Many disciplines have well-developed signature pedagogies that are designed to help students develop the skills needed to view the world from their disciplinary lens. In this episode, Regan Gurung, Nancy Chick, and Aeron Haynie join us to discuss signature pedagogies and to examine how the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us to adapt our teaching approaches and encouraged faculty to seek out and share pedagogical advice as we attempt to provide enriching learning experiences for our students.
Regan is a Professor of Psychological Sciences at Oregon State University, Nancy is the Director of the Endeavour Foundation Center for Faculty Development at Rollins College, and Aeron is the Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of New Mexico.
- Gurung, R. A., Chick, N. L., & Haynie, A. (2009). Exploring Signature Pedagogies: Approaches to Teaching Disciplinary Habits of Mind. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
- Regan Gurung (2018). 54. SOTL. Tea for Teaching Podcast, November 7th.
- Schulman, L. S. (2005). Signature Pedagogies in the Professions. Daedalus, 134 (3), 52-59.
- Angela Bauer, Professor and Chair of Biology at High Point University
- Catherine Denial, Bright Professor and Chair of History at Knox College
- Punch Through Pandemic With Psychological Science – Course description at Oregon State
- Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). 13: In the Eye of the Storm: Students’ Perceptions of Helpful Faculty Actions Following a Collective Tragedy. To improve the academy, 25(1), 207-224.
- Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2006). Understanding by Design (Expanded 2nd edition). US: Pearson, 2005, 16.
John: Many disciplines have well-developed signature pedagogies that are designed to help students develop the skills needed to view the world from their disciplinary lens. In this episode, we examine how the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us to adapt our teaching approaches and encouraged faculty to seek out and share pedagogical advice as we attempt to provide enriching learning experiences for our students.
We should note that this podcast was recorded shortly after our campuses shut down in mid-March, but the discussion today remains as relevant as it was at that time.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Our guests today are:
Regan: Regan Gurung,
Nancy: Nancy Chick,
Aeron: and Aeron Haynie.
John: Regan is a Professor of Psychological Sciences at Oregon State University and had been a guest on an earlier podcast. Nancy is the Director of the Endeavour Foundation Center for Faculty Development at Rollins College. And Aeron is the Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of New Mexico. Welcome, everyone.
Regan: Thank you, John.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are:
Regan: I’m drinking some Darjeeling tea grown on the family estates on the foothills of Darjeeling.
Aeron: And I’ve just been enjoying some nice loose Earl Grey tea from the St. James Tea Room in Albuquerque.
Nancy: And since I’m in Florida where it’s 93 degrees outside, I’m drinking some strawberry fizzy water.
John: My tea today is Irish breakfast tea.
Rebecca: With your lack of selection because it’s all locked up. [LAUGHTER] Mine is blackcurrant tea today.
John: Regan, Aeron, and Nancy are the co-authors of Exploring Signature Pedagogies: Approaches to Teaching Disciplinary Habits of Mind and a follow-up volume Exploring More Signature Pedagogies. We’ve invited you all here today to talk a little bit about signature pedagogies and how that might relate to the situation we’re experiencing today, where faculty have suddenly, with very little notice, moved to remote teaching in the U.S. and for much of the rest of the world. Could one of you first define what is meant by a signature pedagogy?
Regan: We’ll let Nancy take this as this was her idea that got us all started.
Nancy: Okay, signature pedagogies were originally defined by Lee Shulman in 2004 when he had culminated some of his research on the professions and learned about how professors in those professions taught in ways that captured the ways of knowing, doing, thinking, and valuing of those professions. So the examples that he often gives… in law, law is typically taught with the very Socratic questioning, the spitfire Q&A, where the students need to recall details from cases on the spot, which very much resembles the courtroom; and in medicine, you have the rounds where the group of students and the doctor move around to a patient and diagnose collaboratively based on what they find in a very quick report from the patient, and that is how medicine works. And so Shulman ended his 2004 keynote at The International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning with a challenge to the academic disciplines. What are your signature pedagogies? What are the ways that you do or can teach in ways that embody the ways of knowing, doing, thinking, and valuing of your disciplines?
Aeron: In putting together this volume that we co-edited, one of the questions that came up from many of our authors was, “Are we describing the way that our discipline generally teaches, which we can think of that as a default or a traditional way? And how is that different than a signature pedagogy?” And I remember many of those conversations, and the real distinction is that the default pedagogy isn’t something that’s necessarily been examined as really helping promote ways of thinking as a practitioner, and so I think that’s an important distinction to make, too.
Regan: I think just building on that point, I remember a conversation with Angie Bauer, where she talked about how biology does it a certain way, but there are better ways to do biology signature pedagogy, and I think that was the very neat thing about their chapter, where they said, even though biology does it this way, there’s a better way to do biology.
Nancy: And I know that one thing that really triggered her and the other authors, and I don’t remember where this came from, maybe it came from Shulman, is the question of “What does it mean to think like a biologist?” And that question seems to open up a world of teaching when it comes to thinking about signature pedagogies and I think that’s really what we’re talking about.
John: So signature pedagogy, basically, is an ideal way in which people are training to become participants in the discipline, but not all disciplines have developed a very good alignment between what they’re trying to achieve in terms of student outcomes and the way in which they actually practice it, and that shows up in a number of the chapters. In fact, the chapter on economics I paid a little more attention to because it was pretty clear there that economics, at that time at least, did not have… and it still doesn’t, to a large extent… have a very well defined signature pedagogy, that there’s not always a very close alignment between how people teach and what types of skills they’d like to develop. If the purpose of a signature pedagogy is to help people understand the world through the lens of the discipline, i s this something that faculty generally make transparent to their students?
Aeron: I think no, in many cases, no. And I think that partly, that’s because as an expert, it’s so obvious and natural to us to look at the world as a historian or as a sociologist, or a biologist; that we don’t realize we’re doing it, and that’s one of the things that I think can be really lovely drawing on our experience and editing all of the different chapters is to realize that we actually do have a signature pedagogy, that we do have a disciplinary way of looking at the world, and as a faculty developer, I try very much to get instructors to think about articulating that in a way that makes sense and that’s coherent to undergraduate students, and I think this is particularly important with the general education core courses. The students in a gen ed course aren’t really going to be interested in learning a bunch of content just for the sake of providing a foundation that they can do cool stuff with, meaningful stuff with, later because that might be the only course they’re ever going to take in sociology or history or biology, so it’s so important to give them a more authentic and meaningful experience of seeing the world through that disciplinary lens. So I think this is important work to think about why your discipline matters. So right now, in this moment, if a student is struggling with being able to keep their attention span and prioritize your class over all of the other worries that they have, and child care and all of those things, why should they care about your class? And I think that we always need to articulate that. Why does history matter? Why does biology matter? We don’t always do a good job of explaining that, but it should always be something that we address. “Why should you care about my class? Why do I think it matters?” And say that in a way that makes sense to students.
John: How does this relate to the situation we’re facing now in terms of different disciplines’ approach to how they try to train their students, when suddenly they move from the modalities they’re used to into one that in some cases, they very rarely have experienced?
Aeron: I think we’re probably all seeing, as faculty developers, which is what all three of us are doing in many ways. At this point, what we’re seeing is that different departments have different anxieties, different specific anxieties about how to transfer, sometimes their default pedagogy, and sometimes we can say a signature pedagogy, but a specific way that they believe learning needs to be enacted or has often been enacted in the classroom. For example, we have a lot of science faculty saying, “Okay, so how do we do our science labs online?” or I’ve also had conversations with folks in art studio, “So how do we do metals? How do we do printmaking remotely?” and foreign languages as well. So on one hand, I think that really shows that different disciplines are impacted in different ways in terms of thinking about “how to,” and this is what’s so extraordinary about this moment, really kind of immediately, without much planning or forethought, just pick their courses up in the middle of the semester and pivot them to online. So that’s quite different than I think what Nancy is going to lead us to talk about in terms of stages two or three of this experiment, which is what would be a more reflective, thoughtful way, or evidence-based way to create a signature pedagogy online.
Nancy: And I build on that… You mentioned studio artists, and I’ve been having some really fascinating conversations with some of the artists here and they’re talking, like you said, about “How do we do printmaking or metallurgy,” or whatever but they’re also talking about “How do I do critique with a static desktop and my students are working on their art in their living rooms.” And so people are not talking about glossy and fancy technology, we’re talking about “Take your phone camera,” and the students take their phone camera and walk around and show their sculpture or their watercolor. So it’s this real foregrounding of the pedagogy even more than the technology, because I think when we talk about developing online courses, traditionally, we talk about okay, everyone is assumed to have a really nice computer with an LMS, and we focus on the LMS. But now, like Aeron said, it’s foregrounding the key pedagogies in these different departments.
Regan: I think that’s where the problem comes in, in some ways, when we talk about how well are faculty taught to train to teach in the first place. Because, interestingly enough, even before the pandemic, if we think pre-pandemic, there were many faculty in many disciplines who were not teaching their students the habits of mind of their profession. So in two volumes of multiple chapters, every author in those chapters are people who’ve taught about teaching, who’ve been reflective about that teaching, who’ve trained themselves to teach, and I think now when each of us look out at our respective campuses as directors of centers for teaching and learning, you see the vast number of individuals who aren’t really even teaching according to the signature pedagogies of their discipline, and that was pre-pandemic. Then you add the pandemic, and you build in all those factors about technology and remote teaching and things like that. So in many ways, this is a great wake up call for so many to say, “Do I even have the fundamentals of teaching down? Let me build on those fundamentals.” Because when it comes down to it, it’s engagement, right? One of the big questions that I see coming up is “How do I engage my students online?” And I think for all of us who’ve taught online before, we have a great advantage, there are a number of faculty who have never taught online and it’s a whole new way of thinking. So I think thinking about signature pedagogy is almost a luxury. I hope we can get there. Let’s get everybody going. When Nancy talked about different stages, today is day one of spring term at Oregon State, and so the last week was crazy. We have 1,300 faculty and 3,000 plus classes that had to move from face-to-face to online but all of last week, I can tell you, we weren’t fielding pedagogical questions, we were getting “How do I use Zoom? How do I use the LMS?” I think those pedagogical questions I’m looking forward to starting next week, not even this week.
Aeron: Yeah. And I want to add to that, I don’t know what day we’re on. This is the world’s longest month. [LAUGHTER] But we’ve been teaching, supposedly, pivoted to online for maybe I guess a week, officially. And I will say that last week, some of the most interesting conversations, and again, we did it primarily department by department. Some of our most interesting conversations were with faculty who were either able or forced to take that big view and just say, “What’s the most important thing? What do I really need students to experience or engage in through this semester, when the semester is over?” And actually some of the art studio faculty… I want to give a shout out to here at University of New Mexico, they’re extraordinary… they really had a very human and humane response, which goes to Regan’s point about engagement and connection and all of the evidence about belonging and they were really concerned with their students on the most human level. “How can I stay connected to my students? How are my students doing both medically and emotionally?” And they kept asking questions, “I’m worried about our graduate TAs, I’m worried about our graduate students.” So I think there have already been, here and there, some productive conversations about “Okay, we can’t continue the plan that we began when we originally planned this Spring 2020 semester. So if we’re going to scrap it, what’s most important?” And I want to give a shout out to Professor, and I don’t know how to pronounce her name, it’s Cate Denial in Knox College in history. This is on the Twitter, she shared that she had just changed her semester, and instead of the planned lessons in history, she gave them all notebooks and nice pens and said, “Record what’s happening to your individual lives right now and then we’re going to store these in the Knox College, I believe, library because your reflections are going to be part of an historical artifact.” And that is a way for us maybe to think about how signature pedagogies could eventually really revitalize these conversations. What does it mean to think like a historian? It means to think about that this will someday be history, and how do we decide what this was like? And how can students if all they remember from this semester is, “Oh, I’m actually part of history and my thoughts and my everyday experience might be interesting for folks, 20,50,100 years from now, that’s a really important thing, and it kind of a little bit segues into this conversation about the signature pedagogies in courses for majors versus gen ed students who aren’t going to be majors.
Rebecca: I think what’s really interesting is the idea of thinking about what it looks like to be an expert in a different field and how they’re going to perceive this experience in helping students process their experience through that lens, whatever that lens might be, and you’ve highlighted a couple of those examples could be really powerful. It also is one of those opportunities that we can do a multidisciplinary approach to studying something specific, which I think is really exciting.
Regan: I think what’s interesting here and the way you mentioned the historian taking history, I didn’t think about what we’re doing in this way, but we at Oregon State created a brand new class for coping with the pandemic and it’s called Punch through the Pandemic using Psychological Science. And in the lens of signature pedagogy is… talk about meta-metacognition, right? We’re psychologists offering a course on coping with the pandemic using psychological science. So there are all these different levels there going on and I bet you’ll see more of that going on as different disciplines take their lenses towards dealing with what’s going on. You know, John, you mentioned Econ, I bet all the economic stuff going on here and public health, and what a great opportunity to make learning real for our students, even more real than it has been.
Nancy: We’ve also seen this happening with literature and the art. I think of all of the examples on social media of people writing poetry, or sharing poetry, or sharing powerful photographs or works of art. Just how people are using the arts and humanities right now. As Regan said, to cope with what’s happening, we’ve been having these conversations for so long about the death of the humanities, and we are certainly seeing that the arts and humanities are far from dead. So I think they’re right about how this moment is really revitalizing a conversation about the role and the importance of all the disciplines and how they are all contributing to understanding and surviving and thriving soon, hopefully, in this moment.
Aeron: Absolutely, Nancy, and I wanted to give a shout out. A friend of mine has a daughter who’s just been accepted to Oberlin College, and as an admitted student, she got an email inviting her to be part of a two-credit interdisciplinary course that looks at economics and writing and sociology and biology and math, I think, and maybe others examining the virus and if the students who are admitted elect to take this course it would count for credit. First of all, I’m so in awe of them being able to get this faculty to develop something so rich, so quickly. Being at a large state university myself, I can’t quite picture how we would do that. But what this would do, I think, is very much as Nancy was saying, this would allow a freshman student to see, “Okay, here’s this big event that’s happened that’s impacting my life in all these ways. How does looking at the world with the lens of a sociologist, how does that help me start to answer this question of what’s happening? How does art and literature help me understand this question? How does history help me understand this current moment?” My daughter’s only in high school, but boy, I wish that she was able to take a course like that right now because what’s happening instead, and her school is lovely and her teachers are wonderful, but what at least started happening for her online schooling as a sophomore in high school, they were continuing the lessons as they had planned them and there’s such a disconnect between her lived experience and now being online and just having to do work in these separate, disparate disciplines that really aren’t connected to each other and aren’t connected to this important historical moment. And even though the virus has made this more intense, isn’t that what happens anyway? …that students go in and they take a bunch of courses that are not connected to each other, and they’re not connected to the lived realities of our students’ lives in the historical moment. So it’s making it more pointed, but I think that this is a critique we can make of higher ed and K-12 education in general.
Nancy: Just to build on that, I feel like we need to throw into the mix… some years ago, Therese Huston and Michele DiPietro did some research on how students reacted and what they needed, basically, from their professors after 9/11, after Hurricane Katrina, after some of the early school shootings, and among a range of ways that professors reacted, ultimately what these students wanted was for their professor to do something, to do something that, like Aeron says, connects whatever it is that’s happening to their lived reality. It can be small, it can be large, but I think now we’re not just talking about a moment of silence. I think what we’re seeing is an opportunity, like Aeron says, to use this moment to more fully integrate everything we know about learning across the disciplines. So I think this is a real moment to reach the lived experiences of students’ lives in the way that our disciplines are being enacted at this very moment. So it’s this fascinating kind of alignment of the stars for some really rich learning once we’re all ready to get to that stage, I think.
John: We threw out the plan for my class tonight. We’re going to be focusing on the economics of recovering from a pandemic. But one of the things I’m hearing is this notion that this is a great opportunity to think more deeply about our disciplines and about how we train our students. Instructors tend to teach in very much the same way that they have always seen and they tend not to change. There’s a lot of inertia in how we approach life, more generally. But there was a suggestion that everyone’s been getting instructions basically, to focus on “What are the most important learning outcomes that you want your students to have by the end of the class?” and “What’s the most efficient way of getting them there?” And this is forcing people to rethink everything about their teaching, and might this be a good opportunity to develop the signature pedagogy of their disciplines?
Nancy: You know, that Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins are alive and well right now and very excited because this is truly a moment of uncoverage. Aeron was the one earlier who talked about how people are really thinking, “What’s most important, what do I want my students to remember?” So we’re talking right now about everyone is going through this process of uncoverage, getting rid of that coverage model and really focusing on what’s important.
Aeron: Yeah, and as much as I agree with Nancy, and I love how you’ve been, John, sort of pivoting your course, I also want to say that I’m nervous that it may not go as optimistically this semester and, as we can all imagine, that there’s opportunities, but I’m also worried that what we’re really going to find out is that a lot of faculty find this process so frustrating. And we Regan said at the beginning of our conversation, that a lot of initial comments are about the technologies and not the pedagogy. I myself had a problem going from Zoom to a Zoom Pro account, and I got frustrated. I’m the Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and I thought, “My goodness, if I’m frustrated for a few minutes, what are the rest of the faculty experiencing?” So, this is not the ideal way for this to happen, aside from loss of life and all of that, but just pedagogically and institutionally, it’s just not the best way for this to happen, so it is an opportunity. I don’t know what we’re going to see. I’m thinking myself, and my excellent staff are spending a lot of time thinking, “How can we best support faculty in leading them into these larger, richer conversations, and away from just conversations where they’re focusing on the mechanisms of teaching?”
Regan: I think it’s also, when you think about the conversations, one of the neat things that I keep trying to remind people of when I talk to them about the remote switch is when you go online and when you are relying on Zoom, but more importantly, you’re relying more on your LMS. Now the opportunities to essentially have one-on-one conversations increases dramatically, and I think what’s going to happen, that we haven’t started talking enough about yet, is what if, in two weeks from now or three weeks from now, faculty are sick and students are sick. I think there are many disciplines where we focus so much on the dynamics of the course that we don’t think about “How is the student actually taking this?” and what’s going on in their lives that could influence how they experience the course, and I think this is the time that that realization and openness is more important than ever. And I’m sure we’ve all had conversations with individuals who will say, “Look, that’s University 101,” or “That’s Academic Student Services’ job, not mine,” and I think right now the realization is no, it’s all of our jobs.
Nancy: And Regan, I really appreciate you saying that because part of me is cringing a little bit at the idea of an opportunity because all of us right now, we’re seeing not only the people getting sick and people dying, but as Aeron said earlier, faculty are first and foremost right now worried about their students. Yes, we have to make all this transition to an LMS, to Zoom, to whatever, but first and foremost, “Are my students okay?” Those are the conversations that I’m hearing and, “Are my colleagues okay?” So right now again, we’re in that early stage where I don’t know if it’s an opportunity for anything right now. R ight now we have a moment of care for each other and our students just to make it work, and just to survive and thrive together, then we’ll get to some, I think, pedagogical opportunities.
Rebecca: I think the reminder of care is really important, care for ourselves, care for each other, and I think students are demonstrating care for their faculty as well. There’s a lot of stories of students reaching out to faculty to make sure they’re okay too and I think that just demonstrates how we’re all human and that humanness is coming out right now. And the care that goes both ways actually is coming out in these communities. So I think that’s really important. And being forgiving of yourself as you’re teaching in these crisis moments. It’s not gonna be perfect, and I think reminding everyone that it’s not going to be perfect is a good thing to be doing. But then looking forward to, not in a joyful way necessarily, the idea that we may need to be planning for this again in the summer, and in the fall, depending on how the virus experience unfolds, that’s when some of these signature pedagogy ideas could maybe start to be implemented.
Aeron: I think that the way that I’m seeing signature pedagogies is the way that disciplines are reaching out and I know there’s a lot of resources being shared by historians. I know there’s folks in the sciences that are sharing resources and in math, so that is a movement toward a sort of disciplinary signature pedagogy approach, which is “How can we share methods and ways of engaging in this new modality that will be effective?” What, of course, we hope eventually can be afforded is some sort of evidence-based way of evaluating the effectiveness of these new modalities. For the record, I’m not saying that we should study this semester, I just mean, in general, that we do want to go toward evidenced based. But, thinking about compassion and flexibility, which has been our mantra in every department consultation, compassion and flexibility for our students and for ourselves. Again, shouldn’t that be our mantra all the time, because even though we don’t always have this many people facing a health crisis and employment crisis, and mental health crisis, we have students facing those things and faculty and staff facing significant health challenges, and mental health challenges, and economic challenges all the time. It’s just not all happening in the same way. And so probably you’ve all seen and read studies and disability rights folks saying “Well now you know what it’s like to really have to think about these health concerns and to feel isolated,” and I think that’s a really important part of this conversation, that some form of this virus has been going around all the time. People have been affected in many ways, people have been losing jobs, people have been overcome by stress that makes them unable to perform cognitively at the level that we keep expecting, so I wanted to throw that out there too.
Rebecca: I think it’s really interesting to see how all these things that tend to be invisible have become visible, and that maybe is a really useful outcome of this experience.
Nancy: This really is a moment of forced empathy, if you will, and it’s hard not to think about how desperately we needed to empathize with each other in the historical moment we were in a few months ago. And now we have this moment where we’re having to really think about people across the globe and people who are very different from us in ways that I think a lot of people haven’t, so it is this moment of care and empathy and compassion.
Regan: I just sort of, especially at this time where many faculty may be struggling with “How do I teach this in this format? How do I do what I normally did in this remote teaching environment?” And it actually reminds me of something when we edited the first book in particular, where I know for me, as a social scientist, reading all the other chapters was really neat to go, “Oh, that’s how you do it there. That’s how you do it there.” And I know something that the three of us shared with all our authors, and even the readers, is don’t just read the chapter from your discipline, read the other chapters. And at this time, I think of that because I go, you know what? There may be another discipline’s signature pedagogy that may help you in your discipline at this time, and I think that’s just another neat thing about nicely describing a signature pedagogy for your discipline, because the reality is some of the elements and how you do it may really help somebody from a different discipline… and the example about the art critique and the phone… yes, that makes perfect sense for a sculpture, but that also makes sense If I want to do something in a different format in what I’m doing.
Nancy: Actually, Regan, that’s a great example because the conversation with the artist and using the phone for critique came as some scientists were talking about doing a biology lab with students with their phones so they could see what the students were doing. so that’s exactly what you’re describing, an example of one discipline working out its signature pedagogy in this environment, and another saying, “Aha, that’s how we can do ours.”
Rebecca: We’ve had a lot of those interesting intersections, not just at this time, which has certainly happened. We’ve had a really nice social media group that’s been helping each other out and sharing some of those ideas and examples, but also, I’ve run an accessibility fellows program that is cross disciplinary too and those kinds of things happen all the time, where it’s like I’m trying to overcome this accessibility barrier, and then someone from another discipline has encountered something, it’s not exactly the same but has some of the same kinds of issues, like in sciences, and the arts, for example, certainly helped each other out a lot in that area. So I think it’s always fun and maybe a nice opportunity to get to know colleagues and ways of knowing that are different from what you always have experienced before. One other question that I had thinking about signature pedagogies is maybe a lot of disciplines haven’t really thought about where remote plays into their discipline, or what it means to be a professional, and if this is an opportunity to think about what kinds of remote experiences actually happen in our disciplines, as professionals or the kinds of things that we engage in that maybe we might start incorporating into our classes anyways. And this might be an opportunity to experiment, maybe not right in this moment, but maybe as we plan in moving forward.
Nancy: I’m just thinking about all of the authors I’ve seen who’ve come out and said “If you’d like for me to visit your class, now I can do that,” or virtual book launches. So I just think even in my discipline of English, how it’s making the authors, and publishers, so much more accessible.
Aeron: Yeah, it’s interesting. We’ve had a little bit of a controversy here at the University of New Mexico. Arts and sciences, I believe, last semester issued a statement saying that faculty have to be present a certain number of days on campus, and I think that this comes from an understandable desire to make sure that faculty are accessible to their graduate students and on committees and that they’re doing service to their department. But we’re starting to see already, even before this current moment, that there are faculty who are just as engaged, if not more so, remotely than folks who are next door in their office with the door shut. So that notion of what does it mean to be present? What does it mean to be engaged? What does it mean to do good work and be a good colleague, I think is being further troubled in this semester.
John: Following up on that a little bit, one of the things that a lot of faculty had said is that they’re going to continue using Zoom or other tools to connect, to hold office hours, because we have a lot of students who commute who just can’t make it very easily to office hours because of schedules, and they found it really helpful as a way of students showing what they’re working on, sharing the screens, and so forth. And my department is continuing a workshop series, but it’s now going to be offered over Zoom and that makes it a whole lot easier for people who are more distant, who don’t have to commute into campus. So, I think we’ll see a lot of those things being rethought when we return to something that’s a semblance of normal.
Nancy: And it’s really helping us push back against that narrative that you cannot have community in virtual environments. That’s been a narrative for a long time, and we’ve known, in pockets, that that’s not necessarily the case, that it can be done, if done intentionally and deliberately, and I think we’re seeing that right now on a global scale. So, I think you’re right. Redefining presence, redefining community, redefining collaboration with great implications for the classroom.
Regan: And I think something else that’s going on here is, to build on that a little bit, we’re discovering some exemplary ways to use this technology that are being shared more, but that probably would not have been shared as much if this was not going on. I think within every discipline, there’s a lot of variance, and there are some faculty who have better developed signature pedagogies who are maybe practicing them more, and some who are not, and I think with the amount of sharing that’s been going on now, I think there’s a little bit of an equalization or where more people are getting access to a “best practice” of doing something that they wouldn’t have been paying attention to before. I’m liking that notion of edits. “Here’s how we can do labs better, here’s how we can do our critiques better.” That’s been shared more than I think it was before, so the way that is getting more scholarship on teaching and learning out there than I think it would have.
Nancy: Another really important thing that’s happening right now is exactly what Regan’s talking about, this sense of sharing. The social media communities built up around teachers, educators, people in specific disciplines sharing resources, sharing advice, sharing experiences on a global scale. During the first week when this happened, I was helping to moderate a Facebook group for educators started by a woman in Thailand who I’ve never met, and in five days, there were over 90,000 members of this group. So we started to divide them down by grade, but just the level of sharing is unprecedented, to say the least. So I really appreciate Regan’s point about the role of scholarship in that sharing, and earlier Aeron talked about the role of evidence-based practices as part of that sharing.
Aeron: That sense of generosity that goes across disciplines and across institutions and across countries as well, I think that is the most powerful message from this crisis as globally, we are all connected, and we’re going to sink or swim together. And we’ve seen even on our campus, a lot of generosity, and folks who are more experienced with online tools volunteering to be consultants, participating graduate students offering, volunteering as well, who are more savvy with tools, and it’s really been lovely to see that.
Rebecca: If we think a little bit about next steps or moving beyond the next few weeks, which are really urgent, and we finish up the semester and we start thinking about reflection. What are some of the things that you want to encourage faculty to reflect on as they move forward?
Regan: I know from a center perspective, something that I’ve been actively trying to do, even right now, is trying to anticipate what the next needs of the faculty would be, and I think, like we’ve all talked about, right now it’s still stage one, “Let’s get remote and let’s get comfortable doing that.” And I think we might anticipate those next level of questions. The next level of needs is key, but I think, again, building on what we just said in terms of the sharing, I think what’s happening is these really neat signature pedagogies are emerging from different schools and different colleges, and I think being able to capture that and then connect with some of what’s been emerging at other institutions is pretty key. I mean, I know locally when I speak to, let’s say, engineering, I hear certain ways that tackling the lab situation and they talk to forestry, and then try to get to share across there, and I think the immediate next step seems to be alright, let’s come up with a better way of sharing these signature pedagogies even amongst other universities in the same disciplines, I think would be pretty neat way to go. So, it’s informal right now, and I think we’re tiptoeing towards a better way of doing it.
