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Students can provide useful feedback on instructional practices and class design when they are asked, In this episode, three students from John’s spring economics capstone class join us to provide their reflections on the class’s experiment in developing an open pedagogy project. Our guests in today’s episode are Maria Aldrich, Victoria Heist and Charlie Tararzona.
- Robin DeRosa’s presentation on Open for the Public Practice for a Hopeful Higher Ed
- SUNY’s Conference on Instruction and Technology (CIT)
- Income Inequality and Intergenerational Mobility – the book project created by the students
Rebecca: Students can provide useful feedback on instructional practices and class design when they are asked. In this episode, students join us to provide an open reflection on one class’s experiment in developing an open pedagogy project.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Our guests today are Maria Aldrich, Victoria Heist and Charlie Tarazona, three students who participated in the creation of an open pedagogy project in one of my economics classes this spring semester. Welcome.
Victoria: Thanks for having us.
Maria: Thank you.
Charlie: Yep, excited to be here.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are…
John: None of you are drinking tea, are you?
Victoria: No tea.
Charlie: No tea today.
Rebecca: How regretful. [LAUGHTER]
John: It happens with many of our guests. I’m having ginger peach black tea.
Rebecca: And I’m drinking Lady Grey. The issue is our tea selection is no longer close to our recording studio. It’s a problem. It’s an epidemic now with our tea choices.
John: …now that we’re recording in this little closet in a building next door, where at least we don’t have toilets flushing every 30 seconds or so that we have to edit out.
Rebecca: So John, can you start first by explaining what open pedagogy is, to kind of frame our discussion?
John: Going back a step further. Last year, I saw a presentation by Robin DeRosa who presented on this at the SUNY Conference on Instruction and Technology and she made a really compelling case for some of the advantages that open pedagogy projects have. And open pedagogy just involves having students create content that is open and shared publicly with the world.
Rebecca: So what class did you do an open pedagogy project in?
John: This class is a capstone course in the economics department here. It’s taken mostly by seniors and a few juniors. And it’s a seminar course in economic theory and policy. It’s one of our smaller classes. And we had only 27 students in this capstone, this semester.
Rebecca: So why this class?
John: Because the students were ready for it. The course builds on all the courses that they’ve had up to this point and it allows them to pull together material they’ve learned in all of their prior courses, as well as the cognate classes in statistics and math and so on.
Rebecca: So what kind of project exactly did you propose to these students?
John: I originally proposed two options. One was to do something on behavioral economics, because past classes have found that to be a lot of fun, and another one I suggested was they could just pick current topics and work in small groups and create papers on that. Turned out that they really didn’t like any of those ideas and given the nature of open pedagogy, I left it up to the class to decide what their topics would be. And I think it was actually Charlie, who came up with the idea. And would you like to tell us what that was?
Charlie: I know you had mentioned in the beginning of the class the idea of open pedagogy. And I found that pretty interesting because it seemed like a good opportunity for us as seniors and juniors to really put what we had learned out there. And also, in terms of topic selection, you gave us the opportunity to really choose which topics we wanted to talk about. We ended up choosing the topic of intergenerational mobility and economic inequality. We focused more on the economic inequality aspect of it in the end. But yeah, like I said, it was just a good opportunity for everybody to really finish their college careers with something that they can show.
Rebecca: Dr. Kane is going to close his ears now and you guys are going to tell us exactly what you thought when he said, “Hey, you’re going to write a book.”
Victoria: I was hesitant at first, just because group projects are kind of daunting, especially in economics. However, a collaborative group project was exciting to do… to see all of our work put together. As economic students it isn’t something you really see, it’s usually individual work.
Maria: Oh, yeah, I would agree with Victoria. I was kind of hesitant at first, especially because it was something new for our class so I figured there are probably a lot of kinks that needed to be fixed. So I was a little worried about not having everything fully figured out at first. I thought it was something interesting. It appealed to me because I like the thought that other people could read what we had written and we could have control of what we would want to talk about.
Charlie: And the topic and the idea of a book project really intrigued me… that it just let us put out there what we had learned over these past few years and gave us something that we can show in the end of it.
Rebecca: Were any of you scared?
Victoria: Not scared. I wouldn’t use that word.
John: Were you concerned?
Victoria: A bit concerned, just because I like doing my individual work. I feel stronger in that.
Maria: Yeah, I would agree. I think group work can sometimes be difficult to have for every class because everyone has a different writing style and everyone works on their projects at different times. So I think at first, you’re a little bit worried that not everyone will be able to work well together. But I found that in my group, we were able to work very well and we’re able to meet once a week to go over what we needed to work on for the week.
Charlie: Yeah, I found something similar to that experience. Whereas my group, after the first few weeks, figured out what we wanted to do, and when we could meet, and what was the most effective way for us to put the book project together? And I think it turned out really well.
Rebecca: So you’ve all mentioned groups, can you talk a little bit about what the groups were, how they were determined, and how that worked?
Victoria: The groups were groups of three from the class, because there’s 27 people. And then we’re able to email Professor Kane and ask if we wanted to work with anyone specific, like if we had friends in the class, we could work with them. But if not, or if we didn’t want to work with someone we knew, we’re able to randomize it.
Maria: I was put into a group of two other random people that I didn’t know, but we were able to set up a group chat immediately and communicate very well through that.
Charlie: I actually emailed Professor Kane about being a group in Victoria and we also included another student in that. I think it worked out pretty well and I was happy with how it turned out.
John: Before the groups were formed, though, the class decided on what the topics would be. So we had kind of a free-form planning session where we narrowed it down to nine topics you wanted to address. And then at that point, we knew how big the groups were going to be. And it worked out nicely with three people per group.
Rebecca: How did each group get assigned a topic?
Charlie: So the way we assigned topics was, we had created a list of the nine topics, and then each individual group could choose their top three, and then we divided them that way based on everybody’s top choice. If they didn’t happen to get their top choice, they usually got their second or third, I think that only happened for maybe two groups, and they seem to be fine with what they ended up with.
John: And going back a little bit further, it was a weighted voting scheme that you didn’t just rank them… that you assigned points, if I remember was it 10 points I gave you? And so if you really wanted to chapter you could bid all 10 points on that. And if you were indifferent, you could have assigned weight to your top three preferences and so forth. And it did work out really nicely where I think most groups got their top choice, but two of them ended up with their second or third choice, but it seemed to work.
Rebecca: How did you find collaborating in the end?
Charlie: I found that it worked really well meeting every week. We also had presentations every week that we gave on specific topics that we’re talking about during that week. So that set the initial schedule for us to meet every week and talk about what we were doing and what was going on. Also with the book project at the time, in terms of organization, I found it very laid out and simple.
Rebecca: That sounds like you had a writing group that met that frequently, but it also would be more of like a study group as well?
Charlie: Yeah, I would definitely say it was a mix between a writing group… a study group. Your group members ended up being the way, if you wanted to succeed in the class, like that was the way to do it was to work cohesively with your group members.
John: And it should be noted that they had other tasks in the class as well, where they selected topics that were presented each week and each group was responsible for presenting an article or a research paper on a topic, some of which were related to the book and others were completely different. The groups were persistent across all the assignments and involved more than just writing the book.
Rebecca: How’d you get feedback to make sure whatever you’re putting out in the public was good enough?
Maria: Well, we mainly used Google Docs. At first, we tried to use hypothesis. But that wasn’t really working out well. So we ended up just going back to Google Docs. And each group would be given a couple of chapters to review each week. And they would write a couple comments in that chapter as well as some comments made by our professor and we used that and we also used each other’s feedback to make those edits.
John: How did that work? Where the comments helpful?
Victoria: No. [LAUGHTER] Just because I’m very protective over my work, which I know I should be open to criticisms. However, I got some comments sometimes I was just like questioning, like instead of “what about this article that you might want to look at” it would be “change this word,” where I know we emphasized that often in class many, many times, but still people would persistently do that.
John: I hope that wasn’t from me. Was it from me?
Victoria: Oh, no. Well, if you wanted to do that, you’re the professor. You can do that. But you also give us feedback that’s helpful. Whereas, students I feel like if they’re rushed or doing it, like 20 minutes before the class, they’re not going to look at me like, “Oh, what about this topic that might be interesting to consider.” Instead, they’re like, “Switch this word.” That just might be the students in the class too, just because we did have a lot of work in the class. And I found that because our group would meet to practice our presentation before the class, a lot of groups are doing their final work 15 minutes before the class.
John: Yes, the quality of the work did vary a little bit across the groups and across the individuals within the groups. Overall, there was some really high quality work, and all three of you did really well. But the quality of the feedback varied quite a bit.
Rebecca: So the feedback was generally done outside of class? Like not during class time?
John: Primarily, except for the presentations on the work where there was some feedback during the presentations.
Victoria: Yes, but I found that your feedback was most helpful, rather than the students.
Maria: Yeah, I would say I paid a lot more attention to Professor Kane’s feedback than some of my fellow students. Luckily, we didn’t have that experience. We had a lot of people give a sincere, really constructive feedback, but sometimes I’d be hesitant to take that feedback because I didn’t know that was the direction that I should be going in. But I definitely think our experience was a little better and our comments were more substantial, I would say.
Victoria: And I think next time maybe switching the groups that review the feedback might be helpful, because if you have one group that gives worse feedback, and you keep getting that, it’s not as helpful.
John: The way it was structured was each group reviewed and provided comments on three other groups, and we did that on three stages. And the class decided to maintain persistent groups there. I did give them the option, but I think it does make much more sense to vary it so you’re getting a wider range of feedback.
Charlie: I think the idea to keep persistent groups stem from the fact that we wanted to have somebody read the paper and then continue to read the paper throughout the weeks when we were supposed to be improving it or making it better. So then they could also see the changes we were making. And I agree with my classmates where I think we can say that it didn’t work out too well. There’s some groups just didn’t happen to give feedback that was too good.
Victoria: I also think part of it was the length of the papers because each of us had to review three full papers for the weeks that we did that, and three 20-page papers is a lot of reading to do on student written economics. And I think maybe in the beginning it was helpful to read all three, but maybe as time went on to scale that back a little bit, so we don’t get burnt out.
John: More detailed feedback on a smaller number of papers.
Victoria: Yeah because at first, I find myself doing it too. Like the first paper, I’ll take the time to read every single word and provide helpful feedback. But I can see myself not doing as much on the third.
John: I gave feedback in three different ways. The first time I gave video feedback, and while I’ve heard that that can be really efficient, I was taking about two hours or so per paper. And that was really slow and people really didn’t like the feedback that much because some of the feedback was fairly long in terms of the suggestions. So, I probably gave a little too much feedback. The second was with comments embedded in Adobe. And the third time I just basically went along with everyone else and provided the feedback directly in Google Docs. And the nice thing about that is I was able to see some other suggestions and sometimes I’d say, “Well, maybe that’s not such a good idea.” Because in many cases, the original draft actually made more sense than the feedback.
Rebecca: What way did you all like feedback better?
Charlie: I think the best feedback I received was actually in class feedback when I would go to Professor Kane and ask him, “Hey, you know, this is what’s going on with my paper. Is there something else I could look at? Is there another source I can find?” I found that to be the most effective in helping me write the paper. I was also a fan of the comments in Google Docs, they were pretty helpful.
Maria: Yeah, I think the most helpful feedback were the comments from Google Docs because, for that last draft, I was able to go through and resolve any comments that I had made the changes to and that just helped motivate me to make my draft a really good copy. And then I would say that I was really against the video feedback because I personally like to review feedback multiple times. I like to go through it and make changes to it. And I found myself just typing up his comments at the end of the doc so that other teammates could see it as well. So I was definitely against the video feedback and prefer the Google Doc comments.
Victoria: Yeah, I prefer Google Docs as well, just because I could see where exactly you wanted the changes done. It gave more specific feedback and then it also gave the students validity I guess, like this should be changed. Like I made a comment in one paper and said, “I think you mean a different word.” And they just resolved it and moved on. But then Professor Kane came through and said, “Yes, I agree.” And I think that you agreed, and they now are aware that yes, those changes need to be made.
Rebecca: I think sometimes when a faculty member responds to student comments in a way that it also helps students know how to make better comments. So it would be interesting to see how another round of that would have gone after Dr. Kane had responded to some of those right? To see if the comments were better the next time around.
John: Yeah, I think I should have done that from the beginning. And I’m sorry, I didn’t. But in the future, I’ll probably use Hypothesis. Now that we have Hypothesis in Blackboard it will be much easier. Among the problems we had is that people had some trouble making comments on Google Docs because they also had edit access to those and they couldn’t mark up specific text. And with PDFs, that was a bit of a problem given the way the browsers were set up that they had to change a program in order to make comments on PDF documents. So now that we have that in our learning management system, it’s going to be much easier to do that and the comments will be a little more persistent, because one of the issues was people were, as you mentioned, resolving comments sometimes before anyone else had a chance to see them. And the strategy was to have the draft documents with the comments copied over to another folder, and they were only supposed to make changes in their working document, not in the documents used for comments. But there were three or four people who through three drafts, just didn’t quite get that notion and I’d see the email saying that comments were resolved, and I would go back in and unresolve them. But in any case, there were some problems with those. That’s an issue that I think has to be worked out a little bit more efficiently.
Rebecca: Beside some of the technical issues that we mentioned, what were some of the biggest challenges of working on a project like this?
Charlie: I think one of the bigger challenges was keeping the cohesive idea behind the whole book where the topic we had chose was income inequality and we also had talked about intergenerational mobility. But as the book progressed, we kind of saw that portion of the book fall off a little bit where chapters were really focusing on the income and economic inequality topic.
Rebecca: So is that something you discussed in class to keep everybody on track?
Charlie: I think we mentioned it at one point towards the end, we’re just like, “Okay, are we going to keep this? Are we going to not keep this?” And I think we agreed, we could talk about it but we won’t make it a major portion of the book.
John: There was also some scaffolding on the project… that it didn’t just start with people starting to write, groups were first asked to put together a bibliography, and then an annotated bibliography, and then an outline of the chapter, and then the actual writing started after they had feedback on each of those steps.
Maria: I would agree with Charlie, I was definitely worried about the cohesiveness of the entire book. But for my group, specifically, we did a very broad topic, the global trends of economic inequality, and for myself, it was really hard to find relevant subjects to talk about because it was just such a broad topic. It was really hard for each of us to find something that we could spend a large amount of time writing about. So I’m not sure how the other groups felt. But for us, it was definitely hard narrowing down what we specifically wanted to talk about, and then to find resources that were recent enough to include.
Victoria: Yeah, I agree with you on that. I think one change I would make after we figure out the specific topics, you can go deeper in that because it’s hard as a group to form a thesis statement or very cohesive argument because we ended up doing more of a timeline than like an argumentative paper because you have to split it up.
John: Your topic specifically was on what?
Victoria: Tax-structure and income inequality. So basically, we looked at early 20th century, later 20th century, and the 21st century, and how the changing tax structures led to increasing income inequality over time. So that’s kind of how we split it up. But I think if I was to do it again, I would take a different approach to it, because I did the first section and finding information on World War One income inequality is much harder than it seems. So I struggled a lot with that too.
Charlie: Yeah, in terms of how we wrote our chapter of the book, I’m usually a fan of writing papers that follow a timeline as an explanation but that’s just a personal preference. It doesn’t work for everybody. So I can definitely see how making the cohesive argument along with following that timeline can be pretty difficult.
John: In your chapter, I think the timeline made a bit of sense. We were talking about the evolution of it and the transitions in your chapter were pretty smooth. I don’t think that worked as well in all the chapters, quite often it looked like they were three essays…
John: …chopped and pasted together.
Victoria: There was this one paper with a bunch of sub topics, but it wasn’t cohesive. And I was reading it and it just did not make any sense to me how it was organized. So that was one of the suggestions I made… maybe taking a step further in class and presenting maybe our papers a little earlier.
John: In more stages…
VICTORIA. I was just trying to read it and I just could not make sense of the organization of it, where maybe if we caught that earlier we maybe could have made better paper.
John: I was giving them feedback in several groups… that sort of feedback… that they need to smooth out the transitions and have a more logical structure. But some groups responded really well and did a nice job with that, other groups were a little more reluctant to do that.
Rebecca: Perhaps some groups will respond really well to some peer pressure. [LAUGHTER]
John: And having the presentations in class would have helped do that. When people in the class were saying, “This is just too disorganized.” And most of them got better by the end, but it was a stretch getting there.
Rebecca: So you’ve talked a little bit about some of the challenges, but what was really rewarding about working on this project?
Victoria: I found it really helpful to work with the group. I had Charlie and then another student, Junweii, in my group and we all read each other’s parts. I know I went through the document and made comments for my own group too. And we were all able to bring it together, make comments for each other, ask each other questions about like what sources to use especially too. And it was easier in that regard than an individual paper. Because if you make a mistake and you don’t realize it, no one’s there to help you, it’s just you. But here we have people to help each other.
Charlie: Yeah, I always find it beneficial to complete a task with other students also trying to complete the same task as you. It just makes the learning more interesting. And you’re more willing to go and spend the extra hour looking at the document to just make sure you understand what you’re writing, but also that it fits with whomever else you’re working with. I found it really beneficial or satisfying just the fact that we, like I said, could create something that any ordinary person could probably read and understand what was happening.
Maria: Yeah, I think the most rewarding part for me was just seeing that finished product and getting you know, positive feedback from Professor Kane and from my other group members. I think working in that group setting helps to motivate me to do the best of my ability. And I think it was just rewarding at the end to see everything come together well.
Victoria: I think it gave us all a deeper understanding of the material too because, instead of writing it yourself… because you can write something and not understand it. I’ve done it many times. [LAUGHTER] But when you’re sitting in a group, getting a presentation ready, you each need to understand the material. So you’re explaining what you learn to each other. And that’s something you don’t get by yourself. I found that really rewarding.
John: What about the public nature of the project? The fact that this will be out there, it will have your names on it, and it could be out there indefinitely.
Charlie: I found that portion of the project pretty intriguing and exciting. Just like I said, you can go out there, and obviously we’re college students, we’re looking for employment after this. So just showing an employer, “Hey, I’ve written something that’s been published. It’s out there, you can go read it for yourself and see what you think.” It gives something for the students to show.
Victoria: Yeah, it made it exciting because we knew what was at the end of the project. Rather than just a finished paper, we actually had something to like prove ourselves, like we did this.
Maria: I think for me, it was cool to know because at the end of the semester, I’m able to go to my family and say, “Oh, here you go. This is something that I worked on all semester long. Here’s something that you can read and you can better understand what I’ve studied for the past four years.” So I think it was helpful that I was able to show my family I’ve worked hard on this. This is something that is to show for that.
Charlie: I would definitely concur with that. Economics as a topic isn’t really discussed when you’re talking just with family members, so many of them don’t understand what you’re talking about. And you’ll try, but it’s hard sometimes. So to put something together that they’d be able to read and understand, I found that pretty satisfying.
John: And how did the class select the audience for this? What level was it written for?
Victoria: Students with a background in economics I think we decided on. But we came together as a class and decided on that. But you need economic background to understand some of the things we wrote.
John: But at an introductory level, so it wasn’t written at an advanced level. It was written for people who’ve had an economics course somewhere along the way.
Victoria: Or just no background. You don’t have to go to college to read the book.
Rebecca: How would you change this project in the future? We touched on a couple of things here and there, but do you have any other key things that, if the same exact project were presented to another group of students, how would you change the structure? Or the way it’s organized? Or the way that it’s presented the first day?
Victoria: Thinking about the class as a whole rather than just the book project, we did weekly presentations which was a lot of work in itself. So I would probably minimize those and focus on the book. Because we were sitting there reading 20+ page economic journals every week and making a presentation on it and doing the book project. So I think having more time dedicated to the book project and presenting on that material, rather than just economic journals that people have written, like it gives background, which is helpful, but maybe a little less, or maybe shorter ones, or ones that are just easier to understand. Because I know a lot of times you would say, like, “I know you guys don’t understand this, it’s challenging. But we still need to know it.” Like you would explain it in class, which would be helpful, but reading something you don’t understand is really difficult for students… in economics specifically. That’s challenging.
Maria: Yeah, I would agree. I think, at the beginning of the semester, it was a lot of work to have to juggle both the presentations and the book at the same time. So I kind of like the idea, I’m not sure if it was you Victoria, who mentioned it in class, of doing the presentation one week and then the next week working on the book and having class time devoted to the book in the week after. I think that would have been very helpful too because we did meet as groups, but if we were able to meet in a class setting than I think other classmates will be able to make comments on your chapter and offer advice. I think it would just help overall with the workload that we have.
Charlie: I also agree with that. I think the improvement can be made where we’d work on maybe a random topic every other week, and do a presentation on that, and then also incorporate the book project into that. I think it would help with the cohesiveness of the book along with just feedback and all the other problems that we had discussed.
John: One of the things I had suggested at the very beginning, you may recall, is I suggested one option is to spend the whole class focused on this. Another option is just to do it the way it was done in the past, or something else. And the class actually voted for the something else. Now having had the experience, the something else didn’t work quite as well, and that more class time should have been devoted, I think, to this and I saw that too.
Victoria: I think we’re just looking for something exciting. Like yeah, it’s a book project like we know what we’re going to do with that. But the presentations just added something else, but if I went back to a book project because then we could have taken the steps at a slower pace too, like the annotated bibliography, like the topics, we could have taken way more time with that than we did. Because once we did that very quickly, and then went into presentations, and then we just had due dates instead of meetings in class.
Maria: Yeah, I think for us, what appealed to us with this combination of the book and the presentations was that the presentations offered structure for us when we knew what we were getting with those presentations. We knew each week that we’d come in with the presentation. And I think with the book, we were excited because it was something new and different and I think we were a little too hesitant to go fully and choose the book, because we weren’t sure what we would be doing in class. We weren’t sure how we would be tested on that. So I think the combination of fields lost because we were able to have that structure, but we were also able to try something new.
Charlie: I know for some of the students in the class they had mentioned to me… they were hesitant to get rid of the presentations weekly because they were a fan of learning something new every week and learning a different topic, not just focusing on the book project. They really wanted to increase their knowledge base by just learning about multiple fields of economics. So I think that’s why we ended up going with what we went with in the end. But I think we all could all agree that if we had done that every other week, it would have been more efficient.
John: I agree. And I think some combination might be good for the reason you mentioned, but more class time devoted to it would be helpful.
Victoria: Maybe at first too, do a presentation. Like the first presentation, I don’t know what week that was, but maybe keep that one because when our group really met each other, we worked together, and then we planned a time every week where we would meet.
John: And if this is done again, and that will be if the class wants to do this in the future, perhaps that first topic for the readings could be related to whatever they choose to do so they’re actually doing some scaffolding with the presentations then.
Rebecca: I had something similar in my classes before where a team formed early on. We did something small, low stakes, to figure out how to work with each other and what doesn’t go well. So that when we did something a little more high stakes, you already knew what the wrinkles were going to be so that you could plan for that moving on. So it sounds like your presentations served that purpose, whether or not you intended that to happen or not.
John: But it became a lot of work when it was done every week, in addition to writing a book.
Victoria: That was difficult.
Maria: Yeah, I think it just helped to make us all more comfortable with each other and more comfortable speaking in front of the class.
