63. Building a Campus Culture of Accessibility

Colleges and universities, as well as individual faculty members, are legally required to meet federal accessibility requirements for all digital content that is posted online or used as learning materials within face-to-face, hybrid, or online classrooms. Most faculty, however, have received little or no training in how to create accessible materials. In this episode, Sean Moriarty, the Chief Technology Officer at SUNY-Oswego, joins us to discuss how our institution is working toward assisting faculty in creating materials that are accessible for all of our learners.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Colleges and universities, as well as individual faculty members, are legally required to meet federal accessibility requirements for all digital content that is posted online or used as learning materials within face-to-face, hybrid, or online classrooms. Most faculty, however, have received little or no training in how to create accessible materials. In this episode, we examine how one college is working toward assisting faculty in creating materials that are accessible for all of our learners.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Today our guest is Sean Moriarty, the Chief Technology Officer at SUNY Oswego and Chair of the SUNY Council of Chief Information Officers. Sean is the author of the recently published Educause Review article, “Building a Culture of Accessibility in Higher Education.” Welcome, Sean.

Sean: Thank you, John and Rebecca.

Rebecca: Welcome.

Sean: It’s great to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Sean: Well I’m having my Tim Horton’s coffee. I usually have my tea after dinner, so it’s too early for my tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I’m drinking Christmas tea with cinnamon.

Rebecca: I have my lucky English afternoon tea.

[LAUGHTER]

John: It’s not just for afternoons.

Rebecca: No, it’s all day long.

John: And it never has been, I guess.

Rebecca: Yeah. Before we jump into our conversation, first, can you define what accessibility is?

Sean: Well, accessibility is the idea that every user of the content has a similar experience. They’re not gonna be able to have exactly the same experience… So if you think of people who might have blindness, the content that they access on a website or in a document should be able to give them the same knowledge and understanding in terms of they would hear the content or have it read to them so that they would gain the same knowledge and understanding of what’s there. The disabilities that we have vary from people to people and you also have different issues in the way that content is provided; people who are blind can’t experience a picture in the same way, so there’s an expectation that you would explain what’s inside of an image so that they can understand what other people are seeing.

John: Accessibility issues have been around for a long time, but it seems that campuses are starting to pay more attention to this. What has prompted this increase in attention to issues of accessibility.

Sean: It’s an issue that has really raised in prominence over the last 15 to 20 years and has become a large issue for us here in New York state over the last couple years. So I’m originally from Canada, and I would say that accessibility and digital resources has been an issue there easily for 10 to 15 years and we spent a lot of time at the last institution I worked at, which was the University of Windsor, in terms of making our website accessible and meeting the accessibility laws and guidelines that the Canadian government has put in, and a lot of resources and time were put into that. When I moved to the United States, and particularly here at SUNY Oswego… that would have been five and a half years ago… I think it was less of an issue and people didn’t necessarily realize the need for accessibility and the effect that it had on others. The reason that it’s really come to more prominence is that some individuals have gone and worked towards making everyone aware of the law. So there are a couple of laws in the United States, and one would be the American Disabilities Act, and the second a law that really came into effect over the last couple years, has to do with digital resources and the requirements for them to be accessible for people. Now, one individual in particular has gone and put complaints against universities that their websites weren’t accessible and it really kicked off an awareness in terms of how people wanted to do it. At SUNY Oswego and throughout the state of New York—actually all the SUNY schools had complaints brought against them two years ago—it was really largely around the websites that were inaccessible and most of the SUNY schools got together and we looked at ways to go and comply. Now many of us were really not that far away from being a hundred percent compliant on the website. To go and to remediate most of the website isn’t that difficult when you start talking about items such as the HTML. It gets a lot more complex once you start looking at documents and PDF documents… and no one, I would say, is really a hundred percent compliant. Understanding the complexity of the issue once you start working on it, you really start to see how the issue—if you just try to go in to remediate it and fix it it becomes next to impossible, really. The only way to go and work and to become compliant and to really design the experience you want for the end user is to go and get in front of it to do it. Well, that’s one part of it is the legal issue, but part of it also is a social justice issue. I think when you want to go and start to think about how you want to design your website and make it attractive to all end-users you have to understand that there are people that need these accommodations and have different needs and you have to go and design your website to go and to make it accessible to them, and I think when you start to go and think of it from the social justice issue rather than meeting the requirements it just changes your whole way of thinking in terms of why you want to do it, how you want to do it and how you can get more people to buy in.

John: And when we’re talking about accessibility it goes far beyond just a website; there’s also EdTech tools and there’s also teaching materials and resources. Could you talk a little bit about those issues in higher ed and what we’re trying to do to deal with those?

Sean: A lot of the focus does go on websites, and particularly at the very beginning, I would say, in terms of when we go and try to meet accessibility from a digital point of view from an IT department, but there are a number of other items—we have digital content on PCs throughout the campus and run all kinds of applications and mobile applications. There’s an expectation that those will be accessible by all users as well. So one of the issues is that we have applications that are running on mobile devices… PCs… and our goal would be to have those accessible for all end-users as well. Really to go in, to manage that we have to look at how we procure those items and ensure and work with the people who want those applications that they’re going to be accessible… and ensure that the vendors that we’re dealing with are making it a priority to go and to make their applications accessible… and I think particularly there’s a couple of in-state systems that have done quite a bit of work and that would be the California State System… the Washington State System have done quite a bit of work in terms of going and making accessibility of applications a priority, and I think with the SUNY system joining in we can have quite a bit of power with the amount that we purchase and accessibility can even raise to a higher awareness with the vendors and we can push it forward from there. The other area where it really becomes an issue is inside the classroom; we’re delivering far more electronic resources to students than we have in the past and I think that’s partly because the experience is a more online and there are online classes that are delivered totally digitally or with an instructor helping, but accessibility becomes a larger part as we work there. But also as we deliver content to students through the computer as opposed to handing pieces of paper to them we have to go and think accessibility upfront. As we go and expand our markets… as we become more aware of students that have accessibility issues—we are having more students who come to school and have these requirements and it is going and adding a lot more requirements to go in to help those students succeed.

John: One of the nice things, though, about a move to digital materials is the content is already in digital format which makes it easier to convert as long as provisions are made for that; the old text-based systems were a lot harder—you had to have people either read materials to people or other types of content back in the earlier days. It creates opportunities as well as some challenges.

Rebecca: I mean the web, in general, was designed in a way from the beginning to be accessible to all; it has that power and capability as long as it’s used correctly. So one of the things that I know that we’re working on with this campus is helping people understand how to use all of these platforms more effectively to make the content accessible, because if you design things with accessibility in mind from the beginning it’s a lot easier, it’s a lot more effective and it’s a lot more powerful than trying to fix everything afterwards, which we’ve certainly experienced here; it’s a lot more expensive and time-consuming.

Sean: Yes, for sure. I think we have also tried to look at using the right medium for delivering the message. So, I would give examples on the website, particularly where people might go and make flyers and they’d create a PDF document that they go in and stick on bulletin boards around the campus and then just go and stick that same PDF onto the web which immediately isn’t accessible unless they have done it (properly). The proper way to go and to use the medium of the web is to go and create a website or a web page that would go and deliver that content. It’s more effective for people when they go and do it… that extra little step… and don’t take the shortcuts and it also helps them to go in to market their materials in the right way.

John: Economists often make the same argument; it’s called a putty-clay analogy that when you’re designing technology it’s like putty; you can shape it in many different ways, but once you bake that clay and turn it into ceramics you can no longer alter it as easily—it’s much more costly and you often have to start over, but it’s very malleable at the start when you’re designing things, like making curb cuts, where it’s fairly expensive, but now when new curbs are built they’re automatically including those curb cuts and that’s really not any more costly to build than the old system was but it was much more costly to go back and rebuild things and to start over, which was the argument you were making, I think.

Rebecca: I think curb cuts is a great topic too—it goes back to what Sean was mentioning earlier in the difference between checking a box to say that I’m compliant versus really thinking about what it means to have a curb cut. There’s an example that I often use when I give presentations on accessibility that’s a curb cut to nowhere, it’s a curb cut to some grass that doesn’t go anywhere. It’s compliant because there is one, but it’s not usable. So, I think that’s the key thing that you have to think about when you’re dealing with accessibility issues, that it’s not just ticking boxes off but you’re really thinking about the real people who it’s meant to impact.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that’s really exciting too is that not only does it help people with disabilities get the content and have an equitable experience but it also means that people that are using different kinds of devices or might be in noisy situations or other kinds of circumstances also have a better experience overall. From a design point of view, when it’s accessible the user experiences has just improved for everybody.

John: Before I got an iPad Pro with a higher volume level, when I was watching videos while flying I often would turn captions on because it was sometimes easier to read the captions than to hear over the noise of the jet and that applies certainly to students watching multimedia content in quiet places where they can’t play audio out loud or students in noisy environments who might not be able to hear the audio.

Rebecca: Or non-traditional students who might be around their kids or whatever and might need to control things like that.

Sean: Yeah, there’s many examples of technology that was brought in to help people with accessibility that become really mainstream that help everyone’s life.

