81. Intentional Tech

Some faculty try to use each new educational technology tool they find. Others are reluctant to try any new tools. In this episode, Dr. Derek Bruff joins us to examine how to productively choose educational technology that will support and enhance student learning.

Derek is the director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a principal senior lecturer at Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics. He’s the author of Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments. His new book Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching will be available from West Virginia University Press in November 2019. Derek is also a host of the Leading Lines podcast.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Some faculty try to use each new educational technology tool they find. Others are reluctant to try any new tools. In this episode, we examine how to productively choose educational technology that will support and enhance student learning.

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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.

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Derek Bruff. Derek is the Director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a principal senior lecturer at Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics. He’s the author of Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments. His new book Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching will be available from West Virginia University Press in November 2019. Derek is also a host of the Leading Lines podcast. Welcome, Derek.

Derek: Hi, I’m happy to be here.

John: We’re happy to have you here. Our teas today are…

Rebecca: Do you have anything that you’re drinking Derek?

Derek: So I do, I have some coffee here. [LAUGHTER] I’m not a tea drinker. But there’s a bit of a story. I’m drinking a coffee called Kaldi’s Dog from a local coffee vendor called Bongo Java. And a couple years ago—I work here at the teaching center—we had been serving Folgers coffee in our coffee machine in the break room for several years. And some of us claimed that it was terrible and others of us claimed that people can’t actually tell the difference between coffee brands. And so we actually had a taste test at one of our staff meetings, a blind taste test. [LAUGHTER] From Folgers and several other kind s of fancy coffees and I have to say, I was justified actually. It was very clear that that some coffees were more alike than others. And this was actually the winner, Kaldi’s Dog… the winner of our taste test.

John: So there was no p-hacking or anything going on there? [LAUGHTER]

Derek: No. No.

Rebecca: The nice thing about our tea selection is that we just make hot water and then you can have any of the many varieties that we have in our office.

Derek: That’s true. That’s true.

Rebecca: So speaking of which, what do you have John?

John: Ginger Peach Black tea.

Rebecca: And I have Gold Monkey still.

John: Okay. Mine is nearly empty. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about your new book. Could you tell us a little bit about the new book and what prompted you to write that?

Derek: Sure. So my work at Vanderbilt involves working with a lot of faculty around their teaching—much like your work—helping them kind of think through the choices they have as teachers, what kind of objectives they have as teachers, and what are some teaching strategies, activities, tools that they could use to try to kind of reach those objectives with their students. It’s a really great job, I get to work with faculty all across the campus, lots of different disciplines. And, in recent years, it’s taken me to other universities as well—and colleges—to kind of talk to faculty there. And so my area of expertise and kind of specialty is around educational technology. And I kind of feel like a lot of faculty come at technology in their teaching from kind of three different areas. Some faculty are told by their administrators that they need to use more technology. And they’re not always sure why. [LAUGHTER] Like what’s it good for? Why do I need this? How can it be helpful? And then kind of at the other end of the spectrum, we have all these faculty who are easily distracted by shiny objects and they see a new technology, and they’re like, “Oh, Pokemon Go, how can I use this in my teaching,” right? [LAUGHTER] And they’re great, these folks are great to work with, they’re all great to work with. But there are also a lot of faculty kind of in the middle who just want to teach well, right? They want to connect with their students, they want their students to succeed, and they want some sensible tools to help them get there. For all three faculty, sometimes they struggle with figuring out how to match technology with learning goals and teaching principles. They know kind of what they want to accomplish, but they’re not sure how to select or use the technology that helps them get there. And so the example I often give in my talks is, I’ll say that my favorite teaching technology is actually wheels on chairs. [LAUGHTER] When I walk into a classroom, right, I have stuff I want to do with my students, I have learning experiences I’ve constructed for them, and I want the furniture in the room to be flexible enough to support what we need to do. Maybe it’s small group activities today, maybe we circle up and have a whole class discussion, maybe we use a debate. I want the technology in the room to support my teaching choices. And so it’s pedagogy first, but then we find tools that help us accomplish those pedagogies. As I’ve talked with faculty at Vanderbilt and elsewhere, I see a lot of patterns in how they use technology and what I’ve done is I’ve tried to distill these patterns down into seven teaching principles, because it’s a book and you have to have seven principles, right? That’s the rule.[LAUGHTER] So seven teaching principles that kind of give you a reason for using technology. And so the intent is to guide faculty to say, “Oh, here’s why I would use technology,” and then each chapter explores one of those principles and has lots of examples of actual teaching practice from faculty in a variety of disciplines. What does it look like in English to use technology to accomplish this goal? What does it look like in biology? What does it look like in communication studies? That kind of thing. I love telling stories and one of the reasons I’m excited to be a part of the Teaching in Higher Education series of West Virginia University Press, it’s edited by Jim Lang—who is a fantastic writer—and he takes this kind of storytelling first-person personal approach to his writing and I was really excited to be a part of this series, because that’s how I like to write too.