Rebecca: So the big question is, of course, should other faculty do this?
Victoria: Yes, I’m working on my honors thesis right now, which is kind of what you would do in a traditional seminar. And it’s very difficult. So just having people there… write it with you… know what you’re talking about… You can ask them questions. In our group chat, we often ask, “What would you recommend for this part of the paper? Or what articles do you think are appropriate for this?” If you’re doing it by yourself, it’s very difficult. And the overarching topic… I feel like in a lot of seminars, they have that. It’s a topic for the seminar, but it doesn’t really filter through as well as the book project does, because we are all cohesive, all of us together working as a class of 27 people, which you never see. So, I found it really helpful and I liked it a lot. And it wasn’t like a crazy amount of work. You did the work, and you study, you did the presentations, and you wrote a paper, but it didn’t take you hours every day to work on. I feel like I learned more in this class than I have in other classes that I write individual papers for.
Maria: Well, I think I would partially agree and partially disagree with that. I think as a class, we all appreciated that Professor Kane was willing to change like the class structure and was willing to try something new. And I think that was definitely intriguing for us and provided something different as our last economic course. But I think if I had done my own topic paper, I think I probably would have learned a little bit more, I think just I would preferred that. But I think it was still important to get this experience and try something new.
Charlie: I think I would definitely suggest it to some other faculty members to maybe try this out. Like Victoria was saying, working with a group is pretty beneficial. And I feel like, from a personal standpoint, I learn more when I’m working with other people who I can ask questions to, get feedback from. Really, it helps your understanding of the class. In terms of incentive, I find that I wanted to work on the book project because you had that end goal of, “This is something that I can put out there and show to somebody.”
Victoria: Yeah, but at the same time, group work can sometimes be the worst thing that ever happens to you. Like we got really, really lucky because I know Charlie, we’re friends so we were like, “Okay, let’s work together. We’ll just get one random person.” Junwei was like such a blessing. We just work together so beautifully, but I feel like if we had someone that didn’t want to do the work… wasn’t willing to put in the work… didn’t show up to meetings… that would ruin the project for us. So I don’t know how you could fix that. But just if there’s a good group, it works. If there isn’t, I feel like it wouldn’t work as well.
Rebecca: So good to write one book during your time here, but maybe not many books. [LAUGHTER]
John: But there could be other things. For example, they could have been podcasts that were created. They could be collections of essays.They could be video projects that are put together by groups. So there’s a lot of different things that could be done.
VICTORIAL: Yeah, I would throw that out there. If you did this again with another book, like, yeah, you can write a book, but you can also do that… a different kind of form of the same kind of structure. That would be interesting.
Maria: I would be interested in doing some type of podcast because I know some of my friends in their classes have been required to do podcasts. And I feel like you have to prepare really well for that. So I think maybe that would have forced your teammates, if they weren’t doing the work, to do the work so that they wouldn’t get to the studio and not have anything to say. So I think that would have been another really cool option.
Charlie: I think it would be a good option for capstone classes, just because I know for a lot of majors, you hear what the capstone is about for the three years before you even get there. And I know personally for me, I’m also trying to get a political science degree, my capstone is next semester, like I’m already dreading the 25-page paper I’m gonna have to write. So to switch it up and have the students maybe not know exactly what they’re in for, I think it gives a little bit of an intrigue and like, “Okay, this isn’t just the I’m going to go and write a paper all year. It’s something else that I’m going to do.”
Victoria: Yeah, it’s more fun. I’m more willing to write a paper that my group members are in. Like we can all see each other too in the Google doc and talk to each other in the chat… be like, “What do you think about this part?” Or like Charlie can watch me while I’m writing my part of the paper and say, “This is good. Maybe change this. Or bring this sentence up.” You don’t do that in individual papers and even if you write an individual paper and have peer feedback, it’s not the same as having it right there, real time, or just people caring more because it’s theirs too.
John: We did have some issues with that early on though, in the first draft or two, because there were some people who really didn’t want to try using Google docs for writing. And were any of you involved in that?
Charlie: So, I’m not opposed to Google Docs. [LAUGHTER] I had just always used Word documents before. So it took a little bit of getting used to but once you commit to it, it’s a really nice thing to have in your repertoire. Google Docs, I feel like, is used by countless numbers of people, companies, places, businesses, the college. So honestly, as a student, you should just take the incentive to try to get to learn it. And once you learn it, it’s really beneficial to you.
John: One of the problems was that some people were writing in Word and then uploading it to the drive and that made it really hard for other people to edit. And eventually everyone switched over, but it did take a few iterations with some people.
Maria: So yeah, I think there were a couple of challenges with having different drafts because people made comments on separate drafts. So I think just sending out a reminder email would be helpful and letting people know because I know I think I made my changes on the wrong draft the first time and we had to send an email right away to have him fix that. So I think just having it set up all before the due dates like before you mention it in class would be really helpful too.
John: Yeah, there were some rough spots. This was new for me too.
Rebecca: So we always wrap up our podcast by asking what’s next for each of you?
Charlie: This December, I’m looking to graduate from Oswego, which is exciting for me. And after that, I’m not really sure what’s going to go on. We’ll see.
Maria: Well, I’m graduating this Saturday, and I’m going to be moving down to Florida for a little bit and doing an internship there.
Victoria: I’m also graduating Saturday and I’ll be working at HSBC this July in their graduate development program.
Rebecca: Sounds like exciting futures for each of you.
John: What are you doing in Florida? An internship where?
Maria: I’m doing the college program, the Disney College Program.
John: Oh, wonderful. Maybe I’ll see you there at the OLC conference. Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure working with you all semester. And thank you for joining us.
Charlie: Thank you for having us.
Victoria: Thank you.
Maria: Thank you.
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.
Formative feedback, reflection, and practice are all essential to improve our skills. In this episode, JoNelle Toriseva joins us to discuss her approach of combining faculty and peer feedback with reflective practice to improve student writing skills. JoNelle is a writer and an Assistant Professor and Director of English Communications and Media Arts at Genesee Community College. JoNelle has won the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry from Cutbank. Her work has appeared in The North American Review, Salt Hill, The Literary Review, The Saranac Review, The Cincinnati Review, Descant, and JACKET, among others, and included in Days I Moved Through Ordinary Sound published by San Francisco’s City Lights, and Best Canadian Poetry in English.
- JoNelle Toriseva
- Assistant Professor and Director of English Communications and Media Arts at Genesee Community College.
- winner of the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry from Cutbank (The Literary Journal of the University of Montana). The judge for that prize was Oliver de la Paz.
- Selected by Shane McCrae, J.R. Toriseva’s Barbed Water, was the winner of Saudade’s annual poetry contest, and is now available from Argus.
- Toriseva’s work has appeared in The North American Review, Salt Hill, The Literary Review, The Saranac Review, The Cincinnati Review, Descant, and JACKET, among others, and included in Days I Moved Through Ordinary Sound published by San Francisco’s City Lights, and Best Canadian Poetry in English.
- Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) at GCC
- 2. The Metacognitive Cafe Online Discussion Forum – The 11/8/2017 Tea for Teaching podcast with Judith Littlejohn that was referenced in this podcast.
- National Novel Writing Month
John: Formative feedback, reflection, and practice are all essential to improve our skills. In this episode, we examine one professor’s approach of combining faculty and peer feedback with reflective practice to improve student writing skills.
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 JoNelle Toriseva, an assistant professor and director of English Communications and Media Arts at Genesee Community College. JoNelle has won the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry from Cutbank. Welcome JoNelle.
Jonelle: Thank you. Very happy to be here.
John: Our teas today are…
Jonelle: Bombay breakfast.
Rebecca: That sounds tasty.
Jonelle: Which I get from Jasmine Pearl, my favorite tea company.
Rebecca: Yum. I think this morning I have black currant.
Jonelle: Mmm, nice.
John: And I have ginger tea.
Rebecca: Yum. So we invited you here today to talk a little bit about reflective writing. Can you talk a little bit about some of the kinds of classes that you teach and how you use reflective writing as part of that practice?
Jonelle: Yes, well, I came to academia through being a community artist. So I went to a lot of schools, and a lot of community programs… prisons, different places and taught writing in very different situations and in coming from that background, building community was really important, and also goals. So when people want to write, they want to write for a variety of reasons. And so to help people get what they wanted out of these community writing courses, I would have people tell me their goals. And I had done some reading in how to help people achieve their goals and a big part of that can be having people write down their goals. So my whole reflective writing practice has come out of goal-setting, and having people write their goals and then share their goals with each other and learn how to achieve their goals. Some people like to break it down step-by-step, other people haven’t told another person what they wanted and haven’t experienced that kind of support that comes when you share what you really want to have happen. And a lot of magical results can occur when people talk about their goals, write down their goals, learn that other people will help them achieve their goals. So this reflective writing came out of that I learned that that was working, and that was helping people. And I thought, “Oh, why don’t we do this three times a semester. So people can kind of check in with themselves, and people can adapt what they’re doing if necessary.” Sometimes people come into a class with one set of goals, and they’ll realize, “Oh, no, what I really wanted to do was this, or that.” So I have different points in the semester when they can go in and adapt, and rewrite, and edit their goals.
Rebecca: How important is that piece of community and sharing of the goals as part of this reflective process?
Jonelle: It’s highly important. And I didn’t realize how important it was at first, but a lot of people haven’t had the experience of supportive community before. And so just stating a goal out loud… First of all, the person has to figure out how they’re going to put that into words and they can help them plan a little bit more what that goal might look like if they are actually thinking about it. A lot of people come to writing and they want to write a bestseller. And they may not have thought it through. But once they have to state their goals, they break it down, “Oh, I want to write in this genre.” Or some people will want to write a memoir about their family history and so they’re not really looking to write a bestseller, they’re looking to write something that honors their ancestors. So it helps people understand exactly what they’re trying to get out of their writing practice.
Rebecca: How do you make sure that students feel safe to share those goals and actually are taking that goal sending really seriously?
Jonelle: I do it by setting standards and also doing it right away in the course. So people see what is expected. So they’re still, at the beginning of the course, they’re still meeting each other and getting to know each other and so it’s just part and parcel of what happens in the course, it’s one of the expected criteria: that they respect each other, that they listen to each other, and that they respond in a positive and supportive manner. So I set the tone right away with it. And people respond really well to that because I find that people, they’re coming to school, they’re coming to class for a reason, they do want to get a certain thing out of it, and they’re able to say what it is that they do want to get out of it. And I also set it up ahead of time that they can’t say, “Oh, I want an A in the course.” We talk about breaking down what the writing process is, and so they’re working on specific goals. Like one person may have to work a lot on transitions, or one person may be working on creating an edited draft that can go to a certain publication. But no matter what that goal is, it’ll be broken down into chunks that are manageable and also skill related.
John: Are these online or face-to-face class?
Jonelle: I do it in both. So if we’re in a face-to-face class, I’ll have them do a writing assignment and then they will share with a neighbor close to them. If it’s an online class, they will do a post about what their goals are and then they’ll respond to two other students posts. So they’re doing one-on-one sharing with each other in either mode.
Rebecca: What are some tips that you have for other faculty in helping students prepare to write those goals?
Jonelle: What I usually advise people to do is to have a time set aside for individual reflection. So they’ve been thinking about what they want out of the course, we’ve been talking about what constitutes the course, what kind of skills they’re learning. And then we’ll do five-minute writes on them in their own process on them and their goals, and so they’re used to already doing short writing sprints about these goals. So we do practice and then also I have examples of what other students have written for their goals so they can kind of see the level of detail that goes in, and it’s something that’s very practical and it can be used as a “to do” list. And I also share with them my own writing goals so that they know everybody might have a problem getting started, or ending, or writing a good conclusion. So I’m very honest with my own writing process and I think that helps them also be honest about their writing process.
John: Some of your work is in the accelerated learning program or the ALP program at Genesee Community College. Could you tell us a little bit about that program and those classes?
Jonelle: Yes, Accelerated Learning Program is really exciting. It’s a process of where you just sit side-by-side with learners and help them achieve what they want to achieve. It’s something that I first learned how to do in graduate school at Mills College in Oakland. As part of my graduate school training, I was tasked with teaching a small seminar group of students who were selected from the freshman first-year writing course. So I had a group of six students from this writing course who I would go to class with, I would go to their composition course with, and then I would meet with them as a group and teach in seminar style weekly, thesis statements, organization, researching skills. Whatever the teacher was teaching in the one-on-one course, I would supplement and also do some more extensive teaching as the students needed it. And then I also met with each of the students individually weekly and talk to them about how their work was going, how their classes were going, supporting them if they needed any kind of academic help. And this kind of one-on-one, close involvement really helped these students because they knew there’s somebody that they could talk to, and that there was somebody that could get them help. And a lot of the problems that these students were having were not cognitive problems. They were just not as well read as some of the other students and they didn’t have some of the same training. One of these students also didn’t pick appropriate material to write about. For some reason this person only would talk about and write about Bruce Lee. So no matter what we’re talking about, she would only write about Bruce Lee. So I worked with her a lot and helped her widen our writing scope. So things like this, people that just didn’t have some of the same experiences as the other students in the class.
John: So the classes are for students who are in need of getting them up to the level of the courses, but it’s accelerated because they’re working with the regular classes, but getting additional assistance within that environment so that they don’t get behind in their progress?
Jonelle: Exactly, yes. So what was being done at Mills College then started being done across the nation in different ways, different people started different programs. And the program that we accepted and did for GCC is Accelerated Learning Program. And in that program, it’s a little bit different than the one-on-one tutoring, but it has a very similar philosophy. And in that course, a student will be enrolled in English 101, and then they will have another course called English 100 that gives them supportive training and workshopping directly from that 101 course. So it’s roughly half of the amount of students, there’s 12 students in it and they get individualized workshops on whatever topic they need to have more reinforcement on. And it addresses non-cognitive issues and addresses skill-based issues as well. So a student takes a credit bearing course along with a non-credit bearing course at the very same time. And we found that this improves retention, it improves class performance, it gives students a lot of confidence when they’re in that English 101 class and gives them the start that they need to catch up work that they didn’t have, for some reason, in their high school experience.
Rebecca: Do you find that the role of reflective writing is different with these students? Or do you do more reflective writing with this group of students?
Jonelle: Depending on the group, depending on what they need, but a lot of times writing about their thinking can be incredibly good for them because they’re able to learn how to follow their thought—and that writing is thinking—it gives them bigger writing muscles so that they’re able to write for longer periods of time and write for bigger projects. They learn how to write themselves into a project so that they know how they’re going to address it, how they’re going to shape and form the narrative, what kind of sources they’re going to be talking to. A lot of writing is the writer in conversation with texts that have gone on before or texts that are currently being created. So it’s kind of part and parcel of the writing process in many ways.
John: So you also teach classes on writing for science and business, do you use similar types of reflection in those classes as well?
Jonelle: Yes, I found that a lot of writing is very similar in that you follow many of the same kinds of steps and ask yourself many of the same types of questions. So if you’re writing an academic paper about theater, or an academic paper about a biological situation, or you’re writing something in the field of chemistry, your approach is very similar although your results are going to be very different. But a writer always has to decide how they’re going to frame their writing, how it fits into the landscape of the current writing in the field, how they can work to improve their writing. So the reflection works for any sort of writing that someone will do.
John: What’s the feedback and revision process that you use in your classes?
Jonelle: Many different layers… the first feedback is, of course, given by the writer themselves, the writer talking to themselves, talking to their piece, and this can be done in whatever way is best for the writer, either verbally or on paper. Then the writer will do peer feedback. So they’ll be reading their work to a peer and a peer will be reading a work to them, and they’ll give their views and also ask questions. So it will be helpful in the developmental stage to get more questions about what is actually on the page, what could be on the page, what needs to be on the page, and then going into revision where the student will work with me, or work with tutors, or work with each other on sentence crafting. Are the sentences crafted the way they need to be? Or do we need to have more sentence variety? How is the point-of-view working? Does that need to be shifted? Are there places where the focus is dropped? Has everything been included that needs to be included? Those kinds of questions get answered. So we go from the larger, macro view to the micro view, looking at, you know, is everything in place? Is everything nailed down? And that will be through working with themselves, through working with me, through working with each other, through working with tutors, and then going back to model texts and looking at their work in comparison with other papers. Are they meeting the standards? Are they meeting the scope? Taking a look at how they measure up to other writers out there. So there’s lots of different layers of reflection and feedback that go in. And hopefully that process is continual, and they will keep doing it after the class as well so they can continue to improve as a writer.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit more about the relationship between an iterative revision process, and reflection and reflective writing?
Jonelle: The reflection is what will help a writer have an increased amount of success throughout their career. So when a student is writing a paper for 101, that’s one paper, but if they realize the steps and realize how this writing will connect to their future writing, then they’re able to set themselves goals, meet these goals, so they can become a better and better writer with each paper and with each writing experience. Because we’re not just training somebody to write a good research paper for a first-year class, we want them to be able to also work well at the transfer institutions, go on and work well at the masters level, at the doctoral level. Writing is a process that we continually redefine for ourselves and we continually have to get better at. So it’s this lifelong skill and the reflective writing helps people take baby steps in that larger arc of the lifelong writing, hopefully.
Rebecca: You talked a little bit about model writing. Do you use your own writing or your own process and the ways that you struggle through your own process as a model for students as well?
Jonelle: Yes, I definitely do. I tell them what’s worked for me, what hasn’t worked for me. A lot of times my talk about how I’ll do short chunk writing like write for five minutes, write for 10 minutes, write for 15 minutes using the kitchen timer when writing gets hard to do. Also taking breaks, how I motivate myself to write if I’m in a really bad funk, and this makes them laugh and also makes them realize, it’s a very human process. So a lot of being a writer and improving your writing is just learning how to work with yourself and talk with yourself so that you keep on getting better, you keep on going back to the writing process and treating yourself with kindness is important.
Rebecca: Something that seems to be coming up in the way that you’re talking about is also the need to see yourself as a writer. So it seems like the reflection is a way to help students start to identify in that way.
Jonelle: Yes, that’s a great, great insight. A lot of people have to be given permission to write or they have to give themselves permission to write in some way. If I’m teaching a creative writing class, often I’ll have people introduce themselves to each other and say, “I’m a writer,” and then they’ll hear it back. And just that ability to say that they’re a writer and be seen as a writer can be incredibly motivating and supportive for people. So yes, it’s important for people to be able to just be able to state that they are a writer. And so many of us are writers in so many different areas that it’s important for people to inhabit that role for themselves.
John: Sounds like a lot of this is building a growth mindset in students, especially students who perhaps may have struggled earlier with writing to let them know that they can, in fact, become more proficient through working on this.
Jonelle: Yes, yes. And that is something that is going to come from inside of them. We want to build up that writing muscle, that writing ability so that they do well in this class, but that they also do well in their next classes, and that they have resources of people that they can reach out to when needed if they come to a standstill. But yes, it’s creating lifetime learners and lifetime writers who will be there for each other.
Rebecca: I’m particularly interested in the student response, especially from students who are in an English 101 class, who don’t identify themselves as a writer to start off and are not in some sort of major where writing seems obvious.
Jonelle: Yes, writing has become such a big part of our lives. We text all the time, we are writing emails to each other. It’s so important that we can present ourselves well in writing and that we can understand what audience we’re writing for. So we talk about all the different writing situations so that they’re aware of how much they are writing, and I tried to use topics that are interesting to them: food, music, things that we all have in common. And so they’re talking with each other, they’re seeing each other as writers, they’re reading each other’s writing. And they start to realize, “Yes, I’m part of this community too. And I can define my role as a writer in my own unique way.” It’s fun to see them blossom, and also redefine the role of writers… a serious role… someone in an attic with crazy hair, or is it somebody writing a text… They can see themselves as a writer in their soccer playing… concert going. If they’re a math major, if they’re a science major…. Everybody writes, so they can see the role of writing in their fields and in their lives.
Rebecca: I think that sometimes faculty even don’t have that identity, despite the fact that they might do a lot of writing and maybe even a lot of publishing. They don’t always recognize themselves as writers.
Rebecca: And that makes it difficult to filter down to students if you don’t also see yourself as a writer.
Jonelle: Right, and it’s important for people to give themselves credit for the writing and the thinking they do. And also all that goes into writing an article, they may do things just automatically and not realize all of the steps that have actually gone into what they create and how complex it is. So they can sit back and give themselves a few kudos. And I find many departments will have weekly meetings where they will have people read papers, and that can also highlight what’s happening in their academic field and give a spotlight on the writing and the writing process. And that also helps build community.
Rebecca: How have your colleagues responded? Do other colleagues use similar approaches? Especially maybe some of this goal setting strategy that you laid out at the beginning.
Jonelle: Yes, I find that a lot of people do reflective writing in their own way. One of my colleagues, Marie Iglesias-Cardinale, has students write letters to themselves and to her and that is another way of framing the reflective writing. So you can do it in many different ways and have it work in a way that is more natural to whatever subject you’re doing, or also to your personality too. Some people like the journal writing, some people like the epistle letter writing, some people could frame it as a podcast, some people could frame it as a selfie, a writing selfie. So people can do it in a variety of ways. And a lot of my colleagues here, Judie Littlejohn, does a lot of metacognitive work and having students look at their learning, which is what this is also having students look at their writing. And I think that more and more people are coming to realize that people have to train their brain to learn a subject or to write a certain format that they’re going to be writing and that our brains are so plastic and able to respond to these tasks that we set before them in a way that is only helped by self reflection.
John: Judie was a guest on our second episode actually. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes. But it does sound like much of what you’re doing is helping students become more metacognitively aware of what they’re doing and processing their own learning much more actively.
Jonelle: Yes. And it helps them get tasks done in other places. So if they can remember “Oh, I did these steps for this paper. What if I start doing them for this article I’m writing?” This is a way to get into that so they can fall back on past successes to have future successes. But a lot of times we have to train ourselves to write in a new way for a new writing task, and that can be daunting. But if you’ve had success before, you can talk yourself through the new tasks.
Rebecca: Good advice to remind ourselves during a summer writing sprint perhaps, right? [LAUGHTER]
Jonelle: Yes. Yeah. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve recognized over time doing reflective work with my students is, needing to give and dedicate class time to that activity. Because we know that it’s important to student learning, but students can see it as a throwaway kind of an assignment if you don’t actually dedicate time and effort as part of the actual in-class time. Because if it’s just a homework assignment, sometimes it’s not taking quite as seriously.
JONELL: Very true. And also having them be in conversation with each other helps them with the process as well, I think. So it’s not just that they’re spending time on the project, it’s that they’re doing social interaction, and that social aspect of learning can be so crucial. And they may not have the confidence yet to talk about their work at home or with their friends. But if they’re in a class, they all have to be doing it, there’s this is kind of group impetus that can help them reach that point.
John: That type of peer support can be really helpful in helping them work through difficulties.
Jonelle: Yes, and they may not have that kind of support anywhere else. So that’s why I think it’s important to have it be a part of class because they may not have outside support in their family or among their friend group. So for us to build that academic dialogue is so important for them to see themselves as writers, and to give credence to what they do, and to make space for what they do.