It brings up the conversation or the thought that having the tools to do what you need to do and then actually using those tools appropriately and in the best way… and I would say that in many ways with accessibility at this point, some of the tools that are required still aren’t there to make things easy. We’re still working on having those tools and I think as we move forward that we’ll go and we’ll develop the tools and make it easy, but I think that’s really the stage of maturity that we’re at right now.

Rebecca: Going back to what you’re saying about the tools that we need don’t really exist yet to some extent. Using the tools that we do have to do the things that we can do, still makes a big impact. So, even using Microsoft Word to make assignment sheets and things but using the styles that are built in so that you’re identifying what’s a heading, what’s a subheading, et cetera, makes a huge impact and that takes care of a large percentage of the material, but then there’s that smaller percentage of a more complicated content and multimedia that’s a little more difficult to deal with… especially when there’s interaction as well as motion and some of these other things… but there’s still a lot that we can do with what we do have.

Sean: Yes, why then I think it goes back too to a skills issue and then part of it being knowledge and skills. So, people are used to using Microsoft Word for 20-plus years the way that they use it… and they’ve found their own shortcuts to just meet their own needs… But to go and to deliver and use a tool at the highest effectiveness you really need to have this additional knowledge and understanding of having templates that you can use and marking images that need to have a tag with them too. So we do have the tools but we also need to give people the skills and knowledge to understand how to use them effectively for this.

John: On past episodes we talked about how faculty coming through grad school generally don’t receive much training in how to teach, although that’s been changing a bit. But virtually no graduate students, I would suspect, has received much training in graduate school on creating accessible documents, so there’s a lot of inertia to overcome.

Rebecca: Not even in fields that deal with accessibility as part of their background—they might not even have that experience either. So, like computer science, design, et cetera… that’s something that’s just starting to bubble into curricula now.

John: One of the things, Sean, you and Rebecca have both been working on is developing an accessibility fellows program here at Oswego. Could you talk a little bit about that program… what it is and what’s the purpose of it?

Sean: Rebecca and I were talking about this earlier… and looking at it from an institutional point of view, I think if we want to go and to create this culture of accessibility, you’re really gonna have to go and put resources towards it and make it a priority… and I think here at Oswego we’ve tried to do that in a number of ways, and one would be to bring on an intern that Rebecca had trained and had excellent skills and we could go and work to remediate courses, for one item… and then to build a culture of accessibility here… and the only way I think to go and to build a culture is to go and to build it from bottom up… and show people it’s important by putting resources towards it… making time available for people to go and to work on it. So, the accessibility fellowship that we’re starting this year does that… and it does it in one way in terms of giving Rebecca some time to go and to provide the leadership that she does in terms of accessibility and it fits in with the work that she’s doing and the priorities that she has… and it also set some time aside for faculty to go and to work on accessibility and for them to become advocates for going and spreading the word as we move forward… and I think by going and putting the resources in, it’ll make a difference at the beginning, but the real difference will be four or five, six years down the road when we have a number of people and the person sitting next to you says to you, “Oh, you could make that more accessible if you did this…” and it just becomes part of the culture that everybody’s working on it. Rather than just Rebecca going and starting we got to make the triangle much larger.

John: The fellows are receiving a course release to free up time so that they can work on these activities.

Sean: Right, and with the expectation that they’ll have training… they’ll understand what it means to create accessible courses. They’re going to create accessible courses. They’ll have an opportunity to travel and go to a conference with accessible related material, become advocates for it as well…

John: We’ll also ask them to give some workshops for their colleagues. People are much more likely to show up for a workshop when it’s someone from their own department or area so by doing this across the campus we’re hoping that this will start spreading a bit more rapidly.

Rebecca: It’s important to note that there’s a wide variety of fellows from different disciplines. We have people from Business… we’ve got people from Science… people from English… people from Political Science… people from Education… people from… Sean: Comm studies…

Rebecca: Comm studies. Did I get them all? Oh… no… and Health, Promotion and Wellness.

Sean: So we were hoping to have four originally and we have seven. So, I think we’re very happy that people were interested and wanted to go and spread the word… and I think also as Rebecca says with the wide number of fellows that we have, we’ll be able to go and do some work… So particularly, like in the sciences there’s a lot of questions around accessibility and how do you go and create the accessible content? I think the person that we have will be able to go and to start some of the work and help it go in to build a knowledge base and be able to pass it on to others as we move forward.

Rebecca: I think that’s really key because there’s definitely some holes in the knowledge of the team that’s been working on these things as soon as it starts getting more specialized.

John: That person in the sciences is Casey Raymond, who is on our podcast on the first and third episodes.

Sean: Yes.

Rebecca: Uh hmm. Sean, one of the things that we’ve talked a lot about is building it from the ground up versus retrofitting or remediating. Can you talk a little bit about the difference in the workload and resources needed…

Sean: Right.

Rebecca: …for those two different approaches?

Sean: I would say one item that we’ve seen really over the last couple years, particularly as we’ve started to work on it, is the amount of time that we’ve had to go and spend remediating courses… and we do put a lot of focus in terms of online classes and we’ve just seen a tremendous growth in the amount of classes that need to be remediated. We have processes inside (Banner) and we’ve written applications inside Banner and create reports to go in and to identify students who are taking classes that are online that are going to go and be remediated. Where we might have been doing a couple or a few courses a semester before… the number has grown five hundred to a thousand percent more than it was before and that really required us to go in to create a position for an individual to go and to work and basically try to stay a couple weeks ahead of the course material for all the students that we’re dealing with… or at least all the courses that we’re dealing with for these students… and actually I would say with the growth and with the students that we have coming in this solution is not scalable. We’re not going to be able to hire enough people to go and to do it… and I’d say within a couple years if we keep doing it, we just won’t be able to keep up. It’s getting to that point. We have an accessibility committee on campus that would consist of people from the President’s office, our Diversity and Inclusion Officer, our communications, our web people, student disabilities, Rebecca, from the academic point of view… our web developer and Extended Learning, who do a lot of the online classes, and we spend a lot of time in those meetings. First of all, they start with the remediation that has to be done and when we have discussions around it, we realize it feels like the hole that we’re digging around accessibility just keeps getting larger and larger… and at this point our goal would be to stop the rate of the hole getting as large as it is. At some point maybe we can even it off and then get to the point where we can start filling it in, but I think the only way we’re gonna go and fill it in is over many, many years and when we redo classes they’ll be designed with accessible format as we move forward – going back and remediating all the work, it’s just not doable.

Rebecca: One of the things that I think you’re highlighting, Sean, is the difference between accommodation and accessibility. Accessibility is much more proactive where we’re actually going in ahead of time, making sure that when we’re designing content, it’s set up so that it’s accessible no matter what device you’re using it’s gonna work; whereas accommodation is… you register through the office of disabilities or whatever you have on your campus and you get a specific accommodation letter… the accommodation letter is given to the faculty member and then you’re given those accommodations and that office might provide the resources to convert a text or whatever might need to be done. This is much more front-loaded, but it helps more students and it also helps students who don’t want to identify as being disabled, especially if they have a hidden disability that they’d prefer to keep private. One thing that’s also different is that students who might have hidden disabilities or disabilities in general have always had the burden of getting the materials or asking and having to take all of the extra steps. In this case it’s the content generators with (the responsibility for) accessibility, so that’s a key difference between the two.

John: You noted that some students might choose not to report learning disabilities, but we should also note that some students might have undiagnosed learning disabilities. Those students can also benefit from the creation of accessible materials.

In order for our campus and other campuses to become fully accessible, it’s going to require the teamwork of quite a few people. Could you talk a little about how that process has been going here?

Sean: We’ve done a good job here at Oswego and we have a really good mix of people that are really interested in this topic and want to move it forward… so I think of our web developer, Rick Buck and how he’s gone and redesigned our website (although it was very compliant to begin with, let me say)… but he’s gone and put in the extra features that go and work to going to keep us compliant and he’s also spent considerable time with his team to educate our content editors who go in… and in any university you would have a very diverse group of people who would develop content in their specific department or area to keep the information relevant… but they need to understand their responsibilities inside of it… so going and training them and giving the knowledge and the tools. So, from the web point of view, I think we’ve done a lot, but also we’re lucky to have a mix of people here in the academic area who want to go and and do this. So, for example, with Rebecca and with the work that she does, first of all in the class and in the area of accessibility… we’re really lucky to go and to be able to tap into that and to put the resources necessary to move the whole project forward… and I would say that goes right up to the President here at the university and the Provost and them making it a priority and ensuring that we put resources towards this to move the project forward.

Rebecca: I would also add that without Sean really being the advocate for the entire process, I don’t think a lot of the things that we have in place would happen. He was the convener of the committee and some of these other things that really got the ball rolling… and it got rolling quickly. [LAUGHTER]

Sean: Why I do think it really helps being proactive and going and looking at it from a systemic point of view and going and trying to change the system and starting at the bottom; otherwise you just spin your wheels all the time and the hole gets deeper and deeper.

Rebecca: That leads us to: What next, Sean?