Aeron: We’re in the process also of thinking about our phase two after the triage and I think one thing seems apparent, and that is that we’re going to always need to have a remote component or an online component. I hope that in moving ahead that faculty who hadn’t interacted with our teaching center will realize, “Well, okay, this is a resource.” And also will be a little bit less nervous about having Zoom meetings and putting things online. But I think the most powerful thing will come when people, after this semester is over and all of us sit down and think, “Okay, what was lost by pivoting to remote teaching and learning and what wasn’t lost?” And I think a lot of that, going back to how is it changing us as professionals to work remotely? I’ve spent probably as much time as the rest of you thinking, “Okay, what do I miss? And what, strangely, do I not really miss that much? How productive can we be in non-traditional ways, and how engaged can we be in non-traditional ways?” That will be interesting, I think, when the dust settles and when this semester is over and we really have some time to reflect, for us to ask “What was lost? What is it that we want to build into our courses for the fall, and what do we realize that we can live without?”
Nancy: That idea, that part of the reflection is prioritizing, based on “What did I learn would work well, and what can I live without?” as Aeron said… What I actually would like to see people reflecting on afterwards has nothing to do with signature pedagogies. It’s more “What did they learn about being human?” And what did they learn about, I hesitate to say, work-life balance, but that’s the phrase that we all recognize. So much of what’s happened over the last few weeks has forced people to really not only think about “What’s important in my course, what can I get rid of and what do I really need to focus on in my course?” but with our entire lives, and I think we’re going to, in a few weeks or months, start looking back and really re- evaluate how we spend our time, how we spend our time in our courses, how we spend our time preparing for our courses, how we spend our time as faculty, how we spend our time as friends and partners and family members and humans. And I think all of that coming together, that kind of integrated way of thinking about our lives is parallel, or maybe the other side of the coin of, the integrated way the disciplines right now are helping to make sense of what’s happening to us. This is really just all about integrative thinking.
Regan: This is the scary reality for me, that at the end of this we’re gonna ask the same question of both our lives and our classes, which is what’s really important, especially when we think about learning outcomes. At the end of all this are those learning outcomes that so many people sweat so much to cover, was that really important? How our learning outcomes gonna change, I bet that’s gonna be different coming this fall.
Aeron: Backwards design your life.
Regan: There you go, there you go.
Rebecca: I think one thing that’s interesting that you’re highlighting is the idea that to be able to articulate your own disciplinary way of looking at things, you almost need to know what other ways of looking at things are. So, by looking at other chapters of your book, for example, or exploring as we’re figuring out ways to handle our current situation from other disciplines, it’s a good way to then be able to articulate the ways that we actually learn and see the world in our own discipline. By knowing what we don’t do, [LAUGHTER] can be really helpful. Our worlds have collided, there is no silo between my personal life and my work life at this moment, as we noticed when my two-year-old walked in earlier when we were chatting, and I think that that’s important, that integrated way of thinking has been forced because there is no possibility of silo at the moment. Before it was really easy to exist in silos or really separate our personal lives from our work lives.
Nancy: Remember, it wasn’t that long ago when a man was being interviewed on the news and his child walked into the room, and that hit the news all over the place because it was, “This doesn’t happen, and isn’t that cute,” and now it’s just reality.
John: But it does open up some possibilities of better connections with students during this event, because they are in their home, they’re really scared, and I’ve noticed, at least, that they’re much more likely to open up about their concerns than they would be in a typical class session, because in class they see it as very narrow, very focused… when they’re sitting at home and they’re worried and they come in a little bit early or they stay a little later, they’re much more likely to open up about all of their issues and talk about how the class is going as well, but also their concerns and what sort of barriers they have in ways that many faculty don’t normally discuss with students, or at least not in a large-class session. Going back to a point that was made just a few minutes ago, there’s the suggestion that for gen ed classes, it’s really important to convey to students why it’s important and so forth, but it’s also important within disciplines. This came up a little bit in the chapter on economics where economists often say that they’re trying to prepare students for grad school, yet those students make up probably less than 1% of most of the students in our classes, and that’s something that perhaps a lot of faculty don’t always think about. And if we do focus a little bit more on the things that motivate students and why students are in our class and trying to help explain to students why this is important and why it’s interesting, maybe the focus that people are getting now might help people work to address that more generally to improve their disciplinary approaches as well.
Aeron: As someone with a PhD in the humanities, I don’t think we should be thinking about educating future graduate students at all. I think we should be thinking about, in gen ed courses, educating future citizens and human beings.
John: We always end our podcast with a question. What’s next?
Regan: I think something that has a lot of pedagogical implications I know, and life implications, is how long are we going to look at this as, and I think I’m really glad that we’ve moved from the “Let’s reassess every two weeks,” to a school is closed through the fall, or at least to the summer. And I think decisions like that really help people cope and get control, and I think that’s something… I know it’s a mid-range plan… is really getting people used to the fact that we’re looking at minimum this for three months, and don’t do something just for today, change that house around, change that routine around now, because who knows, and I’m one of the most optimistic people normally and I continue to be so, but I just worry about when our students actually start getting sick and when our faculty start getting sick, because they are going to, and I think a lot of what we’re talking about, I saw a meme just last night, “The Titanic’s going down and the musicians are still playing.” This is happening and we’re worried about remote teaching, and it’s important, but I don’t know if we’re having enough discussions about the big picture.
Rebecca: Our contingencies need contingencies.
John: One of my colleagues mentioned that she received a note from one of her students that her mother has been diagnosed with this, and we’re going to be seeing a lot of that, that is a serious issue.
Nancy: What’s next for me, perfectly in line with what Regan was saying, what’s next for me is, it’s a beautiful day outside. We’re on lockdown, but we’re allowed to go outside if we stay away from people, so I’m going to go for a walk.
Rebecca: It’s raining here, but I’m going to do the same thing.
Regan: I teach online in an hour, but I think I’m going to take the dog outside in the meantime.
Aeron: And I’ve never been so happy to be in under-populated New Mexico, where really you never are going to be within six feet of someone, and so I’m going to go take a nice long hike. Shout out to SUNY, I’m a SUNY grad, SUNY Binghamton, SUNY Buffalo.
John: Thank you for joining us. This has been a wonderful conversation.
Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much. Really good conversation.
Aeron: Thanks for inviting us, it was such a good excuse. Well, nice to meet you too, but so nice to see you, Regan and….
Regan: Good to see you guys.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance provided by Savannah Norton.
Many studies have found that peer-led team learning is effective in helping students learn. In this episode, Dr. Christina Winterton joins us to discuss her study of the factors that result in more productive relationships between peer leaders and the students they work with. Christina has returned to SUNY Oswego as a full time visiting professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, and was previously the Associate Director of the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program at Lemoyne College.
- Julia Snyder, Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Science Teaching in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University
- Jason R. Wiles, Associate Professor of Biology and Science Teaching in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University
- Peter Arcidiacono (2020) 122. Differential Grading Policies. Tea for Teaching Podcast, February 26th.
- Student Assessment of their Learning Gains (SALG)
- Michelle Miller, Director of the First Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University.
- Winterton, C. I., Dunk, R. D., & Wiles, J. R. (2020). Peer-led team learning for introductory biology: relationships between peer-leader relatability, perceived role model status, and the potential influences of these variables on student learning gains. Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Science Education Research, 2(1), 1-9.
- Ryan Dunk, Graduate Student in Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University.
John: Many studies have found that peer-led team learning is effective in helping students learn. In this episode, we discuss a study of the factors that result in more productive relationships between peer leaders and the students they work with.
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.
Fiona: My name is Fiona Coll. I teach in the Department of English and Creative Writing here at SUNY Oswego and this is my turn to sit in as a guest host.
John: Our guest today is Dr. Christina Winterton. Christina has returned to SUNY Oswego as a full-time visiting professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, and was previously the Associate Director of the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program at Lemoyne College. Welcome, Christina.
Christina: Hi, thank you for having me.
Fiona: Our teas today are:
Christina: I am drinking green tea infused with raspberry, pomegranate, and strawberry.
Fiona: Amazing. I am drinking Tazo’s Refresh Mint tea with a wink.
John: And I am drinking Republic of Tea’s Spring Cherry Green tea. We’ve invited you here today to discuss the dissertation research that you’ve done on peer-led team learning in an introductory biology class. Can you first describe what is meant by peer-led team learning?
Christina: Sure. Peer-led team learning is an active learning technique that typically gets implemented in courses where there’s going to be a high enrollment of students, so a lot of the introductory sciences. I specifically helped with the peer-led team learning at Syracuse University. So the intro to bio course there had between 600 and 700 students for the first semester, and then it went to about 500/400 for the second semester. So with all those students, we still had two lecture periods. So all those students were in one of two lectures. So to supplement the lecture, we found a bunch of research on PLTL, and they implemented peer-led team learning at Syracuse University. And what it is, is it takes students who have recently and successfully completed that introductory biology course, they become peer leaders. So, they need to get a B plus or higher in the course, but then they also have to enroll in a one-credit course with a learning specialist. And our learning specialist at SU is Dr. Julia Snyder, who actually was a huge factor in implementing PLTL at all with Dr. Jason Wiles, who is the professor of intro to bio. So, the premise of peer-led learning or PLTL is you take the student who just recently and successfully completed the course, you give them a course about how to be a leader. So, it covers pedagogy, Bloom’s Taxonomy, different teaching styles. And then after they meet with the learning specialists, they are on their own to lead a 55-minute section of the supplemental peer-led team learning course. So, they get modules that they work through with the students. And it’s different than a teaching assistant or a faculty because, first of all, there are no grades involved. The peer leader’s not grading the students, they’re just there to help, and a big difference, a big key, is that the peer leaders are not provided answer keys to these modules. So, they’re truly acting like a fellow learner, a fellow student. They’re relying on what they remember, what their notes are, and they’re just facilitating the conversation. And as a group, the current students are working with this peer leader to construct new original answers and in that they become friends, and they talk more about their feelings and what they really think of certain aspects and how to work through it, and the peer leader is able to relate and share stories because they just took the course.
Fiona: Could I ask some very practical questions about how this works?
Fiona: So how big are the groups, the peer groups?
Christina: So each group will have six to eight current students with a peer leader.
Fiona: And these are sections that are scheduled along with the massive lecture courses.
Christina: Yeah. Yep, they’re supplemental. So it’s a co-enrollment.
Fiona: And they’re required?
Christina: They are not required. The literature breaks it down with different incentives for different universities to have the peer leaders and the students both choose to be in peer-led team learning. So, for the leaders, typically it’s a learning credit or a leadership credit, and it’s a resume builder. It’s a way for some of the students who are going to maybe take an MCAT to refresh themselves on the material. And then for the students, a lot of the times it’s connected to maybe a portion of extra credit. So that’s the different carrots.
Fiona: Yeah, that’s fascinating. And I want to talk very, very much about the way you assessed this program, but could you give us maybe an example of a teaching technique or something that the peer leader might learn in the one-credit course you were mentioning they’re a part of?
Christina: Sure. I was lucky enough to be able to fill in for Dr. Snyder sometimes when she was out. One of my favorite lessons that we did was as the instructor for the day, I stood up in front of the classroom and all the leaders all had different pieces of paper. And I said, “Okay, listen to what I say and do it as I say it.” And then I said aloud instructions, “Fold the top of the paper to the right towards the center, make a triangle on the side, do it again with the other side,” and I verbally gave them instructions on how to fold a paper airplane. Well, obviously, that didn’t go so great. So I said, “Okay, keep that to the side.” I didn’t even tell them what they were making. They were like “What am I doing?” So they put it to the side. The next thing, I gave them a handout that it said “Step one, fold this” and it was just written instructions. And then for the final round, I put it on the doc cam and folded it with them. And then we looked at the three different outcomes, and we talked about different strategies used to teach or explain. “Did everybody do it the best the last time? Did maybe somebody do it better the second time? Is that right? Is that wrong?” And we talked about different ways to convey the same information to different groups of students when they’re actually leading a session.
Fiona: And do the peer leaders who are forming a cohort of their own essentially, as they’re going through this…
Fiona: Do they report back through the semester with questions or problems, does that fold into this?
Christina: Yes, I know that Dr. Snyder, as part of the course, she had them keep journals. And so they would reflect on the session. And each leader really only had one group of students. So they knew their names, they knew their habits, they were able to write really good reflective journals and keep notes on “They liked this module or they didn’t like this module. You know, they really liked the debate that we did this week.” Or next week they’d say, you know, “Those concept mappings?…the students struggled, but I think I personally saw them learning even though they didn’t.” So we were able to get really good insight on the models just from those journals.
John: There’s a lot of research that shows that peer instruction can be really effective. What makes it so effective?
Christina: What makes it so effective is actually what my research honed in on, because I was obviously a member of this Biology Education Research Group at SU and I saw Dr. Snyder and Dr. Wiles doing all these really cool things with PLTL. And I know it got results in the form of the research coming out was saying the students enrolled in PLTL had higher grades than their non-PLTL peers, because like you asked, it’s not mandatory. So, some students were in it, and some students weren’t. And you’re able to see the difference in final grades. And I just wanted to know “Why,” right? “What is it about the session? Is it the environment? Is it that there’s no faculty? That it wasn’t in a lecture hall? (It was in a small library room.)” So I just wanted to figure out what about the interaction made it so effective, and I thought like you’d ask that it would have to have something to do with the dynamic between a student-to-student rather than a student-to-faculty. So I was reading up on some literature trying to find out in particular for the STEM fields, what makes peers help each other more. And that led me to some research on role models and relatability and seeing someone you can relate to be successful or do something you want to do. So that led me to develop my question of “Is the PLTL setting enough to leave a student calling their peer leader a role model by the end of this? And what makes up a role model? And did it have an effect?”
Fiona: Don’t keep us in suspense.
John: Although maybe we want to save the answer until a little bit later.
Christina: That’s another question. Yeah.
John: So make sure you listen to the end of the podcast to find out what happened. [LAUGHTER] So you talk about, in your dissertation, the importance of education in the STEM fields. Why is it important to focus our attention on STEM programs?
Christina: So it’s important to focus on STEM programs in particular during the first year or so of college when the students are choosing their major and deciding if they want to pursue STEM after they get a sample of it because the highest rate of students leaving STEM comes between the freshman and sophomore year. So a cause could be what they perceive to be an unwelcoming, large intro course. They come from high school where it’s a smaller class, students know each other, the teachers know them, then you go to the lecture hall and nobody sees you and attendance doesn’t matter, you know. So we can make it feel welcoming and inclusive and that your voice is being heard. And if you have a question, don’t be afraid to ask it and other people struggle as well, then maybe we can keep them and say, “Okay, I still want to pursue this. I got through first year and now I’ll be able to choose an elective that hones in on my specific interests.” So, we particularly don’t want to scare them away with large intro courses, because the overall number of degrees conferred in STEM in the United States is lower than China and Russia and other countries comparable to us.
Fiona: And we also know that the struggle to complete let’s say, STEM is not evenly distributed across different sorts of student groups. That attrition that you described…
Fiona: is exaggerated in certain underrepresented groups.
Christina: Absolutely, actually, again, we’ll speak to some of the amazing people I was able to work with while I was at SU in that Biology Education Research Group, one of their studies specifically showed that peer-led team learning closes the gap between underrepresented minorities and their peers in the course. So peer-led team learning can provide this avenue to level out the playing field.
Fiona: Did you have any experience with peer-led learning yourself in your own education?
Christina: I didn’t actually, no.
Fiona: Everything you’ve described makes so much sense. Motivating students, making learning spaces accessible to students.
Fiona: And I can’t help but think what would be different about my educational path if I had had peers involved in the process in some way?
Christina: Yeah. And I actually went to SU myself, and this opportunity wasn’t available. So it’s fairly new.
John: I started doing it after quite a few years ago, maybe 12/13 years ago, I went to a conference. And I wish I knew who presented this. But there was an experiment, and I believe it was a chemistry class, where they introduced your instructors and they measured the students’ performance for everyone, including the TAs. There was a larger group, and they had larger sections, but they had graduate TAs and they were using undergraduate TAs for the first time. And they measured the increase in performance of students from the beginning to the end, including the TAs, and what they found is among the undergraduate students in the class, the graduate student TAs, and the undergraduate TAs, the undergraduate TAs actually learned the most, and the students who work with the undergraduate TAs had larger learning gains than those who work with the graduate TAs, which is very consistent with the types of things that are being found here. There have been quite a few studies, and I wish I knew some of the citations off-hand, that have found similar effects. It’s interesting. I should also note, in a podcast that we released on February 26, we talked a little bit more about the dropout rate where we specifically looked at the gender difference in dropout rates, and that women are disproportionately likely to leave the STEM fields in response to the relatively lower grades that they receive in the STEM field compared to other disciplines, even though their grades were higher than males in the classes, at least in that study. So the lower performance that many students experience in the STEM fields does seem to be a pretty significant deterrent for, as you said, underrepresented groups. Also, for first-gen students, it seems to be pretty significant in a number of studies. So we’re losing a lot of people who could be really successful in these fields, and as you noted, we’re falling behind other countries. And as we close our borders to the people coming from other countries that could seriously hurt us in the STEM disciplines if we don’t bring more people through here or eliminate some of the barriers to foreign students entering.
Christina: Actually as part of my research, when I was delving into some of the psychology research that came up because I was looking at perception and role models, so we went past biology and education into a little bit of the psych realm, and there was one study that just laid it out really clearly like exactly what you’re saying. And it just got me so interested because their study specifically aimed to put students in a situation and give them exposure to things that would specifically counteract the two prevalent STEM stereotypes and identified the two prevalent STEM stereotypes as: 1. STEM is for white European males, and 2. STEM is only for those who are innately gifted at it. So, that really caught my attention because as an advisor, and as a professor, the students have come up to me a lot of times in STEM courses and said, “I got a bad grade on this. I don’t think I’m good enough at this. I studied for 50 hours that week.” And they always put an emphasis on how hard they had to work to get their grade as if it’s a bad thing. And it really just speaks to that that they truly think that people who are successful in the fields are just born with it and that even your professors never had to put in work. So now after reading that article, I always try to directly counteract those stereotypes for them as well and say, you know, “I have to put in a lot of work to maintain too, you know, it’s normal. And it’s not just for those people and don’t give up, everybody has to put in work, even though they don’t maybe show it or maybe you don’t see that.”
John: And that’s where the peers can be really useful because they just went through it. And serving as you said, as that role model, can be really effective in letting them know that this is just normal. This is how we learn.
Fiona: And I could see how hearing “This is normal, this is how we learn” might resonate very differently, if that comes from a peer than it does from a professor, even if you’re being…
Fiona: entirely sincere and open.
Christina: Definitely, and especially from someone who has no power over their grades, or what’s going to be on the quiz, you know, so if they can just hear it from a peer.
John: And who not only had just been through it, but had been through it successfully and was able to do well in the course.
Christina: Yeah, and if they can share with them, how many hou rs a week they put in and how they prioritized it as well. That’s gonna all lead to part of the finding.
Fiona: You mentioned that you didn’t have any experience with peer-led team learning in your own education.
Fiona: Can you tell us a little bit about how you discovered this as a topic? And what made you decide that this is what you wanted to research?
Christina: Sure. So, I actually discovered this because I went to Syracuse University myself, and I was a biology undergraduate. But, then I decided to get a master’s degree in forensic science because the pieces of biology that I enjoyed most were DNA and genetics. So I pursued a Master’s of Forensic Science, and as a graduate student, I was assigned to be a teaching assistant in intro to bio. So I began doing labs, and as I mentioned before, Jason Wiles is the professor of Intro to Bio, so he was my supervisor then and he became my PhD advisor as him and I started agreeing on some teaching strategies and techniques. So, I saw the students as a teaching assistant in the lab. And the lab by itself is such a different feeling than the lecture. I saw 24 students at a time, not 600, so I was able to see that perspective when I was a teaching assistant, and I was giving them weekly quizzes and grades, and they could come to my office hours, and it was like a tutoring type thing. So, I saw that perspective of them. And then they implemented the peer-led team learning. In addition to the lecture in the lab, this became an option. And they started doing research on it, and Dr. Wiles was leading that research. And then when I chose to get my PhD, he still had active projects going on. And I was looking at those results of how come this increases their grades, and this does increase their grades. And then it just made me think: Why?
John: So that brings us to your study, how did you design a study to investigate these issues?
Christina: Alright, I went back and forth on the design for this a lot because a lot of the research was focusing on assessments, quiz grades, test grades throughout the course and final course averages. So, I wanted to include that because I knew that there had been good results as far as a positive benefit for PLTL and you could find this in the grades, in the difference between the grades. So, I knew I want to collect data on the final course grades, which is easy enough. But then I also wanted to hear from the students what they felt PLTL gave them in terms of their learning gains. So I used an instrument called the Student Assessment of Learning Gains. And I had the students fill that out. And I was able to use that to see their learning gains, and you calculate the total learning gains by just adding up all of their different categories. So, you ask them questions on a Likert scale, and then you get the summation, but I knew I wanted to do learning gains rather than just course grade because there’s a lot of different ways to get a good course grade: you could memorize you could just remember from the slides, you could just be a very good test taker and good at multiple choice. So I just wanted to see if they were truly learning and I really was drawn to the SALG because that tested the things that they were able to carry on to upper-level courses like their ability to connect concepts in biology to one another is one of the questions your ability to connect concepts in biology to other courses you’re taking. “How strong do you feel you could explain a biology concept to a family member? How strong do you feel that you could create your own position after reading a graph of results and defend your position of how you interpreted the graph?” So this was testing actual skills and true learning gains, not just their end course grades. So I want to look at both of those factors. So, I gathered up their final course grades, and I got the assessment of their learning gains as well.
Fiona: So, they provided assessments of their own learning gains.
Fiona: And the peer leader?
Christina: So, as I got thinking, like a year into the project, I was thinking, all right, my whole study is testing interactions between the students and student-to-student interactions and what makes a good peer leader. So first, I gave out at the end of the semester, there was a qualitative questionnaire one of the questions asked “Do you consider your peer leader to be a role model in any way? Please explain, yes or no.” So they gave me qualitative data there for why they saw the peer leader to be a role model. But then, as I got thinking that I wanted to do this interaction between them, I thought, why not ask the peer leaders, because this is all the student perception so far, Let’s ask the peer leaders, “Do you consider yourself to be a role model in any way? Yes or no? What makes you a role model to your students? Why do you think you’re not a role model?” And we’re able to look at those two qualitative sets of results and find the discrepancy so that if there is a difference between what the student’s looking for and what the peer leader thinks the student’s looking for, but they’re not providing, we can address that in the leadership course, and say, try to implement these strategies, try to display X, Y, and Z. So, we collected that qualitative data. And then in addition to that, I was also wondering, okay, maybe the student just likes that peer leader, like maybe they’re just a funny person. Maybe they’re just nice. So I thought it would be interesting to see how well the peer leader gets to know the student because as we discussed one of these benefits, this is a very small group of six to eight students, you can spend one-on-one time you see this person every week you talk outside of class. So, I also asked the peer leaders to fill out the Student Assessment of Learning Gains, but ask them to do it in regard to their students. So I said, “Alright, Jane, you had Joe as a student, fill out what you think Joe’s learning gains are.” And then I took Jane’s assessment and compared it to Joe’s assessment and found that the student and peer leader pairings who were closest together had the least amount of differences between their assessments had higher course grades and saw the peer leader to be a role model and relatable and higher learning gains.
Fiona: So very elegantly designed approach to this incredibly thorny, difficult, complex process of learning. And so you’ve essentially got two perspectives on a single student’s experience.
Fiona: From their sense of perception, which is also a fascinating idea. There could be a difference between learning and a student’s perception of learning.
Fiona: But by having this very elegant combination…
Christina: And part of what led me to saying, you know, there have been errors in students’ self-reported data before, but perception is valuable, the student perception is valuable. And there are other studies that show if a student perceives themselves to be learning and doing well and happy in a course, they’re going to stay in the discipline despite whatever their final course grade is, and that only helps our retention.
John: But you also said that the people who had the better match that way also had higher course grades as well. So, that seems to validate at least the general nature of that instrument.
Fiona: Could we talk about these very interesting concepts, so the idea of being a role model, but also the idea of being relatable?
Christina: Yes. So, originally, the design of the project was on role models because there’s so much literature on role models to support it. So the role model question, the qualitative portion, was asked to the students and the peer leaders. But then, as I was analyzing the results of role model, relatability got mentioned so often that it almost seemed like it was a stepping stone to role model status, that to become a role model, you had to be relatable. So, I didn’t have those students anymore, so I did a follow up question to the peer leaders because we still had access to the peer leaders, their course was a little bit longer. So I was able to ask the peer leaders to write about relatability and how relatability came into context with their relationship with the students. So, for the relatability factor, we have the qualitative answers from the peer leaders. And for the role model factor, we have it from the students and the peers, but students were mentioning relatability in a lot of the role model answers.
Fiona: And what does relatability mean in this context?
Christina: So relatability, I was able to categorize into a few different codes and categories. So the students were calling the peer leader relatable. Sometimes it was very clear, they would say the phrase “In my shoes, you know, they were just in my shoes, they know exactly what I’m going through, they’re in my shoes.” Other times, they attributed it to a common career goal. So these are all bio majors. They’re all “I want to be a doctor and my peer leader is taking the MCAT. That’s what I’m going to do in the next year or two. So, I can relate to her because I see her doing this thing that I’m about to do.” What was interesting is that if there was a commonality there, it would always be a shared attainable goal. Like a “In the near future, I’m gonna do that.” It was neat to see that and it’s definitely an attainable goal of the students. Sometimes when you think role model, you think, “Oh, they need to be a famous celebrity and they’re rich,” so it was neat to see the students just saying “They’re a role model because they’re succeeding in what I see to be a hard path that I also want to do.”
Fiona: They’re a role model because “I want to be there next year.”
Christina: Yes. And I relate to them.
John: So we have all that evidence about the effectiveness of your instruction. But this is discovering why it’s working or what specifically allows it to work.
John: So, what does this suggest that in terms of developing your lead team leader program, what should that training focus on?
Christina: I would recommend that we share the results with the peer leaders and show them that in a lot of the student responses, when they were saying what they thought made the peer leader a role model, or the peer leader relatable, a chunk of them did say that they got a good grade in this course, and that’s what I want to do, and that’s my goal is just to pass. But, there was a lot more in depth answers than I think maybe I was even expecting, and it went into things like “They were just kind, they were nice. I could tell that they cared if I was learning, they stopped and adjusted the course to my pace,” and that’s a huge benefit that we don’t get in the lecture halls when you just have to keep going, and you’re not able to assess “Are all 600 students with me? Do they all understand?” And a lot of the responses just came up that there was a caring peer leader who truly cared if they were learning, and talked to them and asked them. So, I think that showing the peer leaders that would be a little bit of a difference, because I think a lot of the times it just gets focused on “Well, I did really well in this course.” So, here’s what I think, that there’s so many personality attributes that go into it.
Fiona: I keep thinking of Michelle Miller’s line, that teachers are professional motivators, fundamentally the role that teachers play in drawing out the learning potential in a student in some way. And this seems to point to that in some sense, that what matters the most to the students… yes, the content and skill development matter… but that, in fact, there was some other piece to the puzzle.
Fiona: That might be effective or emotional.
