time.


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 Jill Peterfeso, assistant professor in and the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Guilford College. Welcome, Jill.

John: Welcome, Jill.

Jill: Hi, nice to be here.

John: Our teas today are…

Jill: I am drinking candy cane tea; it’s a black tea. If you like peppermint tea, this takes it up a notch with even more sweetness. It’s really delicious.

John: What brand is that?

Jill: Adagio.

Rebecca: That sounds right up John’s alley, actually.

Jill: Oh really? For Christmas a couple years ago I asked for some and my parents are like, “Oh, what size?” And I was like, “You know what? I don’t know. A pound.” Well, you know how much a pound of tea is? [LAUGHTER] So I have enough to last me like a decade.

John: I had a mix of tea where it was peppermint, spearmint and tarragon and I got a pound of peppermint, a pound of spearmint and a pound of tarragon.

Jill: My gosh. [LAUGHTER] Yeah.

Rebecca: Speaking of lifetime supplies. I have English afternoon.

John: Again?

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: And I have blueberry green tea. We invited you here to talk a bit about how you’ve been using role-play in your classes. Could you give us some examples of what you’ve been doing with this and in what context?

Jill: Yeah, absolutely. This idea of working with role-play comes from my own interest as a theatre person in high school and college and even into my adult years and also just this memory I have of doing theatre where stepping into the role of another person opens up your mind in really different ways. I’ve devised a number of different things that I do in the class, sometimes borrowing from others, sometimes doing completely experimental assignments. So, I think that it’s sort of three different levels of immersion into role-play. A level one thing, for instance, might be I use dialog tests where I have students imagine dialogues. For instance, historical figures John Winthrop and Anne Hutchinson are having a conversation about conversion… what do they say to one another? And so instead of writing an essay on the thesis of conversion in Puritan New England, I have students imagine a conversation between these two historical actors. So, that would be an example of something that’s level one. Something that’s more level two… I often invite students to take on the voices and the ideas of authors, theologians and theorists that we’re studying. For instance, I teach an upper-level Holocaust class where we often read a lot of excerpts from very dense critical theory, for instance. I will assign students to different authors we’ve read… someone will get Habermas, someone will get Adorno, et cetera, et cetera, and then we come together in a colloquium setting and they need to speak in the discussion as that “author” or that character… and then sort of the deeper level of immersion would be something like reacting to the past, which is a very well established pedagogical role-play method in historical game that comes out of Barnard College and about 20 years old now—is developed by history professor named Mark Carnes—and in that students literally are assigned historical characters and then they play out some event from the past. Games that I have used in my classes include the Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, Anne Hutchinson (who I mentioned earlier), the Council of Nicaea; I’ve done those in my classes, but they have them for all sorts of disciplines in all different time periods. So, that one, it’s several days. Students give speeches and form teams and do some politicking behind the scenes to come together and play their characters in order to see, like, literally playing with history.

John: In that second level of role-play, when they’re in the role of characters do you have students discuss contemporary issues or issues of the historical period?

Jill: When they are speaking as theorists or authors then I have them sort of in the secondary source mode so that they are speaking as contemporaries, even if it’s an Adorno or Habermas —who weren’t so much contemporary for us anymore—they’re still able to speak about contemporary issues. If we’re talking about Holocaust Studies, for instance, they are able to bring some of that to bear on whatever is happening here and now. I do something similar in a feminist theologies class where we read various feminist theologians over the course of the semester and one student is assigned a theologian each semester, one student per one theologian, and when we discuss that theologian the student speaks not as a student but as the theologian. So, it’s this extra meta-level that they that one student wears in this one moment or I should say in this one class period and what that lets them do is have this dexterity where they are connecting the text that they have a certain intimacy with as the “author” but then they’re also able to connect with their classmates who might be bringing up some of these different issues, like how this reading in feminist theology might connect to some of the reproductive issues that are going on now in politics or issues around concern for the planet, et cetera, et cetera. Really to your question, John, the way I see it, especially in that second level, is a hinging where they’re able to sort of pivot between the creation of the text and the application of the text and that’s one of the nice things about it because it keeps them again hinged where they’re connected to both parts and they’re aware of the fact that they’re swiveling, if that makes some sense.

John: It does. It sounds like they’re making some really deep connections.

Jill: Hopefully.

John: It’s a form in a sense of peer instruction.

Jill: Absolutely, yeah, thank you. That’s one of the things that I try to get them to do with role-play… with other activities I do in the class… but the role-play specifically… is to get students to realize that they can be instructors of their peers and just as successfully as I could be in some instances. It lets them feel that they are experts in what they are speaking on. That is ideally very empowering, but it also gives them—and I found this constantly with role-play, and this is something your audience might find interesting—is that when students are wearing a “mask” of someone else’s ideas or someone else’s character, they are much more willing to be directive with their peers and sort of challenge their peers if their peers are not thinking very critically or very clearly… and I’ve heard this from my students for the theologian activity in feminist theology… they get more annoyed if their classmates are not really stepping up and not really engaging “their ideas.” So, they’re able to say, “Well, wait a second, that’s not what I wrote. Look at the bottom of page 36…” and yet it works because no one really feels attacked by someone playing the persona of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. So, it works really nicely because that framing… that mask… however you want to think about it… creates the opportunity to step into a liminal space where it’s a little safer to push those boundaries, and students tend to do that and that allows them to do that peer instruction even more so than they would otherwise. I don’t think they think of it that way until after when I have them reflect, then they’re like, “Oh, yeah, I felt more defensive of these ideas and I also felt like I knew where they were coming from.” There was a material, historical context that gave rise to the need for me to write this theology or me to write this theory and they felt that attachment to it. To hear them say that I’m like, “Yes, that’s exactly what I would hope would happen.” As somebody who’s done acting and done theater, that’s the best part for me, immersing yourself empathetically in another experience and so it seems to work for students intellectually in a scholarly way.

Rebecca: …seems really powerful, but I can imagine that telling your students that they’re gonna role-play could be really intimidating. So, how do you prepare students for that experience?

Jill: Yeah, this is one of these things that I’m constantly trying to get better about. I tell them early and often. Whoever signs up for early on—so, again, right now I’m thinking about the feminist theology class where they have to step into and embody these ideas one at a time over the course of the semester—what I do is try to get some of my stronger students who might know me or have done this before in other classes to go first and I make sure to give them a special amount of direction and leeway and then after one or two students will go I will do a reflection like a stop, okay, what’s working. Students who are not doing this but were in the classroom discussion with the theologian, what are you noticing? And students who did this, what advice do you have for others? So, then again, the peers become the instructor. When it comes to other things, I mentioned earlier in my Holocaust class, and we do this sometimes in feminist theology, we do this in my Jesus in Film and Pop Culture class, where we really will be in a circle discussion and I mostly teach seminar. Disclaimer: most of my classes are 10 to 25 students, so this works really nicely. We’ll be in a circle and we’ll be looking at each other and channeling historians and scholars of the historical Jesus or Holocaust theory around memory studies. We might get into it and I’ll need to stop and say, “Okay, I want to pause. I noticed some of you are not speaking in the first person. Remember, I want you to be speaking as you’re scholar. Some of you are doing a really nice job with this, but I don’t hear you using quotes from the text, so remember the text is your foundation. The text is what gives you a platform. You don’t have to make up everything. You are using the text as a springboard to merge with your own ideas.” Constantly of doing that, modeling some of it for students as well and then affirming them. I think this all ultimately plays to where the majority of students get it at some point. But, Rebecca, I will tell you, I mean, you’re right. Some students never really get into this. They think it’s too strange or it’s too uncomfortable, or they’re really good students in the traditional way of doing things and they don’t think that this is something that they need or is helpful. That’s fine; not everything is going to work for everybody. What I love about some of these different liminal activities is that they will reach students who otherwise would feel that they can’t step into discussion in the traditional way because they don’t think they’re good at it, but giving them this additional costume of intellectual ideas to wear is liberating for some students, and that’s enough for me to do it once or twice a semester in some classes because it’s gonna invite in people who might not feel invited another way.

John: How long do these activities run? Is it a one day thing or multiple days?

Jill: It all depends again on which activities. When I do the symposia type models where we’re all together that’s usually at the lowest… it would be our 75 minute classes; sometimes I do it in our three hour classes, then it’s more about two and a half hours with a break in between. I’m getting ready to do one of these symposia in my Catholicism course and we’re gonna do it over two 75-minute classes, totaled about two and a half hours. What that does… and this ties to your question, John… what that does is it allows me to not be anxious that, “Oh my gosh, we have so much to cover and we’re not doing it,” and it really pushes me to the side, which is another key issue with this role-play is I as the professor in an ideal world create the settings, create the condition, give the instruction and then get the heck out of their way and let them stumble a little bit, let them struggle with some silence, let them look awkwardly at each other, let them look pleadingly at me but then turn to each other and realize, “okay, this has got to be us.” I encourage folks who want to try these sorts of things to give time because just investing in time means you’re gonna let the silence happen. Some things are much longer, so reacting to the past, for instance, which I’ve been playing with for the past year or more, that’s several weeks. We did the Anne Hutchinson game in my Religion in the U.S. class just last month and that was five 75-minute days and we’re gearing up for the Frederick Douglass game that starts next week. That’s gonna be six days. So, six days of game playing and then prep on the beginning and prep at the end. Doing that role-play meant completely redoing my syllabus for that course. There were reasons that that made sense given my teaching condition for that class, which I can get into if you’re interested, but that was a real total revamping. Everything from little bits to larger bits, depending on what you’re willing to invest in and what you’re looking to do with your students, what kinds of skills you’re trying to emphasize.

Rebecca: Jill, for someone who doesn’t have a background in theater, but…

Jill: Yeah.

Rebecca: …might find this to be a really interesting idea, what would you advise them to look at or how to start or an activity that they might do the first time out to just get their feet wet?

Jill: Reacting to the Past is a premade pedagogy. There are so many games I would recommend anyone who’s listening to this and thinking that sounds interesting to go to their website ‘cause those folks who run the Reacting Consortium will help you and there are so many games. I go to Reacting as a theater person who’s like, “Oh, won’t it be great if we all just sort of immerse ourselves in these characters of this historical moment and then give speeches as these characters,” this is like Jill in high school who did murder mystery weekends with her friend, like it’s getting these characters in and improving dialogue and a relationship and it’s just so fun, but that’s what gets me stuck on Reacting. A lot of folks who do Reacting are more gamers, they like that there are victory conditions and points for winning, or they’re historians who like this different way of doing history. That’s just my hook, but that’s not everybody’s hook. There are plenty of people I’ve met in the Reacting world who would never have thought of themselves as “a theater person.” So, I think that’s a safe one. Reacting has games as short as a day, as long as ten days. It’s good because it’s pre-made and you can go to conferences where you get to play some of the games, so that’s a good place to start. As far as some of the smaller ones, I think a safe and fun place to begin if you’re intrigued by this idea would be the dialogue assignments or the dialogue tests, sort of like I alluded to earlier, inviting students to put authors in conversation with each other… maybe across historical moments… maybe across religious traditions, in my case… maybe inserting themselves as a student into the conversation. And why is this valuable? Well, because when we want academic writing to happen, ideally students are putting different ideas “in conversation with one another”—juxtaposing different ideas—and so with these dialogue tests they were like literally doing that in a dialogue format as opposed to just writing a traditional paper where they may not be so aware that that’s what they’re doing. So… something very meta about all of this role-play stuff where they are with me—with the professor—the students are aware that they are trying on a different voice and that often for students makes something click. This is a different way of engaging. By the end of going through the process they’re like, “Oh, yeah, like I’ve made these discoveries that I didn’t think I would have permission to make otherwise.” Again, it gives them a permission to see and do something differently.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about the two reacting to the past scenarios that you’re running… in terms of what the main issues are that the students will be addressing?

Jill: The first one is the Anne Hutchinson game, which Anne Hutchinson was a Puritan woman… 1630s… Massachusetts Bay Colony… shows up… John Winthrop is the governor and they’re there to be the city on a hill to show the world this is what a true God-dedicated colony should look like; they’re gonna turn the eyes of the world to them and everything’s going to flow smoothly, and yet things start happening and people start getting religious ideas that aren’t quite in line with the orthodox and Anne Hutchinson is one of them… and she’s this woman… she’s a midwife… she starts having prayer meetings in her own home and, come to find out, that she’s having these visions and hearing these voices coming from the Bible and she believes God is speaking to her. And so doing she’s shifting the theology of the colony and people are starting to listen to her—that makes her dangerous. So this whole trial happened in the 1630s in Puritan, New England, and she is ultimately kicked out of the colony. The game scenario that we play in Reacting to the Past—again, I did not write this; I borrow it, I adapt it—much credit to the authors of the game. This game’s been running for many years. What happens is it’s this counterfactual where we imagine that there’s a second trial; she’s been banished but we’re gonna give her another try. What happens is you have the faction that is against Anne Hutchinson and then you have the faction that is Pro-Anne Hutchinson and then you have these indeterminate—this is a pretty standard format for reacting: you get one side, another side, and these indeterminates. The indeterminates are the ones you need to persuade; basically we have about three or four days of debate among these different groups trying to figure out what did she do wrong and do we want to let her back in, and the indeterminates are these immigrants who are arriving from England who want to get in the church. Before they can vote on Anne Hutchinson, they have to get into the church. So, they have their own objective of getting in but once they’re in both sides want these new immigrants to vote with them. It becomes this very fun game and what happens—this happened in my class just last month—a lot of students find themselves making arguments that they don’t agree with. They will step outside of class and say to me like, “I do not agree with what I’m saying; I can’t believe I’m arguing that Anne Hutchinson shouldn’t be speaking because she’s a woman. I believe that women have rights and should be able to have religious ideas and speak to men” and I’m like, “Yes, but you’re in a different historical context, so you need to be able to separate yourself from that.” I love—and I don’t say to students—I love that you’re trying to hold in tension what you think and feel with what you say and isn’t that how we sometimes have to act in the world? They did a really lovely job with that this semester. So, that’s the Anne Hutchinson game. The one we’re launching next week is the Frederick Douglass game which takes place in 1845. Abolitionism is really coming to its own as the political force. Slave owners are getting even more anxious and holding on to their power and the country is really in turmoil, specifically around the publication of the new autobiography by a man named Frederick Douglass. In this game there are even more historical characters—we have students who are about to be assigned the roles of John C. Calhoun and Senator Henry Clay and William Lloyd Garrison and Sojourner Truth and Angelina Grimké and they’re gonna go at it around issues of slavery, what the Constitution does and doesn’t allow about slavery and there will be indeterminates as well who can see the wisdom in both sides. They may not like slavery but is it politically advantageous to go against it at this point? This is a controversial game in some context, as you can imagine, because there will be students playing slave owners, there will be students playing former slaves, so you have to tread really carefully. That’s another thing with role-play, depending on your institutional context and who your students are, you do have to be careful as you ask students to step into roles that are not their own identities, but, again, that takes a lot of prep upfront. I think it can be done, you just have to be delicate with it. So with Frederick Douglass, for instance—I mean, who’s going to be John C. Calhoun? He was one of the biggest, baddest, most racist (by our terms) slave owners in the 19th century. Well, I’ve sold him this way to students. They’re gonna get input on the characters and I have an African American male in the class who said, “I want to play that part; that’s a part that I want,” and in fact when I did this last spring I had an African American male who wanted that part. I talked to them and I say, “are you sure? Why do you want this? And that’s awesome.” They say “I want to understand where they’re coming from, because that’s the worst thinking I can imagine and I want to know more about it.” So my student who did it last spring came to class in costume every single day as John C. Calhoun. I have pictures of the students wearing this wig and invariably he also wore some symbol of Africa on his person, like a shirt or a medallion around his neck. It was great what he was doing… how he was showing resistance to these messages that he was speaking in class—I mean, it was actually deeply profound. It also liberated other students to argue in the voices of pro-slavery advocates to have students of color in the class be willing to do that work too, and frequently at the end of classes—again, Frederick Douglass was about six days—like we would stop maybe five minutes early; I don’t know that the Reacting people would approve of us, but we’d stop and say, “Okay, this is getting heavy—how can we support one another around some of these really difficult conversations? How can we continue to support the pro-slavery students in the class…” because what would happen is the indeterminates in the Frederick Douglass game would just be like, “Oh, well slavery is bad; I know it’s bad ‘cause it’s 2018, slavery’s bad”—we just kept having to note that’s not where you are, but the water in which you swim as a mid-19th century fish is one in which slavery’s just accepted. You can’t don your 21st century hat and argue from that way. So, that’s also part of the learning objective. I think it’s probably clear that student collaboration is a big part of this… students having to work together in teams, having to come together around strategies and how to make an argument and who to target on the other team to try to turn their mind around.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the prep work before any of these role-playing instances? Clearly there needs to be some groundwork laid before you have a whole class period dedicated to any of these activities that you’re talking about.

Jill: Yeah, definitely. Letting them know in advance it’s coming is a big one. With Reacting it’s on the syllabus. I send out the syllabus about two or three weeks before the semester starts and I’m always like, “Hey, this is coming, so please look at this two-page document I’m sending you about what this entails; if this sounds great to you, wonderful; if it sounds miserable, let’s talk, because I don’t want you to be immersed in something that’s really unpleasant.” With the symposia that we do that’s a heads up in advance on the syllabus and then a constant reminder going into it—I tend to tell them within the days before to start making notes as you’re reading—read with the intent of thinking about how you would talk as this theorist. How would you channel these ideas? …and I also always for the symposia start class, ‘cause usually I can’t just have like one student as one person because they’re too many students, so I usually have two teams, like so there’s the Adorno team, whatever. What then happens is I give them about ten minutes to start, just to work together, to come, to brainstorm some ideas and maybe pull some quotes from the reading, also to prepare questions—that’s always the other thing, so it’s not just what are you going to say, but what are you going to ask of one another to keep the conversation going. Part of being in discussion is knowing how to ask questions and when to ask questions. Also encouraging them to draw connections between what different groups are saying—I never want the role-play to be an opportunity for every group to grandstand and then pass the torch to another group of grandstanders who aren’t really making connection. How does that work with role-play? That… either I’ve been modeling that all semester or I haven’t, but something I consciously do in class, I try to tell students, you know, when we’re building on each other’s comments let’s not change the subject without trying to bring in what has come before; if you’re going to change the subject, announce it and explain why you’re changing the subject. That’s part of the modeling that I try to do really consciously throughout the semester so that students get in the groove of how to have a conversation and then these other things just sort of kick it up several notches where then I’m more out of the way and they are hopefully building on tools they’ve been given and are ready to run with it.

Rebecca: You mentioned reflections earlier; can you talk about what that reflection process looks like in a little more detail?

Jill: Yeah, for the Reacting games, a whole day of debrief is built in; that’s one of the things that the Reacting people are pretty insistent on and I do not disagree with them. That tends to be a “Hey student, we just did this whole several days of this historical event. We changed history a little bit because in history this would not have happened and this would not have happened, so here’s what really happened and here’s why.” The debrief is very important for connecting back to larger class theme because, again, when you are sort of stepping outside of normal classroom behavior for a while it’s good to remind students as they gently re-enter why you’ve done what you’ve done and how it connects to these larger class themes, and that’s what the debrief is able to do. So, what you called reflection, Rebecca, I think of also as a debriefing. I also always have students write about these experiences. With Reacting they write a couple paragraphs reflection; I give them some very directed questions. After we did Anne Hutchinson, for instance, in my 101 class, I said, “What did you do well and what are you going to do better next time? Because we have Frederick Douglass coming up in a month.” …and then I share those with the students, like, “Okay, your classmates are really proud of how you all did this and here are the requests that people have for the class going forward. Many of you would like your classmates to prepare better; many of you would like your classmates to show up on time so you’re ready to give your speech; many of you would like your classmates to put more effort into writing your speeches and then delivering them with more confidence and poise.” In this way I don’t become that naggy teacher saying, “Okay, remember, we watched videos on public speaking before you delivered your speeches, but you are still not standing with much confidence and you are still reading from your paper.” Then it becomes the students doing it. Again, it goes back to John’s point before about peer instruction—the self or peer critique—and students don’t want to look foolish in front of their peers, so that sort of ups the ante there. With, for instance, the be the theologian assignment, and even the dialogue test, I always either give a journal assignment or even at the end of a dialogue test on a test say, “Okay, in three or four sentences what did you learn writing this as a dialogue that’s different from writing it as an essay? Or you’ve just performed the role in class of Mary Daly in feminist theology. What did you learn from being Mary Daly that’s different from you as Caitlyn talking about Mary Daly.” So, I think reflection is always such an important part of putting the lid on the assignment, really making it a full, complete thing so that it’s not that weird thing we did once in class but something that “Oh, like giving them the opportunity to make their own connections.” That’s why creating conditions for them to make discoveries for themselves and the reflection is sort of the last chance to do that and I don’t squander that opportunity. So, I think asking those questions and giving them space to reflect is really key.

John: There’s a lot of research that certainly supports that. Sounds like a great collection of activities. You mentioned of some concerns that students have. But, in general, how have students responded to these activities?

Jill: Yeah, a range of things. Some students, I will admit, seem confused. I’m thinking about the last time I did the be the theologian activity—I would say like the first month of class students were like, “What are we doing? Why are we doing this?” And I was trying to be patient and then I’m like, “What have I not been clear about?” And at some point it clicked and it seems to happen with role-play: at some point it clicked and it usually comes with one or two students and then like a lightbulb goes off and they get it and then everyone starts to get it. So I will say for anybody who’s thinking about these things or any creative pedagogy really from my experience: do it more than once, because the first time might not work, but that doesn’t mean that the pedagogy is not right; it might just mean that students are gonna need a little more time. Some students really thrive in it; they feel—I’ve talked about this earlier—they feel free to do college in a way that they haven’t felt free before and that’s really awesome to see because some of these are students who don’t speak. With Reacting, for instance, sometimes I’ve been in class with these students for a month or two months and suddenly we do this different thing and they just come to life and it’s really exciting. You get to see a different part of their personality. What is also exciting is how they then carry some of what they learned and some of the collaborative work that they did into future things like, “Oh, we really work together on this one game that we did, like maybe we can do our group project together at the end.” They respond really interestingly in that way. What I love is when I see then in their written work going forward how they make allusions to the role-play, even if it’s indirect. They start using some of the language and some of the teaching tools and some of the terms, it’s like they actually got it. So, it’s a real range. I’ve had some of my very best students not love it, but, yeah, I think those are the students who you pull aside and you talk to them about why because you can usually show them why you’re doing this pedagogy and why you’re doing something so different and they tend to have some really interesting ideas too, ultimately, and then they can sometimes help you reframe things. One of the things with this role-play stuff that I’ve been working on the past few years is I try to be creative but also humble. I’m not afraid—I try to not be afraid when students have critiques and suggestions ‘cause often they have some of the best ideas. They’re the ones who are doing it and so I invite them to do it; I think that goes to the reflection part that Rebecca had asked about earlier. Sometimes reflection means how would we do this differently? How can we do this better? …and sometimes that’s not just about students and their peers but also about me and the way the assignment is written.

Rebecca: How have your colleagues responded to what you’ve been doing?

Jill: Oh, good question. I’m fortunate because this year at Guilford we have a Center for Principled Problem Solving and they have faculty fellowships for a year and I was lucky to get one for the 2018-2019 school year focused on this performance and pedagogy stuff and specifically around trying to bring some of these ideas to my faculty colleagues. I should say again, I’m never an evangelist for these kinds of ideas because I think everybody should do them at all; I’m really an evangelist for teachers doing things that they think are cool and might work for their students and, while I’m not trying to force anything on anybody, but I am trying to help some of my colleagues just as they’re helping me to come up with new and creative ways to engage students and engage material and make what we do exciting to us. We’re going through a pretty significant curriculum and schedule revision at Guilford that’s gonna kick off next fall; we’ve got a lot of faculty who are rethinking their courses and course designs and activities and there’s not a small amount of anxiety about this change. So, one of the things I’m saying is, “Hey, this is a good opportunity to do some things that are more experimental and even experiential.” One of the things I did was, with the help of faculty development, brought in a Reacting to the Past Consortium board member who came and did a workshop for faculty development in September, and it was awesome. He was really engaging, gave us a lot to think about, and hopefully he’ll be back in January to do a small Reacting game. Reacting has some micro games that last an hour and a half. I believe some of Guilford faculty are going to go to a regional Reacting workshop in March. So, I’m trying to just invite people in—nobody’s being forced to do anything. I don’t have that kind of power, nor do I want it. I’m just trying to give people some ideas that have worked for me that I think are fun and that students seem to respond to and it helps our students. So, Guilford student population… we have traditional age students. we have very diverse, like ethnically… racially… in terms of class… we have a lot of diversity. We also have an adult population and then we have some high school students that take college students at Guilford in one of the best high schools in the state of North Carolina, so we have so much diversity, so how can we reach everybody? How can we invite everybody to the conversation? And this is one way that’s gotten people to sort of break down their walls. I think my colleagues are—some of them are suspicious and they should be—nobody should listen to this and be like, “Oh, this is brilliant, perfect, like, no, it’s not perfect.” Reacting to the Past is well-established, it’s not perfect. Some of my ideas aren’t perfect, but it’s a starting point and we can keep honing and keep working together to fix some of these ideas and that’s certainly what I’m doing. A lot of this work started with a fellowship I had a couple summers ago with the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Religion and Theology; I got to spend the summer researching performance and pedagogy and that’s where I started to develop a lot of these ideas and some of the folks that run the teaching journal in conjunction with the Wabash Center, it’s called Teaching Theology and Religion—TTR. They’re excited about this; they think it’s worth hearing about so I’m working on an article with them—I’ve already published a few things smaller with them and I’m gonna work on some bigger pieces. There seems to be enthusiasm because I think we’re at a place where we want students to be engaged. The population of students seems to be changing in terms of their preparation for college, what they find interesting, what they’re willing to sit through in class. So, this is just one of many ways to get students trying a new way of learning. I don’t think if everybody did it that it would be awesome; I think it’s fun because they’re gonna remember in five years, “oh, yeah, in Jill Peterfeso’s class we did that really weird thing. It was weird, but it was also really cool.” I’m alright with that, I’m totally okay with that. Yes, I just say also like “I’m not afraid to be a dork about these things” and I think that’s disarming and students respond to that, ‘cause I’m like, “You guys are gonna get to role-play and I don’t get to play, but I get to watch, and do you want invite your friends?” and there at first they’re like, “no” and then by the end of the class, like we did this in the spring with Anne Hutchinson, I said, “So you want to invite like your professors or some of your friends?” and they’re like, “no, no” and then with Frederick Douglass they’re like, “We could invite everybody, like let’s put a message in the college newsletter,” like they got so into it. So, that’s learning and that self confidence and that’s not being afraid of trying new things and that transition over the course of a semester… something’s going on. I haven’t measured it and assessed it yet—don’t tell the administration—but it’s doing something and they’re learning because I read their reflections and what they come up with is pretty profound.

Rebecca: Sounds pretty incredible.

John: It does. I know in my own class I went from having students write papers to have them do a poster session and I asked if they wanted to invite other people and they were thrilled to have people from the department come in and the Dean came over and visited them and they were so much more excited and engaged about it. Small changes can make a big difference.

Jill: Yeah, I think that’s my thing whether you’re doing my level one immersion, level two, level three—those are just my categories—those small changes can mean a lot ‘cause even a little bit of reframing get students’ brains working differently and gets their hearts engage in different ways, so I totally agree with you, John.

Rebecca: I’m just sitting here contemplating how I can add role-playing into my Three Little Pigs exercise.

Jill: Aren’t you already doing it? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: A little bit, but I’m thinking about how maybe the students can do it more. I usually have someone come in and be the client and role-play the client role in my design class but the students are still acting as designers as humans but maybe they need to be characters in the Three Little Pigs or something for my assignment.

John: Actually, I was thinking of that—our second most popular episode has a title “The Three Little Pigs” and I can imagine all these parents playing it for their kids and finding out that it was really an exercise for a design class. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah.”

John: Much of what you’re describing in terms of being in this third party role is exactly the same type of thing, where students are able to see things much more clearly and are able to address issues that they’d be really cautious to approach if they were doing it in their own persona and I can see that connection and the benefits of that.

Rebecca: Somehow it’s just okay to embody that…

Jill: Yeah.

Rebecca: …other that they don’t feel connected to and explore and develop empathy and those sorts of things which is pretty powerful but I think the actual acting it out or writing the dialogues would really strengthen some of the things that I was already doing.

Jill: For sure.

John: How did you prepare to introduce this activity?

Jill: When I had my summer fellowship about performance and pedagogy I spent a lot of time doing research, starting to see who’s doing this and where and I was frustrated by the lack of what I could find in humanities classes or in sort of your more traditional classes—you get a lot of great activities coming out of theater classes or some more of the arts classes, but like high school classes or elementary school, like most of the role-play books I was finding were not geared toward college students doing the material that I wanted to do. So, I think there is room still for exploration and creativity here, that’s what I like about this. Reacting to the Past is certainly a place—Mark Carnes who designed it has written this great book called Minds on Fire, which I would recommend to anybody interested in this. There are other books about reacting that really do some pedagogical analysis of student experience in what’s going on. But, I think then within our individual discipline there’s a lot we can still do and I’m trying to think about that for myself as a religious studies scholar. I think there’s got to be stuff with empathy there and belief—I mean it’s really hard for students to try to understand beliefs of religious groups that they don’t subscribe to. This seems to be a way where they can at least intellectually be trying on beliefs of others just as they would an idea and I think that also shifts the location of some of these ideas where students are I find, “okay, I can understand that someone else may have this idea but to think somebody else may have this belief is like not about the head but the heart.” They’re more uncomfortable with that. So, trying to push those ideas of the heart as they see it up into the head, I think, could be really rich and beneficial for them. I’m sort of just riffing as I’m discovering this year but when we were talking about Puritan Theology… this Anne Hutchinson game… I just kept reminding them Puritans were intellectuals. These are highly educated people, so their beliefs weren’t just of an experience of God—it was well researched and reasoned with their relationship with scripture. So, I think there’s got to be some of that too… to think that where our emotions and our motivations come from connects heart and head; there isn’t some bifurcation of the two. I think that might help us as a society moving forward as we think about where some of our ideas and inspirations come from. I hope that what they take from some of these role-plays they’re able to put in other parts of their lives, that’s really the idea, ‘cause it’s more authentic than a classroom environment, this kind of here, I have some ideas and now I’m gonna improv conversation and ask questions and try not to step on toes… that’s life.

Rebecca: Sounds like a lot of interesting research can come out of what you just said. Sounds like you’ve got lots of plans. [LAUGHTER]

Jill: That’s what I’m thinking through right now. I guess that’s hopefully the next paper for the TTR Journal.

John: We always close with the question, what are you going to do next?