Rebecca: One of the things that I find challenging not only with writing but also, I teach design so we do the same kind of process with visual work, is to help students move from the “pat on the back” motivational feedback, to actually critical, useful feedback so that they develop those skill sets so that they do start to have that community of practice around them outside of a classroom setting. Do you have any tips on how to help move students in that direction?
Jonelle: Well, I think that continued conversation is really important. I will model what kinds of feedback that they should be giving. If it’s an online class, they have to have 350-words in their response to make sure that they have a level of detail and also to give them a rubric so they have to address the elements. I don’t know what they would be for design, but say for a piece of fiction: that you’re looking at dialogue, you’re looking at plot, you’re looking at characterization, theme. So if they’re incorporating some of that vocabulary into their conversation, that can also be a starting point for a future conversation. They’ll be looking for the line in something else, but they’ll be looking for a round character versus a flat character in something that they’re looking at outside of class. It’s kind of creating that atmosphere for the magic to happen and then hopefully, it translates outside of class too.
Rebecca: To round out some of our discussion on reflection, can you also compare the early kinds of reflection that you do in your class versus ones that happen at that midterm or later on? You mentioned those briefly at the beginning, but we didn’t really explore those opportunities.
Jonelle: Yes, the first reflective writing is mostly just goal setting, what they want to get out of the course. And I originally started them on that because students will come into a creative writing course and they may have ideas of writing an entire novel in a course when they haven’t written anything at all before, and then they may leave the class upset with themselves… they haven’t finished a novel. So I try to find out why they’re really in the course at first, so that I can help them achieve the goal that they want to achieve, knowing that I may have to give them resources outside of the class later on. Say they’re writing a novel, that can be like a five-year journey. So it’s something that we can’t address just in 16 weeks, they’re going to need to have something outside to keep them going. So I take a look at what their goals are. And this writing is pretty short and it may not be as nuanced. And then as we go throughout the semester, I devote midterm and end-of-term writing reflection, and those ask more detailed questions, and I have them give more detailed responses. And by then they’re more comfortable with each other as well, so they’re more willing to call each other out if they’re not meeting their goals, if they’re not putting in the writing time, if they’re not putting in the work with their workshop group, or if they need to be doing more editing or revising. They’re more willing to see that in themselves and sometimes they’re more willing to see that in each other but I find that if they can look at one of their peers and say, “Oh, your peer wants this and yet they’re doing this.” They can say like, “Oh, well, I can see easily how you should change this.” Whereas what they don’t see that as readily in themselves. Why I have them work with each other is so that they can see how each other have a different approach to a writing problem, because they’re often able to solve each other’s problems easier than they can solve their own. But then they’ll see, “Oh, I just need to do this. Like maybe I need to wake up and go to a coffee shop instead of writing in the kitchen. Or maybe I need to go write in my car at lunch instead of going to the cafeteria because I’m just going to talk with my friends and not get what I need to get done.” The reflection process becomes longer… more questions… more involved as the semester progresses.
Rebecca: Do you have your peer feedback groups change over time?
Jonelle: Yes, I always mix those up. Otherwise they get complacent with each other and the social interaction kind of overplays that artistic interaction. So always mixing it up.
John: We always end with a question. What are you doing next?
Jonelle: Well, I’m always creating different writing communities. One of the largest writing communities that I really love, and I love to tell people about is National Novel Writing Month where everybody writes a novel in November and it creates a huge community. It’s fun, it’s free. So if people are interested in writing, I suggest that they look at nanowrimo.org. And it’s something that I always love to do every November is to start a novel and to write with other people in community. So you’ll be seeing me in November in the nanowrimo world doing that.
Rebecca: That sounds fun.
Jonelle: Yes, it’s very fun. You can do other projects also. It’s fun to have that group impetus of working together.
Rebecca: Cool, well we’ll look forward to seeing what that novel looks like then.
Jonelle: Thank you.
John: Thank you for joining us.
Jonelle: Thank you, have a wonderful day.
Rebecca: You too.
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.
Faculty are often excited after attending professional development workshops and plan to implement new techniques, but often don’t follow through. In this episode Dr. Penny MacCormack joins us to talk about one program that provides scaffolding and structure to help faculty improve their teaching using evidence-based practices.
Penny is the Chief Academic Officer of the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE). Before joining ACUE, Penny had served as the Chief Academic Officer for the New Jersey State Department of Education and as an adjunct professor at Southern Connecticut State University, and Montclair State University. She began her career in education as a science teacher.
- ACUE — Association of College and University Educators
- ACE — American Council on Education
- Linda Nilson — Director Emeritus of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation (OTEI) at Clemson University
- 80. Self-Regulated Learning. Tea for Teaching podcast (with Linda Nilson)
- Tom Angelo — Professor of Educational Innovation & Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- Elizabeth Barkley — Professor of Music History at Foothill College
- Saundra McGuire — Director Emerita of the Center for Academic Success at Louisiana State University
- Efficacy studies
Rebecca: Faculty are often excited after attending professional development workshops and plan to implement new techniques, but often don’t follow through. In this episode we talk about one program that provides scaffolding and structure to help faculty improve their teaching using evidence-based practices.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Our guest today is Dr. Penny MacCormack, the Chief Academic Officer of the Association of College and University Educators, or ACUE. Before joining ACUE, Penny had served as the Chief Academic Officer for the New Jersey State Department of Education and as an adjunct professor at Southern Connecticut State University, and Montclair State University. She began her career in education as a science teacher. Welcome, Penny.
Penny: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are…
Penny: Green tea.
John: I have Bing Cherry Black tea.
Rebecca: And I have Lady Grey.
John: We’ve invited you here to join us to discuss ACUE’s effective practice framework and the associated professional development program. How did this program come about?
Penny: So I think, like many ideas, initially with a conversation among leaders in higher education, some very respected leaders, talking about some of the challenges and changes happening in higher ed. An increasingly diverse student body, certainly more attention being paid to retention and graduation rates, and increasing contingent faculty, as well as the public starting to question the quality and the value of a degree in higher ed. And as we looked at the student success agenda, with many strategies that made good sense, really paying attention to maybe more nuanced financial supports, guided pathways with better advisement, data analytics, instructional supports, et cetera. We felt that there was a missing element and we felt like that element was more foundational than just one of the strategies that folks should be thinking of. For example, guided pathways or advisement make really good sense to us…that a student would have a clear path to a meaningful degree. But what we thought attention needed to be paid to was the quality of instruction in those courses along the pathway, and then across an entire institution, the quality of teaching. And we were very aware of the fact that faculty—including contingent faculty—are experts in their discipline, in their subject area, and they’re experts in the research processes. But most have little—sometimes no—training in evidence-based teaching practices in teaching. So we felt like that missing foundation needed to be addressed and set about to develop a comprehensive…we wanted something that would give folks a foundational base of the evidence-based teaching practices we know to be effective in the college classroom. So we wanted to be comprehensive, we wanted it to be research based, we wanted it to be high quality, and we wanted to be scalable. Recognizing that while it’s important for small groups of instructors to become better teachers, the reality is, all of our students, and all of our faculty deserve to be interacting with the evidence-based teaching practices we know actually improve engagement and deepen learning. So we set about to do that.
Rebecca: It’s a pretty big undertaking. It sounds like you probably had a lot of people involved in that process. Can you talk a little bit about how did the design of the program happen and who was involved?
Penny: So you’ll notice here one of the things I said was comprehensive, that we wanted faculty to gain a foundation in evidence-based practices. And so we needed to identify, what are the core set of knowledge and skills you need to be effective in the college classroom? And to be very honest, we had hoped perhaps that already existed somewhere. [LAUGHTER] But lo and behold, that was not the case. And so we reached out to scholars in teaching and learning across the country and worked with them, did a deep dive into the literature, and worked through an iterative process to identify that core set of knowledge and skills. And once we had that, we also worked with the American Council on Education, to endorse our courses and our framework. And they brought to bear their own set of experts across the country in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning to review the framework. And then eventually, ACE endorsed the framework and so we feel pretty confident at this point through the processes we used and ACE used to say that our framework and effective practice does outline the core set of knowledge and skills you need to be effective in the college classroom. So in that case, the folks who really informed that work are the experts in the scholarship of teaching and learning across the country, folks like Linda Nilson, Tom Angelo, Elizabeth Barkley, Saundra McGuire, really making sure again, to involve those folks that teaching centers across the country know really have done the majority of scholarship in that area.
Rebecca: Of course, once you came up with the framework and that comprehensive knowledge, you had to figure out how to deliver it. Can you talk a little bit about how that decision was made?
Penny: Absolutely. You point out something that is quite important. It’s one thing to develop a list, right? “Here’s the core set of knowledge and skills.” It’s yet another thing to do that those other three describers, right? Research based—that was kind of easy, because the list was research based—but high quality. And for me, when I’m talking with folks, high quality really means that faculty will love it. Because if faculty are not going to be engaged in this course and engaged enough to actually change the practices that they’re using in the classroom, then we’re not going to realize that student level impact that is our mission. So in order to design the course now—to your point, got to do that part—we did a couple of things. So one, we paid a lot of attention to the research on how people learn, how does the brain work, and specifically, how do adults learn. The course needed to be scalable. It needed to be offered online, so a lot of attention to online practices. But then we did something really important. And that was to talk to faculty focus groups across the country and do a couple of things. One, put some materials in front of them. Some questions, some video, some text, and ask them to critique, which they did happily, because faculty are quite good at critiquing. [LAUGHTER] The second thing we did was we asked them, “What would you need to consider changing the practices you use in the classroom?” And so they were crystal clear. One, they wanted to see those evidence-based practices in action, in authentic classrooms, by their peers…peers teaching…people that they could see would be instructors in the classroom. Two, they wanted to hear from those instructors why they were using those practices. Icing on the cake would be to hear from students as well, how those practices were working for them. Three, they wanted to hear from researchers. They wanted to hear from the folks who demonstrated that these practices are effective in the classroom. Makes sense, they’re higher ed folks, they want to hear from the folks that did the research. And four, they wanted opportunities to learn, discuss with their colleagues as they were learning, to learn with and from their colleagues. And so just as we paid attention to the research on how people learn, how adults learn, online practices, we paid really careful attention to what faculty asked for, and we delivered it. We made sure that those four things that I heard over and over and over again—from faculty across the country—we delivered on. We listened to them.
John: Maybe it would help if you sketch out the process of a typical module, because it incorporates all those things. And we’re new to ACUE, but our faculty so far have really been enjoying it and they really appreciate the design of the program. But it might help for our listeners who aren’t as familiar to know how a typical module is structured.
Penny: I’m happy to discuss the learning design because we spend a lot of time and a lot of attention to it. Each module includes 12 components. I can divide those 12 components into four groups of three. So the first three components are really designed to pique somebody’s interest and to activate prior knowledge. So we show an introduction video, where that includes clips from our classroom demonstration, kind of like how 60 Minutes gets you interested in the rest of the show, we’re showing little clips to get folks interested in the topic. We outline very clearly the learning objectives and the rationale for the module, so we connect the practices that they’re going to learn to the research that demonstrates it does impact students, and then we offer a group of questions to activate that prior knowledge because what we know about that is if you activate prior knowledge, you’re more ready for new knowledge. So that’s the first three components. The second three are designed to build that foundational knowledge. We decided to show before tell first. And so we have a classroom demonstration video, where you see faculty utilizing the evidence-based practices being recommended in that module. You hear from those faculty why they’re using those practices and you hear from students about how those practices are impacting their learning. Next component, you hear from the researchers about the research behind that component. We actually utilize speed drawing there, so that it’s not just a talking head, but there’s a little bit more interaction going on and then finally, we offer resources to faculty so that when they implement any one of the practices that they’ve just seen in that classroom demo, they have all the resources they would need to implement. The next three components are about deepening learning, and allowing for that collaboration to happen with their colleagues. And so the first component is some text. We wanted faculty to read a little bit deeper about the practices and the way we do that is to address some of the common misconceptions, common challenges that faculty might think of, and we address those with the research. And so a common challenge or a common misconception will include a couple of paragraphs from the research about why that’s a challenge and how to overcome it or why that misconception exists in the information that kind of helps you see it differently. We follow that by two sections of what we call observe and analyze. Up to this point in any module, faculty would be able to do all of those components on their own online when it’s most convenient for them. With the observe and analyze, oftentimes faculty will schedule a particular day that they’re all going to engage in watching these videos, and the videos are of what I call developing practice. So you’ll remember that faculty would have seen effective practice, they would have heard from the researchers, but now we show them developing practice—somebody doing some things well and some things that could be adjusted some—and that is the conversation that faculty have. So they watch this video, and then they engage in an online conversation—some of our partners will sometimes bring folks together face to face—but they engage in a rich conversation about what that person is doing well, and what they might adjust or tweak.
John: We should note that no actual students were harmed during these demonstration component videos.
Penny: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, during the demonstration videos where we were doing developing practice, students knew what we were doing, and it’s completely scripted. So I think what was interesting about students is they understood when a practice was really effective, because remember, it’s developing. So it’s not like a train wreck, it’s some things being done well, and some things that could be tweaked. And when you think about it, the faculty watching the video are in the same shoes as the person trying it for the first time. So they’re watching somebody try something for the first time making some mistakes but doing some things that are quite good. And they’re able, they have that opportunity, before they’re asked to implement one of those practices in their classroom so it’s a really rich learning opportunity that they get to do with their cohort to collaborate with their colleagues. The last set of components, faculty are asked to practice and reflect and then we do a closing video. So we indicate to faculty, “Here are the learning objectives for the module and here are the practices.” And there’s always between five to 10 practices offered in every single module. And we say to faculty, “Choose one,” and that’s important. In adult learning you don’t want to say, “This is the one thing you have to do and you have to do it now,” because faculty are teaching different classes, have different students that they’re working with, we want to give them a choice. So they choose one of those practices and they implement it in their classroom. And then what we require is they reflect on that experience in writing. And that written reflection is submitted to us to be scored. We do present to faculty a rubric for how we’re going to score that reflection. So those requirements are up front, we try to practice what we preach, as far as teaching and learning goes. Faculty submit the reflection, we have national readers that score it using the rubric, and if a faculty’s reflection isn’t quite up to our meets category, we get it back to them with specific feedback and they can resubmit. Now we finish every module with a closing summary—again, practicing what we preach, good teaching and learning—close with a summary of the learning objectives and some more commentary from the researchers.
John: A lot of our faculty have commented how they appreciate the fact that the course itself uses all the practices that are implemented—as you mentioned—and they really enjoy the skeletal outlines, they like the ability to go in and critique these demonstrations. And one of the things that we as working with our teaching center appreciate is that we’ve done workshops on many of these topics and some people have attended them two or three years in a row without actually implementing them. And what we really appreciate is the fact that now people have to get past that barrier of actually trying it in the classroom. And a lot of people who have been coming to our gatherings have said they did this for the course and now they’re doing it in every class. So it’s already making some big changes in people’s teaching practice. So it’s been working really well.
Rebecca: I think another real strength is the external reviewers is really important so that as teaching and learning center staff, we can support our colleagues and not feel like there’s some sort of punitive relationship where we’re judging.
Penny: Yeah, we are a learning organization and so actually when we first piloted a smaller number of the modules, we had the facilitators—our course facilitators, often folks from an institution’s teaching and learning center—scoring their reflections, and they were crystal clear with us that that didn’t feel right. And so we took that on, so that they could really be the coaches that we want them to be with the cohorts.
Rebecca: I think that works really well and I think that really encourages faculty to follow through and to do them and to actually take the actions in the classroom. So I think we really benefited from that particular feature.
Penny: Yeah. I know our mission has been to realize student outcomes— better retention, graduation rates, better learning— through quality instruction. And so in order to impact students, we knew faculty had to go beyond learning these evidence-based practices, but actually using them and so the requirement to complete a module became the implementing of one of the practices. And then what we know to be true in professional development is reflection is such a strong way to not only implement but actually to continue thinking about what went well, what didn’t go well, what might I refine, et cetera. That’s really putting you on the trajectory to becoming a better and better instructor.
Rebecca: I think one of the other interesting advantages of this particular online course is that a lot of our faculty may never have taken an online course but may be asked to teach online courses, so having the experience of a well designed online course is an important experience, especially as faculty move more and more into teaching online and having an idea of how to implement some of these practices, not just in face-to-face situations, but also in online or hybrid situations.
John: And we should also note that in each module, the options that people have could be either for a face-to-face class, or there’s a set of options for people who are teaching online, so it facilitates both types of instruction directly for people with different teaching schedules.
Penny: And we have actually even brought that to a more sophisticated level. So we will be offering our course in online essentials coming up in the next few months, where if we had a cohort of online instructors, they would be doing an observe and analyze about online instruction versus face-to-face so that they would really have that full experience of, “How do I do this core set of skills needed to be an effective instructor online?” So we’ve gone beyond just offering the online resources, to making sure we offer some real high quality learning experiences for them.
Rebecca: That’s great.
John: You mentioned the goal of improving instruction and improving all these outcomes. I know that there’s been some research that has been done at some campuses in terms of what sort of impact this has had. Could you tell us a little bit about what’s been found in terms of the effectiveness of this program in improving student outcomes?
Penny: Absolutely. We’re really, really proud of the work that we’ve done with regards to efficacy. And I think it’s important to recognize that when we partner with any institution, we partner to assist and support implementation. So when you partner with ACUE, we don’t say, “You can click on here and get to our courses, and good luck!” [LAUGHTER] When we partner, every institution has an academic director who will work with the campus lead—oftentimes the teaching and learning center folks as well—to design the course sequence and cadence and make sure that it makes sense for that particular group of faculty. And then in addition to assisting with implementation, we actually study efficacy. And we are very proud of multiple studies now demonstrating student impact. But I always like to indicate that the first set of data that we collected was around faculty, because as I was mentioning before, if faculty aren’t engaged with the course, faculty aren’t learning, and faculty aren’t changing their practices, then you have no hopes of seeing student impact. And we’re particularly proud of what we have with regards to faculty data across over 2,000 faculty members. Ninety-seven percent on average report that the course is relevant. On average, faculty report learning 55 new practices and learning more about 71. And then on average, faculty report implementing 28 new practices as they engage with the 25 modules and a plan to implement 28 more. So we’ve got that faculty data that says to us, “Hey, you know what, you’ll likely have student impact data,” because again, all of the practices in the course are evidence based, they’re already research based. And we’re, again, really proud to share some of the findings we have at Delta State, we have a study where we were able to show an increase in A’s, B’s and C’s, and a decrease in DFW’s. At Miami Dade College, we were able to show an all of these results are statistically significant. In fact, I invite anyone to go on our website, look at the impact page, if they’re particularly interested in the statistical analyses. At Miami Dade, we saw increased student engagement, comparing faculty to themselves before and after they engaged in the course as well as to a matched cohort. We saw an increase in grades. At Texas Women’s University we saw an elimination of course completion gap, a rracial course completion gap. And at Broward, we actually gave students surveys where they indicated that they had engaged regularly in evidence-based teaching practices. And we’ve got a number of studies currently going on so we have been able to show and realize the student level impact that you might expect as faculty start to regularly use evidence-based teaching practices. It’s really, pretty quite amazing.
John: How many schools have participated in this program?
Penny: So currently, we are partnering with over 100 colleges and universities across 37 states. And again, as we partner with any university, we work with them to design the course offering for that particular set of faculty at that particular institution.
John: We appreciated the fact that since we started in late January that the structure was able to accommodate teaching schedules of our faculty, so that people were doing things that were relevant at that portion of the year.
Penny: Yeah, I am particularly proud of the fact that this is not just some lockstep set of courses we ask you to follow, but rather thoughtfully sequenced, dependent on when faculty are starting to engage in the course, and we sequence in a way so that faculty pretty early on—as they implement in their classrooms—start to have some positive feedback from students because that itself is pretty motivating.
Rebecca: Yeah, I think one thing to point out is that we often think about when you teach someone how to teach, you start with the syllabus or you start at the beginning, and we started in the middle, because we were in the middle of the semester, and it made perfect sense for our faculty. I think that it was really effective and I think that the faculty really appreciated that they were able to do stuff right away and not plan things for a semester out.
Penny: Yeah, what we found essentially is as much as I love to think about learning outcomes, and aligning my assessments and aligning my activities, that’s not what everybody enjoys doing. And it’s best to put that towards the end of a sequence. So that faculty really can utilize practices that connect with their students, motivate their students, really embrace the diversity in their classroom, and have those kinds of interactions and then get to, “Okay, so how do I structure this? How do I write a learning outcome that really helps students learn more? How do I make sure my assessments are aligned,” et cetera. That’s work that’s best after they’ve had some of those other experiences.
John: And after the toolkits have been developed, so they have activities they can plug into those learning objectives.
Penny: I do think that when an institution feels like, “Gosh, we need to do something about courses,” they’ll often go to course design as their strategy and leave out the how the course is taught all together and just think the redesign is going to do it, but it really is the combination.
Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?
John: For either you or ACUE?
Penny: For both me and ACUE—I’m happy to say—as I described before, we’re a learning organization. So we are constantly listening to our partners, seeing what’s happening in higher ed where we think we might be able to have some positive impact. But one of the key areas—no surprise—is continuing education. So, we’re helping faculty have this strong foundation, but we know it takes a lifetime to become an effective instructor. And so we want to support faculty in continuing to build on that strong foundation. As well as looking at what are some other areas in higher education where we might be able to offer some courses and some learning that would assist with, again, realizing student success.
John: We’ve really enjoyed talking to you and we’re really enjoying the program here.
Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much for joining us today.
Penny: I’m so happy that folks are enjoying the program. When we hear from faculty and we hear the kinds of appreciation and even as they talk about how their students are more engaged or learning at deeper levels, there’s simply nothing better than that, and so we’re excited to be working with you folks and with folks across the country.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.
John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.
Most students arrive at college with serious misconceptions about effective learning strategies. In this episode, Dr. Linda Nilson joins us to examine what we as faculty can do to help students develop their metacognitive skills and become self-regulated learners.
Dr. Nilson is the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She is the author of many superb books, book chapters, and articles on teaching and learning. In this episode we focus on discussing one of her books: Creating Self-regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-awareness and Learning Skills.
- Linda Nilson—Director Emeritus of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation (OTEI) at Clemson University
- Nilson, L. (2013). Creating Self-regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-awareness and Learning Skills. Stylus Publishing, LLC..
- Nilson, L. (2014). Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
- Professional and Organizational Development (POD)—Network in Higher Education Conference
Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1121.
This transcript has been edited to improve readability.
Rebecca: Most students arrive at college with serious misconceptions about effective learning strategies. In this episode, we examine what we as faculty can do to help students develop their metacognitive skills and become self-regulated learners.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
John: Today our guest is Dr. Linda Nilson, the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. Dr. Nilson is the author of many superb books, book chapters, and articles on teaching and learning. Welcome.
Linda: I’m very honored to be here. Thank you.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are…
John: Are you drinking any tea?
Linda: Yes, I am drinking tea. I am drinking Lemon Lift.
Rebecca: Oh that sounds like a great way to start the day.
Linda: It is. It’s a very good way. Well, I also started it with coffee, but… [LAUGHTER]
John: And I’m drinking Ginger Peach Black tea.
Rebecca: And I have my Golden Monkey tea today.