Christina: And motivate is a word that was frequently used, so much so that I used it as a code for the qualitative piece.
John: And I understand you just heard that a paper from this study is going to be published. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes, and we’ll list it as forthcoming until the paper becomes available.
Christina: Just got accepted. Yes, thank you.
Christina: Thank you. The first paper shows the quantitative aspect, that students had a difference in either perceived learning gains or final course grade, if they saw their peer leader to be relatable and a role model. And then part two is coming up with the qualitative research that explains what those definitions were in the eyes of the students.
Fiona: I have a question that I think goes a little beyond the scope of what you were focused on. But it comes back to this idea of what being relatable means. And I’m thinking about that gap, that the attrition rate or the achievement gap or however you want to talk about that for certain sorts of underrepresented groups. Does your research suggest that the identity of the peer leaders might matter? We know representation matters. We know that this is part of envisioning yourself in a discipline or a field process that your research is getting at. And could you imagine the approach to setting up a peer-led team learning approach could be useful in like specific interventions?
Christina: Actually, that’s a really interesting question that you brought up, because a lot of the research points to that. And then I was expecting to see that, but it was the only time that that was really brought up about the identity of the peer leader was out of all the responses I had, I believe six times the student just said, “Because they’re my age” and interestingly, two times when the identity of the peer leader was brought up for the “No, they’re not a role model,” the answer was “Because they’re my age.” So, I thought that was a really neat finding, that some of the students are viewing age as this positive thing. And other students are using it to say, “No, they can’t be a role model to me. They’re my age,” and other students are saying, “Yes, they’re a role model, because they’re so successful, and they’re just my age.” So, I thought that was really interesting, and I’m not sure, there wasn’t any answers about ethnicity or even gender, and I’m just wondering if the students maybe felt a little like restricted because it was a written out response, and if I just looked at the data of the ethnicities of each group and did a comparison there, if maybe I would find something. But I didn’t go that far in this experiment, but it would be really neat to do so in the future.
John: That could be an interesting follow-up, just to see if the gender and race of the team leader affected the performance of people within the group if they’ve matched or if they diverged.
Christina: Yeah, I agree. I did look at if STEM major and non-STEM major, because in semester one of peer-led team learning, it could be used for any student. So, even if you’re not a bio major, you could be using it to satisfy your science elective. So, I was trying to see if there was a trend with the students who were STEM majors getting more out of it than the non-STEM majors, and we didn’t see a significant difference.
Fiona: You mentioned the fascinating finding that when the peer leaders’ assessment of the students’ learning and the students’ assessment of the students’ learning matched, that there was a definite correlation with the overall performance. Did you pull out any information about when there was a mismatch? Or was there anything interesting or useful about the opposite scenario?
Christina: Yes. The peer leader responses, in general, were always a little bit more informative and longer than the student responses. A lot of the time when there was a mismatch, the peer leader would leave a note at the end or something that would say, “This is what I think. But so and so didn’t come to class very much.” In those cases, there was a big discrepancy where interestingly, the student would say, “Oh, I learned a lot, high learning gains,” and the peer leader would put them at a low learning gain, and then there would be a big discrepancy, and I would try to see why and the peer leaders would say, “I never saw them, so I don’t know if they learned or not.” My research group at SU, one of my good friends, Ryan Dunk, who was actually on this paper that just got published, he helped me with some statistics for this. Another question that came up was, “Could it possibly just be that some peer leaders care more and know their students more?” But, we were able to find that there was no significant difference between the peer leaders or the section, so time of day didn’t matter and peer leader didn’t matter, so that was neat to find out too.
John: You mention that the participation in the peer-led team leader program was optional for the students.
John: What proportion of the students in the classes participated in that?
Christina: I can answer that for the semester of the data set that I’m working with, it was after you eliminated students who either didn’t consent to research, or were under 18 and couldn’t be included into research. Out of around 650 of them, 241 participated in my study. So, that means that at least 241 were in peer-led team learning.
John: and it could have been more…
Christina: And it could have been a few more.
John: …if they chosenot to participate or were under eighteen.
Fiona: Are you currently, are you still crunching the numbers and figuring things out from all the data you currently have?
Christina: There’s a good three more publications that are all in progress in various stages. Review, sending it to a partner, and working with my advisor still.
Christina: He’s still doing different projects too, though they’re still being studied.
Fiona: Do you think peer-led team learning can work across disciplines?
Christina: I do, and a lot of research was shown to back that. And it’s actually pretty interesting because it started in a chemistry class, and then other sciences picked it up, biology and physics. But, it’s expanded into mathematics, and computer science has had success. And other studies also supported the finding that it would work in smaller classes too. So, it could work at universities, it could work at colleges, it could work at private institutions. So, it just looks like it can work across the board.
Fiona: There’s still room to find out, room to experiment.
Fiona: We’d like to finish by asking you “What comes next?”
Christina: I think if I don’t answer that I’ll get those three publications out that my advisor is gonna… [LAUGHTER] I’m gonna hear about it. So all the publications.
Fiona: We very, very much look forward to the results from those various publications.
Christina: Thank you.
John: This was fascinating.
Christina: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here. It’s such a privilege.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Savannah Norton.
A growing body of evidence suggests that student evaluations of teaching are subject to gender and racial bias. In this episode, Dr. Kristina Mitchell joins us to discuss her recent study that examines these issues. After six years as the Director of Online Education at Texas Tech University, Kristina now works for a science curriculum publishing company and teaches part time at San Jose State University.
- Chávez, K., & Mitchell, K. M. Exploring Bias in Student Evaluations: Gender, Race, and Ethnicity. PS: Political Science & Politics, 1-5.
- Colleen Flaherty (2018). “Arbitrating the Use of Student Evaluations of Teaching.” Inside Higher Ed. August 31, 2018.
- Disciplinary organization statements on student evaluations
- American Historical Association (2019). “American Historical Association signs onto ASA Statement” – September.
- American Sociology Association (2019). “Statement on Student Evaluation of Teaching.” September.
- Peterson, D. A., Biederman, L. A., Andersen, D., Ditonto, T. M., & Roe, K. (2019). Mitigating gender bias in student evaluations of teaching. PloS one, 14(5). – A study that indicates that informing students of the bias in student evaluations mitigates the bias.
John: A growing body of evidence suggests that student evaluations of teaching are subject to gender and racial bias. In this episode, we discuss a recent study that examines these issues.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by
John: , an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
John: Our guest today is Dr. Kristina Mitchell. After six years as the Dir ector of Online Education at Texas Tech University, Kristina now works for a science curriculum publishing company and teaches part time at San Jose State University. Welcome back, Kristina.
Kristina: Thank you.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are:
John: Diet Coke?
Kristina: Diet Dr. Pepper, actually. [LAUGHTER]
John: Oh… I’m sorry.
Rebecca: Switching it up. [LAUGHTER]
John: And mine is Prince of Wales tea.
Rebecca: I have Christmas tea today. I know, I switched it up.
In one of your earlier visits to our podcast you discussed some of your earlier work on gender bias in student evaluations. We’ve invited you back today to discuss your newest study, with Kerry Chavez, entitled “Exploring Bias in Student Evaluations: Gender, Race, and Ethnicity.” Could you tell us a bit about the origin of this new study?
Kristina: Well, one of the things that seems to be inevitable when someone publishes a study on bias in student evaluation is that there’s always a reluctance to believe the results by some in the community. And most often there will be some question about what was being controlled for or how the selection was done or the sampling or the research design. So really, the first impetus was just to shore up the existing findings and continue to demonstrate the potential bias that might exist. But, in addition, there’s a real dearth of research on race in student evaluation. So, the research on gender bias and student evaluations is becoming more and more robust, but there’s not very much yet on race and ethnicity. And so we were presented with the opportunity to do… it almost presented itself as a natural experiment with 14 identical online sections of the course and with different professors in each one with different genders and races and ethnicities. So, we took it as an opportunity to shore up the gender literature and expand the race literature.
John: And so, the only difference in the course, was the welcome video, if I remember?
Kristina: That is the only difference in the course. Everything about the course: the lectures, the assignments, and even the emails that the students received when they were corresponding with the course and instructor. Those were all identical. We had a course coordinator, which was me, and I was sort of the behind-the-scenes person who was filtering through all the emails to make sure that the students were getting the same tone, the same style, everything the same about how they were interacting with their course.
John: And how long were these videos.
Kristina: The videos were up just about three minutes in length Everyone read an identical script that just told them the professor’s name and sort of had a generic message about how they were looking forward to a good semester. It was a summer course, it was just a five week course. And that was the extent of the students’ direct interaction with the professor in a way that wasn’t filtered through a course coordinator.
Rebecca: Although they all thought they were interacting with the instructor, right?
Kristina: Yes, they all were told that this instructor was theirs. And of course, the instructor was instrumental in the management of the course, we just made sure that the professor was not directly facing the students without it being filtered through a coordinator, just to make sure that each professor was responding with the same tone and the same information,
John: …which sounds like a lot of work for you.
Kristina: It was a lot of work for me. But fortunately, it really allowed us to control for literally everything. We controlled for absolutely everything that you could control for. When I was doing the research, when I was compiling all of the data, getting everything ready, I was just thinking to myself, “Surely there’s no chance that I’m going to find significance.” Like “All of this was for nothing, I’m going to either have to publish a null result that could potentially undermine other people’s research on gender and racial bias.” I just thought, “There’s absolutely no way we’ve controlled for far too much for there to ever be any bias.” So, it was just astonishing to find that even with all of that control, we still found a statistically significant difference. Even with a small sample.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how many students and sections were involved?
Kristina: So, there were 14 different sections, each with a different instructor and about 200 students per section. And the students enrolled in the sections, all at the same time, when registration opened. There wasn’t necessarily any reason to think that any particular section was characteristically different than any other section. They all kind of filled up about the same.
Rebecca: Did they know the instructor name and things ahead of time when they registered?
Kristina: They did. When they registered, they were able to see what the instructor’s name was. But considering that, once again, the eight sections at a time that would open up for registration, and these were intro classes that every student needs to take to graduate, we didn’t really think that there was any reason to believe that students would be drawn to any instructor, especially since it’s an online course.
John: When we talked about an earlier study, you mentioned that this was sort of like a jobs programs for political scientists in Texas.
Kristina: We always joke that Texas, having made it required for students to take two semesters of political science to graduate with a public university degree in Texas, we call that the Political Science Professor Full Employment Act, because it ensures that we will have many students needing to take our classes in Texas. Unfortunately, now that I’m in California, only one of those classes is required. So, it’s slightly less full employment, although, I’m still getting to teach both online and face to face here in California.
Rebecca: Was there both a qualitative and a quantitative component to the current study?
Kristina: Sp, this one, we focused primarily on the quantitative component. In our earlier study, we spent a lot of time doing text analysis of the comments that we received. In this study, we didn’t do anything quite as rigorous as a full content analysis, in particular, because the number of comments was so low. But we did review them, we looked through them, and we did code them sort of as a positive or a negative comment. And the reason that we did this is because there really shouldn’t have been any reason for any difference in comments whatsoever. Once again, other than the welcome video, students never were directly interacting with a professor in a different way. So, for example, if a student emailed a professor and the professor needed to respond, the professor would tell me as the course coordinator, the messaging that needed to go out… you know, the answer to the question that the student needed, but I would compose that in my own words. So that means that all of the responses would be filtered through the way that I would say it, as me, the course coordinator. So, there’s no difference in the kinds of interactions that students had with the content with the course or with the professor. And yet, we still found that women received negative comments, A]and men did not. One of the professors who was in the study, he was laughing and saying he was going to keep his incredibly positive review in his tenure file, because he was told he was the most intelligent, well spoken, cooperative professor that the students had ever had the chance to encounter. And once again, those were my words. I was the good one. So, the professor just was laughing and saying he was going to include that in his promotion file, even though he didn’t do anything. Whereas women, we saw comments like “She got super annoyed when people would email her” and “did not come off very approachable or helpful.” It was me, it was always me. They were both hearing my words, but because they were filtered through someone of two different genders, they perceive them differently. And that’s really consistent with the literature that shows that students expect women to behave in nurturing ways: to be caring, to be helpful and friendly, whereas they view men as competent experts in their field.
John: In terms of the magnitude of the difference, how large was the average effect of the perceived gender of the instructor?
Kristina: So, when we look at just the overall average evaluation score between men and women, we saw about a 0.2 difference. So, on a scale of five that may or may not be substantively important, and that’s a question that, of course, still remain, whether the 0.2 difference is important in a substantive way, but given that student evaluations are used in promotion,hiring, and pay grade decisions, any statistically significant difference is concerning, especially in a situation like this where we controlled for everything. When we looked at the white versus non-white difference, just looking at the overall average, we didn’t find a significant difference. Those significant differences didn’t start popping up for ethnicity, until we used an OLS regression and included final grades as a control there as well.
John: How did you measure the students’ perceptions of their instructors’ ethnicity and gender? While gender may often be correctly guessed by watching the instructor’s welcome video, ethnicity may not always be obvious. What did you do to assess this?
Kristina: Absolutely. So, it is a little bit more difficult to decide whether a student will know what ethnicity there professor is. So we did, ask both for gender and ethnicity because, of course, gender isn’t always obvious. But we decided to show pictures of the professors to a group of students who were Texas Tech students, but who were not enrolled in any of the courses. We just showed pictures of the instructors and asked the students to tell us what they perceived the person’s gender to be, and if they perceived the person to be white or non-white, and so we used a threshold of: if 60% of the students perceive the professor to be non-white, then we said, “Okay, then we’ll count this person as non-white, whether or not they identify as that or not.” For example, we had one professor in the study who is a Hispanic man, but has blond hair and blue eyes, and so none of the students accurately identified his ethnicity. So, we didn’t count him as non-white in the study because the students perceive him as being white.
John: Were the names informative in cases like that.
Kristina: In that case, the name perhaps could be informative, the very long and complicated Venezuelan name, but that might not initially look to students as a Hispanic name. So, students might see Garcia or Gomez and think Hispanic person, they might not see Sagarvazu and think Hispanic person. Other names that might give students more of a clue of non-white were our Asian facultes. Some of those names could potentially give the students a hint in advance of what ethnicity their instructor was going to be. But again, we don’t really think that students were choosing these online sections based on the professor’s name, especially because students were used to the idea of just taking introduction to political science online at Texas Tech University, and likely weren’t really thinking which Professor should I choose?
Rebecca: So given these results, which should we be doing?
Kristina: You know, I have been saying a long time that the use of student evaluations in hiring, tenure, promotion and pay decisions should just be outlawed. It’s absurd that we’re still using this. I understand that there is a need to measure teacher effectiveness, especially in terms of how students are learning. So it’s really important to try and find alternate measures of this because student evaluations of teaching are flawed for so many reasons; one being students aren’t really very good necessarily at evaluating their professor’s effectiveness as a teacher. Sometimes professors who are really challenging and perhaps really getting the most out of their students are also getting some low evaluations. But, most importantly, for employment law purposes, these are discriminatory. If women and faculty of color are being treated differently in these criteria or evaluating them differently, then we need to find a different way to evaluate them and
John: You’ve made them good cases here again, and I think this contributes to the evidence on that. What might you recommend that campuses do to provide evaluations of instruction?
Kristina: I think that’s a really great question. I think that we should start with exploring your evaluations of teaching to see if those suffer from the same biases because they may, and they might not be a better alternative. Other things that might be worth exploring are portfolio-based evaluation… so, allowing professors and teachers to tell their administration why they’re a good teacher, instead of looking for some objective measure of this, I think teachers and professors who are intentional with their practices would be able to put together a really successful portfolio that would show their administration that they are effective. There’s also some talk about using assessment-based measures, things like standardized testing or exit exams or student portfolios. Those might suffer from problems as well. And one thing that I found, especially now as people in the law profession have started reaching out to me for my insight on these kinds of cases, is that it’s really difficult to show in a court case that we should get rid of a discriminatory practice if there’s not an alternative to that practice. So, what attorneys have told me is that, “Yes, maybe they’re discriminatory, but if the university needs to measure teaching effectiveness, and we don’t have a good alternate way to do it, a court is likely to just let it stand.” So, I think it’s really important that our next move in the research agenda is to try and find out what practices might be able to measure effectiveness without suffering from the same bias.
Rebecca: I think that’s a really good point to help us understand the urgency of doing these things, and coming up with alternatives and really what the real impacts are, rather than a small difference in pay or something people might write off as being whatever. But, if things are going into lawsuits and things and then just letting it stand, even though you can demonstrate that it’s biased, then I think that makes it a little more urgent for people who might not be motivated otherwise.
John: And while a 0.2 difference may not seem like much, that’s often a good share of the range from the highest to lowest evaluations in departments. So, in terms of the rank ordering of people that can make a very significant difference in the perceived quality of their teaching,
Kristina: Especially when departments sometimes use a “Are you above the mean or are you below the mean…” 0.2 could very well kick you above or below the mean in terms of your scores, which, you know, also seems Like a really bizarre way to measure whether you’re effective… if you’re above average than you are, if you’re below average, then you’re not. I’m not really sure that that’s really an adequate way to measure anything. But, one thing that we have seen is a couple of universities move toward a different way of evaluating their teaching effectiveness. Ryerson University in Canada recently decided that student evaluations of teaching in their current form could no longer be used because of these discrimination issues. And a university in Oregon, I can’t remember if it was University of Oregon or Oregon State, but one of them has just moved to a much more open format of teaching evaluations, where students aren’t just saying 2 out of 5 or 4 out of 5. Instead, they’re asked to provide a paragraph with some insight on the effectiveness and if the questions are worded appropriately, then maybe we can see some real useful feedback, because I know I found a lot of useful feedback in my student comments. Really open-ended comments, I think, can also lead to inappropriate things like comments on appearance or comments on personality, but directed prompts… “What would you change about the workload?” …those kinds of questions… might produce some really valuable feedback.
John: If the questions are on things that are fairly objective that students are qualified to evaluate, that could be helpful.
Rebecca: Sometimes students are really insightful on those things if you’re specific and start with the evidence-based practice, and that’s not the thing that’s debatable, but how it’s implemented, or the scaffolding or the timing, those are all things that could be really helpful. And they often have good ideas about these things if you open up a dialogue with them.
Kristina: Exactly. And I think that using student evaluations in this way is helpful to those of us who teach and I think that comes back down to what is the purpose of student evaluations? Why are we doing them? If it’s to try and improve our teaching practices, then let’s use it for that purpose. Let’s ask them directed questions where they have a chance to tell us what they liked and didn’t like and then let us filter those responses to improve what we’re doing. Instead, we’ve almost turned them into this gatekeeping mechanism to keep people from getting promotions, to keep people from getting hired. And it’s especially punishing to our adjuncts. And as our adjunct professors make up a larger and larger share of the teaching force, the fact that they could be not hired again, or offered fewer classes or no classes at all just because of a 0.2 difference on their teaching evaluations. It’s really concerning.
Rebecca: It’s also in some ways, a way of advocating for making sure that we spend time in the classrooms with part-time faculty and know what is going on. Sometimes we reserve those classroom visits and informal feedback with our peers to only tenure-track faculty rather than expanding that across part time faculty as well. And I think we can all gain insight from seeing a wider range of teaching practices inside and outside our departments across full-time and part-time faculty,
Kristina: And even letting our part time faculty conduct some of these peer evaluations. Now that I’m teaching part time, I really see a difference in what it’s like to be part-time faculty. And it’s great in a lot of ways. It gives you a lot of flexibility. And it gives you a lot of time to have fun with your students. And it’s a challenge in a lot of other ways too. But I think that the lines of communication between faculty and students and between different types of faculty… we can really nail down that as the purpose of student evaluation. I think it would help a lot in making them more useful.
John: One of the approaches that some departments have started to use in terms of peer evaluations is not to leave them too open ended, but to have very structured ones. And some of them involve very structured types of observations where you just record what’s happening at fixed time intervals in terms of who is participating, what is the activity, and so forth. And that, at least in theory, should provide a more neutral measure of what’s actually taking place in the classroom, and could also provide more insight into whether evidence-based practices are being used, which could lead to more positive developments in terms of how people are teaching.
Kristina: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting. I think sometimes it can be really difficult to give or receive a truly unbiased peer evaluation because it’s really easy to start saying, “Oh, the students looked like they were having fun.” What does that mean? That’s not really objective. But I think it’s also important to recognize that a 1 to 5 scale of students saying this teacher is effective is also not objective in any way. So, the idea of there being an objective measure of teaching effectiveness, I think we should move away from that idea.
Rebecca: That’s a lot of food for thought.
Kristina: A lot of tea for thought. [LAUGHTER]
John: That’s true.
But, this is coming from more and more directions now. Several disciplinary associations have issued statements indicating that student teaching evaluations not be used as primary instruments in promotion and tenure decisions. And I think we’re going to be seeing more of that, especially as the research base grows.
Kristina: And there is some good news for the listeners who might be looking for, you know, in the meantime, what can we do about this? How can I help? One recent article, it did a sort of small pseudo-experiment, quasi-experiment, where they gave their students some information about this research before they had the students fill out their student evaluation forms. So, they just briefly told the students that sometimes their student evaluations may be biased based on race, gender, or ethnicity. And they found that it was able to mitigate some of that bias. So, in the meantime, if we’re looking for ways that we can try to address this, it’s important most especially for our allies, who are white and who are men to be advocates in this… to take the time in their classes to say there’s evidence that these evaluations may be biased in favor of a certain kind of faculty member. If we can make sure that messaging is getting out there from the right people who can help, then we can start to mitigate some of that bias.
John: We’ll share a link to that study in our show notes.
Kristina: You know, I think that of course, being a white woman myself, I am more comfortable and qualified in my sort of native talk about gender bias. Hopefully we can get more faculty members of color to join us in this research agenda because it’s meaningful for them as well, because our research is starting to show that this bias exists for them as well. And there’s simply just not enough discussion of that in the conversation. One thing that we did not publish in our study because it was just sort of a side question, but when we were asking students what their perceived gender and race of the pictures was, we threw in a question just for fun to ask them “Do you think you would have difficulty understanding this professor’s English?” because one thing that we hear so many times from our colleagues with accents, is that this comes up regularly in their evaluations. And we threw in this question and what we found is that our Asian faculty members, the students all said… I mean, not 100%, but vast majority of the students said, “Yes, I think I’ll have trouble understanding the faculty members English.” And some of our Asian faculty members speak with heavily accented English and some don’t. And interestingly, our Hispanic colleague that I mentioned earlier with blond hair and blue eyes, has a very thick Venezuelan accent and no students were concerned about being able to understand his English. So, I think these elements need to be brought into the conversation as well. And I want to see, hopefully, people that are sort of more native to that discussion, and that it might be more meaningful for them, join in to start doing this research. If there are any co-authors out there, I’m happy to start a new study.
John: The effects you found for ethnicity were relatively weak compared to the effects for gender. But, with a larger sample size, you might be able to get more robust or stronger results on that.
Kristina: Absolutely. So in our difference of means test, ethnicity didn’t come out as significant. It did come out of significant in our regression, but the substantive effect was a little lower.
John: And you were unable to do interactions because of the size of the sample, right?
Kristina: We only had one non-white woman. And so I don’t think our statistical analysis program would have been very kind to us with only one observation in our interaction term.
Rebecca: So we always wrap up, Kristina by asking, as you know, what’s next?
Kristina: That’s a great question. My current position is in K-12 science curriculum. So I still teach part time, but I’m heavily involved in the curriculum world at the K-12 level now. And one thing that’s been really different is that K-12 teaching is definitely more dominated by women than higher education is and I would love to start looking at how we can get our K-12 students to be primed to think about women and men as equal in the sciences, because thinking about their high school teachers as their teachers, and then they go to college and they see men as professors could potentially continue to exacerbate those biases. So, I’d really love to start doing some research and exploring how we can change our children’s attitudes towards women in the sciences from the ground up.
Kristina: That sounds really interesting.
John: And it’s important work and that’s an area where we certainly could see a lot of improvements.
Rebecca: Well, thank you for joining us, as always an interesting conversation and many things for us to be thinking about and taking action on.
Kristina: Thank you. Always a pleasure to join.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.
Some students with fixed mindsets enter our classes expecting to be unsuccessful while others believe that they have a natural talent in the discipline. In either case, these students often get discouraged when they experience challenging tasks. In this episode, Sarah Hanusch and John Myers join us to discuss how they have revised their classes and used metacognitive exercises to help students develop a growth mindset and to recognize the benefit of learning from mistakes. Sarah and John are both Assistant Professors in the Department of Mathematics at SUNY Oswego.
- Matt Boelkins
- Boelkins, Matt (2017). “Metacognition in a Calculus Prep Class.” Opencalculus blog post. December 167.
- The Mathematical Attitudes and Perceptions Survey (MAPS)
- Carl Wieman Science Education Institute, “Two-Stage Exams”
- 36. Peer Instruction. Tea for Teaching podcast. July 4, 2018. We discussed two-stage exams and peer instruction in this podcast.
- 12. The Active Learning Initiative at Cornell. Tea for Teaching podcast. January 17, 2018. A discussion of two-stage exams with Doug McKee.
- 2. The Metacognitive Cafe Online Discussion Forum. Tea for Teaching Podcast, November 8, 2017.
- Code, W., Merchant, S., Maciejewski, W., Thomas, M., & Lo, J. (2016). The Mathematics Attitudes and Perceptions Survey: an instrument to assess expert-like views and dispositions among undergraduate mathematics students. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 47(6), 917-937.
- Canning, E. A., Muenks, K., Green, D. J., & Murphy, M. C. (2019). STEM faculty who believe ability is fixed have larger racial achievement gaps and inspire less student motivation in their classes. Science advances, 5(2), (A study finding a relationship between faculty mindset and student achievement.)
- 102.. Team-Based Learning. Tea for Teaching podcast. October 9, 2019. We discussed the Harvard study on active learning in this podcast.
John K.: Some students with fixed mindsets enter our classes expecting to be unsuccessful while others believe that they have a natural talent in the discipline. In either case, these students often get discouraged when they experience challenging tasks. In this episode, we examine how two faculty members have revised their classes and used metacognitive exercises to help students develop a growth mindset and to recognize the benefit of learning from mistakes.
John K.: 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 K.: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Our guests today are Sarah Hanusch and John Myers. Sarah and John are both Assistant Professors in the Department of Mathematics at SUNY-Oswego. Welcome, John and welcome back, Sarah.
Sarah: Thank you.
John M.: Thank you.
John K.: Our teas today are?
Sarah: None today
John M.: Yeah, imaginary tea. No tea for me.
Rebecca: The imaginary tea…that’s what my daughter likes to drink. That kind.
John M.: Yeah, I’m in good company there&hellp;
Rebecca: I have English afternoon.
John K.: And I have a ginger tea.
Rebecca: We invited you here today to talk a little bit about how you’ve introduced a project on metacognition in some of your mathematics courses. Can you tell us a little bit about the project?
John M.: Sure, this began, I believe, in the spring of 2018 in a Calculus I course. And the idea was that, Calculus I is known across, basically the entire country…every school in the country…as being a very difficult course. So, you have a lot of students who are coming in, especially in the spring semester, who had bad experiences with calculus in the past. And in particular, I’ve been told by some colleagues that there’s going to be some students in there that more support than I suppose you would imagine. The situation was that on the very first day of class, I had students coming in who have had bad experiences with it in the past. And then at the same time, I have the students that are typically high performing. And they have difficult times also with perfection, you know, being obsessed with 4.0s and grades and that type of stuff. So the idea was that I wanted to simultaneously address failure with the students and perfection at the same time. And I was sort of led to think about this metacognition project, actually, funnily enough, on a flight back from San Diego. I was at what are called the joint meetings for mathematicians, and a lot of progressive newer teaching techniques are talked about at this conference. And I’m flying back from the conference on the airplane and I’m getting really introspective and I’m thinking like, I really need to do something to talk to my kids about failure and perfection. And then it occurred to me that there was this blog post that I had just read a couple weeks before by a mathematician by the name of Matt Boelkins at Grand Valley State University. And he had this idea for a metacognitive project that addressed all sorts of things like growth mindset, fixed mindset, productive failure, and all these different things. And I decided about a week before classes started that this is what I was going to do.