John: And you start your book with a chapter on a time for telling, speaking of narratives. Could you tell us a little bit about what the focus of that is?

Derek: This is a little counterintuitive, sometimes for faculty, but it’s really one of the most useful principles I found when working with faculty around designing especially—I mean, to some degree, it works at all scales—but it’s really helpful in kind of a lesson-plan scale, like one day in the classroom. And so I think sometimes there’s this impulse that faculty have to explain the thing, and then have the students do something with it, right? Here’s what it is, here’s the background, here’s the context, here’s the theory, and then let’s have the students do something with that. But the example I give actually comes from my daughter’s preschool. This was 10 years ago now, her preschool had science day and they asked the parents to come in and do sciencey things. And so I was the dad who brought the Mentos and Diet Coke. [LAUGHTER] So, you’ve seen this, right? You take a Diet Coke two-liter and you put some Mentos breath mints in there and then half a second later, you get this huge geyser of Diet Coke. It’s rather dramatic. Mine only got maybe seven-feet tall, but I’ve seen them much higher on YouTube. [LAUGHTER] And so I do this kind of fun thing in front of the five-year olds. And then they ask me “Why did it explode?” And so one could lecture—maybe not to five-year-olds—but you might lecture to a bunch of chemistry students for fifteen minutes on the physics and chemistry behind this and then do the demonstration. Or you could start with the demonstration and have students conjecture. Why is this working? Why does this explode, right? Bless her heart, my daughter asked, “Why is it Diet Coke?” I was like, “That’s a good question.” Why is it diet and not regular Coke? So this is the idea behind time for telling—this is a term from the literature Schwartz and Bransford wrote about this back in the 90s—that if we can create these times for telling with our students where they’re ready to learn and they’re interested in learning, then they’re going to get a lot more out of it, they’ll learn more deeply. We can use technology to do this. One of the stories that I share in the book is a grad student in English at Purdue University, Alisha Karabinus, and she’s teaching a first-year writing composition course and she has her students play this text-based online game. It’s all text, and you’re typing in commands and telling your character where to go. You kind of wake up in this apartment and you’re not sure what’s happening and you have to navigate and walk through the apartment. And there’s this kind of sequence where you need to take a shower and so you walk into the bathroom and you try to take a shower and the game’s like, “You still have your clothes on, you have to take the clothes off.” And then they’re like, “You probably don’t want to walk into the shower with your clothes in your arms.” And so you’d have to put the clothes down and you have to take her watch off, right? Like there’s all these kind of step-by-step things. I’m of a certain age where I played games like this back in the 80s…

John: The old adventure games, yes.

Derek: Right. And so there’s a kind of, you know, interface here that you have to master and you have to learn. It needs to be very explicit about what you’re doing. So she has her students play this game outside of class and then they come in and they debrief the experience. And it’s really lovely because they get so frustrated with the interface, then she makes this nice, clever little pivot where she says, “Well, when you’re writing, when you’re trying to express yourself, you’ve got all these ideas in your head. If you’re not explicit with your reader, they’re not going to know what you’re actually saying.” And so she uses that to talk about transitions and topic sentences and things like this. And so I think it’s a really lovely example of using a little bit of technology that was not at all designed for teaching to give students an experience that then prepares them to learn this lesson about how they communicate and how they write.

Rebecca: Do you have any advice on how to find some of those key little demonstrations or technology pieces that could lead into particular ideas?

Derek: Yeah, I’ve got some more examples in my book. I mean, part of it is that I think—especially for the time for telling—there’s this kind of experiential piece that’s pretty great…

Rebecca: Yeah.