Jill: Next… So, I’m currently designing a new class. I alluded earlier to the new schedule that we’re doing, so we’re going to have three-week classes—some three-week classes, some twelve—and one of my three-week classes is going to be a new class called Religion, Voice and Performance, where I’m gonna use one or two Reacting games… we’ll see… in the service of helping students think through some of the things I was just talking about with empathy, compassion, belief, reason, rationality and relief, discovering voice, whether it’s claiming your own voice while speaking for another through Reacting and role-play or whether it’s trying to figure out who you are. I think that’s another beautiful thing about theater and acting is it invites you to figure out who you are while you are dancing around in somebody else’s shoes—that’s one of the things I’m working on now, which hopefully I’ll get to teach next year. Working on this article for Teaching Theology and Religion and I’m getting ready to keep working on these assignments that I’ve designed from the past and keep making them better. There’s always room to improve them, so those are my three things right now… and helping my faculty colleagues, as they may or may not want to try some of this stuff, so four goals.

Rebecca: It’s really exciting work, I’m glad that you were able to share it with us today.

John: Yes, thank you.

Jill: Thank you; thank you for inviting me.


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.

53. Teaching faculty

How do faculty learn to teach? In many graduate programs, the emphasis is on research and publications—yet, many of these graduates end up in teaching positions. In this episode, Kristina Mitchell and Whitney Ross Manzo join us to discuss the structures and incentives that undermine good teaching and explore ways to help grad students and new faculty prepare for their careers in higher education. Kristina Mitchell is a faculty member and Director of the Online Education Program for the Political Science Department at Texas Tech. Whitney Ross Manzo is an assistant professor of Political Science and the Assistant Director of the Meredith Poll at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Show Notes


John: How do faculty learn to teach? In many graduate programs, the emphasis is on research and publications—yet, many of these graduates end up in teaching positions. In this episode, we discuss the structures and incentives that undermine good teaching and explore ways to help grad students and new faculty prepare for their careers in higher education.

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 guests today are Kristina Mitchell, a faculty member and Director of the Online Education Program for the Political Science Department at Texas Tech, and Whitney Ross Manzo, an assistant professor of Political Science and the Assistant Director of the Meredith Poll at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina. Welcome, Whitney and welcome back, Kristina.

Whitney/Kristina: Hi, thanks for having us.

John: It’s good to have both of you here. Our teas today are…

Whitney: I’m actually drinking water.,

Kristina: I have my usual Diet Coke.


John: …as on two previous episodes. One of our most popular episodes, by the way, the one on gender bias and course evaluations is in our top three, I think.

Rebecca: Yep.

Kristina: Great!

Rebecca: John, how about you?

John: I am drinking ginger green tea.

Rebecca: And I’m drinking my usual. [LAUGHTER] English afternoon tea once again.

John: I was gonna ask you if it was Dragon Oolong

Rebecca: Yeah, yeah. Sounds like most of us are drinking our usuals, huh? So it’s not uncommon to have conversations about job preparedness and transitioning from student to professional and undergraduate education. What is more uncommon is challenging whether or not PhD or other advanced degree programs prepare students for the work that they will be doing like both of you did in a recent Inside Higher Ed article. What do you think prevents us from having that conversation?

Whitney: I think that there are incentives for professors at R1 universities to recreate themselves. So, I think that it’s an uncomfortable conversation for many R1 professors to even want to start because they probably don’t want to look too closely at this issue because I think to do it correctly might call for a pretty radical change in how we structure a lot of grad programs.

John: Is this because the prestige of the institution or the department is tied to the placements in our one universities and the publication record of the graduates?

Whitney: Yeah, very much so.

Kristina: I definitely think so as well. I think that a lot of times when PhD programs are advertising their programs to potential students, one of the things that students want to see is what kind of placement their graduates are getting. So programs that place their students really well attract the top graduate students and those graduate students, because they are great graduate students that have chosen this program, they get good placements which then continues to attract the best graduate students. So it can be really difficult for sort of mid- to low-level PhD producing institutions to attract good students because of this sort of self-perpetuating cycle. But the incentive is still there to try and compete with the top-tier institution that each faculty member who’s sponsoring a PhD graduate, they want their student to get the highest placement possible which means training them like a researcher.

John: Because we don’t have a similar sort of ranking system in terms of teaching productivity.

Kristina: Not at all.

Whitney: Exactly. We could have a whole conversation about how there should be two kinds of professors at R1 universities: the research professors and the teaching professors. But in the current climate in academia, teaching professors are not considered as prestigious as the research professors for a lot of the reasons that Kristina just outlined. So there’s no reason for an R1 professor to learn how to be a good teacher or to keep up in current pedagogy because what they need to be keeping up on is current research practices.

Rebecca: One of the things that the two of you outline in your article is that there’s a very small subset of people earning PhDs who actually go into R1s and do this academic research. But most of them end up in positions where teaching is a big part of their workload. But as we just mentioned, very few of them have been trained to be teachers. So why do you think there’s such a disconnect other than this prestige piece? Is there anything else to the puzzle?

Whitney: Well, I would argue that many R1 professors, because of the research incentives, haven’t really learned how to be good teachers themselves. So they might feel as though they don’t have the qualifications to teach someone else how to be a good teacher.

John: And they’ve also been hired because of their expertise and their publications, which doesn’t put much weight on the quality of their teaching. So, what can we do about that?

Kristina: That’s a great question. So, right now I am at an R1 institution with a PhD program in Political Science and we’ve had this conversation. It is a difficult conversation to have because a lot of times, I think professors view that if their students get placements at full time at a community college or even at a teaching institution, that that’s not a good placement—that there’s something “less than” or something “failure” about that kind of placement. So I think one of the most important things is just to change the culture about the way we talk about these things and that’s something that can’t change overnight obviously—this is a really slow process. But instead of telling our graduate students “You need to publish so you can get a really good research placement,” asking students to tell us why they’re here, “Why are you in graduate school? What do you want to do afterwards?” and sometimes that can result in really difficult conversations with my undergrads who want to go into graduate school. When they say, “I want to go into graduate school, I want to be you when I grow up, I want to be a professor, I want to do research—this is something I want to do,” I tell them, “then you better make sure you go to a top 20 program.” Because if you aren’t in one of those programs, the likelihood of you getting an R1 research professorship is really low. And so if we have PhD candidates who are saying, “What I really want to do is work at an R1 institution,” we need to be candid with them about what their odds are and how they can go from a mid- or low- tier PhD producing institution up to an R1—it’s gonna be a long process with a lot of publishing and you can kind of publish your way out. But alternatively, it’s also important to value the students that say, “What I want to do is teach” or “What I want to do is go into industry or paid consultant—that’s what I want to do with my PhD.” If we can change the culture enough to not view teaching as a low- end placement instead of to start thinking of it as a legitimate career opportunity, then maybe that can help us think about how we can better prepare PhD students.

Whitney: I think that that’s a really important point to encourage the people who come and get a PhD because they want to be teachers at teaching institutions. Not only because that’s the more likely job that they’ll have, but also because of actually the tweet that started this whole thing, which we referenced in the article from Simon Hix who said that over the course of his career, the thing that has been most meaningful to him have been the interactions he’s had with students and the teaching opportunities that he’s had with them. So I think that if we have this mindset that the only thing that’s worthwhile is being a proph at an R1 and doing high-level research that’s cited all over the place, but that’s not the only thing that is meaningful in academia. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with acknowledging that… yeah, you can be a really awesome teacher and lead students to be the next generation of leaders themselves.

Rebecca: One of the things that you’ve both mentioned is the change that would need to happen takes a lot of time. So, for students who are in the position where they might want to be a teaching faculty member and they want to emphasize teaching but they’re at a university that doesn’t provide those kinds of experiences, what kind of advice or guidance can we give those students to gain the experience that they might need to actually get a job at a teaching institution, because if you don’t have experience then you often can’t get those positions either.

Kristina: Absolutely. So one of the things that I do at Texas Tech with our graduate students… So I do a lot of publication and research on pedagogy, so they’re hearing messages from their graduate faculty—which I don’t teach grad students, I only teach undergrads—but they are hearing the messaging from the graduate faculty that they need to focus on publishing and then they’re also having a realistic expectation of the kind of job they can get. So oftentimes what I do is offer—if they want to co-author a pedagogy piece with me—then that can kind of kill two birds with one stone and I can pull some of those publication expectations while making them more marketable in the teaching faculty job market. So, having a pedagogy piece—a published pedagogy piece—can send a signal to a search committee for teaching intensive position that pedagogy is something that you care about and that you’re applying your research skills that you learned in your PhD program to the way you’re gonna teach.

John: Some of this, I think, carries over a bit to undergraduate institutions where most of the people coming out of grad school tend to emphasize research that often seems to carry through through the promotion and tenure process because even at undergraduate institutions where their primary focus is on teaching, much of the promotion, merit pay, and so forth is tied to publications and it seems like it may be part of a broader cultural issue, not just at the graduate program level. What do you think?

Whitney: Well, so I’m at a teaching institution and I was actually that student that you just referred to, Rebecca; the one who knew they wanted to do teaching right off the bat. My adviser kind of discouraged me from it, but once he could see I was serious he helped me get teaching assignments at my R1 institution so that I could have that on my resume, which I would say is the number one piece of advice I could give anybody who wants to get a teaching job is have a class that you were the primary instructor on. So, at my institution now, I got my job, I’m tenure track and I am still expected to publish, but I do get credit for those pedagogy pieces that Christina was referring to, which don’t always garner the same kind of promotion credit at an R1. So I am expected to publish and be active in my field but what that means is a lot different than what it means at an R1. It doesn’t mean I have to land pieces in the top three political science journals. if I’m getting the name of my institution out in the media in something like this or if I am quoted in an op-ed, then it doesn’t count as much, but it’s kind of an incremental count because one of the things that teaching institutions often deal with is they’re smaller and they have less budgets, so they need the media attention, and that can be even more valuable than if I publish something in JOP.

John: And you mentioned the scholarship of learning and teaching; that’s an area that’s grown quite a bit in, I think, most disciplines. That seems to be perhaps an avenue by which some of this problem could be addressed (as Kristina just said). When I was a grad student, there was very little research being done on teaching and learning and now most academic disciplines have journals and group meetings or sub group meetings where they focus on these things. So, maybe that’s an area where we’re making some progress.

Kristina: I definitely think so. While the scholarship of teaching and learning pieces certainly aren’t as highly valued or are considered as prestigious at this point, I’ve been saying that graduate programs are missing a big opportunity to develop a niche in what kinds of tracks they offer. So most political science graduate programs will offer… you’re an international specialist or you’re an American politics specialist, perhaps you’re a method specialist; graduate programs are missing an opportunity to offer a track where you’re a teaching political science specialist. If we had faculty members who are publishing and experts in the teaching scholarship of political science, that program could market themselves as “we are the program that generates people who are going to teach political science,” and that could be a great way to start getting your graduate program—maybe you’re a mid-level or low-level R1—but if your graduate program gets nationally liberal arts colleges; that’s just as many state tuition dollars for PhD students as a student who’s studying international relations.

John: …and it could give those students a bit of an edge when they go into the job market too.

Rebecca: I also just want to add that these same issues apply to art schools in places where faculty might be getting other kinds of terminal degrees as well, where their focus might not be on traditional research but they’re doing scholarly activity or creative activity, like doing music or art or whatever and they’re focused so much on their studio practice that they don’t focus on teaching either, so most of the conversations focused specifically on PhD programs, but the same issue applies to some of these other contexts as well.

Whitney: Well, and I think another thing that’s important if you’re in a social science, especially, you’ve been heavily trained in methodology and we have some world-class research skills and I think it’s important to apply that to the scholarship of teaching and learning as well. Actually, Christina and I’s whole publishing relationship started because of an instructional designer at Texas Tech who gave Christina evidence that Christina was like, wait a second, I’m not sure I believe this, let me go look it up. And we were disappointed to see the lack of consistent rigor in the scholarship of teaching and learning and so I think because we’ve already been working on these really rigorous methodological skills, it makes sense that we could also apply them to the scholarship of teaching and learning and ensure that we really are achieving the learning outcomes that all of our colleges and accrediting institutions want us to achieve.

Rebecca: One of the things that we haven’t addressed much but I think is worth addressing is the role that colleges who hire PhDs as teaching faculty—what role they play in helping these new faculty members develop teaching skills and what their responsibility is in relationship to the R1 institutions who are producing these potential candidates.

Kristina: I have seen a growth in professionalization courses in PhD programs and most universities and colleges at this point do have something that resembles like a center for teaching and learning or something similar to this that’s trying to systematize the way we teach our teachers. Oftentimes these are geared toward new faculty, maybe not towards graduate students but typically they try to make them available. I think that we could do a better job at requiring them and at encouraging them as valuable for graduate student’s potential careers. I do find that a lot of the professionalism courses and sessions that I observe are more about the professionalization in terms of publishing and going to academic conferences and getting your CV ready to go on the job market and give job talks. So, we’re moving in the right direction in terms of learning to socialize our graduate students into what to expect, but I still think we have some disconnects between the job market as they will experience it. Now, maybe if you’re at one of the top 10 or 20 programs in the country this isn’t gonna matter, but if you’re not, then this could be the difference between you getting a job and having to adjunct seven courses a semester.

John: Now I think some disciplines have made some progress: chemistry and physics, for example, and math have tracks in math ed, or chemistry education, or physics education where people actually focus on research in that, but it hasn’t made it through all the disciplines. I’ve been the chair of our recruitment committee in my department for 30 years or so now roughly, and I have noticed though that more and more students are coming out with some background, even at R1 institutions, and I know when we go in the job market—maybe because of my position in the teaching center here—one of the things we look at is what sort of background they have in evidence-based teaching practices and so forth, and the people who generally come out in the top of our searches are people who have at least considered these issues or are aware of these issues. I’m not sure how widespread that is though in other departments.

Kristina: And to be fair, we are limited; we’re both political scientists, so we’re both limited to what our experience was and the experience of those in similar fields that we know.

Rebecca: So we’ve talked a lot about two different tracks: PhD candidates from an R1 institution who might get those small select positions as a researcher at an R1 institution and then we’ve got the track of people who might become faculty at more of a teaching institution. What about the other PhD candidates and those that might end up in other kinds of roles like consulting or other things that you mentioned previously? What are we doing for them, or what do we need to be doing for them?

Whitney: I think that the research track doesn’t just have to be for people who want to go on to R1 professorships because the research skills that you learn you can use in a lot of places that really need researchers, especially in government. My backup job actually, in case I didn’t get a teaching job, was going to be a statistician just because of all of the stats that I’ve picked up along the way. So, I think that the research track could be just a research track and what you do with it after is up to you but I do think that there is a whole class of people who maybe want a PhD just because they enjoy learning and want the PhD or maybe they just need the credential to move up in their career and they don’t necessarily want to learn how to teach or they don’t necessarily want to learn how to do research at an R1 level and I think those people are definitely falling out of the grad programs and that’s a shame because I think that there are a lot of lower ranked PhD institutions that again, like Kristina was talking about earlier, that could be their marketing: come here and we’re not gonna bombard you with how to publish in APSR and we’re not gonna bombard you with pedagogy, but you can get the basic skills that you need and write a dissertation and get the credential that you’re looking for.

Kristina: I think there’s also some cultural shifts that need to happen here as well because if getting a tenure-track offer at a teaching institution or a full-time offer at a community college is considered a failure then even more so I think often leaving academia completely to go into industry is considered like the ultimate failure, and I don’t know how universal that is across disciplines. I would imagine things that have a little more practical application would have less of this problem than specific to academia disciplines like political science, sociology, psychology. But, thinking about leaving academia completely is sort of the ultimate failure when there’s plenty people that want to do that and are very successful at doing so. We have a department of public administration within political science at Texas Tech and it’s a terminal master’s degree and oftentimes I hear… well,like the culture in the department is sometimes that the students that are seeking this master’s in public administration they don’t care as much about the research methods, they’re not as interested in learning the statistics or, of course, definitely not learning the pedagogy. It’s much more of a professional and vocational degree and at the end of the day our graduates from that program are probably earning a lot more money than our graduates from our PhD in political science programs. So, thinking about how we can shift the way we view our students career goals and try to match what we teach them to that. That’s something that we talk about in undergraduate education all the time: what do our students want to be when they grow up and how can we give them those skills. There’s no reason why we can’t use that same logic to think about our graduate programs.

John: The same is certainly true in economics. A lot of graduate students, sometimes with PhDs, end up working in government research positions as econometricians, working for example for the Department of Labor or the Census Bureau and so forth… and while sometimes it’s seen as being a somewhat lower position, they get paid a lot more, but we call that compensating wage differentials. T hey have to do these jobs that may be a little less pleasant so they have to get paid more to compensate for the fact that they’re not in academia. They disagree on that feeling quite often. [LAUGHTER]

Kristina: Well they don’t get their summers off.

John: They don’t get their summers off. What prompted you to address this topic?

Whitney: I just want to be really clear that Christina and I had an overall pretty positive experience at our grad institution, so this whole conversation didn’t come out of a feeling of anger. The whole idea came to me first when I was looking on Twitter and I saw the Simon Hix tweet about how much he valued teaching and I was texting Christina and I was like, you know, that’s how I feel too. I really value my teaching but I think sometimes that’s not the most valued thing in all of academia and she was like, “yes, at my institution sometimes being at a teaching institution is seen as lesser than” and so it started this whole conversation about how different the cultures are in our work, but how ultimately we’re both satisfied with where we are and that’s where the whole idea for this article came from. Just thinking about the different cultures that there are in academia and how they can vary so much and yet we prepare students generally uniformly across academia.

Kristina: Yeah, that’s a really good way to put it. Whitney and I went to the same graduate program; we were just a couple of years apart. So we received essentially the same training, which had very little focus on teaching or on what you do if you don’t want to be a researcher or to go to an R1 institution. As I’ve spoken to faculty members at our institution since then; of course we warned them that this piece was coming so they wouldn’t think we were trying to trash our department. But they’ve said that they’ve done things since we were there to try and make that better, especially as they’ve seen where their students are ending up. So, while there’s still a big focus on research being an R1 institution, University of Texas of Dallas is never going to not train researchers, but they recognize that a lot of the students that are coming to that program are looking for non-R1 jobs. And our former professors. seeing where we’ve gone—Whitney’s at a teaching institution; I am a non-tenure-track at an R1, and so I think they’ve been able to look at that history and say, how can we better prepare our students for either one of these options.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’d really love to see more programs include is something that I had in my own graduate education which was a training program for teaching—which gave me a leg up in a lot pursuits that I had professionally. So, I went through the equivalent of the professional development for teachers like we do at our teaching learning center here. I learned about ways to evaluate student work, a little bit about assessment, designing syllabi to be inclusive. So, it’d be great to have those kinds of professional development opportunities for a wider variety of potential faculty. We learned about writing syllabi to be more inclusive, we wrote about evaluation systems, thinking about assessment, designing assignments and things. It wasn’t nearly as rigorous as it could have been, but it definitely was more than many other colleagues that I had that went to other institutions and ho w our different experiences when we entered the field.

Whitney: I would have loved something like that whenever I started because I had no idea what SACS even was when I first began my teaching job, and they’re telling me about assessing learning outcomes and I was like, what are you talking about? And I think there is something to be said for throwing me in the deep end and making me learn for myself. And I definitely learned a lot in my first couple of classes, and I apologize to any of those students who are listening. But I think something like that would be excellent, even just like, here, you have to teach this class; write a practice syllabus. And having to think about what kinds of assignments you design is so enormously helpful before you’re actually on the job because, especially if you go to a teaching institution and you’re teaching a 3-3 or a 4-4, you’re not even gonna have time to breathe, nevermind thoughtfully construct a syllabus.

Kristina: I also think that this is a great place for the intersection of research training and teaching training because a lot of the things that they give us in teaching workshops—here’s what works best, here are best practices. Oftentimes I’m left with the question as someone who’s been in teaching for six years and publishing on teaching and learning, a lot of times I’m left with the question: how do you know this is the best practice? Who says? What’s the evidence for it? And there’s not very much yet. The literature is not robust enough at this time to really be able to say what works best. So if we can intersect those research skills that are social science, PhDs, that are even our humanities PhDs and our natural science PhDs, they’re getting some research training and an ability to think critically about what they’re being told. If we can intersect that with looking at what the evidence that does exist on the best practices in teaching and learning then we’re really just creating a positive reinforcement cycle of how these things all work together. None of these exist in a vacuum; teaching doesn’t exist in a vacuum, outside of political science they’re inextricably linked.

John: And even where there’s some areas where there’s a lot of research there’s often not a lot of research in specific disciplines to see whether the results in other fields hold up and there is a little bit of a replication problem in some of the areas. As you said, there’s just not a lot of research on a lot of topics that everyone takes for granted, so it’s a ripe area for research.

Rebecca: I think it’s a ripe area for interdisciplinary research.

John: When I was first teaching I had a fellowship and a faculty member left about two weeks before the semester, so the director of graduate programs came to me and said, hey, would you like some extra money in addition to your fellowship? You’ve got this class that starts in two weeks; you did really well in the graduate field, so here’s your class. And that was the extent of my training in teaching. It was the first time I was ever in front of a class.

Whitney: Well, and that’s actually a really good thing to bring up. If you are a struggling graduate student and you want to work at a teaching institution, not only is adjuncting at a Community College beneficial for your resume, but it can also help feed you for a little while. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s very true.

John: We always end by asking, what are you going to do next?

Kristina: I have a couple of pieces right now that are about to be ready to go o ut for review. They’re actually looking at some of these best practices. So we’re looking at—I don’t know if y’all are familiar with Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction. This is something that is often put out there as the best way to teach and I think it is useful to some extent, but when we examine whether it really made a difference in student performance, we found that students don’t necessarily know what order they want things then, nor does it really seem to affect their performance in the course. So we’re gonna be publishing that. Again, not with the idea that Gagne should be thrown in the trash, but with the idea that a lot of these best practices that we talk about really are just, if it works for you and speaks to you, then you should use it and if it doesn’t then there’s no reason why anyone should force you to use it.

Whitney: For me, I’m actually working on a book right now with the director of the Meredith Poll, David McLennan and a colleague at Coastal Carolina University, Kaitlin Sidorsky and our book is about women in appointed office. I’m at Meredith College which is a women’s college. Besides my passion for teaching I also have a passion for getting women into politics. 65% of women who run for office served in appointed office first and appointed office isn’t as well studied as women who run for office, so we’re writing a book on that.

Rebecca: Sounds like two really exciting things coming out soon.

John: And maybe we’ll get one or both of you back on in the future.

Whitney: Great.

Kristina: That’d be great.

Rebecca: Well thank you both for joining us this afternoon and giving us some good things to be thinking about.

John: It’s an issue that I think affects pretty much all disciplines.

Whitney: Thank you for having us.

John: Thank you.


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.

44. Industry realistic experiences

Student motivation is enhanced when students see that the work they are doing is relevant to their future careers. In this episode, Dr. Bastian Tenbergen, an assistant professor of Computer Science at the State University of New York at Oswego, joins us to discuss how industry realistic projects may be used to enhance learning in software engineering classes.

Show Notes

  • Daun, M., Salmon, A., Tenbergen, B., Weyer, T., & Pohl, K. (2014, April). Industrial case studies in graduate requirements engineering courses: The impact on student motivation. In Software Engineering Education and Training (CSEE&T), 2014 IEEE 27th Conference on (pp. 3-12). IEEE.
  • Daun, M., Salmon, A., Weyer, T., Pohl, K., & Tenbergen, B. (2016, April). Project-based learning with examples from industry in university courses: an experience report from an undergraduate requirements engineering course. In Software Engineering Education and Training (CSEET), 2016 IEEE 29th International Conference on (pp. 184-193). IEEE.
  • Dijkstra, E. W. (1959). “A Note on Two Problems in Connection with Graphs.” Numerische Math. 1, 269-271.


John: Student motivation is enhanced when students see that the work they’re doing in their classes is relevant to their future careers. In this episode we examine how industry realistic projects may be used to enhance learning in software engineering classes.
Thanks for joining us for “Tea for Teaching,” an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Today our guest is Dr. Bastian Tenbergen, an assistant professor of computer science at the State University of New York at Oswego. Welcome!

Bastian: Thank you, thanks for having me.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

Bastian: Well, upon John’s recommendation, I’m having the mint herbal mix tea, which is excellent! I’m a peppermint tea drinker, so this is blowing my mind right now.

Rebecca: Excellent!

John: I’m having ginger tea.

Rebecca: I’m having Prince of Wales today.

Bastian: I like the ginger tea, that is my favorite tea.

John: It’s good.

Bastian: Ginger and fennel and peppermint, those are my three.

John: We invited you here to talk a bit about the projects that you have students do in your computer science classes. What classes do you generally teach?

Bastian: I’m teaching in the computer science department, but I’m mostly teaching software engineering courses. We actually have two separate majors: we have computer science majors (Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science) and we also have a software engineering Bachelor of Science program. People usually confuse software engineering and computer science or at the very least don’t really know what the differentiation is. In contrast to computer science where it’s really all about programming and all about finding optimal algorithms to solve problem x for person Y, software engineering is concerned with the process of development from A to Z. So from requirements all the way to programming which is a small part of it, all the way to Quality Assurance and also budgeting. Also, the business aspect of it, so it has a wider focus.

Rebecca: It’s a little more client facing?

Bastian: Very much client facing, yes. By trade I’m a requirements engineer you can say and a very smart person who very recently submitted his PhD dissertation (which I’m very proud of him that he did finally did that). He wants to find requirements engineering as a socio technical process that implements the vision of a system given the time and budget constraints that you have. They usually also call us the context of the system, the developmental context of a system. It’s the budget, the time, the resources you have and such things. Those are considerations during software engineering.

John: In what classes do you have students engage in projects?

Bastian: Well it is very hard to teach computer science without actually using projects. You can teach the skills but at some point the art of making software becomes more than the alignment of skills in a particular way. Legitimately almost all classes we teach have a very heavy focus on projects. I’m teaching a software and safety requirements engineering course which is project-based, at least a quarter to half the students grades depends on the project. I’m also teaching a software quality assurance class where at least a quarter, sometimes half of the grade depends on project performance. I’m also teaching occasionally capstone courses, where the capstone experience in the software engineering program really tries to simulate how an independent developer develops a spoke software for one individual client and one of my favorite things to teach is a class called “Software Design”. The term design implies software architecture but it’s not just that. For those software engineers out there listening, this particular course is called that for historic reasons, but it’s really a design process class. The entire class collaborates together on producing one substantial piece of software, which is usually on the first day of class. I demand like big evil Papa Smurf that this project could be marketable, so the explicit goal is we want to market it, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but that’s the goal. Then we differentiate the students into teams and have a database team, a GUI team, we have graduate students at our university that specifically focus on usability and human factors so we have those as a team, we have requirements teams, we have Quality Assurance teams. They have to learn not only how to work together, they also have to learn how to apply their skills, have to learn how to best make design decisions, how to communicate them and not only how to communicate them with like-minded peers that are also scientifically or engineering capable but also with a stakeholder. Software engineering in general is very focused on the people who are giving the money for a project. In my classes I really focus on the fact that students should be able to argue their rationales, not to other engineers and not to other technicians, but to their grandmother because if you can explain it to your grandma, you can explain it to the person who gives you money in the project; and that usually worked well.

John: How early in the term do students decide on the project?

Bastian: So, It depends. It depends on the course. In my requirements engineering and software quality assurance class where we also teach skills, we also teach requirements, solicitation, or you teach let’s say data flow based testing, which is a new technique for them to pick up. There, I usually pick the projects for them or if they have a particular good idea we’ll discuss it, but usually it’s in the first week or so that they finalize the project. In capstone classes and in the software design process class, I usually conceive the project ideas and then we make the necessary choices, let’s say the necessary preliminary choices in the first week. What I mean by necessary and preliminary choices it’s this; I basically say “I want a universal all-transfunctionater” and no one has any clue what that is and I say “great it’s your job to ask the stakeholder, who is also me, what I mean by that.” Then the requirements team would differentiate the people into teams and the people who self-select into requirements they say: “Ok, well Bastian, what did you mean by that?” …and I say “Well, I meant… really… whatever… a cow milking device.” So the project kind of takes shape. So, I force them to come up with the requirements and to get them out of me, so that, as an instructor I basically have a dual role… or actually triple role, sometimes quadruple role and I’m project manager for them. I’m also the stakeholder, I’m also the person who gives them advice and the instructor that says “dude you shouldn’t do this because X & Y & Z or whatever. Or, maybe here’s a great idea that someone else just had and maybe try this.” More often than not I’m also the conflict solver and a psychologist that lets them cry on the shoulder because at some point during the semester everyone is just frustrated. This is part of the experience I guess but that’s why I usually tell my students the trick is to be successful despite other humans and once that idea clicks, working together never becomes a problem ever again. So as you lose one conflict earlier in the semester and then it kind of dissolves and this is when you see the students go from students to professionals. It’s my favorite class to teach because you can see how the students go from “professor, how do you want this” to “well Bastian I know you said you want a cow milking device but see we don’t have any cows, so how about we build you this instead”. It’s important in these kinds of projects for them to be able to communicate what the stakeholder wanted versus what we can conceivably give to the stakeholder given the time and the budget and the people that we have on staff.

Rebecca: Or what this stakeholder may actually need and doesn’t realize that they need.

Bastian: That’s right! Two years ago, I co-taught to this class for the first time which was great because then we could literally play good-cop and bad-cop. One stakeholder and one instructor will always be against the ideas, which believe it or not wasn’t necessarily me, and the other one was always in favor and would always say “oh yes that’s fine, that’s fine, Keep going”. But you know even if you have someone who constantly approves of what you do you don’t know whether or not you’re actually making any good progress. So it may feel good to have your ego stroked and be told that yes everything is great but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re making useful progress. Really in the end the only way you learn is if you make mistakes. On the other hand of course being told everything is bad or everything is completely horrible and how dare you even propose this doesn’t help either. So the truth is somewhere in the middle and it’s for the students to find out what goes. That’s the tricky part about teaching this kind of class, is to guide the knowledge discovery process such that they find it but they can still be successful despite having to do all the work themselves really.

Rebecca: So you’re describing mostly the setup for your software design class right? Which is a big team right that has small teams on it, but you’re all working on the same project.

Bastian: Yes.

Rebecca: Are your other projects and your other classes also set up so that everyone’s working on the same project or individuals working on a project? How are the setup similar are different?

Bastian: You have teams of students I have a very much focused on that that students would at least together with one other person. And the reason is, four eyes see more than two eyes, that’s why. Plus I encourage them like, hey, you know if you talk to another person, if you vocalize your problems, it helps, it stimulates your thinking. So that’s why I do this for example my requirements class, I give the general theme of the project and then let the students do some of it on their own. For example, a little while ago when I taught this software and safety the requirements class first here in the US, I gave the students the opportunity to I said, “okay, we have these cyber physical Rovers or robots, never mind what cyber physical systems are but it’s a buzzword and they can do certain things something makes them special”. We discussed this in class and I said, “we have these robots, and I want you to do something cool with them.” “They each have individual functionalities, pick one for different sensors, different robots had different sensors, pick one and do something fun with it”. And they pitched the project ideas. For example, one of them said, “I want my robot to exit a maze.” Great idea do it. Another person said, “I want my robot to use the camera and use computer vision to recognize another robot and drive after him”. And it was a cool project. Another team of thing was three students actually said, “no we don’t like the robots we’d much rather do something else and here’s an idea”, and I said “okay”. Soon as the learning objectives that I have to find in my syllabus are roughly aligned, I’ll let them go. My general philosophy is if the student has a better idea than me and can argue it, ok. Because I want to learn something too, right? (laughter). So I let them do it and let him explore it if they have the idea right.