Sean: Well, I think we’ve covered a lot of the things that are coming up for us. You earlier referenced that I’m the Chair of the SUNY Council of CIOs. So, inside the SUNY system we’ve done a lot of work and tried to work with the CIOs to share knowledge in terms of what we’re doing, whether it be on our website and with applications that we’re purchasing and implementing. A couple of the other schools are doing even more. So the University of Buffalo is actually doing quite a bit and they’ve implemented a new procurement process that will go and put better, I would say, guardrails around how we go and purchase application software and I would imagine a lot of the schools will adopt what they’re doing… and the SUNY Provost is about to come out with a accessibility statement or policy and inside that statement and policy will be the need to have someone responsible for accessibility at each school, and how a school is going to need to have a plan in order to do it… and I would say that we’re among the leaders in terms of doing that. We’ll have a plan in terms of how we want to go and move it forward… and really the next part of it is I would say at this point is to go in and implement and let it grow and let the people do their work and share the knowledge that our fellows will have over the next period of time and then look where we want to go for that—we’ll need to go back and assess how we did this year and then I would say just guide ourselves through those waters and decide how we want to go and grow the program and share it with others.

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

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for joining us, Sean.

Sean: Thank you for having me.

[Music]

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

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

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

62. 2018 Reflections

We’ve had over a year of inspiring guests and great information on the Tea for Teaching podcast. We thought it would be fun to spend our time today discussing the tools and techniques that we’ve put into practice.

Show Notes

Tea for Teaching podcast episodes referred to in this podcast:

Other citations:

  • Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Harvard University Press.
  • Sue, D. W. (2016). Race talk and the conspiracy of silence: Understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc..

Transcript

Rebecca: We’ve had over a year of inspiring guests and great information on the Tea for Teaching podcast. We thought it would be fun to spend our time today discussing the tools and techniques that we’ve put into practice.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

Rebecca: Today’s guests are John and Rebecca.

John: And today’s teas are…

Rebecca: Christmas Tea.

John: And I am having Christmas Tea.

Rebecca: Really?

John: I am.

Rebecca: We didn’t plan that. Well it’s the end of your reflections—guess it’s in the season. So, John, what are some of the things that you’ve tried that made a big impact on your class this year?

John: One thing that was really influential was the metacognitive cafe low-stakes online discussion forum that Judie Littlejohn developed and developed and presented in our second episode. This discussion forum allows students to collaboratively work together to improve their metacognition and to become more effective in learning. The student response has been so positive in the online classes where Judie and I have both introduced it that I’m going to try to introduce it into my large introductory face-t-face introductory classes. It’s going to be a little more challenging trying to come up with a scalable way of doing that that would work with classes of 3 to 4 hundred students, but I think the benefits make it worth the attempt.

Rebecca: That episode inspired me a little bit too and although I don’t have that specific set up in our capstone class, we started asking students about the workspaces that are most effective for them and in design there’s a lot of open-space studios and then those that might have more private space, and so we’ve been talking a lot about that and so things that they might intuit to be more comfortable or more productive environment for them or making them be far more reflective and precise about… and so that same practice of being intentional and thinking through that has been really effective and useful.

John: Another thing that had a large impact on me was Jeffrey Riman’s discussion in episode 10 on VoiceThread. Up until then I had been playing with VoiceThread every few years, occasionally giving workshops to demonstrate it to faculty but he convinced me to actually try it and I used it last spring and it worked very well in my online labor economics class. I was very pleased with how it worked. I actually used this in the metacognitive cafe discussions in my online labor economics class, but I used a text based discussion for the weekly content discussions. One of the interesting things is that after hearing all of the students’ voices in the metacognitive cafe discussions, when I was reading their other discussions, I could hear their voices and it created a little bit more sense of presence and connection, and the students responded the same way… that getting to hear each other’s voices made them feel a little bit more connected and gave them more of a sense of community.

Rebecca: I can imagine that it might also help students hear the inflection and the intention of some of the words and written content a little more clearly so they know that maybe a student had a good intention about what they said rather than assuming a bad intention just based on hearing a student’s participation throughout the semester.

John: As we’ve noted in a reading group—I think it was something that Michelle Miller talked about in Minds Online—everyone is much more likely to misinterpret meanings in text or to read negative connotations into things even when they’re not meant. What are some of the other episodes that influenced you?

Rebecca: I go back to Writing Better Writing Assignments, episode 31 with Allison Rank and Heather Pool as a reminder when I start writing new assignments. They are so intentional about making sure that you’re phrasing questions effectively and efficiently and you’re really asking students what you actually want them to deliver and I think that serves as a good reminder and I feel like every time I start making a new assignment I go back to some of those ideas. I don’t always necessarily listen to the episode again but I certainly skim through that transcript again.

John: I do the same thing sometimes. Either the transcript or sometimes the resources when there’s something I need to look up.

Rebecca: Their paper is really great too, so I’ve referred back to that a number of times as well. One of the other episodes that I found myself going back to a lot in the throes of this particular semester was episode 46, Creative Risk-Taking with Wendy Watson. In my department, historically we’ve had a lot of creative play between our classes and sometimes creative competitions and things and for some reason we have a lot going on with new renovations and stuff on our campus that have been keeping us extra busy and I think we had to cut something and we had started to cut the play and we’re all just feeling really dragged down and tired and what-have-you. So we brought some play back. So this semester my students invented a food truck for the campus and we created a website around it, created a menu so it was really creative and fun, and then some other classes created commercials and other resources and things to extend the brand and so the students all had a great time and it was really kind of funny because when we handed stuff off to the class that did little mini commercials they didn’t realize it wasn’t real. [LAUGHTER] They were like, “this will be really awesome.” They were really looking forward to it, but…

John: We were hoping for taco trucks on every corner and it didn’t turn out that way.

Rebecca: Yeah, actually it’s Space Buds; it’s a potato truck coming soon. [LAUGHTER]

John: Like the ice cream of the future, yes. [LAUGHTER] Which is now here; that’s no longer the ice cream of the future.

Rebecca: Yeah, but I think that’s a good reminder that learning can be fun and sometimes when you bring in these fun, creative opportunities for students to explore the class material everybody has more fun, including the faculty member and I think it just lightens the mood and makes everyone move forward faster.

John: That’s a nice reminder for all of us.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: And also her discussion of just the importance of being willing to take risks in the classroom and not just go through routines and go through the motions the same way every semester was really refreshing.

Rebecca: Yeah, it can be really scary to take on a new project. When I decided that I’m just gonna change my project and it’s gonna be this after having engaged in that particular episode it’s like, “I don’t know how this is gonna go, fingers crossed…” but it worked out great.

John: One other thing that’s been affecting my class this semester was the podcast with Marela Fiacco, episode 34 on Flex Courses. In most of my classes I’ve been recording the sessions and posting them for students and if I knew a student was going to be out of town I would also livestream the class, but based on what she was doing with her class I just told my students that I’m live streaming each of my large classes and I’ve been amazed at the number of people who have been just joining in from wherever they happen to be. I’ve had up to 10 to 12 percent of the class and sometimes it’s because they’re not feeling well—we had a number of people out sick for a while—and while they’re lying in bed half dead or whatever they can still join in with the class… they can pose questions that pop up on the screen for a very few seconds… and they can also participate in all the clicker questions if they have the remote app… and that’s been working pretty well; it’s provided access for students who are away… who are out of town visiting family and traveling… and it’s just become routine where some people just enjoy it—they’d rather be by themselves. Some of the students who were sitting in the back have found that they can find a much quieter environment than some of the environments in the classroom— while we try to keep the noise level in the class down at times, some people are intimidated by having 300 to 400 students around them actively discussing things during some of the peer-to-peer things and they feel more comfortable in a quieter environment and they can do it that way.

Rebecca: That’s great. I think sometimes we expect that when we provide that kind of access that all of a sudden students aren’t going to get what they need or they’re gonna slack off or not take advantage but you can see that they’re there… they’re present… they’re participating, so that’s exciting.

John: Another thing that really influenced me quite a bit last spring was episode 12 with Doug McKee where he was talking about active learning. Two of the things he was doing I implemented right away, particularly the two-stage exam. I implemented it that semester—I talked about it first with the students to see if they were interested; they were and it just worked beautifully. We talked about that in an earlier episode too, and another thing I introduced was the student poster session that he discussed using in place of the end-of-term student presentations where students get up with their PowerPoint displays and those who are not presenting are sitting there anxiously worried about their presentation and most students were just not that actively engaged. When they got to create posters and post them around the room and have some of their friends and some other faculty from the department, and actually even the Dean came in and viewed them, they were so much more excited and instead of presenting for 8 to 10 minutes for each student they got to stand up there for the whole class period and explain it to all their colleagues and because I broke it up a little bit so that half of the students could go and visit the posters created by the other students for a period of time and then the other half could visit the others, they weren’t just standing by their posters and we had other people come in and talk about it and visit with him and they found it much more interesting and they were much more actively engaged in the presentations and much more enthused about it than they were otherwise, and several of them said that they wish all their presentations were done in that way.

Rebecca: I think that was a theme that came up in a number of episodes this idea of presenting your material out to a bigger audience than just the class. I wonder if some of the success is not just because it was this particular format with their students but because you were also inviting others in and it raised the stakes a little bit which might have just professionalized the whole experience. You mentioned the two stage exams—so I know we talked extensively about that on another episode, but it’s still really interesting to me too. I haven’t quite figured out how to implement it in the kinds of things that I teach but it’s still tumbling around in my mind; I like that idea and I do some things that are like that where I have students solve a problem on their own and then they come together and try to solve it together and in general that methodology seems to work just really well.