John: We’ve invited you here today to talk about your book, Creating Self-regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-Awareness and Learning Skills. Could you define what it means to be a self-regulated learner?
Linda: Yes. Self-regulated learning is the conscious planning, monitoring, and evaluation of one’s learning for the purpose of maximizing it. That’s a very fancy way of putting it. It’s that voice in your head that asks you questions about your learning as you’re involved in some sort of learning task, questions like, “Okay, I’m going to do a reading now, what strategy works best for me?” Now you just might brush over that because you’ve done readings of this type a dozen times, a hundred times, whatever, but you’ve asked yourself that question along the way. “What’s my best strategy? What kind of a task is this? And monitoring: are my strategies working for me? Am I getting it? Can I paraphrase the last couple of paragraphs that I just read?” It’s a reading thing, but it works also in lecture. And then at the end, you evaluate yourself. “Well, let’s see. I had a goal, being able to recite five main points from this chapter, let’s see if I can do it,” without looking at the chapter of course. [LAUGHTER] So you evaluate your abilities, you evaluate your strategies. That’s really what it’s all about and it involves a great deal of talking to yourself.
Rebecca: So how did you get interested in talking to yourself? [LAUGHTER]
Linda: Well, I heard voices. [LAUGHTER] Well, how did I get interested in this topic? Actually, it was an accounting professor at Clemson that got me interested in it. This is 2007, right, this is a long time ago. And so she said to me, “What about giving a workshop on self-regulated learning?” In my head I said, “Huh? What’s that?” I’d never heard of it. And so I decided to go find out about it and it took me a few years to really get a workshop together on it and I decided, “Gosh, this is wonderful. This is learning how to learn. This is familiar to me,” because I’ve been talking to myself for years. [LAUGHTER] So I thought, “Okay, I’m not crazy. This is a learning strategy, a major learning strategy, one that you can use throughout your life.” And so I gave the workshop, I started giving workshops, like at the POD Network Conference—which is made up by people like me who go to this conference every year—and then I decided—well, I didn’t decide—a book publisher came up to me and said, “Please write a book on this, I will publish it.” Since I was in love with the topic anyway, I decided to do it. And so I did and delved into it deeply.
John: As you’ve described it, it sounds like part of this deals with improving student metacognition, but you note that it goes a bit further. Could you talk about the additional aspects of it?
Linda: Metacognition is the cognitive part of self-regulated learning, which is a major part of it. However, there are a couple of other elements to it that I don’t know that you could say are really focused on cognition. There is the emotional element to it, which involves getting yourself to be motivated and interested in the topic. Remembering, reviewing what your professor told you about the relevance of this topic, and thinking about it yourself. We can motivate ourselves, we can reframe a task for ourselves, and we can certainly reframe what is going on in terms of a learning experience. That’s a major, major part of it. The emotional part of the end is: “If you didn’t reach your goal, what do you do about it?” Do you give up, walk away, and say, “Well, I wasn’t born to do engineering,” or whatever the topic is. No, what you should say is, “Let’s try another strategy. Let’s look into possible strategies.” As instructors, we need to familiarize students with various strategies because they come to us—I like the phrase—“as feral children” in terms of the life of the mind and what they know about learning. We don’t have cognitive psychologists—unfortunately—teaching first grade or fifth grade, and so we need to equip them with how their mind works. There is one other element, a physical element, and that involves planning, monitoring, and evaluating your physical setting, where do you study best. If doing a reading or writing assignment, is it in a coffee shop, or do you have to essentially be in a soundproof booth where you don’t have any stimulation? How much coffee should you have? Or tea? [LAUGHTER] What kind of an environment should you set up for yourself—perhaps putting your digital distractions in another room. How should you schedule your breaks? Other things that you might want to consider is the amount of sleep that you have had because that can be a very important element of learning and writing. Some people study better to mild background noises as long as they are familiar music they’ve never heard before. You’ve got to try out these different things and find out your best setting.
John: In your book you describe how you became a self-regulated learner. Could you relay that story?
Linda: Yes, it was based on fear and terror. [LAUGHTER] As a child, I went to a private Catholic girls school—great education, but not in the sweetest of ways. From about fifth grade on, we had what was called recitation every single day in English and history classes. The nuns would ask a question and would randomly call out students’ names—we were in small classes so it wasn’t an absurd thing—and we had to get up and we’d better have the answer to the question. Now, not all the kids did, but I needed to be Little Miss Perfect because I wanted to get into college. Somehow I thought that the answers that I gave in fifth and sixth and seventh and eighth grade would or would not get me into college. So I learned to quiz myself while I was reading chapters or essays. Constantly quizzing myself. And another thing we had to do, usually later in the day, was called “exercise period.” We had 35 minutes to write an answer to an essay question that was generally related to the readings. And we couldn’t look at our books. It was out of desperation that I was trying different strategies so I could perform very well every day, and I was really quite successful. So when I was reading about self-regulated learning, I said, “My God, I was doing this as a child.” That’s why it sounded so familiar to me.
John: But that’s not the experience I think that the students we have entering our colleges have.
Linda: You are so right. You are so right. And we don’t do this to children anymore, okay? There is a good side to it—there really is—because you do buckle under and get very serious about your homework, very serious about your studies, or you look like an idiot the next day. Anyway, the sport I’m trying to think of is that sport where you get the ice or any kind of ice particles out of the way.…
Linda: Curling! Curling, yes, we are curling teachers and curling parents. We try to clear the way for our students. We don’t want to put them in stressful situations. We don’t want to ask Johnny to read if Johnny might not be able to read—and I mean, get up and read well—and the problem with this is that students are denied the opportunity for achievement. And there is no achievement without the possibility of failure, there just isn’t. So students have no idea what fear and terror in school might be. There’s bullying and all that, but I mean from the learning experience. So no, they don’t have any kind of the experiences that I had.
Rebecca: How do we start coaching students then to become self-regulated learners if they’re coming out of this really different environment that’s much more supportive and doesn’t allow for failure seemingly?
Linda: They start failing in college. We’re still sort of, you know, curling them a little bit, but they are really facing a much greater challenge. They get insecure really quickly because they’ve been told how special they are and how smart they are, and then they begin to question that, because they’re not doing as well as they were in high school, where you could get an A relatively easily. Now, “Oh my, it can be really hard,” and then they start getting C’s, and then you have their attention. That’s a way that you can tell them that, “There are ways that you can get A’s, you did not learn how to study, here is a way to learn.” Does it involves a sort of effort? Sure, but it’s really just talking to yourself and deciding what strategies would be best for you, testing out strategies, seeing how they work, and you will be more successful. And there have been studies of students—like in developmental courses—that show that the students who are struggling the most tend to know the least about self-regulated learning strategies and start to do better if they use these strategies.Of course we’ve got to get them to use the strategies, we’ve got to explain these strategies. It can be life changing for them in the most positive way.
John: I think part of the issue is that faculty generally haven’t been taught these strategies themselves. They somehow found ways to be successful, so they become self-regulated learners, but faculty are the exceptions. They’re not the typical student, and they’ve never really been trained to teach students how to become more effective learners, in part because they never learned that directly themselves quite often. What can faculty do to be more effective in this way?
Linda: Well first of all, faculty have to realize that they’re the weird ones, and everybody else is normal. [LAUGHTER] So we have to stop projecting our learning abilities, our strategies, our interests in the life of the mind onto everybody else. We have to not only sell our material, but we have to equip students to learn our material. We don’t want to do that. We say, “They should know by now.” Well, guess what? They don’t. So what are you going to do about it? You’ve got to start from where they are. Teaching students learning strategies takes a couple of sentences every class. Now, if you really want to get into self-regulated learning activities and assignments with them, that might take a few minutes per class period, but you don’t have to do it every class period, and a lot of self-regulated learning activities can be homework, in which case they take no class time at all. This is so easy to do. This is why I think faculty have really been attracted to my book and why I’m asked to speak on it so often, because there are so many little things you can do that don’t take away from the content at all—rather, they reinforce the content—that make this huge difference in the performance of most students. You can’t always bring everybody along with you. There are some people—some students—who’d just as soon shoot themselves in their foot, but most do not. They find these activities so easy to do. They don’t take a lot of time and they get to know themselves and start doing better, so students don’t complain about this.
Rebecca: Can you describe what a couple of those activities might be?
Linda: Sure, absolutely. Well, let’s consider the different parts of the course and I’ll just give you just a few, some of my personal favorites. For starting a course for instance—starting and you can also end it with these sorts of activities—but one of them is a goal setting activity. You can assign this as homework, you can have students do it in class with students write on “How I earned an A in this course.” Now, you would be surprised and students will be surprised—C students and B students will be surprised—that they know what it takes to earn an A in a course, and they will come up with, “Well, I’ve got to come to class every day, don’t I? And in class I can’t fiddle around with my mobile device, and I have to start a paper sort of early and I have to keep up with the readings.” For many people, writing this down is goal setting for them. They think, “Well, you know, maybe I could do this, maybe this isn’t so absurd.” If you make a discussion out of it afterwards, the A students will say, “Yeah, I do these things, it’s not unrealistic.” And then the C and B and F students will say, “Well, let’s give it a whirl.” Then at the end of the course, you give them another little essay assignment, “How I earned an A in this course—or not.” [LAUGHTER] True confessions time, right? And so students assess how well they met their goals. Goal setting is definitely a part of self-regulated learning, the planning and then self-evaluation at the end. Another thing that you can do is you can give your students essay questions. If you give an essay final—or have any essays on it at all—you can give them the essays on the final to take the first day. This will not take much class time at all, because students will know very little, or they’ll try to BS an answer. So they will try but they can be really quite wrong. Now at the end, for the final, they correct their answers, and then rewrite these answers given the knowledge that they have gained throughout the course. This can be really interesting for faculty—for not just faculty… well, it can be interesting for them, too—because they can see exactly what they learned. So it is a measure of learning. Faculty will never get that comment on the student evaluations saying, “Well, I didn’t learn anything in this course.” Never again, that’s gone. So anyway, those are a couple of things that you can do. Little assignments you can make on the readings. Little reflection exercises like, “What did you think was the most important point in this reading? What surprised you the most? What connections can you make between what you read and your prior knowledge, what you already know? Or to your life? Or your emotional reactions to it, if the material is amenable to that?” So those are little reflections you can give on the readings. Another exercise, a self-testing exercise, is called “read, recall, review.” This is the best way to do reading. Forget about rereading, that’s what students really do… It’s really a waste of time. What students should do is to read a portion of the chapter or the whole chapter, put their notes away, close the book, and then recall as much as they can and write it down. Then they should go back and look in the chapter for what they forgot and what they might have gummed up. And they know that, “I didn’t really get that point.” And so they go back and look at it, and then they recall again. Read, recall, review. Studies that have been done on this showing it is so much more effective than rereading. It really doesn’t take that long, and then you actually have the material in your head, even in your long-term memory. You get retrieval practice, you get deliberate practice, so there’s nothing as good as testing yourself except—well, the nicest thing we can do for students is to test them. In lectures—I should say mini-lectures—it’s a good idea to have students do this. You stop, let’s say, every 15 minutes or so and have students do the same thing. Write down everything that they can recall, and then work with their neighbor to fill in the blanks—their own blanks—and ask any questions they have. First they ask their neighbor their questions, and then they ask you. This doesn’t take very long at all, maybe five minutes, but then you know that the students got it and can remember it. Again, most effective… studies done on this, too. So this makes students aware of their learning or their lack of learning. You can give students what are called active learning checks. You give your mini-lecture, and then you stop—and by the way, you can warn students you’re going to do this so they’re listening—and ask them, “Okay, what are the three major points in my last mini-lecture that I talked about in the last 15 minutes?” Then they write those things down—and it could be two things or four things depending—and turn them in. They don’t really have to turn them in, but you know, you might want to see them yourself. Then you reveal the three most important points, and they monitor and evaluate their learning skills. Now, students are motivated to want to learn how to listen to you, so they want to improve. According to a study that was done, they improve really quickly. The first time, 45 percent of students got all three points correct. By the third time, 75 percent of the students got these correct. Remarkable progress, really remarkable. Then there are meta-assignments. In a problem solving field like chemistry or math, we are denying students learning opportunities when all we do is mark the wrong answers as wrong or incomplete and then drop the subject. Students should be able to correct their mistakes to get half the points back, let’s say. In other words, they’re going to learn how to solve that problem if it’s the last thing they do. [LAUGHTER] Again, you give them some sort of an incentive, then they learn. There have been studies on this technique as well. It’s extremely effective. And students can learn not just from you, but in peer groups. Peers can help each other very effectively. There is a wrapper—they’re called “wrappers”—for an exam, a reflection that students do after they get their exams back where they answer questions like, “How did your expected grade compare with your actual grade? How do you feel about that?” So they have to look at the exam and your feedback. “How many hours did you study? Was that enough? What did you do while studying? Might you want to change your strategies? Why did you lose points? Were there any patterns that you see here? How are you going to study more effectively for the next exam?” This has been life changing for students because they’ve never thought about this before. They’ve never really looked at their exams, their mistakes. They drop them too, right? They don’t want to see what they did wrong. Yet these are the best learning opportunities possible, and they will remember them. We remember our mistakes, we learn from our mistakes, and it’s sad that we don’t stop and use those errors. These are just a small sample of self-regulated learning activities. I can give you many more. [LAUGHTER]
John: And there are many in the book, which we strongly recommend to people.
Linda: Yes, yes, yeah…
Rebecca: A lot of what you’re talking about seems tied to growth mindset as well.
Linda: Exactly, and this creates, this generates the growth mindset because students learn that they can learn, they can do better. Otherwise they feel like their learning is like the weather. “Maybe it’ll rain on me, and maybe not. [LAUGHTER] There’s really nothing I can do about it. Because it’s all about you, professor, you are responsible for my learning, just like the fates are responsible for the weather. [LAUGHTER] And if I’m not learning, you’re not a good instructor, or you’re pitching the material over my head, or your teaching strategies are wrong.” And so everybody else gets blamed, and then they start to realize, “Oh, I can do this.” Now, this isn’t the best news for them in the world because then they have to start taking responsibility for their learning. And that can be, for some students, a hard pill to swallow. For other students it will be very empowering, and what we want to encourage in students is that sense of empowerment.
John: And that’s especially important, I think, in freshman-level classes, because students generally don’t come in with that type of mindset. They’ve often been able to blame it on the teacher and do things over and over again until they get the grade they want or get the extensions and so forth with a focus on self-esteem in many classrooms.
Linda: Oh, yeah, self-esteem without achievement.
John: But it’s an adjustment. So if they come in with a fixed mindset, and they’re confronted with failure, it’s pretty easy to give up. So we need to encourage students, I think, to see failure as a learning opportunity as you’ve mentioned. As instructors, I think we have to somehow convince them of that, because they don’t come in naturally picking it up, but the techniques you’ve mentioned are very good for that.
Linda: You know, our whole society makes them feel they’re not responsible for their learning. Look at what happens in K-12. Students have to take standardized tests and if they don’t do well, who gets blamed and who suffers? The teacher and the school, and that’s nuts. In the final analysis, we teach ourselves. We are responsible for our own learning. Good teaching can make a big difference because we can be motivated or unmotivated by teaching. We can acquire learning strategies through teaching. So it’s not that students are just left adrift on their own, we do have to help them. We do have to put them in learning experiences where learning becomes attractive for them, or you can’t help but learn, right? But they’ve got to pick up that learning and run with it themselves.
Rebecca: So you mentioned the idea of encouraging students to see learning and the self-regulation as empowering. What about those students who are a little resistant to that because it’s surprising to them that they’re not getting it and they’re failing and that it’s going to be more work? What are some things that we can do to encourage those students to see things a little differently?
Linda: Yes, first of all, if they’re failing and they subconsciously want to—it happens, it really does —[LAUGHTER] there is not a whole lot you can do about it. They might need some counseling and they might need to get some help from professionals like psychologists. But again, it can be difficult for students to realize that the ball is in their court because it’s a whole different gestalt for them. The only cure for that is success—a little bit of success—where they start doing a little better, let’s say, on the quiz on the readings or they start being able to solve more problems. That’s really the only cure. And we are assuming that they want to be successful. Again, if they prefer failure, then they are responsible for their own failure.
Rebecca: Right, they’re the ones that are normal and we are not, right? [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Maybe that should be the refrain of this interview, right?
Linda: Yes. They are the normal ones and we are strange. And we always have been strange. We were the strange kids in school, too. [LAUGHTER]
John: In your book you mentioned the Dunning-Kruger effect as being a barrier to some students, that the students who don’t understand things as well often overestimate their understanding. How can we overcome that?
Linda: Self-regulated learning helps when we give them activities and assignments where they do self-evaluation, because the only way to learn self-evaluation is through practice, practice with feedback. And that feedback doesn’t even have to come from you; it can come from peers or a computer program. We don’t give students a lot of practice in self-evaluation, and they certainly haven’t had much of it in K-12l. But the nice thing is that when we have students look back to see if they met their goals, or to evaluate their study strategies, or to assess their mistakes and the reasons for their mistakes, it makes all the difference in the world. After low-stakes practice, you can introduce higher stakes self-evaluation assignments and see more savvy self-evaluations.
John: What recommendations do you have for faculty who’d like to start building more self-regulation? Are there small steps that faculty could take to get started on this path?
Linda: Absolutely. There’s a sense in which most of the assignments, most of the activities, are little things. Here’s a little thing you can start off the course with, I was talking about essay questions, but you can just have students do a little reflection the first day and then again on the last day about the subject matter, as in, “What do you think chemistry is? Why is it a science?” You can find out a lot about students’ misconceptions just by looking at these reflections. And then of course, they’ve hopefully corrected a lot of misconceptions by the end. This could take like all of five minutes the first day. There’s so many little things. Here are some ideas for experiential learning. It’s so easy for students not to make a connection between a simulation, an interesting role play, a service-learning experience, or field work to the course. So it’s important that whenever you do an experiential assignment or activity, students reflect on what they are learning—for a simulation, to look back and explain what their goals were, to evaluate how well they met their goals, to assess their strategies, to explain how their strategies changed and their responses to other players. It’s very important that students become conscious of what’s going on in their heads. Only by becoming conscious can they remember the strategies? [LAUGHTER] And then they can write them down and articulate them. You can have students do short papers associated with papers and projects where they record, while they are doing it, the process they are following. If you’ve given them a process to follow, they even have a skeletal outline of what they should be doing. This is a place also for self-evaluation. If you have students do a revision, oftentimes you give them feedback on what they should revise, and they may or may not read your advice. So you can have them paraphrase your feedback back to them and write out their goals for the revision. What are they going to do? What are their strategies for revision? These are just little things. Students start to realize the value of this. And again, this is an assignment where you can’t screw up. It’s not a test, it’s just a reflection of what’s going on in your head. Students like to learn about themselves. And this is like the reading reflections. This is no stress. How do you mess this up? It takes less stress to just write an honest answer than it is to make one up that sounds credible. [LAUGHTER] I want to make faculty aware that the activities don’t have to be graded at all. The assignments don’t really have to be graded. You “grade” them pass-fail. Students pass just by completing the assignment. Let’s say, you had them answering three questions, three reflections. Did they answer three reflections? Is it vaguely on the chapter? Okay it’s not about football, it’s something about what’s in the chapter. [LAUGHTER] And did they meet the length requirement? It’s always a good idea to give length requirements on these reflections because for students, length means depth. So if you ask them to write a minimum of 150 words, you know, they’ll tend to do that. Those who don’t fail.You don’t count every word that students write. You eyeball the reflection. Essentially you are “grading” pass-fail at a glance. It doesn’t take much time. Plus, it gets students to do the readings in the easiest way and most productive way for them. It’s all about them, and it’s not about us. We just have to hold them accountable in some very quick way. Even the longer assignments that you might associate with a paper or project can be graded pass-fail. You have to make them worth some points if you’re still on a point system. But there are alternatives, that’s what specifications grading is all about. You don’t have to use points. In any case, you do have to at least eyeball the reflections and give some value in your course however you are grading. That communicates to students that this is important to you, that you put value on this meta-assignment or assignment wrapper, as you might call it. The same thing with the post-exam wrapper, these reflections on this exam. You make students do it because it’s worth 10 points if they simply complete it and hand it in—even though it’s for them—and they will realize right away that there is some value to this. Again, for some students, it will be life changing in the most positive way. And they will start to realize the way that they’ve been preparing for or taking exams may not be the best. They will realize what they tend to do when they’re taking an exam, such as to misread the question, or to be careless, or to not budget their time, or to not really thoroughly study all the material. Cramming is not very effective. You don’t have to spend time grading these exercises or giving any feedback at all. They can give themselves their own feedback. If they did it and they get the 10 points, okay, that’s plenty of feedback for them. They did it. You regard it as their meeting the requirements of the assignment.
John: And this is a topic you cover in another book on specifications grading, which is also another book we’d like to recommend. We’ll include a link to both of those on the show notes.
Linda: The title of the book is Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students—it’s been found to be motivating—and Saving Faculty Time, saving you time. If there’s one thing we don’t have, it’s time. Time is really more precious to us than money. Otherwise, we’d be working in some venture capital firm or something. [LAUGHTER] But time is really quite a precious thing for us. So, in terms of these sort of assignments, for self-regulated learning assignments, they’re all what we’d call “specs graded.” You set out the specs, they’re very simple, and you just grade them pass-fail.
Rebecca: I think pointing out how it doesn’t have to be complicated for faculty is important because I think we all want students to learn. We all want them to be self-regulated learners.
John: We all want to give students feedback, but we don’t want to make it impossible for us to keep up with our work.
Rebecca: Yeah. Or feedback that’s going to get ignored anyways.
Linda: You’re worried about students reading the feedback, and our feedback is valuable. We’ve given it, we’ve taken the time, and so you make them paraphrase it back to you. And this could be a learning experience for us because we might be “misread.” Students might not understand something that we’ve said. Awkward—that’s my favorite one—a sentence structure is awkward. What does that mean? That student didn’t set out to write an awkward sentence. That in itself will not help them because they don’t know what you’re talking about, and this is most unfortunate. But again, it’s a learning experience for us and we can learn to express ourselves somewhat differently. Too often, students get back a paper from us and look at the grade, read the paragraph at the end of the paper, and put it in their “circular file.” They dump it. They don’t read that feedback, so how are they going to get better? So paraphrasing our feedback back to us can be a very valuable exercise for them. And you can let them gain back some points for it. I just think that faculty should look at themselves as responsible for helping our students learn. They don’t come to us with those skills. We can be the finest instructor in the world, have the most interesting classes, hold their attention, and motivate them, but if they don’t know how to process that material in their own minds, it’s all for naught. Now, maybe, hopefully, seniors have learned to learn their material along the line. And by the way, there can be different learning strategies for different subject matter. There are different self-regulated learning activities and assignments for problem solving mathematically-based fields, and different ones for the social sciences and humanities. There can different kinds of assignments, different kinds of readings, actually different kinds of lectures. So we have to respect that. But we have to become conscious of study strategies, learning strategies, our strategies, and other strategies that are out there. But self-regulated learning strategies, to my mind, they’re the shortest distance between two points. Shortest distance between ignorance and learning because it’s all going on in your head, and it’s so powerful. The value of it to students becomes evident rather quickly.