Rebecca: That’s when all the best ideas happen.
John M.: I know…right before class and on an airplane. I get really introspective when I’m on airplanes and staring out the window and thinking of all the big things in life and stuff.
Sarah: And essentially, John came to me and said, “I’m thinking about doing this project.” And I said “Well, that sounds cool. And let’s see if we can measure if it has any positive effect or not.” So, I sort of came in on the research side of it…of “let’s see if this is effective for changing attitudes towards mathematics.” And since then, I’ve stolen the project to use in my own classes. But, it really started as I came in sort of more on the research side of things
John M.: I think stolen might have been a strong word, but…
Sarah: I didn’t ask…I just took it. [LAUGHTER]
John K.: For the research project did you do pre- and post-tests on attitudes?
Sarah: We did a pre- and post-test, we use an assessment called MAPS which is the Mathematics Attitudes and Perceptions Survey. It’s a 31-item survey. It assesses, I think, it’s seven different dimensions. Some of them are growth mindset. Do they view mathematics as being answer focused or process focused? The categories were growth mindset, the applicability of mathematics to the real world, their confidence in mathematics, their interest in mathematics, their persistence in mathematics, their ability to make sense of mathematics, and do they view mathematics as being answer focused or process focused?
John K.: Sounds like a good instrument. Before we talk about the results, let’s talk a little bit more about how you implemented it. How was the project structured in terms of what activities did the students do during the class?
John M.: So the idea was that over the entire semester, they would have a selection of articles online to read, they would have a selection of YouTube videos to watch and it was essentially experts that are addressing these various topics. So, like for example, there is a clip by Carol Dweck, one of the originators of the theory of growth and fixed mindsets, and they were to watch these clips and read these articles across the semester. And then I think it was probably with two weeks or three weeks left in the semester, they’d have to write a reflective essay. It was an attempt to sort of shift the culture in the classroom towards viewing mistakes and failure as productive and as opportunities for learning. Because I think in wider culture, everybody believes that math is just about the right answer. And that if you can’t get the right answer, then there’s no worth in whatever effort it was that you put in to get to that point. And I wanted to provide sort of a counterpoint to that, so a counter narrative. Being honest about how many times per day mathematicians actually do fail, you know, that type of thing. So yeah, the main component was this essay that was reflecting on the stuff that they read and watched over the semester, and then there was sort of like daily conversations.
John K.: Were the conversations online or were they in class conversations?
John M.: In class…in office hours, just kind of whenever they popped up. I remember a couple conversations that happened after I gave back exams, for example, or rather right before I gave back exams. So for example, I would say, you know, I’m about to hand back exams. And I want you when you see the score, when you put the paper over and see your score, I want you to immediately think how are you going to frame this result in your mind. Are you going to look at that score and be happy with it and chalk it up to just your natural talents? Or are you going to say, “Oh, this is a result of hard work?” And then if you’re not happy with your score, are you going to put it away and never look at again, or are you going to engage with your mistakes and make them productive mistakes? It was sort of intervention through conversation that happened on an almost daily basis.
Rebecca: Did you notice a difference in the kinds of conversations you were having in class because they were doing these readings and watching these videos, maybe conversations you hadn’t experienced before in the classroom?
John M.: Yes. In particular, I had students come into office hours and they were relentless with trying to understand the material because they knew that they were going to have another shot to get it right. And I had never experienced that before. In fact, in one of my student’s essays, I had a student tell me that when she’s not done well on exams in the past, she would just take the exam and stuff it into her book bag and never look at it again. And she told me that just because of because of how I was structuring the course that she doesn’t do that anymore. She actually pulls it out and engages with the mistakes and the comments that I put on the exam and comes and talks to me about the exam and everything. So I did see a change in the students.
John K.: Was some of it based on the reflections or was it also partly based on a restructuring of a course to give students more opportunities to redo things or to try things again?
John M.: I believe the latter had something to do with it. Because the idea was that I could say these things out loud to them. But I wanted to actually build components into the course in addition to the essay that sort of reflect the themes that I’m trying to communicate to them.
John K.: Telling them that they can learn from mistakes, if you don’t give them the opportunity…
John M.: Right.
John K.: …to learn from mistakes might not be as productive. I think both components are really valuable. I just want to make sure we were clear on that, too.
John M.: I think that you risk sounding like a cliche motivational poster, if you don’t actually put some meat on the bones with it.
Rebecca: Can you talk about some ways that you actually built that into the course?
John M.: I did test corrections. I don’t remember exactly, I think it was get back half the credit they missed or something like that. So, the idea was that they had to engage with the mistakes on their exams and correct them. And it had to be perfect. So they had a week to turn in their test corrections, and then I would re-grade them. This was very time consuming, as you might imagine, but the students I believe, really responded to it. It really sort of hooked in with the theme that I was trying to send.
Sarah: And since then, we’ve both moved to more mastery based grading. John before I did, but a system where students keep trying things until they get it right. And that really helps sort of drive that “learn from your mistakes” message home.
John K.: Are you able to do some of that in an automated way? Or is this all involving more grading on your part?
Sarah: The way I’m doing it, unfortunately, it’s more grading on my part. Although I will say this semester I’m doing these mastery based quizzes, but I’m not collecting homework. So, it’s kind of a toss up in terms of how much…it isn’t really extra grading. I’m just grading more things in another category.
John M.: Right, I would not do test corrections again. Not only was it a lot of time to grade, but then I had issues with academic honesty. The mastery based thing I have found is, I believe, much more effective.
John K.: Another thing you may want to consider that we’ve talked about in a couple of past podcasts is having a two-stage exam, where in the first stage, they do it themselves. And then you have them break up into groups and do either all the questions or a subset of those as a group. So, you’ve got some peer instruction going on as well…and that way it’s done right in class and it can be done, if the exam is short enough or the class period is long enough you can do both of it. A common practice is to do two-thirds say individual and then one-third for the group activity, which has many of the same things. They don’t know what they’ve gotten wrong, but when they’re sharing with their peers, they’re talking it over and it means you only have to grade the group exams on the second stage, which makes it a whole lot easier than individual ones.
John M.: Right. Yeah, I have a friend I believe he has done that stuff like that. So yeah,
John K.: The Carl Wieman Science Education Institute, I believe, has a lot of information on that. I’ve been doing it the last couple of years, and it’s been working really well. Doug Mckee was a guest on an earlier podcast, we talked about that as well. Are there other things we want to talk about in terms of what you’ve done in the courses?
Sarah: One thing that we’ve both done since this initial project is we’ve taken some of the ideas of this project, but interspersed it more throughout the course. One thing I know at the time that John observed was that he felt like a lot of the students started the projects in the last week, right? And so what I’ve done instead of doing a big project of these topics is I’ve taken these articles and done the second week of class, you have to read one of them and respond on it. And then the fourth week, you have to do another one, and so on. So it’s a little bit of it throughout the whole course instead of all loaded at the end. I think it helps having some of those conversations with the students as well because they’re not just seeing the ideas in the conversations. They’re not just seeing the ideas in the paper. They’re kind of seeing both and it just helps intersperse it a little bit throughout the semester. I know I’ve done that a couple times now. I think you’ve done that since as well.
John M.: I did a pre-semester sort of essay and then I did a post-semester essay. But it was in response to the first time we did that, which is referred into the paper, and one of my students actually told me in their essay, he was like, ‘Hey, I wish I had this at the beginning of the semester.” So yeah, it’s definitely like a “duh” moment. Like, I probably should have done something earlier in the semester, instead of waiting all until the end. But, you learn as you do these things, so. But the essays that the students wrote… I provided them with prompts just to alleviate any sort of writer’s block that they may have. But, the students who basically ignored my prompts and told me their personal stories were the essays essentially that I still remember. I had students that were straight A students that were telling me exactly what I thought was going to happen: that they’ve been the smart person their entire life, and they kind of feel trapped by being a smart person. They don’t want to take any risks because if they risk something and fail, then that’s their identity as a smart person, right? They’re not smart anymore. I’ve had students from the other end of the grading spectrum who basically told me that the first day they walked into the class before I even said anything, they were already convinced that they were going to fail the class. I had students tell me about mental health problems. I had adult learners talking about balancing life and school issues. I mean, it’s just absolutely amazing what they told me, they opened up basically. That made a big impression on me.
John K.: Tying into an earlier podcast, Judie Littlejohn and I had introduced something really similar where we have weekly discussion forums. And I also noticed the same sort of thing, that I got to know the students much better because when they were talking about some of the barriers or the issues they face, they were sharing a lot of details about their life. And you get to know them better and they also seem to form a little bit more of a tighter classroom community because they also got to know each other a little bit more.
Rebecca: It is kind of interesting how when students are talking about their process or who they are as learners, is very different than talking about the subject matter. And it does get them to open up and may be engaged with faculty in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise.
John M.: And I have found being honest about my own failures in the past has been a catalyst for conversation, right? Because they view us as professors, they view us as the authority figures, the experts in that we never fail. And basically telling them how many times I fail on a daily basis in my own mathematical research. It goes a long way, I think… finding common ground with them. And acknowledging how difficult the subject material is. I mean, there’s a reason that calculus has a high failure rate because it’s a hard course, among other reasons. Yeah, just having the humility with the students and kind of stepping down off of the pedestal in front of them, I think that it helps.
Rebecca: So do you want to share some of the results that you got from your study?
Sarah: We saw some very significant quantitative results. I mentioned the MAPS instrument is what we use. It’s a 31-point scale. Its reliability and validity has been established pretty well, especially in calculus classes. One of the things that they did was they looked to see if the items were consistent with expert consensus…. So, with how mathematicians view it and all of the items were valid with the attitudes of mathematicians except some of the growth mindset scales. Research says that that’s an important scale as well. And on this 31-point scale, we saw an almost 4-point improvement from pre-test to post-test…of the students becoming more aligned with the expert opinions, which is a really significant amount…I mean, almost 10% improvement, which is even more remarkable, because when this assessment was first validated, they found that there was usually a negative result from taking a Calculus I class. So, the attitudes get worse pre-post in a calculus class and ours had statistically significant improvement. In addition, we saw statistically significant improvement among all of the sub scales. Now some of them were better than others. Some were just barely below .05 in terms of significance and others were much more significant. I mean, we really saw that over the course of this semester, they really did change their attitudes. We also had some evidence, as John’s already talked about, from their essays…where they said how they started to view mistakes as productive, and they started to feel like there was value in making mistakes and learning from them.
John K.: You mentioned alignment with an expert scale, can you explain that for our listeners?
Sarah: Essentially, what the original authors and it was Code et. al. that did this paper and develop this instrument. They gave this survey to students and they gave it to mathematicians and looked for alignment. Particularly they were looking for whether or not the mathematicians agreed on the items. And the idea was our goal is to get math students to have attitudes more like mathematicians, because that’s our goal, right? …is to develop future mathematicians. And so we would like those attitudes to get closer to how mathematicians view mathematics. They had high agreement among the mathematicians on every item, like I said, except one or two of the growth mindset questions. So, in other words, this survey reflects how mathematicians view mathematics. And that was how they determined the right answers on the survey, whether a particular item is something you should agree with or something you should disagree with. They went with the expert consensus.
John K.: So now, I may be misconstruing this, but are you suggesting that perhaps a lot of mathematicians had adopted a fixed mindset? So, there was a bit more variance there on that?
Sarah: I will say that was what the results of their validation showed.
John K.: Okay.
Sarah: And leave it at that. [LAUGHTER]
John K.: It does remind me of that study a few months ago, that found that when instructors had a growth mindset, the achievement gap narrowed and the drop-fail-withdrawal rate was much lower in courses, then for those instructors who had a fixed mindset. I think that maybe even more of an issue in the STEM fields than it is in humanities and social sciences, but I think it’s not uncommon everywhere.
Rebecca: I say it’s a common problem everywhere.
John M.: I’ll say it…mathematicians suffer from fixed mindsets. I’ll just say it, right? [LAUGHTER]
John K.: Many academics do.
John M.: Yes, of course.
Sarah: I mean, the people who choose to become academics are often the people that were successful in school and they decide to continue with it. I mean, it is less likely that people who felt unsuccessful decide to keep going and to go into academia.
John K.: Selectivity bias there and that reinforces a belief in a fixed mindset, perhaps.
Rebecca: What kind of response have you seen from students from…I mean, it sounds to me like this one study lead to good results, and then that changed many classes in that you’ve taught or the way that you’re teaching, how have students responded?
Sarah: Generally positively. I think doing the projects at the end of the semester wasn’t the best idea because they just feel so overwhelmed at the end of the semester with exams and projects and everything coming due. So, I did get some responses of “W hy do I have to do this now.” But generally, I think they appreciated learning about learning.
John M.: I think that given the opportunity to talk about their past experiences, I think they appreciated that. For the most part, I’ll agree with Sarah. I think that the message landed with an awful lot of students like I wanted it to. Some of my favorite essays were students who told me that they thought I was crazy on the first day. I mean, you go into a math class to learn math, you don’t go into a math class to study metacognition, or whatever it may be. I had one student the first time around, who basically told me it was all a load of crap, like why this is not working at all. And I had a student the last time that I did this, she was very skeptical towards the end even. Basically, aliken it to just some cheesy self-help stuff. I think that most students responded positively.
Rebecca: Have you seen the response impact other faculty in your area? For example, if they really liked having those techniques and things introduced in your class, have they asked other math faculty to do that in future classes or are you finding that its not many math students who were actually in that particular class?
Sarah: We haven’t done any tracking, so I don’t know where his students have gone. I mean, I’m sure some of them went on to Calc II…I’m sure some of them did not. Right. I mean, I guess most of them would have had Jess the following semester, right? Did she say anything?
John M.: No, she didn’t say anything. I’m teaching Calc III right now, and I have some of my former calculus students that were in this and they’re doing well.[LAUGHTER] Small sample size, but yeah, they’re doing well.
John K.: That could be an interesting follow up though to see how successful they were in the subsequent classes.
Rebecca: Sometimes we’ve heard anecdotes, of departments and things when there’s been change that if students really respond well to whatever the techniques are, that they will demand it of other faculty members, and John’s talked about this before in economics.
John K.: Yeah, when you can show results…
John K.: …that there’s been some gain, and especially if it comes from students at the same time, it often puts pressure on other people in the department because if you’re able to show people that your technique has been successful and students are coming in and saying, “G ee, I wish you would consider doing this. I did this in my intro classes, and it was really helpful.” That sometimes helps make change much easier.
Sarah: Yeah, so one of the things that we did look at was we compared the final exam scores of John’s sections to the other sections of calculus that semester. Now, there was some other issues that clouded that data a little bit. His scores were a little bit lower than the other instructors. But what was really surprising, essentially, if you look at, I don’t remember if it were just the final exams or the semester grades. The DF rates were the same among the sections, but the withdrawal rates were significantly different. And that almost no one withdrew from John’s sections. I think there were two if I remember the data correctly, whereas there was like five or six on average from the other sections. And so the DFW rates were different, but the DF rates weren’t. So I just thought that was an unusual circumstance. So, it seems like the students were sticking with his class… and pushing through.
John K.: And if there is a larger portion of students staying with the class, then perhaps a slightly lower average grade is not necessarily a bad sign…
John K.: …because student success is partly measured for persistence to completing the course.
Sarah: Exactly. I think because there were more students who stuck it through to the final exam, then his final exam scores ended up being a little bit lower. But again, if you looked at like overall course grades, they ended up being pretty consistent, other than the W rates. I wanted to make sure that there weren’t significant differences in the rates and I think it was just shy of being statistically significant. Like, if you had one more student that would’ve been significant. But just to make sure that, especially like adding the test corrections in wasn’t substantially making the class too easy, right? Because that’s often a critique that, you know, “Well you make these changes, but is that just making the class too easy and people who aren’t really prepared, are they passing?” And so I just did this analysis of the, like I said, it was really just a t-test analysis, but just to see whether or not it was significantly lower and it wasn’t significant. It was lower, right, just not significantly. And then like I said, I looked at retention rates just more as an explanation for why the average was lower.
John K.: In a lot of studies of interventions, the dependent variable is the drop-fail-withdrawal rates, because that’s a measure of success in completing the course. That by itself could be an interesting focus of a study. I’ve been running this metacognitive cafe in my online classes for a while and I did have a student in the class who wrote a few times about the metacognitive development that was introduced in one of your classes. They didn’t specify who but they said, we’re also doing some work on metacognition in the math class, and they said it was really useful and it was nice to see it in two classes.
John M.: Good.
John K.: So there’s at least one positive data point there or one additional data point there. So are you going to continue this in the future? And if so, what might you do differently?
Sarah: Well, I think we’ve mentioned already that we’ve worked on including some of the ideas at the beginning of the semester and throughout the semester, rather than one project at the end. For the reason that it really benefits them most at the beginning of the semester when things are getting started. I think we’ve also both changed different things about our grading systems to incorporate more opportunities for growth.
John M.: The last time I did this, I introduced some articles that were a little bit more rigorous with the data and the science, because I sort of wanted to counter that kind of criticism that all this “Oh this is just a bunch of TED Talks…” that kind of thing. So, I really wanted the students to see some of the science behind it, the science of learning, because I really wanted to send that message that “No, this is not me just standing up here saying, ‘Oh, this is going to help you or anything, right?’ This is actually stuff that researchers have thought about before.”
John K.: I had a very similar response the first time I did this. I had a video I posted which was a TED talk by a cognitive scientist who talked about research that showed that learning styles were a myth. And some students had come to believe in the existence of learning styles because they’ve heard of them and often been tested, multiple times in multiple years, on their learning styles. Sometimes even through college and that’s rather troubling. The students said, “Well, this is just one researcher, I’m sure there’s lots of other studies. I don’t believe it because it’s not consistent with what I’ve always been told or what I’ve heard.” So I decided to modify it then and I added to that discussion, five or six research studies. In case you don’t believe this TED talk by someone who’s done a lot of research on this, here’s a number of studies, including some meta analyses of several hundred studies of this issue, and that has cut much of that discussion. They’re less likely to argue against it when it’s not just a talking head or not just a video when they can actually see a study even if they don’t understand all the aspects of it.
Sarah: Yeah. So I think that’s one thing we’ve tweaked what articles and what videos are we showing. I know the semester I gave my students a article that had just come out this September, that students perceive active learning as being less efficient, even when they’re learning more. In some physics classes at Harvard, they gave two weeks at each thing… two weeks of active and two weeks of lecture, and then they had them switch. And the students learned more with the active learning, but felt they learned less. And my students have been feeling frustrated because they feel like they’re not learning enough and that I’m not telling them what to do.
Rebecca: You’re not “teaching” them.
Sarah: I’m not teaching them. And we spend the class period, letting them vent. So all their feelings were out in the open. But, then I sort of countered with this article saying, “Look, I promise you really are learning things. You just don’t feel like you are. But you really, really are. And you’re actually learning it better than if I were using a different style.” So, that’s one way that we’re tweaking the articles because sometimes the research comes out that’s pertinent.
John K.: We refer to that Harvard study in a few past podcasts. We touched on it in a podcast that will release on October 9th. I haven’t shared it with my class yet, but I’ve been tempted to.
Rebecca: What was the discussion like talking about that particular article? Given that they were frustrated?
Sarah: I mostly was just trying to acknowledge that I understand their frustrations…and that, yes, the way I’m teaching this class can be frustrating. I agree. Sometimes I get frustrated about it. But I know that ultimately, they are learning things and that they are going to be stronger writers and stronger students of mathematics by using this structure. And so I kind of use it as evidence of I’m not changing.
Rebecca: So I hear you…
Sarah: I hear you, but…
John K.: I had this very conversation with my class today. They’re coming up for an exam very shortly. And I asked them, how did they review before an exam and the most common answer was they like to reread the material over and over again. And I mentioned some of the research on that. And I said, the best way to review is to work on problems with this. And I gave them several ways in which they could do that, that are built into the course structure. And I said, “But that doesn’t feel as effective. Why?” And one of the students said, “Well, I get things wrong.” And I said, “And when would you rather get things wrong, when you’re reviewing for an exam, or when you’re taking exams?” And I think some of them got that message. So I’m hoping we’ll see when they take the test next week.
John M.: Right? It seems like anytime you do anything that’s just not a standard straight lecture, there’s a certain amount of buy in that you need to get from the students. And sometimes that can be very difficult. There’s almost a salesmanship that you have to do throughout the semester to make sure that everybody’s on the same page and to kind of fight those feelings where the students give you a lot of pushback. Yeah, that’s the great fear is that when you innovate or you experiment that’s going to go horribly wrong. And sometimes it does, but, you know, we still keep going.
John K.: Because students are creatures of habit. They’ve learned certain things and they want to keep doing things the same way. And anything new can seem troubling, especially if they’re getting feedback along the way that says they need to work more on things…that’s not as pleasant as rereading things and having everything look familiar.
John M.: Right
Rebecca: Passively sitting in a lecture when things all seem like it makes perfect sense to you, because an expert is describing it who knows what they’re talking about, right? Always feels easier than trying to apply it yourself. And I think that students, even though the lecture might feel better, and learning is hard…over time…at the end, when they’ve seen how much they’ve accomplished, and you do have them reflect…many of them appreciate or come around. Sometimes, it’s not in that same semester, sometimes it’s emails, months or years later.
John K.: Yes.
John M.: Right. Right, right.
Sarah: If only if we could do course evals, you know, a whole year later,
John K.: Or five years later. That may not work too well in my tenure process, though.
Rebecca: We always wrap up asking what’s next?
Sarah: Well, the first thing is we’re hoping our article gets published. It’s been submitted. We’re waiting for reviewers. I’m going on maternity leave next semester…that’s really what’s next.
Rebecca: Sounds like a new adventure.
Sarah: It is a brand new adventure.
John M.: Wow, I don’t think that far ahead, I guess. Yeah, I guess I’m that unoriginal, huh. But, yeah, no I’m just trying to…
Sarah: We’re moving to a new building.
John M.: Yeah, moving to a new building, and getting a new department chair. Yeah, that’s right.
John K.: A new desk to go with the chair?
John M.: No. Ah… Yeah, funny, funny, funny.
Sarah: if only…
Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for joining us, this has been really interesting.
John K.: 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 K.: Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Kiara Montero.
Faculty design their classes based on their perceptions of how students learn. These perceptions, though, are not always consistent with the science of learning. In this episode, Dr. Kristen Betts and Dr. Michelle Miller join us to discuss the prevalence of neuromyths and awareness of evidence-based practices in higher ed.
Kristen is a clinical professor in the online Ed.D. program in Educational Leadership and Management in the School of Education at Drexel University. Michelle is the Director of the First-Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences and the President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. She’s also the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and a frequent guest on this podcast.
- Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online. Harvard University Press.
- Online Learning Consortium
- Betts, K., Miller, M., Tokuhama-Espinosa, T., Shewokis, P., Anderson, A., Borja, C., Galoyan, T., Delaney, B., Eigenauer, J., & Dekker, S. (2019). International report: Neuromyths and evidence-based practices in higher education. Online Learning Consortium: Newburyport, MA.
- Mariale Hardiman
- Tracey Noel Tokuhama-Espinosa
- Dekker, S., Lee, N. C., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in psychology, 3, 429.
- Alida Anderson
- Macdonald, K., Germine, L., Anderson, A., Christodoulou, J., & McGrath, L. M. (2017). Dispelling the myth: Training in education or neuroscience decreases but does not eliminate beliefs in neuromyths. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 1314.
- “Universal Design for Learning,” CAST website
- Mchelle Miller, “65. Retrieval Practice” – Tea for Teaching podcast, January 23, 2019.
- Vygotsky, L. (1987). Zone of proximal development. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes, 5291, 157.
- Michelle Miller, “86. Attention Matters” – Tea for Teaching podcast, June 19, 2019.
John: Faculty design their classes based on their perceptions of how students learn. These perceptions, though, are not always consistent with the science of learning. In this episode, we examine the prevalence of neuromyths and awareness of evidence-based practices in higher ed.
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 are Dr. Kristen Betts and Dr. Michelle Miller. Kristen is a clinical professor in the online EDD program in Ed.D. Educational Leadership and Management in the School of Education at Drexel University. Michelle is the Director of the First-Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences and the President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. She’s also the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and a frequent guest on this podcast. Welcome, Kristen and welcome back, Michelle.
Kristen: Thank you so much for having us.
Michelle: Hi, it’s great to be here again.
John: Were really pleased to talk to you. Our teas today are…
Kristen: I’m drinking Apricot Oolong, a green Tea. Nice for the afternoon.
Michelle: And, I have a wonderful hibiscus tea.
Rebecca: And, I have… big surprise… English Afternoon tea.
John: And, I have ginger peach black tea.
We invited you here to talk about the study that you both worked on together on neuromyths and evidence-based practices in higher education. Could you tell us what prompted this study?
Kristen: Sure. As a lifelong learner, I decided I would enroll in a wonderful program being offered at Johns Hopkins University several years ago in mind, brain, and teaching led by Dr. Mariale Hardiman. In one of the courses, I read several articles that looked at the high prevalence of neuromyths in K through 12 education. And, one of the things that caught me by surprise was: One, I was a K through 12 teacher early in my career. I was, at the time, a professor in the School of Education, and in looking at some of the neuromyths, they actually looked like things that I had studied as part of professional development. And, I had not assumed they would be neuromyths. And, so it really intrigued me in terms of: Why is there this high prevalence and why are we not more aware of some of the evidence-based practices that are out there? Not just in the United States, but clearly these were studies that were taking place internationally. So, I decided to start looking at this through the lens of higher education, because that’s where I work and it’s my area of expertise, and I reached out to Dr. Michelle Miller. I was at the Online Learning Consortium conference. Her focus is on cognitive psychology. So, I approached her after the session and told her about this interest in looking at neuromyths within the field of education… really, across disciplines, in trying to see was it similar to what the findings were in K through 12 education, and what was really being done to integrate evidence-based practices into pedagogy or even andragogy. So, we decided to connect and start looking at this. I had a wonderful PHD student who I was working with at the time as well, who is from Armenia, very interested in this topic, and we quickly grew our small group to include a total of ten researchers from the total of seven different institutions nationally and internationally across three countries. And, everybody brought different expertise, everyone from two-year colleges, four-year colleges, public, private. And, we also were very fortunate because we were able to find, really some of the seminal researchers in the area of mind-brain education science, such as Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa. And, we reached out to the researchers who actually conducted the studies looking at neuromyths like Sanne Dekker, and we reached out to a Alida Anderson who worked with McDonald et. al. in their 2017 publication. So, it quickly grew from a point of interest in trying to identify what was happening in higher education, to really a much broader international study.