John: Peer instruction in general…

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: …works really well, which is when we talked about that more extensively.. What are some of the themes from our past podcasts that have influence your practice as a teacher the most?

Rebecca: I think this year seems to be my focus on diversity and inclusion and it’s for a few reasons: one is all of our accessibility initiatives that I’m highly involved with on campus, but also our reading group this year is on Race Talk by Derald Wing Sue… so I’m completely immersed in that particular subject… so I seem to be latching on to anything that’s about that and trying to digest that… and I also teach accessibility and things in my classes so I’m constantly thinking through how to teach empathy, how to get students to think about different experiences that are very different from their own and how to communicate that and how to get students to engage in that practice, so the episodes that really focused on diversity and inclusion include episode 41. Instructional Communication with Jennifer Knapp, one of our colleagues here on campus; episode 50. Diversity and Inclusion with Rodman King, who is our Diversity and Inclusion Officer on our campus; episode 49. Closing the Gap with Angela Bauer; and episode 58. Role Play with Jill Peterfeso, and the combination of those episodes runs the gamut of thinking through your interpersonal communications with students and in between students to how to present information to students to thinking about how to include students who traditionally may have been excluded from the discipline or from the community and then also thinking about historical context with the roleplay and how there’s a lot of ways that you can use roleplay to explore a wide variety of ideas in a safer space because it’s in a performative space rather than “reality” and that allows for some discussions and things to unfold in a way that it wouldn’t otherwise.

John: Jen Knapp’s discussion of the importance of creating a comfortable learning environment, which came through in the other episodes as well, really struck me in reducing the barriers between instructor and students and that’s particularly important in a large class because it’s really easy for there to be this big divide where it’s you and them and being more informal and more relaxed in the classroom can break down some of those barriers that are even more common or more difficult to break down when you’re in a large class setting than in a smaller group, I think.

Rebecca: Quantity alone can be intimidating.

John: It can be, but if you can break that down a little bit it helps, and just walking around, which I’ve always been doing, but I’m doing even more now… and that’s been helpful in getting to know some of the students a little bit more and making them more comfortable so they’re more likely to come by outside of class as well.

Rebecca: I’ve been a lot more aware of the way that I phrase things… the way that I address particular issues… being more positive in how we might address bigger patterns of struggle in the class… framing it in a way that’s much more positive promotes a growth mindset; these are things that I’ve been focusing on more and I know that I plan over winter break to revisit these particular episodes to pull out more of those details and to refresh my memory on some of those things so that when I go into the spring I can be a lot more on point on some of those things that I really care deeply about.

John: For many years now I’ve been interested in trying to build a growth mindset in students since reading Carol Dweck’s work, but Angela Bauer’s results with that in terms of how weekly growth mindset messaging in their introductory classes made a significant difference in narrowing the performance gap. I’ve been trying to do more growth mindset messaging in my own classes—more consciously doing it; I had been doing it a little bit but I’m trying to do it much more regularly whenever I send emails out to students, or whenever we’re talking about some of the more challenging things, I remind them that most students find this material challenging and that they get better at it by doing it. In economics I face a lot of students, and I know you do too, who claim they just are not math people and they just can’t understand graphs and it’s tough getting past that but reminding them that that’s a struggle for very many students and that it won’t be a struggle if they just continue to work and become more comfortable with it.

Rebecca: That raises a lot of the issues and things that came out in Marcia Burrell’s episode as well when we’re thinking about math people and this gatekeeping that happens. So it’s interesting that that particular episode ties really nicely with Angela Bauer’s work in really breaking down these barriers and helping people have access, which I think is really powerful and important work to be doing. I know that I’m catching myself saying things in a way that’s like, “Oh, why did I just do that” and undoing some things that I’m so used to doing that’s so embedded in how we work—come to find out I’m a much more of a negative person than I thought I was. [LAUGHTER] …and really.. It’s really a struggle. How about some of the themes that you’ve pulled out?

John: Some of the things that I think I’ve been most interested in and have been trying to work on the most is those episodes dealing with evidence-based teaching methods, especially because of the scale of the classes I teach; I’d like to do that as efficiently and as effectively as possible. Bill Goffe was one of the first people to discuss that very extensively and since he was coming from a background in economics it was very directly relevant to what I do and Bill and I have worked together for quite a few years here and it was nice to talk to him about some of the things he’s been doing and how he’s been evolving as a teacher. I’ve learned a lot from Bill over the years and it’s been… it’s been very productive and that episode was really useful. Episode 37 with Michelle Miller was very interesting in terms of where she sees the future of education going and where she sees some interesting possibilities for growth. Michelle Miller has been a major influence on me for quite a while from the first time I saw her present on low-stakes testing a number of years ago.

Rebecca: …and on our community in general because she’s been here as a guest speaker and we’ve done book clubs and things around her work.

John: …and she ran workshops here on two occasions and it’s been very, very productive. One of the things that influenced me this year was Dom Casadonte’s episode 42 on the flipped classroom… and I had been doing a mostly flipped classroom for quite a few years now, but I was still including a little bit more short lectures in it—five, ten minute lectures and he suggested that if you’re going to do it you should do it all the way because one of the problems is students in a flipped classroom environment will claim that you’re not teaching them and if you do a little bit of teaching them they come to expect that and then they feel cheated out of the rest so I’ve been much more explicit. I’ve always tried to prep students and to frame it in terms of the use of evidence-based practices but I’ve restructured my class a little bit to make it more obvious what we’re doing and I remind students more regularly that the basic stuff they need to learn on their own and it’s set up where they do some reading, they take some quizzes on it and then they reflect back on it and they give me a report on what things that they’re still struggling with and then we focus our class time on that. So the lecturing has been cut out except for the times when they’re stuck on something and then I’ll give short lectures to go over the things that they’re really puzzled by, but it’s much more focused and much more of the time is spent working on problem solving in the classroom.

Rebecca: It’s amazing how reminding students can be such a powerful tool for any of these evidence-based practices because if we’ve talked extensively about how it doesn’t always feel good to learn… it’s tricky… you feel challenged and so it doesn’t always feel good to learn—but reminding students why we’re doing things I certainly have also found helps a lot; it helps immensely; students buy in much more quickly when they realize why you’re doing something and when they can see that you’re customizing the content for them, even though you probably can guess often what you might need to spend time on, they feel like it’s customized and I think that means a lot to them too, probably.

John: In fact, most of the material I have I do prepare in advance, but I ask them to submit their list of concerns every day at noon and then I leave for class at 2:00 so I don’t have much time to customize it, but as you said, they feel that it’s very personalized because I refer back to the comments that they’ve been making and saying 60 percent of you said you’re struggling with this, let’s focus on some problems with this, which I’ve always known students struggle with and I’ve always been focusing on that but making it more obvious that I’m responding to their needs, I think, gives them a bit more buy-in, generally.

Rebecca: Definitely. I think some of the other themes that really have bubbled up for me is the revisiting of Open; we had a big series more recently about Open Pedagogy, Open resources; we started a long time ago in episode 8 with Kris Munger on Creating an Open textbook, but then episode 52, 55, 56 and 57 all focused on concepts of “Open.” So, I’m really excited about Open again. I forgot and it was actually Robin DeRosa that reminded me that I had been doing Open for so long and that it’s the culture of the field that I’m in to be open, so open-source software and things is something that I’ve been heavily engaged with since I’ve been a professional in the field but I kind of forgot that that’s what it was all about; I just needed that like little reminder and that little kick to get back into that mindset. So I’m really excited about focusing on that and making that more explicit in what I do and the reasons why I do it.

John: Robin DeRosa’s visit was very inspiring to many of us here when she both talked on campus and joined us in episode 55 and I’m planning to finally release my textbook as an open textbook for this spring, which is more OER than Open Pedagogy, but she also convinced me to try having students work on an open pedagogy project in the capstone course that I’ve been doing and so I’m working on putting together plans for that for the spring. I do hope that that works out, but I’m really excited about it.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m excited about Open not just in the classroom but also as a scholar and having more open scholarship and publishing and open access journals and things like that as well. I also have to say that episode 57 with Fiona Coll was really exciting about Scalar. I haven’t had a chance to really experiment but my mind was blown by the possibility and I was really excited about the power of that particular platform—I’m not sure how it might be integrated into what I do quite yet but it’s something that I’m excited to experiment with. Are there any other themes that bubbled up for you?

John: The scholarship of teaching and learning was a theme that came up in quite a few of them where we were talking about research, but in particular two of the episodes: episode 26 with David Eubanks and episode 54 on the scholarship of teaching and learning with Regan Gurung were both really inspiring as well in terms of ways that perhaps we could do a little bit more research in our classrooms about what works.