Rebecca: And it’s a skill that can help through a whole lifetime, not just while they’re in college and I think helping students realize that is also really valuable.
Linda: Like no other generation before, these younger generations are going to have to learn to learn on their own. They’re going to have to keep up with their field, whatever their field is, and they might have to—will very likely have to—pivot into another field because their first field might run its course. They’re going to have to learn on their own. They aren’t going to have employers holding their hand. Not at all. They’re probably going to have to learn online, where you really are responsible for your own processing, more so than you might feel let’s say in a face-to-face class, and for your own motivating as well. There needs to be more motivation than simple fear that you will go hungry and won’t be able to get a job. [LAUGHTER] Yes, students are going to really have to learn how to learn. If they consider that a bitter pill, that’s too bad. This is reality, this is life, and most of them have not learned that life is hard. Many of them are wondering where their next meal is coming from, but a lot of students have not. Students need to learn along the line that life is not easy, that nobody does curling on their path. And they will face challenges, but if they have the strategies for facing these challenges, no problem. They needn’t be paralyzed. They needn’t freeze.
John: You foster some really good advice and I think our listeners will appreciate this and it’s really powerful.
Rebecca: Yeah, I agree. We’re all wondering, what’s next for you?
Linda: I’m actually Director Emeritus. I’m actually retired from Clemson University. But you know how academics are, [LAUGHTER] they don’t disappear, they just sort of like fade away. So I’m trying to ease into retirement because it’s not an easy thing to do? Not when you love what you’ve been doing. But I have sworn off writing books. That’s progress! [LAUGHTER] I’ve written some articles and chapters in other people’s books, so that’s fine. And I’m still traveling to give keynotes and faculty workshops. That’s hard to give up because it’s interesting to go somewhere else, somewhere new.” And I still give webinars and podcasts. But eventually I won’t be doing that anymore. Ultimately I want to work with animals. I do love animals but I’m still busy doing this and still loving doing this, but also loving just as much not having to do bureaucratic tasks for the university [LAUGHTER] and not having to stay up until two in the morning doing my email. When I’m traveling, not have to worry about, what’s going on back at the office. So I’m not complaining about retirement. I really like where I’m at right now, but I know that I will eventually fade into the sunset. That’s okay because then I’ll reinvent myself.
Rebecca: Sounds like some self-regulation was going on there, I’m pretty sure. [LAUGHTER]
Linda: Yes, I’m trying, I’m trying to retire but not too quickly.
John: Well, we’re glad you haven’t, fully yet.
Rebecca: This was really great. Thank you so much for spending some time with us today.
Linda: Well thank you for this opportunity. I hope that I have helped some faculty members out there to help them help their students to achieve more, because again, we all do want our students to learn. We’re all in love with our material, it’s worth learning, and we just have to help our students do that. So thank you ever so much, and thank all of you listeners for listening.
Rebecca: Thank you so much.
John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.
What would you do if you are scheduled to teach a class of 75 students and discover that several very expensive textbooks would be required to address the full range of course topics? In this episode, Dr. Jessica Kruger rejoins us to discuss how she responded to this challenge by working with her students to create their own textbook.
Jessica is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior at the University at Buffalo.
- SUNY CIT Conference
- Robin DeRosa
- Models and Mechanisms of Public Health
- Oakley, B., Felder, R. M., Brent, R., & Elhajj, I. (2004). Coping with hitchhikers and couch potatoes on teams. Journal of Student Centered Learning, 2(1), 32-34.
- GroupMe- IOS, Android
- SUNY Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL)
John: What would you do if you are scheduled to teach a class of 75 students and discover that several very expensive textbooks would be required to address the full range of course topics? In this episode, we talk with someone who responded to this challenge by having her students write their own textbook as they progressed through the course.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
John: Our guest today is Jessica Kruger, a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Community health and health behavior at the University at Buffalo. Welcome back, Jessica.
Jessica: Thank you. Happy to be back.
Rebecca: Today our teas are:
Jessica: Not today, but maybe a little bit later to relax, thinking about all of this stuff I need to do before the start of the semester. [LAUGHTER]
John: …and I am drinking Rose Garden Black Tea that you brought back from…
Rebecca: …Epcot. So I’m drinking the same thing. We’re having a tea trial this afternoon.
John: It’s one of the blends that they only sell at the Twining store in Epcot I believe…
Rebecca: …Yeah, and it’s a nice counterbalance to the lovely weather we have outside.
John: We have invited you here to discuss the open pedagogy project that you ran last semester in a class with 75 students. Once again, scaling things to a higher level than people normally do it. Could you tell us a little bit about that class?
Jessica: This class is a 300 level public health course. It’s titled Methods and Mechanisms in Public Health. It covers three main topics, so we start out with environmental health and then we move into information about health theories and health behavior theories and then we end with disparities. And so with this class, there was not one single book that would encapsulate all the topics. Instead of having the students buy three or more different books, I started to think, well, what else could I do?
John: The natural thing is to have them write their own book…
Jessica: Of course, why not?! I think the cost of textbooks are continuing to rise, and especially with this sort of course that specialized with these three different areas. I don’t think I would ever find a publisher that would make something quite like that. So why not write your own?
Rebecca: How did you pick the topics that were included and how did you get going on this project?
Jessica: So I actually heard about open pedagogy and writing a textbook with your students at the CIT conference that happened last year, and I was really inspired by Robin de Rosa and what she had done. And so immediately after hearing from her, I thought, “I bet I could do this.” At that time, I don’t know if I was deranged because it was the end of the semester, or maybe it was a stroke of brilliance. Probably a mix of the two. But I thought, let’s figure this out let’s see how to do this. And so, as I was looking over the syllabus and the topics, I started flipping through their textbooks, I started looking at other resources that were available and began to put the topics together and I broke it down by the weeks of the syllabus. So my students were actually writing the textbook before they learned the content. Which for them, was very scary and for me, a little bit scary too. But the great part is they actually had to go out they had to find resources, they had to put it together. And as I was building this, I created Google documents and made skeleton outlines for the chapters and that’s how they kind of got started.
John: So you created the skeletal outlines and then they fleshed it out?
Jessica: Yes, literally. The outlines were a title of the chapter, some objectives, and headings, different headings of sections. I attach some information in each Google Doc, some resources that were out by the CDC or other peer reviewed sources that I thought could be helpful. And of course, I invited them to come meet with me, especially if they have no clue what I was talking about with this topic.
John: …And within each week, did you have a subset of students work on it? Or did you divide it up among all the students? How did you arrange that?
Jessica: So in this class, my very small class of 75, which is actually my smallest class this past semester, I broke them up into groups of four to five students. They didn’t get to choose their groups, but they did get to choose their topics. As they went through and looked at it, we broke it down and said, “Okay, this group decide what is your top picks,” and they could choose. And they knew the order of the chapters, so if they wanted to get it done out of the way, they could do it at the beginning of the semester or wait till the end. And so each group worked together to make a contract, divide up the work and choose how they’re going to execute this.
Rebecca: So what worked well about that method and what didn’t work well about that method?
Jessica: Oh, students love group work. We all know that they love group work, right? If I could figure out the secret to making it go smoothly all the time, I guess I would probably be a millionaire. But nevertheless, I think there was some strategies that did work well. And the fact was, I had the maker group contract. Barbara Oakley actually has a article called “How to work with a couch potato,” and in that article it talks about how to deal with someone who’s not pulling their weight and how to create a group contract that’s actually useful. And so the students worked together with their group and talked about how they’re going to evaluate each other. I didn’t set a peer evaluation, they did, and they also broke up what they’re going to do. So as they’re creating this chapter they would all right in a different colored text. So one student was green, one student was orange, and so they can see visually what each person did. And my caveat was, if someone drops the ball, they drop the ball, you don’t have to make up their work, as long as it’s stated in the group contract, that is fine. If they don’t do the summary they don’t do this summary, your chapter doesn’t have a summary. That’s okay.
John: How did that work? Did everything get completed?
Jessica: Actually, we only had one chapter I believe that doesn’t have a summary and most everyone did their part. There’s always some squabbles back and forth. There were some groups who did really good strategizing and had someone go back through and create one voice for it, other groups didn’t. But overall it worked out quite well breaking it up that way, but also giving them that out, realizing that they didn’t have to make up something that someone else didn’t do.
Rebecca: So how did you handle chapters that weren’t fully complete and you needed the other students to read those chapters?
Jessica: I had a wonderful TA last semester, and the chapters would be due about a week before they needed to be put on to UBLearns. She would alert me to anything that was going on or anything that should be changed and I would look over the chapters. And then I would bring in some other content or modify it. But overall they actually did a really great job of putting this together and finding sources…
John: …you mentioned UBLearns…
Jessica: …UBLearns is actually our Blackboard learning management system. So they would offer it in Google Docs, and then I would take that and create it so that they could comment on it, but not actually edit it. And this allowed them to get feedback from their peers, which we plan to preserve the feedback for the next time is classes taught, so this book is a living continuing iteration.
Rebecca: So as the students were reading the chapters as assigned reading, is that when they were providing the comments and the feedback?
Jessica:Yes, they would go through and we had some very astute grammar students that would go and pick commas, and also asked for more explanation, which was excellent. I could actually use that in my teaching to talk further about areas where I could tell that students needed more help.
John: Did the original writers go back and fill in some of the gaps at that point?
Jessica: Sometimes they did, but for the most part, we left it as is. We used version one and the plan is for the students who take this class next to take those comments, continue adding, continue changing, and revamp the book. So there’ll be multiple versions for each semester that it’s taught.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how you handled copyright and giving credit where credit is due for each of these chapters and how you might handle that in future iterations?
Jessica: Overall the class work together to figure out their creative commons license, and what they chose was a CC BY-NC-SA. Which means, people must attribute and give credit, it’s non-commercial and it’s share alike. We talked about this as a group, we learned about copyright and they all actually signed a contract as if they were publishers, as they are. We discussed how to attribute content, some chapters did it one way some chapters did it another way. So you’ll see in tech citations in some areas and and others you’ll see, “this was modified from the CDC website at this location.” And so some of it was actually openly sourced information that was reused. Now, this is their first time writing a textbook, so can I stand behind that everything is completely cited perfectly? Absolutely not. But they did a good faith effort to make sure that their information was cited properly.
John: …and there is a little note at the bottom of each page listing sources and saying that, to the best of our knowledge, this is not subject to copyright. If you find anything that appears to violate it, please notify us. So there is a procedure for addressing that stated on each page, I believe?
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how the groups decided to evaluate each other?
Jessica: Yeah, I think group evaluation and teamwork is such a challenge. I myself, despised group work as a student, and as a faculty member sometimes I’m like, “Ah, I know they need to work with others, but…” But really having them create their own contracts and having them evaluate each other on their own terms, so some groups decided that “we will do everything perfect and we will come to every meeting.” No, that’s not a group contract. That’s not something that you can actually achieve. But what you can achieve is open communication, and so most of the groups actually used GroupMe or other tech tools to stay in contact, they would set up meetings sometimes before after class. They would also work on the Google Doc in tandem, you can actually see when someone else is working on a Google doc and point out different sources to each other and discuss how they’re going to put it together. And so that allowed them to evaluate each other and most students gave each other pretty high marks in peer review. And I don’t know if that’s because they all like each other and they’ve all been in multiple classes together, or if it’s actually how they feel that this came together. But overall, it happened, it got done and so I do think they work together pretty well. Some groups obviously better than others depending on their strategy, but having them create the contract I think is the important aspect that I found
John: And you were able to monitor that by seeing the colors of the contributions?
Jessica: Yes. So I had them color code their contributions and if they didn’t color code because someone was an editor or whatnot, they would note that so they knew what each person was doing. And then before I would send it out to the class, I would take out all those colors and do some type editing. But overall, each of them were contributing and most of the students in the class are juniors and seniors, so they’re upper level students.
Rebecca: Did you have students evaluate each other at the end of their contribution, or at the end of the semester?
Jessica: It was at the end of their contribution, and it’s fascinating because I asked them during that process, not only to evaluate themselves, but to evaluate this project. And it’s fascinating because as I’m going through it, I’m looking at it and asking them, “Do you think other classes should do something like this?” And about 50% said no, at that time. I was like, “Oh my goodness. Is this going to fail? What’s happening? Why do they despise this so much.?” But, at the end when we did an overall evaluation, it was actually overwhelmingly positive, it was all positive about the whole project. So it just goes to show you that as you’re in the thick of something, you may see it as challenging, overwhelming, but in the end, when you see that final product, when you see that 19th chapter for 200 page book that you’ve created with your fellow students, that’s powerful.
Rebecca: You ended up getting your book printed and copies distributed to each of your contributing students. How did you pull that off during the semester you were writing it?
Jessica: Very carefully. I worked very closely with my TA and I spent countless hours editing and making sure pagination was correct. I think in the end I probably put in a whole work week just getting that together and working with the university printing service. I sent it in, it was excellent. I’ve never printed a book before not knowing how to do anything like that, and thankfully our university had some funding to allow me to print books for all of the students. And to see their faces when they got that book, was just outstanding. I actually created a celebration and so I invited the Director of the program, the Dean, the Chairs, and even people from OER Services at SUNY. And the students walked into a cake and people clapping for them, and then I reveal the printed book.
Rebecca: So you had to have had the book finished multiple weeks before the end of the semester to make that happen?
Jessica: Well, I was hoping to have it finished sooner. But you know, life happens, and so they actually got it on the day of their final and their first question is after it’s revealed is, “Do we still have to take a final?” In fact, they did, but it turned out alright. So it was the day of their final which was a week after the end of the semester. But it all turned out fine, everyone was happy, and they got to eat cake.
John: What proportion of their grade was based on this collaborative work?
Jessica: It was actually about 10% of their grade… [LAUGHTER]
John: [LAUGHTER]… low stakes assignment, relatively, for writing a book.
Jessica: It was very low stakes, which, as you choke on your tea, I couldn’t believe that they would do it for 10% of their grade. But in fact, when you take all of these small pieces of writing and put them together, it actually wasn’t a huge whole. When you have 75 people writing a little bit at a time, they got into it when they had to do it but when they were done, they were done. So it was actually just a small percentage of what they had to do. I like to use non-traditional teaching techniques and experiential learning, and so this class also took a field trip and did a lot of other exciting teaching techniques. So this book was something that was a small percentage of their grade.
John: [LAUGHTER] That’s impressive.
Rebecca: How much time do you think each student actually spent on the writing that they contributed?
Jessica: I would speculate a few hours. They were writing in chapters and I didn’t give them page limits, which was interesting because most groups wrote about six pages on average. But then you had some groups write more and they were allowed to put pictures and videos and diagrams because some of these are models. So some of the chapters were far longer and some students are more lengthy writers, some are more succinct. And so it just depended on the group and what topic it was.
Rebecca: Did they also have to present their chapter?
Jessica: They don’t have to present their chapter but they did have to read the chapters. The whole test was based on the book and the presentations that I gave during class on the content.
Rebecca: What advice do you have for other people who might want to take on such an adventure?
Jessica: [LAUGHTER] Ah man… [LAUGHTER] I think you should do what sparks your interest and you should really follow your passion and if this is what you want to do, proceed with caution, but dive in. That seems to be my approach to a lot of these quote unquote weird pedagogical techniques that I like to use. But this was really a joy. It was a lot of work so much work, not only to set it up and get it ready, and then convince students to do it for only 10% of their grade. If you would have seen their faces but, I said, “Hey, guys, guess what? We’re going to write a textbook.” They all looked at me like I was insane. And so did my colleagues. [LAUGHTER]
John: [LAUGHTER] That was gonna be another question. Has anyone there considered following up with this and doing something similar on their own?
Jessica: I have not had anyone take me up on that. I’ve had a few people asked me, “Do you think others should do this?” And my answer is usually, “You should think about it.” It’s a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding the students get so much out of it. For my evaluations, the students not only said that this helps them learn the content better than a traditional textbook, because it was written by other students, but it also helped build their confidence. They were writing a book, and now they can put that on their vitae, and all the students were so excited because they’re going to take it home to their parents and show them what they’ve done in class. They also talked about just that it was new and novel and how that makes them excited about it. But it depends how much time you have, how patient you are, and what the topic area really is.
Rebecca: When you go to do a revision next time you teach the class, do you expect your time costs to be the same, or do you expect it to be a bit different now that you have a structure?
Jessica: I think now that I have a process and understand how much time it’s going to take versus saying, “This will be fine. It’ll work out well,” I think it will take a little bit less time. But I think with that you also have to get students buy-in, because it’s not completely new, it’s something else is someone has created. And sometimes that’s more challenging to add to it, to modify it to make it better. But I think it’s a good exercise in teaching students the importance of revision and adding to something and building it.
John: Did any students object to having the work being posted publicly, or were they all happy with that?
Jessica: They were actually really excited. When we first were doing that hey said, “So where is this going to go?” I said, “Well, it’s going to be public. Everyone’s going to be able to read this.” And they looked at me, and at that time I don’t think they really understood what open source was, completely being on a website in the Lumen platform, being able to see this content. But once it was printed in a book, they said, “Well, where does it go next? Are we going to print more of these is in the library?” I said, “Well you just wait.” And then I was able to send them the URL, thanks to the SUNY OER Services who put it together, so that the students can now show it to their friends and post it digitally and share it.
Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] What kind of kool-aid did you hand out the day you’re talking about this assignment? [LAUGHTER]
Jessica: [LAUGHTER] Well, I should mention that all of these students were actually students that I’ve had previously and I think having that level of trust and understanding that, “you never know what’s going to happen and Dr cougars class, just be ready to roll with it.” I don’t think I could have done that with students that I haven’t had for multiple semesters. So that trust and rapport was really important and saying, “You can do this, I believe in you. Let’s do this together.” I think without that, this would have been more challenging and students would have said, “Who cares about that 10%, I’m out.” But in this case, they understood and they followed along and they were happy to do it. It was something of a challenge. I think some of the comments in which students told me about this, were just amazing. One of the students said that they generally felt this was a great experience and a wonderful opportunity and that experiences like going on field trips and writing a textbook was exciting, and made me feel like a kid again in elementary school. It makes me more motivated and looking forward to learning experiences. So I think having novel experiences and having something that’s new but also exciting and exhilarating and gosh, a little challenging, is good for the students.
John: …and they’re actually creating something themselves, which by itself should be a little bit more motivating than passively consuming a textbook that someone else created.
Rebecca: I think the report that you mentioned earlier is important too. I think that’s an interesting component to this particular project that some people might not realize how important that that can be. But having that little bit of trust to go on a bigger adventure, then maybe they’d be willing to otherwise, I think is key, but something that we all can be thinking about.
Jessica: Oh yeah, I think it’s so important to make connections with your students and people do it in many different ways. I’m usually known as being (taryn?? 22:00), that shameful word in academia. But in fact, I think it’s so important and that’s how I can get so much buy-in from students and get them to join me in these learning adventures that we tend to go on.
John: We do have a note to ask you again, to come back at some point and talk about the field trip, things that you do with these large groups of students as well. But I think maybe we should leave that for a future podcast, if you’re willing?
Jessica: Excellent. Sounds great. I love being on the show.
Rebecca: I don’t know if I dare ask our final question. But we always wrap up by asking what’s next? [LAUGHTER]
Jessica: [LAUGHTER] What’s next? Well, this semester I vowed to focus and more self care and I’m actually teaching a new course called Stress and Population Health. And so with that course, I’m trying to take my own advice, which is sometimes the most difficult, and only doing a few crazy activities during the semester. So my students will go on more field trips, they will do some experiential learning, but they’re also going to be focusing on stress within the college campus, and performing some stress reduction tabling around public health and also learning a little bit more about meditation and how overall in the US we’re a little bit too stressed. So with that, I think “what’s next” is we should all take a little bit more care for ourselves, to be around for students and to give a little bit more. So, that’s where I’m putting “what’s next.”
John: That sounds like a good strategy and perhaps chance to relax a little bit and I believe that when I hear about it later, at the end of the semester. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] You have to remember that it has to be in comparison to, you know, someone’s lack of stress is really dependent upon how much stress they generally pile upon themselves.
Jessica: [LAUGHTER] Exactly. So, I’m only doing half of what I typically do in my crazy teaching. But still, I think it’ll be fun, exciting, and I’m looking forward to another great adventure and semester.
John: …and you’re also doing a COIL course at some point, aren’t you?
Jessica: I have currently already done one COIL course and I have actually just created a another COIL connection in Jamaica and have plans to create additional COIL connections so that we can actually compare components of health cross culturally and cross nationally.
Rebecca: Sounds really cool.
John: …and we should note for listeners outside of New York that COIL courses are Cooperative Online International Learning courses where classes pair up with classes from other countries.
Rebecca:Thank you so much for joining us again, Jessica and sharing with us how you rolled this project out and giving us all a little bit of inspiration and a little motivation to do some of this work ourselves.
John: Yes, thank you. I’m still amazed by the 10% but I looked through much of the work that your students have done, and it’s a really impressive work.
Jessica: Thank you. They’re very impressive students. I’m honored to have work with such amazing people. It couldn’t have been done without them believing in themselves and believing in what we were doing was important.
John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer and Jacob Alverson.
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 NotesTea for Teaching podcast episodes referred to in this podcast:
- 2. The Metacognitive Cafe Online Discussion Forum
- 19. VoiceThread
- 31. Writing Better Writing Assignments
- 46. Creative Risk-Taking
- 34. Flex courses
- 12. The Active Learning Initiative at Cornell
- 41. Instructional Communication
- 50. Diversity and Inclusion
- 49. Closing the Performance Gap
- 58. Role Play
- 59. Gatekeeping in Math Ed
- 6. Evidence-based teaching in large classes
- 37. Evidence is trending
- 42. Flipping the classroom
- 8. Creating an Open Textbook
- 52. Metaliteracy
- 55. Open Pedagogy
- 56. Love’s Labor Not Lost
- 57. Scalar
- 26. Assessment
- 54. SOTL
- 51. Engaged scholarship
- 30. Adaptive learning
- 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..
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.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Today’s guests are John and Rebecca.
John: And today’s teas are…
Rebecca: Christmas Tea.
John: And I am having Christmas Tea.
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.
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…
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.
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: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.
Imagine an online environment that makes the thought processes of a writer visible, including the loops they get stuck in, the relevant tangents they pursue, and the non-linear way in which their ideas evolve. Now imagine that all of these features are easy to use and implement in the classroom. In this episode, Fiona Coll, an Assistant Professor of Technology and Literature at SUNY-Oswego, joins us to discuss how Scalar, a free open-source publishing platform, can help achieve these goals.
- Alliance for Networking Visual Culture – the creators of Scalar
- Catherine Kroll at Sonoma State University
- Critical Commons
- Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Institutional Impediments to Effective Training”. Learning, remembering, believing: Enhancing human performance. (This provides a discussion of the benefits of desirable difficulties.)
- Classic Scalar projects:
- Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop. Pathfinders: Documenting the Experience of Early Digital Literature.
- Catherine Kroll. Ikenga Shrines and Iron Horses: A Reader’s Guide to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
- Collaborative Scalar project:
- Kate Aberman, Emmie Banks, Jessie Carter, Deanna Fayed, Gabby Hubert, Katherine King, Carol Lee, Sarah Richman, Matthew Winz and whitney trettien. The Book As.