John: The students would have more ownership till when they come up with the idea.

Bastian: True. Usually I’m not sure if it’s me over the project or it’s just those cute little robots that we have, but usually students are quite enthusiastic about projects. For the coming semester believe it or not we bought programmable slot cars. Remember those slot cars that you used to race on the like little tracks, you a little controller in your hand you can push more and less gas and throttle. We bought programmable ones and we’re gonna be using that in a project. I’m super excited about this and can’t wait to play with that. I’m hoping students will be excited about this too. And if they’re not then fine they’re not expensive.(Laughter). Plus we have several other faculty in our department who are quite excited about these. I’m not going to tell you the name of the manufacturer but they have a very cool API, which is an application programming interface, which is really simple and open. I haven’t tried them out yet, so I’m hoping it that’s a needle platform to automotive software engineering projects which would be cool.

Rebecca: So, as your students are working in teams and you’re trying to make sure that they’re prepared for professional life, right? You’ve talked a little bit about thinking about clients and things like that. How do you make sure that the problem that they’re solving is realistic and it’s not pared down so much that it’s unrealistic? Sometimes when students self define a project, it’s in a context that wouldn’t generally exist when they are working on their own unless they’re at a startup.

Bastian: That is so true. I would argue that finding the project not necessarily the scope, but the project domain is probably one of the two hardest things about doing the project. In fact, I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this and make some advertisement on my own behalf here, but colleagues of mine and I wrote two academic papers and we’ve just submitted the third one on project-based learning in industry-realistic case examples in software engineering to a fairly substantial fairly high ranking conference. The industry realistic examples, they usually reflect one or two aspects that you would commonly find in let’s say industrial development projects. For example, the problem of, let’s say sensor integration. If you have a little robot and you tell the robot to rotate 90 degrees, you can know whether or not that thing actually turned 90 degrees because the one motor if you have two wheels, assuming you have a two-wheeled robot one motor might be have different manufacturing tolerances and maybe a little bit stronger than the other one, so you may be turned 89 degrees, maybe you turn 94 degrees. So how do you fix that? Well you could put a little sensor on it that does that, but the only rotational sensors you have they are going to be inaccurate too. Especially if you have let’s say have the robot run on carpet rather than tile. All of a sudden the physical setting and that the robot is in has a great impact on the software that you’re developing, and that is an industry realistic problem. Let’s say you fly an autonomous aerial vehicle somewhere and try to detect wildfires, which we are currently experiencing a very hot summer with a lot of drought. So they do this, they use drones to detect wildfires. How do you know you’re actually currently flying through smoke as opposed to through humidity or through fog or through a regular cloud? You have to use sensors. It’s a realistic problem. So the domain flying an actual drone is hard, so we use a little robot which however has the same kind of problems. I was very fortunate that earlier in life, I was working with some industrial companies in research projects and so it’s relatively easy for me to figure out what could be a challenge that the software developer or software engineers is going to be facing. So in those two papers that are just described, we focused on how to apply industry realistic case examples and we figured out what kind of properties these have. For example, you want to be sure that the project that you give to your students doesn’t have a bunch of challenges, but just one is usually enough, just to focus on one little challenge. For example, get the little robot to rotate accurately, but you don’t tell them make a project that lets the robot rotate, because that’s boring. Instead you say, “hey, why don’t you write an overtaking algorithm for robots?” And usually you know full well that in order to make those robots actually overtake one another like cars on a highway, a lot of things have to fall into place. First for example, you have to figure out how to make this robot drive straight and that is already a project in an art of itself. So the other important criterion for these industry realistic projects is to have the project scalable. So toward the end of the semester I usually joke with my students and say, “well, if you can’t finish your project in time, it’s either because you didn’t scope the requirements right, or because you bit off more you can chew, development is harder than you initially thought, or maybe because we haven’t redefined success yet.” So if you can’t be successful redefine success. Which when I say that really what I mean is I tell them, listen, you can’t deliver what you wanted to deliver, fine, not a problem happens all the time in reality, instead tell me what we can expect. Given the time that’s left what can we expect. “Well, we can actually make the robot overtake”, they will say, “but we can make it drive straight with a certain level of accuracy.” That seems boring and uninteresting when I say it like this but it’s actually a remarkable feat. At the end of the semester, two kinds of students those that are happy to be done because this was horrible experience, the minority thankfully, or you have the people that say, “oh my god, had no idea how hard it actually is to interface hardware and software.”

Rebecca: Really a big lesson in scoping, it’s like how do you break a big project into small pieces.

Bastian: Absolutely.

Rebecca: Understand that small pieces have to be completed before you can put them together to make a big piece. It’s like modular design.

Bastian: Yeah, absolutely. Modular design is one of those keywords buzzwords almost from the 90s, but they were right. You divide and conquer is a recurring theme in computer science that works everywhere. If you want to sort numbers you divide and you conquer it’s the fastest way to do it and if you want to develop a software project you divide and you conquer. Your first build project one and project two. You can scope this whatever way you want. Very often actually I have students who halfway through the project realize the potential that the project has that they’re working on and say, “hey Bastion, I really would like to bring this project into this direction instead I know you said overtake algorithm, but let’s do a path finding algorithm instead.” Esker Dijkstra in the 1960s wrote basically the silver bullet of shortest path algorithms and, can I implement that and put it in the robot? And why not? Just last semester I had someone interested in that doing it. The third characteristic about these projects is don’t be a stickler too much for what the industry really experiences and let the student figure it out on their own. And the one hand you could simulate what companies develop software to particular degree. So you could say, oh we are all now going to fill out application slips or vacation slips or things like this right, but that this misleading from the art of developing software. On the other hand when you tell the student hey listen or when the student asks, “hey listen, I want to bring this in another direction because I find this really interesting,” usually what comes out is something really rewarding, In my experience at least. So the third concept is don’t overdo it students will by themselves, with enough enthusiasm, drive it into a direction that is going to blow your mind, theirs and yours.

Rebecca: So when students are working together in teams and they’re taking on kind of different roles. How do you help the students divide those rules but then also make sure that they’re learning all of the skills or techniques that you want them to learn.

Bastian: That’s hard it’s really really hard and I would say that there’s no silver bullet of how to do this. It is an unfortunate truth that the larger the project is the more people are working on the same project, the higher the chance that at least one person is simply left out and you can be the kind of person that says okay, let’s try to live this person up to make sure that they learn something, but to be entirely honest, in part, in my opinion it’s a component of the experience to make yourself available to your team. So what I do throughout the semester is encourage students to contribute any way they can and students miss understand sometimes from a grading perspective that contributing means being the natural-born leader. In my experience, every team no matter what has one or maybe two people who are really great at the technology and also really great with people and their form naturally adopt the role of the leader. Assigning a leader doesn’t really work all that often. You can say okay you’re a graduate student so you’ll have more management responsibilities and that usually works. But often there’s one non graduate student who’s also fulfilling this managerial role so part of the experience is to find any way you can possibly be helpful for your team this doesn’t necessarily have to be the leader role. You cannot be a leader and be a rather shy quiet person and still get an A in project based courses, the way I teach him. Simply because what does an A mean? An A means here an excellent outstanding student and when are you excellent outstanding student? Well, in these cases when you’re an excellent outstanding team member for your team. When are you doing that? Well, when you contribute stuff any way you can to your team such that your team can continue. I’ll give you an example, if you are the kind of person that never volunteers presentations in class, that never contacts me as the instructor with questions, that never has an management important role in the team but manages all the background communication, implements all the code, and does all the right things in the simply couldn’t contribute couldn’t do what they’re supposed to do if it wasn’t for your input; you’re an A student, regardless of whether or not you’re very outspoken and outgoing or not. On the other hand, if you are a student who talks a lot and who is volunteering a lot, and who is putting themselves in the limelight a lot, but at the end of the day your team can’t count on you because you didn’t show up for the team meeting or because you promised something but never delivered or because the stuff that you deliver is of poor quality and your team decides to drop it and not use your work. Then you’re clearly on the other end of the grading spectrum. So I have a rubric, a rubric system where I say oh can a student clearly is the backbone of the team any way possible a B student is delivering useful stuff in regular intervals and C student is well useful when being assigned work, right, and a D student is unfortunately not useful even when prompted and an e student is the kind of student where the team said listen we’ve asked you 15 times you haven’t done a darn thing we’re done with you.

John: We should know that as we go for some reason we use E’s instead of F’s.

Bastian: Oh that’s right. I’m sorry.

Rebecca: Its alphabetical.

John: It doesn’t make sense to any of us but it’s been done here for a long time.

Bastian: It’s true. So a student that is failing the course with an E or other universities with an F usually those students know that they are. Usually before they are even assigned a failing grade I’ve had numerous conversations with them not as the manager, not asked stakeholder, but as the Papa Smurf (laughter) who says listen, if you want to pass this class, and for software engineering students in our university this class is a core requirement, so they have to have a passing grade in this class to graduate. I say listen, right now you’re not. We’re also doing peer evaluations so some people could say well if you were the one that subjectively evaluates the students isn’t that unfair and the answer is yes, of course. So I’ve experimented with this, just evaluations by me, and I had some good experiences with it and also some very bad ones, unfortunately. So within disputes, and it happens occasionally. What I like to do is peer evaluations where students within the same team evaluate other team members on a scale of say 25 points and usually, and remarkably, these peer evaluations match my subjective opinion almost all the time, 100 %. Students when they evaluate others are usually little positively biased and they are reluctant to evaluate people really badly, but if you ignore that, the subjective evaluation students have of each other are matching my observations very well.

John: How often do they get feedback in terms of how well they’re doing?

Bastian: Every day, every day. We meet usually in this class, we are meeting three times a week or the university has allotted three meeting times a week. I like to schedule two meetings where I’m there and they are reporting to me in daily scrums, those of you who are software engineers,yes we’re doing AGILE methodology specifically scrum. We do daily scrum so it’s basically, you stand up when and you say this is what we have done from last time until today, this is what we’re currently working on, this is what we’ll do next, these are the roadblocks, these are possible problems, and these are questions that we have. Five minutes, everyone does it and usually takes the entire class period to figure out problems, to resolve roadblocks, and most of the time it’s minor things but gotta get done because it’s the planning for the rest. So, during that is when I provide feedback by saying hey have you done this yet or have you thought about that yet, or John Doe here, was supposed to deliver this and that, did they? On the other hand, I’ve very often we have experiences that students say well, see our friend Jane Doe here foresaw two weeks ago that this is going to be a problem, so she already did this and that in anticipation. That’s how you know you have a really great student at hand, right, when they can anticipate problems in the future but would usually only experienced engineers are able to do. So they get feedback every time. What I do however, is the third class meeting that we have, I usually reserve for project work. Because that is the one day in the academic schedule for all students in the class, and if you have 30 people in the class, that I know they have time. Especially at the beginning of the semester I often hear things like, oh we don’t have class on Friday. I’m like, no, no, no, no no, you have class. I might not be there and the reality is that of course I’m there, I’m just then the next room letting them duke it out, and when the shouting or the crying gets too loud, I walk in. Or they decide on things and they have a question and needed it answered right then right there, so they walk over to the other room, or wherever, I am and they ask me. Or I just sit quietly in the room and let the students plan the work on their own. So, the idea is that the third meeting of the week is usually when they get to make progress when they need other people to be present. We also usually coordinate using online chat functions, we’ve used Discord.

John: This is used in a lot of gaming.

Bastian: Yes yes I use them gaming a lot right? Plus all my students they’re all familiar with it because they’re usually all gamers. And we even have a little Steam community going because, you’re nerds like that. So they coordinate through Discord and sometimes they say, hey Bastian is a fine if we don’t meet in person because John and Jane are out of town because, whatever, wedding or sick or whatever, is it okay if we do this online? I say sure, I don’t care how you get it done, just get it done. That’s all I care about. I care about you make progress any way you can. Next semester I’m actually preparing for having this class for the first time in a sort of hybrid fashion. Hybrid in how a university means a portion of the course is online the other portion is a physical in class meetings and what I want to experiment with is, moving this course to an entirely online fashion. Basically simulate how offshore development works. Let’s say you have a team working in Atlanta, you have a team that works here in upstate New York, and you have another team in India or Poland or Germany, and they work together they have to coordinate somehow. So we’re gonna do this next semester. I’m excited, really excited for that.

John: Interesting. Will there be a synchronous component where you have everyone report?

John: Absolutely. So the reason why I said hybrid is because we’re gonna meet exactly twice in person. It’s going to be at the first class we’re going to actually physically meet. I tell them that from now on we’re not going to meet anymore. Instead, we’re going to meet online using an online meeting tool. The university has a couple of licenses that we’re friendly enough to allow me to use one. So we’re using this tool, we’re doing online meetings where everyone has to be present and has to do the same things we would otherwise do if we had physical, in-class meetings; the daily scrum, this is what I’ve been working on, this is what I’m gonna do next, this is what we as a team have been doing. So we still have the immediate feedback component, we can still plan ahead and we can still do all of this. The second time we meet will be at the end of the semester when we present the final project and when we show the final implementation to the stakeholder. Basically like a sales pitch. Of course that’s gonna be problematic because specially the usability folks, those part of the team who are going to be conducting actual usability tests with human subjects committee approval and everything, so we do it the actual way that a company does it, they of course have to meet. This is for next semester I’m actually thinking about having them fill out mock travel requests just to get them accustomed to this. So we’ll see how this work. I’m quite excited about this prospect. I looked at the class roster the other day and I think I have a really cool crew of really capable people and as things gonna be great.

Rebecca: What are some challenges that you’ve run across teaching project-based classes and some advice that maybe you could give to a faculty who’s newer to this methodology?

Bastian: I would still consider myself new to this. I’m actually junior faculty so I’m only, in quotation marks, an assistant professor at this university for just about three years. But our department usually have four as project involve classes taught by more senior faculty. One of the most significant challenges that have experienced this when you have disruptive students. Every once in a while you have a student who completely hates the idea of projects and frankly I was one of them when I was in grad school, I was I was one of them because at the end of grad school I was like if I hear the word project one more time I’m going to flip out. These days I have a different opinion of this. I understand that some people are just fed up with it and I understand. Especially when they have to work with other people that they don’t know that don’t have the same work ethic that they do, they get frustrated a lot. So a recurring problem is student frustration with other students. That’s why I joke with them and say well this class is not about skill acquisition, I don’t need you to know how to compile code, at this point I expect you know how to do this. I need you to learn how to be successful despite other people in your group. You need to be successful despite the fact that you’re running out of time. That kind of stuff. So it takes a little bit of convincing sometimes but usually you’ll find the trick is to find an amicable solution. Then if there’s conflict between people then talk to both sides and say listen, I’m not your enemy, I’m not here to point fingers, I’m not here to agree with you or disagree with you, I’m here to help you facilitate a compromise. That is sometimes challenging. It happens every single semester, but it’s challenging. My strategy usually is to listen to both sides and say okay and maybe you just used the word, the wrong words, maybe you use the wrong language, maybe there’s cultural differences, you have students from other countries and they might not have the same work ethic that you do they may work 24/7 it feels like and you will really appreciate your weekends off. That is fine that is a fine, thing to do we just need to be upfront about it we just say, listen Jane, I’m not gonna work Sunday nights because Sunday night’s is when I relax. Or hey, I’m sorry Wayne, tomorrow morning 8 o’clock is the only time we can meet, can you somehow make it happen? So it’s really about compromise and it’s the case-by-case thing but my strategy is listen to them all and if they can’t make a decision on their own, then I make one, and they just have to abide by it. Usually it’s not a problem.

John: Which is also a useful job skill because they’re going to be in these environments.

Bastian: Exactly. In fact, when I say we simulate the way a software company develops software, I’m not joking. We really do it. These conflicts that you have in a class like this are literally the same. Most students really appreciate the experience, they may hate going through it but they usually love it at the end. In fact two years ago, I had a graduate student who was a graduate student of human-computer interaction, of which our University has a master’s program, but her background I believe it was art. She came from an art background.

Rebecca: Probably a graphic design student.

Bastian: Um, I’m not certain about that, but probably. The strength of the HCI graduate program is that it has so many people from so many different backgrounds, which is a great asset, and you can draw from really greatly talented people. Unfortunately, the downside is well these people they may have taken exactly one computer science class ,namely introduction to programming, and they have never done anything software, ever, ever again. But this person she hated going through this class she hated every single second of it but now she is working for a rather renown company here in upstate New York and she says I’m really experiencing this every day of my life, and I’m so thankful we went through this. This is the best worst class you’ll ever take in your entire life. It’s not about making students suffer of course it is about making them experience something in a realistic fashion, and tone it down a little bit. I don’t want to be the evil boss, I don’t want to be the guy who okay’s everything, and the truth is somewhere in the middle and usually that kind of pans out. Another really challenging thing though is when you have the disruptive student. Not just someone who’s fed up with projects or fed up with people in the project but actually tries to sabotage it. Not too long ago I had a student who was let’s say, extremely convinced of their own opinion, and this person, they were very sure of their own abilities. They were very keen on arguing they would argue everything until you’re blue in the face. They would misinterpret people stopping to argue because they just fed up with it, with oh they just conceded, I won the argument. So I had this person actually say, what everyone is praising me for my great ideas. I said well, sure, but you’ve done these three components that you’ve developed for this project, and your team has used none of them. Your team is no longer inviting you to team meetings, on my recommendation, because whenever you were at a team meeting they would not get anything done. So what do you think, what do you think this is, this is not okay, this isn’t an okay behavior. So in the end we found a way to help this person become useful after all, for the team, but it was very very challenging. In this particular semester I would think that unfortunately half of my teaching load was probably just taking care of this one person. Later I found out from other faculty that they were difficult in other classes also, so it wasn’t really me or the class, it was just personal issue. Even though this person took a lot of my time, ordinarily this class is the easiest to teach because, I don’t need to prepare anything, I have no preparation some grading afterwards but no preparation. On the other hand, you also have to be ready to face anything. You walk in a classroom and you don’t know what fresh hell awaits you that morning in terms of conflicts, but as I said, it’s only experienced as conflict while you were in it, afterwards you’re laughing it off and everyone is usually happy that it happened this way. So that’s what I’m saying is like a rewarding class to teach, but it’s kind of tough.

Rebecca: I imagine you probably have busy office hours as well with project based learning.

Bastian: Oh yeah. So much so that my faculty website says, office hours by appointment only. In reality it means, if I’m in, I’ll probably have time for you. Because with classes like these problems emerge right then and there, and I don’t mean interpersonal problems I mean, oh snap, we really need to use this one server but the server just went down. What do we do now? Or, we’re using this Google API and Google did what Google loves to do, namely change their API, what do we do now? Or, not too long ago, we were developing Facebook integration and Facebook from one day to the next took away the ability to post across pages on Facebook. So the project was kind of dead in the water, what do you do now? And that’s the problem that emerges immediately and you have to fix it, the students can’t fix it. When the resources that they need vanish, they can’t help themselves, there’s no way they can recover on their own. So that’s when after a short brief moment of panic, where I panic myself, we have to fix it somehow.

Rebecca: And you become the magic wand. [laughter] That’s what my students think when they’re standing in line for project-based learning. It’s like they come in it’s like, please I can’t move forward.

John: Those are all realistic type problems that they will be facing.

Bastian: It happens all the time happens to companies all the time, if you’re in the reality of the situation is Facebook doesn’t just take this away neither does Google. Google as opposed to, for example Oracle, they don’t really change their Java API all that much and if they do they have support for the things that you use to use,it call it deprecated, Google just switches it off. But they don’t do it from one day to the next there is usually a period where they tell you, oh by the way in a year or so we’re gonna switch over this in that server. So technically as a student you could be prepared if you did enough research but realistically, they have to complete this project, and our semesters are 15 weeks long, they have to complete this in 15 weeks so you have to make some concessions. Then we’ll just redefine the scope we just focus on something else. For example, a little while ago Google took away the opportunity of making your own google map, and when I say that is not a google map of let’s say, I don’t know, Oswego New York. Using the Google map engine, make a map of your bedroom, that’s what I meant. So they took away that opportunity or they took away certain functionalities that we wanted in one of our robot projects. I said well, they can’t do that so what I’m gonna do instead? One student suggested, hey, can we use the Unity engine to model a room that robot moves in? I said sure. Unity is a game engine to make video games. I said okay sure, you can do that, but I don’t know unity very well. Actually, I don’t know it at all. So, we have people here on campus who do know this, but I’m having a feeling to become good enough at unity to make this project work we’ll take another semester of itself. So why don’t you do it the easy way? Take a picture of the room that you want to use, and then “restorize” it and just fake it till you make it. So in the end the project was successful despite Google’s API being on.

John: What are some examples of specific topics that are used in design class?

Bastian: So in the software design process class, the first time I taught it here in Oswego, we did a family tree website, like those find your ancestry websites that you can find on the internet. Mainly because my Dad, he now passed away, but my dad was really into that and he wanted a website just to show our own family tree. We did that which was marginally successful. It was a decent family tree some of the features that we initially shot for were not delivered but, you know, we can safely say it was a family tree. A year after that we did an automated clicker system and I know that John here, is very much a proponent of using clickers and classrooms. If you have seen that millionaire quiz show on TV, they have little devices, and you can basically poll the audience in the classroom or in a question or multiple choice type answers. So we implemented it, and I’m of the firm opinion that no student should have to pay money or anything because tuition is already high enough, so we implemented a free one. That was using students own cell phones and wireless network they could poll.

John: You had some classes actually use it as clients for protocall.

Bastian: That’s right. So I used it in my own introduction to programming class. I used that semester, I used them as guinea pigs. They were excited beyond belief. They kind of liked it. It was very buggy of course mainly because doing it over wireless is really bad protocol. Plus if you have a wireless network in a large lecture hall it is an even worse protocol. So there were some problems with it that we couldn’t just solve, that were just unsolvable to us. But in principle, in a small enough audience, let’s say inside of 20 students, it would work great. Last semester was particularly exciting due to a scheduling error by, I’m not gonna say whom, but say by certain administrative forces, I unfortunately and accidentally had twice as many students in this class as I was supposed to. I like to teach this class with like between 15 and let’s say 25. Because we have a lot of students sometimes we have to unfortunately have 30 students in this class. Last semester I had 50, so yeah.

Rebecca: Oops.

Bastian: That was awful. But I decided after I talked to our department head, Doug Lea, and he says well, what you’re gonna do, pick up people and kick them out? We decided that this is a really evil thing to do to students so we just bit in the sour apple and said okay fine, let’s do a red team blue team approach. Where we had the same project and we split the class in half saying you’re team blue, you’re choosing a different design solution than team red. They both implemented a Scrabble clone. Those of you have played Scrabble board game, and we can use words and play words, and the idea is that people would walk by a kiosk system, which is actually running right now and the entrance of our science building here, is a computer in a display case. It’s running a cloned version of Scrabble. People can walk by with their cell phones connect to a little wireless that is emitted there and then they get a hand dealt on their cell phone, then they can play words. Of course they’d have the usual problems like, the first person that walks by plays an unspeakable word, so we made it Oswego themed and say if you play certain words you would get bonuses and such things. I would just mentioned in the coming semester I’m going to teach this class for the first time mainly online and I’m thinking about doing a Productivity type software. Something like it connects to your email account and looks for what your emails are actually about; how much time do you spend in your emails, how much time do you waste? For me, as faculty I always feel like I’m doing 5 % teaching, 3 % research, and 97 million % of miscellaneous administrative stuff, so mostly probably emails.

Rebecca: Mostly email. [laughter]

Bastian: I want to know if that’s true. I want to see what do my email say I am communicating about the most? On the one hand you have to connect to Google’s IMAP account and download emails and then you’d have to some natural language processing to parts of speech in the email and so on. Of course there gonna be privacy issues with this. These days everyone is really concerned about privacy, as they should, so we’re gonna have a little team that is gonna be specifically concerned with making sure that we abide by ISO 27000 privacy regulations. Unless the students have a better idea of course. [laughter]

John: So our last question is, what are you going to do next?

Bastian: I’m really excited. I had a student, I was successful in obtaining funding for a student project over the summer, and this student built an indoor GPS navigation system for robots. Now when I say that I mean mainly the API. So from this grant money we bought a little ultrasonic location beacons, you could say, which can be distributed around the room and the robot gets another location beacon slapped on top of itself, and then the robot knows in relationship to all the other beacons, where it is. Using this little system he implemented a GPS type API that allows us to say, robot go exactly there, and the robot will drive up to two centimeters precise to that position. The robot has obstacle avoidance, it has pathfinding capabilities, and all that stuff. So one of the things that I want to do next is have a fleet of those robots, we have several of those robots, but only one of them is location aware right now. When I put location awareness on several other robots and then simulate let’s say exoplanet exploration, using those little things. Let’s say you have three or four or five or 20 of those robots roaming around in a large room and one of them finds an obstacle and says, hey guys, here’s an obstacle don’t run into. It tells all the other robots where that obstacle is and then the next time when the next robot comes around, to a similar location, and says oh here’s an obstacle, here’s the question; is it the same obstacle? Because if it is, then we don’t have to put two obstacles on the conceptual map, we have to do just one. So it’s something I want to do it also ties into into my research. Like one of the things that I’m really, really focusing on is to make sure that the students just don’t do boring little projects. Every student in computer science has implemented a library system or an ATM, you know boring, been done before. I’ve worked, as I said earlier, in cyber-physical systems and safety-critical requirements and such things, so I use those ideas in my classes and I want them to solve tiny little projects therein. I just mentioned earlier, we bought these programmable slot cars. What I want to do next is do obstacle avoidance and automatic cruise controls with those slot cars and just automotive type software engineering projects. That’s what’s happening. I’m really excited about that too.

Rebecca: Great. Thanks for joining us today.

Bastian: Thank you for having me, I’ve really enjoyed being here.

John: You’re doing some really interesting things there.

Bastian: I’m not doing any of them. [laughter] The students are doing them. I’m just there for the ride, really. [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. [Music]

41. Instructional Communication

There is often a misperception that being a well-liked, kind and caring faculty member comes at the cost of rigor or high expectations. In this episode, Dr. Jennifer Knapp, an expert in the field of instructional communication, joins us to discuss strategies we can employ to make the classroom a positive and productive learning environment.

Show Notes

  • National Communication Association instructional resources
  • Mottet, T.P., Richmond, V.P., & McCroskey, J.C. (2006). Handbook of instructional communication: Rhetorical and relational perspectives. London: Routledge.
  • Chesebro, J.L., & McCroskey, J.C. (2002). Communication for teachers. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  • The journal Communication Education also contains many useful articles.


Rebecca: There is often a misperception that being a well-liked, kind and caring faculty member comes at the cost of rigor or high expectations. In this episode, we turn to an expert in the field of instructional communication to provide us with strategies we can employ to make the classroom a positive and productive learning environment.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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


John: Our guest today is Dr. Jen Knapp, an associate professor of communication studies and an associate dean in the School of Communication, Media and Arts at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Jen.

Jen: Thanks, John. Thanks, Rebecca.

Rebecca: Thanks for coming. Today, our teas are:

Jen: Black raspberry green tea.

John: Tea Forte black currant tea.

Rebecca: I’m having Prince of Wales tea.

John: We’ve invited you to join us today to discuss your primary research area, instructional communication. What does research in instructional communication tell us about creating a productive classroom environment?

Jen: So, I’ll start by telling you exactly what instructional communication is… and what we do. Essentially we’re talking about communication between instructors and students that enhances learning or perhaps in some way affects the learning process negatively. We’re more interested in how messages are delivered than the actual content of the course. So, we’re talking purely about communication behaviors by instructors and students and how that affects what goes on in the classroom, which should be learning.

Rebecca: Is your area of research focus only on in-classroom communication or does it expand beyond the classroom?

Jen: One of the things I research is out-of-class communication and I think maybe at some point we will talk a little bit about that, but primarily I focus on what is going on in the classroom – specifically what instructors are doing in terms of communication and how that affects students.

John: What can instructors do to create a better classroom environment?

Jen: There are a lot of communication variables related to instructional comm. The primary instructional comm bread-and-butter concept is this idea of immediacy – and immediacy has to do with increasing physical or psychological closeness between instructors and students… and the bottom line is, if you, as an instructor, engaged in these verbally and non-verbally immediate behaviors, there’s going to be more positive outcomes in the classroom for your students… specifically learning… but ultimately, what I think is really interesting, is that even on a nonverbal level, you can influence what’s going on with your students and how they are perceiving your messages… but also how they’re wrestling with the content. So, it comes in two flavors: verbal and nonverbal immediacy. We were talking about nonverbal communication… we’re talking about everything but the words. People will commonly refer to it as body language, but it’s also your tone of voice and how you use space and touch and things of that nature. E ven something as simple as eye contact can make a difference in terms of what’s going on between instructors and students in the classroom… engaging in vocal variety… but also using humor… calling students by name… all of these things can help increase the connection between students and instructors. Most people believe that the instructor-student relationship is an interpersonal relationship, or a type of an interpersonal relationship, which means you’re connected to each other in some sort of meaningful way. All the things that you value in terms of how you communicate with your friends and your family… a lot of that plays into what goes on in the classroom as well. People want you to make eye contact. People want to be around people who are funny. So, there’s a lot of research that suggests instructors that use humor in the classroom tend to get more positive evaluations, but also there’s more learning that occurs in the classroom if an instructor is using humor effectively.

Rebecca: Does that shift with culture?

Jen: Yes. All communication occurs within a context. Culture is our biggest context. Immediacy, in particular, is very culturally based. It is something that you need to be careful of. Most of the research that I do and that I’m familiar with has been conducted here in the United States with traditional college-age populations, but certainly if you were to travel abroad and perhaps you were to teach a semester away then these rules may not apply.

John: …and it might not also apply if we have foreign students here who have not adjusted to U.S. classroom climates.

Jen: Of course. Yes.

Rebecca: So, what are your biggest secret secrets? [LAUGHTER]

John: …related to teaching.

Rebecca: …related to teaching.

Jen: Oh… no one warned me that I had to divulge my… my biggest secrets today.

Let me go back to immediacy for a little bit and talk a little bit more about that and why that essentially is a positive thing. I don’t think I listed the outcomes. You’re perceived as more approachable… you are perceived as more student-centered… more responsive… you’re friendly… you’re open… and you are essentially inviting communication. So, if you engage in these types of behaviors you are going to invite communication. If you are an introvert, I don’t recommend that you try to be overly immediate because students are going to pick up on that and then they’re going to think: “Oh, well this person is friendly. This person is a good listener, so I want to spend time with them. I’m gonna visit with them. I want to get to know them.” So, you are inviting communication when you engage in these behaviors. But something you should also keep in mind, in terms of immediacy, and this is probably more of a personal choice for me… and other people may not agree… is that it decreases the status differential between you and your students. You are trying to give the perception (hopefully it’s not just a perception and it’s reality) that you care for your students… you are engaged… you are enthusiastic… they see that you’re passionate about your content… you’re moving around the room… you kind of work the room when you engage in these physical behaviors… and so it decreases the status differential between you and them. For me, I like that in my classroom. I don’t want to give the air of being the professor who has all the knowledge and the expertise and I’m looking down on everyone and being condescending. For me, I like to have… not an equal partnership… but I want my students to feel like they are a partner in what is going on in the classroom and anyone can share an idea. I can share an idea. It’s open. It’s friendly… and that’s important when you’re teaching something like interpersonal communication. You’re talking about relationships. Sometimes that class turns into a self-help class and everyone’s talking about their problems with their partner or their family. Everyone’s telling personal stories. You can’t not tell personal stories when you’re in that class. You don’t want anyone to feel like you’re being judged or that you are judging other people. So, I like to have low status differential… low power distance between me and my students… and I can get to that point by engaging in these types of behaviors. I don’t know if that’s a secret, necessarily.