Michelle: Oh, and just echoing what Kristen has said here, we first did meet through the Online Learning Consortium, first at a conference and then they set up calls where we got to talk to each other and realize that even though we came from somewhat different academic backgrounds and published in some different areas, we really had this common ground of interest in how do we bring more evidence-based teaching to faculty in higher education and really throughout the world. And, to me, as a cognitive psychologist, it’s just an inherently fascinating question of, even though we live in our own minds, why do we not sometimes understand some basic principles of how the mind and how the brain works? So, that’s just an intellectually interesting question to me. But then it does take on this tremendous practical importance when we start to look at teaching practices throughout the world and bringing that really quality evidence-based design of teaching and learning experiences for our students.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how, once all of these researchers are now together, how did you put the study together and how was it conducted?
Kristen: I have to say it was not easy. Thank goodness, we reached out to some of the original authors. The survey instruments that looked at neuromyths and general knowledge about the brain. And, what was so interesting is almost all the studies were truly K through 12 focus, so the questions were very different. Even looking at lexicon, “girl and boy,” where we would want to look at male/female. So, we had a look at absolutely every question and make sure that we were able to revise that question within the framework for the lens of higher education. So, it was not an easy process, just in terms of time, because we had to go through so many iterations. And, I think that really helps with the integrity of the research. We had two pilot studies, even down to looking at the Likert scales that we used. One of the things that really stood out was the primary study that we looked at, which was a 2012 study by Sanne Dekker and several other researchers. They had a Likert scale that looked at correct, incorrect and I don’t know. There was a study by McDonald and colleagues in 2017 and they changed it to true and false. So, we decided early on, we would go with true and false. And, when we did that pilot, we ended up with half the participants stopping midway and simply putting, “I’m not sure if it’s true or false…” and they just didn’t complete the survey. And, I think, just looking at how we phrase the questions, it really affected the participation of our respondents. So, we went back, we modified some of the questions based on that, and we change the Likert scale. And, I think being able to have the ability to say whether it was correct, incorrect, or you didn’t know took away from saying it was true or false, because you can base it on knowledge or what you perhaps had been exposed to. And, we ended up having a wonderful pilot making some additional changes. And the feedback that we got, even after sending out the survey, we had a flood of emails saying “Can you please send us a copy of the study, we’re really interested?” So, we really looked at everything. And, I would say one thing that stood out most; and again I go back to the time we spent over two years on this study from point of inception to where we actually send out the survey, collected this study and then published it, was when we looked at the neuromyths, what we quickly realized was we needed to examine evidence-based practices as well. And, we looked at all of this from a metacognitive perspective. The prior studies that were done, looked at what they called “endorsing neuromyths,” and we weren’t so much looking at endorsing, we wanted to look at awareness, because all of us were involved in teaching… professional development. And, so it was a matter of trying to identify what the gaps were, what were instructors, instructional designers, and professional development administrators aware of and, if there is that gap, how could we develop a study where people would say “Wow, I also thought that was correct, but it’s incorrect… but, I would love to find out what the response is and how I can change my knowledge or understanding.” And, so we looked at absolutely everything and wanted to create a study that people would pick up and say, “This is where I am now. Gosh, after going through this in reading the report, this is where I am and my circle of knowledge needs to continue to expand, as things continue to expand through mind-brain education science.”
Michelle: As a collaborative effort, I haven’t been involved really in a study of this scale and scope. And, it’s simply the level of collaboration. You just heard about one of the iterations of the survey instrument that we put together and just how that piece of the study came about. But all the way through the analyses, the writing, it was such an opportunity, even apart from what we were able to share with the rest of the world, just from my own niche piece of the study as well. The opportunity, as a cognitive psychologist, to start infusing what I feel is more attention that needs to be paid to cognitive psychology and learning sciences. The opportunity to infuse that into this field in this area of thinking was also really exciting as well.
Kristen: So, in terms of how it was conducted, we sent the survey out for the Online Learning Consortium. When we originally started, we were just going to look at instructors, we were looking at neuromyth prevalence in instructors because all of the other studies that had been done were primarily K through 12 teachers and pre-service teachers. (although the McDonald study looked at a wider range). Once we started to bring together our team, then we started thinking, “Gosh, well, it’s not simply the instructors. It’s going to be the instructional designers, it’ll be anybody conducting some type of professional development as well because no course is truly an island.” There are so many people today involved in course design, course development and so the Online Learning Consortium was such an amazing partner for us and they touch on absolutely every part of that population. So, we reached out to them early on and said “We’d love to collaborate with you. You’ve got an extensive membership and listserv. Would we be able to develop this survey instrument, send it out through your membership, and ask them through snowball sampling to share it with others who may actually be involved in higher education, in one of these roles.” And, they could not have been a better partner. They’re just incredible to work with. So, that’s how it was conducted.
John: And, we were actually part of that snowball. I sent it out to a list of about 1200 faculty, staff, and professional development people on my campus alone. How large was your ultimate sample?
Kristen: We ended up with approximately 1300 respondents. And, then we actually looked at the full study, we ended up with 929, who met the criteria for inclusion. So, one of the things we wanted to make sure when we looked at the criteria for inclusion that they worked in higher education. You’d be surprised. So many people complete surveys, but they don’t necessarily meet the criteria. Even when you explicitly state you have to be within higher education: teaching or one of these areas. So, we had a total of 929 who met the criteria, and of those they also had a complete 95% of the questions for the neuromyths, and also for the evidence-based practices because we didn’t want to have any gaps. I would say it was an incredible response rate, especially for those completing the survey. They filled out I would say the majority of everything within the survey itself. The respondents were just incredible as well, because you talked about the cross section of participants, but we ended up with really an incredible number of instructors and that was broken down into full-time, part-time, instructional designers, the professional development administrators and it allowed us to run a lot of different tests that we’ll talk about when we look at the findings.
Rebecca: I think one of the things that’s really interesting about how you discuss the setup of the study is thinking about how many different individuals play a role in perpetuating myths, or even perpetuating good evidence-based practices too. That administrators is where funding comes from, so you have to have everybody in the institution on board with what you actually want to essentially Institute.
Kristen: Well, what’s interesting, and you bring up such a great point. One of the top neuromyths out there is learning styles. And, so when you’re looking at learning styles, this is something that almost seems to permeate. It doesn’t matter when you started teaching, whether it’s K through 12, or higher education at some point if you’ve been involved in education, you’ve come across learning styles. Now there are learning preferences and there’s lots of wonderful research on that. But this concept of teaching to learning styles, I think, unfortunately… we talk about this in section seven of our report kind of got mixed in with multiple intelligences. And, that is not at all what multiple intelligence was about, but it was almost the timing of it and so, having been a K through 12 teacher, I remember going through a professional development where we learned about learning styles and how it was something to look at in terms of teaching to learning preferences. And, even to this day when I do presentations, and I know Michelle has run into this as well, especially when we co-teach some of the OLC workshops, somebody will inevitably raise their hand or type in the chat area “Are you kidding? Learning styles is a neuromyth? We just had somebody on our campus six months ago, who taught us how to do an assessment to teach to learning styles.” So, it’s still out there, even though there’s so much in the literature saying it’s a neuromyth. It’s still prevalent within education across all areas.
John: So, you mentioned the issue of learning styles. And, that’s something we see a lot on our campus as well. We’ve even had a couple of podcast guests who we edited out there mention of learning styles and then had a chat with them later about it. I won’t mention any names because they had some really good things to say, but it is a really prevalent myth and it’s difficult to deal with. So, you mentioned learning styles. What are the most prevalent myths that you found in terms of neuromyths?
Kristen: When you look at the report, the first part of our survey had 23 statements. We had eight statements that were neuromyths. If you look at the K through 12 studies, they had many more neuromyths, but we had eight. And, I will tell you, the top five neuromyths in higher education, very closely parallel what you find in K through 12. Now our prevalence is not as high, but it still shows that instructors, instructional designers, and administrators are susceptible to them and that goes back to awareness. So, the top one: listening to classical music increases reasoning ability and that’s really that Mozart Effect. Another one: individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning styles. Some of us are left brained and some of us are right brain due to hemispheric dominance and this helps explain differences in how we learn. So, that’s really that concept of “Oh, I’m right brained. I’m left brained.” And, this again, is something that goes across higher ed and K through 12. Two other really big ones: We only use 10% of our brain. And, if you look at section seven of the report, you will find all of the responses, literally evidence-based practices or research-supported responses to make sure that people aren’t simply saying, “Oh, it’s incorrect. Well, we want people to know why it’s incorrect. So, they can reflect on that and change their understanding, really the rationale and the research behind it. And, then lastly, it is best for children to learn their native language before a second language is learned. This, again, is a big neuromyth. And I think one of the things I’m hoping that will come out of this study, because we talked about this really when we go into evidence-based practices, is this concept of neuro-plasticity, the fact that the brain changes every time you learn something new. When you’re engaged in an experience, the brain is changing. And, sometimes the brain is changing at a cellular level before you might even see that change in behavior, and so we’re able to see now through technology through f-MRI through fNIR so much more than we were able to see before. So, really keeping abreast of what’s happening in the research should be informing our practice because we have more information available than ever before. But, somehow we need to get that into our professional development training, seminars, and workshops or into the classes that we’re teaching in our schools of education or into our onboarding. But yeah, these are the top five neuromyths in terms of susceptibility, and they cut across higher ed and K through 12.
John: In your paper, you also provide some crosstabs on the prevalence by the type of role of individuals, whether they’re instructors, instructional designers, or administrators. Could you tell us a bit about how the different groups due in terms of the prevalence of these neuromyths?
Kristen: Well, the one thing I will say is, everybody is susceptible to neuromyths, so it wasn’t as if there was one group, and I know that’s always in the back of someone’s mind, “Gosh, who’s the most susceptible?” Well, we didn’t find any significant differences, and one of the things that we wanted to do as well was to really be break the participants down and look at other factors. So, when we look at full-time versus part-time faculty, is one group more susceptible to neuromyths. And we found no significant difference in terms of gender, in terms of age, in terms of working at a two-year institution, a four-year institution. And I really think that talks to the amazing reality of the opportunity to integrate professional development in looking at the learning sciences and mind-brain education science in the opportunity to decrease that gap. So, it wasn’t one group over another. But it’s everybody who has this opportunity to increase this awareness across all of these areas.
John: Didn’t you also find that some of these myths were less common among instructional designers relative to faculty,
Kristen: We found with evidence-based practices, when we looked at significant difference with evidence-based practices, instructional designers actually had in terms of percent correct, higher awareness of evidence-based practices. It wasn’t a large difference, but there was a significant difference and Michelle can certainly talk to this point as well. But, this is really the importance of having an incredible team when you’re looking at course design, course development, and part of that may have to do with, when you look at instructional design, there is so much new literature and research that’s getting infused in to that area, and so that may have something to do with it. But, I think there’s lots of additional studies that we could do to follow up.
Michelle: Kind of circling back to the point of the design and delivery of instruction in a contemporary university or college is fundamentally more collaborative than it was in prior eras. And, so I think we definitely need to have everybody involved start to really break out of that old school mold of class is identified with the teacher who teaches it and that’s what a course is. And no, courses reflect, today, everything from the philosophy and the support that comes down from the top to the people that the students may never meet, but who put their stamp on instruction such as instructional designers. And, this is something that I get pretty fired up about in my just practical work as a program director and just being involved in these things in the university, that there are still faculty who you say, “Hey, do we have any instructional designers who are working with us on this project to redesign? Is anybody assigned to help us as we develop this new online degree program or something?” …and you sometimes still get blank look.? Or you get “Oh, aren’t those the people who you call when the learning management system breaks down and that’s their specialty?” I mean, this report, I think, just really hammers home that idea that instructional designers are a key part of this collaborative team that goes into really good quality higher education instruction today. And it isn’t just about the technology. I think that they’re getting exposure to and staying abreast of what’s going on in research that relates to teaching and learning. And, what a great opportunity for faculty to not just rely on them for technology, but to learn from them and to learn with them as we build better courses together.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the awareness that you found in general about evidence-based practices? So, we focused a lot on the neuromyths, but what shook out when you started looking at the evidence-based practices?
Kristen: Well, one thing that stood out was awareness was much higher. And, that’s really exciting. I think that’s a huge testament to the professional development that we are offering. But, there were still gaps in areas where there certainly could be a lot of improvement. So, a couple of examples that I’ll give because we literally spent months looking evidence-based practices, and we wanted to make sure that we could support them. So, for example, when we look at percent correct, where most individuals across all three groups were not as aware, like “differentiated instruction is individualized instruction.” So, we know that this is incorrect. But most of the respondents did not put that that was an incorrect statement. So, they either stated it was correct, or they didn’t know. So, again, this is an area that we certainly want to explore. Because differentiated instruction is something that really, I think, adds to the classroom. And, there are other ones. For example, we’ll look at Universal Design for Learning. So, one of the statements we had in there actually comes directly from the CAST website, and it says “Universal Design for Learning is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.” Well, the instructional designers, they were the most aware. So, 87% of them got that correct. Of the professional development administrators 74% got that answer correct. For the instructors, 58% got that correct. So, you can see the difference in the responses and when we share this nationally or internationally…. when we talk about the study, you’ll have a lot of individuals who’ll say “No, universal design for learning, that’s about accessibility.” Well, it certainly is about accessibility. But, most importantly, it’s about learning and how humans learn. It is probably the most dynamic and the most powerful aspect that we can add into pedagogy or into andragogy. But just by looking at the data here, it may not be something that everybody’s aware of, and that’s again a great opportunity to integrate that into professional development. So, there are a number of things. I mean, it’s exciting because when you look at it, there are 28 statements. And, as I mentioned, overall, the awareness was much higher across all three groups, compared to neuromyths or general knowledge about the brain.
Michelle: Just to jump in here, again, from my kind of cognitive psychology perspective, those evidence-based practices that we’re talking about also include, specifically, some items that are related to memory, a topic that’s really close to my heart. So, I think those are just fascinating as well. So, for example, we asked a variation on a classic question that many cognitive psychologists have looked at: “whether human memory works a lot like a digital recording device or a video camera.” So, is your memory basically taking in information that’s in front of you? And, here again, we’ve got 69% of our instructors saying, “Oh, yeah, that’s right. That’s how it works.” And, that is not how it works. 79% of our instructional designers identify this as an incorrect statement and 74% of our administrators, and we have a few other related things such as we asked people whether testing detracts from learning. And, as Tea for Teaching listeners know, that goes to retrieval practice. Testing doesn’t detract from learning, testing builds up learning. So, these are some as well that I think it’s very interesting to tap into what people know and really think about while these maybe seem like inside baseball, or very metaphorical or philosophical questions, if I’m an instructor, and I believe these things, that students are basically just running video cameras in their heads… well, that is going to lead to some different practices. I might be very puzzled as to why I got up and gave this lecture and the students eyes were pointed at me and yet it didn’t end up in memory. So, those are some of the items that I was particularly interested to see when we got all the numbers in.
Kristen: You know, I would say one thing: when anybody reads the report, what we want them to do is look at how it’s presented in terms of the tables, because everything is looking at the percent of correct or accurate responses. So, as Michelle said, when we look at “human memory works like a digital recording device,” 69% of the instructors got that correct. 79% of the instructional designers got that correct. And, 74% of the administrators got that correct. So, that means we still have a fairly large percentage, basically 20 to 30% that either got the answer incorrect, or they didn’t know. And, even looking at these responses, do they actually know why they knew it? Or did they guess or did they make that assumption like, “Oh, that’s got to be right.” And so, really, the intentionality of this study was awareness, really bringing out statements from the literature to help anybody who’s involved in teaching, course design, professional development to look at these questions, and really think “Do I know this?” And, “If I know it, how do I know this? Is it based on some type of research or literature? Could I defend that? If I don’t know with certainty, where do I find that answer? And how can I learn that? And, how can I integrate those practices?”
John: On the day when your report came out, we shared that on our campus to everyone on our mailing list. One of the nice things about the report is that it has all the questions and also provides references for the answers explaining why the specific answer is true or false. And, it’s a really great resource and we’ll share a link to that in the show notes. It is long. When I shared it two people sent back email saying “Maybe we should use this as a reading group for next semester.” And it’s not a bad idea, actually. But, much of that is appendices and so forth. And, it’s a really informative document. I believe in your survey, you were asking people about their participation in professional development, and you looked at the relationship between participation in professional development and the prevalence of these myths. Is that correct?
Kristen: We did. So, one of the things that we wanted to look at was trying to find out if educators were involved in professional development, whether it be neuroscience, psychology or in mind-brain education science, did that actually increase their awareness of neuromyths, general information about the brain, and evidence-based practices? And it did. We found that that it was definitely a predictor and it was found to be a significant predictor and so, for us, again, it looked at what a wonderful opportunity to be able to say that training does have a positive impact. And, that was really the crux of the study… and it’s interesting, you talked about the length of this study, because originally we had thought about doing two different or three different studies. So, we do one on neuromyths, one on evidence-based practices, one on professional development. Then when we brought the data in, the question was: “Do we separate them out into three different long articles or three different reports?” And, we collectively, across all disciplines said, “No, we need to bring them together.” Because first and foremost, it’s about awareness. You can’t really talk about evidence-based practices, until you’re aware of what the neuromyths might be. What are some of the fallacies that you might actually believe? What are things about the brain that you may or may not know? And, once you’re there, and you have that understanding, you can then move into the evidence-based practices, because it’s all really connected. So, when Michelle talks about memory, you can’t really talk about memory without having some understanding of the mind or the brain. And, so we decided collectively, we would bring it together as hopefully a seminal piece that would really present anyone with a continuum as to: “Where am I? What am I possibly doing in my classroom?” …being able to really do that self assessment and then find the answers, as you said, in that section seven, and realize that they’re not an outlier. I mean, chances are anybody that goes through this is going to fall within that span in terms of their understanding and knowledge.
Michelle: And, what I hope is coming out here is that this study is unusual, not just in its scale, its scope and that we focused on higher education, but that it is so explicitly geared to not just identifying gaps in knowledge or awareness, but addressing those. It’s not like we came along six months later and said, “Oh, by the way, here’s a really nice resource we put together.” It is one stop, it’s right there. And, what an exercise that was, as well. Kristen, I think you’ll remember back just saying, “Okay, in a paragraph… this item, all of us look at this and go ‘oh my gosh, that’s wrong’ or ‘that’s right.’ Why is that? and what are the very best empirical sources that we will trace back to, to demonstrate that?” So, we are trying to provide that and also to really be a model to say: next time that you get that handout or that workshop that says, “Oh, here’s some great stuff about the brain.” What are they backing that up with? Can you trace it back to the solid research sources that makes some of these really powerful principles for learning, and make other things just misconceptions.
Kristen: One of the things that I would say was probably the most exciting and the most challenging. We had 10 researchers, we had 10 researchers from different fields: people from nursing, biomedical engineering, psychology; we had people who work in the area of neuroscience, education (as I mentioned), and we needed to come out with a collective voice, writing a report that would be understood across disciplines. And, so when we wrote section seven, all of us had to be reviewers and we vetted it multiple times. Not just within our group, but outside, to make sure when you read about neural pathways, it actually made sense. Because to write something where somebody would not understand or not be able to connect would be a challenge. And, we wanted people to walk away. I know one of the things that we were looking at: Why neuromyths? Well, a lot of the research out there looks at the fact that when you teach, your teaching and your pedagogy is based on your knowledge, and in your understanding of how people learn, and so we wanted to really look at this area in terms of awareness, because it may impact pedagogy. Our study did not do that. And, I want to make sure it’s really clear. Our study was not designed to say, “Oh gosh, the awareness of neuromyths wasn’t very high in this area, therefore, you must be integrating neuromyths into your teaching. That was not the intentionality of our study and that’s not something that we’ve ever said. There are certainly recommendations we put in the study to look at. If there is a high prevalence of neuromyths,how does that affect pedagogy? But ours was simply looking at awareness and could professional development address gaps? So, we could do this across all different groups that would be involved in course design and delivery.
John: That’s one of the things I really like about it, that you do address all these things well, you provide the evidence, and it’s going to be a great go to reference for those of us when faced with neuromyths, with issues about evidence-based practices. We can just go and grab some of the citations and share them back out or refer them to the whole document as I’ve done several times already. These things are really common even in professional development. I was at a session not too long ago, where there were two neuromyths presented during the session. One was the learning styles thing. But the nice thing is, unlike other times when I’ve seen that done, there were two of us who went up and waited until everyone else talked to the presenter. And, we were both ready to do it after other people had gone so we didn’t embarrass her, but it’s starting to get out there. And, I know on our campus, we’ve got a growing number of people who are aware of this partly because of the reading groups we’ve had, where we’ve had a growing number of participants… and that all started actually with Michelle’s book about five years ago now when we first did the group. You came out, you visited, people wanted to do more, so we started a reading group. We’ve done four additional reading groups since then. We’ve had many of the same participants, but it’s spreading out wider. I’m hoping we’re making a difference through these reading groups.
Michelle: And, that’s so gratifying as an author and as a researcher, and I remember well working with your group in Oswego and the great ideas I took away as well. So, I’m a big believer in virtuous cycle. So, maybe we’ve started one.
Kristen: I think what really came out of this study is the passion that everybody has for student success. Everybody from those that are offering the professional development, the instructional designers that want to make sure that the students are successful, even though they might not be teaching the course. And, then the instructors themselves… and so to be able to work with that many individuals who are not only subject matter experts across their disciplines, but so passionate about making a difference. But I think being able to integrate all of this new research relating to neuroscience, psychology and education, it’s going to transform not only how we teach, but it’s going to transform pedagogy, andragogy, and this whole concept of learning.
Rebecca: I really appreciate the bringing it together and that you decided to keep it all together and not to make three separate reports. I think it’s actually really important to understand how these are all connected and related. And, I think that’s one of the most unique things about the report. I think the community is probably very grateful that we have this resource available now.
Kristen: Oh, thank you.
John: One of the things I’ve often been concerned about is how some of these neuromyths, particularly the left brain – right brain thing, and the learning styles belief, often serves as a message to students that they can only learn in certain ways or they only have certain types of skills, and they’re not able to make progress in other ways. And, it can serve as a barrier and can lead, perhaps, to the development of a fixed mindset in students which may serve as a barrier.
Rebecca: …or not even allow those students to feel like they can enter particular disciplines.
John: If people become more aware of this, perhaps it could lead to more opportunities for our students or fewer barriers placed in the way of students.
Rebecca: …or maybe even just more inclusive pedagogy in general.
Kristen: You bring up such a great point. So, if you believe in learning styles, and you believe that you are truly a visual learner, Michelle and I’ve talked about this a lot, it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But you probably are an incredible visual learner because you’ve been told you learn better in this learning style, so you’re going to seek materials in that learning styles. So, the challenge with that, especially when you’re looking at younger students or anybody during their education, you’re precluding really other ways to enhance your learning. So, when you look at Universal Design for Learning, it’s so important because you’re looking at multiple means of engagement, representation, action, and expression. And, when you’re looking at learning styles, if a student believes they’re a visual learner and suddenly asked to go in and take a Spanish oral exam, it could trigger, all of a sudden, stress. Well, what do we know about stress? And, Michelle can talk more about that. But, when you’re stressed, it affects working memory. And, so just that thought of, “Oh my gosh, it’s an oral exam. I’m a visual learner. How can I perform well on that?” And it’s really creating, as you talked about, a barrier or it may decrease, possibly, performance. I know that Dr. Tracey Tokuhama-Espinoza is very passionate about this. And, you’ll see in her presentations, she’ll come out and say “Neuromyths do harm.” And so, I think it’s certainly something that needs to be explored. And, Michelle, from a psychological point, I’d be curious to find out what you have to say as well.
Michelle: When you say “self-fulfilling prophecy” and things like that, it also kind of reminds me of a placebo effect, in a way… and learning styles, and continuing that as an example, yeah, I might go: “Oh, visual learning. It is absolutely me,” like “Now I feel like I can tailor all this to myself. I’ll just find teachers, opportunities, and disciplines that are right there in visual learning.” And, I might have some subjective impression that that’s helping me, or from the teacher’s perspective, I might feel like “Well, I brought in some different materials and engaged different modalities and, what do you know, because of learning styles, we’re doing better.” Well, there’s lots of different reasons why that might be happening. An individual may walk away, and maybe they weren’t individually harmed. I just feel like… just like in modern medicine, there’s sort of a promise that we can do better than mere placebos. I think that ought to be the promise of modern pedagogy as well, that we can do better than simply trying to build up expectations or giving people a false sense that they have something based on science that’s going to help them individually do better. And, I hear so many kind of missed opportunities that really kind of get me activated as well. I think about, for example, the energy that goes into faculty professional development. These things come from good impulses. I really believe that. I believe that people who really pursue something like learning styles or things like that, they want to do better and they want to be more inclusive, but that effort is directed down the wrong path simply because of this gap in knowledge and gap in information in getting the right information to the right people at the right time. And, I can’t stand the thought of faculty, especially as limited as faculty time is and as spread as thin as faculty are, to think that they might try to pick up on some better information about teaching and learning and go down the wrong path. I never want that to happen again. And, maybe our report will be a step in the right direction.
Kristen: I’ll say one thing that we’re trying to do with the report, is really to align the report with best practices and evidence-based practices. So, when you look at the concept of neuromyths the wonderful study that was written by McDonald (and this was in 2017) and her colleagues, the title is “Dispelling the Myth: training and education in neuroscience decreases but does not eliminate beliefs in neuromyths” and so professional development is not a silver bullet. Simply offering one workshop that’s going to address neuromyths is not going to necessarily get rid of neuromyths. So, we have to do what? We have to look at spacing. We have to look at interleaving. So, with professional development, how do you take information related to evidence-based practices and integrate spaced practice into our own professional development? How do we integrate interleaving? How do we integrate low-stakes assessment? So, maybe when faculty or instructional designers come in, you do a quick self assessment and find out what that baseline knowledge is, and then at the end to say, “Okay, at the end of professional development, we need to get to 95% or higher.” But, they’re able to actually test their own knowledge. So, we need to kind of turn professional development upside down and make it active learning and really engage everybody in what we’re looking at within pedagogy and andragogy.
Rebecca: Yeah, I always find it really ironic that a lot of training and things on evidence-based practices is not using evidence-based practices… or using really traditional formats: lecture or getting lectured at and not really engaging with the material. And, it’s no different when we’re working with our students. And, if they’re practicing in a way that’s not going to be effective for them, and they’re not successful. They could spend tons of time on something and just not really make progress. The same thing can happen with our faculty and staff who are designing curricula and what have you as well. They can be really invested.
John: We do have an excellent podcast on retrieval practice. In fact, it’s one of our most popular episodes. We’ll share a link to that in our show notes. We don’t yet have any podcasts on interleaved and spaced practice, but I’m sure we’ll be asking Michelle to come back and talk about these things at some point in the future, if she’s willing. So far, we’ve been focusing on the types of neuromyths that are common. What can we do to reduce the prevalence of these neuromyths?
Kristen: Professional development is certainly key. But, I would look at things such as onboarding, making sure that when people are getting hired on, that they’re really introduced to evidence-based practices from the very beginning. And, even individuals that would say, “Gosh, I’ve been in instructional design for 20 years, I’m familiar” …there may still be those gaps. And, it’s almost like adaptive learning. Everybody that comes in very much like the Vygotsky’s work of zone of proximal development, they may have all been teaching for 20 years, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t have neurodiversity in terms of experience, knowledge about different practices. So, it’s important that it’s from the very onset of when people get hired and making sure it’s understood that we’re committed to best practices, evidence-based practices and what we do builds upon the literature and the research. Not only do we introduce it here, but we move it forward and integrate it into our pedagogy and what we’re doing in our classrooms.
Rebecca: So, we always wrap up by asking: What’s next?