- Media-rich Scalar projects:
- Jacqueline Wernimont, David J. Kim, Stephan Schonberg, Amy Borsuk, Beatrice Schuster, Heather Blackmore, and Ulla Gosart (Popova). Performing Archive: Edward S. Curtis + “the vanishing race.”
- Cecilia Wichmann. Sound and Documentary in Cardiff and Miller’s Pandemonium.
- Scalar project as web supplement and stand-alone resource:
- Claire Battershill and Shawna Ross. Digital Humanities in the Classroom: A Practical Introduction for Teachers, Lecturers, and Students.
- Scalar in the classroom
- Dwayne Dixon’s Rhizome Experiment, Fall 2015. In Dixon’s words, this is “a collaborative, digitally interconnected essay project was the final assignment for a class of seventeen first-year, first-semester students, enrolled in a writing-intensive seminar on media and anthropology” (“Imagining the Essay as Digital Assemblage” 35).
- Dixon’s article about Rhizome Experiment: “Imagining the Essay as Digital Assemblage: Collaborative Student Experiments with Writing in Scalar.” Prompt: A Journal of Academic Writing Assignments, v. 1, n. 1, Dec. 2016.
- Assortment of Newberry Library Scalar collections:
- Gorgeously customized Scalar projects:
- Further reading about Scalar
- Anderson, Steve. “Critical Interfaces and Digital Making.” Visible Language: The Journal of Visual Communication Research. 49.3 (2015): 121-139.
- McPherson, Tara. “Designing for Difference.” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. 25.1 (2014): 177-188.
- Tracy, Daniel G. “Assessing Digital Humanities Tools: Use of Scalar at a Research University.” portal: Libraries and the Academy. 16.1 (2015): 163-189.
John: Imagine an online environment that makes the thought processes of a writer visible, including the loops they get stuck in, the relevant tangents they pursue, and the non-linear way in which their ideas evolve. Now imagine that all of these features are easy to use and implement in the classroom. In this episode, we examine how Scalar, a free open-source publishing platform, can help achieve these goals.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Today our guest is Fiona Coll, an assistant professor of Literature and Technology at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Fiona.
Fiona: I am very happy to be here, Rebecca.
John: We’re very happy to have you here. Our teas today are…
Fiona: Today I am drinking Cranberry Blood Orange Endless Sunshine tea, which is a very, very ambitious kind of tea by the Republic of Tea, and I just have to note that on the side, it proclaims that drinking this tea will “create social balance one sip at a time.”
Rebecca: So maybe that’s what we should all be drinking right now. [LAUGHTER] I’m drinking English Breakfast.
John: I’m drinking Bing Cherry Green tea.
We invited you here to talk about your work with Scalar. What is Scalar?
Fiona: Scalar is an online publishing platform designed for long-form, media-rich writing. In the words of Scalar’s creators, this means media-rich digital scholarship. It’s an open source platform created by a group called the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, and the whole idea behind this platform is that it was built to serve scholars who were working on non-traditional, long-form academic writing, specifically projects that might involve visual culture or media culture. There are particular features of Scalar that have been geared towards this use case, but I would like to argue that Scalar is actually a fantastic tool for teaching because of some of its unusual features. Can I tell you about them?
Rebecca: Yeah, please. [LAUGHTER]
John: We’d be asking anyway. [LAUGHTER]
Fiona: The best way to approach these unusual features is, I think, to describe how you use Scalar, and so I will. The basic unit of content in Scalar is called a page, and it seems fairly unremarkable when I begin talking about it in this way. When you’re creating a Scalar page there’s a text box where you enter a title, there’s a text box where you enter a description, and then a large text entry field where you can put in text and format it. You can choose from a few layout options. You can integrate media into that page. You can enter metadata. You can annotate. You can add comments. So far, so WordPress… fairly straightforward. However, things now get interesting once you create a Scalar page. Once you’ve created a series of Scalar pages, you can start building routes through that content. There are two ways to organize the pages that you create in Scalar: the first is to use tags, which create nonlinear clusters of organized content, or you can use the path feature in Scalar, which is, as it sounds like, a path—a linear, step-by-step progression through a sequence of Scalar pages that you determine. You can get very creative with this path structure; you can create branching paths or very complex forking paths; you can create recursive or looping paths that come back to steps you’ve already been through; you can create rabbit-hole paths that lead people away from the main branch of your content into an unretrievable nether place, but the point is Scalar does not impose any sort of order on the content that you created and indeed that’s why the platform is called Scalar—it comes from this reference to two ways we think of quantifying movement in the world, I suppose: Scalar versus vectors. Vectors are quantities that have both magnitude and direction to them and a scalar quantity is one that has only magnitude and so Scalar, the publishing platform Scalar, does not force you to do any sort of particular relationship between the things that you create. Again… doesn’t sound especially revolutionary, but remember how I mentioned you could add tags and comments and annotations to a piece of Scalar content? When you do that, when you create things like tags and annotations and comments, those all become Scalar pages themselves, and they can participate in this larger set of relationships. So a tag, which is also a page, can be tagged with something else, it can be a path of its own, a comment can be a tag, an annotation can also be a comment, can also be a tag, a path can be a tag on something. So, any piece of content in Scalar can be given any sort of relationship to any other piece of content, and what this means is that there’s a sort of radical, non-hierarchical organization to the way Scalar allows you to approach the products of your own creative work. So this becomes really, really interesting if you imagine what this means for creating something like an essay. We have a long tradition of thinking of an essay as an extraordinarily linear thing that begins at the beginning, that moves through a sequence, and that ends. But Scalar allows us to reimagine what an essay might be, not just what it might contain, so not just moving beyond text but moving beyond that linear structure, and when I first understood just how radically Scalar allowed the breaking down of this old-school essay model, I became very excited to imagine its possibilities in the classroom. So, I learned about Scalar and immediately thought that this would be a fantastic way to defamiliarize the writing process for students, and by “defamiliarize the writing process for students,” what I mean is I thought that this would be a fantastic tool to get students to reimagine the way that their thoughts unfold in writing. I wanted them to reimagine writing as actual making, as actual construction, and not just as a sort of tragic endpoint for a thinking process.
Rebecca: It’s active, basically.
Fiona: It’s active. It is a process; writing is a process and I always say writing is thinking, and students I don’t think quite understand what I mean by that, but what Scalar might allow me to do, I imagined upon first encountering the platform, would be to get students to think about how sections of their thoughts work; how ideas might connect to other ideas… not in linear ways… but in roundabout ways that might meander through other references or images or clips they came across on the internet or things from other classes… that thought is not linear no matter how much we try to get them to package it into straightforward, well-behaved writing.
Rebecca: So this is really exciting, I can imagine writing something like “I have this thought and now I’m in a loop and I can’t get out; I’m cycling through ideas and trying to get myself out and I just can’t, but sometimes that happens when you’re writing and it’s like, oh, this isn’t gonna work; I don’t have a conclusion.
Fiona: This is how the process of writing works; you do get in loops. It is a reiterative experience where you try something out and you might end up back where you started; you try it again, you come back where you started, but perhaps the loop needs to be there for a particular reason but there’s a little exit ramp you might find to some other form of thought and Scalar doesn’t force you to try and pretend that that is not happening, that that complexity is not happening. It allows you to in fact mark the way that your thought is moving and branching in non-linear ways and allows you to capitalize on those threads and those directions. One of the things that Scalar does that very useful in getting students to think about their writing process is that it timestamps every iteration of a particular page and it saves every iteration of a page. So there’s a sense in which students are free to revise or rethink. There’s a sense in which Scalar holds safe and secure all of the versions of their thought, so it works well in terms of allowing them the space to experiment and the space to make mistakes while also giving them a time-stamped chronology of the work that they’ve done. So, there are multiple ways in which Scalar allows for the thinking process to be represented.
Rebecca: It also seems like it’s a good model for students to know how long they’ve spent writing because their idea or conception of how much time they may have spent doing something might be really inaccurate.
Fiona: That’s a fantastic point because I think students do have a strange dislocation from the actual effort it takes, the actual labor that goes into producing something like a polished text. So, on the one hand there’s just an awareness of the sheer time that goes into that, but there’s also a sense in which Scalar allows students to really, really dig into the revision and the editing process, which often is hard. So, students sort of do the standard essay writing and I often find it difficult to convince them to let go of certain aspects of what they’ve written or to radically or drastically revise…
Rebecca: But it’s still there.
Fiona: But it’s still there; they don’t have to worry about losing it—they can try something completely different and perhaps see what happens when they release their hold on that idea that writing is just something you open up a word processor and do… start at the beginning and go until you’ve hit the word limit.
Rebecca: You’ve got pathway one like normal way, then it’s like here’s my cycle weird way, here’s my figure eight way.
John: When you have students work with this are they working individually or in groups?
Fiona: This is the next thing I wanted to mention, which is that Scalar allows for both. It is extraordinarily flexible in terms of this exact question. I usually begin by having students create content, create Scalar pages on an individual basis, but all of the students are creating within what I call one great big bag of Scalar content. Scalar uses the term “book” to describe one project in this way. So, the students can create their own content, tag it as their own content, organize it according to their own methods, but then I get students to interact with each other’s content, so they read each other’s content, they start to make tendrils of connections between their content and other students’ content, and then eventually I build up to students generating content collaboratively. So it works really well in allowing a wide range of writing collaboration, and the point I make as these networks of connection get more and more elaborate is that this is how knowledge works, this is how knowledge is created; it’s a collective, collaborative enterprise and nobody does best working in isolation.
John: When they do this is it something that’s shared just within a class or is it shared publicly?
Fiona: Again, Scalar has both options available. I discuss this issue of public versus private writing with the students and we usually make a decision together as to whether or not the students want to make their material, their writing, public or private. I’ve also had a class in which one student was very happy to make her Scalar project public, but all the rest of the students wanted to keep theirs private, so she was able to easily take her content, make a whole new Scalar book and proudly display it for everyone to see, so it is remarkably flexible in terms of what it allows you to do with what you create.
Rebecca: What about the converse, though, when it’s a one or two students that have a reason that it needs to be private?
Fiona: And there’s absolutely no problem in keeping a Scalar book entirely private. I also give students the opportunity to erase what they’ve done… so to remove it entirely. We do talk a lot about privacy, public writing, and issues of copyright is another angle that seems important to talk about in terms of the Scalar ecosystem. The group who has built Scalar is deeply invested in promoting open access and fair use of cultural resources as part of their commitment to generating very dynamic and free intellectual exchange, so they created something called the Critical Commons—it has a relation conceptually or figuratively to Creative Commons—but their Critical Commons is a place where copyrighted media is taken and transformed critically and then posted for fair use purposes. So you’ll see people who have taken clips of movies, for example, or a television shows but transform those clips through a critical apparatus that Critical Commons enables, and this allows students to really think about what they’re doing when they reference a piece of culture, whether that’s a photograph or a song or a video, that by adding their critical commentary to it, they are transforming it, they are generating ideas that are making that piece of content new, and Scalar’s link to Critical Commons allows them to really think about issues of copyright, issues of intellectual openness, what happens when something is locked down and is unavailable for access to them to write about, so it becomes a much, much broader discussion about the nature of knowledge, the nature of information in our 21st century.
Rebecca: It sounds like the emphasis then with this Critical Commons is the idea of fair use and understanding fair use and describing fair use and putting in a structure in place that embodies and enforces fair use.
Fiona: And that embodying and enforcing of fair use that you describe then becomes part of how the students think of themselves as creators, so what does it mean to take something that another student has written and to use it in some way in your own thinking? Where do the bounds of fair use lie? It’s often something students haven’t thought about and this actually relates to the labor-related facet of Scalar that I find really useful in terms of student learning. I often feel that students see the Internet as this place where disembodied text has just appeared and exists, but by generating it themselves they have to confront the fact that a lot of work or a lot of effort went into generating the things that they don’t think very much about, and so Scalar allows students to think about the writing process in new and interesting and productive ways, but it also allows students to think about the nature of information that they engage with on a daily basis.
Rebecca: It’s really funny that we’re talking about fair use today because I was talking to my students about fair use this morning. We had a visiting artist who uses fair use in her work and then there was like a thousand questions when she was here. I said, you know, “We’ll talk about fair use, I promise, on Monday, when we all get back and she’s not here and we’re not taking up her time to dig into it.” But, it’s funny because they have this commercial point of view and then also the cultural maker point of view and they conflate it as if it’s all the same and that is really different. Context matters… and that you need to be thinking about these things, so we tried to untangle that today, but you’re right, students don’t think about that at all; in fact, scholars don’t think about it very often either.
Fiona: It’s true, and I first used Scalar in a class that was comparing and contrasting 19th-century book technologies with 21st-century digital writing and publishing technologies and part of the reason that worked the way it did is that 19th century literature is, of course, out of copyright—it’s public domain—and so we were able to play very freely with the literature from that period, and then students had to stop and think and realize that the 21st century, again, literature in various interesting forms, was different, was fundamentally different because of this legal category that we use to distinguish between what is public domain and what isn’t, and students are fascinated by it, while also not understanding it or understanding its logic, necessarily. So, Scalar’s making visible of something that students just hadn’t thought about before is one of its many, many strengths or one of the many valuable ways in which it operates in a classroom.
Rebecca: Can you take us on an adventure through one of your classes to get us a better sense of how you’re actually putting it into play in a specific class with a specific group of students?
John: In terms of maybe the type of assignment that they might be working on?
Fiona: For sure. I first used Scalar in a class that contrasted 19th-century material book production with 21st-century digital publication technologies and I asked the class to really consider the ways in which genre, in particular, is affected by the shape of publishing possibilities. So students are used to thinking about genre as something that is an intellectual idea or an abstract idea informed by author influence or cultural anxieties, but they rarely think about genre as something that is shaped by the actual material affordances of publication, so we read 19th-century texts, we read 21st-century texts and then I asked the students to produce their own creative or critical response to the material in our classes, and what that meant was that some students wrote relatively traditional research essays that incorporated media, sound, video. It meant that some students created choose-your-own-adventure type creative stories that played with the notion of genre as Scalar allowed them to unpack conventions that were and were not possible in that electronic form. Students also used other sorts of technologies to play with the way that technology shaped the kinds of stories they could generate, but that’s a broad overview of how Scalar worked in one particular class. I am using Scalar currently in a class about digital literary studies and the students are making digital editions of 19th-century texts. So, students are in groups, they’ve each been assigned a story by an obscure local Oswego author and they are in groups deciding how they want to present these stories to the world… new and refreshed by their 21st century perspectives on the stories, so some of them are emphasizing maps and timelines. Some of them are emphasizing illustrating the stories. Some of them want to actually remix some of the stories and generate alternate routes through the stories. So, they’re able through Scalar to invent and create these approaches to literary interpretation—they’re making arguments about the text through their use of Scalar, and I should mention that one of Scalar’s appeals is that it’s possible to do a lot with minimal technical knowledge. It’s also possible to do a lot if you have maximal technical knowledge. There’s a lot of room for customization if you are fluent with CSS and that sort of business. It accommodates a really wide range of technical skill.
John: Could you tell us a little bit more about how the choose-your-own-adventure type things work? Is that difficult for the students to program the branches?
Fiona: The great news is the students don’t really have to program the branches. The student I’m thinking of in particular wanted to write a choose your own adventure story that turned into a different genre of story depending on which path you took through her story…
Rebecca: I love that idea.
Fiona: It was a fantastic idea and it really showed just how well she grasped the possibilities that Scalar offered. So she began—there was an introductory page that set up a scenario—it was a mystery, perhaps a murder mystery story at the beginning, and then she had a couple of options: you could choose to follow one character or one event; and as each choice branched a little bit further and a little bit further, so there were many, many iterations of the story, and again each arm of the story took on a slightly different generic set of conventions. It was relatively straightforward; literally in Scalar you simply mark, using a little sort of dialog box that you check or uncheck. you mark what pieces of content you want to attach to a page. So, there’s no encoding, there’s no high-level function that students need to worry about; they can simply imagine what they want to connect and they can make those connections relatively easily. I will say that one of the other things I love about Scalar is that it generates productive difficulty for the students, it generates a lot of intellectual uncertainty which is something that I find… [LAUGHTER] I enjoy producing in students in a constructive way, obviously. Because Scalar is this enormous bag into which students just throw pieces of content, it can get overwhelming really quickly—there can just be this amorphous, chaotic mass that they struggle to make sense of—but that’s part of the advantage, I would argue: it really, really makes them think about high order levels of structure and organization. So even though they can do multiple kinds of organization… even though they can be very creative about how they organize, they do have to really think about how they want their content to relate to one another. So Scalar has this ability to get students thinking at that high level of structure while also allowing students to pay very, very close attention on the level of annotation and close reading—it combines those two levels and sort of everything in between in a way that I find very, very useful for students to be doing. I haven’t even talked about the kind of media annotation that’s possible. But, you can annotate, on a pixel level, images. You can annotate in various time stamps on a video or a piece of audio. There’s an extraordinary level of very, very specific detail that you can attend to as well as dealing with these large high order or large-structure levels of organization.
Rebecca: How did you learn how to use Scalar and then also how do you help students learn how to use the platform?
Fiona: This is a fantastic question. I learned to use Scalar in a very short, informal lunchtime demonstration given by Cathy Kroll—who I believe is at Sonoma State University—at the 2015 Digital Humanities Summer Institute in beautiful Victoria, B.C. and Cathy Kroll simply went through the process of making a Scalar page and she simply explained—and there are all sorts of interesting, cool things you can do with this organizational system—and that was enough; that was enough to allow me to at least discover its possibilities. So, the barrier to entry is low, but then you can ramp up things an awful lot, and I do find that I’m learning more and more as I go. I first imagined using Scalar in my own scholarly work—I am working on this, again, obscure local Oswego author—and I was trying to imagine ways to experiment with bringing these stories back to digital life, but I found that I was almost more excited by the possibilities I was seeing in students and so I thought I would take the exact same approach. I tend to give students a very, very basic introduction to what Scalar can do and then just let them loose, so allow them [LAUGHTER]—again, productive frustration—they make mistakes, they lose pages, they can’t figure out if they’re tagging a page or if they’re making a page a tag. I allow this brief sort of beginning phase of crazy-making exploration and then I ramp up the features, so I introduce more and more features. I begin by, I suppose it’s the carrot versus the stick analogy, so I begin by showing some of the very cool things Scalar can do, so with a basic knowledge of how metadata works students can produce these very gorgeous timelines or maps; I show them how they can use iframes to pull in content from various places on the web and enliven their writing. But, I also then ask them to think very hard about how they’re engaging with other students’ work, and so it feels as though I start with one page and then just allow them to explore on their own while giving them pushes in certain directions to make sure that they are exploring as fully as possible.
John: Maintaining those desirable difficulties as they develop more skills.
Fiona: Maintaining the desirable difficulties, exactly. I’m still trying to figure out how much I should push them, so how much I should demand of the students. I know that other people have used Scalar simply as a writing tool, so just dealing with text and organization. I know that others have encouraged students to make use of the multimedia affordances of Scalar and I’m still figuring out what the balance is for my students who are mostly students of literature.
Rebecca: The first thing that comes to mind to me is how the heck do you grade that? [LAUGHTER] There’s a lot to keep track of and map and pay attention to, so how are you evaluating students in like what criteria and and how do you actually just sort through all of that content?
Fiona: This is a fantastic question and one I am still figuring out… [LAUGHTER] the answer to. As I’m introducing students to Scalar and as I’m letting them make a mess and generate multiple versions of a single page and get confused themselves, I do encourage them to keep in mind that ultimately they want to be imagining not just their own thought process and writing process but what it might feel like for a reader to come across their material, specifically a reader that is me; [LAUGHTER] specifically a reader that will be assigning them a grade. [LAUGHTER] At the very same time, I do try and emphasize process over product, and because students come with such a range of technical capabilities, I build into my rubrics how hard a student has worked to correct a deficiency or to overcome a limitation in their ability to understand Scalar. Ultimately I am interested in the argument that they’re making, but I do reward and encourage what I call bravery—willingness to try new things; willingness to fail; willingness to get things wrong but then to turn that failure into something useful or to meditate or reflect on it in a conscious way. So, there’s a metacognitive aspect to all of this, and essentially in every assignment I’m still trying to figure out what the balance between rigorous analysis and explorative risk-taking might be. I tend to err on the side of appreciating the risk-taking, I will say that.
Rebecca: So do they submit like a URL to you?
Fiona: No, what happens is they tell me where they want me to enter their work. I usually create an index page and I ask them to put their starting point on that index page, so they’re all contributing to one page that serves as my starting point and that’s the easiest way to wander through things. I can go hunting if I need to. I encourage the students to tag what they’re doing with their own names. If there’s a good search function, for example, if I’m looking for something that’s been lost. It definitely feels like hunting in a barn full of hay sometimes. That’s not quite the same as hunting in a haystack but it’s not quite not the same either. [LAUGHTER]
John: Have any other faculty in your department or on campus adopted Scalar yet?
Fiona: I don’t think anyone else in my department has adopted Scalar. I do think as my classes perhaps turn more towards public facing projects that might change, because I do think there are a number of faculty and approaches that could do very cool things with Scalar, but so far I have had to pull my examples from elsewhere… from other campuses. But hopefully soon there will be some robust Oswego examples.
John: Have you ever had students build upon the work of earlier classes?
Fiona: I have not, and that is something that I’m trying to figure out how to do successfully, for a couple of reasons. So it would be easy to do if I just kept one giant Scalar project and had students continually reiterate upon the work that had come before; I haven’t actually repeated a course yet that I’ve used Scalar in, so that in fact might be a next step for my work with Scalar—it would involve, of course, getting permission from the students to do this or to allow them to anonymize their work, but those are things we could work out—but I have not yet done so. I could imagine the Digital Archiving Project as being one that would lend itself towards that sort of semester after semester continuation.
John: How have students responded to this compared to more traditional writing classes?
Fiona: The great news is that students seem very, very excited by what feels like them to be freedom. They respond really well to the autonomy that Scalar offers them. They tend to respond in a slightly opposite direction when they realize that freedom comes at a price and that price is an awful lot of work and figuring out technical details, and some students truly do flounder—some students just find it absolutely maddening to try and understand what’s happening. But some students absolutely thrive and really run with the creative remixing possibilities and really embrace the radically democratic approach that Scalar allows them to take to their own writing and writing in groups. So, I would say that there’s a now predictable sort of curve: initial excitement as students think about the possibilities, then there’s an inevitable drop in enthusiasm as the students realize just how much work this involves and how much new thinking they have to do to wrap their minds around the defamiliarization that Scalar offers, and then perhaps two tails after that: one very enthusiastic skyrocketing of competence and then one more medium flavored… just sort of making peace with what I’ve asked them to do, and I do always offer students options, and if someone just feels absolutely unable to grapple with Scalar there’s always the possibility of doing a different sort of project, but I haven’t yet had a student who has completely resisted.
John: This is a nice follow-up to our earlier podcast with Robin DeRosa where she talked about open pedagogy and it seems like this would be a nice tool for students to create materials that can be widely shared, if they choose to.