Rebecca: I’m also really excited to do more scholarship in this area and build it into and integrate it more closely into my teaching in general so that it becomes just an overlapped area and everything’s more integrated. I’ve been slowly working in my personal research, my creative work, the service that I do on campus and my teaching have all been thematically related but I’m working really hard to integrate them more closely so that I can do more publishing on some of the ways that this influences my teaching and learning. Related to the scholarship of teaching and learning and actually Open is the idea of engaged scholarship where the work that you’re doing is really integrated into the community; you’re really working with the community, so I was really excited by episode 51 with Khuram Hussain and the ideas of having conversations with community… community really having a mutual relationship with the campus, and working on projects together…maybe outside of a semester framework. I’ve been doing a lot of community projects historically and I found some of the same struggles and some of the concerns he raised were things that I had certainly experienced in the work that I had done previously, so I think he offered some new ideas and some old ideas that I was familiar with as well that I needed some reminders of ways to approach some problems and do some creative projects. So I’m excited to start building on that work as well.

John: I thought that was a fascinating discussion and a so much more productive way of doing community based learning.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think he raised the issue of charitable work versus engaged work and I totally buy into that model already, but I like that he provided some really clear ways of being more engaged as a scholar in the communities that we work in.

John: It seems like a much better experience for the students, for the community, and for college community relations.

Rebecca: Definitely.

John: One other episode that really influenced me was episode 30 with Charles Dziuban on adaptive learning; it influenced me so much that I proposed a SUNY wide task group on adaptive learning and we have now people from quite a few campuses are exploring this and looking at a variety of adaptive learning platforms and we’re also going to be preparing a report for all of SUNY, at least in a preliminary form by the end of the spring 2019 semester.

Rebecca: That’s a pretty exciting endeavor and a big one, too. Interesting how some of these episodes have sparked really big changes, big work that we’re doing—not just ourselves but collaborating with our colleagues on some interesting projects.

John: One of the challenges I faced is that virtually every episode has suggested some things that I’d like to try and it’s a challenge to try to keep from trying to do them all at once.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think we struggled at coming up with a list of some of the things that inspired us the most but that’s because everything inspired us and so… [LAUGHTER] It was a challenge to come up with that particular list, but I think that we have some themes that we’re working on as a campus and individually and we’re in a really interesting and enjoyable position to get to talk to all these wonderful colleagues about the work that they’re doing and to learn from our colleagues. So at the end of the year it’s always good to be thankful for things and I’m certainly thankful for that opportunity to talk to all of the great guests that we’ve had and to learn so much in this past year.

John: And we’d like to thank all of our listeners for joining with us, and if you have any suggestions for topics that you’d like to hear discussed on a future episode, please let us know, and we’re happy to try to add them.

Rebecca: Happy New Year, everyone.

John: Happy New Years. [Music]

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

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

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

61. A Motivational Syllabus

Do you wish your students knew what was on the syllabus? In this episode, Dr. Christine Harrington joins us to explore how we can design a syllabus that helps us improve our course design, motivates students, and  provides a cognitive map of the course that students will find useful. Christine is a Professor of History and Social Science at Middlesex College, and is the author of Designing a Motivational Syllabus (and several other books related to teaching, learning, and student success). Christine has been the Executive Director of the Student Success Center at the NJ County of Community Colleges.

Show Notes

  • Harrington, C., & Thomas, M. (2018).  Designing a motivational syllabus:  Creating a learning path for student engagement.  Sterling, VA:  Stylus Publishing.
  • Bain, K. (n.d.). The promising syllabus.  The Center for Teaching Excellence at New York University. Retrieved from: http://www.bestteachersinstitute.org/promisingsyllabus.pdf
  • Listeners to this podcast can purchase Designing a Motivational Syllabus at a 20% discount by visiting the Stylus Publishing order page and using the offer code: DAMS20. This offer applies to the paperback, hardcover, and ebook versions and is valid through 6/30/2019.
  • www.scholarlyteaching.org  – Christine’s website.

Transcript

John: Do you wish your students knew what was on the syllabus? In this episode we’ll explore how we can design a syllabus that helps us improve our course design, motivates students, and provides a cognitive map of the course that students will find useful.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Our guest today is Dr. Christine Harrington, a Professor of History and Social Science at Middlesex County College, and the author of Designing a Motivational Syllabus—and several other books related to teaching, learning, and student success. Christine has been the Executive Director of the Student Success Center at the New Jersey Council of Community Colleges.

John: Welcome, Christine.

Christine: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

Christine: I am not drinking tea; I’m not a tea drinker, I just do water and I will do iced tea once in a while, but not at the moment.

[LAUGHTER]

John: I’m drinking Tea Forte black currant tea.

Rebecca: And I have Prince of Wales today—mixing it up, you know?

John: We invited you here to talk a bit about your book, Designing a Motivational Syllabus, released just this past May, and the syllabus of many faculty tends to read sort of like a legal document and it often tends to be a bit off-putting and some people just provide a list of topics. You have a much different approach and it seems really productive. Could you tell us a little bit about that approach?

Christine: Sure, I’d love to. Thanks so much, John. I really believe that the syllabus is an underutilized resource. As we’re beginning our semester as faculty we always are required to put together a syllabus that explains to students what the expectations of the course are. But as you mentioned, many faculty treat it as a list of do’s and don’ts, making sure that we’re communicating what the classroom rules and expectations are and maybe the course topics, but it often kind of starts and stops there. So, I really think that it’s an opportunity for us to invite students to our course and Ken Bain is actually someone who’s written a lot about this as well, you know, inviting them to the feast. I think that’s what we want to do: we want to give them the excitement and passion that we feel as faculty and get them really excited about the course too. So one of the areas I saw as a gap or missing in the literature was the motivational angle of the syllabus. In addition to providing some really good resources and providing a course map to students, I think we can motivate our students through communicating our passion, telling them a little bit more about what to expect in the course in a more conversational style… by the words that we use… by the images that we include on the syllabus… and then also providing them really helpful information so that they view this as a course that they’re excited about and they will feel supported in.

John: We actually had Ken Bain here about 12 years ago, I believe it was, and he gave an all-day workshop on building a syllabus and I attended that and it was wonderful; much of your book reminds me of that, but you also go quite a bit further and provide a lot more suggestions in detail, so I like your approach. Could you tell us a little bit more about how the syllabus serves as an entry point to course design or redesign?

Christine: Sure. I think that for many of us the idea of redesigning or designing a course for the first time even is quite daunting and overwhelming to really think about how to engage our students and achieve all of our course learning outcomes. So, I’ve used the syllabus as a vehicle for that, as an entry point that I find that faculty find it a little easier if you’re working with a more concrete practical document to help them understand course design. Now, I have been accused by some of my colleagues of doing the old switch and bait, you know, I did a syllabus workshop that really was a course design workshop and they’re like, “Wait a minute, I think that you tricked me here,” and I said, “No, I didn’t, I thought you were talking about the syllabus, and if you’re going to talk about and think about what kinds of assignments and assessments you’re going to use—this is course design.” So you need to have a larger conversation. So, I said it’s an easier way for faculty to begin the dialogue and really take a good deep look at, well, what is it that I’m asking students to do and how does this fit into the overall course as well as the overall program that the course fits within… so, seeing the larger picture in terms of the course and program learning outcomes and revisiting the assignments and assessments and perhaps moving away from some of the “always have done this” kinds of assignments… you know, traditional exa…, paper… presentation… that almost all of us have in our course in one way or another. It doesn’t mean you have to abandon ship, but it is a great opportunity to step back and say, “Wait a minute, are these the assessment tools that are really going to help support student learning and help ensure that they’re going to achieve the learning outcomes that we set forth in the syllabus?” and then the syllabus really becomes the map for students. So it is the document that communicates the design of your course. As you are crafting your syllabus, you’re really thinking about: “What is it that I’m asking students to do? Why am I asking them to do that? and what kinds of supports am I going to put in to place so that they can accomplish those tasks successfully?” So, I really believe that it is a course design tool and that if you do it well, a well-designed syllabus really will show students exactly how they get from point A to B and the kinds of supports that are available to, you know, really enhance their learning journey along the way.

Rebecca: [If] faculty were to use the syllabus as a way to redesign, where in this syllabus should they start?

Christine: Well, that is not an easy question. You know, I think it depends on—I tell faculty they have two choices when they’re thinking about redesigning their syllabus: you can take the big approach, which is the course design approach, which is going to be looking at your course learning outcomes and then looking at what kinds of assessments or assignments are aligned to those learning outcomes… and then what I usually do for this big approach is ask them to think about what are the key summative assessments that you’re looking for and then work backwards from there using the backwards design process and determine what kind of formative assessments they need to use… and then as you start to craft the way your course is going to be developed, I say take your course outline your schedule of what you’re going to do—week 1, week 2, week 3 and start to plug in those summative assessments and then start to plug in the formative assessments that you’ve identified… and then that will help you determine what needs to happen in week 1, 2 or 3 to help them be successful on those tasks. So, it’s really kind of using that backwards design. I like to say it starts with the learning outcomes, it shifts over to the assessments that you’re going to use and then it starts to move into the course outline, you know, or sequence of topics that would be really important. But I said to you there’s kind of two ways that faculty can begin to, you know, redesign their syllabus. This is the big way and the way that I would really love faculty to do it, but if someone’s saying to me “The semester’s starting next week, that’s just too monumental of a task…” You cannot engage in this process in a day or two. It takes a significant chunk of time for you to really re-evaluate what it is that you’re trying to accomplish. So there’s also a lot of takeaways in this book about how you could do things literally in five minutes or less that would enhance the motivation and engage students in learning. For example, I did a workshop on my campus where we had a syllabus redesign summer camp and at the beginning of the semester we had faculty submit their current syllabi and at the end we had them submit their final syllabi… and the transformation just from a visual perspective alone was really incredible. So, if you didn’t even look deeply at the design piece… for instance, having a nice photo to draw students in (that’s related to your course content)… there was a biology faculty member who put this amazing, great engaging skeleton on the front page… and that really was much more effective than having her first syllabi, which had all rules and regulations…you know: “do this, don’t do that…” and a welcome statement and a picture of yourself… really just some of those kinds of elements really can make a difference. There’s some research studies out there that support adding a few additional words like “please come and talk to me” makes it much more likely that a student will come and talk to you, and it communicates that you want them to come and talk to you. There are some very easy fixes; changing it from formal language such as “the professor will” and “the student will” to “I am going to” and “you will do this…” Just using that more personal language can really help. So those fixes are literally… you could do it in five minutes or less if you want to make a couple of minor changes to increase motivation, but the overall course design is obviously a much bigger process, I’m not going to pretend it’s not.