Michelle: Conference season is upon us. We’re recording this fall of 2019. I’m gearing up to go to the Online Learning Consortium’s Accelerate conference in November. And so, I will just personally say come find me if you’re there and you want to talk more about this. I will be presenting on a related but different topic having to do with our ongoing Attention Matters project, which is also the subject of another Tea for Teaching episode. So, I’m really working on getting ready for that, and also the upcoming POD network conference. So, for those educational developers who will be attending that, I’ll be speaking there and hopefully having lots and lots of sidebar conversations with plenty of other people who are interested and fired up about these very topics. So, I/m working on those. I’m working on what I will now call a forthcoming book. It’s under contract with West Virginia University Press, tentatively titled Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology. So, maybe someday in the not too far off future, we’ll be talking about that project as well.
John: We should note that this podcast will be released during the OLC conference. In particular, it’s coming out on Wednesday of the conference.
Kristen: Oh, that’s exciting.
John: And, I should also note that we’ll be presenting there as well. I’m hoping we’ll get some people to listen to this podcast because we’re presenting the next day. So, we might get some new listeners. [LAUGHTER]
Kristen: Oh, that’s exciting. In terms of projects that I’m engaged in and working on. We’ve just launched a new lab in our School of Education at Drexel University. So, we’re bringing everything together and trying to align projects coming up for 2020. But it’s a lab called ELABS, Education, Learning, and Brain Sciences Research Collaborative. So, we’ll be looking at different studies related to the learning sciences and mind-brain education science. I am wrapping up an article with several researchers at Drexel University, some of our PhD students, that looks at immersive virtual reality and practice as well as transfer of learning. We also have a report that I’m working on. It’s an update to research that I conducted earlier on online human touch. So, I’m wrapping up that study and putting together an article there. And, then also looking at two publications for books looking at neuro plasticity and optimal learning. One would be for students to really understand neurodiversity, neuroplasticity, how you can optimize the stress response, and then looking at neuroplasticity and optimal learning from the instructor or instructional design perspective. How do you integrate this into your practice? So, those are the initiatives that I’m working on.
Rebecca: Sounds like lots of things for all of us to look forward to.
John: Thank you very much for joining us. This was a fascinating conversation. And, we’ve been looking forward to this report since I first heard a bit about it when you initially did the survey, and when I saw a preliminary presentation at all see last year.
Kristen: Well, thank you so much for having us. It’s such a pleasure to discuss this topic with you. And, I’m looking forward to listening to many of your upcoming podcasts that clearly is connected to this report.
Michelle: Thank you so much. It makes all the hard work worthwhile and we love the opportunity to get the work out to exactly the people with the power to spread it to faculty and instructional designers and leaders in universities today.
Rebecca: Thank you.
Despite research demonstrating the efficacy of active learning approaches, observations of classroom instruction show limited use. In this episode, Lindsay Wheeler and Hannah Sturtevant join us to explore potential interventions to overcome the barriers to the adoption of effective teaching practices.
Lindsay is the Assistant Director of STEM education initiatives at the UVA Center for Teaching Excellence and an assistant professor. Lindsay’s background is in chemistry and she has a PhD in science education. Hannah’s a postdoctoral research associate at the center. Her PhD is in chemistry with an emphasis on chemical education.
- Henderson, C., & Dancy, M. H. (2007). Barriers to the use of research-based instructional strategies: The influence of both individual and situational characteristics. Physical Review Special Topics-Physics Education Research, 3(2), 020102.
- University of Virginia programs
- Teach Better Podcast Episode 80
- Smith, M. K., Jones, F. H., Gilbert, S. L., & Wieman, C. E. (2013). The Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS): A new instrument to characterize university STEM classroom practices. CBE Life Sciences Education, 12(4), 618–627.
- POGIL- Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning
- PODLive! Webinar
- Meghan Bathgate — Postdoctoral associate at Yale University
- Emily Walter — Assistant professor of Biology at California State University, Fresno
Rebecca: Despite research demonstrating the efficacy of active learning approaches, observations of classroom instruction show limited use. In this episode, we explore potential interventions to overcome the barriers to the adoption of effective teaching practices.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Our guests today are Doctors Lindsay Wheeler and Hannah Sturtevant. Lindsay is the Assistant Director of STEM Education Initiatives at the UVA Center for Teaching Excellence and an assistant professor. Lindsay’s background is in chemistry and she has a PhD in science education. Hannah’s a postdoctoral research associate at the center. Her PhD is in chemistry with an emphasis in chemical education. Welcome, Lindsay and Hannah.
Hannah: Thank you.
Lindsay: Thank you.
John: Our teas today are…
Hannah: I have a lemon filled Earl Grey tea. [LAUGHTER]
Lindsay: I have my water.
Rebecca: I’m drinking English Afternoon.
John: And I have Blueberry Green tea. We’ve invited you here to discuss the study you’ve done on why STEM faculty are reluctant to try new teaching techniques. What prompted the study?
Lindsay: One of the big things that we try to focus on in our center is how we use local data to drive faculty development to help improve teaching and learning on our campus. As part of that back in 2016, 2017, we did a large-scale observation project where we observed over 200 STEM undergraduate courses. And we wanted to look for differences in the different instructional practices that our faculty were using based on whether they were engaging in our center or whether they were not. And this was sort of the beginning piece of driving everything that we’ve done since then, because we did see differences in their instructional practices between faculty who have and have not engaged in our center, but we didn’t see as much as we thought we would. And so we really wanted to further explore that and understand what things were hindering faculty from doing what they wanted, using evidence-based practices, particularly those that had gone through our Course Design Institute and had done other programs with us. And these are things that we heard anecdotally but we really wanted to better systematically measure this. That’s where Hannah comes in as a postdoctoral research associate and I’ll let her talk about what we did to further explore this idea of what the barriers were.
Hannah: So I came into the project when Lindsay was wanting to develop this barrier survey of some kind. And so I started by going through the literature and I found a lot of work that was of a qualitative nature that people had done in various fields, looking at barriers to implementing evidence-based practices and research-based practices. A lot of different terms are used so you have to know which ones to search depending on which field… in which journal… you’re in, so I got introduced to that, which was a bit of a challenge, but was able to kind of sort out all these different areas and find work that had been done both in DBER in specific fields and then more of the faculty development field. So I pulled on all of those different sources, but I did not find any survey instrument that was of a quantitative nature that delineated all of these different barriers that had been found in the qualitative papers. I found a couple surveys that had little sections of barriers and then I found a survey that looked at institutional climate, but I didn’t find any that delineated lots and lots of barriers that I’d seen in the qualitative work. So I drew on all that qualitative work to develop a survey instrument that we then piloted, so that’s kind of where all that came from.
Lindsay: And to add into that, there are benefits for doing interviews and qualitative work, but we wanted to really be able to find a way to quickly but systematically capture these barriers. Because as I mentioned, we are really interested in using that locally driven data and there’s only so many people in our center that can be able to do that work. That was part of the driving force behind developing the survey itself.
John: Just backing up a step, Hannah mentioned DBER. For our listeners, could you define that just so there is some clarity there?
Hannah: Yes, DBER is Discipline-Based Education Research. So I am a chemical educator, I’m a DBER researcher. Biology educators, astronomy educators, those are all DBER researchers.
John: What did you find in the survey?
Hannah: That survey instrument was not just barriers, but also some related ideas, so it included a section on teaching-research identity because that was something that came out of looking at the literature and seeing that this tension between teacher-researcher identity seemed to be something that might be a part of the barriers. So we added a section on that because we’d also not found any survey instruments that delineated those in a quantitative way. So moving on to the study. We piloted with 86 and that was a subset of the 150 instructors that were observed in the study that Lindsay mentioned earlier, that was kind of a rationale for the current research. So we were able to get 86 complete datasets out of that from the 150 that we sent it to. So first of all, we had 46 Likert scale questions— different statements about barriers that faculty participants could rate on a scale of one-to-five of, “This is not at all a barrier for me,” to “This is a barrier for me all the time.” And when we looked at the results of all of those Likert questions, the top five were number one—and that’s 65 percent said this was at least a moderate barrier for them so they rated that at three-out-of five at least—was lack of time. The second was tenure and promotion guidelines. The third was fixed seats or infrastructure constraints at 61 percent of faculty mentioning that. Number four was that students don’t come prepared at 59 percent. And then five was that too much prep time in particular was required to implement these evidence-based practices, that was at 50 percent of people mentioning. And we investigated those also qualitatively and the qualitative question that we asked—the open-ended question that we asked—was simply, “What barriers are most significant to you in your own teaching and why?” That question was a bit different. So we had all 46 of those Likert scale statements that faculty rated, but this one was getting at, “Okay, so now thinking about your work, what is the most significant barrier for you?” so it was a slightly different question than what we asked to the quantitative, and it produced some very interesting results. So what these 86 respondents said is, number one, aligned with the quantitative at lack of time, but that was only 57 percent that were saying that. Second was classroom space and lack of needed technology at 22 percent. Third was the lack of institutional support, so there’s a lot wrapped up into that question. And then number four was a variety of student-related issues and student resistance and not doing what they’re needing to do at 12 percent. And then finally, the lack of TA support and classes being too large coming in at nine and eight percent. So that gave us a greater understanding of what’s the number one issue for our particular faculty, as well as the overall landscape of all of these different Likert scale barriers. So that was interesting and drove what we were doing in our research. So one of the other results that came out of this work had to do with satisfaction and dissatisfaction with evidence-based practices. We asked the faculty who responded to the survey to go through a list of evidence-based practices and say which ones that they used. And looking at one of those practices—for instance—collaborative learning, we asked them if they were satisfied or dissatisfied with that practice—or both—and that was the practice that people were most dissatisfied with. And when we looked at that, and we compared it with their barriers results, we found descriptively that those faculty had higher barriers across all of the different barrier groupings on the survey. The ones that were dissatisfied with collaborative learning had higher barriers across all the different barrier groupings and we ended up grouping those into five. They had higher barriers across the board and we had been investigating, “What does that mean?” and as we’ve been expanding the study, wanting to get more data to really understand that and look into the policy responses on why they’re dissatisfied… things like that. But what came out of that was what Lindsay referred to, was the need to support faculty, not just before they implement an evidence-based practice, but when they’re implementing it. And we found this excellent study from Henderson and Dancy back in 2007. They did a qualitative study of physics faculty looking at supporting them and what they found is for those faculty that weren’t supported, once they came across these, what they called “situation barriers,” when they were implementing a practice, that made them stop using the practice. And so we think that our results really back up what Henderson and Dancy found and the need to support faculty once they start using a practice, helping them understand what barriers are going to be when they implement that practice and then supporting them throughout the time that they’re implementing. Because otherwise, if they’re not aware of the barriers that they’re going to face, then they may stop using that practice altogether. So that was one of the tentative results that came out of this pilot study was showing us… demonstrating the need to support those faculty.
Rebecca: I was also going to say that a lot of times faculty don’t give themselves a break. The first time you do something, you’re not perfect at it, just like our students, they’re not perfect at it the first time. You have to practice and do it over and over again to get good at it. So I think reminding faculty when they’re doing something new that will also happen for them, doesn’t hurt. [LAUGHTER]
Hannah: Exactly. There was a study that came out recently, it was over five years of implementation. And the first year went horribly, and they adjusted. It wasn’t until like the third implementation that things started to go much better, student resistance started to go down, and just recognizing the first time you implement, there will be a lot of barriers… there will be a lot of problems and that’s okay… to keep going, that this is a normal thing.
Lindsay: I think that’s part of, really, the importance of this. Other people are struggling too. Helping to normalize the fact that when you try something new in the classroom, and it doesn’t go well, it’s par for the course and that other faculty are going through that as well.
Rebecca: Those are some interesting results, but not entirely surprising. I think those are some similar things that we’ve heard and seen in other research. But interesting that it’s at your specific institution from your specific faculty, and that the qualitative and quantitative pieces somewhat align. So what have you been doing with that data?
Lindsay: We have a few different programs that we are working on refining, aligning, expanding to what we’ve found systematically in these surveys with our faculty. Some of these include our Ignite program. Our Ignite program is something that we’ve been running with new faculty for the last few years. This is a program meant to support faculty as they implement a newly redesigned course. So these new faculty go through a week-long Course Design Institute with us and then they spend the next semester whenever they implement their new course, either in Fall or Spring, they meet biweekly with one of our faculty developers, and anywhere from five to 10 other new faculty in a learning community and they build on some of the things that they’ve been learning about course design and implementation. So they’re really getting that support throughout the semester. And one of the things that came out of our barriers survey was that the other work that we’ve been doing—particularly around these observations—is that the implementation is really important and that we really need to support faculty through that. We have some studies that, particularly around Ignite and new faculty, that demonstrate how important this learning community is, not just for the implementation, but the success of students. And so now we are expanding our Ignite program to all faculty, not just new faculty at our institution. We’re doing that for the first time this Fall semester. So that’s one of the programs that we have refined based on some of the data that we’ve been finding.
John: I think one of the benefits of that is if one of the barriers is departmental culture, that prevents people from trying new techniques, bringing in more senior faculty might break that down.
Lindsay: Yes, and one of the places that we’re beginning to expand to as well are learning communities, particularly for mid-career faculty. Many of our Ignite faculty are now moving into being tenured and so they are now becoming leaders in their departments and how do we foster and continue to help support them around teaching and learning?
Rebecca: Does your Ignite program come with course releases or does it come with time?
Lindsay: That’s a good question. We do not have course release at our institution, but they do receive a $1500 professional development fund, which helps support them in being able to continue to develop, they may be able to go to conferences, they do get supported in that way. Another one of our programs that we are developing and as Hannah mentioned one of the barriers are around class size and TAs. And so we have developed over the last few years a program called Spark. Spark is intended to be a program to support teaching assistants in the STEM departments. And over the last three years, we have had over 250 TAs enroll in our one-credit teaching methods course where they actually learn about different pedagogical techniques, learning theory, and they’re able to apply that every week as they are TAs in lab courses, discussion sessions, and even in co-instructor type roles. And that has been a really important piece to help support transformation in the STEM departments because our TAs are really the primary point person in many of our first- year courses and so providing them the support has been really transformative. One of the third things that we are doing in the center is around curriculum redesign. So one of the things that we found in the study that I think you alluded to was the differences between departments and the importance of the departmental culture and departmental support in helping faculty be able to utilize and implement evidence-based practices. And so we are actually working with departments to think about not just individual courses, but what is the curriculum look like for an actual major? What do we want our students to be able to know, value, and do at the end of four years—or five years—within different departments? And so we’re really working to develop this. This is something that we’re doing this year and really working to refine our programming around curriculum development and redesign.
Rebecca: One of the themes of all three programs is curriculum development. What are some things specifically that you’ve implemented or changed consistently to help with some of the issues that you’ve identified?
Lindsay: As part of the redesign process, we don’t necessarily recommend a single type of redesign or curriculum. We really strive to use evidence-based practices, whether that’s at the course level or curriculum level, to allow faculty to think about what best aligns with what they want students to be getting out of the course, or the curriculum. For example, if one of their learning objectives has to do with being able to collaborate and communicate, we might recommend some sort of collaborative learning design as implemented in their course. If they’re more interested in students engaging with the community, that might look a little different in terms of the actual design of the course. So I don’t know if that answers your question, but we don’t necessarily recommend one particular approach.
Rebecca: If faculty are resistant to evidence-based practices, and you were already introducing faculty to evidence-based practices in these programs, is there a different way that you’re presenting this information now to faculty to get them to buy in more to these practices, especially considering time concerns and student resistance and that kind of thing?
Lindsay: Interestingly enough, there are a handful of faculty that I think are resistant to the idea of active learning. The way that we’ve set up at least our Course Design Institute is in such a way that we attend to motivation first, and so we really get very little resistance to the idea of active learning or evidence-based practices. They want to do it. Some of them do do it. They either feel like they can’t do it as much as they want to or they do it and they’re not satisfied with their practice. We really don’t run up into the barrier of, “I don’t believe in active learning,” with the exception of a handful of faculty.
John: And there’s probably not much you can do with those. But I would think working with entire departments might help reduce some of the resistance because when you have that sort of collaboration with the department, it becomes part of the department culture, I would think. How has that been working?
Lindsay: We have had a cohort of faculty within a department go through our Course Design Institute and then another program that paralleled Ignite that was specifically for STEM faculty. And this department really has transformed, so this is about five years ago that they went through as a cohort. The department itself, the culture there is focused on teaching and learning, they continue to engage with our center, we have a recently started SoTL Scholars Program, so Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. We had five of the faculty from that department actually go through this together this past year. They’ve started their own reading group. We’ve been looking at data from the department and we see that student failure rates are going down in their department, particularly for underrepresented students. So working with the departments I think are really, really important and we’re seeing the fruits of that.
John: Earlier Hannah mentioned something about looking at issues of identity in terms of teachers and scholars and so forth. And I would think that perhaps the work you’re doing with SoTL might help unify that. Could you tell us a little bit more about the results you found and how you’ve been addressing those?
Hannah: What we expected to find was that there would be a correlation between teaching and research identities and that if you were high in teaching, you might be lower in research. If you were high in research, you might be lower in teaching. And what we found was that there was no correlation, that you could have both. You could be both an excellent teacher and researcher, you can be really strong in both of those identities, or you could not be. It was all over the place. And part of that is the sample size, and we have since expanded and haven’t analyzed that data yet, but we’re looking into that more.
Lindsay: And to add on to that, so the way that we looked at identity was the idea of how connected you feel with that particular profession. So if you feel connected to the teaching community versus feeling connected to the research community. And we also had a third aspect to that, which was the work identity… so how connected do they feel to the university? What we found was that faculty who had a strong work identity—meaning that they felt connected to the institution—they felt that the department was less of a barrier for implementing evidence-based practices, and they didn’t perceive that they had barriers related to supports. So things like having TAs, classroom space, and things like that.
John: Going back a little bit, you mentioned that one of the barriers that some faculty mentioned was the size of their classes. How have you helped faculty get past that?
Lindsay: We’ve actually had conflicting results around that. So faculty perceived class size as being a barrier to implementing evidence-based practices. But when we look at the actual observations of those faculty teaching, we see that faculty who have engaged in our center use more evidence-based practices, even when controlling for class size. And so what we need to further investigate is how our center plays a role in reducing barriers for faculty. The sample size that we have with our survey results is much smaller, and we can’t really disaggregate. There is something interesting that has to do with class size, and we’re not exactly sure what it is. Whether it’s a perceived barrier or an actual barrier, we’re not quite sure. But I might guess it’s a perceived barrier because we do see more active learning even when classes are large. So faculty are able to do these things, but sometimes they may not think they can.
Rebecca: Or they might not know what practices work at a large scale, because there’s different ways to implement… and so the more we expose them…
Hannah: Exactly. Yeah, because they’re trying to use approaches that require a studio. You can’t do that with a 500-student lecture. So obviously, that particular evidence-based practice is not going to be useful in that case. You can bring in some of these perhaps smaller practices but that are still powerful to get students actively working and collaborating with one another. Think-pair-shares, things like that, that you can still do and then there’s all sorts of work—great work—that’s going on now talking about what you can do with large classes.
Lindsay: And those are the things that we talk about in our Course Design Institute. How do you design your course, knowing that you have particular limitations because of things like class size? Or maybe it’s a required entry-level course, or maybe it’s an upper-level course, or a graduate course. All of those things are really important in thinking about the design.
Rebecca: Or the chairs don’t move.
Lindsay: But we do talk with them about how to deal with that. So in the lecture hall that the seats are fixed and you want to do group work, we have recommended to faculty—if they have space—leave every third row empty, and that way you can actually access students and students can turn backwards to work with people behind that. So we definitely try to help them think about ways to go beyond what they think are perceived barriers.
Rebecca: How to hack your classroom 101.
Lindsay: How to hack your classroom, I like it.
John: And actually, let me put a plug in for one of the Teach Better podcast episodes, which came out in April on the importance of classroom design. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes. The research they were citing finds that active learning helps, but classroom design helps even controlling for the use of active learning. So some of that flexibility is useful. This has been implemented in STEM fields—I think many of those topics that you found would work in other disciplines. Has the teaching center more broadly started to roll out some of these techniques throughout the institution?
Lindsay: I’m going to answer this from a much more broad perspective, thinking about what we’re doing in terms of our programming and supporting faculty. And I think Hannah can talk about the more specific piece around what we’re doing to better gather data around faculty barriers beyond our STEM faculty. So one of the biggest things that I think I mentioned at the beginning that we really are striving to do is use our own local data in addition to the literature to really drive what we do. For us, this goes beyond just doing a needs assessment. This is really doing research around teaching and learning at our institution. One of the pieces of evidence that we found around our prior work is the ways that students engage with each other in class, and how the instructor sets up that group work in class is really important to student success. And so what we are now doing this past year, we are collecting data to better understand not just faculty perceptions of how they design group work, how they assign students to groups, what do they do to assess group work, but we’re also looking at the student perspective. We are actually following students that are working in groups over time, having them reflect on their practice, share audio files and share working documents, to better understand what’s going on in group work. All of that data now we’re using to develop a advanced collaborative institute for faculty that’s going to use not just the literature that’s already published around group work, but also locally derived data that’s both STEM and non-STEM faculty in classrooms. And it’s been interesting because we think about our disciplines being very distinct in terms of “Oh well, STEM classrooms are very special, and they need to do these particular things.” As we’ve interviewed faculty, the reasons why they use group work—regardless of their discipline—is very similar. They want students to develop professional skills. I think it’s really important to gather that data to understand this perspective so that when we develop these programs and supports for faculty, we can actually talk about what the faculty are saying and how we use that to improve. So that’s just one example of how we’re broadening this idea of data-driven faculty professional development.
Rebecca: How are you gathering that data about group work?
Lindsay: In our center, I am 50 percent research and assessment and so a lot of my work is around being able to assess our programs, but also be able to gather the data to drive programming. As we said in the beginning, my PhD is in science education. So this is my formal training, being able to do this type of work. So I actually have a group of three graduate students—as well as Hannah and another postdoc—that helps support the research and assessment and center. So for example, as part of that group work study, I had one graduate student who over the course of two weeks, interviewed 19 faculty and over 1000 minutes of interviews that had to be transcribed. I really have a committed group of graduate students and postdocs that help support this work, because they’re really interested in helping make the improvements as well. I don’t think if this was something that was very abstract and not related to helping improve instruction that we would have such buy-in from the people that are helping support this work. So we’re doing interviews with faculty, students are submitting reflections, audio files and documents. So those are the data sources we have right now. We also have syllabi and course documents that the faculty have developed that articulate how they are setting up these group work or group projects.
John: That’s a great resource, I think, for all teaching centers because most of us don’t do that, and it’s nice to see this sort of research. We often talk to faculty about the importance of doing SoTL research, how the classes are working, but teaching centers don’t always do quite as much assessment of how their programs work, and how things are working on their own campuses in this way. So it’s a nice example, I think.
Hannah: Right, and I can talk to the real specific research that we’re trying to do to expand from STEM into non-STEM fields to kind of get more of that research across the university going. So the survey that I developed that has the barriers, that has the identity, that has some qualitative background questions to try to understand where their beliefs come from, all of that. I have been working with STEM faculty and non-STEM faculty now, to expand into the humanities, the arts, the social sciences. And what we’ve been doing is working with humanities faculty at the Center and then I had a focus group this week with several scholars in those areas to talk about the language that we use in the survey. So what I quickly found when we were trying to expand the survey across the university, is that the language that you use is really important. Now STEM faculty, they are fine with the use of the term evidence-based practices. And discipline-based faculty and researchers, we want to see the evidence. We want to know if something works, we want to know that there was a rigorous study that backs up that particular practice, and once we see that, we’re ready to kind of go for it. But when you try to expand that wording into the humanities, that’s not so much a crucial thing for them, they’re wanting to see that things work. The type of research that they do is very different and when we use the term evidence-based practices, the way that they think about that is very different from STEM faculty. So we had to change the wording, we’re modifying the survey, how the questions are asked, the types of words that we use, the assumptions that we’re making. So that’s been my job the past few weeks and will continue because it’s been proven it can be quite challenging to make sure that we’re not alienating a lot of the people that are taking the survey to the point where they see certain words and are like, “This doesn’t apply to me, I don’t want to take the survey anymore.” So that’s been the challenge with this, expanding this from STEM, is the language can be a barrier to people taking the survey and then we don’t get the data that we need. I’ve been working to figure out, “How do we talk about this in a way that we can compare across all of these groups, but still get useful data and not alienate groups within those different departments.”
Rebecca: I think sharing a summary of that information would actually be useful for a lot of centers and researchers too because teaching and learning centers probably also suffer from their advertisements and stuff, perhaps alienating groups of people and not realizing it for the same reason, potentially.
Hannah: Definitely, definitely. And one of the humanities faculty members here at the center and I have been talking about that and may be coming out with a paper once we gather more data on this, on the language that we use. What is useful and what is not useful by discipline?
John: That’s something I wouldn’t have thought of, because we use a lot of evidence-based practices here all the time.
Hannah: Yeah, I didn’t think of it either, and so I was in for quite the shock when I started talking with humanities faculty.
Lindsay: And I think another thing to add in terms of how we’re broadening this work, one of the places that I’ve begun to explore is how do we set up infrastructure at our institution so that we can actually systematically gather data, connect data sources, and then help faculty use that individually to improve instruction. It doesn’t do anybody any good if we gather evidence or research—we do research on our own—and then we don’t do anything with it. And so, we’re developing as I mentioned, our SoTL Scholars program so we can help faculty learn how to do this research on their own. So we are developing a set of tools that we can use to, for example, go out and observe faculty teaching in their classrooms and then from that data, create some sort of visualization that can be used in a consultation. We have a consultation program—many institutions in our centers have consultation programs—but what we really want to begin to do is gather that data in a way that we can begin to represent it on some sort of timeline, where the faculty can see, “Okay, the first 15 minutes of class we did lecture, I asked a few questions here and there, students didn’t answer those questions,” or, “I answered them myself or I moved on too quickly,” and so really honing in on some of those small details that can really help them make tweaks and improvements to their own instruction. So we’re really working at that infrastructural-level now to think about how do we create these tools and set up databases so that we can gather data and share that with faculty.
Rebecca: A follow up question to the qualitative research that you did at the very beginning… What kind of observations you were making for that qualitative research and what you were focused on? What you were looking for specifically…
Lindsay: Good questions. So the original observation study that we did a few years ago, we ended up using COPUS, the Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM. If you’re not familiar with that, COPUS measures the presence or absence of various different types of student and instructor behaviors over two-minute time increments. I was able to train 35 undergrads on how to use COPUS reliably and we were able to gather… for each individual course we observed twice. And we were able to then calculate the percent of time the instructor spent lecturing, or spent doing quicker questions, group work, administrative tasks. And we were recently co-authors on a science publication where the COPUS data were then transformed into profiles and so we were able to then categorize these different classes as primarily lecture—which was greater than 80-percent lecture using COPUS—interactive lecture—which was lecture but it had some clicker questions or some other group work interspersed throughout— and then the third set of categories was around student-centered instruction, so it could be POGIL type classes—so Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning type classes—or primarily group work, working on worksheets, doing problem solving, or a variety of different group activities. And so of those, we had 239 classes that we observed. Of those, we were able to classify those classes into those three categories—lecture, interactive lecture, and student-centered—and then we took those classes and organized them based on the intervention that the faculty have gone through. So whether they’ve engaged in our Course Design Institute, whether they’ve done our Ignite program, and we actually had a fair amount of faculty that we observed that have never engaged in our center at all. And so that’s where we were beginning to see differences… that our Ignite faculty, we saw much more student-centered instruction than faculty who had never engaged our center. We also gathered grade data on those classes. Do you want to know about that?