Fiona: If they choose to, and I do think I’m gonna bring the concept of open pedagogy or open ed more and more explicitly into classes in which I use Scalar to make that a part of my justification, or something else to get students thinking about. It’s a growing and very exciting movement—the open pedagogy and open education movement—and I’m excited to see how Scalar can continue to be a part of that.
Rebecca: Does Scalar offer, by default, a way to license individual pieces of content using Creative Commons or is it more how you would traditionally license a website by copying and pasting the code from Creative Commons, for example, on an individual page?
John: Or is it just a Critical Commons option?
Fiona: That is a fantastic question. I think you would need to attach your own Creative Commons licensing; I don’t know that there’s a built-in feature. However, I should say that that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; it just means I don’t know about it at the moment, but I do think you, again, get to choose your own approach to that very issue. but I’m gonna look into it and see if I can figure out if there’s a built-in tool or aspect of Scalar.
Rebecca: We can make a note of that in our show notes, too, afterwards.
Fiona: I will follow up. [LAUGHTER]
John: And if we find any links we’ll include them.
Rebecca: ..[If] people wanted to get started, do you have a couple of examples that you might recommend for people to look at?
Fiona: I definitely have a few examples that I can recommend. I can add those to the show links, perhaps, and there are examples that range from student projects through elaborate library-based projects to very beautiful, customized versions of Scalar projects. I’d be very, very happy to share them and encourage people to try out the platform.
John: We always end our podcast with a question, what are you going to do next?
Fiona: To this point I have used Scalar in upper division literature courses where students come to the course already equipped with a certain set of writing and thinking skills that I can leverage and encouraging the curiosity and bravery I mentioned. So, next semester I’m gonna try using Scalar with a first-year composition course, and so I’m in the planning stages right now to see how that particular experiment might unfold.
Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.
Fiona: I’m super excited about it. As you might be able to tell, I really, really, am fascinated by the ways in which Scalar seems to activate student curiosity and student agency in their own intellectual work.
John: And if you reach freshmen with this they might perhaps suggest it to some other faculty as something they may wish to try.
Fiona: I like it, I like it as a plan.
Rebecca: Sounds like we’ll have to do a follow-up.
Fiona: I am here for it. [LAUGHTER]
John: Well thank you. This has been fascinating.
Rebecca: You’ve piqued my curiosity; I’m gonna go explore, so I can’t wait for those extra links so I can find a way in.
Fiona: If I’ve piqued your curiosity, I believe I have done my job.
John: And I did create an account a couple years ago when you gave a workshop and I kept meaning to go back, but now I’m more likely to. [LAUGHTER]
Fiona: Well let me know how you find it; let me know what you discover.
John: Thank you.
Rebecca: Yeah, thank you very much.
Fiona: Thank you so much; it was wonderful to talk with you.
John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.
Who knows and understands the needs of your students better than your own students? In this episode, Mya Brown, an Assistant Professor of Theatre at SUNY-Oswego, joins us to discuss how our students can build open educational resources that take advantage of the unique insights our students have about what novices need to learn to be successful in our courses and disciplines.
- OER Stories with Mya Brown – SUNY OER Services podcast
- Miller, Charles (2014). Theatrical Worlds. Open Textbook Library
- Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre
- Straumsheim, Carl (2017). “A Mean Amount of Money.” Inside Higher Ed. April 14 – A discussion of the SUNY/CUNY OER grant.
John: Who knows and understands the needs of your students better than your own students? In this episode, we’ll discuss how our students can build open educational resources that take advantage of the unique insights our students have about what novices need to learn to be successful in our courses and disciplines.
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: Our guest today is Maya Brown, an assistant professor of theater at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Maya!
Mya: Thanks for having me.
John: We’re glad to have you here. Our teas today are…
Mya: I have a peppermint tea with honey.
Rebecca: That sounds yummy. I have Prince Edward’s tea.
John: What kind?
Rebecca: I think it’s Prince? Prince… The one that’s Prince.The gray one.
John: Prince of Wales?
Rebecca: Yeah, that one, the Prince of Wales tea.
John: And I have black raspberry green tea.
Mya: Sounds good.
John: We invited you here to talk about your use of open educational resources and open pedagogy. For those who may not be familiar with open educational resources, what is an open educational resource?
Mya: The way I understand it is that it is freely accessible materials. They don’t have like a publisher behind them, so they’re typically copyrighted through like Creative Commons and they’re free for the user.
Rebecca: Can you tell us a little bit about the courses in which you use OER?
Mya: Yes, I taught Theater 110 which is Introduction to Theatre; it’s a lecture style course with 49 students. The section was full. In that course, typically when I taught it at West Virginia University prior to coming here to SUNY Oswego, the textbook that we used was an electronic textbook, but it was copyrighted by a publisher and the cost was a little over a hundred dollars. There also was an accessibility fee, the total cost came up to around 125 dollars per student. That just seems a lot to me for a textbook. I really thought it was important to make this information more accessible to the students and also free. As soon as I heard about OER opportunities, I like jumped on it.
Rebecca: How did your students respond the first time you used an OER in your class?
Mya: They loved it. [LAUGHTER] First day of class I introduced the textbook to them that we use. We used a textbook called Theatrical Worlds—it’s a very thorough textbook, I really like it. As soon as I said, we have a free textbook and this is how you access it and I brought it up for them on the overhead, they were super excited about it—they’re like, “Yeah, we don’t have to pay for a textbook…” Because, you know, they spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars per semester on these books just so that they can get access to the information, but lots of them can’t really afford it. They honestly can barely afford their tuition typically and some of them are having to decide whether they’re going to buy textbooks or they’re going to buy food. To take that pressure off of them, relieve them of that responsibility, it seems to really be a good thing.
John: …and many students either postpone buying a text or don’t buy it at all and OER they have it from the very first day of the course so we don’t have to worry about students who are struggling already perhaps with financial issues to also have to struggle by falling behind at the start of the semester. It offers a lot of benefits besides just the cost: it gives everyone equal access.
Mya: Yes, that’s so important. The thing that I found really nice is that instead of having to wait to address readings till like the second week of classes, we could start immediately because they had access immediately to the textbook. I like to send emails out to my students prior to the first day of class and I included a link to the book. I encourage them to look at it prior to coming to that first day of class; not many of them did, but some did and it was really nice that we could just jump right into the content.
Rebecca: Can you talk about some of the other benefits that you found for both you as a faculty member and for students by using the OERs?
Mya: I think that there’s more flexibility with how we are presenting the material; also, because we can remix them depending on the licensing agreement, we can update the materials. A lot of—and theater especially—they’re referring to specific performances, productions, different plays or musicals, and I can insert newer productions that have happened, so we’re using more current information and referring to more current information; that we can’t do with a hardbound textbook that does have copyright associated with it that will not allow you to change anything about it, so I really like this idea of being able to remix the resource and make it more personal for your class.
Rebecca: I know that the same textbook is used in other sections as well with other faculty; have you worked with them and the updates that you’ve done or have you shared that task so that you’re all presenting the same thing, or are you all remixing it so that it’s unique to you?
Mya: I think we all are remixing it so that it’s unique unto us. We all have different areas that are our areas of specialty or passion and where Toby is really heavy on the Shakespeare, I am as well ‘cause I love Shakespeare. Maybe Henry is…
John: That’s so uncommon in theater.
Mya: Right. [LAUGHTER] Henry Shikongo might more focus on things like physical theater, Comedia—I know he studied directly with Dell’A rte, so that’s more his emphasis. I think that is another strength of using an OER, that we can make it more personal and we can highlight our passions, because when we’re talking about our passions in the classroom, that energy that we have for that subject it… just transfers to the students—I think that they absorb more of it and they engage more when we are so passionate about it.
John: Is the class mostly for majors or is it non-majors or a mix?
Mya: It’s a mix because it does satisfy the general education so it’s considered a GEC. We will get actually lots of non-majors in there, but it is required in the core for the major program as well, which is really helpful because the majors and their passion for it also bleeds out to the rest of the classroom; all of those people who are maybe zoologists or engineers and they’re like, “Eh, I just took it for an easy ‘A,’ I don’t really care about theater.” [LAUGHTER] But when they have their colleagues care about it as much as they do it really, I think, helps to inspire them
Rebecca: Were you the first faculty member in your area to adopt in an OER as part of your classes?
Mya: Toby Malone and I did it together. It was interesting because I was communicating with him via email over the summer prior to his coming to the university because we both were teaching a section of 110 and I told him about the opportunity for this grant that I was applying for to incorporate OER in the classroom and I thought for theater 110 I thought that would be a perfect classroom to experiment with OER. Toby Malone was also teaching a section of that course—I told him that I was interested in the grant that they were offering here at SUNY—I think it was a SUNY wide grant, actually. I was looking into that grant and I really wanted to adopt a textbook for that purpose. We went back and forth on a couple different options; Theatrical Worlds is actually an option that he brought to me. I really just loved it and he said, “I like it too, so let’s use it.” So we both ended up using it at the same time and now Henry has gotten on board now that he’s teaching 110 and hopefully every instructor that teaches that section will use that book because it’s a really great book.
Rebecca: Sometimes it’s better together, right? [LAUGHTER]
Mya: Yeah, definitely. We really try to maintain the integrity of the course and make sure that we are all teaching the same subject matter and it’s just easy if we’re all teaching from the same book. There will be variations, obviously, but majority of the content it’s all the same information that we’re delivering. I think that’s important because we’re setting a foundation for the next level for these students. For some of them, like non-majors, we’re introducing them to this whole new world. A lot of times that 110 course is kind of gateway course and we get to pull in minors or maybe some even change to the major. It’s important, I think, that we’re all on the same page.
John: …and a nice thing is with those who do go on they still have access to the book…
John: …because with traditional textbooks, even if they buy the book, students will often sell them back at the end and then when they go to upper-level classes they no longer have access… …
John: …since the books are out there and publicly available they get to keep them and that’s a really nice feature for classes that build on earlier ones.
Rebecca: Yeah, when you buy a book and it’s the difference between cashing it in to get more cash for another book that you might need at a higher level versus hanging on to it that’s always a decision that students have to make that I know that we experience in my department sometimes as well.
John: When I teach upper-level classes students will often say, “What can I do? I’m having trouble with this material; where can I find more information on this?” And I say, “Well, this builds on our earlier intro class; you can go back and review your textbook,” and the response is almost always, “I don’t have that anymore.”
Rebecca: Powell says OER is spreading in your department.
Mya: It’s not spread too much; it’s mostly just being used in the 110 course, but maybe that’s a good segue into the other course that I’m using it in, which is Acting Shakespeare. We’re actually creating an OER in that class; it’s called The Shakespearean Monologue Database. It’s still in construction right now. It’s a resource for acting students and we really want to open it up nationwide; anybody can have access to it, where they can find monologues and all of the information necessary in order to understand the text fully so that they can then perform it to the best of their ability.
Rebecca: So context.
Mya: Yes. [LAUGHTER]
John: And the students are actually creating some of that, right?
Mya: Yes, they create actually all of the content; all I do is tailor it a little bit, you know, sculpt it a little bit, mold it a little bit. All of the monologue choices on there were our choices that the students made. Any of the words that they thought they needed to look up so that they could get full meaning, so we have like a glossary associated with each monologue; those are all terms that they wanted to investigate. I like it to come from them because I feel like it might be more relatable to other students when they look at it if it’s coming more from a student perspective versus the professor’s perspective, but I do give a little note about what I think about this monologue choice as well, whether it would be a good one for auditions or a good one for just exploring a new character type or for a classroom assignment.
Rebecca: Is it clear to the reader who made what comments that accompany the monologue?
Mya: That’s actually something I think we’re continuing to work on because it’s not clear right now. There is information on the home page stating that all content was created by the students, but if you’re just going right to the monologue and you’re skipping that or—you know how it is when people search; they don’t necessarily read everything, right? So, we’re trying to figure out is there a way that we can make it obvious that this stuff came from the students versus what came from me, and we would really love in the future for it to be a resource that can be remixed as well by other universities and other professors and other students. We want to keep that licensing open so that they can contribute monologues on their own, they can create their own glossaries, synopsis, and character breakdowns and add those to the website as well, so how then do we identify those and give credit to those authors of that content versus ours, something we’re still working on.
Rebecca: Sounds like your role has largely been editing and curating…
Rebecca: …the process.
Mya: Yes, definitely. Laura Harris, she’s been helping me a lot with that.
Rebecca: She’s one of our librarians.
Mya: Yes, we’re actually using LibGuides.
John: What led to that choice?
Mya: Laura Harris, who’s our online learning librarian, she has a connection at SpringShare from her having experience with LibGuides she thought that it would be a great platform for this kind of site, this database. She reached out to some people that she knows and they were like, “Yes, let’s do it.” They created a page for us and then she walked me through how to add all of the content and she’s helping me to edit it some more and make it look all fancy and nice. Laura is the one who brought up the idea of using LibGuides as a resource.
John: And are the students inputting it directly into that or is she…
John: …doing that or are you doing that?
Mya: I’m doing that. Yeah, the students, they turn in all of their work to me and then I’m curating it and adding it to the pages.
Rebecca: How do those students responded as being authors and putting their work out into the public?
Mya: It actually is really great. They are doing exactly what I thought they would do, which is taking ownership of the resource because they’re contributing to it because their names are attached to it; they have this greater sense of responsibility to complete the work, complete it accurately and to make fun and exciting choices in their monologue choices, like the characters that they’re selecting. It actually has really been helpful in the classroom because it has increased their level of engagement on these assignments because they know that it’s going out there on this resource.
Rebecca: Are you finding that they’re reading more Shakespeare on their own as a result so that they can find the perfect thing?
Mya: I don’t know about that… [LAUGHTER]
John: But they’re more enthused about what they do.
Rebecca: Wishful thinking.
Mya: Yeah, I think that is wishful thinking, but they definitely are more enthusiastic and they are more engaged in the classroom. Whenever I’ve taught Shakespeare before it feels like I’m pulling teeth the majority of the time. And a lot of students said, this is not what I expected it to be; I thought we would just read a bunch of Shakespeare and was going to be boring and I wasn’t going to understand that I wouldn’t relate to any of these characters, but because of the amount of in-depth textual work that we’re doing they actually are relating on a very deep level and they’re finding similarities to these characters and they’re relating to these characters in a way that I have not seen before, which is really exciting
Rebecca: Were you doing similar assignments before, but it was the audience of Mya?
Mya: Yes, yes, exactly. I kind of amped up the amount of work that they’re doing so that we could have enough content to create the website but it is a similar assignment. However, as you so eloquently point out, there’s a much larger audience now.
John: If you continue this will they be editing the existing work or will they be adding new monologues to it?
Mya: Yes, they will be adding new content. I actually am teaching Acting Shakespeare in the spring of 2019—I definitely will keep this assignment and we will continue to add to the database. I think it’s important that we are constantly adding new material to it; there’s so many unique perspectives and points of view that it’s essential to continue creating and contributing to the database.
Rebecca: Will the students in this spring be using the content the students this fall have created as part of reading and being a user of the resource before being a creator of the resource?
Mya: Yes, it will definitely be a part of their prep work for their contributions. My last class they were a bit of guinea pigs and now I think we have the right formula for the assignment in order to get the content that we want. Yeah, I will definitely use it as an example so that they’re aware of what exactly they should be looking for and how to complete the assignment.
Rebecca: Sounds really exciting.
John: It does.
Rebecca: Are students working together on the things that they’re creating or are they individually creating sections or the information around individual monologues?
Mya: It is more of an individual assignment; however, they do share their work when they present the monologue, so they have to act it out in class and we do feedback from the entire class—they are getting feedback from their classmates on the performances of the monologues, but they’re not on the actual content that they’re contributing to the database. That might be a good idea, though. You might have made me think about changing the way I approach that and maybe we could add that element, especially when it comes to the glossary and the character descriptions, that could be helpful because there are some things that might stand out to one student that didn’t even occur to another. If they’re assisting each other that might be a useful component to add to this assignment. Thank you for that, Rebecca. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: One of the things that I was thinking when you were describing it is if students who are going to add to the database had to use one of the resources and do a performance with it then they would know what content was missing?
Rebecca: So that they would know what to do in their own next time, so it’s like they could add to someone else’s or augment it and then try their own?
Mya: I love that idea. Thank you.
John: In creating these are they embedding other open content, recordings, or performances, or some other things?
Mya: Yeah, no recordings yet—I have been considering that, especially because with us using Shakespeare and it’s already open source…
Mya: We wouldn’t have to worry about copyright infringement or anything. I have been considering that but we don’t have the capabilities right now to do that; I’m just one person and I can only do so much, but I have been considering that, definitely. We do, though, refer to the glossaries; there’s a link for each of the words that takes them to Perseus—that’s an OER as well—that has text as well as dictionaries. It’s a good way for them to be able to get that information out there in a free way and link up to another OER. I’ve always used the OED—the Oxford—in my classes prior to because it has the truest definition when we’re referring back to Elizabethan text or, however…
John: …or practically anything. [LAUGHTER]
Mya: Right, but especially Elizabethan; I mean, you know, they’ll look up some of these words on places like dictionary.com and the definition that they’re getting in no way relates to how the text was being used at the time, so it’s not helpful at all. So, I always would insist that they use the OED, but it is not a free resource, so we can’t actually link to it on the website. So, we had to find something that was free but also maintained that integrity of those glossary terms so that people are getting the correct information and the most useful information there. Right, that’s the thing—I’m continuing to look because there are so many definitions that we found that are not there and so there’s a couple holes, but it’s been the best resource that we’ve found that’s free.
John: Where can people find this?
Mya: So, it actually is not published yet because it’s still under construction, but it will have a title something like, Shakespearean Monologue Database and again it’s a LibGuide—the platform is SpringShare —so once it is published we’ll get it out there as much as we can.
John: …and we’ll put a link in the show notes which will update once the link is publicly available.
Rebecca: So we always wrap up Mya by asking, “what’s next?”
Mya: Yes, what is next? Well I think what’s next is figuring out how to get these videos incorporated because I think that that would be a really great thing. I did some interviews with the students from our previous semester and just asked them a couple questions: How did you feel about Shakespeare prior to coming to this class? And the unanimous comment that came up was, “I didn’t understand it,” and then I asked, how do you feel about Shakespeare now and unanimously everyone’s like, “I love it. I can understand it now,” and I think this database is going to be a useful tool for other people to be able to understand it as well, so I think the more people can actually see these students and see their reactions and hear their reactions versus just seeing the content that they’ve created, the better they might feel about the actual resource and how it’s reaching students.
Rebecca: Sounds like you have the basis of a nice scholarship of teaching and learning research paper.
Mya: Oh, yeah. [LAUGHTER]
John: …and one other thing that you are doing this semester, which ties into an earlier podcast, is you’re one of the people teaching those first-year courses…
John: …and what is that like? We’ll probably have you back on to talk about that.
Mya: Oh, okay.
John: …in the future.
Mya: Yeah, so the course is called Blackish Mirror; it’s a study of black characters on television and we started with Ethel Waters and her performance as one of the first African Americans with a lead role on television in 1939. Her show’s called the Ethel Waters Show and we started there and we’re moving all forward to the current time. It’s really great; I love the class, the students are really engaged, they’re loving the subject matter and they’re articulating and finding their own personal perspectives on these social issues of oppression and representation and stereotypes and the dangers of the images that we see and how they can perpetuate negative stereotypes and they can kind of feed into social thinking about a specific type of person and the importance then and the responsibility of people who create this content in the media to be careful about how they are representing people and make sure that they try their best to not perpetuate the stereotype or feed into mass hysteria. It’s really exciting that these students are standing up in the classroom and saying, this is not right and what do we do about it. So, their final project—I’m actually really excited for—they’re going to create a PSA based off of one of the social issues that we’ve identified in class and I’m just really excited to see what they latch on to and how they try to address that thing and, you know, they really are inspired to make society better and that gives me hope for the future.
Rebecca: It sounds like a really nice note to end on. [LAUGHTER]
John: And a nice note in these times in general; other people are not always as positive about the future.
Rebecca: It also makes me want to go to all your classes.
Mya: Yeah, it’s fun; come drop in. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Sign up quick and make sure I get a seat.
John: Thank you, this has been wonderful.
Mya: Thank you.
Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much.
John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.
As faculty, we face a tradeoff between spending time on teaching and on research activities. In this episode, Dr. Regan Gurung joins us to explore how engaging in research on teaching and learning can help us become more productive as scholars and as educators while also improving student learning outcomes. Regan is the Ben J. and Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Human Development in Psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay; President-Elect of the Psi Chi International Honor Society in Psychology; co-editor of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology; co-chair of the American Psychological Association Introductory Psychology Initiative and the Director of the Hub for Intro Psych and Pedagogical Research.
- Regan A. Gurung Personal Website
- SUNY-Oswego Human Subjects Committee
- Gurung, R. A. (2014). Getting foxy: Invoking different magesteria in the scholarship of teaching and learning. Teaching and Learning Inquiry: The ISSOTL Journal, 2(2), 109-114.
- Hutchings, P., Huber, M. T., & Ciccone, A. (2011). The scholarship of teaching and learning reconsidered: Institutional integration and impact (Vol. 21). John Wiley & Sons.
- Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge.
- Richmond, A., Boysen, G., & Gurung, R. A. R. (2016). An evidence-based guide to college and university teaching: Model teaching competencies. New York, NY: Routledge.
- Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at Kennesaw State.
John: As faculty, we face a tradeoff between spending time on teaching and on research activities. In this episode, we explore how engaging in research on teaching and learning can help us become more productive as scholars and as educators while also improving student learning outcomes.
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: Our guest today is Dr. Regan Gurung, the Ben J. and Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Human Development in Psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay; President-Elect of the Psi Chi International Honor Society in Psychology; co-editor of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology; co-chair of the American Psychological Association Introductory Psychology Initiative and the Director of the Hub for Intro Psych and Pedagogical Research. Welcome.
Regan: Thanks a lot, Rebecca and John.
John: Our teas today are…
Rebecca: I’m drinking Prince of Wales today.
John: I’m drinking ginger tea.
Regan: Ooh, now you’re making me want to. [LAUGHTER]
John: We’ve invited you here today to talk about research in the scholarship of teaching and learning, or SOTL. You’ve conducted a lot of research on teaching and learning as well as research within your discipline. In most disciplines there has been an increase in the journals devoted to teaching and learning and an increase in research in teaching and learning, but it hasn’t reached everywhere yet. SOTL research is often not discussed in graduate programs and is sometimes devalued by campus colleagues. Why does that occur?