Rebecca: I think it’s always a good reminder that you can always do small things before you can jump into a big thing and that the big thing is, you know, valuable. We were laughing at the beginning of what you were talking about a minute ago because I did the same exact thing here where I did a syllabus workshop that was a complete course redesigned workshop.

John: …and I suggested we rename it in the future as a course redesign or course design or redesign, but maybe leaving it as a syllabus workshop might work.

Christine: Yeah, I think you’ll get more people to participate. It’s less scary. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s sneaky.

John: It is. It’s a sneaky way of getting in.

Christine: …and it also really allows faculty to walk away with something very practical… tangible… that they actually have done as evidence of participating in that workshop, and that’s great for administrators to see as well.

Rebecca: That’s a good point. So you talked a little bit about the syllabus as a tool for faculty to help think about organizing their class and redesigning it, making sure that students are going to learn what we’re hoping that they’re gonna learn. Can you talk a little bit about how the syllabus is a tool for students?

Christine: Sure. I think it’s really critical for students to not just take this document and put it aside but to recognize the value that it has… and I will tell you that students who see a more in-depth, comprehensive syllabi have a much more positive perception of the faculty member and also of the student experience of being in that class. From the student perspective, it’s motivational for them to know that they have a faculty member that cares enough to put together this really comprehensive package. Having a long syllabus that does not have any visual tools in it and is overwhelming… whether it’s legalese… that is something that students are not going to use much. But when you create a syllabus that’s motivational and engaging and visually effective, students will use that document and they really will appreciate it. Now, they do need reminders about how to use that. I think that it is a document that all of us quite frankly emphasize in the first day or first week of the semester and then often don’t revisit except for to say “in the syllabus…” which may or may not help a student if they’re having trouble navigating it. So, I’m a very big fan of making sure that we make it a document that is student friendly. If it is a longer document, including a table of contents, so that they know they don’t need to read all of this. Maybe the last half of the syllabus is the rubric section with specifics on the assignment… that they just need to know it’s there when the time comes for them to look at it. So I will often encourage students to view the syllabus very much like their textbook. You don’t need to read the entire textbook during the first week of class, but you certainly need to know what’s in the textbook so you’re not just focused on chapter one. You need to acclimate yourself to all of the information that’s in the text and what kinds of topics and resources are included. Well, the same goes for the syllabus… so really helping them use it as a resource and not feeling like they need to read it and memorize it, but instead use it as a tool to help them be successful.

John: One of the things you suggest is doing a screencast with the syllabus perhaps to make sure that students do look at it and to make it a bit more welcoming. Could you talk to us a little bit about that?

Christine: The screencast, I think, is a very valuable strategy, especially in the online class, but it can also be helpful in an in-person class. We all know that sometimes students are adding and dropping in the beginning of the semester and might miss an important conversation, and this really allows you to communicate about the syllabus to students. In addition, I will tell you that I have had students… I tend to have a fairly lengthy syllabi, as you can imagine, based on my textbook, I like to include a lot of resources… and I have had students say to me, when I got the syllabus via email from you, I really was overwhelmed and I was ready to run away from this class; I thought it was going to be a lot of work because it was a long syllabus, and once you explained it and we started to see the resources in it, I discovered that’s not the case at all. So I think that having that personal touch and the the nonverbals that you can really communicate through a screencast with a web video as well as the audio really does help students understand the value of the syllabus and we have so many great online tools now, like screencast-o-matic, that are free… things like that… that you can really easily do that in a short period of time to do an introduction, and students can refer back to that as they need to throughout the semester.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the kinds of things you would recommend faculty highlight or introduce about the syllabus on the first day? You mentioned identifying some of the resources and things in it. But, as you know, there’s a lot of faculty that call the first couple class days syllabus days and some of them actually read the syllabus to the students. What would you recommend?

Christine: Well, I certainly would not recommend reading the syllabus to the students. [LAUGHTER] That is not engaging. I think that the part of the syllabus that doesn’t get as much attention as it should is the “Why are we together?” The syllabus communicates: the purpose of the class, the goals of the class, and “What are the takeaways that they’re going to get as a result of being in this class?” Students, what they’re going to immediately want to know is about the grade, right? They go directly to the page that has information on the grade and the assignments that they need to do. But if they go there first, they’re missing the big picture. So, I think that we as faculty have a wonderful opportunity, whether it’s through a screencast or live in a regular classroom setting, to emphasize the learning outcomes of the course in a user-friendly way… not necessarily reading the learning outcomes, but to passionately explain why this course matters so much and the value of the course and the skills, and not just the knowledge that they’re going to get, but really the experience and the confidence that they’re going to get as a result of being in this course. So I really find that to be the most important piece to emphasize, and then helping them see the direct correlation and connection between what it is that they’re going to achieve and those learning experiences. So whether they’re assignments or assessments… the why behind all of those… so they don’t just view it as a big long checklist of “this is what I have to do because it’s a college course,” but they understand that that’s the roadmap that’s going to help them accomplish all those tasks. So, for instance, if I can give you one example, quizzing is something that not every faculty member does, sometimes it’s more of a more high-stakes midterm/final kind of situation… but faculty who really want to provide that opportunity for students to have formative assessments along the way would also include quizzing… and when you do that what happens is is that you’re helping students learn those skills along the way and help them self-regulate whether or not they’re on task to achieve the learning outcomes. But students may view them as busy work or that you don’t believe they’re going to read without being held accountable. By explaining the why in the rationale and bringing some of the research in on the testing effect and explaining to them that the reason for me doing this is because the research shows that if you test yourself you are much more likely to learn that content and it will stick with you throughout much longer periods of time. So providing the why, I think, is probably the most important part that I would bring their attention to and I think that we don’t do that enough as faculty.

John: Just as a plug for a future podcast, Michelle Miller will be a guest in a few weeks where she’ll be talking about the testing effect and retrieval practice.

Christine: Terrific.

John: But that is an issue. Students see testing as something negative; it’s not something they find quite as enjoyable… so providing that rationale is really useful and students don’t always buy it but the more you can convince them and the more evidence you can provide, I think the more likely it is that they’ll see the benefits.

Rebecca: Yeah, John and I have talked about this before that when I started doing that in my design classes, which is a place where testing is not as common, I had students actually asking for more, which I found to be very bizarre initially. You don’t generally have students asking for more tests or quizzes, but when they started realizing how it was helping keep them on track they actually found them really valuable.

John: In helping them assess their learning and to help improve their own metacognition of what they know and what they don’t know, it can be really useful.

Rebecca: One of the things that you have in your syllabus is a teaching statement. Can you talk a little bit about why you include that and why you recommend including that? Because that’s not something you commonly see in a syllabus.

Christine: Absolutely, in fact, there are a couple elements that I think are essential if you want to use the syllabus as a motivational tool, and I see the teaching statement as being one of the key elements; it’s an opportunity for you to start to build a relationship with your students, and it gives you a chance to share some background about who you are and why you’re passionate about the subject and what they can expect to happen during class. As we all know, the professor-student rapport is probably one of the most important predictors of success. Students who have professors who they believe care about them and are interested and engaged are much more likely to be successful than students who have faculty who are much not engaged and maybe not as connected to them. So, I believe that we could use the syllabus to begin developing that relationship, because we often send this out prior to even meeting a student for the very first time, and it also might be something that is shared on some kind of management system within the university or college setting for students to decide which classes to take. So it can invite them to why they should be taking your class –it’s really a wonderful way for you to share a little bit about yourself and your professional background expertise and passion.

John: You also suggest in your book that the syllabus can serve as a communication tool and it also makes it easier to be transparent in terms of how you grade and letting students know this, and that can increase equity, or at least a perception of equity. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Christine: Sure, I think it’s really critical that we are being as explicit and as transparent as we can be. There are going to be some students who can more easily connect those dots than others and when we make the dots connected for them we’re equaling the playing field to ensure that all of our students know what it is that they need to do in order to get to the finish line and how the different tasks relate to one another. So the more you can communicate and ensure that some of the students who may not naturally see those connections can see those connections, I think that really does improve learning and the academic experience for all students.