Rebecca: …maybe a secret if you don’t know about it.

Jen: …it could be…

Rebecca: …not a secret anymore,

Jen: …it could be… but I think a misconception… and if you think of it in terms of power differential or having low power distance between you and your students… and some instructors might be uncomfortable with that setup…

Rebecca: Is there a difference in gender, related to this low power difference perception?

Jen: I don’t know if there’s a difference in perception but female instructors and feminine communicators… so those are two different things… are more likely to engage in immediate behaviors than more masculine communicators.

John: You talked a little bit about how instructors can create more of a sense of immediacy by walking around the classroom, by maintaining more eye contact, and by using humor. What else can faculty do to help create the sense of immediacy?

Jen: So, remember that it’s psychological closeness or also physical closeness… if you ever had a student approach you after class and they want to talk to you, and the desk is between you and that student… or the teacher station… or something like that. Something you can do in order to create that perception of closeness is to come out from behind objects. You don’t want to stand in front of the classroom. You don’t want to stand behind the little desk. If you’re in Lanigan 101 and you’ve got that teacher station, but you also have a couple of tables in the front… the student approaches, you don’t stand behind the table. You can move out from behind the table… trying to make eye contact with people in the room… smiling goes a long way in terms of just coming across as approachable and friendly… and the idea is, if people find you to be approachable and friendly, they’re going to engage in something like out-of-class communication. You’re not going to go to your instructor’s office hours if you feel like they’re an evil troll, but you will go to their office hours if it feels like “You know what? I got this thing that’s going on in my life. I need some extra time on an assignment. I feel like if I were to go see Rebecca, she seems like the type of person who would understand or who would at least listen to me” and you can do all of that just by modifying your behavior in the classroom.

Rebecca: What happens when that openness gets to a point where those conversations move beyond class-related conversations like you just mentioned?

Jen: Yeah.

Rebecca: So, that particular example is “There’s something in my life but it’s related to the class.” What happens when it goes past that?

Jen: Sure. That is definitely a risk. If you are engaging in this behavior and you are giving the impression that you are approachable and friendly and someone that listens, as I mentioned earlier, that invites communication. So, you will have students show up at your door for reasons completely unrelated to the class… and maybe it is to seek help or advice about the relationships because they’re in your interpersonal communication class… or it just might be they think you’re a friendly person to talk to. That has happened to me and I’ve sat through very awkward conversations or heard things from students that I felt like I had no business hearing. But, you know what? Maybe if you can be a force of good… or if they are disclosing something to you… if it’s something like a sexual assault or something like that, then obviously it’s much better… you don’t ever want to hear that type of message… but it’s better for them to feel as if that’s someone they can talk to you and they can confide in and then you could help them get connected to resources, or something like that. But, then there are also, on a much less serious note, students who are just looking for a friend and they’re hangers on… and they don’t understand leave-taking cues. So, you might be packing up your things to teach your next class and trying to give the signal that it’s time to go, and they might not realize that. Sometimes you have to have very direct conversations at that point: “I have to go. I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you about this any longer.”

Rebecca: You had mentioned a physical closeness, but you also said that there was verbal immediacy as well?

Jen: Right… psychological closeness… the verbal messages would be: using students’ names, using humor, telling personal stories, engaging in self disclosure. Those would be all examples of verbal immediacy… and then the nonverbal immediacy would be: moving around the room, using vocal variety, decreasing space between you and the students, using eye contact. That would all be examples of nonverbal immediacy… and ultimately this leads to affective learning… and my goal as an instructor is always to create more communication nerds. So, I did not start as a communication major, but once I fell into it, I absolutely fell in love with it and thought I cannot live my life without this… and everything I was learning in the classroom I could immediately apply outside of the classroom. Every day in the classroom that is my goal with my students: to get them to know something… be able to do something… to better their lives… better their relationships… find an internship… whatever it might be… and I just love helping to produce comm nerds… people who are quoting comm theories to me… who are analyzing their conversations or the relationships and then telling me about it… or having them explain how they taught their father about cognitive dissonance theory and then how they used it in a work situation or something like that. That’s something that I love… and ultimately affective learning, I feel, is really one of the best outcomes of immediacy and something that’s important to instructional communication: getting students to learn because they like what they’re doing… they see the value in it… they develop a positive attitude to what’s going on in the classroom and the content that you’re teaching them… and also a lot of these behaviors… instructor behaviors… Frankly, if you like your instructor, there’s a good chance you’re going to work harder for that instructor and that you’re going to do well in the class. You might get to a point where you don’t want to disappoint your instructor… but I’d actually like to ask you a question: if you could talk about some of your favorite professors and the types of behaviors that they engaged in that you really liked?

Rebecca: That’s a good question. I need a minute to think. It’s funny, but the first thing I can come up with are all the behaviors I don’t like… [LAUGHTER]

John: Yeah… a strong emotional reaction, either way…

Jen: Sure. Absolutely.

John: I think, thinking back to my college career, which was a while ago… sometime last century… many of the professors that had the most impact on me did exhibit these behaviors. They interacted with you outside of class a bit and they demonstrated some sort of passion for the subject.

Jen: …and I think students want you to care about them… for sure. I start all my classes by asking them how they’re doing? What’s going on? So, many are in clubs and organizations, so I say “What are you promoting right now? What is your organization doing? What’s important to you?” and then finally “Does anyone have any good news?” I just like to hear good news and students appreciate that… and they sometimes, maybe once a month, remember to ask me how I’m doing, which is a win I think… to get that at least once a month? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: If you model it and eventually eventually it’s reflected back, right? [LAUGHTER]

Jen: Yeah, Eventually. I guess that’s the theory behind it.

Rebecca: The faculty that I remember the most, or that I had really good experiences with, are the ones that I had, probably, interactions with outside of class. Those are the faculty that I felt like I could go talk to. Who maybe pushed me harder because they got to know me a little bit, to know how to push me in a way that was positive rather than pushing in a way that would have a negative impact on me. They always got more out of me. So, I think everything you’re saying was completely true for me.

Jen: Yeah. That out-of-class communication piece is really important, and before we were studying it in communication and calling it out-of-class communication, people in education were calling them out-of-class experiences. There’s a whole program of research in education devoted to this… and they studied more the outcome of those events. In comm, we study what leads to out-of-class communication more than anything else. In education, they were saying “But here’s the good news… here’s all the good stuff that happens if students are communicating with you outside of the classroom.” So, whether it’s during office hours or whether they run into you at Price Chopper, the first time you see an instructor outside of the classroom can be a bit daunting or jolting. Students think that we just get put away in a closet overnight and brought back out the next day to teach. The first time they see you it might be a little bit weird, but ultimately if they see you, they see you as human and you stop and you say “Hi Rebecca. Hi John. What’s going on? I know you’ve been playing your bass lately. What are you working on? What are you excited about?” In those little things, like you mentioned, Rebecca, they add up and they definitely make students feel better about themselves. It really helps with their development of sense of self and can also help with motivation in the classroom.

John: How would this work in a larger class setting? Can these behaviors scale very nicely? Certainly walking around can, but what else can you do if you have a class of 400 students or so?

Jen: Sure. All of this can certainly be scaled up. Now I don’t recommend if these types of behaviors or being immediate does not come natural to you, that you launch right into trying to do all these things, because students will sniff out that…

Rebecca: inauthentic…

Jen: Yeah …lack of authenticity. They will definitely sense that. The same with verbal immediacy; using humor is an example of verbal immediacy, but if you’re not funny do not try to be funny. It will not go well. But, certainly you can scale this to larger classes. Whether you’re teaching Micro at 400 or I used to teach Comm 100 to over 200 students and I want to say (I’m sure it’s not true…)… I want to be able to say that my teaching style was not that different, whether I was in front of 20 students for a capstone or 200 students for a large introductory course, because ultimately I’m still teaching the way that I think students should be taught. I’m still engaging in these behaviors. I’m still aware of other instructional variables like clarity… like credibility. All of those things are still important. It doesn’t matter necessarily the size of your audience. We typically say “the bigger the audience, the more formal your communication needs to be.” But, I think there are exceptions to that as long as you are still being authentic in some sort of way. Any of our instructional variables that you might learn about can certainly be applied in a large lecture room. There’s no set of categories that “here’s what you do in a large lecture versus here’s what you do in a smaller studio level class.”

John: I know when I teach the large class I generally get in somewhere between 30 and 50 flights of steps every class and usually two or three miles of walking, because it’s a big ways around.

Jen: Oh my gosh. Yeah, Lanigan 101 is a big room. It’s a hard room to work too, because there’s a whole sea of people in the middle that you can’t get to. That’s where eye contact really makes a difference. You just try to make eye contact with them because you can’t physically get that close to them, but you still want them to feel as if you are speaking directly to them, and you’re not trying to be everything to 200 people in the room.

Rebecca: Other than immediacy, are there other theories or principles that we should be aware of as instructors?

Jen: There are a lot of instructional variables, and I think I’ll share some resources that maybe your listeners would be interested in taking a look at later on. Something else that is important to me is credibility. Credibility is essentially believability, and if you are a professor you should be in the business of being believable. It’s important to remember that communication is about messages, but at the end of the day meaning is in the mind of the receiver, and so you can do your absolute best to craft what you think is the perfect message. However, whoever is getting or receiving that message in decoding that message… it’s going through their personal filter. It might be a very benign message, but maybe they’re having a bad day… maybe they’re really hungry, so they’re not quite paying attention. You don’t have complete control over how people decode your messages. You have to remember that meaning is in the mind of the receiver. What you might find credible is going to be different than what John feels as credible. Credibility is a perception. Whether or not I am truly credible doesn’t matter. As long as you think I’m credible, I win. I might be a complete moron, but if you think I’m credible then it doesn’t matter because then everything I say is going through that credibility filter.

We usually talk about credibility as the three C’s: competence, character, and caring. …and for some people different elements are more important. Some people (who perhaps are more logically based) competence or that perception of expertise or knowledge rules the day, always. For some people, they just want to feel like you have some level of goodwill, and you have their best intentions in mind, and that’s the caring aspect of it… and for some people it’s character or it’s honesty and trust that you are being honest and your being truthful with them, and nothing else matters other than that character piece or that trust piece. For different people, different things are important, or they’re gonna pay attention to different aspects of the message based on what they value more… whether it’s the competence the, character or the caring. So, credibility is an instructional variable and it’s not just instructional it goes across different communication contexts. But, that’s something that I think would be interesting for people to know about and to learn about power… how you influence what’s going on in the classroom… also something that can be studied across communication contexts. But how ultimately are you influencing your students? Are you getting them to do what you want them to do because you are rewarding them? …’cause you’re punishing them? or are they doing it because they feel like it’s the right thing to do and they are internalizing your message and they believe in the value of the work? …and there’s some other types of power as well… and then just plain clarity. Clarity is another instructional variable that’s important, in terms of how you structure your messages for your students in the classroom.

John: The next thing we should probably talk about is: what might go wrong or what should faculty avoid doing that might create a negative environment?

Jen: There’s a program of research in the 90s that investigated teacher misbehaviors. So, I thought it’d be fun to ask you what some of those categories are. I bet you can come up with a lot of teacher misbehaviors. So, what are things that instructors do that students don’t like? Just rattle them off at the top of your head.

Rebecca: I’m thinking. I’m a thinker.

Jen: Don’t overthink it.

Rebecca: I know, but I have to still think. They don’t like it when when you’re condescending or like a know-it-all.

Jen: Sure.

John: …especially if you’re not only condescending but wrong. So, that competence is kind of important as a factor there.

Jen: Yeah. I do want to add a fun fact… yet, also our cross to bear as people who study communication. I love producing communication nerds. I love people who are analyzing their conversations. They are putting into practice positive conflict management strategies. However, you can often get accused of applying your communication knowledge in a less than savory way. So, some people get really upset because they feel like you’re Jedi mind tricking them with your communication skills. …something to keep in mind… that as comm majors, we often get yelled at for actually using what we’re learning in the classroom… because people don’t wanna fight fair. They want to get below the belt and say mean things when you’re like “Let’s be constructive. We don’t want to be verbally aggressive. Let’s try to just be argumentative… we’ll stick to the arguments.” That doesn’t go over very well when you’re having a fight with your girlfriend. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I think being late…

Jen: Yup, that’s a big one.

John: …or not being prepared at the start of class is another thing.

Rebecca: I hate when the technology doesn’t work or there’s serious user error.

Jen: For sure. Anything else on your mind?

Rebecca: They don’t like it when you don’t know their name or… that extends to… it’s not just name but gender pronoun… pronunciation. There’s a whole slew of things that probably snowball onto that.

Jen: Absolutely. You got some good ones. I thought I would touch on a couple others that maybe you hadn’t been thinking about. You did mention being condescending… but sometimes being sarcastic and using put-downs is a problem for students, naturally. Unreasonable or arbitrary rules… If you think about your syllabus and what’s in there. Your syllabus sends a message on day one. You want to think about ultimately what you’re sharing with students based on your syllabus. Inaccessibility… Students want to be able to see you out of the classroom. They want to visit you during office hours. Being late… definitely. But one I think that’s interesting, that we probably don’t often think about, is information underload. Students want to be challenged. Most students want to be challenged, and this ties into something that we’ve been talking about previously. There’s this misconception that if you have a classroom that seems to be open and friendly and you are approachable as an instructor, that that means you are the easy instructor… and I have a major problem with that. I think it’s absolutely possible for you to do all of those things to be liked as an instructor, but to also have high standards… and frankly, if you set a bar for your students and they exceed it then you should continue to raise that bar. …and ultimately having or doing tasks that the students don’t feel like are getting them to the end goal of the course is actually considered by them a misbehavior. That’s something that you would want to avoid.

Rebecca: It was a good one that it’s most definitely overlooked… and you definitely hear those conversations: “Oh, take this class because so-and-so is easy. All we do is talk.”

Jen: Yeah, there’s certainly that misconception too… in comm studies, in particular, like “What do you do in that major? …and I come from what we call “communication and social interaction” or “communication,” “communication studies.” We’ve had different names over the years. We thought CSI would be super cool and hip and turns out people are like “I don’t get it. I don’t know that is.” [LAUGHTER] We’re changing it back to “communication,” but if I tell someone “Oh, I’m a journalism professor or public relations professor or a broadcasting professor” like everyone has an idea of what that means… and if I’m the communication professor they’re like “So, you just talk all the time?” I’m like like “No, there’s actually more to it than that.”

John: Well, you do talk all the time, but it’s about something. [LAUGHTER]

Jen: We’re communicating about communication. So, it’s all very meta. Yes. [LAUGHTER] It’s a good time.

Rebecca: It’s very deep.

Jen: Yeah, it is. Of course it is, all the time.

John: Where can faculty go to find more information about instructional communication?

Jen: Penfield [Library at SUNY-Oswego] does own the handbook of instructional communication. We asked them (we being the Comm Studies department) a few years ago to purchase that so people can check that out of the library. The National Communication Association has some great links in terms of instructional communication and what to do in the classroom and how to enact certain behaviors. That is a great resource. There’s another book that I like a lot called Communication for Teachers which summarizes a lot of instructional communication literature and also talks about how to apply that to a classroom… whether it’s K through 12 or in a college classroom.

John: We’ll share links to some of these materials in the show notes.

Rebecca: So, we mentioned earlier on about talking about communication that happens outside of the classroom and we’ve hinted at a couple things here and there, but could you talk a little bit more about those out-of-class experiences and that impact on learning?

Jen: It impacts student motivation, positively. So, they have those moments…and it can just be passing in the hallway or walking through the breezeway in Marano and it’s just a simple “Hello” to a student. That’s something that they can take with them, put it in a little pocket and store that. “Oh, Professor Kane remembers my name” or whatever it might be that makes a difference. But, ultimately it gives a student an opportunity to connect with you on a different level… in a different sort of time-space continuum, if you will. Everything is crazy before class… after class… lots of people want a piece of you… If they take the time to come visit you during office hours and that’s more that’s one-on-one time that they get to spend with you to develop those relationships and certainly that can help them. Students who engage in more out of class communication tend to do better in their classes than students who do not engage in out of class communication. But, it also has… besides classroom outcomes… has better outcomes for them personally. Networking, which you were alluding to earlier… as you met with your professors, you got to know them… they got to know you… now, when they get a call that someone needs an intern or needs someone who can do graphic design work, well you and I were just talking an hour ago in my office and I know that you have this skill set, so now I’m gonna pass this opportunity on to you… because I know that you’re interested and I know that you can do the work. So, that’s a tremendous outcome for students if they take the time to get to know their professors and their professors know them, when those opportunities come past, they can give those to the students that they’ve met and they’ve spent time with… and it just gives students another way to practice their interpersonal communication skills.

John: We always end with the question: What are you going to do next?

Jen: Something that is important to me, as someone who studies communication, 1. is to always correct people who say “Communications” instead of “Communication.” No “s” just “Communication” but also to show people the value of what we study, in what we know as communication scholars. One of the committees I sit on is the Title IX committee, and I’m also a Title IX investigator. One day, Lisa Evaneski was describing some of the cases that she was seeing as Title IX investigator and she said “These aren’t necessarily Title IX cases. We’re not talking about instances of interpersonal violence or sexual assault or anything like that. They’re just, I don’t know, messy breakups…” and I’m like “Ah, we can help with that.” So, in communication, and those of us that study interpersonal communication, we talked a lot about how to treat people positively… how to breakup constructively… how to just be a good human during those difficult times… and so there’s been a group of us that are working in comm studies to create a workshop that Lisa can potentially direct people to that maybe need a little bit of coaching about how to treat people or how to be in a relationship or how to break up… but also we would open it to the campus in general. So, anyone who’s going through a nasty breakup or thinking about “maybe it’s time for me to dump this person and move on. How can I do that in a healthy positive productive way?” …how to use social media or not use social media during during those those times… So, we’re working on building a workshop on messy breakups… which will maybe eventually have a different title, but so far we’re just stuck on messy breakups.

Rebecca: I think it works.

Jen: Yeah, and our goal would also then be to turn that into some type of research as well. Something that we could could share with our discipline, in terms of how we are applying and using our knowledge as communication scholars to help solve a problem on campus… something of that nature… A dream that I’ve always had, and that I know John knows about, is to develop some sort of instructor boot camp. It would go nicely with your badging program if we could have something where people would learn ultimately how to teach… or how to best employ some of these instructional communication variables, in order to get the best out of their students. We can also talk about how to build a syllabus… how to write a syllabus… how to structure assignments… how to ensure that your messages are clear to your students… those types of things. So, one real thing that I’m working on and one thing that I would like to at some point…
JOHN… an aspirational goal…

Jen: Yeah… actually launch…

John: oI think we’d like to see something along those lines to here.

Jen: …and I do think it’s important to say I’m not the only person that knows about this stuff and that studies it so I’ve got colleagues in Comm Studies Katherine Thweatt and Mary Toale, all three of us graduated from the same doctoral program in instructional communication, so there are a handful of us that are interested in this and that are dedicated to it, along with some other great interpersonal scholars in Comm Studies.

Rebecca: I think that what’s really exciting about your workshop idea… that hopefully is not just an idea real soon… is that students will see a discipline in action… and the more ways that we can do those sorts of things on campus, the more real it is for students about how these things that seem like they’re not applicable or they’re not applied somehow…

Jen: Right.

Rebecca: …in action. Some fields are maybe more obvious than others and so the more we can be visible as scholars in the community and sharing that knowledge with the community, I think, is always really nice.

Jen: Yeah, instructional communication is a great example of an applied field.

John: Very good. Well, thank you.

Jen: My pleasure. Thank you both very much.

Rebecca: Thank you.


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

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

40. Design Thinking

When we design our classes, we often focus primarily on the learning objectives that we determine for our students. Might our classes be more effective if we focused more on our students’ needs, objectives, goals, and the barriers they face? In this episode, we examine how we can use design thinking to make our classes better serve students’ needs.

Show Notes


John: When we design our classes, we often focus primarily on the learning objectives that we determine for our students. Might our classes be more effective if we focused more on our students’ needs, objectives, goals, and the barriers they face? In this episode, we examine how we can use design thinking to make our classes better serve students’ needs.


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: Allison Rank joins us again today as a guest host. Rebecca has been once again displaced and she’s in the guest chair this week. Welcome Allison and Rebecca.


Allison: Thanks.

John: Today our teas are:

Allison: Cold water.

Rebecca:…once again.

John: …and my tea today is a ginger tea

Rebecca:…mine’s English afternoon. I almost thought that with today’s episode we should have made it water day or something, in honor of Allison.

Allison: I will keep coming, but I’m not drinking tea.


Rebecca:We’ll have to get you sick one more time.


John: There’s been a lot of discussion in various groups about the importance of introducing design thinking and we’ve also heard bits of that discussion from you on previous podcasts. So today we’re going to talk a little bit about design thinking. What exactly is design thinking?

Rebecca:Design thinking is a methodology that is probably familiar to most people in creative fields, because it’s something in common that most creative fields have. So, it’s not necessarily unique to design, and it’s also a process that’s common with innovators. But, really it’s an idea that you’re empathizing or getting to know your audience and seeing the process or the solution through their eyes. We’re not just coming in with the idea that “I know the solution. I know what the outcomes gonna be already…” but being open to the idea that it could be something else… and not having my preconceived idea… and that’s where the innovation actually comes in… and so you use that empathy to help define a problem. Then there’s a big process of ideation. You’re really breaking out of the normal, or the quick or ready-at-hand, answers or solutions that we might have from the ideation stage. Then you prototype. You’ll try something out at a small scale, then you test it see how it actually works…. and then you go back and revise it and do it again and again and again… When you’re using design thinking you may end up ultimately with a solution, but as a faculty member the way that I implement it, it’s never probably fully finished… that implementation stage just goes again and again.

John: Well, isn’t that just the notion of recurring reflective practice? A useful thing to do in any case, right?

Rebecca:Yeah, I think the key piece that tends to be missing from more traditional ways of developing curriculum or being in the classroom is the piece of looking at it through the students perception or lens… and it’s not just thinking about “what classes have they taken before” or “what don’t they know” but rather: “Where are they having fear? Where are they struggling? Where are they concerned? Where do they have some delight or surprise in the subject matter? What are their goals?” …and actually starting with that rather than starting with “Here’s the content you need to have.” So, I think that that’s a big difference between more traditional practices… and obviously there’s backwards design that starts with the end goal, but the design thinking mixes more of the students perception than would be otherwise.

John: So, more focus on audience?

Rebecca:Yeah, definitely.

Allison: Can you actually distinguish between backwards design and design thinking for a minute?

Rebecca:Yeah, I can try. [LAUGHTER] Backwards design… I’m sure many people have heard in relationship to curricular development… and that’s generally thinking about what you want the student outcomes to be… and you start with the outcomes and then you essentially work backwards from there. so how do you get students to end up at those outcomes… but, it’s usually more from implementing evidence-based practices and based on that science that’s what you would do… and it doesn’t necessarily take into account this particular group of students, or that audience piece as much. There’s definitely things in common.

John: Just to elaborate a little bit, you’d start with the goal, and then you’d work back to how you would measure that goal, in terms of designing assessment, and then you would build the learning objects… but it’s a somewhat different focus. It’s more just on getting students to the goal without as much focus on their needs or their motivation or interest, perhaps?

Rebecca:Yeah, I would say that it aligns really well with more traditional design practices, rather than user-centered design practices… where let’s say, if I’m doing an actual design work for a client, like a graphic design piece, and someone comes with their business goals or outcomes and I’m just focusing on that… that’s very related to backwards design and that we’re thinking about our curricular goals that’s aligned. This piece brings in that user centeredness or the audience.

John: Are the two necessarily exclusive though? Because I would think that you could use a design thinking approach as a way you design the learning approach, or am i misinterpreting that?

Rebecca:No, I think all the design thinking does is adds audience into backwards design. It’s backwards design but there’s a much bigger focus on audience as a result. But the other pieces are in common.

John: Maybe if you could provide an example of how design thinking might affect the way you structure instruction…

Rebecca:Okay. I’ll use an example from one of the classes that I’m working on right now, because it’s in my head. One of the things that I’ve been struggling in the classes that I teach is getting students to understand designing with accessibility in mind… and accessibility means making sure that whatever product you’re designing is available to all people including people with a wide variety of disabilities… from maybe a more traditional backwards design approach I might identify: they need to understand the accessibility principles, apply them in a design (and that would be the outcome that I’m looking for), and then I would figure out how I would measure that using a rubric on a project, and then move back from there and figure out some learning activities that they might need to do to practice those skills and have retrieval practice and that kind of thing… but if I’m thinking about it from a design thinking perspective, I’m not assuming that the outcome is gonna be this particular design with this particular thing in mind. It’s not a project, necessarily, but rather I’m gonna start with the idea: “Why do students struggle with the idea of accessibility in the first place?” Part of it is they think that it doesn’t apply to the work that they’ll be doing, so they don’t see how it’s relevant. Part of it is they may not understand the wide variety of disability that’s there… or how people with disabilities might use a website. They’re not familiar with the assistive technologies… how they work, etc… in part because a lot of existing examples are at a level much higher than a beginner. So, it might be hard to relate to. They get frustrated because there’s a technical component to it and that’s also new on top of the design piece. See, if you keep going through that whole list of activities… or maybe they feel like they can’t talk about disability because they don’t have the language to do that. Now, there’s a whole pile of other potential problems that I need to solve, rather than just assuming I need to teach the accessibility principles. For me to be able to do that now, I’m realizing. I need to teach a little bit about disability… I need to teach about talking about disability,… as part of that integrated process to actually reach that goal… and not just the content that would reach that goal.

Allison: If, as a faculty member, and I’ve been struggling to do this a little bit… there was a workshop that you offered at the start of summer that a number of faculty went to, what would you recommend when you’re trying to first start thinking about making a shift to designing classes using this strategy?

Rebecca:I think the best place to start is… one small thing. Maybe there’s one thing that students are struggling with in your class. I’m not sure what that might be. Maybe it’s writing an argument, so we can be a more specific. That’s the instructional objective. Now you need to start thinking about “how does that relate to a student’s needs?” or “where do they get stuck or where do they get frustrated?” or “what do they already know?,” “what are their misperceptions?” and you start from their perspective and some of that’s through observation. So, you can probably answer some of those questions just based on your own observations from having taught writing in your classes.

Allison: Sure.

Rebecca:Some of it might be you need to ask some questions of that population to better understand why they feel like they get stuck. It might be interviews. It might be surveys or questions in class.

Allison: Yeah.

Rebecca:You get a feel for that, then you start trying to figure out “Okay, if I want them to write arguments better, but this is their barriers, hurdles, and goals, where can you find some… essentially… synergy between those that you could focus on? …and then define an actual problem that you want to solve. You might initially start thinking “Oh, the problem I’m trying to solve is students don’t know how to write an argument,” but actually if you’re using design thinking you would be open to the idea that that’s not the problem you’re trying to solve… and you allow that exploration to allow you to gather more information to come up with a better problem statement that puts the user or the audience (or in this case, the student) at the forefront as opposed to your objective at the forefront.

Allison: I think the place where for me, even in the initial explanation, as a faculty member I get tripped up is the immediate knee jerk that is “Sure, but then by the end of the semester I need them to write an argument.” So, at some point I’m gonna refocus to the objective being writing an argument. When in the process does that come back?

Rebecca:What you’re assuming is that that ever goes away… and it doesn’t. Rather, you’re just reframing the problem. If the hurdle is “I don’t know what an argument is…” that there’s two sides to an argument perhaps…. at least…

Allison: Yeah…

Rebecca:…or there’s multiple perspectives that are involved in the argument, then it might start with that, in overcoming those perceptions… in doing some exercises to move towards… it’s not that you won’t get them to do that in the end…. but maybe you’re always thinking it has to be a paper… and I’m just putting words in your mouth….

Allison: Sure.

Rebecca:…it might not be that…

Allison: Sure.

Rebecca:…but maybe your assumption is that the only way I can get there is they have to write a paper… but maybe there’s some other kinds of ways that they can practice doing an argument that’s not a paper first… that might take advantage of some of their strengths or their perceived strengths that could help them be more confident to do the thing you want them to do ultimately. But, I think it’s really about the starting point… the journey to get to that place is very different if you’re thinking about the student first, rather than my goal of writing an argument first.

John: When you talk about focusing on the student first, would you focus on what preconceptions they have? what barriers? and what’s preventing them to get to that? …and then focus on designing ways of getting them to achieve that goal.

Rebecca:Yeah, definitely, and also what some of their goals are. They might have goals that are related, that you could bring to the forefront or make that the lead… that’s the hook to get them where you want them to go… Use the things that they care about as a way to get there. we’ve talked in the past from some of the reading groups and things that we’ve done on our campus about the big questions that you can surround your class around. That’s one of the strategies that might help you get more student focused. That’s a strategy that you could use.

So, you were saying that some of the things that we need to focus on would be misperceptions and that sort of thing, but I would expand that… and this is where most academics get nervous. I know Allison does… [LAUGHTER] ..is that we start getting into the severe qualitative space.

Allison: Yes.

Rebecca:…and feelings… [LAUGHTER]

Allison: Yes.

Rebecca:We know that fear, though, prevents learning. There’s certainly evidence about that. Understanding fears could be really important… understanding aspirations… understanding what their experience is like… which are all things that don’t have hard facts necessarily associated with them. They’re more squishy.

Allison: There are also things that change from class to class.

Rebecca:It’s true.

Allison: …it’s part of what makes me very concerned about trying to implement this as part of my syllabus design.


Allison: …because what works really well for a class may not for the next one and it strikes me as difficult to tell until you are three, four, or five weeks into the class that it’s gone awry.

Rebecca:Yeah. I think that you want to use design thinking on individual small things and, if you’re a design thinker, you’re flexible… in that you can recalibrate… “Oh, this is off course,” that’s the iterative part… that you’re not married to some solution. It’s not so precious… If you’re thinking about developing these things, part of what you want to focus on is the idea that: a) it’s not precious… the learning is precious… but the way that we get the learning done isn’t. That sometimes helps… just remembering that… but it doesn’t have to be perfect all the time.

Allison: Right. Sure.

Rebecca:So, I would focus on… there’s some things that are gonna work, in general, most of the time… and those are probably things to say like “Okay, I’m close enough on that” but then there’s always gonna be the one thing… it hasn’t been working for awhile… and those are the things that I would focus on using a design thinking method to get you outside of standard solutions so that you might actually find something that works…

John: It sounds like you’re also suggesting maintaining flexibility so that if you’re trying an approach and it’s not working, go back to the drawing board and redesign it. I seem to remember hearing something about a case where someone was doing something in a class and it wasn’t working that well and they brought in the three little pigs.