Regan: So. I think there are multiple reasons why the—and I’m going to start with the devaluing. I think there’s a lot of uncertainty about what it exactly it is, so on one hand, when people say a scholarship of teaching and learning… very often if it’s somebody who hasn’t really read up on it recently the sense is, oh, you know, that’s research on teaching; that’s not as good as your regular research. Now, I think that’s a misperception and once upon a time, and here I mean maybe even 15 years ago, there was some scholarship of teaching and learning that wasn’t done very well and I think people have heard about that in the past and that’s why there’s that knee-jerk reaction. Far too often it’s seen as something where it’s not as rigorous, perhaps, or it’s not done in the same way and most of that is wrong. What I like to tell folks who see that is, if you think the scholarship of teaching and learning is not rigorous, well, you haven’t tried to submit something to a journal recently. I co-edit a journal on the scholarship of teaching and learning in psychology and I can actually see some people submit poor work and I send it right back; I do the classic desk rejection and I say, look, this is just not good enough. So my favorite tip for “How do you write for a scholarship of teaching journal?” is very simple: just like you write anything else. There’s a lot of baggage, but I think that as you alluded to, John, it has changed more recently and I think part of what you notice now or what I’ve been seeing is that this kind of work, this kind of examination is being called different things. For example, a term that I’m hearing more and more often is DBER: disciplinary based educational research. And I’m hearing this come out of medical schools and engineering schools and social work schools and many professional programs where they’re doing DBER, which is essentially what the scholarship of teaching and learning is. So, I think because of that baggage with the term, people are calling it different things but in general the work is getting much more rigorous.
John: Excellent, and if changing the name is sufficient to do that, it’s a valuable step.
Regan: I think that’s why, when I talk about it I like to talk about it as: “Do you want to know if your students are learning? Do you want to know if your teaching is effective?” Well, then you should do some research on it. You can call it what you want. I started really calling it pedagogical research because that’s what it was, but it’s truly a rose by any name.
John: And that’s something that Carl Wieman has emphasized.
Regan: Absolutely, yup.
John: In the sciences, you test hypotheses and there’s no reason we couldn’t do the same thing in our teaching.
John: And that’s starting to happen, or it’s happening more and more.
Rebecca: In some disciplines, the scholarship of teaching and learning is not accepted as being part of their tenure and promotion file, for example. What would you recommend faculty do in a department like that if they really want to get started in SOTL?
Regan: Well, so, Rebecca, let me take you a half step back.
Regan: When you say “in some disciplines it isn’t as accepted.” What has surprised me is that most disciplines have actually been doing the scholarship of teaching and learning and publishing it for the longest time. I mean, if you take a look at chemistry, it goes back, gosh, seventy years or so. Almost every discipline out there has a journal that publishes the scholarship of teaching and learning, but, and here’s the big but: most of us in our normal training never run into it. So, I’ll take my own case. In psychology, the Teaching of Psychology Journal has been around for 46 years, yet all through grad school, all through my post-doc I never even knew the journal existed. Why? Because the programs that I went through weren’t focused on teaching the individuals—wonderful as they may be—who I worked with didn’t do that kind of work, so they didn’t know about it. So I think that’s a really important fine-tune there: there is a journal in almost every discipline—almost every discipline—for the scholarship of teaching and learning. So, it’s just a question of discovering it… it’s a question of finding it. Now, that said, where can they start? I think I can answer your question from a conceptual level and from a practical level, so I’ll start with the practical. The easiest place to start, there are lots of compilations of how to do it. For example, I think both of you have my website. On my website I have a simple tab called SOTL. On that tab is a list of places to get going, and I’ve organized it so that there’s a brief introduction to SOTL, there are journals, there are resources, there are little handouts. So, if a faculty member has even ten minutes, go to my website, hit SOTL, scroll through. That’s the more practical, that’s the easiest way to get started. From a conceptual standpoint it really starts with the question, what aspect of your teaching or your student learning are you curious about? John, I know you do some work in large-class instruction in economics. Why is this assignment not working? Can I get my students to remember certain concepts better if I change how I present information? It starts with a question. And you don’t have to read anything, you don’t have to look at any manual. If you look at your class and you go, “Hmmm, why isn’t this working, or why isn’t that working?” That’s where it begins, and from there you follow the same route that we always do: go look at what’s been published in it, fine-tune your question, design, think about what do you want to change and so on and so forth. I think it’ll help if I give you my working definition of the scholarship of teaching and learning, and when I think about it I think of SOTL as encompassing those theoretical underpinnings of how we learn. And more specifically, I see it as the intentional and systematic modifications of pedagogy and here’s the important part: the assessment of the resulting changes in learning. So that’s the key: you intentionally, you systematically, modify what you’re doing and then you measure whether it worked or not. That’s it. I could say that nonchalantly. There’s a technique , there’s a robustness to it, but at the heart, where do you start? You start by asking the question.
Rebecca: I think one of the things that I hear you saying is not much different than someone has a really reflective teaching practice—they’re doing it but not in that systematic way?
Regan:Yeah, absolutely right. There’s a term called scholarly teaching and in this kind of literature there’s a distinction made between scholarly teaching and the scholarship of teaching and learning, and all the distinction is is that scholarly teacher is reflecting on their work and then you’re right, you’re absolutely right; making those intentional systemic changes. That’s scholarly teaching. When it becomes the scholarship of teaching and learning is when you present it or you publish it, preferably through peer-reviewed ways, but you’re absolutely right; at the heart of it it’s scholarly teaching. It’s reflective intentional systematic changes.
John: One of the barriers, that people who are considering doing research in the scholarship of teaching and learning, is going through IRB approval, and in many disciplines that’s something they haven’t experienced before. It’s common in psychology. It’s less common in economics and perhaps in art.
Rebecca: It doesn’t exist in design. [LAUGHTER]
John: Could you tell us a little bit about that process?
Regan: Sure. Every university has an institutional review board and essentially what that board does is it’s in place to make sure that any research that’s being done isn’t harmful. Now, normally when we think about harmful we think about a drug or a food substance being tested, but here it just means any research that’s being done, and so when you do the scholarship of teaching and learning or when you’re examining your classes, yes, you could just look at your exams and see if exam scores are changing, but, if you do want to publish that, if you do want to share that, you really should go through institutional review board review. Now, the key thing here: it does sound like this whole new world, and it is, but at the heart of it is a very simple process. Now, there are three levels of review and I think knowing about the levels helps. For example, the first level is called an exempt review. The next level is called an expedited review, and the third level is called a full board review. I don’t think I’ve run into scholarship of teaching and learning that has gone through a full board review, because we’re not doing things that are more than minimum level of stress. Now when you say, hey, hang on, I didn’t know they were stress involved. Well, anytime you ask anybody to fill out a survey, there’s a minimal level of stress. And when you’re asking your students to reflect on their learning, well that’s a minimum level of stress. Every university has its own procedure. SUNY Oswego probably has a forum online. It’s a short forum; you’re basically telling this board what you plan on doing, what you plan on doing with the information, and most importantly, in these kind of cases, you are letting the board know whether or not students will be put under duress. What the IRB is going to look for is are you the instructor in some way forcing your students to do things that normally wouldn’t be done in the normal course of the educational process. But at the heart of it, all you’re doing is you’re sharing with this board whether or not you can do it and most scholarship of teaching and learning is at that exempt level. That exempt level essentially translates to exempt from further review. It doesn’t mean exempt from being reviewed; it just means this is mundane and low stress enough that it’s exempt from further review. Now that second level, expedited. If you do want to measure or keep track of names, if you want to look at how certain names relate to scores down the line—and that’s actually some really key research—well that’s expedited review. Now, even there it’s reviewed by one person. Both the expedited and the exempt review are reviewed by one person, often the chair. It often takes no longer than a week, and by doing that you just know that all your t’s are crossed and your i’s are dotted and it’s the ethical thing to do. So, whenever people say: “Oh, this is really mundane and I’m not really doing much more than just measuring student learning,” I still sa y if there’s any chance you want to present it or publish it make sure you go through the IRB.
John: And many journals will require evidence of completion of the IRB process.
Regan: Oh, absolutely. The moment you want to publish it you have to sign off saying that you got IRB review..
John: We do use an expedited review process on our campus. I was going to say, though, that we’re recording this a bit early because we’ve recorded a few things in advance, so we’re recording this in late October, but just yesterday I read that Rice University has introduced a streamlined expedited review process or IRB and apparently that’s something that’s been happening at more and more campuses. Are you familiar with that?
Regan: You know, not as much, because right now there’s so much up in the air with the IRB because national guidelines are changing. They were supposed to have changed in January, then it was moved to July. The latest I heard is it’s moved to next January. So, for the most part actual regulations are changing. Even on our own campus we switch from one form of human subjects training to another form, but this so called short-form expedited process will definitely help. That said, even the regular expedited, it’s a very easy process and I think the neat thing about this—and I tell students this when I’m teaching research methods, too—as the instructor or the researcher, just going through that IRB form really reminds you of some key things that you may have otherwise forgotten about, so, yes.
Rebecca: Do you talk a little bit about your own research to give people an overview of what project might look like from the beginning to the end?
Regan: Sure. What really got me interested in this is I teach large introductory psychology classes, the class is 250 individuals and I was struck by how when publisher reps come into my office and try to convince me to adopt one book over the other they would talk about the pedagogical aids in the textbook; “oh, look, our book has this and our book has that.” And that really got me started studying textbooks and how students use textbooks. So the umbrella under which I do research is student studying: What’s the optimal way for students to study? …and I use both a social psychology and a cognitive psychology lens or approach to it and it really started with looking at how they use textbook pedagogical aids. So, for example, in one of my really first studies I measured which of the different aids in a textbook the student uses and then I used their usage to predict their exam scores. Now, what I found, and this is what really surprised me and got me doing this even more, is that even those students were using and focusing on key terms a lot. Now, mind you, I’ll take a half step back—you may not be surprised to know that students use bold terms, they use italics, that’s what they focus a lot on. But students in my study also said that they use key terms a lot. Now if you’re studying key terms that should be good. If you’re making flashcards and studying those key terms that should be good, but what I found is that the more students use key terms the worse their exam scores. There was this negative correlation and that’s completely counterintuitive. Why would they go the opposite direction? So, I dug into it some more and I realized that students spend so much time on key terms or so much time on flashcards that they’re not studying in any other way. So even though they’re using flashcards, they’re so intent on memorizing and surface-level processing that they’re not doing deeper level processing. So, that was some years ago and I’ve been building on that, trying to unpack how students study. My most recent study… that’s actually under review right now… a colleague, Kate Burns, and I took two of the most recommended cognitive psychology study techniques, which is repeated practice or testing yourself frequently and spacing out your practice or spacing out your studying, and we took both of these and across nine different campuses divided up classes such that the students in those classes were either using high or low levels of each of these. So, in one study across multiple campuses we tested is there a main effect of one of these types of studying or is there an interaction? And what we found is that there is an interaction and the critical component seems to be spacing out your studying. Not so much even repeating your studying, but really spacing out your studying, and I think what’s interesting here is the reason this is happening is the students who said that they were testing themselves repeatedly, that sounds great, and if you’re a cognitive psychologist you say, hey, the lab says repeat testing is great; the problem is in the classroom a lot of students who were repeatedly testing themselves were repeatedly testing themselves during a really short period of time.
John: Right, I’ve seen that myself.
Regan: And I think that’s the issue, but because we had both these factors in the study, we could actually tease that out. So that’s the kind of work that I do… is take a look at what the cognitive lab says is important; let’s see how it works in the actual classroom.
John: Now was this a controlled experiment? Or was this based on the students’ behavior?
Regan: So, yes and no, okay. [LAUGHTER] I love this study because of a number of reasons. Number one, we tested two different techniques in the same thing. Number two, we did it at multiple institutions, so it’s not just my classroom. A lot of SOTL is one class. So, here we went beyond to try and generalize. But, to get to your question, we actually used a true experimental design. So we recruited these different campuses and we assigned a classroom. So, for example, I’d say, “Hey John, thanks for taking part. If you can have your students do high repetition and high spacing?” “Hey Rebecca, thanks for taking part. Could you have your students do high repetition and low spacing?” And that’s how we spread it out. We had about two campuses in each of these cells. That’s the true experiment on paper. To get to the other part of what you said… in reality, that’s not exactly what students always did. And you know students; we can tell them to do something but a whole bunch of things gets in the way. Fortunately, of course, we measured self reports of what students said they actually did and it was relatively close to the study cells, but even though it varied a little bit we could still control for it. So, yes, it was close to a controlled study as much as you could control something in the real world across nine campuses.
John: That brings us to the general question of how you construct controls. Suppose that you make a change in your class; how do you get the counterfactual?
John: What would be some examples for people designing an experiment?
Regan: The word control, especially in research, has the true connotation of the word control group and that’s controlling for factors as different from having a control group. Optimally we’d love a control group. The problem with the control group is that it means no treatment. So, very often a true control group means this group of students is not getting something. From a philosophical and an ethical standpoint, I don’t like the notion of one group not getting something. So, the word I like to use is comparison group. So, your question still holds, but what’s the comparison group? I think here’s where if you’re fortunate enough to teach multiple sections, well one of the sections can be the comparison group. If you’re not fortunate enough to have multiple sections, you compare the students this semester with the students the last semester when you weren’t doing that new, funky innovation. So, there are a bunch of different ways to gather the comparison group, but you’re absolutely right: having a comparison group is important. Most commonly in scholarship of teaching and learning, the comparison is the students before that intervention, so it’s a classic pre- and post- measure. I’ll give you this quiz before I’ve introduced the material, I give you an equivalent quiz after, let’s see if there are changes in learning. And that’s the most common comparison; you’re comparing them with them before but optimally again you want a different section, you want a group of students, a different semester, or so on, and so on.
John: And it’s best if you have some other controls…
John: for student ability and characteristics.
Regan: You nailed one of the key—my two favorite are effort and ability. As much as possible, measure their GPA. If they’re first-year students, measure their high school ACT scores or their high school GPA and then you have to measure ability, and I think those two are probably the usual suspects for control. And again, a lot of SOTL doesn’t do that and it should.
Rebecca: I think one thing that comes up a lot for me (and maybe some others who are in disciplines maybe more similar to my own) is that the kind of research that we do is not this kind of research generally, but we’re really interested in what’s happening in our classrooms. So, for faculty who might be in the arts or some other area where we’re doing really different kinds of research, how would you recommend being able to partner or do this kind of work without that background?
Regan: And I think implicit in your question is the “Do I need to have a certain methodological tool bag?” and I remember I was at a conference once and somebody accosted me and said “Hey, is it true that you have to be a social scientist to do this work?” And the answer is no, and I wrote a pretty funky essay called “Get Foxy,” which is how social scientists can benefit from the methodologies of the humanists and vice versa. But, you’re right; you can collaborate if you need to do that kind of work, but there are a lot of questions even within your discipline… and when I think about SOTL I think about answering questions about teaching and learning with the tools of your discipline. Now, I’ll give you an example: a good friend of mine was an art and her project, or something that she wanted to dig into, was to improve student critiques in an art class. Here we have students learning how to do art (and I think it was drawing or jewelry making) and across the course of the semester everybody had to present their work and then critique each other’s work… and those critiques, they just didn’t have the teeth that she wanted them to, so she was giving them skills and how to do it. So here’s a case of how did she know whether or not the critiquing tools were increasing? Well, she came up with a simple rubric and to score them against and look at if the scores changed. Now, you may say, well, we very often in the arts and theater you don’t get skills to do that, which is true, but that’s where I think collaboration comes in and that’s why what’s really neat about scholarship of teaching and learning is very often there are class collaborations. I have a historian on my campus who wanted to change the quality of his essays and he and David Voelker changed how he was teaching and wanted to see it roll out and had students on their essays use teams in a different way. Well, he compared, and John this goes back to your point, he compared essays from before the change with essays from after the change, counted up the number of teams students had and then, Rebecca, to your point went over to my colleague in psychology and said, hey, can you tell me if this is statistically different. So, he didn’t even bother with doing the stats; he just said, “Hey look, I don’t need to do the stats.” But you can, in a click, and literally within minutes my colleague in psychology had done the stats for him. I think that’s the kind of stuff that can happen to truly get at those answers if you go, “You know, I don’t know how to do that.” But, you’d be surprised… the basic skills for SOTL can give you enough to test questions pretty well.
Rebecca: I think John and I have also found in the teaching center that it’s really exciting when faculty from different disciplines start talking about their research when they’re looking at learning because there’s things that we can learn from each other and the more that we’re talking across disciplines can be really valuable as well.
Regan: Right, and I think this is where reading the rich literature that exists in your discipline or even across disciplines on scholarship on teaching and learning really gives you the leg up, because I find now when I do workshops and somebody says, “You know, I’ve got this question; I don’t know how to start.” More often than not it’ll remind me of a study that I can say, hey, here’s what you can do. And it’s just because I read a lot and I’ve got all that in my head and I just matched to that question and it’s pretty easy. I mean, very rarely do we have to invent something from scratch. We go, “Hey, yeah, you know what? Here’s the study that’s pretty close to the question you have, let’s use that methodology.”
Rebecca: So, how do we build a culture of the scholarship of teaching and learning—the departments who might have faculty who are resistant to the idea of their colleagues spending their time doing that? How do we start changing minds and really building a culture that embraces the idea of the scholarship of teaching and learning?
Regan: Well, I think you’ve got to attack it from two different levels. You definitely want a champion in the administration who is educated enough about the scholarship of teaching and learning and how it can be done robustly. If you can convince somebody of it’s worth and then if you go “How do you do that?” …well that’s where you need to make sure you have at your fingertips, as a teaching and learning center, the exemplars of really robust work… and I think if you have that really robust work at your fingertips, that’s definitely a key place to start. One of my favorite examples along those lines of trying to convince (especially administrators) about the worth of scholarship of teaching and learning, I recommend a 2011 publication by Hutchings, Huber, and Ciccone, it’s called A Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Reconsidered and this 2011 publication is a great collection. It does your homework for you. That one book pulls together evidence for why scholarship of teaching and learning helps students, helps faculty, helps institutions. So that’s where the top down—get your administrators to check that book out and go, “Oh yeah, look, there is actually some good research.” Coming at it from the other angle—I know this for a fact—there are people on your campus doing some of that work, but often they may be isolated, they may be a small group. You want to strengthen them so that they can spread that to their circles, and that’s really how it starts. On my campus, when Scott was the Dean at Green Bay, we did a lot to develop scholarship of teaching and learning through the teaching center. There was one year where we had 14 faculty who got together every month and talked about their projects. Now you may say, well, that’s 14 and you had 160 faculty. You know what, you do 10 of working every year and colleagues see the value of the work those 10 or 14 are doing, pretty soon you’re gonna have a culture where people recognize it more and appreciate it more. So I think that’s how it goes… you put your efforts on those people who are already doing it to make them stronger and that’s gonna spill over and pretty soon you’re gonna win over folks.
John: We generally had support from the upper administration and there’s often been a lot of faculty who are new, interested in doing it; it’s usually the promotions and tenure committees that have served as a barrier in some departments, but we’ll work on that and we need to keep working on that.
Regan: Well, just along those lines on our campus we felt so strongly about the scholarship of teaching and learning that the Faculty Senate actually passed a resolution recognizing the importance of scholarship of teaching and learning. Now again, it still gave department chairs some leeway, but at least the faculty voted on it as something that the university values and that goes a really long way to having especially junior faculty say, you know, I can do this.
Rebecca: Certainly makes faculty, especially junior faculty, feel supported when the Senate is saying, “Yes, we believe in this” and it’s not just one person saying we don’t.
Regan: Absolutely. And they’ll be naysayers. We started off this conversation with “There are people out there who think it’s not good enough” and there are people out there but I’ve had conversations with such people on my campus where sharing some information, sharing things about how it’s done goes a long way towards changing minds.
John: In my department, it’s helped that I’ve been the chair of our search committee for a few decades now. We’ve generally hired people who are interested in this, but that’s not the case in all of our departments yet, but we’re hoping that’ll change. For those who have small classes or may not be interested in doing research in their own classes, one other option is meta-analysis. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Regan: So meta-analysis, where one study is taking a look at a lot of different studies, there is the mother of all meta analyses… is one that we should talk about because I think the interested person can run to it. John Hattie, now at the University of Melbourne, did a meta-analysis where actually he did a meta-meta-analysis; took 900 meta analyses and then synthesized the data from those 900 studies that had already synthesized data, and the reason I like talking about that is the sample size when you take all those 900 meta analyses is a quarter of a billion with a “b”; that’s a lot of data points, it’s a lot of students. And what’s neat about meta analyses is that instead of just being one study at one place it’s now multiple studies over multiple contexts, and if you can find an effect over multiple contexts, that’s really saying something because a lot of single studies are so geared into the local context of where that place is that if you run into a meta analysis, so even if anybody listening pulls up an educational journal or an SOTL journal and sees meta analysis in the title, I would spend more time reading that one because it’s gonna be more likely to generalize from that. So, I think it’s statistical and methodological advances now mean that there are more meta analyses around and more meta, meta analyses around as well.
Rebecca: As an advocate for the scholarship of teaching and learning, where do you hope the scholarship of teaching and learning goes in the next five years?
Regan: Honestly, I think it should be a part of every teacher’s repertoire. When I think about a model teacher, and it’s not just when I think about it—I’ve published on evidence-based college and university teaching and when my co-authors and I looked at all the evidence out there and what makes a successful university teacher… one of those components, and we found six… I mean, it wasn’t just student evaluations, no, it was your syllabi, it was your course design, but one big element was doing the scholarship of teaching and learning… and to answer your question, I think if in five years from now we can see it be part of teacher training to look at your class with that intentional systematic lens, I think that’s where the field needs to get to.
John: At the very least it would get people to start considering evidence-based teaching practices instead of just replicating whatever was done to them in graduate school.
Regan: Absolutely. People would be surprised at how much good SOTL there is out there, and I always like sending folks to the Kennesaw State Center for Teaching and Learning where they have a list of journals in SOTL in essentially every field. You will scroll through that list for ages and it is just mind-boggling to realize that, “Wow, SOTL has been going on for a very long time.” And Rebecca, you mentioned art and performance arts and theater and music… not as much, but even there there is a fair amount and I think it’s just a question of getting folks making those resources more available to individuals and that’s why whenever I interact with teaching and learning centers I have a short list of key resources to look at. And again, that’s on my SOTL link. But, even that small list is an eye-opener to most people who never knew this existed, and I think once they realize it’s there they will start seeing it everywhere and once you start doing it it really energizes you. For those of us who’ve been teaching for 20-plus years to look at our classes with that new eye of how can I change something, how can I make it better and then seeing the positive effects of those changes, that’s invigorating.
Rebecca: I’m energized after having this conversation.
Regan: It is good stuff.
Regan: I just got back from a three-day conference and all we did was sit around and talk about cool SOTL. And you’re right …came back and sitting on the plane I was texting people with study ideas to collaborate on. It was that exciting.
Rebecca: The more you talk… collaborate… the more it happens.
Regan: There you go.
Rebecca: So, we always wrap up by asking, what’s next?
Regan: You know, I think I like getting the bang for my buck and you mentioned this in the intro: right now I’m working on the American Psych Association’s Introductory Psychology Initiative and what’s next is basically two years of really focusing on the introductory psychology course. It’s taken by close to a 1.5 million students a year and I’d like to make sure we can make that course the best learning experience for our students as possible, so that’s where my energy is gonna be for the next little bit.
John: That’s a big task and a very useful one.
Rebecca: And definitely worthwhile. Well, thank you so much for spending some time with us this afternoon. it’s been eye-opening and exciting… energizing. I can’t wait to look through some of the resources.
Regan: You know, is there anything else that you’d like, get in touch and I welcome anybody listening to get in touch as well.
John: Thank you, and we’ll share links to the resources you mentioned in the show notes.
Regan: Sounds good.
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.