Lindsay: This is actually a paper that’s currently in review, but the grade data was the thing that was really interesting to me. What we ended up doing is we calculated a DFW rate. That’s D, F, and withdrawal. So basically, failure rate for students in those classes that we observed, those 239 classes. We also were able to calculate failure rates for underrepresented minority students. So those were black, African-American students, and Hispanic students combined together compared to white students in the class. And even when we gathered observations of 239 courses, when you started to look at the courses taught by faculty at the different types of interventions—so that was Ignite, Course Design Institute—and then when you broke it down even further by, “Let’s look at those courses taught by Ignite faculty that did active learning, or lecture, or interactive lecture,” the numbers got very small very quickly. But one of the most interesting pieces that we found descriptively was, when you looked at just courses that were categorized as having student-centered instruction—so active learning, group work, those types of things—the faculty that have gone through things like our Ignite program, and another program called Nucleus—which is similar for STEM faculty—the failure rates between white students and underrepresented students were nonexistent. When you looked at student-centered courses where the instructors had not gone through our Course Design Institute or gone through any of our communities, the failure rates for underrepresented minority students were four times that of white students. Now this is descriptive, this is not anything that’s inferential, but that was one of the driving forces for me that made me realize that we need to look more at group work and what was going on in group work because it’s suggested that when you implement group work or student-centered instruction in your courses and you’re not supported in doing so, you are doing a disservice to your students, and that seems to differentially impact underrepresented students more so than white students. And that was really disturbing to me that we saw those differences on average. This was not the max, this was a mean value. And so that was so important for us to further explore, and we would not have known not had we not done such a large-scale study, and had we not used our own data.
Rebecca: That’s really interesting.
Lindsay: Thank you.
John: You’re making a big difference there, clearly.
Lindsay: We are, and it’s so exciting.
Rebecca: Yeah, I think sometimes we don’t always realize those other kinds of impacts. Or that there could be a difference in the kind of impact that one makes. So I think that’s a really interesting initial discovery to explore, so I’m really interested to see what else you find out.
Lindsay: So we wouldn’t have been able to make those findings had we not been able to connect to institutional data, and so that’s another reason why this developing infrastructure is so, so important, that we’re not going to be able to find meaning if we’re not connecting all of the pieces.
Rebecca: I think one of the things that is really interesting is that you’ve been able to do such robust research at your own institution and have the support to do that. Even how you structured that and how you’ve gathered that would be of interest to many other centers, I think. Sometimes the details of how you arrange that and organize it and how one thing led to another can help other organizations do something similar.
Lindsay: Thank you. I will put a plug in. So in terms of helping other centers be able to do this type of systematic research assessment work, we had a PODLive! webinar on Friday, April 26. If you’re a POD member, you should be able to access this through their website to see what we talked about and what questions we ask ourselves as we go through the process of thinking through measuring impact.
Rebecca: Great. We will make sure we link to that in the show notes and let people know how to access that.
John: We always end with the question, what are you doing next? You’ve already described some things, but we’ll still ask anyway.
Lindsay: So if you can’t tell already, I’m really passionate about data… using data to help drive what we do to improve teaching and learning. And so the two sort of big things that are next for me are really trying to build the infrastructure so that we can liberate data and be able to use data meaningfully, respectfully, and purposefully to help improve instruction. And also being able to help empower our faculty to be able to do research on teaching and learning in their classrooms… so trying to expand our SoTL Scholars Program, and developing further supports in that area. So that’s what’s next for me.
Hannah: And for me, I am working on a couple projects related to the barriers work. So we talked earlier about the humanities expansion, so developing a survey instrument that can be given across departments. So I’m continuing to work on that, work on the language that we’re using, making it relevant to them. And then we’ve got a national study that we’re trying to work on. So we have implemented the pilot—which is what we talked about today, the results of that—and then we implemented a second one also at UVA, but much larger. And then we’re wanting to now expand this and do a national study because the real beauty of this instrument is that it’s not just for us at UVA, it is meant to be a tool for any university, any department to be able to use. And one of the findings that came out of our study was that the barriers are different by department. The barriers, the use of evidence-based practices differs by department… it’s not just the university being different from another university. It’s the department being different from another department at a different university. And so this tool allows any department, any university, to give this to their faculty and see contextually, what are the barriers for these faculty? Now you look across the board, time is usually the highest barrier, but what comes after that differs by department. If there’s particular issues with one department, one university with the teaching-research balance at a given university, all of that’s going to be different. And so the beauty of this instrument is let’s look at a variety of types of universities, types of departments, let’s try to understand what is useful, what are supports, what are barriers across different institutions, across different departments. Try to look for where are there trends and where are there not trends. Where is it just entirely dependent on a given context and where do we see maybe some trends in tenure-track faculty versus non-tenure-track faculty, general faculty, things like that. So we’re really hoping to dig into a much larger sample in the coming year and investigate this further, and I will say that there are a couple of other researchers who are also working on this. So this is an up-and-coming area of research that you’ve got Megan Bathgate at Yale, you’ve got Emily Walter at Cal State Fresno, they’re both doing studies along this idea of barriers and supports for faculty using evidence-based practices. So, I just wanted to put a plug in that we’re not the only researchers doing this. There’s a lot of great work that’s going on and I think this is an up-and-coming area to really help support moving higher education forward and transforming higher education, ultimately, by understanding how can we help our faculty implement more of these practices that we know are going to support our students better?
Rebecca: Great, sounds like a lot of exciting things coming down the road for us to take in soon.
John: Thank you for joining us. This was a really interesting discussion, and I think many of us will reflect on it in our teaching centers.
Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much.
Lindsay: Well, thank you, appreciate it.
John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.
When they were students, most faculty members were not the “average student.” They generally enjoyed learning and were willing to spend long hours independently studying topics that others may not care much about. In this episode, Dr. Jessamyn Neuhaus joins us to examine how geeks and nerds can successfully teach our more “normal” students.
Jessamyn is a professor in the history department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is the recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She’s also the author of Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers, which is scheduled for release in September 2019.
- Neuhaus, Jessamyn (2019). GEEKY PEDAGOGY: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds who Want to be Effective Teachers. West Virginia University Press. (Amazon pre-order)
- SoTL- Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
- Geeky Pedagogy Twitter
- Stephen Brookfield ― Professor at University of St. Thomas.
- Maryellen Weimer ― Professor emerita of teaching and learning at Penn State Berks.
- Harlow, R. (2003). ” Race doesn’t matter, but…”: The effect of race on professors’ experiences and emotion management in the undergraduate college classroom. Social psychology quarterly, 66(4), 348.
- Howells, K. (2012). Gratitude in education: A radical view. Springer Science & Business Media.
- Jeff Hornibook, A Great Undertaking: Mechanization and Social Change in a Late Imperial Chinese Coalmining Community (SUNY Press: 2015)
John: When they were students, most faculty members were not the “average student.” They generally enjoyed learning and were willing to spend long hours independently studying topics that others may not care much about. In this episode, we examine how geeks and nerds can successfully teach our more “normal” students.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Jessamyn Neuhaus. Jessamyn is a professor in the history department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is the recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She’s also the author of Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers, which is scheduled for release in September 2019. Welcome, Jessamyn.
Jessamyn: Thank you. Nice to be here.
John: Welcome. Our teas today are…
Jessamyn: I am drinking Lemon Zinger in my book nerd mug. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: That sounds perfect.
John: You’ll have to bring that to book signings too. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: I’m drinking Rose Garden today.
John: I’m drinking Twinings Enchanted Forest Fruits Black tea, which I picked up in Epcot last year.
Rebecca: Yeah, my Rose Garden’s from there too.
John: I was there for the OLC conference and you were there actually for a vacation.
Rebecca: Yep. [LAUGHTER]
Jessamyn: Enchanted garden sounds super nerdy. [LAUGHTER]
John: It is, and it tastes very good, too. We’ve invited you here to talk about your new book. What inspired you to write this?
Jessamyn: For as long as I could remember, I’ve loved to read and write and think. I’ve always been an introvert, I need a lot of solitude in order to function. I’ve always done well academically. My son, on the other hand, he’s an off-the-charts extrovert and a different student—let’s call it that, different—watching him grow up and go through the education system made me realize how differently he and I experienced school. And like I say in the acknowledgments section of my book, living with him and with his father—my significant other—is a master class in the difference between nerds and normals. [LAUGHTER] They are the normals, I’m the nerd. This was a big part of the inspiration for the book. Nobody was saying what I think is pretty self-evident: that people who earn advanced degrees—by and large—are pretty nerdy, which is as it should be—we’re the experts. Introverts are also disproportionately represented in academia, we take pretty easily to those long hours of isolated study that’s required to earn an advanced degree. Another inspiration was I really wanted to inspire teaching self-efficacy and helping faculty become effective teachers. And I use that word really, really deliberately—I understand why SoTL folks and professional developers use terms like best teachers, excellent teachers, even good teachers—but I think those terms really feed into some disempowering myths about teaching, myths like “good teachers are born, not made,” or myths like “only the most astounding super teachers affect student learning.” And those highly idealized impossible standards, I think, can really undermine teaching self-efficacy… feed into doubts and insecurities… So that was another inspiration. And similarly, throughout the book, I use us and we, when I’m talking about teaching, trying to create a sense of shared undertaking. Like we do in our classes when we talk about our class, our learning, our discussion, trying to help students become aware of their own responsibilities for their learning. And similarly, a lot of SoTL authors who I know want to invite readers to join the Teaching Commons, inadvertently undermining this goal by handing down these rigid dictates from above. “You should do this,” “Don’t forget to do that,” “You do this… that…” as if the person writing is not also in the teaching trenches trying to learn and relearn how to be an effective teacher. And I guess along with that, I also really wanted to bridge the major gulf between SoTL converts and faculty who are new to—or even resistant to— professional development. I see so much conversation about college teaching that is really divided along these two extreme positions. On one side: pro-student SoTL experts, they’re practically perfect, they never get frustrated by students… [LAUGHTER]… they’re 100% compassionate, and they’re totally on board with professional development. And on the other extreme, faculty who are totally burnt out, or completely cynical, and they’re always sniping at each other like, “You should be more compassionate to students.” “No, students are always terrible.” [LAUGHTER] And I want something in the middle saying “We can learn how to be effective teachers, we can be compassionate, we can be understanding, but also, sometimes students are irritating. It’s frustrating.” And I think finally, the most important inspiration for me was, I saw a need for a teaching book that strongly and repeatedly acknowledges the importance of our individual teaching context. And what works for one instructor just plain might not work for another. I mean, even what works for you in one class may not work in another class. And this isn’t like a brand new concept—it’s widely acknowledged—but I don’t think it’s acknowledged consistently enough. I think, especially for new instructors, I think you can read a lot of SoTL that seems to be suggesting, “If you just do this, you’ll be an effective teacher,” and that’s not nuanced enough.
Rebecca: I know that I was really excited to hear about your book, because it includes words like introvert and geeky in the title [LAUGHTER] and I identify that way. And I know that the first chapter in your book is on identity. Can you talk a little bit about why it’s important to think about identity and why that’s not often included in professional development?
Jessamyn: Sure. I’m so glad you asked that question, and the short answer to why I included it is because embodied identity is an important reality in human interactions. And I’m not sure why it’s not more fully acknowledged in professional development. It does seem like a lot of advice about teaching and scholarship on teaching and learning seems to imagine that we’re teaching in some sort of enchanted bubble that’s floating above the dreary workaday world, this wondrous place of true equality. There’s no racism or sexism and students and teachers are purely intellectual beings, and we gather—totally free of our biases—just to learn together every morning [LAUGHTER] the sky is full rainbows, and we skip down lollipop lane to another glorious day of tenure, but…
Rebecca: Right after we walk by the unicorns, right? [LAUGHTER]
Jessamyn: That’s right, yeah. When we enter the classroom, we don’t close the door, and presto change-o, there’s no race and ethnicity and gender expression, and speaking voice and physical abilities, sexual identity, they don’t exist. We bring all those assumptions, and stereotypes, and biases, and unconscious biases with us. But a lot of otherwise excellent scholarship on teaching and learning just does not fully acknowledge this. There’s a widespread assumption about what a professor looks like, and it’s a white guy, probably wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches, and he’s lecturing so brilliantly in front of these mesmerized students that they learn without effort. And to be clear, I’m not suggesting that white guys don’t have to work hard to be effective teachers—they do—and I’m also not suggesting anyone who’s not a white guy can’t teach effectively—of course that’s not true—but any teaching advice is not going to apply in exactly the same way in every classroom and embodied identity is one—it’s only one—but it is one important aspect of our individual and unique teaching context. So, just to give an example, it’s pretty clear from the scholarship that effective teachers build rapport and demonstrate immediacy with students. But what I have to do to achieve that as a white gender-normative woman is different than what my white gender-normative male colleague would have to do. And it’s different from what all faculty of color have to do, especially because their expertise is not assumed in the same way. It will be challenged in a different way than many white faculty members. To take an even more specific example, I’ve seen teaching advice that talks about how professors need to be friendly and approachable, and that that would include smiling to students. But, you know that saying you should smile more means something different to women than it does to men, and we will hear it differently. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t smile with students, but it means we have to utilize that scholarship in a different way. I think in every aspect of our world, white male privilege is often the default center of SoTL, and I would add maybe tenure too—this kind of default privileging—and I think we just have to start more regularly acknowledging that effective teaching and learning is shaped by embodied identity just like everything else we do as human beings. And one last point on this, it was very, very important to me that I not reinforce gendered and racialized stereotypes about geeks and nerds. Historically, those terms have been gendered male and raced as white. That’s changing, and you can see it in some contemporary popular representations. You can see it in people’s lived experiences. Those stereotypes aren’t gone—they still have an impact on people’s lives—and in fact, geek gatekeeping where white male geeks say, “You can’t play this, you can’t do that,” is still a factor, especially in fan cultures and gaming communities, it’s still a problem. But there’s so many of us nerds and geeks who fully embrace and celebrate Spock’s view of the universe, [LAUGHTER] as a place of infinite diversity in infinite combinations.
John: You also in that first chapter include a section called “Learning is Hard” and that’s probably a useful thing for faculty to remember because many of us have either found it to be easy along the way or it was so long ago that we were at that position that we’ve forgotten how difficult it is to learn new things. Could you address that just a little bit?
Jessamyn: That section draws on all the great science out there about the brain and learning. And you’re absolutely right. It’s especially important for us nerdy experts because we know our topic so well—our brains are so skilled and practiced at it— that’s the expert blind spot that gets in our way. It’s something that we do so automatically, it’s hard to remember what it’s like for a new learner. It’s hard to remember how long it takes to learn. It’s hard to remember how emotional learning can be, especially when—like I was saying with my son—we’ve had really different academic experiences than most people. Even our most brilliant students at our most elite institutions, most of them don’t take to academia the way we did. Most people want to be done with school. We said, “No, I like school so much, I’m going to stay in school forever.” So the science of learning is an important way for us to keep reminding ourselves that learning is hard and we have to do it over and over… and that does apply to us too. One of my main points in this book is that learning how to be an effective teacher never stops. We are always learning and relearning because students change, we change, curriculum changes, we’re always having to relearn. And yet faculty will often throw up their hands at the first obstacle they get to and say, “I’m not a good teacher.” I’ve lectured my students, I don’t know how many times on,“You got to have a growth mindset. Don’t tell yourself you’re bad at something.” But then when I was trying to teach myself how to do Twitter, after two weeks I was like, “Oh, I’m terrible at this. Everybody else is so good. I just can’t do it.” It’s really hard to learn, and it’s easy to forget in our subjects because we’re so skilled at them.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by geeky pedagogy in general?
Jessamyn: Sure. So this is the first college teaching guide addressed to geeks, introverts, and nerds, which is pretty amazing because, damn. Like, look around you, pal. [LAUGHTER] I mean, academia is jam packed with us but it’s more than a gimmick. So at the heart of my argument is that geeks, introverts, and nerds as a group—and I’m generalizing, this isn’t every single person—but as a group, we face certain obstacles to effective teaching and learning. Obstacles like effective communication, building rapport, productive professional and social interaction. We’re highly successful academically and most of us who have not taught much before somehow believe that that’s going to magically translate into helping other people be successful academically, but it doesn’t, it’s not necessarily. That being said though, geeks, introverts, and nerds as a group bring important and necessary skills to learning and relearning how to teach effectively. We’re passionate about our subjects and we can draw on that passion to create what I call a geek culture of sharing pedagogy. So that is creating classrooms and instruction that invites everyone into the study of whatever crazy, arcane, esoteric topic we love with all our dorky hearts. Instead of acting as a geek gatekeeper… keep people out, prove how smart we are… geek culture of sharing says, “Come in! This cool thing we are learning about… I can’t wait to share with you.”
John: You have a chapter in your book on preparing for class, could you tell us some of the things you focus on in there?
Jessamyn: Okay, so my first recommendation for preparation is you’re going to read Geeky Pedagogy from cover to cover. [LAUGHTER] You’re going to follow me on Twitter @geekypedagogy. You’re going to visit my website, geekypedagogy.com, going live July 1st. But seriously, the first thing I would emphasize—my top recommendation for preparation—the thing I most want to share with my tribe of nerdy eggheads—is to think about teaching effectively as an intellectual activity. We have to use our big fat brains for effective teaching. All those geeky study skills we have, we have to apply it to teaching preparation. So, we have to do some research on pedagogical content knowledge, how to teach your subject. We have to think carefully about our syllabi, and prepare them in a timely way—do not procrastinate. That’s my one nag, [LAUGHTER] don’t procrastinate—we have to think through our experts’ blind spots, we have to read up on the science of the brain, how people learn, and we have to take into account that over and over again in our individual and unique teaching context, we’re going to be learning and relearning about effective teaching. Now in the book, it’s a narrative guide. So I don’t offer extensive checklists or step-by-step… do this do that, and then, “Tada! You’re an effective teacher.” Those can be helpful at times, I think maybe especially if it’s your very first class if you’re really, really nervous, but I want faculty drawing on—a lot of this may be specific advice I have in the book—but I want faculty to feel empowered to research their own specific teaching context to become what Stephen Brookfield called experts on our own teaching. Keep figuring out what worked, what didn’t work, reflect on it, repeat.
John: One of the things you mentioned is preparing for confrontation and conflict. What advice do you give faculty? or what types of confrontation and conflict do you address?
Jessamyn: We were just talking about the emotional aspects of teaching and learning. Teaching and learning include a lot of extreme emotions. I’m not the first. Stephen Brookfield, Maryellen Weimer both mentioned that teaching is a roller coaster, there’s a lot of ups and downs. Same is true for learning, there’s a lot of ups and downs. For different kinds of assessment and creating there can be conflict. Student incivility, which is a very polite term for things that sometimes are pretty egregious, it can happen. And this is all—it’s a tiny part of teaching—but it happens and it sucks up a disproportionate amount of our time and energy. Another example might be plagiarism. One issue I talked about is academic entitlement, a new and growing issue. The most important thing—and this is across all teaching contexts, even taking into account what Roxanna Harlow called disparate teaching reality—so even taking those into account, preparation is the one thing that can help mitigate any kind of conflict. Clearly conveying and communicating—not easy for introverts and nerds—but clearly conveying your expectations, being as transparent as possible, that’s the number one thing, preparing for those. And then the other thing I guess in that section, the most important point is that understanding as introverts… and not every introvert and nerd is socially awkward…. I am. I’m definitely socially awkward, smarty pants, that’s my persona. [LAUGHTER] Understanding that, for me, high-levels of emotion are hard to handle. And it’s definitely not easy for anybody in any workplace to deal with conflict and anger and strong emotion. But I think it can be especially daunting for introverts, for people who aren’t extra socially skilled. It’s hard to be right there in the face of extreme student emotion. Preparing for it with some scripts in your mind, not like endlessly rehearsing, “I’m going to say this to so-and-so,” but just having a kind of standard for plagiarism, this is kind of my standard script. For someone upset about their grade, this is some steps I do. Being as mindful and as present as possible in that moment tends to help as well, which is actually a strength for introverts is listening. So the research seems to be suggesting that the best way to defuse any kind of student conflict is for students to feel like they’ve been listened to, and that seems to matter more than what you actually do to resolve the situation. So there was one study that showed, for example, students might view the offer to do makeup work for something as either a positive or a negative resolution, fully depending on if they felt like the professor had been listening to their concerns. That’s great news for introverts and nerds, because it means it has everything to do with our communication skills, which we can do.
Rebecca: You mentioned reflective practice a little bit ago, can you talk a little bit about some techniques or ways that we can build that into our practice and then actually use the time that we reflect effectively?
Jessamyn: Right. Well, I’m glad you mentioned, those are two very different things, and neither one of them is easy but the second one is definitely harder. So applying the knowledge you’ve gained from reflection to your actual classroom practice is a lot harder. The number one thing to do and not do is don’t limit your pedagogical reflection to student evaluations. Too often, that’s the only feedback, and the only reflection faculty do about their teaching, and it’s insufficient. It can tell us some important things, but it’s not adequate on its own. I have some specific suggestions in the book. Things as simple as keeping ongoing notes throughout the term on your syllabus about things that are working or not working well. But I would say generally, I really want to encourage people to find reflective practices that engage you as part of your actual work of teaching and make sense for you. I was really aware that for some of us, mindfulness practices, yoga, we’re onboard. And then for some of us, even anything slightly new agey is not going to work at all. So my main recommendation is find reflective practices that help you reflect on what’s working, what’s not working, and then apply to your practice. An important part of that is thinking about reflection as something we do as individuals, but also part of a community of practice. We have to talk to other people about teaching. And sorry, introverts, you can’t do it just on your own. Academia doesn’t encourage it at all, you’re often going against the grain to try to talk about teaching, especially if you want to talk about our teaching mistakes—which are the most important way we learn just like our students—it’s the most important way we learn. But there’s so few opportunities, we have to really go out of our way to make those opportunities happen. And the one last plug I put in is for adding a gratitude practice to pedagogical reflection. And here I’m drawing on Kerry Howells’ book. It’s called Gratitude and Education: A Radical View. I want to emphasize this is not just positive thinking, it doesn’t mean ignoring the toxic aspects of your workplace—not that academia has any toxic aspects whatsoever, right? [LAUGHTER] Or injustice, or inequality, or anything going wrong—that’s not what gratitude practice means. It does mean being fully aware of and paying attention to every aspect of your teaching context. And Howells argues that our teaching context in her gift paradigm of education… as opposed to the consumerization model. In the gift paradigm, our teaching context always includes gifts, things we get no strings attached from students, from colleagues, and staff. I know people listening might be thinking, “Gifts? Give me a break. Like, I get jack squat every day from my frustrating students.” But I would counter with—pardon me while I super nerd out the wise words of Thorin Oakenshield from the Hobbit—he said, “There is nothing like looking if you want to find something, you certainly usually find something if you look, but it’s not always quite this something you were after.” So gratitude practice by opening up our view of our teaching context, we will find a gift.
John: Early in the book, you start off with, “Learning is hard,” and at the end, you conclude with, “Teaching is hard.” Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Jessamyn: Sure. So the last chapter is the shortest one. It’s called “Practice.” It’s the best news and the worst news you’re ever going to hear about teaching, is that you can get better with practice. So that’s great news, because it means we’re always learning how to do it better. It’s bad news because nothing can replace it. Fellow bookworms, there’s nothing you can read that will replace it. And if you don’t have employment security—like most of us teaching college, the majority of us teaching college are doing so on a contingent basis—if you don’t have employment security, that’s hard news. And it’s a vicious irony, that teaching effectively is so key to our employment and yet, the thing that will help us the most—being able to do it over and over—is dependent on our employment status. That very last section in chapter five is just an acknowledgement that when you’re working hard to be an effective teacher, it’s tiring, it can be daunting. There’s some real highs and lows. And to guard against burnout—to be aware of what you can and can’t do, and to really—I circle back and say again—fight that super teacher myth. Get that damn Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, “Captain, my captain.” Get out of my head, get out of my students’ head. That’s not how teaching goes. Every once in a while you have a magical moment, but there’s a lot of grinding hard work. Most of us become effective teachers the same way our students learn how to do something, which is just slogging away at it day after ever loving day. That’s how you get better. That’s how you become effective. And it’s hard.
Rebecca: Earlier you talked about inviting students into our geeky spaces. Can you talk a little bit about how you invite students into your geeky spaces?
Jessamyn: Well, I’ll never forget the time—I described this in chapter five—I just stumbled on it. I made a joke in passing about my own geekiness about an article we were reading and I got this big student laugh. So student laughs, always good. But later, reflecting on it, I realized what made that so pedagogically effective. So first, there’s a lot of debate and discussion about what exactly a nerd is, what exactly a geek is, but the one thing we all agree on is they’re super smart. So when I said, “I’m a big nerd,” to my students, it was joking and yet it was also reinforcing my expertise and my knowledge. I know a lot about this, I am a big nerd. It also, I think one thing I talked about in the book is the importance of enthusiasm and that’s a difficult term for someone like me who’s pretty reserved—in many ways, an introvert—I’m not going to be a cheerleader. I’m not extra warm and fuzzy, I’m pretty intellectual. But I am passionate and I love the things I’m teaching, and when I position myself as the big geek in the room who can’t get enough of this topic, it helps me convey that enthusiasm to students. One of the studies that I cite in the book says a massive survey of students who said they perceived a teacher as authentic when the teacher was happy that class begins. That’s a tough one for introverts because part of me is always going to be back alone in my office doing my research or my scholarship, whatever gets me going as a scholar. But by embracing my nerdy love for my subject, I’m able to convey to students, “I am happy when class begins.”
Rebecca: Before we started recording, you were talking about zombies in your class. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Could you talk a little bit about some of the things you’d like to nerd out on?
John: Or about that class in general.
Jessamyn: I would say—let’s see—I’m going to put it in the teaching context. So the thing that I most love about teaching my subjects is getting students to rethink something they thought they knew about popular culture. And everybody arrives in my classes, knowing a lot about popular culture in many ways. They know how to watch a movie, they know how to play a video game. And so getting them to rethink those things is what is most rewarding to me as a teacher, I sort of joke about it but sometimes when students will say, “Professor Neuhaus, you ruined such and such for me,” like some movie or some TV show like, “Now I can’t stop thinking about it.” That’s so rewarding for me as a professor. Being able to have students apply some pretty abstract cultural studies work to their real lives, that’s what makes me happiest as a professor. Every once in a while a student will say, “That documentary we saw, it was so interesting, I forced my roommate to watch it,” or, “We looked it up online, I wanted my dad to see it.” That’s like a microphone drop for a professor. I figure if they’re talking about it for no reason except they were interested outside of class, then I’ve definitely done my job. For me personally nerding out, a big chunk of it has been on the history of gender and prescriptive gender norms, prescriptive literature. So my first book was about cookbooks and gender, my second book was about advertising and housework. And I’ve written articles about sex-manuals, classroom films, instructional films, high-school instructional films, and I could talk about those things for hours and hours.
Rebecca: Will that be geeky pedagogy as well, right?
Jessamyn: Yes, that’s right. [LAUGHTER]
John: What strategies do you recommend for faculty trying to improve their teaching and where can they find assistance?