Rebecca:Yeah, I think something like that might have happened… [LAUGHTER]

John: …and that was in an earlier episode of our podcast… you discussed that… and that seems like a really good example of this, where the approach that you thought would work based on past experience and so forth just wasn’t working that well. So, you changed it to something that did work better with that group of students. Is that correct?

Rebecca:Yeah, as you teach over time, and if you’re teaching the same kinds of things over time, what you end up with is a repertoire of things that you can use or a repertoire of assignments or experiences or modules or whatever that you can mix and match as your student population changes… and one thing that I struggle with is the mix of my students changes very drastically between semesters…

Allison: Right.

Rebecca:…and that’s actually why I have to mix things up. If I have all majors one semester but then it’s like a hodgepodge…

Allison: Sure.

Rebecca:…another semester, then you really have to approach things differently…

Allison: Yeah.

Rebecca:…or it’s just not gonna work. As you develop these tools for one population you don’t abandon them forever if it didn’t work this time around, but that might be the thing that you bring back in another time… recognizing like “I see these patterns again…” I think, over time, then you end up with that repertoire, so it’s not a big workload issue. You can’t think that you’re gonna solve every problem… every semester… all the time. That’s not a workload related thing… but over time, you have the ability to solve problems on the fly much easier.

Allison: Are there particular resources you would recommend that faculty go to if they’re trying to figure out how to start doing this for a class?

Rebecca:There’s a few colleges that have really embraced the idea of design thinking for populations of students outside of design. One of them is the “D” school which is at Stanford, which is kind of a hodgepodge between design and business, I think… kind of an interesting strategy based program, but they have a virtual crash course in design thinking online. There’s a scenario… and how to facilitate… in a playbook for how to facilitate it. You could go through an exercise like that. It’s all free, It’s a creative commons license… to just figure out how to design think before you start trying to apply it to your own context. That would be one way of doing it. There’s also IDEO which is a design company who’s best known for design thinking and working with pretty major brands doing pretty innovative things…. and some of the founder names are in a lot of the literature on design thinking. One of them is Tim Brown and the other is David Kelly. David Kelly is the founder of the d.school as well… but both of them are founders of IDEO. They have recently set up online classes in design thinking and design thinking for leadership and creativity, and what have you… and they have a wide repertoire of them. That would be another resource. You have to pay for those courses, but those are the absolute experts in design thinking. You know it’s a design thinking workshop when you see a lot of post-it notes.

John: ..and are there any books or other references that might be useful in addition to these?

Rebecca:Yeah. Those same two people have a couple of books that might be worth checking out. One is by Tim Brown called Change by Design and David Kelly and his brother Tom wrote a book called Creative Confidence that is also pretty good. That has a lot of design thinking and creative thinking for leadership in it. Both of those books provide a good frame for how to use some of these methodologies in context outside of design. The key thing to remember about design thinking, and this goes back to one of your earlier questions Allison, is that it’s not linear… [LAUGHTER] It’s a completely nonlinear super messy process… and so it makes people from certain disciplines really anxious. There’s not like a beginning, middle, and end. It’s a spiral that gets mixed and turned over and over again. it’s important to remember that. There is some science involved, because we certainly want to be using evidence-based practices and things as we’re coming up with solutions… but there’s a little bit of intuition based on experience that comes through. There’s a little bit of emotion that’s there… and really thinking about it holistically rather than just from one perspective is really key.

Allison: How have students responded to units that you designed using this? or do students know? Is this one of those processes that ideally students don’t see? or is it a process that, particularly for your field, ideally students do see?

Rebecca:I’ve never pointed it out. It’s an interesting question. I tend to point it out more when I’m working with teachers… because I just can’t help myself but explain my process comes from my discipline. That’s why I do what I do, but it’s related to these other design practices that are related to curriculum. It just brings this other piece in. In general, I can tell the ones that I’ve spent time designing versus things that I haven’t as much. Those work better and what John was referring to before when I stopped everything because things weren’t working and I recalibrated and really thought about the students and where they were at… that worked fantastic. I’m really hoping… I guess we’ll know after this little accessibility experiment that I’m doing right now whether or not using the design thinking method is gonna solve this particular problem… but I think the key is when it doesn’t, that’s okay… because it’s not precious and I can iterate and learn from what I tried… and that didn’t work… so why didn’t [it] work and then try something else. I think ultimately it does end up working, but it might take a couple tries and that’s in part because you can’t tell the future… and you don’t know the future based on the past… but it’s really focusing on the present… This is what I can observe… This is what I know about the students… This is what they can tell me… and I can only really make decisions based on that…

John: How do you assess how well it’s working at any given time?

Rebecca:The same way that we assess student learning… my student learning outcomes are better than whatever I did must have worked or I don’t really care it worked… if they’re doing well, let’s keep it. [LAUGHTER]…make a thumbs-up….

John: What I meant to ask is do you monitor this when you try something new as it’s going to see how it’s going or do you wait until you see the final stage?

Rebecca:I’m watching and observing during the process to see whether or not students are catching on and I will intervene if it’s not working… if I’ve tried something and it’s like “ah yeah. I can foresee this crashing and burning in the next couple of classes…” or whatever then I’ll circle back and do the iteration before the end of the semester sometimes it’s between semesters that I do iterations and sometimes I just recalibrate in the middle of a semester on something and make some minor tweaks to something so it works better for the students.

Allison: I think the thing that’s interesting there is I suspect that most faculty would say “oh yeah, I can feel when something’s going off in my class” and I think many of us at least try to stop and say “okay, what do I need to do to fix this?” What seems different is what question are you asking. What are the series of questions you ask when it’s time to say “Oh, this has gone off the rails in some way…” and I think it can be easy to say “with this group of students it’s gone off the rails” without actually thinking about “Is there something different about that group of students that’s why it’s gone off the rails?” Which seems like the insight that the design thinking may really provide. For a lot of faculty would already say but I do design my classes really carefully… or I have lots of things that I run that are different from class to class that it’s really about where do you start….


Allison: …the questions.

Rebecca:Yeah.I think you’re right. The series of questions that I asked might be quite different. I still start with those same goals, but I start with all those questions about students and then in the middle of the semester I revisit those questions often. Did I make a good choice about that? I have these non-design students in my class, do they seem like they’re getting the design piece or not? If they’re not, then I did something wrong. I need to fix that because that’s not okay. I certainly do that and sometimes I just ask them: “What do you need? This is not working. I can see it’s not working. I’m sure you can feel it’s not working. Do you know what you need? Because if you know what you need then I’ll start there.” …and I think it’s a willingness sometimes to be willing to have a conversation… and it does have to be with all students… but if you have a couple students who maybe are a little more forthright, or you have a good relationship with, I’ve done that… “What do you think is going on here?”

Allison: Yeah, and I think to me that gets back to the question I asked earlier, which is “Do you make it transparent to your students the same way that I think we’ve talked about in other contexts… that for assignment sheets, you want to say “The purpose of this assignment is to get you from point A to point B and this is what I’m trying to do is to actually say “Hey, we can all feel that this went wrong” beyond just coming in and saying “Hey, we can all feel that this isn’t going great, here’s what we’re gonna do…” instead it’s “Hey, we can all feel that this isn’t going great. I’d really like to hear from your perspective what’s going wrong, but also what do you need for me so that I can make sure to adjust in a particular way.”

Rebecca:Yes, I make that part transparent.

Allison: OK.

Rebecca:If things go wrong I certainly…

Allison: Yeah.

Rebecca:…whatever. [LAUGHTER] I’m an open book. I make mistakes. I’m human… but I don’t always hold to the forefront that I’m using a process that’s user centered or audience centered.

Allison: OK.

Rebecca:That might be obvious when I asked them for their perception…

Allison: …what they’re looking for. Yeah.

Rebecca: I just don’t name it.

John: …and that’s what I was thinking about when I was asking that. That I would think that getting some feedback from them, if you’re going to focus on the needs of the students it would be really important to make sure that you’re meeting those needs as you move through.

Rebecca:Yeah, and I always start my classes getting to know students. I do an exercise the first day of class that’s called “hopes and fears” that brings out some things that I may or may not be aware of… Often I am… there’s certain things that bubble up every time, but every once in a while there’s something there that I wasn’t expecting to be there… and then you can kind of ask about it and get a feel for it and that’s right at the beginning of this semester. “Oh, okay something new’s here, I should be aware of that.

Allison: That’s one we’ve talked about before… that I am actively planning to steal from many of my classes.

Rebecca:It works really well.

John: Now, that approach can work really well in a smaller class of the sizes that you normally teach. How might that scale to larger scale classes?

Rebecca:I think that that can work. Probably the amount of flexibility you can have in the middle of this semester might not be there. You can make some shifts, or whatever, but there’s a lot more students to deal with, so you’re not quite as mobile or nimble. There’s that. You may have to do more of the iteration between semesters rather than within this semester. If you’re steering a big ship, you can’t make a drastic turn. You can kind of steer it in a slightly different direction and make minor corrections, but I don’t think you could do a major correction in the same way that I could do in a smaller class. I just don’t think it’s that feasible or advisable. [LAUGHTER]

John: But, you could still try to get feedback from the students on how it’s working… what’s working well… what’s not working well… It could even be just from surveys even. Because it might be harder to get that small group feedback result.

Rebecca:Yeah, and I recommend doing that every semester… getting a feel for that… something that’s separate from standard course evaluations… not at the same time as course evaluations… not at the end of the semester when students are stressed out… at different points in this semester, you can get that feedback and there’s a wide variety of ways that you can collect that information.

John: …and responding to that could be useful too… letting students know that you do hear their voice and that you are responding and making adjustments where you can, or at least being transparent, and letting them know why perhaps some of the things that they think might help might not work as well if it’s not consistent with evidence-based teaching or something similar.

Rebecca:Yeah, and I think you can also say “Well, thanks for your feedback. I can’t make all the adjustments I’d like to this semester, but I’m gonna use it for next semester just like I used the previous semester’s to make this class better for you.” I think if you indicate that then students are more interested or invested in giving you useful feedback.

John: They know their voices are being heard and their needs are being addressed, even if it’s not going to immediately benefit them.

Rebecca:Yeah, yeah… and depending on how big your major is maybe I can’t adjust it in this class, but you might have another class with me, and I might take this information under advisement for that other class that you might end up being in.

John: One of the things we did with our reading groups is we had faculty from many different disciplines getting together and talk about problems they experienced in their courses and then we had people from different disciplines respond with techniques that they found useful. Would that be a good way of trying to encourage faculty, perhaps, to do more design thinking? by talking with colleagues from other disciplines as well as their own?

Rebecca:Yeah. I think one thing that you could do in a setting like that is to remind faculty to investigate who there audiences… to gain empathy for their audience… really their students… but then to take advantage of those opportunities to interact with other faculty, ideally faculty not from your own discipline because different disciplines think different… and use those group opportunities for that ideation piece… because the solutions that come to you most naturally are aligned with your own pattern of thinking… but if I have a conversation with Allison, who’s in political science and I’m in design… something she does in her class may not directly apply to what I’m doing, but all of a sudden it gets me to think differently about what I’m doing and the students that I have… or maybe there’s similar issues that students are struggling with. I find all of those interactions with other faculty to be most valuable for that ideation. I can’t ideate in a room by myself… Really all that ideation, even if I’m not sitting with sticky notes and brainstorming or doing a specific brainstorming activity, those interactions with other faculty feed my ability to come up with ideas that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Allison: I think they also tend to feed empathy. It’s that sort of experience of sitting in rooms with other faculty and hearing them throw off language… that it gives you that moment that you don’t have as much anymore, maybe… that you had an undergrad when you were suddenly in a class and were like “Oh, I don’t know what this is about… at all” and it’s clearly just the base vocabulary of somebody else’s discipline and sort of be the person who has to say “This is super interesting, but I don’t know where we are in this conversation right now…” can, I think at least for me, often help with that feeling of “Oh, this is what the students that take my intro to political science gen ed class… that’s what they’re feeling when they’re sitting in the classroom…” and I think that’s… in terms of just being in a headspace to think empathetically with our students… can be very helpful.

Rebecca:Yeah, and I think that happened a lot when we were doing our syllabus workshop this past spring. There were faculty from a wide range of disciplines that were in the room. I think there was only overlap between two faculty. When we were having conversations or were talking about different pieces of the workshop would be like “Wait a second, I thought it was like this…” We have our own misperceptions of each other’s disciplines and it came out in those conversations.

Allison: Right, or people would raise “This is the prompt I would use in my poetry class and we all had a “Oh, we don’t think that means what you think it means.”


Allison: At all. I thought that was a very valuable part of doing that workshop.

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely… and that’s the ideation piece. You got to get yourself out of thinking in the way that you normally think, and that’s where you come up with the innovative ideas.

John: Well, at this point, we normally ask our guests what are you going to do next? So, Rebecca, what are you going to do next?

Rebecca:Vacation…. I’m going on vacation.

John: Where are you going?

Rebecca:I’m going to Iceland.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca:I just need a break. I’m gonna come back and work on the accessibility stuff that I had started. I have a grant actually to support that work through Teach Access.

John: Congratulations! I saw that you had tweeted that.

Rebecca:Thanks. That funding will help me do some of the things that I’ve wanted to be able to do for a long time, which involves inviting the disability community into helping me develop some of the exercises that I do with my students.

Allison: Great.

John: Okay, well thank you for serving as a guest, and I guess I’ll see you when you get back from Iceland and I get back from North Carolina.

Rebecca:Yeah, which is about the same day.

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

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

38. Reflective practice

Now that we have been on summer vacation for a while, we thought it would be useful to take a break from our usual interview format to reflect on the previous semester and our plans for the fall. We also provide some recommendations on summer reading related to professional development.

Show Notes

  • Sue, D. W. (2016). Race talk and the conspiracy of silence: Understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Guffey, E. (2017). Designing Disability: Symbols, Space, and Society. Bloomsbury Publishing.
  • Evans, N. J., Broido, E. M., Brown, K. R., & Wilke, A. K. (2017). Disability in higher education: A social justice approach. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Hogan, Lara (2016). Demystifying Public Speaking. A Book Apart (https://abookapart.com/products/demystifying-public-speaking)
  • Hoffman, Kevin H. (2018). Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers and Everyone.  Rosenfeld Media.
  • Openpedagogy.org
  • Schwartz, D. L., Tsang, J. M., & Blair, K. P. (2016). The ABCs of how we learn: 26 scientifically proven approaches, how they work, and when to use them. WW Norton & Company.
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. West Virginia University Press.
  • McGuire, S. Y. (2015). Teach students how to learn: strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Parkes, J., & Zimmaro, D. (2016). Learning and assessing with multiple-choice questions in college classrooms. Routledge.
  • Lewis, M. (2016). The undoing project: A friendship that changed our minds. WW Norton & Company.The Undoing Project – Michael Lewis
  • Tea for Teaching podcast: 15. Civic Engagement – a discussion with Allison Rank about the Vote Oswego project.
  • DeRosa, Robin (2017). “OER Bigger than Affordability” Inside Higher Ed. November 1.
  • Tea for Teaching podcast: 30. Adaptive Learning
  • Videoscribe
  • Flipgrid
  • Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Harvard University Press.
  • Learning How to Learn MOOC
  • Oakley, B. A. (2014). A mind for numbers: How to excel at math and science (even if you flunked algebra). TarcherPerigree.
  • Oakley, B. (2017). Mindshift: Break through obstacles to learning and discover your hidden potential. Penguin.
  • Oakley, B. (2018). Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School without Spending all your Time Studying; a Guide for Kids and Teens. Penguin.
  • Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
  • Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc..
  • Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Teaching in Higher Ed – Bonni Stachoviak
  • Teach Better – Doug McKee and Edward O’Neill
  • Email addresses: john.kane@oswego.edu and rebecca.mushtare@oswego.edu

John: Now that we have been on summer vacation for a while, we thought it would be useful to take a break from our usual interview format to reflect on the previous semester and our plans for the fall.


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 teas are:

Rebecca: …a mix of seven different kinds of tea, and it’s not really describable at this point.

John: After I’ve had many different types of tea today, I have Twinings’ Wild Berries herbal tea.

Rebecca: Finally dropping the caffeine after a long day?

John: …after many teas earlier in the day, yes.

Rebecca: So, I start my reflective practice while grading during finals week and for me it’s a really effective and productive procrastination technique. As I’m reading assignments or looking at projects and making notes about things that clearly did not work or “Wow, I really should cover these skills better” or “This really worked…” and I have a running dialogue with myself while I’m grading them and I use that for planning for the fall. What are your practices like, John?

John: I’d like to do that a bit during grading week but during grading week I’m generally busy working on the workshop schedule for our workshops here…

Rebecca: What?

John: … and also working on plans for various presentations at the SUNY Conference on Instructional Technology and so forth… and then getting ready for my trip down to North Carolina for the summer. So, I try to do it as I’m going during the semester so that I keep in my blackboard folder for each course a hidden folder where I list any problems… and I’ll do that for the course overall, as well as within individual modules. That way, when I go to refresh the course in the future I’ll have a list of things in general I want to do differently as well as specific recommendations in specific components of the course.

Rebecca: Have you ever accidentally made one of those hidden files not hidden?

John: I have not, no. [LAUGHTER]. I’m much more likely to leave something hidden that the students have as an assignment, but they’re usually pretty good at reminding me of that as we go through.

Rebecca: I think my greatest fear of having notes like that would be that I would make them really public and then probably have some sort of snarky comment in my hidden files. [LAUGHTER]

John: So, we thought maybe we talked a little bit about our lists of plans and then make some general recommendations of things that we found useful. So, Rebecca would you like to go first?

John: Sure, I think both of us have a fairly aggressive reading reading dream list. I don’t know how much either of us will get through that list, but my list includes Race Talk and [the] Conspiracy of Silence by Derald Wing Sue… which jDerald Wing Sue’s coming to our campus in the fall to give a talk based on this book… and we’re gonna have a reading group again. So, I want to make sure I’m on top of that.

John: That’s also on my list. I started reading it earlier, but I got buried in the semester, so it’s on the top of my summer reading list.

Rebecca: Yeah, I read the first chapter but then that’s as far as I got. I’m also planning to read… I started reading but I didn’t have time to finish a book called Designing Disability: Symbols, Space, and Society by Elizabeth Guthrie. It’s a really interesting book about the history of the wheelchair symbol. So, it’s related to design, obviously, which is my area of teaching… but also my interest in accessibility, which I’ve been working on a lot on campus. Related to that, I also am planning to read Disability in Higher Education: a Social Justice Approach by Nancy Evans. I started reading that during this semester and read a few chapters here and there but didn’t get all the way through. It’s a pretty hefty read. So, I’m hoping to get through a lot of that this summer… and then I have two other books that are not so much teaching related but come out of the design field. One of them is Demystifying Public Speaking, by Laura Hogen, which is from a series called A Book Apart… it’s made for designers, so I’m hoping to read that book and pull out some nuggets that might be helpful for students who get a little nervous about public speaking… or see whether or not it’s a good recommendation for our advanced students in our program… and then the other one that comes from a designer is Meeting Design for Managers, Makers, and Everyone by Kevin H. Hoffman. I’ve seen Kevin speak and have had some conversations with him in the past about designing meetings, so that meetings are actually productive and useful rather than unproductive and something that could maybe have happened in an email. So, I’m looking forward to reading a fuller version of his process. What are you hoping to read, John?

John: Well, several these I’ve already started again but haven’t gotten too far but they’re enough so that they’re on my Kindle or I have the books very handy… and I plan to read them as soon as I can. One is The ABCs of How We Learn by Daniel Schwartz. I actually made it, I believe, through letter L before I had to put it down to get caught up on some other things.

Rebecca: Yeah, I remember getting some updates in the various letters and it did kind of fizzle out.

John: So, I will finish that fairly soon, I believe. The Spark of Learning is a book I’ve heard wonderful things about from Sarah Rose Cavanagh. I’m hoping to read that this summer. It’s also on my Kindle app. The Teach Students How to Learn book by Saundra Yancy McGuire and Thomas Angelo is a really good book that talks about ways of improving student metacognition. Again, I’ve read a little bit of that just to see that it is something I really want to continue with. Another thing I’d like to look at, since I teach large classes where I use a lot of multiple-choice questions, is a book that I heard about on a couple of other podcasts on teaching and learning… in particular, the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, which is Learning and Assessing with Multiple-Choice Questions in College Classrooms by Jay Parkes and Dawn Zimmaro. That’s something I haven’t started yet, but I do have a copy of that and I’m looking forward to reading it. Another book that somewhat on the border between teaching and learning and my work in economics is The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. It’s a book on the early development of behavioral economics by Kahneman and Tversky, and the reason why it’s on the border of economics and teaching is that behavioral economics explains why people don’t always behave as rational agents… and certainly that’s important in trying to understand how people work from an economics perspective… but when we’re dealing with students and faculty we observe that people don’t always behave, perhaps,in an optimal fashion. We don’t see people engaging in activities that are in their long-run self-interest, and they often will prefer short-run benefits over long term benefits, even though they know they’d be better off doing their work a bit earlier and so forth. So, it overlaps between those two interests. I’m looking forward to that I guess that’s it for my books.
So, what are your plans for redeveloping or redesigning some of your courses?

Rebecca: Well, I have a new class that I’ll be offering in the fall that’s related to some other special topics I’ve taught before on experience design… and in that class we’re gonna do two community projects: one is called “recollections storytelling through mementos“ which is the design of an interactive exhibit that will travel to multiple adult care facilities in central New York. It’s the second exhibition in a series. The last one we did was a couple of years ago… and so the design and development of that will happen partially through the summer and then in my class in the fall… and then the exhibit will go up and travel next year in 2019… and then the other project that we’re gonna work on is our very famous [LAUGHTER] regular guest Allison Rank, who’s talked about her project Vote Oswego. My students will be working on that project as well, doing some design work with her class. We scheduled our two classes so that they would be at the same time slot, so that they could collaborate a little bit easier this time. so I’m looking forward to working with Allison a little bit this summer to make some specific plans for that for the Fall. So, I’m doing that and then revisiting my web design courses like I do every year: a) the content generally changes because standards and things and web change but I’m also… I had my little list, as I was grading, of things that I want to make sure that I’m doing and some of that means integrating more reflective practice opportunities I think it’s really important and I always plan on doing that and then somehow it gets cut. So, I decided I really need to just actively decide to cut something else out, so that there is actually that room and that’s not what gets cut in the future.

I’m also working on some new accessibility modules and I’m also really thinking of… I’ve been doing a lot of quizzes based on our reading groups and things that we’ve been talking about for retrieval practice… but I’m really thinking about switching to trying some in-class polls even though my class is relatively small and mixing in some practical exercises and I was doing both of those kinds of things in the quizzes and I think spreading those out a little bit will actually help with engagement, and also make it so it doesn’t take up as much class time.

John: In terms of the use of polling in small classes… for the last five or six years now I’ve been using polling in classes that I teach at Duke where generally there are between sixteen and twenty students, and it works just as well in small classes as it does in large ones. In some ways it works a little bit better.

Rebecca: Yeah, I can imagine that and I know that you’ve talked about that in the past, so you’re wearing on me. [LAUGHTER]

John: It’s a good practice.

Rebecca: Yeah, how about you?

John: Well, I’ve got a number of things planned. One is, I’ve been wanting to adopt an OER for a long time, but I’ve been somewhat tied to the adaptive learning tools and so forth provided by publishers, as well as the array of materials they provide… but, I want to explore some OER options for my large introductory class.

Rebecca: For those that aren’t familiar, what’s an OER.

John: Open educational resources… basically things that are released under Creative Commons licenses… and there’s two major advantages of that: one is that it would be free for students… students would also have access from the first day of class, and we’ll be talking about that more in future episodes… and another thing I’d like to do more is explore some alternatives to publisher provided adaptive learning tools so that it might be possible to find some ways of integrating OER with it, or to investigate ways in which OER materials can be used with adaptive learning systems that can work in classes where you want to have enough variety in the question so students can’t just look them up on the internet…

Rebecca: …and if you’re a little more interested in OER and the kind of big impact that that can have on students, you may want to check out Robin Derosa’s article in Higher Ed “OER Bigger than Affordability.” …and then we also have a previous episode that’s about adaptive learning that people might want to check out if they’re curious about that.

John: I believe was episode 30. Another thing I’d like to do, along the same lines, is I had written an econometrics text that I’ve been using in class for a while. I’d like to rewrite that as an OER text, and one of the things I need to do is update some of the old videos I’ve created. Last winter, when I was at the OLC conference in Orlando (at Disney World) I saw a presentation on Videoscribe and I had seen some videos created by that and it just looked really really cool and so I purchased a subscription to that and now I actually have to actually learn how to use it… and it does involve a bit of work… and there’s a bit of start-up costs in that, but it’s a very powerful tool and it looks like a really good way of presenting technical material.

I’d also like to explore a little bit of Flipgrid just because i’ve used voicethread now and I keep hearing really good things about Flipgrid, so I’d like to look at that and compare the benefits of the two systems.

Rebecca: What’s a Flipgrid?

John: Flipgrid is very much like Voicethread except the videos are provided in a grid. In many ways, it’s very similar to Voicethread except your class shows up as an array on the screen. You can click on any of the boxes for the students and hear or see their responses.

Rebecca: So, it sounds like the interfaces may be the big benefit there.

John: I believe so. I need to explore it more. It’s something I’ve been hearing a lot about from a lot of people who do some really good work, so I’d like to see how it compares.

Rebecca: You know all your talk of OERs and open education resources reminded me that one of the key things I have on my to-do list is to explore all the available resources that are available on openpedagogy.org. After hearing Robin DeRosa talk about it at CIT, the conference that John and I were at in late May, I got really excited about some of her teaching techniques and I just really want to see what else is out there and what’s available. So, who knows, it might really overhaul something.

John: I was at the same talk and we were both so impressed by it we went down and we talked to Robin at the end and we’ve invited her to come back to Oswego in the fall to give a presentation here, and there’s a good chance that she will appear as a guest on a future episode of the podcast. So, there’s also some things we’d like to recommend to others: books and tools that we found really useful. So, would you like to start?

Rebecca: Alright, so most of our recommendations are publications that have highly influenced our show. So one of those is Minds Online by Michelle Miller, a great cognitive psychologist. The book is about being online, but all the things she talks about works in in-person classes too, so I highly recommend that book.

John: Michelle Miller, after I had read her book, so impressed me that I invited her to come up to campus to give a workshop here… and people were so impressed by that that we created our reading group series here. Our first one was Michelle Miller’s Minds Online and participants were so enthused about that they insisted that we bring her back again at the end of the reading group and she was a wonderful speaker as well as a very good author.

Rebecca: Yeah, and a great facilitator too. We also want to recommend Barbara Oakley’s Learning How to Learn MOOC. It’s a great way to learn the basic cognitive science behind the evidence-based practices. So, if you’re not familiar, that’s a great way to follow along and get involved and her videos are fantastic.

John: It’s also the most popular MOOC in the world…

Rebecca: …and it’s the biggest one too, right?

John: and it’s the biggest one and she’s got hundreds of thousands of students taking it. It’s a four-week experience and I encourage all my students to take it.

Rebecca: …and if you’ve never done a MOOC, what a great experience to take one of the best MOOCs in the world.

John: It also provides very good examples of effective practice for online teaching that are very scalable. So, there’s a lot of good reasons to do it.

Rebecca: She also has some other great books including: A Mind for Numbers, Mind Shift, and Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School without Spending all your Time Studying; a Guide for Kids and Teens. That last one is a new one that’s directed specifically at middle school and high school students.

John: Another book, I think, that we’d both strongly recommend is Make it Stick. We used that as our second reading group here at Oswego a couple years ago, and Peter Brown came up and presented on that. but it’s by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel. Peter Brown is a novelist and Roediger and McDaniel have done a tremendous amount of work in studying how people learn.

Rebecca: We can’t go without mentioning Carol Dweck’s Mindset book as well. We often see who we might traditionally think of as being quote unquote good students, “A” students maybe who hit something in college where they realize that they have to struggle a little bit and they don’t know what to do, because everything’s always come easily to them… but they struggle because they don’t have a growth mindset. So, this is a great way to learn more about the differences between fixed and growth mindsets and maybe put some strategies in place to help all of our students move more towards a growth mindset in the courses we teach.

John: The next thing we recommend is Jim Lang’s Small Teaching. it covers much of the same material as Minds Online and Make it Stick but it does it in a somewhat different way. It focuses on small techniques that you can change in your classroom that pay off very substantially. So, for people who don’t want to substantially revise their courses, it’s a very effective way of making small modifications… activities that take five to ten minutes in a class… that have a very large impact without requiring a dramatic overhaul or restructuring of your course.

Rebecca: Yeah, and the faculty here have responded very well to this book and have made a lot of small changes to their classes in the last year and had big success.

John: Another thing we’d like to mention are some podcasts that we listen to that have some really good coverage of topics related to higher education. The first one is Teaching in Higher Ed by Bonnie Stachoviak. The other one we want to recommend is Teach Better by Doug McKee and Edward O’Neill and you might remember Doug McKee from a previous episode.

Rebecca: So, we usually conclude by asking what’s next, but if you really want to know you could just listen to this episode again. We made a lot of references during this episode to a lot of great material and I can’t imagine that you wrote it all down, especially if you’re driving in your car, right? So, remember to check the show notes will have specific links and details so that you can find all these resources so that you can also enjoy some of these during your summer.

John: If any of you have any recommendations for topics for the show, please write to either of us. Our email addresses will be in the show notes.

Rebecca: We also wanted to take a couple minutes and just reflect on the podcast itself. We really appreciate the community of listeners that we’ve gained. We never expected this to even go on this long. It was a little experiment that we had that we wanted to try out in the fall and now we’re on Episode… oh, I don’t know what episode we’ll be on.

John: We’ve been really impressed by how many listeners we’ve reached across the U.S. and throughout the world. We were expecting we’d mostly get people listening from our institution and perhaps some of our colleagues in other places. So, we very much appreciate all the support you shown.

Rebecca: …and please let us know if there’s other things that we can cover that you’re really interested in or really need some professional development in.

John: We hope you’re enjoying your summer vacation. Enjoy the rest of your summer!


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

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

31. Writing Better Writing Assignments

Complaints about student writing are embedded in faculty conversations across disciplines. What if the issues with student writing, though, are not their fault, but ours instead? In this episode, Allison Rank and  Heather Pool join us to share suggestions about writing better writing prompts that provide student with explicit expectations.

Allison Rank is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the State University of New York at Oswego and Dr. Heather Pool is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Denison University.

Show Notes

  • Rank, A., & Pool, H. (2014). Writing Better Writing Assignments. PS: Political Science & Politics, 47(3), 675-681. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096514000821
  • Bean, J. C. (2001). Engaging ideas. The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical.
  • Rockmore, E. B. (2015). How Texas teaches history. The New York Times, A31.
  • Braver, Lee (2014). How I Mark Up Philosophy Texts. APA Newsletters, Fall, 14,1 Special section. p. 13


Rebecca: Complaints about student-writing are embedded in faculty conversations across disciplines. What if the issues with student-writing though are not their fault but ours instead? In this episode, we’ll talk about writing better prompts to make explicit what the expectations are and how to get there.