Rebecca: You mentioned earlier about referencing the syllabus and having students use the syllabus as a tool throughout the semester; you also mentioned early on that faculty have a tendency to say “it’s on the syllabus” without really providing much more guidance than that. Can you talk a little bit about ways that you recommend using the syllabus at farther points in the semester to help support students and continue to motivate students beyond just the beginning of the class?

Christine: Sure. I think that is critical. You know, many of us do activities on the very first day of class. I’m hoping that many of us are not reading the syllabus anymore and we’re starting to get more engaging strategies at the start of the semester. I know folks do a syllabus quiz and things of that nature. I actually think that having a group quiz format,, something that’s more interactive, is great. I do jigsaw classroom exercises at the beginning of the semester on the syllabus. They’re diving into that resource and understanding it and reporting back and teaching their classmates about the different section that they were assigned to. I think setting the stage at the beginning of the semester is really important, but we can’t stop there; we need to then follow through and revisit the syllabus throughout the semester. So what I typically do is I will often ask students to, at the beginning of class, (I always ask them to have their syllabus with them)… and I might give them a few minutes and I do this activity called dusting off the cobwebs… where they have to recall what we talked about last class and maybe from the readings and then we can look forward. So after we clean up our house in terms of where we were then what’s coming next, so what are we talking about today? How does this link up with the concept that we talked about last class, and then what what’s coming up in terms of what’s due? So instead of me putting on the board or on a PowerPoint slide, “Next week, don’t forget you have to submit the first part of your project” or whatever it might be. I’m having students give those daily reminders. So you can literally spend five minutes or less in a class, and maybe once a week; it doesn’t have to be necessarily every class… but maybe Monday’s will be your dusting day and looking forward opportunity. So I think that’s really helpful. The other time where I spend a little bit more time on it is when there is a big project that’s coming up. So at this point of the semester I will often have students work in either a partner group or a small group and in that situation I’m asking them to look at pages 12 to 14 that outline the details related to assignment 1 and the rubric of how you’ll get assessed on assignment 1. I want you to review that. I want you to put that in your own words… tell your classmate about what it is… and then you have an opportunity to ask me any questions about it. So, I’m basically training them to engage in that process. Again, this doesn’t need to eat up a tremendous amount of class time; it can be a few minutes. But by doing that you end up often getting better products to grade which makes your life much happier when it’s time for all the papers to be handed in because even though you put it in the syllabus, it doesn’t mean that they’ve looked in the syllabus… or they knew where to look… or maybe something didn’t make sense to them and they were not comfortable asking without the opportunity given to them in that very explicit way. So, I find that that really as a very helpful process. I also like to do an activity kind of mid-semester looking at the learning outcomes… so, going back to saying “Okay, so here’s what we said we were going to be able to learn and be able to do at the end of the semester. We’re about halfway done. I want you to look at the learning outcomes and do a self assessment. Where are you at on a scale of one to five? What do you need to do in order to get to the level five at the end of the semester? …and some of that’s going to happen obviously in classes or through the assignments. But, what else can you do to ensure that you’ll achieve all of those learning outcomes?” So, I like to use it in a self-regulatory way as well.

John: One of the things related to that is you suggest the use of an assignment grade tracking form. I’ve always kept my gradebook in Blackboard so students can see where they are but students don’t always seem to pay much attention to that. Having them create their own assignment grade tracking might be useful. Could you talk a little bit about what the form is and why you recommend that?

Christine: Sure. I do think that with our current technologies {Blackboard, Canvas, thinks of that nature), the LMS systems really do have a pretty robust gradebook feature where students can easily track their progress. Because in order for them to self-regulate they need to know whether or not they need some external data to see if they’re on track or not. To me, as long as they’re engaged in that checking and self-regulatory behavior, I don’t think it matters whether it’s definitely in the syllabus or in Canvas or Blackboard. But unfortunately, not every faculty member is using the gradebook to its full capacity, so sometimes students are left wondering about their grade and I want them to feel in charge of knowing how to do it. I also think that they have a hard time sometimes seeing the weighting of assignments so that they might view a smaller assignment as being equal to that of a larger one and not recognizing the significance that can have on your grade. In the absence of some of the technology tools… and there are great apps for this too so if your student has a faculty member that is not using an LMS gradebook, they can go ahead and download an app… and I think that’s a great way to track it as well. But just including something like that on the syllabus helps them see the breakdown on the weighting of the different grades so they can see how that final grade is determined.. Because I think you’re right. In the LMS’s I see that students are often looking only at the current calculated grade rather than looking at all of the pieces of how that grade came to be. So anything we can do to help them better understand the grading process and how those elements go into the final grade, I think, is useful.

Rebecca: In your book and also in the example syllabi that you’ve provided (both on your website and also in your book) you talk a little bit about your assignment sheets with rubrics and things completely spelled out… so not something that’s more generalized but something incredibly specific. Can you talk a little bit about the choice to do that and the advantages of doing something like that?

Christine: Sure. So I think that we all provide students with details about our assignments; it’s about where does that happen. For some of us, we think that that should happen outside of the syllabus in the LMS in a different place… under assignments or some other tab rather than being in the syllabus itself. I think it’s really helpful for students to have a complete package in the syllabus. Now, just because I think that doesn’t mean that it’s true, right? Actually I did a really neat study with a colleague of mine Crystal Quillen at Middlesex County College where we examined the student perception of syllabi length and we shared different syllabi. There was a 6-page a 9-page and a 15-page syllabus and they were randomly assigned to different groups. What we discovered was that students who were reviewing a medium or long (which was 9 or 15 page) syllabus actually found that syllabus to be more positive. So they had a more positive perception of the faculty member in terms of being motivated and things of that nature. In addition, we asked the specific question of the students “Would you rather have all of the details about your assignment in one place in the syllabus or is that not what you want? Would you rather just know ‘I have to write a paper’ and then have those details about the paper be provided at the point that you need them and in a different place within your learning management system?” …and 66% of the students said we want it all in one place. I think one of the challenges that our students have is that every faculty member sets up their LMS page a little differently… and I know colleges really work hard to try to have some consistency across the different course shells that exist… but students really do struggle with trying to find that information. If we can guarantee to students that all of the essential information you need about your assignments and your learning path are in the syllabus, then I think that makes a lot of sense. I really think it’s important for faculty and students to understand that it’s almost like an addendum to the syllabus, but it is in that document. So that they don’t need to get overwhelmed by it on day one but they know that it’s a resource… very much, like I had said before, like the textbook is.

Rebecca: I think that’s an interesting point right, a lot of our students are in five classes and if there’s five different ways of doing things and it’s organized five different ways with five different evaluation systems it can get a little overwhelming after a while. It’s a lot to keep track of. We often complain that students don’t keep track of things, but we certainly don’t help it.

John: We’d like to reduce the cognitive load.

Christine: Yeah, that’s for sure. Unfortunately, it’s the case and sometimes we need to get ourselves back in from the student lens to see what does life look like from their perspective. …and if I could just say one other thing about the “It’s in the syllabus” comment… I mean, believe me, I pour my heart and soul into creating my syllabus. My husband often laughs at me because he’s like “Haven’t you taught this course before? You look like you haven’t taught this before…” because I’m spending hours and hours and hours and I just had it last semester but I know it could be so much better. I’m trying to find ways to communicate it better. So, I know that the information is in the syllabus because I put it there. I spent many hours doing that. But if I give if a student is active enough and engaged enough to ask me a question about an assignment or the course and I just say “It’s in the syllabus” my syllabus is a long document. I do need to navigate them to which part of the syllabus it’s in, because my syllabus is probably a little different than other syllabi that they have looked at. So, I feel like it’s so easy and frustrating for us when the students may not have looked carefully before asking us. So that’s a skill we need to help them learn. But maybe they did look and they didn’t find it as quickly as they would like to. Let’s be honest. You and I also are not going to spend an enormous amount of time looking at a website if we can’t find what we’re looking for right away. We’re going to ask someone. So, we want to make it as easy to navigate as possible, and having consistency I think across different courses does help… not that you need to have a rigid standardized syllabus that looks exactly the same in every course. I think you need to have a little bit of room for the flavor and the personality of the course to show.

Rebecca: Those are things that we just forget about. We forget that it can be really overwhelming to look at documents. Yet we all complain about the same thing when someone else makes a document that we have to look at and we can’t find something. So, it’s good to double-check ourselves. So, I appreciate the reminder.

Christine: Absolutely.

Rebecca: One of the things that needs to be in a syllabus to some extent is the policies… there’s college policies that might have a particularly language that you have to include, but then also maybe what some of your own policies are as an instructor. How do you suggest including those in a motivational, inspiring, and supportive way? Because sometimes they don’t feel very inspiring or supportive.