Jessamyn: You got to nerd out about teaching and learning. We already know how to nerd out about our topics, ask anyone teaching a college class “Tell me about this subject” and watch their little faces light up, hear their voice get animated, no matter how arcane or obscure. Donald Glover said “Strange, specific stuff; That’s what makes a nerd a nerd.” And that’s what makes academics, academics. And I’ll just use as an example, my good friend and colleague—he’s a historian of industrialization, Jeff Hornibrook, at SUNY Plattsburgh—he spent almost 20 years studying a single coal mine in China. A hole. A hole in the ground. But as he explains in his book, A Great Undertaking, this hole can tell you so many interesting things. That’s an academic nerd for you. We can apply that same focus and ability to studying, teaching, and learning. And just like we’re always learning about our topic, we’re always going to keep learning about teaching. So resources for that definitely SoTL—scholarship on teaching and learning—keeping in mind anything you read you have to apply in your specific, unique, individual context. I also think, probably the most immediately effective resource is your campus teaching and learning center. I’ve yet to speak to a single person who’s ever had anything negative to say about their experiences at a teaching and learning center. If you have access to one, if there’s one on your campus, it’s the very first step you should do for any kind of support and for resources. I’ve also learned a ton about teaching from teaching conferences, which I think are a totally different world than academic conferences. Academic conferences, you’re supposedly there to share knowledge but really it’s about proving you’re smarter than other smart people, in my humble opinion. Teaching conferences, I really do see people trying to share knowledge, and like in the book I say is like, “The mothership come home,” you’re surrounded by other nerdy people who want to learn about teaching. And I’m also going to put—going to say—academic Twitter. I’m going to say that. I only joined Twitter for recently. Thanks, marketing team West Virginia University Press, [LAUGHTER] they really said, “You should think about doing this,” and I did, hoping to get the word out about my book. But, just very surprisingly, I found that it has significantly expanded my pedagogical community of practice. Of course, it has significant limitations. 280 characters, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for citations as citations nerd like me. But it does provide a key component of reflection and improvement for teaching practice, which is talking to other people about teaching. And especially for me—as an introvert—I’ve always been terrible at networking. And I teach at a very small, very rural, and isolated university, and Twitter has really expanded my ability to hear what other people are doing in the classroom. And also, it really does, in many ways, work to de-center privilege in discussions about teaching and learning. It really is a platform for voices from across different employment status, teaching contacts, identity, and so on.
John: One of the barriers I think that a lot of people have with academic Twitter is when they first sign up for it, it doesn’t seem to offer much benefit until they start following enough group of people. So it takes time to develop that personal learning network there to make it more useful. And it’s worth taking the time to do that, but it doesn’t have that immediate feedback that many other types of social networks perhaps may.
Rebecca: But you can take your time to compose your interactions and not be caught on the spot. So in that way, it’s really wonderful. [LAUGHTER]
Jessamyn: Yeah, it is. It’s kind of a boon for introverts.
Rebecca: What are some ways that your book differs from other books on teaching and learning?
Jessamyn: Well, it’s fun to read. [LAUGHTER] That already sets it apart. I would call it SoTL with a side of snark. So in other words, it’s real scholarship. I mean, it’s so packed with citations, I had to cut out a bunch and I’m going to have to make that available as supplemental bibliographies online. So it’s real research, there’s all kinds of scholarly resources in there. But I’m allergic to jargon, and pomposity, and I really like to make people laugh so the book is highly readable. It’s multidisciplinary. I’m a multidisciplinary scholar so it was easy for me to move beyond the rigid dictates of studying history—that’s my discipline—and it takes into mind the real variety of faculty who are looking to become effective teachers with all kinds of different individual teaching contexts, employment status, embodied identity. It’s highly readable in a narrative style and it’s written by someone who who doesn’t take herself unduly seriously, and someone who can acknowledge the roller coaster of teaching and learning.
Rebecca: I’m really looking forward to checking out when it comes out in September, right?
Jessamyn: Yes, September 1st.
John: And we will include links to everything we’ve referred to here in the show notes.
Jessamyn: Great, thank you.
John: We always end our podcast with the question. What are you doing next?
Jessamyn: I guess you mean after I’m done with my worldwide speaking tour…
Jessamyn: ….when Geeky Pedagogy becomes an international bestseller. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: So it’ll be years from now.
Jessamyn: Yeah, years from now. After I convince all intellectuals everywhere to nerd out about teaching and learning. What I’d like to next focus on is de-centering privilege in SoTL. I’m not sure what form this will take yet. I’m considering maybe like an edited collection. I’m thinking specifically of practical pedagogical strategies for underrepresented and marginalized faculty. There are a lot of excellent books and articles, anthologies, scholarship, and reflection about disparate teaching realities—that’s Roxanna Harlow’s term—but what’s needed now, I think, is building on that for some practical suggestions and guidance for increasing pedagogical content knowledge when you don’t look like a professor.
Rebecca: I look forward to seeing what form that takes, it sounds really interesting.
Jessamyn: I’ll be back to talk about it on Tea for Teaching.
Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]
John: Well, thank you very much.We’re both very much looking forward to your book and hearing more about it.
Jessamyn: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Rebecca: Yeah, we appreciate the time you spent with us today.
Jessamyn: Thank you.
John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson. Brittany Jones, and Gabriella 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.
How do faculty learn to teach? In many graduate programs, the emphasis is on research and publications—yet, many of these graduates end up in teaching positions. In this episode, Kristina Mitchell and Whitney Ross Manzo join us to discuss the structures and incentives that undermine good teaching and explore ways to help grad students and new faculty prepare for their careers in higher education. Kristina Mitchell is a faculty member and Director of the Online Education Program for the Political Science Department at Texas Tech. Whitney Ross Manzo is an assistant professor of Political Science and the Assistant Director of the Meredith Poll at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Ross Manzo, Whitney and Kristina Mitchell (2018). We Need to Rethink Training for PhDs. Inside Higher Ed, September 11, 2018.
- Simon Hix’s tweet on teaching.
- Mitchell, K. M., & Manzo, W. R. (2018). The Purpose and Perception of Learning Objectives. Journal of Political Science Education, 1-17.
- Gagne, Robert. Gagne’s 9 Events of Instruction
John: How do faculty learn to teach? In many graduate programs, the emphasis is on research and publications—yet, many of these graduates end up in teaching positions. In this episode, we discuss the structures and incentives that undermine good teaching and explore ways to help grad students and new faculty prepare for their careers in higher education.
Thanks for joining us for “Tea for Teaching,” an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Our guests today are Kristina Mitchell, a faculty member and Director of the Online Education Program for the Political Science Department at Texas Tech, and Whitney Ross Manzo, an assistant professor of Political Science and the Assistant Director of the Meredith Poll at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina. Welcome, Whitney and welcome back, Kristina.
Whitney/Kristina: Hi, thanks for having us.
John: It’s good to have both of you here. Our teas today are…
Whitney: I’m actually drinking water.,
Kristina: I have my usual Diet Coke.
John: …as on two previous episodes. One of our most popular episodes, by the way, the one on gender bias and course evaluations is in our top three, I think.
Rebecca: John, how about you?
John: I am drinking ginger green tea.
Rebecca: And I’m drinking my usual. [LAUGHTER] English afternoon tea once again.
John: I was gonna ask you if it was Dragon Oolong
Rebecca: Yeah, yeah. Sounds like most of us are drinking our usuals, huh? So it’s not uncommon to have conversations about job preparedness and transitioning from student to professional and undergraduate education. What is more uncommon is challenging whether or not PhD or other advanced degree programs prepare students for the work that they will be doing like both of you did in a recent Inside Higher Ed article. What do you think prevents us from having that conversation?
Whitney: I think that there are incentives for professors at R1 universities to recreate themselves. So, I think that it’s an uncomfortable conversation for many R1 professors to even want to start because they probably don’t want to look too closely at this issue because I think to do it correctly might call for a pretty radical change in how we structure a lot of grad programs.
John: Is this because the prestige of the institution or the department is tied to the placements in our one universities and the publication record of the graduates?
Whitney: Yeah, very much so.
Kristina: I definitely think so as well. I think that a lot of times when PhD programs are advertising their programs to potential students, one of the things that students want to see is what kind of placement their graduates are getting. So programs that place their students really well attract the top graduate students and those graduate students, because they are great graduate students that have chosen this program, they get good placements which then continues to attract the best graduate students. So it can be really difficult for sort of mid- to low-level PhD producing institutions to attract good students because of this sort of self-perpetuating cycle. But the incentive is still there to try and compete with the top-tier institution that each faculty member who’s sponsoring a PhD graduate, they want their student to get the highest placement possible which means training them like a researcher.
John: Because we don’t have a similar sort of ranking system in terms of teaching productivity.
Kristina: Not at all.
Whitney: Exactly. We could have a whole conversation about how there should be two kinds of professors at R1 universities: the research professors and the teaching professors. But in the current climate in academia, teaching professors are not considered as prestigious as the research professors for a lot of the reasons that Kristina just outlined. So there’s no reason for an R1 professor to learn how to be a good teacher or to keep up in current pedagogy because what they need to be keeping up on is current research practices.
Rebecca: One of the things that the two of you outline in your article is that there’s a very small subset of people earning PhDs who actually go into R1s and do this academic research. But most of them end up in positions where teaching is a big part of their workload. But as we just mentioned, very few of them have been trained to be teachers. So why do you think there’s such a disconnect other than this prestige piece? Is there anything else to the puzzle?
Whitney: Well, I would argue that many R1 professors, because of the research incentives, haven’t really learned how to be good teachers themselves. So they might feel as though they don’t have the qualifications to teach someone else how to be a good teacher.
John: And they’ve also been hired because of their expertise and their publications, which doesn’t put much weight on the quality of their teaching. So, what can we do about that?
Kristina: That’s a great question. So, right now I am at an R1 institution with a PhD program in Political Science and we’ve had this conversation. It is a difficult conversation to have because a lot of times, I think professors view that if their students get placements at full time at a community college or even at a teaching institution, that that’s not a good placement—that there’s something “less than” or something “failure” about that kind of placement. So I think one of the most important things is just to change the culture about the way we talk about these things and that’s something that can’t change overnight obviously—this is a really slow process. But instead of telling our graduate students “You need to publish so you can get a really good research placement,” asking students to tell us why they’re here, “Why are you in graduate school? What do you want to do afterwards?” and sometimes that can result in really difficult conversations with my undergrads who want to go into graduate school. When they say, “I want to go into graduate school, I want to be you when I grow up, I want to be a professor, I want to do research—this is something I want to do,” I tell them, “then you better make sure you go to a top 20 program.” Because if you aren’t in one of those programs, the likelihood of you getting an R1 research professorship is really low. And so if we have PhD candidates who are saying, “What I really want to do is work at an R1 institution,” we need to be candid with them about what their odds are and how they can go from a mid- or low- tier PhD producing institution up to an R1—it’s gonna be a long process with a lot of publishing and you can kind of publish your way out. But alternatively, it’s also important to value the students that say, “What I want to do is teach” or “What I want to do is go into industry or paid consultant—that’s what I want to do with my PhD.” If we can change the culture enough to not view teaching as a low- end placement instead of to start thinking of it as a legitimate career opportunity, then maybe that can help us think about how we can better prepare PhD students.
Whitney: I think that that’s a really important point to encourage the people who come and get a PhD because they want to be teachers at teaching institutions. Not only because that’s the more likely job that they’ll have, but also because of actually the tweet that started this whole thing, which we referenced in the article from Simon Hix who said that over the course of his career, the thing that has been most meaningful to him have been the interactions he’s had with students and the teaching opportunities that he’s had with them. So I think that if we have this mindset that the only thing that’s worthwhile is being a proph at an R1 and doing high-level research that’s cited all over the place, but that’s not the only thing that is meaningful in academia. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with acknowledging that… yeah, you can be a really awesome teacher and lead students to be the next generation of leaders themselves.
Rebecca: One of the things that you’ve both mentioned is the change that would need to happen takes a lot of time. So, for students who are in the position where they might want to be a teaching faculty member and they want to emphasize teaching but they’re at a university that doesn’t provide those kinds of experiences, what kind of advice or guidance can we give those students to gain the experience that they might need to actually get a job at a teaching institution, because if you don’t have experience then you often can’t get those positions either.
Kristina: Absolutely. So one of the things that I do at Texas Tech with our graduate students… So I do a lot of publication and research on pedagogy, so they’re hearing messages from their graduate faculty—which I don’t teach grad students, I only teach undergrads—but they are hearing the messaging from the graduate faculty that they need to focus on publishing and then they’re also having a realistic expectation of the kind of job they can get. So oftentimes what I do is offer—if they want to co-author a pedagogy piece with me—then that can kind of kill two birds with one stone and I can pull some of those publication expectations while making them more marketable in the teaching faculty job market. So, having a pedagogy piece—a published pedagogy piece—can send a signal to a search committee for teaching intensive position that pedagogy is something that you care about and that you’re applying your research skills that you learned in your PhD program to the way you’re gonna teach.
John: Some of this, I think, carries over a bit to undergraduate institutions where most of the people coming out of grad school tend to emphasize research that often seems to carry through through the promotion and tenure process because even at undergraduate institutions where their primary focus is on teaching, much of the promotion, merit pay, and so forth is tied to publications and it seems like it may be part of a broader cultural issue, not just at the graduate program level. What do you think?
Whitney: Well, so I’m at a teaching institution and I was actually that student that you just referred to, Rebecca; the one who knew they wanted to do teaching right off the bat. My adviser kind of discouraged me from it, but once he could see I was serious he helped me get teaching assignments at my R1 institution so that I could have that on my resume, which I would say is the number one piece of advice I could give anybody who wants to get a teaching job is have a class that you were the primary instructor on. So, at my institution now, I got my job, I’m tenure track and I am still expected to publish, but I do get credit for those pedagogy pieces that Christina was referring to, which don’t always garner the same kind of promotion credit at an R1. So I am expected to publish and be active in my field but what that means is a lot different than what it means at an R1. It doesn’t mean I have to land pieces in the top three political science journals. if I’m getting the name of my institution out in the media in something like this or if I am quoted in an op-ed, then it doesn’t count as much, but it’s kind of an incremental count because one of the things that teaching institutions often deal with is they’re smaller and they have less budgets, so they need the media attention, and that can be even more valuable than if I publish something in JOP.
John: And you mentioned the scholarship of learning and teaching; that’s an area that’s grown quite a bit in, I think, most disciplines. That seems to be perhaps an avenue by which some of this problem could be addressed (as Kristina just said). When I was a grad student, there was very little research being done on teaching and learning and now most academic disciplines have journals and group meetings or sub group meetings where they focus on these things. So, maybe that’s an area where we’re making some progress.
Kristina: I definitely think so. While the scholarship of teaching and learning pieces certainly aren’t as highly valued or are considered as prestigious at this point, I’ve been saying that graduate programs are missing a big opportunity to develop a niche in what kinds of tracks they offer. So most political science graduate programs will offer… you’re an international specialist or you’re an American politics specialist, perhaps you’re a method specialist; graduate programs are missing an opportunity to offer a track where you’re a teaching political science specialist. If we had faculty members who are publishing and experts in the teaching scholarship of political science, that program could market themselves as “we are the program that generates people who are going to teach political science,” and that could be a great way to start getting your graduate program—maybe you’re a mid-level or low-level R1—but if your graduate program gets nationally liberal arts colleges; that’s just as many state tuition dollars for PhD students as a student who’s studying international relations.
John: …and it could give those students a bit of an edge when they go into the job market too.
Rebecca: I also just want to add that these same issues apply to art schools in places where faculty might be getting other kinds of terminal degrees as well, where their focus might not be on traditional research but they’re doing scholarly activity or creative activity, like doing music or art or whatever and they’re focused so much on their studio practice that they don’t focus on teaching either, so most of the conversations focused specifically on PhD programs, but the same issue applies to some of these other contexts as well.
Whitney: Well, and I think another thing that’s important if you’re in a social science, especially, you’ve been heavily trained in methodology and we have some world-class research skills and I think it’s important to apply that to the scholarship of teaching and learning as well. Actually, Christina and I’s whole publishing relationship started because of an instructional designer at Texas Tech who gave Christina evidence that Christina was like, wait a second, I’m not sure I believe this, let me go look it up. And we were disappointed to see the lack of consistent rigor in the scholarship of teaching and learning and so I think because we’ve already been working on these really rigorous methodological skills, it makes sense that we could also apply them to the scholarship of teaching and learning and ensure that we really are achieving the learning outcomes that all of our colleges and accrediting institutions want us to achieve.
Rebecca: One of the things that we haven’t addressed much but I think is worth addressing is the role that colleges who hire PhDs as teaching faculty—what role they play in helping these new faculty members develop teaching skills and what their responsibility is in relationship to the R1 institutions who are producing these potential candidates.
Kristina: I have seen a growth in professionalization courses in PhD programs and most universities and colleges at this point do have something that resembles like a center for teaching and learning or something similar to this that’s trying to systematize the way we teach our teachers. Oftentimes these are geared toward new faculty, maybe not towards graduate students but typically they try to make them available. I think that we could do a better job at requiring them and at encouraging them as valuable for graduate student’s potential careers. I do find that a lot of the professionalism courses and sessions that I observe are more about the professionalization in terms of publishing and going to academic conferences and getting your CV ready to go on the job market and give job talks. So, we’re moving in the right direction in terms of learning to socialize our graduate students into what to expect, but I still think we have some disconnects between the job market as they will experience it. Now, maybe if you’re at one of the top 10 or 20 programs in the country this isn’t gonna matter, but if you’re not, then this could be the difference between you getting a job and having to adjunct seven courses a semester.
John: Now I think some disciplines have made some progress: chemistry and physics, for example, and math have tracks in math ed, or chemistry education, or physics education where people actually focus on research in that, but it hasn’t made it through all the disciplines. I’ve been the chair of our recruitment committee in my department for 30 years or so now roughly, and I have noticed though that more and more students are coming out with some background, even at R1 institutions, and I know when we go in the job market—maybe because of my position in the teaching center here—one of the things we look at is what sort of background they have in evidence-based teaching practices and so forth, and the people who generally come out in the top of our searches are people who have at least considered these issues or are aware of these issues. I’m not sure how widespread that is though in other departments.
Kristina: And to be fair, we are limited; we’re both political scientists, so we’re both limited to what our experience was and the experience of those in similar fields that we know.
Rebecca: So we’ve talked a lot about two different tracks: PhD candidates from an R1 institution who might get those small select positions as a researcher at an R1 institution and then we’ve got the track of people who might become faculty at more of a teaching institution. What about the other PhD candidates and those that might end up in other kinds of roles like consulting or other things that you mentioned previously? What are we doing for them, or what do we need to be doing for them?
Whitney: I think that the research track doesn’t just have to be for people who want to go on to R1 professorships because the research skills that you learn you can use in a lot of places that really need researchers, especially in government. My backup job actually, in case I didn’t get a teaching job, was going to be a statistician just because of all of the stats that I’ve picked up along the way. So, I think that the research track could be just a research track and what you do with it after is up to you but I do think that there is a whole class of people who maybe want a PhD just because they enjoy learning and want the PhD or maybe they just need the credential to move up in their career and they don’t necessarily want to learn how to teach or they don’t necessarily want to learn how to do research at an R1 level and I think those people are definitely falling out of the grad programs and that’s a shame because I think that there are a lot of lower ranked PhD institutions that again, like Kristina was talking about earlier, that could be their marketing: come here and we’re not gonna bombard you with how to publish in APSR and we’re not gonna bombard you with pedagogy, but you can get the basic skills that you need and write a dissertation and get the credential that you’re looking for.
Kristina: I think there’s also some cultural shifts that need to happen here as well because if getting a tenure-track offer at a teaching institution or a full-time offer at a community college is considered a failure then even more so I think often leaving academia completely to go into industry is considered like the ultimate failure, and I don’t know how universal that is across disciplines. I would imagine things that have a little more practical application would have less of this problem than specific to academia disciplines like political science, sociology, psychology. But, thinking about leaving academia completely is sort of the ultimate failure when there’s plenty people that want to do that and are very successful at doing so. We have a department of public administration within political science at Texas Tech and it’s a terminal master’s degree and oftentimes I hear… well,like the culture in the department is sometimes that the students that are seeking this master’s in public administration they don’t care as much about the research methods, they’re not as interested in learning the statistics or, of course, definitely not learning the pedagogy. It’s much more of a professional and vocational degree and at the end of the day our graduates from that program are probably earning a lot more money than our graduates from our PhD in political science programs. So, thinking about how we can shift the way we view our students career goals and try to match what we teach them to that. That’s something that we talk about in undergraduate education all the time: what do our students want to be when they grow up and how can we give them those skills. There’s no reason why we can’t use that same logic to think about our graduate programs.
John: The same is certainly true in economics. A lot of graduate students, sometimes with PhDs, end up working in government research positions as econometricians, working for example for the Department of Labor or the Census Bureau and so forth… and while sometimes it’s seen as being a somewhat lower position, they get paid a lot more, but we call that compensating wage differentials. T hey have to do these jobs that may be a little less pleasant so they have to get paid more to compensate for the fact that they’re not in academia. They disagree on that feeling quite often. [LAUGHTER]
Kristina: Well they don’t get their summers off.
John: They don’t get their summers off. What prompted you to address this topic?
Whitney: I just want to be really clear that Christina and I had an overall pretty positive experience at our grad institution, so this whole conversation didn’t come out of a feeling of anger. The whole idea came to me first when I was looking on Twitter and I saw the Simon Hix tweet about how much he valued teaching and I was texting Christina and I was like, you know, that’s how I feel too. I really value my teaching but I think sometimes that’s not the most valued thing in all of academia and she was like, “yes, at my institution sometimes being at a teaching institution is seen as lesser than” and so it started this whole conversation about how different the cultures are in our work, but how ultimately we’re both satisfied with where we are and that’s where the whole idea for this article came from. Just thinking about the different cultures that there are in academia and how they can vary so much and yet we prepare students generally uniformly across academia.
Kristina: Yeah, that’s a really good way to put it. Whitney and I went to the same graduate program; we were just a couple of years apart. So we received essentially the same training, which had very little focus on teaching or on what you do if you don’t want to be a researcher or to go to an R1 institution. As I’ve spoken to faculty members at our institution since then; of course we warned them that this piece was coming so they wouldn’t think we were trying to trash our department. But they’ve said that they’ve done things since we were there to try and make that better, especially as they’ve seen where their students are ending up. So, while there’s still a big focus on research being an R1 institution, University of Texas of Dallas is never going to not train researchers, but they recognize that a lot of the students that are coming to that program are looking for non-R1 jobs. And our former professors. seeing where we’ve gone—Whitney’s at a teaching institution; I am a non-tenure-track at an R1, and so I think they’ve been able to look at that history and say, how can we better prepare our students for either one of these options.
Rebecca: One of the things that I’d really love to see more programs include is something that I had in my own graduate education which was a training program for teaching—which gave me a leg up in a lot pursuits that I had professionally. So, I went through the equivalent of the professional development for teachers like we do at our teaching learning center here. I learned about ways to evaluate student work, a little bit about assessment, designing syllabi to be inclusive. So, it’d be great to have those kinds of professional development opportunities for a wider variety of potential faculty. We learned about writing syllabi to be more inclusive, we wrote about evaluation systems, thinking about assessment, designing assignments and things. It wasn’t nearly as rigorous as it could have been, but it definitely was more than many other colleagues that I had that went to other institutions and ho w our different experiences when we entered the field.
Whitney: I would have loved something like that whenever I started because I had no idea what SACS even was when I first began my teaching job, and they’re telling me about assessing learning outcomes and I was like, what are you talking about? And I think there is something to be said for throwing me in the deep end and making me learn for myself. And I definitely learned a lot in my first couple of classes, and I apologize to any of those students who are listening. But I think something like that would be excellent, even just like, here, you have to teach this class; write a practice syllabus. And having to think about what kinds of assignments you design is so enormously helpful before you’re actually on the job because, especially if you go to a teaching institution and you’re teaching a 3-3 or a 4-4, you’re not even gonna have time to breathe, nevermind thoughtfully construct a syllabus.
Kristina: I also think that this is a great place for the intersection of research training and teaching training because a lot of the things that they give us in teaching workshops—here’s what works best, here are best practices. Oftentimes I’m left with the question as someone who’s been in teaching for six years and publishing on teaching and learning, a lot of times I’m left with the question: how do you know this is the best practice? Who says? What’s the evidence for it? And there’s not very much yet. The literature is not robust enough at this time to really be able to say what works best. So if we can intersect those research skills that are social science, PhDs, that are even our humanities PhDs and our natural science PhDs, they’re getting some research training and an ability to think critically about what they’re being told. If we can intersect that with looking at what the evidence that does exist on the best practices in teaching and learning then we’re really just creating a positive reinforcement cycle of how these things all work together. None of these exist in a vacuum; teaching doesn’t exist in a vacuum, outside of political science they’re inextricably linked.
John: And even where there’s some areas where there’s a lot of research there’s often not a lot of research in specific disciplines to see whether the results in other fields hold up and there is a little bit of a replication problem in some of the areas. As you said, there’s just not a lot of research on a lot of topics that everyone takes for granted, so it’s a ripe area for research.
Rebecca: I think it’s a ripe area for interdisciplinary research.
John: When I was first teaching I had a fellowship and a faculty member left about two weeks before the semester, so the director of graduate programs came to me and said, hey, would you like some extra money in addition to your fellowship? You’ve got this class that starts in two weeks; you did really well in the graduate field, so here’s your class. And that was the extent of my training in teaching. It was the first time I was ever in front of a class.
Whitney: Well, and that’s actually a really good thing to bring up. If you are a struggling graduate student and you want to work at a teaching institution, not only is adjuncting at a Community College beneficial for your resume, but it can also help feed you for a little while. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: That’s very true.
John: We always end by asking, what are you going to do next?
Kristina: I have a couple of pieces right now that are about to be ready to go o ut for review. They’re actually looking at some of these best practices. So we’re looking at—I don’t know if y’all are familiar with Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction. This is something that is often put out there as the best way to teach and I think it is useful to some extent, but when we examine whether it really made a difference in student performance, we found that students don’t necessarily know what order they want things then, nor does it really seem to affect their performance in the course. So we’re gonna be publishing that. Again, not with the idea that Gagne should be thrown in the trash, but with the idea that a lot of these best practices that we talk about really are just, if it works for you and speaks to you, then you should use it and if it doesn’t then there’s no reason why anyone should force you to use it.
Whitney: For me, I’m actually working on a book right now with the director of the Meredith Poll, David McLennan and a colleague at Coastal Carolina University, Kaitlin Sidorsky and our book is about women in appointed office. I’m at Meredith College which is a women’s college. Besides my passion for teaching I also have a passion for getting women into politics. 65% of women who run for office served in appointed office first and appointed office isn’t as well studied as women who run for office, so we’re writing a book on that.
Rebecca: Sounds like two really exciting things coming out soon.
John: And maybe we’ll get one or both of you back on in the future.
Kristina: That’d be great.
Rebecca: Well thank you both for joining us this afternoon and giving us some good things to be thinking about.
John: It’s an issue that I think affects pretty much all disciplines.
Whitney: Thank you for having us.
John: Thank you.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast please subscribe and leave review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.
John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen, and Dante Perez.
Sometimes, as faculty, we are quick to assume that performance gaps in our courses are due to the level of preparedness of students rather than what we do or do not do in our departments. In this episode, Dr. Angela Bauer, the chair of the Biology Department at High Point University, joins us to discuss how community building activities and growth mindset messaging combined with active learning strategies can help close the gap.
- “Success for all Students: TOSS workshops” – Inside UW-Green Bay News (This includes a short video clip in which Dr. Bauer describes TOSS workshops)
- Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc.
- Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. John Wiley & Sons.
- Life Sciences Education
- Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 69(5), 797.
- Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American psychologist, 52(6), 613.
- The Teaching Lab Podcast – Angela Bauer’s new podcast series. (Coming soon to iTunes and other podcast services)