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 are Dr. Allison Rank, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the State University of New York at Oswego and Dr. Heather Pool, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Denison University. Allison and Heather are co-authors for an article titled Writing Better Writing Assignments published in Political Science and Politics. Welcome, Allison and Heather.

Heather: Thank you.

Allison: Thanks.

Rebecca: So, welcome back to Allison, I think, right?

Allison: Yes.

John: Yes, welcome back, Allison.

Rebecca: So, today, our teas are?

John: Tea Forte, black currant black tea.

Allison: Water again.

Rebecca: It was coffee last time.

Allison: Okay.

Heather: I’m also water because I forgot that this was tea-oriented.

Rebecca: Yeah. Yeah. We have to send out those reminders ahead of time, I guess. Mine is Harney & Sons Paris tea.

John: What prompted your interest in writing about writing assignments?

Heather: I’ll start with that. I was director of a writing center at the University of Washington for a social science writing for a couple of years and then, Allison filled my seat after me. It was after we had seen numerous prompts that our students were coming in and asking for help with, and Allison, after she had completed her time at the writing center, came to me and was like, “I think we can do this. We can do some people feedback about how to do a better job at writing these.” We saw a lot of prompts that could have been more clear, let’s just say that.

Rebecca: Were there prompts that you didn’t understand?

Allison: I think usually we could figure out how to interpret them, but it was very easy to see why students couldn’t figure out how to interpret them.

Heather: Yeah. Right. And so, oftentimes, what happens is prompts are basically dissertations, right? Where you could literally write hundreds of pages on them or they’re so narrow that if you answer all of the questions, then, there’s no space for analysis or creativity or anything like that.

Allison: To add some details, so Heather had that job for two years and then, I had the job for two years. We’ve had four years between us of seeing these various prompts come in across the sub fields of political science and we’re actually seeing a lot of very similar problems and prompts on very different topics, which I think, for us, was part of being able to think about it’s the structure of how we write the prompts and how professors think about prompts is actually a place for an intervention and then, starting to teach our own classes sort of getting the sense that sometimes what comes back from students is on them, but also, we need to be a little bit more responsible around what it is we ask students to do because sometimes, some components of their poor writing may actually be more our fault than we’d like to admit.

Rebecca: I think we can all probably experience the idea that you get something back here like, “Yeah.” “Yeah, yeah, you answered that, yup.”

Allison: Yeah.

Heather: Right. Well, and part of it too, just to follow up on what Allison said, is we ourselves were early career and we’re just writing our own writing assignments for the first time. As a TA, you sort of inherit the assignments that people write and you’re like, “Okay, yeah. We can work with that.” But then when it comes to create your own, there’s no roadmap out there at all, and so, you stumble into stuff and you write assignments that the students have no idea how to interpret. And so, on the one hand, it was seeing some things that were out there that we thought, “Wow. There’s problems here. There’s commonalities,” and we can imagine how to get out of that problem and part of it was self help.

Allison: Yeah.

Heather: We’re looking for a resource that didn’t exist and Allison’s brilliant idea was like, “Ooh, we could create that resource.”

Allison: Yeah.

Heather: And so, that was a huge part of it.

Rebecca: Faculty definitely want students to be good writers …

Allison: Yeah.

Rebecca: … but we expect students to come in with those skillsets often and faculty often see themselves as content providers but not necessarily writing instructors. And I think that we hear that a lot even on campuses where writing across the curriculum exists. What role do you see faculty having in helping students develop their writing beyond just the prompt?

Allison: I think that faculty have a really important role to play on writing, but I think part of it comes from knowing what it is that you want to help students improve and having reasonable expectations for what the class that you have set up can actually help students do. In doing our research, when Heather’s saying we had a hard time finding roadmaps as we dug into a lot of the Bloom’s taxonomy literature and trying to figure out if we’re writing prompts that asks students to take particular steps, are we actually providing students a roadmap for those steps.

Allison: So, one of the things that I struggle with a lot is the way in which I don’t recognize that I’ve been disciplined. So, I’ve been disciplined as a political scientist. I ask questions in a way that political scientists ask questions, and then, get mad when my students don’t understand. That’s part of my expectations. But I also never make that explicit in content, even in the content-driven courses. That the way I’m approaching this content is about a political science perspective and here’s how that might be different and here’s how those expectations should then influence the way that you write a paper or approach a question.

Allison: And so, I think that it’s linking up the expectations for helping students with writing to the expectations we have around content-delivery is I think where a lot of faculty should spend more time.

Heather: I teach political theory, it’s not really a testable subject, and I could do a test but I don’t think that’s a particularly helpful way to evaluate people’s engagement with the content. On some level, I actually think it’s a cap out when faculty members say that they’re only content providers in part because I think we learn through writing and it’s not until we’re actually able to write about things that we grasp the kind of significance and the meaning and all of those things and we actually have some research. And I think in being … engaging ideas, I could be wrong, she suggests that we learn as we write. It’s only in the process of actually trying to put other people’s words into our own context that we actually grasp what’s going on.

Heather: And so, to be effective content teachers, I think we need to figure out how to be effective writing teachers as well and I think it’s important to be clear when we’re asking them to summarize and when we’re asking them to analyze and when we’re asking them to evaluate and those are all different things. And we need to give them opportunities to work on those things before we have them write big final papers or we ask them to do all of those without any scaffolding.

Rebecca: So, speaking of those nice keywords, I know that I’ve had conversations with students and they can’t actually tell me the difference between describe, analyze, reflect, things like that. So, can you share a little bit about how you might frame that for students, what those words mean and how you structure that?

Allison: Sure. Now, I’ll say off the top, I think that faculty, a lot of the time, don’t know what they mean when they use those specific terms. And so, part of what we would actually see in the writing center is prompts that said describe, but we read them a no, that if you actually just described, you are not going to get a good grade on this paper. That that was the word that was in the prompt, but I would bet money, if you follow those instructions, you would have problems. So, I think, I occasionally, for students to actually define the terms that are in the prompt, if I’m asking you to analyze let’s walk through in class one day, what would be the difference between summarizing this content and analyzing this content, so, actually walking them through what the terminology is.

Allison: I also think that that’s where having sub prompts after a prompt can be really helpful, where you break down for students that I expect you to summarize or describe a particular amount of the content and then, analyze something so that they have to distinguish for themselves what part of this assignment am I addressing in different components of my paper.

Heather: Yeah, I think that’s great. I do things like I have students do small stakes regular assignments where I have them summarize and then, reflect, and then, ask a question. And so, they’re already thinking about the difference between summary and reflection and then, I actually, in class, will talk about what’s the difference between describing something and analyzing something and one example that I use, because I went to grad school in Seattle is I’m getting off of a plane in Seattle. Seventy percent of the people on the plane are wearing super awesome Gore Tex water repellent gear and 20% of them are wearing wool and 10% of them aren’t wearing coats. So, that’s a description of the situation. But analysis is telling me why that’s the case. That’s trying to explain what we see and to make sense of it.

Heather: So, I then ask them to come up with reasons why, what that description says makes sense or what stories they can tell about why that’s what they see. There’s also a great piece, it’s the Netflix … the new Sherlock Holmes, it’s the lady in pink where he walks into a room and he sees a woman dead on the floor, and then, Sherlock Holmes goes through and comes up with all the stories about the particular things that he’s seeing are what he’s seeing. And it’s a really effective tool for students to be like, “Oh, summary is really different,” right? And many times, prior instructors may have asked them to summarize, and so, they’re relatively good at that, but it’s the analysis part that they really struggle with. Again, I think it’s our job to help them figure out what analysis actually is.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve noticed in my own department, we’ve been talking about writing in our department quite a bit lately. We had a conversation … My department is made up of art historians, designers and studio artists that all makes up like an art and design department. So, it seems like it’s all one discipline but we all have really different cultures within that discipline, and that we talk through what’s some of the kinds of writing that we do on our department and discovered that we didn’t really mean the same thing.

Rebecca: And so, we’re working on developing a common language and sharing that out within our own department to make sure that we can be consistent between levels because I think that’s some of the confusion that our students are experiencing.

Heather: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right, and of course, writing across disciplines varies greatly, so we may put these statements in different places if we’re in the Humanities or if we’re in the Social Sciences, we may approach quotes differently and whether or not it’s appropriate to use them or not appropriate to use them, what counts as evidence differs from discipline to discipline. And the way I set that up for students is to say, “You’re going to end up in jobs where you don’t actually know what they want when they ask you to write something, and you’re going to need to be able to figure that out, and that’s actually what we’re trying to give you here is the ability to approach a writing practice and figure the rules out. And there’s different rules in different disciplines and your job is to develop the facility to be able to move between those things as needed.”

Allison: Yeah. I’ve done something in class with my intro class which tends to be … it’s very frequently a general education class. There tends to be students from a lot of different majors and actually, just asking them how do you think you’re supposed to write paper. And you’ll get all sorts of answers about …

Heather: Right.

Allison: … what a thesis statement is supposed to be, you should never use I. Which is a thing in political science, it’s like “No, I’ve got a correct that right now.”

Rebecca: Yeah.

Heather: Right.

Allison: You need to tell me I argue X, Y and Z and students are so taken aback, but it’s so much easier if you start, at least for me, by getting them to tell you what are all the rules you think you know so that I know where I need to tell you that at least for this class in this space, that’s not the right rule.

John: But part of it is just being more transparent with students …

Heather: Yes.

Allison: Yeah.

John: … and making sure they understand what you expect from them in terms of coming up with good writing prompt. You mentioned scaffolding a bit.

Allison: Yeah.

John: How do you scaffold it in terms of the stages of writing? How do you break it up for students or do you have them just submit it in whole draft or what?

Allison: Yeah. I think it really depends for me on different classes. So, for the intro class, before their four-page papers, they write a couple of four-page papers, they do something called reading reflections but it’s really a worksheet where they have to tell me the author or authors, the title, what type of source is it using the Chicago style guide. It’s essentially breaking out for them, everything they would need to know for citations, they have to tell me the research question, what they think the thesis statement would be in their own words, which again, is to get them in this format of saying like Madison argues X, Y, and Z. A couple of good quotations and then, their own initial impression of the piece. So then, when they sit down to write the paper, they already have the stack of material that’s like, “Oh, if I want to argue X, who would I go to as evidence to support that claim?”

Allison: In my advanced classes, I tend to break it down more in terms of the annotated bibliography, so before they would ever touch writing a longer paper, I first want an annotated bibliography and I do it slightly different than a “normal annotated bibliography” I ask for one paragraph of summary, and then, for every entry, I need one more paragraph that tells me the relationship between that piece and at least two other pieces in the annotated bibliography. So, getting them to think through what are the relationships that help them categorize where a literature review could go before throwing literature review on top of what it is that they have to write. And I may have stolen the annotated bibliography from Heather.

Heather: It’s possible, [inaudible 00:13:03] annotated bibliographies, yes. So, yeah, I do some similar things. I started to use Allison’s reading reflection assignment that I’m inching closer and closer to that mostly because I’m a little overwhelmed by grading. I have them do seven of these reading responses, I call them, where they do summary, reflection, and then, ask a discussion question. So, that is getting them to train to summarize stuff, and again, the point is they have to do one of those for each of the authors that we read, so they actually have a pretty decent summary and they have the other 24 summaries from people in the class that they can go to when it comes to writing their own papers.

Heather: And then, for my intro class, I hand a paper out and they need two and a half or three weeks before it’s due and then, I require a draft on say Tuesday, they then do peer review in class on Thursday, and then, the final draft of the paper is due the following Tuesday. So, they have to have a pretty decent working draft a week before the paper is due. And if you make a good effort, then, there’s no deductions from your final grade so it’s not a graded assignment but it is one that if you don’t do it will hurt you, and the same thing for sub [inaudible 00:14:06] good faith peer review. I like that a lot because the peer reviewers catch really irritating things that when I see them time after time after time, I get angry.

Heather: And so, the peer reviewers catch a lot of that where they say things like, “You seemed to have a problem with paragraph structure,” and somehow, when they’re hearing that from their peers and then, they hear the same thing from me when I give them feedback, I then ask them to do a reflection on the feedback that basically enforces them reading the comments, where one of the questions is, “Do you any commonalities in the feedback you’ve received from your peers and myself?” and surprisingly, there often is commonality there. And so, then, I start to get them thinking about what their patterns of error and what can they do to address those patterns of error.

Heather: So, in terms of scaffolding, I make it due early and I make a little stakes draft and then, they have a week where they can talk to their peers, they can come talk to me on office hours, et cetera, so that the paper that they turn in has been seen by at least two other pairs of eyes.

Allison: Yeah. I should say I do in my advanced classes, I have a version of that where there’s a draft due two weeks before finals week and then, students do not get evaluated on their drafts, they get evaluated on the quality of their feedback.

Heather: … what level?

Allison: Like a 5% grade. Yeah, I think it’s 2% you turned in a draft and then, after that, I have a sheet, I was doing it not graded, just sort of the participation points and I would get feedback that was like, “I really liked what you did here.” And I was like, “No.”

Heather: No.

Allison: “This is not going to work for me,” and so, changed it to where there’s an actual rubric for me to evaluate the feedback that they provide each other, and that has gotten students to give much more direct feedback to many students.

John: That was something I was just going to ask, have you used rubrics, and what do you see as the advantage of using a rubric for assessment?

Heather: Because we have writing-specific classes, and then, we have ones that aren’t but frankly, all of mine would qualify for the W overlay just because of the percentages. Teaching, I really care about writing, so that’s a simple part of the course but not all of them are Ws and if there are Ws, they have lower numbers of students and I can’t offer only Ws for curriculum reasons. And so, generally, all my classes are really heavy on writing, and so, I’ve moved more and more towards pretty specific rubrics where I basically highlight and bold stuff, and then, have a relatively short comment section. And I’ve just switched to a new rubric this semester and I actually think I like it.

Heather: I tend to over comment on their papers when I’m not constraint by a rubric and constraint by space, frankly. And so, for me, I’m a big fan, right? “This is what an A paper looks like,” “Here are four different categories that I’m assessing you on,” “This is what a B paper looks like,” “Here are four different categories for that as well.” And so, I’m tentatively enthusiastic about pretty specific rubrics.

Allison: I like very specific rubrics for intro classes. I have a hard time using very specific rubrics in a lot of my advanced classes, and I think it’s because I struggle to write rubrics that I think are balanced, aligned on being detailed enough to be a value but broad enough to where students can really sort of flex their muscles when it’s an open research question.

Allison: And then, a lot of my advanced classes, it’s an open question. And so, then, I find I have a rubric but it ends up being like on these criteria, would you be rated as excellent, good, fair, weak, poor. And so, it tells them where they are and then, with comments, but it’s nowhere near the level of sort of fine green value of the rubric that my intro classes have where everyone’s writing on the exact same question.

Rebecca: You are both hinting at differences in the role that a faculty member might play in different levels of courses between intro, intermediate and advanced. Can you explicitly address that and what the faculty member’s role is in each of those kinds of levels?

Heather: Yeah. I think I do something similar to what Allison does with my upper division classes, which I just taught at senior seminar. I have them do essentially two kind of shorter papers that are kind of lit reviewee where I’m asking them of pretty specific question about some segment of the course reading. And then, I have a big where like, you tell me what your research question is and then, they go through a proposal, an annotated bibliography, a draft with a clear pieces and then, a final draft. And that starts basically from the fall … the first one of those is the proposal was basically due at the beginning of November and the final paper isn’t due until the middle of December.

Heather: And so, I’m also a really big fan of if you don’t like the topics I wrote, then, you write one and tell me what you would like to write on, in part, because I think we say this in the paper, I actually am really interested in reading interesting papers. I would much rather read a paper that incorporates the material from the class in a way that you find compelling and that you want to write about, than I would read your [wrote 00:18:40] response to my question that you found really stupid. And so, I do give them that freedom but with a caveat that they do have to come talk to me. And I give students actually that freedom for intro, all the way up to seniors and my most advanced classes. But I do think it’s different when I’ve got a cinema major versus when I’ve got Political Science majors. I talk about writing and use examples in different ways across those levels.

Allison: Yeah. And I think that I, in the same way that you wouldn’t deliver the same content from intro to American government to an advanced American government class, I think it’s the same in terms of writing skills. And so, I tend to focus more in the intro class on these statements. Trying to lay bare some of the relatively, I would think in some ways, rudimentary, the thesis statements are deeply complicated space focusing on the building blocks of being in the discipline. These expectations of writing and then, in the more advanced levels, focusing on the types of writing that I think are in different forms more likely to be both of interest to them, but then, also, let them test skills that are more likely to be relevant.

Allison: So, for instance, I don’t have any full papers in my advanced classes usually outside of the big papers that are due during finals week, but for every book we read in the class, I have them do a critical analysis. It’s essentially a book review, but I found that if I call it a book review, I get book reports, which is not what I want so I call it a critical analysis. And the guidelines are I want no more than a half page of summary and then, up to two and a half pages of analysis. I don’t read anything over page three, with the idea of you need to be concise. I don’t want it to be summary and I give a set of prompts about what you can … here’s some places you might want to go but they’re very open in terms of talking about the content you know from your broadcast communication class that I haven’t read or how does this book help you think differently about some event that happened on campus or is happening in the news.

Allison: Where I think that that type of analytical skills sort of more what I want my advanced students to start being able to do, this thing I read in the classroom connects to some broader literature in political science or literature from another discipline or just the way I interpret the words. And that’s where I see the writing in the advanced classes outside of the research papers as more my responsibility.

Heather: I was just going to follow up with I’m teaching seniors again and they’re on the job market themselves and trying to figure out why they just did a major in Political Science and trying to actually have them answer a question that is meaningful to them as opposed to like I need to know that you know how to read a book and find a piece of statement. And so, really, trying to create space for more advanced students to do more advanced interesting things.

John: In the classes where you use rubric, do you share the rubrics with students? Because I would think that would give them a little bit more scaffolding in letting them know what you think is important and helping them determine how to structure the papers and things.

Allison: Yeah. I would say sometimes I do, and sometimes, I don’t. In introductory classes where I have students that are already very concerned about doing things “right”, I actually tend not to because I find that they then hew to the rubric in ways that are actually really counter-productive. I’ll give them more of what I would consider the left-hand column of the rubric. So, I’ll take into account, when I’m grading, your citations will be 10%. Your grammar and style will be up to 10%. Your thesis is going to be worth 20% so that they know how points are distributed. But I don’t actually like to give the specific boxes that are sort of it’s going to be an excellent if there are x criteria, because I found that that tends to lead to really I think counter-productive conversations about well, how do I meet the standard of that box, as opposed to what makes a good analytical argument.

Heather: I don’t put percentages on my rubrics. I’m a big fan of the visual rubric where I’m like there’s a lot of things in the C columns and what’s a C. There are a few things in the A column but there’s mostly things in the B column, that’s a B+. I’m a political theorist, we don’t really do quantitative things particularly well. I’m a big fan of not sharing that because I don’t actually know how to do that. Some rubrics, I share with them. I share rubrics about their participation with them, like here’s what I expect a good participant in this class to be able to do, and I assess them on that, but I just started using this new rubric so I didn’t share that with them at the beginning of this term, but now, I think maybe I should have. I don’t know if I think it would help them or hurt them, I wonder.

Rebecca: I have detailed rubrics that I use for grading and I just started using our learning management system to use the rubrics and I found that that actually can be really challenging because when they do that on paper, I sometimes circle the line between things.

Heather: Yes, right. Me to. Me to.

Rebecca: And then, you have to pick one …

John: But if you’re doing it in Blackboard or some other learning management system, you can always override the …

Rebecca: Yeah. Well, I was just going to …

John: … if someone works outside the box.

Rebecca: … which I have done. Yeah. And I sometimes will make a comment if I put it in the C column, the comment is to why it’s there if it wasn’t one of the criteria I had originally come up with, and so, it’s very clear. So, I’ve been experimenting with that a little bit. I tend to share the rubric, but I also find that students tend not to look at the rubric.

Heather: Until it comes back with a letter grade on it, and then, they’re like, “But why? What happened?”

Allison: Yeah. I will say that I use the point rubric in Blackboard for classes where the size or the amount of papers … and so, it’s basically just for intro where it speeds grading.

Heather: Yeah.

Allison: Right? That’s when I do a points rubric in Blackboard, but even then, the idea that Blackboard defaults you to having three categories and that I always go in and have like no, I definitely need a couple of more point variations, yeah.

John: I usually have four or five on that in mind.

Allison: [inaudible 00:24:20] Yeah, yeah. I have to go in and sort of add because I tried doing it with three ones, and I was like, “Why is everyone getting a 30?” It’s like …

John: Well, you can pick whatever categories or …

Allison: Yeah. Yes, and so, I had to go in. That was my first experience using it last year and I was like, “Well, that’s wrong.” Let’s go back and then, regrade it, and that changed all the rubrics. But okay now, yeah, it takes a little learning.

John: But it can be an iterative process …

Allison: Yes.

John: … where if there’s some work, you can modify it.

Rebecca: Yeah. That’s also why I often don’t put percentages for the categories upfront is because I sometimes see what I get back to see if I need to adjust what I thought the weights were going to be to make it more fair.

Heather: I struggle with the percentages because writing is hard to do in any sort of objective fashion and I worry about the kind of thesis is a percentage, because sometimes they write a not so great thesis and have a brilliant paper, right? And so, then, you’re like, “Well, okay. So, you got 75% on the way there on your thesis,” but your argument at the end was actually really good and so, my feedback is write a clearer thesis because your argument’s really interesting, but it’s hard for me to figure out how to do that.

Rebecca: One of the things that I think we haven’t addressed but hinted at a little bit is not only is there disciplinary ways of approaching writing but there’s cultural ways of approaching writing too. And so, when you’re talking, Allison, about needing to write really concisely, that’s something that’s popular in design as well.

John: And in economics.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: Like economical writing.

Rebecca: Right. But I often have students who want to write with very flowery language or think the academic writing looks a particular way, and usually, it’s very convoluted, very complicated sentences that don’t make any sense.

Allison: Yeah. Yeah.

John: I wonder where they get that.

Allison: Often, I train political science but I always, in my intro classes and occasionally, in my advanced classes, depending on how many students it would be a repeat for pass out a piece called How Texas Teaches History from, I believe Ellen Rockmore. It was an op ed in the New York Times a couple of years ago about the high school textbooks that had gone out in Texas where all of the “benefits” of a slave-holding society, which is a deeply-problematic framing. Masters taught slaves Christianity has an active phrasing, and then, all of the brutalities of slavery are framed in passive ways. Slaves were beaten, slaves were assaulted. And so, you excuse any actors, and I passed that out to students before we do, sort of when I complained about your grammar, when I correct grammar, I’m not doing it because this is a pedantic exercise and I just want you to meet these standards. I do it because in political science, it is incredibly important that we are accountable for who the agents are that act, and the only way that I know who your agents are is when you tell me who the agents are.

Allison: And I think that sometimes, that tends to help ground at least conversations to about flowery language where it’s a slightly different point, but I can often say, “What you’re doing here is actually obscuring for me who is acting and what they’re doing,” and the most important thing that I need to know is who’s acting and why they’re acting and why it matters. And so, I found that piece actually really hit students in a way, it’s like I never thought about it before, I never thought about why it mattered before, and I found that to be really helpful.

Heather: We both teach in political science and I think that this is particularly true in politics. Instead of the something must be done, well, what needs to be done and who needs to do it, right? And in politics, I think that’s a pressing question in ways that it may be less pressing in other’s field of study.

Rebecca: I find that one of the comments that I read a lot for design students is like you haven’t said anything actually. “There’s only one sentence here that says anything and the rest can go.”

Heather: I do spend a fair bit of time talking about my own writing practice actually in class where when they’re working on the first drafts of their paper, I will tell the story of my first published article, I was like all done and, “Oh, yay, I’m about to send it out,” and then, I realized that the word count was 4,000 words less than the words that I had, so I needed to cut 4,000 words from my manuscript in order to send it in.

Allison: Oops.

Heather: Exactly. Geez, it was the first ignorance. And then, I tell them I got rid of all of the adjectives and all of the adverbs and I cut several paragraphs/pages in total and it made it better. You read the draft that I thought was finished and the draft that was submitted and the second one is way better because I had to be economical with my language, I had to be really clear, I had to be direct, I had to say what I wanted to say and move on as opposed of lingering, loving over the words because they are so pretty. Which is what we as people who write as a part of our job eventually realize that, but they haven’t had that drilled into them in the same way and like, “That’s my job.”

Allison: Yeah.

Heather: It’s like, “You kill your word babies.”

Allison: I definitely am a fan of showing students my writing process. So, for instance, when I teach the annotated bibliography, Heather, you may not know this, I actually showed the part of the annotated bibliography I sent you for the Bletchley Circle paper.

Heather: Oh, my God, that’s awesome.

Allison: When I was in charge of doing the lit review for a piece that we co-authored, what I showed to students on how to do a lit review is like, “So here’s the thing I sent to my co-writer. This is when I was doing work with someone else, this is how you do it,” so I showed that. I’ve actually taken to showing my annotated readings in class.

Heather: Me too.

Allison: So, in classes where I want students to annotate, I actually just put my work up on the dot cam, instead of doing like, “Everybody, to page 57,” and then, I just can only see my book. I want them to see that part of writing is also the annotating. So, getting as transparent in some ways about my process as possible I have increasingly done.

Heather: One of the first pieces I assigned in my intro class, it’s a four-page piece. I think his name is Lee Braver. It’s in the journal or the teaching journal of the American Philosophical Association or something, that’s how I mark up texts, right, how I mark up philosophy texts. And so, part of it is just getting them to pay attention to how they’re reading, and in many ways, that gets them to pay more attention to how they’re writing and to how … when they read a text, that they leave thinking, “Oh, I understood that,” it’s usually because the writing is really clear and you want everyone to leave, to finish reading your paper in the same way and have that sense of like, “Oh, I know how it was argued.” And if they don’t have that, then, it’s your job to actually fix it. In the same way that we can read authors and say, “Gosh, I wish Thomas Hobbes [used to 00:30:44] do our words.” But he’s dead, you’re not. You can do better.

Rebecca: What are some tips that you have for faculty who are running their … assignments for the semester or getting ready to write ones for the fall?

Heather: Right. Yeah. We’re definitely working …

Allison: Yeah.

Heather: … on our fall prompts. I think it’s really helpful to have other people look at them. I actually think it’s really helpful to have people map in your field and not even in your sub field, look at them, so I will occasionally ask my partner to read prompts and she knows how to do what I do. I’ve definitely sent assignments to Allison to just be, “Does this makes sense?” “Do you understand what I’m asking?”

Heather: I’ve had former students read prompts as well to see if it’s clear what I’m asking them to do. I think a huge part of it is time, like not writing it right before you hand it out, and then, getting other people’s eyes on it who you …

Allison: Yeah. So definitely, yeah, Heather and I send prompts back and forth before the semester starts. I’m also a huge fan of having all of my assignments done before the semester starts. I have everything loaded in Blackboard in the assignments, every assignment is in before the semester begins. And that helps me know, partially, it’s for me with planning a syllabus. If this is what I expect students to be able to do, where do I have to be. What do they actually have to have in order to do this assignment. So, for me, it’s just part of the planning process.

Allison: I also increasingly have a sort of stable rotation of assignments that I like, that I figured out packages for, and I, particularly in the advanced classes where it’s that more sort of open, I want them to be able to do what they want to do. I think figuring out assignment structures that get refined overtime and work well, and then, if they’re open enough, you can reuse them pretty frequently. And the thing I like about that a lot is that, then, the students start interpreting it for one another. It helps them become teachers for each other.

Allison: So, for instance, with those critical analysis assignments, occasionally, when it’s students that I’ve had for the first time, they’ll ask a question. I’ll try to answer it and then, another student will raise their hands and be like, “Dr. Rank, I got it,” and they’ll be like, “So, the thing she wants from you is this,” I’m like, “Great. Thank you for that.”

Heather: I’ve also have taken to, as I’m doing the grading, particularly at this point, for my intro class, I give them two or three options for which topic they want to answer and I will switch generally one of those topics each time because I’ve realized that it’s not actually asking something that’s important for them to think about for the course or it’s really poorly phrase or it’s not directing them to actually answer what I want. And so, if you’ve got something that’s worked relatively well, tweaking it as you’re grading it, you get your first five papers, and you’re like, “Oh, nobody answered the … I thought they were …” it may be me. Like maybe it’s not my students that are … maybe I misstated what I actually wanted.

Heather: And so, I will, as I am finishing grading something, if I realized that I wrote it wrong or that I wrote it unclearly, I immediately go in and fix it because I know I won’t actually remember the next time I use this that I did it badly.

Rebecca: Heather, I’ve also found that to be a really good procrastination technique during finals week.

Allison: Oh, my God. Oh, yeah.

Rebecca: So during finals week, I do so much planning for the following semester.

Allison: Oh, that’s when many assignments get written to go in Blackboard for the next semester, let’s be honest.

Heather: That’s true.

John: Going back to the thing about having a portfolio of assignments that you can rotate in, how do you deal with things like Chegg and Course Hero and other sites where students upload those materials?

Allison: Sure. I think because or what I’m talking about, the prompts are so broad that honestly, if students have my assignment for how to write an annotated bibliography ahead of time, bully for you. I’m really excited that you’re reading this annotated bibliography guideline …

John: Well, what I’m more concerned is …

Allison: … prior to being in my class.

John: … for the final projects and so forth, what prevents students from submitting mildly revised version of something that someone submitted two or three years ago?

Allison: I think that becomes about how often you teach the same class and using the same package for the same class. So, I’d say I have probably three packages of assignments that are scaffolded, that work for different types of classes. And I tend to not use the same package the second time I teach a class. So, you’re getting a good chunk of time between assignments, and again, I don’t teach large enough classes where I’m super concerned about not noticing, if that makes sense. Because they have to give me a research, for most of these, they require what your research topic going to be and then, I’m going to give you some feedback, and then, you’re going to turn in an annotated bibliography and I’m going to give you some feedback.

Allison: So, to some degree, if those are all coming back and you’re pulling them out of something like Chegg, I feel relatively-confident that I’d be able to tell.

John: You’ll recognize it.

Allison: Yeah.

John: Okay.

Heather: And I also, even for the classes that I recycle topics for regularly, I will often realize between iteration two and three that I asked for three sources from the course and actually, that was the un-doable and so, I lessen it to two. And I actually caught somebody who used the three sources prompt for the two sources assignment that I had given them, and then, I switched the readings out as well. And so, previously, it had been the full book and this time, it was an excerpt, and I don’t think you read all of [Espinoza 00:35:47] to write this paper.

Heather: And so, those minor adjustments that you’re making to your syllabus, it’s relatively easy to catch, and I’m not teaching 250 students a semester. I have maybe 50 or 60 or 70, and so, it’s relatively easy for me to catch the minor variations that I’ve made in my assignments or that I’ve made in the syllabus that they might not think I’ll catch.

Rebecca: What response have you gotten from students about your assignments in the way that your assignments are structured?

Allison: I’m not sure if this is about how the assignments are structured, though in the advanced classes, it might be. I get a lot of feedback from students that my classes are where they get the most feedback on their writing. That they never get as much feedback on writing as they get from my assignments. And I think that is partially because I think … I’m sure this is true for Heather too. If you’re a professor who cares a lot about writing, you give more feedback on writing. But I think it’s also because of that, so many of my assignments are staged. That I feel a real obligation to give a lot of feedback, and then, to give do overs in some ways, right, where it’s just the lower stake stuff first, and then, you can fix it.