Christine: That’s a great question. In fact, I have noticed that probably one of the biggest demotivators of a syllabus is the policy section… and many times faculty add more and more policies based on negative experiences that they’ve had. So something happens in a classroom setting and they’re like “I need a policy on that, so I’m going to add another policy about that…” and it starts to become this really big long laundry list. And clearly we have to have policies… I’m not saying we shouldn’t but I think the way in which we communicate our policies really do matter. When we have a list of “don’t do this: don’t cheat, don’t plagiarize…” all these kinds of rules and regulations… we’re kind of communicating to students that we think you’re going to do this, so I’m going to set you straight right now… rather than using more positive language. Instead we could communicate the same policy… I like to use the academic integrity one. So instead of saying “don’t plagiarize” instead… if you have a policy about academic integrity and the importance of why that matters so much and how everyone is expected to uphold academic integrity and engage in honest actions… That I think sets a very different beginning to that policy. The other piece is that we sometimes create policies that promote, I think, more achievement gaps… and actually gets back to that question you asked me earlier about equity, because many of our policies do not promote equity. I’ll take a late work policy, for instance… and I recognize the fact that we all need to be timely with our tasks. I mean in the world of work people are going to expect you to complete tasks on time and I recognize that that’s a very important skill. However, I also know that we are all human beings with a life on the side, you know, so that life happens sometimes that may prevent us from being on time with a task. I know I personally have not always been on time. I’m a very timely person, but there have been times when I have missed a deadline and haven’t been exactly where I needed to be at the time I should have been there. It’s not a pattern, but it does happen. So I think we need to have policies that are building in some of the flexibility that communicates to students that we respect them… we recognize that they have a life outside of school or at least outside of our class… sometimes our policies don’t even seem to recognize that they have other classes… like our class is the only one. So, students complain about that quite a bit… thinking that you’re looking at this only from your angle and not recognizing that this is one of many classes that I’m taking. When you think about policies such as that, it’s important to communicate it in a way that isn’t taxing on your time so that you’re taking late work every minute of every day… but is respectful. So, a very simple way to do that is “Here’s the policy. I expect you to be on time with tasks, especially if you’re doing a group task and your classmates are dependent on you.” I tend to be a little bit more rigid with my policies when it’s a group related task versus an individual task. But I also know that life happens and if you are in a situation where you’re not able to meet a deadline, please come and talk to me.” Because, if you put in a policy that says no late work is accepted… everything must be handed in on time. Well, certainly you won’t have to deal with any late work… that helps you with your time management, but it really is inequitable because the student who comes from a culture where it’s fine to challenge authority might come to you and say “My grandmother passed away last week. I have this really horrific thing happened in my life…” and, many of us… I know I myself… I had at some point a no makeup policy. It wasn’t a real policy… if you came to me and it was a good reason then I gave you an extension. But I only did that if you came to me. I did have no makeup policy on the syllabus. So, the problem with that is that there are certain groups of individuals that are not going to challenge authority and take your word at face value. So now you’ve put them at a distinct disadvantage in the class. So I think it’s important for our policy to do a couple of things: one is first of all they should be accurate… so I did not really have a no makeup policy… I had a “makeup if you have a good reason.” So, it wasn’t accurate. So now my policy is much more reflective of my current practices. I expect you to be on time but if something happens, communicate with me and we will see what we can do. It’s not promising them the world but it’s certainly promising them at least the conversation… and second in addition to having it be clearly communicated, it really needs to be equitable so that everyone gets an opportunity and it’s not a case-by-case situation where if they’re more willing to challenge authority they’re going to be more likely to get a positive outcome.

Rebecca: One of the things that you mentioned earlier is shifting the language in the syllabus to something that’s more personal from something that feels more like legalese or something. In those circumstances where an institution might impose a particular policy that’s written in a particular way that doesn’t match the voice of the rest of the document, how do you suggest dealing with that in a syllabus, when it might be required of you?

Christine: I think this is one of the big challenges that faculty face, is when there’s required elements that are not very motivational in nature. So first of all I would say try to start a conversation on your campus about revising that language, not necessarily the policy… that’s what the policy is going to be… but can we introduce it in a different way? So, I would say if you can do that that would be ideal because then that would be benefiting all of the students in all of the classes across your entire campus if they’re required. So I think that’s probably the point of intervention that I would encourage you to take and you could go back and refer to some of the ideas in the text or talking with colleagues about other ways to better word some of that policy language. If you’re not able to switch the language, or you want a quicker fix while that conversation is happening, I think it’s appropriate (and again you need to find out on your campus if it is) to maybe have an introductory statement: “The next section of the syllabus is going to be the institutional policies that every faculty member needs to include.” So, not saying they’re badly worded, but you’re saying that they’re different… like you can definitely see that I need to include these and I certainly wouldn’t have them (unless you’re required to) on the first page or two. Let the more positive motivational pieces be front and center and then have the policies be later on in the syllabus. So almost like you have a cover page or some kind of introduction before getting into the more typical policy language, I guess, if you need to include it I think can be helpful.

Rebecca: I’ve done things where, for example around intellectual integrity, there’s a campus statement (and I label it as such) and then my policy which kind of interprets that and puts it into context and is in my language… so the same idea that you have about introductory or it’s you’re kind of separating the two and making it clear like whose is whose.

Christine: mm-hmm

Rebecca: …and I think that sometimes has helped students too… but I’ve always found that to be jarring.

Christine: Yes. I would agree I think that definitely is, and I like your approach really of summarizing it because sometimes those policies that we get handed down are very lengthy and students probably aren’t going to read them. So, even if you gave the one- or two-sentence summary of what that meant…translation is… you know this is what you need to do… Be honest. you know, engage in honest action. It really matters. We all want a good reputation and we all want to learn. So in order to do that, these are the kinds of strategies that you need to engage in… and going to the integrity topic again, I think so many times students are unintentionally plagiarizing… not always necessarily doing it on purpose. So maybe helping them understand how they can better learn how to cite sources appropriately or how to paraphrase more effectively… So, pointing them to resources that are going to help them with all the tasks.

John: In your book, in addition to providing a lot of great resources about the syllabus and a lot of great recommendations and the evidence behind them you also provide quite a few some very nice sample syllabi at the end of the book and it’s a great resource and your publisher has very gracefully provided us with a discount code to any of our listeners which is DAMS20 and you can do that by going to the Stylus Publishing website. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes.

Christine: John, if you don’t mind I’d like to also share my website which is just www.scholarlyteaching.org. If you go to that website you will see several other teaching and learning resources,including several sample syllabi… and the syllabi that we used in the research study that I mentioned earlier on the length of the syllabus are provided there as well.

Rebecca: There’s also really good videos… a syllabi checklist… There’s some really great resources on the website. So definitely I recommend checking that out…

John: …and also information about your other books.

Christine: Yes, thanks for that John… appreciate it.

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

Christine: Well it’s interesting that you asked that. I am looking at options right now but I am very much interested in staying connected to the teaching and learning space and how we can improve what we do in the classroom. I’m spending some time thinking about moving it up to a higher level and engaging administration in some of the conversations that we’re having about teaching and learning and putting the teaching and learning centers kind of front and center really in conversations about student learning and engagement on campuses. So, for instance I work in the community college system as you know. There’s a national movement called Guided Pathways and this national movement is all about improving the success outcomes of students and it happens to a variety of ways. They talk about making sure our programs are clear, so that they’re defined and students know how to get from point A to point B. They talk about helping students choose a pathway and stay on a pathway, and they also talk about ensuring learning… but, having been a part of this national conversation, the “insuring learning” really is very much an afterthought, I think, unfortunately. I feel like we’re dancing around the classroom. So I’d like to take some of this work that I’ve been doing and work that’s been very directly helpful to the faculty and try to shift it to being helpful to the community college leadership as well as leadership at the four-year universities as well… to emphasize the importance of good and effective teaching practices. So we’ll see where that takes me. I’m not really sure how that’s going to transpire, but I did just present on that topic at the POD conference. I’m putting teaching and learning centers right in front and center in the Guided Pathways movement, getting them at the table of these conversations. So, I’m very interested in further pursuing that at this point.

Rebecca: That sounds like that could be really valuable to a lot of the faculty because translating that information to the administration is always really useful in finding support and all working together to have these really stronger outcomes for students.

Christine: Absolutely.

John: Well, thank you. This has been a fascinating conversation and this is a book I’m going to recommend to all of our faculty.

Rebecca: Yeah, so glad you were able to join us.

Christine: Well, thank you. I really appreciate the invitation and I hope that everyone listening is able to design motivational syllabi and if that happens our students are the ones who will benefit at the end of the day. So thank all of you for listening and for supporting students in their learning journey.

[Music]

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

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

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

58. Role-play

Do your students sometimes settle for a superficial understanding of your 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

Transcript

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.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

Rebecca: Our guest today is 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.

[Music]

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

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

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

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

Transcript

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.

[Music]

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.

[LAUGHTER]

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.

[Music]

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

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

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

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.

Transcript

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.

Transcript

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.

[Music]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[Music]

John: Our guest today is Dr. 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.

[MUSIC]

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

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. 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

Transcript

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.

[Music]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[Music]

John: 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.

Rebecca:Thanks.

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.

[LAUGHTER]

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

[LAUGHTER]

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.

Rebecca:Yeah.

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….

Rebecca:Yeah.

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.”

Rebecca:Yeah.

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.
[MUSIC]

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

Rebecca:You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. 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.

[Music]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[Music]

John: Today our 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!

[MUSIC]

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

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. 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
    Hypothesis
  • 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

Transcript

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.