Allison: And so, I hear a lot from students about appreciating the amount of feedback. I also hear a lot about appreciating the variable points that I assign for certain assignments. So, I have assignments that are structured so that if you improve more than more than one-letter grade between the two assignments, the point value of the second one goes up and the point value of the first one goes down, and students also talk about really appreciating that.

Heather: I certainly have students who say in my evaluations and I also ask them to do a final portfolio that reflects on their learning as a writer, what are your greatest strengths as a writer, what are your greatest weaknesses, or I don’t say that, I say what are your areas to work on improvement. And so, I ask them at multiple points throughout the semester to do that kind of metacognitive reflective stuff because I actually think it makes them better learners, which means they become better writers. And so, my experience as an undergrad was I got a lot of papers that had a letter grade and like the occasional “Good” or “What?” in the comments, and that was pretty much it. I had no idea what I needed to do to get an A and I wanted to get an A.

Heather: And no one actually took the time to tell me the steps that I needed to take and so, I try really hard to say, “Here are the four things you did really well on this paper,” like, “Oh my goodness, you used those sources really well. Great. Clear possible interpretations of the authors. You have a beautiful writing voice. Your citations were perfect,” and then, follow up with this sort of areas of growth and improvement.” And I also end up always being a cheerleader that I’m like, “You have one more of this,” “You can totally crush it.” And so, students, even if they get a grade that they’re not particularly excited about, I am on their side. I want them to succeed and they know that and they also know that because I didn’t just give them a letter grade.

Heather: The drawback, of course, is this is incredibly time-consuming, and I’m not sure how sustainable it is and I hope it is because I really care about it and it’s one of the places that I find the most satisfaction when I’ve had a student in two or three classes and I look at their first paper that they ever wrote for me and I look at the last paper that they wrote for me and there’s much difference, and I value that so much. But it also just takes so much time, and that’s why I rubrics, obviously. As I’m moving more towards rubrics that have less space for me to write, that becomes a little more feasible.

Allison: I feel like one of the things that I really like about and keep in my brain from the paper that we wrote is to always give that sort of a big question that lets students …

Heather: Yeah, yeah, it’s true.

Allison: … the difference between a prompt and sub prompts. So the prompt is the question that you could write a dissertation on, and then, the sub prompts are the space where you tell students, “To get a good grade on this paper, I’m going to need you to do the following three things. I need you to summarize the framer’s argument or justifications for x component of the constitution. I need you to analyze the differences between the interpretation of the constitution when it was put in place by the framers and the interpretation of it in the wake of the new deal. And I need you to interpret changes and who is allowed to be a citizen or considered to be a citizen in the United States.

Allison: So, there’s a really big question at the top that you could write a dissertation on and then, there are these cues that help students understand what are the important parts of answering that question. Because I often think that’s where students have a hard time distinguishing. They could give you lots of answers for the big question but those of us who are in the field would be like, “That is the least important thing you could say,” like, “That’s the least relevant way you can answer that question,” but it’s an answer to the question. And so, it’s maybe not fair to hold them accountable for that.

Allison: And so, giving the sub prompts helps cue them to really pay attention to the particular things that matter in a way that they might not have before. And then, again, having that ahead of time helps me, as the professor, know what I need to make sure they’re hitting in class. If they’re not bringing those things up on their own, I need to make sure I do it with them so that when the paper comes out, it’s not a surprise.

Rebecca: Sounds like there’s focus on scope and a focus …

Allison: Yes.

Rebecca: … on values.

Heather: Yeah. I think that’s absolutely right. That is one of the things that I continue to do when I’m writing assignments is that … The paper that just came in from my intro class was why is political obligation important for a community. That’s a huge topic and then, I’m like, “According to Socrates, you need to tell me what Socrates says and you need to tell me what Hobbes says and then, you need to make them talk to each other and then, you need to make an argument for why one is better than the other.” And that’s what those sub prompts do that I think is really helpful.

John: I guess our next question is for each of you, what are you going to do next?

Allison: Heather.

Heather: I will take that one. I’m really interested in writing a piece on what analysis is because I feel like we tell them all the time more analysis but we don’t actually clarify what we mean when we say analysis, and I don’t think they have any idea of what they mean when they say analysis. And so, I’ve started including an appendix in my ridiculously-wrong syllabus that is like what is analysis. At some point, I just need to write that up because I think most of us struggle with communicating to our students what we mean when we say that word, and I think being a little more clear about what we mean would actually help them learn to do it better.

Allison: In terms of teaching, the project that I am hoping to work on right now is something that I started maybe two years ago after I went to the Digital Humanities Summer Institute on using annotate with students as a way to help them with the group annotation. I’m trying to work through those annotating skills moving towards better writing. And so, that’s for my American politics classes that I am hoping to get better at. I get frustrated by the tech quickly, and then, drop it.

Allison: So, that’s one of the projects I’m hoping to work on this summer and I’m hoping to do some comparisons in different classes with how students do with group annotations versus annotating on their own.

Heather: Can you explain that? When you say group annotations, they’re all reading the same PDF and then, marking on it?

Allison: Yeah. So, it’s essentially, you load the PDF online and then, you can assign small groups of students to all work in the same version of the PDF.

Heather: Interesting.

Allison: And so, they actually can go through and put comments on each other’s annotations and say, “You could find someone else’s interpretation and let them either deepen it, disagree with it, link it to some other part of the text where they can start flagging for each other and having a conversation that is deeply in a relatively small section of a text.” Heather, I’m thinking about this for American political thought, an African-American political thought.

Heather: That’s wonderful. I love that idea.

Allison: Where it’s like beyond, I get some value out of collecting their annotations which I also do in American political thought where I show them how to annotate. I give them that same piece from Braver, and then, for the first couple of weeks, I actually collect their annotated readings and hand them back, and then, I’d like to start trying this group annotation as a way for them to start thinking of reading and working through texts is more of a collective exercise in conversation.

John: What was the software you use for that?

Allison: I believe it’s called Annotate.

Heather: Is it iAnnotate?

John: iAnnotate is an iOS app or an Android app, but is it-

Allison: It’s not an app. It’s a…

John: Web tool?

Allison: … a web tool.

John: Might be hypothesis.

Allison: Maybe it’s that.

John: I know a lot of people use that for …

Allison: Yeah.

John: We’ll check on that.

Allison: Yes.

John: We’ll add that to the notes.

Allison: Yes. You should. I found it very interesting to use and then, the one time I tried teaching it, students had all sorts of questions and I basically was at the front of the room like, “I don’t know,” and so, then, I scrapped it and just need some amount of time to go back in and play with it and anticipate more of what the questions would be.

Rebecca: Well, what you did was gather the questions.

Allison: Yes. Let’s …

Heather: That’s right.

Allison: … call it an …

John: A research exhibition.

Allison: Yes. Yes. Exactly.

Heather: Because it turns our much of teaching is not being successful.

Allison: Right.

Heather: Trying things that didn’t work very well, you’ll do it differently next time.

Allison: Yeah.

Rebecca: It’s an iterative process.

Heather: It’s exactly right. Exactly right.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for the insights that both of you have provided. I think that gives a lot of faculty food for thought.

Heather: Thanks so much for having me. I’m honored to be a part of the SUNY Oswego crew.

Allison: Yes, I was excited to be back.

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and you may 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.

20. New faculty transition

New faculty often come out of graduate programs that have trained them to be researchers but not teachers. The transition into full time teaching can be stressful and overwhelming for these colleagues. Maggie Schmuhl, a new faculty member in the Public Justice Department at SUNY-Oswego joins us to discuss how she has embraced evidence-based methods in her practice as a teacher.

Show Notes

  • Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Incorporated.
  • Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.
  • LePore, Jill (2014). “The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman.” The Smithsonian Magazine. October
  • 12. The Active Learning Initiative at Cornell.” the 1/17/2018 Tea for Teaching podcast discussion with Doug McKee in which two-stage exams were discussed.


Rebecca: Today, our guest is Dr. Maggie Schmuhl, a first-year faculty member in Public Justice at SUNY Oswego. Her research focuses on structural inequality, violence against women, and punishment. At SUNY Oswego, Maggie has taught American Criminal Courts and Judicial Process and Women in Crime. Welcome.

John: Welcome.

Maggie: Hello.

John: Today our teas are…

Maggie: I have a green tea that’s mint.

Rebecca: I’m also drinking green tea today, but mine is jasmine green tea.

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

Rebecca: Ooh, yum.

Maggie: Fancy.


Rebecca: So, today we have a slightly different setup. We invited Maggie to come in and talk a little bit about the experience of a first-year faculty member and that transition from graduate school to teaching. Can you describe a little bit about what that transition’s been like? You’ve completed one full semester; you’re into your second semester. So, what’s that transition like? And what are some of the biggest hurdles?

Maggie: Yeah, the first year has been a lot of trial and error, a lot of learning curves and really just getting to know the university… getting to know the students… the department… and all of the intricacies of balancing research, balancing teaching, getting better at both of those things, and you know making time to explore a new place, a new city, it’s been good so far.

Rebecca: So in graduate school, was there a focus on teaching and developing curriculum, or was it more focused on research?

Maggie: Grad school was certainly more focused on research. It was about developing our research styles, our methodologies, our research interests. Teaching was not a major focus for a lot of reasons… but often teaching was a responsibility that we had, but not one that was explored as in-depth as our research. Since my first year in the program they have implemented third-year development seminars to talk about teaching, but for most of us, we had to really find our own way, we had to rely on upper cohort members to help guide us through our first time teaching, and we really had to spend our own time thinking about what kind of teachers we wanted to be, and how much effort we wanted to put into our teaching.

John: This is not uncommon in graduate programs. The faculty are focused on their research because they have to be if they want to keep their jobs. There are some programs that do more professional development, but they’re relatively rare… at least in my discipline.

Rebecca: I went to graduate school at Syracuse University and they actually had a development program for graduate students.

Maggie: Oh, that’s interesting.

Rebecca: So there was in the beginning, but then I also was in a fellowship program, where you actually put together teaching portfolios, and things, like you would if you were applying for teaching positions and things. That was part of the development and there was ongoing workshops.

Maggie: Yeah, so I think, for me, when I realized that I had a passion for teaching, I spent a lot of time seeking out professors that were engaged in wanting to make all of us into effective teachers… and so that drive, I think, that perhaps came from my desire to be a better teacher, helped me find better resources… within the program… within faculty… and I also served as the president of our doctoral association, and so when it came time to go on the job market, we sought out those faculty that were interested in helping us develop our teaching portfolios, and so we’d hold programs but a lot of it was student driven.

Rebecca: Did you find it challenging, when you were in graduate school. to balance that? When you have this interest and desire to explore teaching almost as a secondary research interest, right?

Maggie: Right.

Rebecca: How did that work? and what challenges did you face because of that? Because I’m sure you had colleagues in the same position who weren’t as interested in teaching and just didn’t spend that much time on it.

Maggie: Sure…. and I think the demands of grad school really keeps any particular person from excelling at teaching… and spending the time that it takes to implement and learn about effective practices for most of us. We’re trying to finish our dissertations. We’re trying to publish on research, and while all of that’s important, there’s kind of a piece of the puzzle that gets neglected, and often it was teaching.

John: …and so, you’re now at a four-year school and you’ve been really active in some of our workshops. We had a reading group last semester that focused on Small Teaching and you attended that workshop regularly… and read through that… and then you implemented some things. How did that go?

Maggie: Yes, I really enjoyed those Small Teaching reading group that we did,0 mostly because it gave me the time and in place to really explore what I wanted to be in the classroom and how I wanted my students to interact with me in the classroom. In that group, I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk with other faculty members who have this experience and have the kind of classrooms that I want to emulate and to get to learn. I really enjoyed the Small Teaching reading group. It gave me a place and a regular time to work into my schedule to sit down, talk about the kind of teacher I wanted to be, to listen to teachers with a lot more experience and how they develop their classroom, and implement these effective learning strategies to create a more productive learning environment, and to teach students and to challenge them to think critically about the world.

Rebecca: I think sometimes carving out time is one of the most difficult things, right? To think about teaching.

Maggie: Yeah.

Rebecca: So the fact that you said that the reading group provides this regular way of holding you accountable to think about these things…

Maggie: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think being a first semester faculty member I wanted to get involved in the campus community… to get to know other faculty members… to see how they’ve been successful in and outside of the classroom… and for me to try to broaden my perspectives on teaching… try to learn about the techniques that are important to facilitate learning… and to carry on to help students become valuable members in the justice system and whatever career paths they they choose.

John: Now a little bit of background on the reading group, we had a hundred and two faculty and staff members who participated in it, a large proportion were faculty. We met multiple times a week, and one of the things that happened there is people from different disciplines got a chance to talk about issues they’ve had in the classrooms, and how they’ve worked on it, and they got suggestions from other people in different departments. How did you find that experience getting to work with faculty from the sciences, from the humanities, from art and so forth?

Maggie: What I really liked about the diversity of the faculty there was… especially the math teachers. Every time they would talk about their experience in the classroom, I remember my own struggles and successes at learning something like math. And to think of a discipline that we wouldn’t normally consider has (or can) benefit (maybe) from a variety of teaching methods. I think that hearing their experiences throughout their teaching careers gives some important insight I can carry on to my own classes.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about the courses that you teach, how big they are and what the subjects are?

Maggie: Yes, so currently I teach… well, and last semester I also taught American Criminal Courts and Judicial Process. These classes ranged anywhere from fifteen students to about forty students, depending on the time of day and the enrollment. The other class that I currently teach this semester is Women and Crime, and that is about thirty-five students.

John: …and what techniques have you tried that were new to you?

Maggie: So, one of the challenges I had in my first semester here was teaching at an 8 a.m. section, and trying to…


John: There are no good solutions…

Maggie: Yeah…

Rebecca: Was it trying to teaching at 8 am or was it the students trying to take a class at 8 am?

Maggie: I think it was the students trying to take a class at 8 am… for sure. It’s hard…

John: It’s hard to stay up that late…
MAGIE: It is.

John: …they get tired and they need to get some sleep.

Maggie: Yes, that’s the end of their day, as opposed to the beginning of most of ours… and so, the 8:00 a.m. class… it was like pulling teeth trying to get them engaged and participating. In the first semester, I think I carried a lot of the same methods and practices that I had developed in grad school, and some of them… through the Small Teaching reading group, I found that I have names for all of that practice… like retrieval practices… and summarizing and recapping at the beginning of courses and at the end of a lecture… and holding small discussion groups. But, somehow none of that was quite enough to bring the 8 a.m. students back to thinking critically about the judicial system. Recently, in my current semester, I’ve started pairing up the students… and I can’t remember exactly what we called this, but pairing up the students to… after they’ve completed a mini pop quiz in class (which they all freak out about, but eventually I tell them that it’s not being graded). So, I’ve paired them up and they discussed their answers and then as a group they present their new answers and…

John: …a think-pair-share method.

Maggie: Yeah, a think-pair-share method. Yeah, so I’ve been implementing think-pair-share and a lot of the 8AM students, especially the ones that were falling asleep, they’re now forced to you know really think about this material right off the bat, and it’s helped keep them engaged throughout the rest of the course. I’ve really enjoyed taking that method and seeing them wake up a little bit more.

Rebecca: That’s great…

Maggie: Yeah.

Rebecca: …it’s not a super difficult thing to employ…

Maggie: It’s really easy.

Rebecca: …but it makes a huge difference.

Maggie: Right, Absolutely.

Rebecca: …and something that may work across all class periods, but sometimes you just have that particular class that’s got a slightly different personality…

Maggie: Right, yeah.

Rebecca: Sometimes due to the time or sometimes just the makeup of the group, that …employing different things in that situation… sometimes you have to troubleshoot like that.

Maggie: Yeah, absolutely and I think…often when you do have big personalities in the classroom, they’re so much fun… and they really they bring the other students into the discussion. But when you don’t have that, if you have students who are maybe a little more timid in the classroom, I think that think-pair-share is a good way to bring each and every one of our students into the discussion.

John: What were some of the other techniques that you may have tried?

Maggie: I’ve also implemented some low-stakes testing for my American Criminal Courts class and that has been going well so far. We’ll see how everything continues in this semester. I’m hoping that this will leave them more prepared for their midterm and their final exams by continually asking them… and then asking them questions from prior lectures… a lot of interleaving… also give them bonus questions on those quizzes to help them predict what we’re talking about next week, so I think there’s going to be a tangible difference in their grades when midterms roll around.

Rebecca: I was really surprised when I implemented more testing. You always hear conversations about test anxiety and nobody likes tests… nobody wants to take tests… and I’m in a discipline where tests are not that common. But I’ve been surprised historically, that the students maybe grumble at the beginning about it…

Maggie: Um-hmm.

Rebecca: …but over time they actually really appreciate it… and if you didn’t have one, like “what’s going on, why don’t we have one today?” They find it helpful and useful to keep them on point. How are students responding to this regular testing?

Maggie: I was actually really surprised when I got an evaluation last semester where a student asked if they could have more tests in the class. Because the format of the exams was four exams a semester, they were longer and they were, I think, looking for something that kept them accountable for the readings… something that kept them accountable for paying attention in class… and so far everyone has been… I don’t think they’re thrilled with it, but I think they understand the reason for having the tests… because I took time at the beginning of our class to talk about why having these low-stakes testings are important for their learning, but important also as they prepare for exams… and to really get this foundational information to build on in future classes.

John: …just simply reminding them that, making a mistake on a quiz that an infinitesimally small part of their grade is much better than making that mistake on a major exam…. and reminding them that this is, in large part, for formative purposes can really help, I think.

Maggie: Yeah, and for some students – who are perhaps a little more on the perfectionist side – I’ve had a couple of them pretty concerned when they miss a quiz but I tell them that I’ve dropped the lowest quiz score…maybe it’ll be the lowest two quiz scores… we’ll see how the semester goes… but to keep them accountable, but also to remind them that they’re human and things happens… they miss a quiz… they forget… and they have the opportunity to learn from that mistake, but to have not such a detrimental effect on their on their grade.

Rebecca: One thing that came up in our reading group frequently, was that faculty had much more success in their classes with this particular technique, if you took the time in class to talk to your students about why you’re doing it and how that’s helping their learning. I think that most faculty who’ve implemented it like you, and have spent the time to share that information with students, have found far more success than faculty who have just implemented the technique without explaining it .

Maggie: Yeah, and that’s one thing I’d really took from the reading group too, is that if we explain to students why the things that they typically hate are actually important and are beneficial to them, there’s a lot more buy-in from them.

John: It’s helpful in general, because students have habits of learning that we know aren’t as effective as they could be, and they tend to resist things like testing for learning. They much prefer rereading things or highlighting things, and after the second re-reading the evidence is pretty clear that there is virtually no increase in the amount that they’ll remember later… but it doesn’t feel that way. When they take a test on something and they get things wrong, it doesn’t feel as good. So, it’s important to help set it up and prime them so that they understand that this is really useful for them.

Rebecca: …and I think when you take class time to talk about evidence-based practices, not just on the first day, but a few times throughout the semester, those same students who are struggling with other parts of learning will speak up and ask more questions. I had a student today who just called me over and was asking like “I’m having a really hard time figuring out how to structure my files, so I don’t lose stuff.” Just a basic organizational thing… but in my field that’s quite detrimental, actually, if you can’t figure out how to do it. …and so, it’s kind of funny. Now they see you as a resource of someone who can help me learn better, not just in this class, but in other classes too…

Maggie: Yeah.

Rebecca: …which is kind of a nice feeling sometimes.

Maggie: Yeah, and I’ve also found that even beyond pedagogical discussions with students, that some of these concepts actually can apply to a lot of the content that we’ve learned. So, in my Women in Crime classroom we’re talking about labeling theory, and what it does to a person when they think they’ve reached the limit of their identity, if they’ve….

John: …issues of stereotype threat.

Maggie: Yeah, right. Exactly. If they fit the stereotype, how do they… can they learn to move beyond that… and so I talk to them about how, when they’re journaling I write all of my comments to reflect the work that they’ve done, and not the person that they are. …and so, I had them to think back about some of those comments that I do make and I tell them that this was purposeful on my end… Because I want them to know that they can do better in some cases… and in other cases that work has reflected some of their best effort… and that’s a good thing, right? And that their effort is just as important as, perhaps more important as, who they are as a person.

John: So it helps build a growth mindset ..

Maggie: Yeah.

John: …of the sort that Carol Dweck talks about. and that’s really helpful, because if they can learn that they can learn and improve their work, they become much more effective.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve found, implementing some of these techniques (especially in the first couple of tries), is that, when it doesn’t feel good to learn, right? [LAUGHTER]… we sometimes have this illusion that we know something, but we don’t actually know it. The students can get a little downtrodden, right? … a little down on themselves… and so then you have to remember to monitor for that a little bit…. which I’ve learned over time, and then you got to kind of just stop and allow for an opportunity to show success. So, for example, in my classes, I started breaking my first project assignment into very small pieces, so everything was low stakes. But, I could see that at some point they just maxed out, and they’re “I can’t do any of this, like I don’t know any of this.” I was like “well, actually you do know most of it, you’re just panicking for no reason.” So, we stopped one day, and we just did we just did a brand new little thing that demonstrated to them that they could actually do the entire project that we’d been doing… in two hours, despite the fact that we’ve spent three weeks on it… and yes, there was a couple little hurdles that they had, but the hurdles they had were minor, and they could do it. I think to allow for that growth mindset… yes, you need them to fail and realize that they can do better, but then also allow for some opportunities where they get some real success too. It seems like you’re interested in this growth mindset idea, so have you been experimenting with any of these sorts of things in your classes?

Maggie: When I started doing the mini pop quizzes, because not only do I throw in a mini pop quiz occasionally, but I also have them doing low stakes quizzing over the weekends on Blackboard. So, I think they start to get a little overwhelmed. We were able to do this on our quiz, when we had everything in front of us, but now that we don’t have anything in front of us, you know, I can see it in their faces. They’re freaking out. They’re upset with themselves, because they knew that they had this information somewhere, they just hadn’t had the time to actually recall it without their notes. I think that, hopefully, the more we do this, the more they’ll take their quizzes maybe a little more seriously and try to really push themselves to do it without without their notes.

Rebecca: So, actually trying to recall the information as opposed to look it up.

Maggie: Right, yeah, right.

Rebecca: Yeah, sometimes students do things out of convenience and meeting a deadline as opposed to valuing the …

Maggie: Sure.

Rebecca: …learning and the more we demonstrate to them that we value that they’ve learned, the better. This semester, I just… for some reason my class is just full of anxiety in a way that maybe even last semester it wasn’t… I didn’t change anything… it’s the same thing… but I spent the time, I felt it…. this big ball of anxiety is not going to move forward… because the anxiety is getting in the way of learning now…. to just stop and recognize that you’re observing something… and then make a change…. this is what the syllabus says, but I’m feeling this and I see this. Do you guys agree? Yeah, great! How about we do this instead? Does that make sense to everyone? And then all of a sudden… buy-in again.

Maggie: Right, yeah. They feel like they have the ability to structure the class themselves right? ..that it’s not just you sitting there saying “This is what we’re doing.” You’re asking them: “If we change this, will this be better for our class?” I think that’s cool, and does keep them invested in the class itself.

Rebecca: What other kinds of supports do you feel a new faculty member needs in place to be successful as a teacher?

Maggie: So, I think that for me, because in grad school I sought out different faculty members and helped create some of the programs that I thought were missing… I think for those faculty members who haven’t put as much emphasis on their teaching, perhaps to reach out to them and maybe have a friend bring them along to activities and in workshops at the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching holds.

John: …and it’s not surprising though that some people, when they first start teaching would not put that much weight on teaching because they’ve just come from an R1 institution, where their focus is often entirely, or nearly entirely, on research … and most people start by teaching the way they’ve learned …and the way they’ve learned is often just simply lectures and exams…

Maggie: Yeah.

John: One of the things I’ve observed as a chair of our recruitment committee (for the last couple of decades) is that, in economics at least, a very large proportion of faculty have no background in teaching while they’re in grad school. In our last search, we had, I think, three or four people who had actually some knowledge of effective teaching practices… and actually three of them made it to our top five list of candidates, but they were by far the exception… and it’s a tough adjustment …and it takes a while, especially when you have to start your research very quickly in order to meet tenure requirements …it’s a difficult adjustment.

Maggie: Yeah.

Rebecca: I think the first semester, in general, is a tough adjustment. You’re at a new institution… there’s institutional memory that you’re not privy to… there’s all kinds of acronyms that you don’t understand. It takes a lot of time to figure out who this student population is… and you might not think that between institutions the students change very much, but man they’re really different… and you have to adjust your teaching to the population that you’re dealing with. As a designer, I would always jump on my soapbox to say you have to design for your audience, and I don’t think designing your classroom experiences is any different.

Maggie: I’d say in grad school, most of the courses I took were very heavy with reading…. and a lot of discussion based classes. But a lot of students don’t have the time to do the kind of reading we did… and that’s why it was grad school and this is undergrad…. and for them who are just learning… and I think we talked about this in the Small Teaching reading group… that we have the ability to make connections across different concepts and how they interrelate to each other, but the students aren’t there yet …and so, when you’re going from one institution where you have gauged where these students are and what kind of connections they’re able to make, because you know a little bit more about their experience, and then you move to a new university and those experiences… some of them are similar, but a lot of them are vastly different… and to gauge where they’re able to make these connections and how much I have to draw out those connections certainly changes on that university.

Rebecca: It isn’t just university, it’s sometimes like semester to semester….

Maggie: Sure.

Rebecca: …or group to group. You almost need to build in a way in your classes to figure out… some sort of little survey or something… like, who are these people? what do they already know?

Maggie: Yeah, yeah.

Rebecca: So that you can make those connections… so that you have a better understanding of what your class’s mental model looks like versus your own.

John: …and there’s a number of ways of doing it… some people will give a pretest at the beginning… just asking what people had, or some general questions about the discipline or their prior knowledge. Others will use clickers and other things throughout the term to assess knowledge before moving on. …and, as you said, just asking students to reflect on what they know and perhaps write it down or at least bring it to the discussion, is another good way to help determine the level, so you can do more just-in-time teaching and deal with what students come in with rather than what you think they should come in with.

Rebecca: What’s your favorite way of handling that John, in your classes?

John: It varies a lot by class. I use clickers regularly in actually nearly all of my classes. I don’t use it in the seminar class I’m teaching, but I’m using them in my econometrics class which is, I think, about 35 to 40 students, somewhere in that range… and I use it in my large class where I have somewhere between 360 and 420 students every fall… and it’s a good way of getting that sort of information. I’ve also sometimes used pre-tests on basic math skills or other things in my large intro class. Sometimes in a smaller class I’ll just ask them what classes they’ve had in the past. When I’m teaching econometrics, for example, I have some students who are math majors who’ve already had multivariable calculus and three or four stat classes. Other students come in who took, sometime in the last three or four years, a very basic stat class… and they come in with very different backgrounds and very different information. Some of the people in the class are math majors who just want to pick up a course and they haven’t had that many economic classes and so finding out what they know helps me determine how much emphasis I need to focus. One of the problems though is that students have such diverse that it’s difficult, but the more we can get them working together with peer instruction, the more they can help each other fill in those gaps.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that I like about what you were saying is that students, in some of those methods, it’s revealed what other students know too, so that they can see that “I have a different mental model, but it matches up with some other people, and here’s some other students and they have this other kind of information.” I find it helpful, and I think the students find it helpful to recognize that people come with different expertise and that we can lean on those expertise at different times. Do you have any strategies that you’ve been using to figure out who’s in the room yet or is that something that you’re still kind of experimenting with?

Maggie: It’s something that I’m still experimenting with. Last semester, I did a pretest and it was helpful for gauging what they knew about criminal justice, but not necessarily what they knew about courts and how those concepts in criminal justice relate to the court system… and this semester I did not do a pretest, but another thing that, I think has been an interesting way to see what they know when they know it is I’ve had them write down for a minute the important things we’ve talked about last class and then I go around the room and every person has to say at least one thing… and everything they know about that thing… but it has to be different from the other person and so that challenges them… and of course the people in the very back corner of the class are freaking out because they’re afraid everything’s gonna be said… but then it turns out that we only get to half of the topics that we actually discussed in the class. So, I think that giving them the opportunity to actually see what they know, I think is important for them in the classroom moving forward.

Rebecca: Yeah, a lot of students don’t have good metacognitive skills, in general. They have no idea what they know. So, if you take the time to get them to even stop and think about what they know, it’s more time than they probably spent on it…

Maggie: Right. Yeah.

Rebecca: …giving them the time and demonstrating that you think it’s valuable for them to spend time thinking about what they know… by you even spending two or three minutes in class on it… all of a sudden lets them know that that’s something that’s valuable.

John: …and actually I’m going to be trying something new this semester to help build on those skills with something that Doug McKee talked about in an earlier podcast, which is the use of two-stage exams. I’m giving an exam in my econometrics class next week next Wednesday and then they’ll all take it individually. Then I will grade them, and then the next class they’re going to work on subset of the questions in small groups… and then they’ll submit group responses which will be weighted as a portion of their overall score. So, basically, they get the opportunity to improve their scores on some of the more challenging questions by sharing their knowledge and in places where that’s been done they found some fairly significant learning gains from leveraging the knowledge of their peers.

Rebecca: Sounds very similar to Maggie’s strategy for some of her quizzes.

Maggie: Yeah. that’s exactly what the mini pop quiz that I’ve been implementing… that they can try to figure out their answers on their own, but then they can really talk with another student… see where their strengths are where… perhaps the other students strengths are and builds from there.

Rebecca: I think what’s nice about pointing out those two examples is that both emphasize peer instruction… but ones in a high-stakes situation… ones in a low-stakes situation. The fact that there’s kind of two graded parts in the in the two-stage exam is a way to demonstrate a way of doing it in a higher stakes situation and then a nice low stakes situation where they try it on their own but then they can collaborate before they’re ever graded is a different scenario and a different level of pressure, etc.

John: …and adding one more level complexity to mine… it’s actually a little lower stakes than it might sound because, while they have three exams (I’ve told them this at the beginning of the term but I’ll have to remind them after they get their test scores back), I have a series of exams that are progressively cumulative, and if they do better on the second exam it will replace the first; if they do better on the third exam it will replace either of the first two… because they’re tested on all the material again. So, they get another chance. It does make the subsequent exams a little bit higher stakes if they didn’t do well, but they have the opportunity to make mistakes, learn from that, and improve their scores.

Rebecca: Great.

John: …and thanks to Doug for the suggestion about the the two-stage exams!
Now, you’re also going to be trying something new next year. Oswego is introducing some new signature courses for students in their first year. You, very graciously, were one of the new faculty who chose to participate in that. Could you tell us a little bit about the course that you’re going to be doing?

Maggie: There’s a group of faculty who have been asked to teach very small seminar like courses that are really aimed at engaging students in their very first year… their very first semester at Oswego and with the intent to get them connected to the University and to get them really excited about their coursework and uncover some of their interests. The class that I’ll be teaching is called the Injustice League. It’s on crime, inequalities, and injustice in comic books… and so, in the class we’re going to read a lot of comic books and some graphic novels… and we will have the chance to talk about how those comic books reflect inequalities that exist in society… how they reinforce some of those inequalities… and how comic books are used today to deliver how comic books are used today to facilitate discussions on race, gender, class inequalities.

John: That sounds like a lot of fun

Maggie:Yeah, it’s gonna be…

Rebecca: Yeah, can I sign up?

John: I wish I could take many of these class but that one in particular sounded really interesting.

Maggie: Yeah, it’s gonna be fun, I think, for students who perhaps don’t have an interest in comic books… or those who do, they can share their interests and we can learn a lot of things about the worlds on our way.

Rebecca: What I like about that is using something that’s more popular media and then using it as a tool to apply critical lenses…

Maggie: Yes

Rebecca: …and really getting students to think critically. We don’t have to always think so abstractly to think critically…

Maggie: Sure.

Rebecca: …a comic book is a nice tangible thing that you can look at and analyze and evaluate.

Maggie: Yeah, and apply to other discussions that we have going on in society. So if it’s examining gender and equality, and the way female superheroes are portrayed in their dress, and how we, as a society, have developed gendered expectations of women and of women of color and all of those intersecting identities.

John: …and Wonder Woman was developed in large part to help correct some of those gender imbalances, right? …it was developed by a psychologist who wanted to help provide a better gender…

Rebecca: Have you seen what she wears?

John: Well, there was that, too… and and there were some other issues there, but that was the rationale…

Rebecca: Yeah, of course, it was a male psychologist.

John: It was, but…
…in any case…. Okay, never mind.

Rebecca: I was just having a conversation with another one of our colleagues the other day about some of the topics that are really intangible like race, gender, and inequality. There are things that we talk about, but they’re abstract or conceptual, and so sometimes students have a really hard time getting their finger on it and finding a doorway in. So, I like the idea of the comic book as a really specific physical object… a really tangible space to enter into those discussions rather than thinking up in the air….

Maggie: Yeah.

Rebecca: …where it’s not always easy to digest that if you don’t have a good mental model of what you’re talking about.

John: …and it may also make it easier for students to separate themselves from those issues, because of course they don’t have any biased views themselves… but when they start seeing it perhaps in the comic books it might be help them identify it more generally in society and in themselves and in the world around them.

Maggie: Yeah, it helps them uncover where their biases do lie.

John: Right, but they’re implicit biases in part because they’re not aware of them so…

Maggie: Right. Yeah, they discover where these gendered expectations that they have been surrounded by throughout their growth as children and adolescents… and in why those expectations are problematic, and through comic books they can actually see it. We can actually point to why wealth inequality can create a superhero or it can create a villain.

John: …and it’s also perhaps less threatening that way, because it’s a comic book. It’s not their life directly, but it’s a nice lens by which they can start seeing these issues better.

Maggie: Absolutely.

Rebecca: Sounds like you had a lot of exciting teaching things on the horizon, what else are you gonna do next?

Maggie: I would like to develop a class that looks at punishment and the historical development of punishment and how sexism and racism in society have influenced that development in our society. …and I think for classes, we’re talking about really tough subjects that it’s important for them to be engaged and to feel comfortable having these conversations, because they are so necessary… and through these techniques, I think it gives them a level of comfort in the classroom to be themselves and to understand their positionality in society and how their experiences have impacted the way they view these social issues, and how they can resist against some of those preconceived ideas.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca: Right.

John: …and I think this could be a great topic for a future podcast…

Rebecca: Yeah, we’ll follow up on that

John: …when your class is underway.

Rebecca: Absolutely. Definitely. Well, thank you so much for joining us Maggie and sharing your perspective. I think a lot of faculty can relate and have had similar struggles and also similar successes, but it’s really nice to see your journey. So, thanks for sharing it with us today.

Maggie: Thanks.

John: Thanks a lot. It’s great having you here at Oswego.

Maggie: Thank you. It’s good being here.

18. Faculty Development

We all want to be more effective teachers, but face increased demands on our time. What can colleges and universities do to efficiently support faculty development? In this episode, we discuss these issues with Chris Price, the Academic Program Manager at the Center for Professional Development at the State University of New York. Before joining the Center for Professional Development, Chris was the Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at SUNY Brockport. While at Brockport, Chris also taught classes in Political Science and in the online Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies program.

Show Notes


Rebecca: We all want to be more effective teachers, but face increased demands on our time. What can colleges and universities do to efficiently support faculty development? In this episode, we’ll discuss how teaching and learning centers in the State University of New York system are tackling these issues.

John: Our guest today is Chris Price. Chris is the Academic Program Manager at the Center for Professional Development at the State University of New York. Before joining the Center for Professional Development, Chris was the Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at SUNY Brockport. While at Brockport, he also taught classes in Political Science and in the online Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies program. Welcome, Chris.

Chris: Thanks, John. Good to be here.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

Chris: I just finished my coffee.


Rebecca: It’s really an epidemic.

Chris: …but. if I was having tea, I’d be having Earl Grey.

John: Okay. Rebecca?

Rebecca: Jasmine green tea.

John: …and I am drinking Harry and David’s Bing Cherry Black Tea.

Chris: Mmmm. That sounds good, I’ll have to check it out.

Rebecca: So Chris, your role at SUNY is somewhat unique. Can you talk a little bit about what you do?

Chris: Yeah, sure. My role is kind of twofold. First thing that I try to do is keep abreast of what is going on in faculty professional development across the system and I do that primarily through talking with and networking with all the people in the system who do faculty professional development… and that runs the gamut from people who are directors of teaching and learning centers to those who work in instructional design and support online courses and hybrid courses and that sort of thing. So, that’s part of my job… and just keeping that group together. I like to say it’s like herding feral cats, because people do faculty development tend to wear a lot of hats and they are usually doing a million things at once. So trying to keep up to date with what they’re doing is kind of a challenge. The other thing I do is develop and deliver our academic programs… there’s the title: academic programs manager. Our academic programs really just service everybody who is involved with teaching and learning in the system. Our programs aren’t really meant to replace… or be the only thing a campus will utilize for their professional development for their faculty. They’re more supplemental. We have online certificate programs for new instructors in teaching and learning. We have programs that are for those to learn about assessment of student learning and institutional effectiveness… So, again a lot of them are really meant to supplement what campuses are doing. I just started in this role about three and a half years ago. I joined the staff of CPD permanently in July, leaving my position at Brockport. So, we’re really starting to ramp up the number of programs that we are offering.

John: You’ve been conducting focus group meetings at a variety of SUNY campuses on professional development needs of faculty. What have you found to be some of the most pressing concerns and needs?

Chris: Yeah, so let me just back up a second… just explain why I’m doing it. Back in July, as part of our program development, we sent out a survey to people work in faculty professional development and asked them what their interests and needs and concerns were… and we learned a little bit from that survey. We learned that the most pressing concerns are in three areas. Number one, helping faculty adopt innovative teaching and learning practices. Over sixty percent of the people who answered the survey indicated that that was something they were very concerned with. And then coming in number two, with just over fifty percent of the respondents, they were looking to help faculty instructors better design courses using sort of data and best practices to improve teaching and learning, and then third, we found that faculty developing folks across the system are really interested in increasing faculty and staff knowledge and participation in their professional development programs. So, those are the concerns but how can we address those concerns, and what is behind those concern? And so we came up with the idea of doing some focus groups across the system. We have 64 campuses, so we didn’t think we could do them at every campus, that would take it a little too long. We looked at the regions where people answered the survey so we wanted to first go out to the places where a number of people had answered the survey and clustered around there. So, so far I’ve done five of them in Plattsburgh, Purchase, Stony Brook, Genesee Community College and Buff State. I have another one scheduled in March at the CPD in Syracuse and I might do another one in Albany later in the spring, and so far I’ve had about a third of the 64 campuses represented in these focus groups. Most of them have been anywhere between five and 12 people and they all been pretty much nice and balanced between those at the community colleges, those at the comprehensives and those at the university centers. So, like I said I’ve been doing them over the last few months and I’ve learned a number of things.

We were joking before we started talking about this that resources are a top concern for many who do faculty professional development, but you’ll find though that it’s not the case…. and those who don’t have a lot of resources probably don’t want to hear this necessarily…. but there are some campuses where faculty professional development is really well resourced and there are a lot of funds that campuses are extending towards faculty professional development. The one thing I found consistent across the campuses, while some campuses don’t have a lot of resources for faculty professional development, you’ll find that the resources kind of followed trends. Many campuses, especially those that have online teaching and learning as a strategic priority, are investing money in supporting faculty professional development and online teaching. Lately we’ve seen a lot of resources follow other trends. Innovation… innovative teaching and learning… so you are seeing a lot of funds now expanded towards that. A lot of the campuses do follow what the system is doing and system does provide money for professional development for innovative things. So, one example would be the open educational resource initiative that’s going on now, where there is some money for that.

The second concern that faculty development folks seem to have is the fact that the folks they’re working with, the faculty, the instructors, teachers, professors… their needs and motivations for participating in faculty professional development vary… widely. Many that they work with are ahead of the curve in terms of adopting innovative teaching and learning practices and highly motivated to participate in their programs. These are the folks that come to all our programs, come to all our workshops, come to our professional development days. They’re the folks that are excited about what we do… and they’re the students that sit in the front row of the classroom, right? and they’re great and we love to work with them, and they give us great feedback on our programs and help inspire us to do what we do. However others, and I would say the majority of faculty, need incentives to participate in our programs like this… and so those are the folks that I think we spend a lot of our time thinking about.

What sort of incentives should we provide folks? Obviously, where resources are somewhat limited, we can’t just pay people to participate in faculty professional development. We have to be a little bit more creative in the incentives that we provide to folks.

The other thing about instructors is that, and again because they kind of are a heterogeneous group, some are very skeptical about what we do, and about innovation in general in teaching and learning. I think most professors tend to teach as they were taught. Typically, if you get a PhD or you advanced to this level of your career, you will be probably been successful no matter what others did to you… but, we have to face the fact that our students are not us. Most of our students will not end up as faculty as professors, and so the things that work for us aren’t necessarily going to work for them, and so the skeptical folk…. I mean again some of them are skeptical for a very good reason. There are a lot of innovative teaching learning practices that don’t bear fruit in the end. I won’t point anything out specifically. I don’t to alienate anybody from their favorite pedagogical technique… but if you look at the literature, there are certain things that just don’t work out in the end. So some of the skepticism is worthwhile listening to, while other skeptical attitude, you just gonna have to ignore, and figuring out which is which is a tough thing for these folks to do.

The other concern that faculty development folks have is that… and this is a concern I’m sure for everyone is that there’s limited time for professional development. One of the we’ve seen in higher education over the last couple decades, is the decreased number of tenured and tenure-track faculty, and what that essentially has done is increase the burden on those who are tenured and tenure track faculty in terms of service, especially. They are required to do more and more than their colleagues 20-30 years had to do, because they’re just fewer of them to share the load. There’s also just more going on on colleges and universities than 20 or 30 years ago. I mean there are just the programs and things that we have to keep afloat, are just increasing year after year… and then, of course, the fact that there are fewer tenured and tenure-track faculty means that more classes are taught on many campuses by adjunct part-time contingent faculty… and they don’t necessarily have time for professional development, because they’re either teaching five… six… seven… eight… classes or they’re working full-time in addition to the classes they teach. So all the folks that we would like to participate in faculty professional development, just don’t necessarily have the time to do it…. and so, trying to figure out ways to do just-in-time kind of professional development preoccupies a lot of folks who do faculty development. So, we had folks on campuses talk about going to departments and framing the professional development activities in the ways they think in their disciplines is one successful strategy.

Another challenge, and I have three more that I’ll mention, is we have folks who do this work who are directors of centers for teaching and learning….but not all campuses have centers for teaching and learning. Only about half have them ….about 30 to roughly 32 of 64 campuses, so those folks kind of do their work in the guise of a center… some of this work happens where faculty get release time to do professional development work or to lead faculty development sessions and that sort of thing and so that’s another population. A lot of this work is being done by instructional designers who are initially hired to just support online faculty, but they’re also not going to turn away faculty who aren’t teaching online if they ask for help…. and, in many cases, librarians are helping faculty with their teaching and so we have a heterogeneous group, and that kind of makes it hard to sort of say, okay… this practice will work for you… because you’re in a totally different department reporting to a different line than someone else… and then another challenge is the choice of whether or not to go deep with professional development… so… go and meet people one-on-one and do consultations, or go wide and schedule workshops… come up with online resources for folks to take advantage of on their own time…. and so this is a choice that folks have to make all the time, and the challenge behind this…. and the thing that I think compounds this challenge… is that we don’t really have a lot of good assessment data, impact data, about what works in faculty development. There’s some out there, but on the campuses, what most people look to to judge success are the numbers of people served. So, I know, for years at Brockport, when I would do my annual report, I would just count how many people we helped or we served through events or consultations, and of course the big events so that lots of people came, were the ones that Jack our numbers up… but that didn’t really say whether or not the folks who came to those events got anything out of them necessarily. I think we have a lot of work to do around assessing what works and what doesn’t in faculty professional development, and that’s going to help us in the long run hopefully improve the type of things that we do in the campuses… and the last thing… the last kind of concern… the thing that a lot of folks said that they tried to do and they struggle to do, was to look at faculty on a continuum, that faculty are a heterogeneous group. Some folks come and they are ahead of the curve… early adopters… on top of the literature of teaching and learning… and they are the ones that like I said are easy to serve and are very eager to learn from us and and to participate in our workshops and activities and that sort of thing. But many faculty, because they’ve got so many other things to do… their own research… many courses to teach…. lots of service… aren’t really on top of what works in the classroom, and it’s not always the best approach to pitch programs that are way ahead of where they’re at. You have to meet faculty where they’re at… so what’s innovative for someone is what you kind of have to define as innovative to that person. It not be innovative to you to say… I don’t know use clickers or something like that… but it may be innovative that person… and you alienate them if you try to make them think that they have to adopt techniques that are beyond where they’re at.

The problem is, this isn’t the most efficient approach and when you’re looking at every individual as a unique case, you can get bogged down and not really be able to create these programs that you could pitch to a general audience.

So the other challenge is that there are a lot of administrative and organizational churn. At Brockport, when I was there we had five Provosts in ten years… and with each Provost comes a new set of priorities and a new organizational structure to report to, and other people that we need to work with…. and so that also compounds the challenges. So I’ve been talking for a while, I bet you have other questions, but as you could see there are a lot of concerns that faculty development folks have… and they’ve been very generous and sharing with me so far.

Rebecca: So when you’re looking at the concerns and in these discussions, did some of these folks provide some information about innovative things that they’re doing to address some of the concerns that you just summarized for us?

Chris: Yes. Definitely, and I think a lot of them fall into a few categories. So I’ve talked before about either going deep or going wide. So most of them all do, and value, the one-to-one consultations they do with faculty, and so they are all still doing those. That’s where they really are able to have an impact I think, but others are trying to reach you know wider audiences through a variety of methods. For example, in Suffolk, they subscribe to this program called Monday Morning Mentors, and so all faculty, regardless of status…part-time, tenured, tenure track… they get an email on Monday morning with some kind of teaching tip directed at maybe something at that point of the semester… and they all get that, and it’s kind of low-hanging fruit for them. I think it’s easy enough for them to do it, and I think they subscribe to a service that gives them those tips. Other campuses are doing a lot with…. those are lucky to have some resources…are doing a lot around grants. So we talked about incentives and the need for incentives… and some faculty need that, and so some campuses are providing incentives to their faculty for… adopt a technique or redesign a course around something. For example, Farmingdale does this. They’ve had one around hybrid teaching and learning and other programs. Buff State has a program where they give instructors some money and some support to redesign a course around an innovative teaching technique.

Campuses are still doing day-long traditional professional development events with speakers and facilitators. Those are still popular… maybe not the most innovative things in the world, but I think they work really well… Some of the more kind of unique approaches I heard about related to regional collaboration. So, I know you guys at Oswego had that book club in which you invited folks from other campuses to participate. That to me is something that I hope to facilitate a little bit more within the system… because there’s something to be said for working with others on other campuses, to get your juices flowing and to hear about other things that others are doing. I think especially for those that are on campuses for a long time, you start to hear the same things over and over… and it’s helpful to sometimes sort of talk to folks outside of your campus… especially for faculty that teach the same discipline on other campuses….and that’s sometimes that’s a good way to think differently about your teaching…. and then the last thing I’ll say I’d like to see more of that I don’t see as much of… although Buff State just recently has been doing this.. and are planning on doing more of that is supporting the scholarship of teaching and learning through very informal ways, so providing incentives for faculty to take the time to do scholarship around their teaching… and supporting that… and rewarding that on the campus.

John: How have you seen the needs for professional development change since you’ve been involved with professional development?

Chris: Yeah, so it’s interesting, so I’ve been doing this work for about 13… 14 years… and when I started, there was a real hard boundary between those technology training and then those who do sort of teaching and learning professional development…. and so I’ve seen that slowly break down. The people that have attended the focus groups I’ve conducted so far have been both reporting to CIOs on campuses but also those who report to Provosts and so those boundaries…. they are slowly breaking down in which those who are using technology in their teaching… that’s not considered really separate from classroom based teaching. It’s all kind of mixing together and I see that as a very positive development because I think that we can’t avoid technology. now in teaching and learning…. and not that everybody has to utilize every single piece of technology that’s out there, but considering how it impacts learning… everyone should consider how it impacts learning, and I think we need to have all our tools in our toolbox to help folks do that. The other thing I’ve seen change is that innovation narrative, as I spoke about earlier, is really driving professional development conversation, and everybody seems like innovation and being innovative in higher ed is what everybody wants. I don’t think everybody knows exactly what they mean by that, I think some campuses using that term and not really I think defining what it means for that campus to be innovative… I think it’s a good thing that we’re considering what’s the latest and greatest out there in micro-credentialing or think of all these sort of innovative practices, I think campuses really need to think about what that means for them and teaching and learning centers are actually ideally positioned to help facilitate that conversation. Another change over the last 15 years or so is that active learning is no longer openly questioned by folks, When I first started I heard faculty say all the time: “Well, I learned great when I was in lots of lecture based classes and why can’t our students learn through lecture?” and now I think folks are recognizing the value of active learning techniques and we don’t have to throw away lecture… and I think there are a lot of good articles and research out there that shows that some lecture is valuable, but I think everybody, for the most part at least, now doesn’t openly question the value of active learning techniques. One thing I haven’t seen as much of, that I was hoping at this point we would see more of is assessment of student learning, scholarship of teaching and learning in classroom research being more widely adopted. I still don’t see a lot of that going on. There’s lots of educational research out there by people who are in the fields of Education, but for faculty to be doing their own research is something that I would like to see more of and I was hoping to see more of.

Rebecca: Over time, have you seen any changes in faculty doing more evidence-based practices?

Chris: This kind of goes back to the idea of innovation driving the narrative now. I think faculty do care that what they’re doing maybe has some basis in literature, but I don’t know that they’re actually diving in and doing the research themselves and sort of: “oh, this I saw this, I read this article… and there’s some research on this, and this worked… and I’m gonna adopt it.” I don’t necessarily see that that much, because I think once you start doing that I think you’re gonna start down that road of maybe doing some basic research yourself in your classes. I’d like to think that that’s the case…. but this is just an opinion, I don’t have any research to back this up… but my guess is that most fact that he still choose to do what they do in the class because their colleagues are doing it or they hear about it offhand. They’re not doing exhaustive literature reviews to make those decisions about what they do in the classroom.

John: But that does open up a bit of a lever for introducing new techniques, so that professional development centers don’t necessarily need to reach all the faculty… if they can reach some influential faculty member in the department and help them introduce more effective practices… quite often other people will adopt it… especially with the growing culture of assessment. If they see the results are a bit stronger or sometimes if someone introduces something more effective and students can see that it’s made the class more effective, they’ll often ask other faculty in the department to perhaps try something similar. I know that’s happened quite a bit here in a number of departments.

Chris: Yeah, I didn’t mean to suggest that hearing it from colleagues was not a good way to go. We have to leverage that, as you’re saying, John. I think we have to figure out ways to make those connections that faculty make with others a little bit more… almost intentional… and leverage that. I think it’s great when that goes well…. when someone hears something from a colleague and then they adopt it and they improve upon it and then they talk to their colleague about: “how here’s what you did… here’s how I did it… and then… oh…” and you listen…. It’s this iterative process… where that good expands out like that, but, as we all know, I mean we can also have bad expend that way as well, right?

John: Yes.

Chris: So if they’re not being critically reflective about what they’re doing….. you could imagine a scenario where folks latch onto something and it doesn’t really work well, but everybody’s doing it, so I guess I should too. So I’d like to see us leverage that and then there’s different ways we could do that.

John: …and those conversations don’t always take place in departments. I know here, periodically…. at least in my division in arts and sciences, the Deans have sometimes encouraged departments to have retreats where they discuss effective practices, and have these discussions… but they don’t always take place.

Chris: Yeah, and that was actually something that I would like to see more of campuses doing…. to put these discussions at the center of all their initiatives when something comes down, especially…. say…for a general education program reform. Finger Lakes Community College recently went through a general education program reform and they put faculty development at the center of that, and so… not only did they rethink how to deliver their curriculum, but they also thought simultaneously how can we help faculty improve their practice to meet the needs of this new curriculum… and I heard that again and again in the focus groups… that, the programs that faculty got the most excited about were the ones that were really tied very directly to what the college was doing strategically, and so they kind of went hand in hand. This is where administration plays a big role… and developers recommending this to their administrators is, I think, a good thing to do…. because… sometimes, they understand that faculty development is important… but they’re not faculty developers… they don’t do that… so they don’t know exactly how to build that into initiatives on the campus so that it works well. A lot of times, it’s just tacked on like: “okay, we’re gonna have this initiative to do this… and… oh yeah, we’ll have to have some professional development, so we’ll figure that out later. That’s not the way to do it. You kind of have to think about at the beginning for it to work well.

Rebecca: In addition to teaching and learning centers or professional development centers on campuses, what are some other ways faculty members can expand their professional development?

Chris: Yeah, so I think networking is probably the best way to do that. Try to find others… not necessarily on your campus, but in your discipline. All disciplines, for the most part, have either conferences or journals that relate to teaching in that discipline… and this is the way faculty think, right? They think first as whatever they teach….you’re a political scientist… you’re a psychologist… you’re a biologist… that’s how you think first. So, trying to find others who think in those terms… and think about teaching in those terms… I think is the first step for everybody to make. But, obviously, I think teaching learning centers are important, and I think all campuses should have them… because it’s nice to have that place where everybody, can congregate around teaching and learning… and have something for these initiatives to revolve around… Beyond those two things, I think teaching conferences are great… But, I think teaching and learning conferences are great mostly as venues for faculty to present their work… giving them an opportunity to present scholarship on their teaching. They can be good for learning as well, but I think learning in this area happens best when you’re really, again doing the research in your classes themselves first.

John: We’ve been doing reading groups here for the last three years… and one of the things that really surprised a lot of the participants…. because we had people coming in from all across campus… in very diverse areas…. is how common the problems that they were having were… and how many solutions people in very different disciplines had… because they wouldn’t have thought to look at that first… and your point about working first within the discipline is a very good one. Because, people are more comfortable if they hear it from other people teaching the same courses or very similar classes.

Chris: It’s funny… because that advice that I would give… going to your discipline first… it does run contrary to the idea that, as you just said, John, It is true that teaching and learning is teaching and learning… and the obstacles that people face are very similar even in very diverse subjects… but, like you said, you have to bring people along where they’re at… first.. and it’s good to see something a little bit familiar first…. and then kind of move on… and then maybe learn from others and other disciplines. So, yeah… it’s one of those things I always get pushback from folks a little bit… we know that you could learn from folks in other disciplines….and, in fact, it’s good to do that… but I think, for many people, it’s good to maybe start off looking in their discipline.

John: …Because when people try something new they have to move outside their comfort zone…. and making it a little more comfortable initially can often help.

Rebecca: I think we saw that a little bit in our reading groups as well… when you’re reading an example or something and it’s not in your discipline and you can’t quite envision how it might apply to your content area. So that’s where I think it’s really valuable to find people in your discipline who can bring some expertise to the table.

John: …and even just the comfort of knowing that other people have done these things and it’s worked… and they can provide you with examples and sometimes a more packaged solution that directly applies to your discipline.

Chris:Yeah, that’s actually one of the innovative practices that… actually they’re talking about this at Buff State…. and they have folks get together and and share resources and repositories, They’ll create some kind of learning activity and then they’ll put it in a repository and then you could adopt that… you could amend that… and I think having those resources in your discipline leads to that culture of sharing first…. and once you start down that path you can, like I said, look to other disciplines to learn from and adopt practices from. It’s like I said a way of moving along a continuum. You have to start where you’re most comfortable and then push yourself gradually to other areas where you’re not as familiar.

Rebecca: What about faculty who are those early adopters? …or who might be a little ahead of the curve? How do we make sure that we continue to engage them?

Chris: That’s a great point. I think those are the folks that you need to have on your advisory board for your Center. Those are the folks that you’re going to bring in to do workshops… but you also have to mentor them a little bit… because I think, like in a class where you have those advanced learners, they can sometimes turn off those who are more novice… because they appear to be know-it-alls… or “I never can know what that person knows.” So, with some careful mentoring, I think those are your folks that you could turn to to help deliver programs and workshops…. maybe facilitate learning communities or reading groups…. really try to harness their enthusiasm. They’re also the folks that you turn to when you want to have folks meet with administrators, and broker or at least advocate for your programs because administrators always like the examples of faculty who are doing innovative things… and so those are folks that we want to send to meetings or advocate for resources for your Center.

John: You mentioned learning communities. One of the things I’ve heard from many people at Brockport was how effective the learning communities were at Brockport. Could you tell us a little bit about how you arrange them? …how they work? …and what sort of incentives were provided to faculty to participate in those?

Chris: Yeah, sure. The way the faculty learning community program worked at Brockport was, it was very faculty centered. We would solicit applications from those who are interested in facilitating a learning community on a topic. We did not restrict the topics to just teaching and learning… We opened it up to, say, research methods types of learning community topics. So we had a couple run on qualitative research methods… quantitative research methods… so we didn’t provide a lot of guidelines around what topic we were interested in learning about. Which is a little bit unique. There are many colleges and universities that organize them around themes and they come up with the themes in advance. So we decided, well… let’s see what the faculty want to learn about… let’s get that full list to put out there.
After that step, we would advertise the proposed topics to the faculty, and even before they ran, we asked them to sign up, so that it would help us decide which ones we would select and run based on how many folks would sign up for them. In an average year, we’d usually have maybe six to ten proposals…. and of those six to ten maybe only five to eight had enough people for them to run. We would usually require at least like eight people to sign up for them to be considered. Then we would look at them and then we would make the decisions. Part of my advisory groups role was to make those decisions about which ones we would fund.

The person who proposed it would be paid as a facilitator to make sure that FLC [faculty learning community] would accomplish what it had proposed to accomplish throughout the year… and mostly that just they would meet every couple of weeks… and then I would meet with those facilitators as a kind of mini-learning community once a month, just to check in and see what they needed… and basically just talk together collectively about their progress during the year.

They would run for an academic year. We’d actually start working over the summer. I’d have a full-day orientation for the new facilitators usually in June, before the year they would run… and then the FLCs would meet every couple weeks. One of the things I always stressed with the FLCs, and I think one of the things that made them work well, is that the goal of FLCs was the professional development of the members. They weren’t really required to come up with a collective deliverable… that’s the job of a committee… and I want to stress that FLCs, if they work well, can’t be seen as committees. They have to be seen as a group of folks who are looking to learn together… and really learn something… and a benefit to their own practice… At the end, some of the FLCs would pursue group projects, but that was their decision. It wasn’t something we would impose upon them… and my other concern with that is I didn’t want the FLC program to be seen as a vehicle to accomplish initiatives on the campus…that say, the administration wanted to accomplish and sort of co-opt them. …and there were occasions where we would get applications for FLCs, where a clearly a Dean had put the bug in the ear of a faculty member and said: “Hey, propose an FLC on this topic.” …but faculty would never sign up for those.


So they would never run anyway… but, yeah…. it was a great program. They did have a little bit of a budget… a few hundred dollars per member… that they would pool collectively… sometimes to send someone to a conference, or a couple people to a conference or buy us some materials or buy a piece of hardware or software to help what they do.

If you go to the Brockport website and search Brockport faculty learning communities, you’ll find all the ones that we did… and their end-of-the-year reports we would put on our website, so that we would share their learning with the entire community. My favorite part of the program was at the end of the academic year, we would have a end-of-year luncheon. We invited all the FLC members… usually the Provost would come… and then we would invite the people that were going to facilitate and/or be part of the next year’s FLCs to hand the baton off to them, and so they can hear about what those FLC accomplished and what those folks accomplished and then inspire them to do their work the following year.

John: That’s a very nice structure.

Chris: Yeah, it worked really well. Thing that was great about it was that it kind of helped me do my work. There were topics that faculty were concerned about,… say: “Hey, propose a FLC on that topic.” ….and it would really start to generate this momentum around faculty developments in those areas… that they would take the ball and run with that. I was a center essentially of one, we had one other full-time staff member, an administrative support person, so there was only so much I could do, by myself and with only a couple of people, so these were ways for faculty to own their professional development… faculty centered professional development is the way I would always look at.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca: So what are you gonna do next?

Chris: One of the things that I would really like to do… on the top of my wish list for the system, is to take almost that FLC model… and apply it in the system. Now, I don’t think it makes sense to do it exactly the way we did at Brockport and just sort of say: “Hey, we’ll have system-wide FLCs.” I don’t think that necessarily would work, but I would like to have some kind of a network of faculty who are involved in teaching and learning projects… maybe scholarship of teaching and learning projects… or action research projects. Something where they’re doing a investigation of a teaching and learning method…almost like SUNY teaching and learning scholars… or something like SUNY teaching scholars…. or something like that… where they collectively work together… most of its going to have to be virtually… online… where they’re working together… supporting one another… getting support from the system somehow…. and at the end presenting their work maybe at CIT [a SUNY Conference on Instruction and Technology] or another sort of system-wide program, and then we can gradually build this cohort of SUNY teaching scholars and have maybe them be recognized by their campus somehow. I haven’t figured how we’re gonna do that yet, but I’ve been putting bugs in the ear of anybody they will listen about that. I think that we should do something like this.

Rebecca: Sounds pretty exciting. I think there’s desires on individual campuses for a cohort like that, but maybe there’s not always enough of a cohort on an individual campus… so having something system-wide could be really beneficial.

Chris: Yeah, exactly and again I think just that benefit of hearing from people on different campuses… just these focus groups I’ve been having… they’re just one shot, two hour deals, but having folks come together regionally, and really facilitating that regional conversation… I think they’ve been sort of saying: “Oh, this is great… we should do this more often.” So, like I said, I’m hoping this to spur those connections and I see this as just another opportunity to do that.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca: Great. Well, thanks for spending some time with us today and sharing your expertise and getting us all thinking a little bit more about our own professional development.

Chris: My pleasure, yeah.

John: Thank you, Chris.

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