Derek: A lot of faculty will show a video clip. This is one way to kind of do it. The Office is very commonly used to introduce various topics in different courses. I have several examples in the book of games, either video games or board games, and so I think there’s some real value in this experiential piece. And so, there’s no silver bullet. I think a lot of this involves being open to taking something outside your area and bringing it in. In this case, part of it was the interface. It wasn’t the content of the game that was interesting, it was the interface of the game that really helped. And so those are things to look for. Is it the content? Is it the interface? Those are helpful. I also talk about what tools are designed for teaching that can help create this time for telling. And so my first book was all about teaching with classroom response systems—which used to be called clickers—and now in most places students bring their own devices and answer on their phones. But the idea is that you can pose a question to all of your students and they all answer and then you can show the distribution of answers up on the big screen. And if you’ve asked a question that really taps into some type of misconception that students have, and they get the question wrong, the technology is important here, because you want everyone to answer so they all have that experience of grappling with the question. So you need a way to hold all the students accountable for answering in a way to collect all their answers. So you need some tech for that. And then by displaying the distribution of answers and the wrong answers on the board, you let everyone know, “Hey, this is a hard question, right?” It’s not like everyone got this right? You’re split across these two different answers. I share an example in my book of a colleague here at Vanderbilt in the law school, Ed Cheng, and he’d ask a series of questions of his students about Carl and his rhinoceros. So this was a situation that was perhaps prone to disaster when Carl keeps a pet rhinoceros and so he plays out these different scenarios of things going wrong. And then he basically asked these multiple choice questions about who can sue whom for what. And so the first two questions are actually really straightforward, right? The rhinoceros escapes and runs into a car or something, and Carl should have known that was going to happen. And there’s clear cut answers to the first couple of these clicker questions that my colleague asks. But then the third one, it’s a little bit different. And the students, when they respond to the scenario about Carl and his escaped rhinoceros, they’re actually split across three different answer choices. Ed has this great move in class where he’s like, “Well, you’re kind of all right. There are parts of law that are really clear cut and there’s a clear answer, and we just talked about a couple of questions that fell under that category, but we’ve moved into this area where there’s actually not a clear answer and a good lawyer could argue any of these.” It’s critical for his law students to know when they’ve moved into that part of law because that’s when they have to really do the hard work and marshal the resources and make the arguments and work with evidence. And so he’s using this short technology exercise to create this moment where they’re like, “Oh, right, I need to really pay attention here.” It’s that time for telling moment that I think is really lovely and having the bar graph on the screen that has the three-way tie is really important to creating that moment.

Rebecca: I think those are really good examples that I think will help faculty get started.

John: Actually, we did talk about one in an earlier podcast where we had Doug McKee on and he was talking about using this technique in his econometrics class, where you give students a problem that’s just a little bit above what they’ve been working on and it forces them to recognize the need to develop new tools, and then they’re primed to be receptive to a solution if they don’t quite make it all the way there themselves.

Derek: Absolutely. And again, this is a little bit counterintuitive. I think some faculty are hesitant to give their students a problem they know they can’t finish, or they can’t solve, or they haven’t been fully prepared for. But by having that experience, starting class with this hard problem that they can’t quite finish and getting stuck and recognizing the limits in their mental models or their need for additional resources, then they’re ready for the second half of class when the faculty member’s like, “Oh, here’s the resource, here’s the concept, here’s the tool.” And again, very non-intuitive and one of the things I think that’s important about my book is that my focus is on using technology to accomplish these things. But all of these teaching principles are true regardless. You don’t have to use technology to create a time for telling, but it is an interesting and useful way to think about certain types of technology and how you might bring them into your classroom.

Rebecca: I think that’s an important point to hit. The technology is supposed to follow the pedagogy like what you said earlier.

Derek: Yeah.

Rebecca: So remembering that you need to make good teaching choices first, and then finding ways to support.

Derek: Yeah, and sometimes tech is not the answer, right? Or low-tech is a better choice, right? So I have a chapter on knowledge organizations and so this is the idea that when we all organize the information in our head in various ways and so you can kind of imagine in your head like this concept map of ideas and examples and facts, and there are connections between all of them and novices in a domain, right? When our students walk into our class, their knowledge organizations are not as robust, they don’t have as many nodes, they don’t have as many connections, and connections are not as meaningful, and part of our work as instructors is to help them develop more robust knowledge organizations. Well, if we just leave them to their own devices, they’ll do okay, but we can actually help them learn and see the big picture in our course, if we can give them activities that help them develop, construct, represent, and visualize their own knowledge organizations. And so I teach a first-year writing seminar at Vanderbilt—and I talk a little bit about my own teaching in the book, because I think it’s important that I’m using these tools myself and trying to figure out how they work—my first-year writing seminar is on cryptography. Codes and ciphers. And we talk about privacy and surveillance and the role of encryption in today’s society. As part of this, I teach a novel, even though I’m in the math department. [LAUGHTER] It’s not something I was trained to do in grad school, to teach a novel, but I do work a teaching center so I’ve picked up some ideas. But there’s this book called Little Brother by the author Cory Doctorow and it kind of imagines a terrorist incident that happens in San Francisco and then the kind of surveillance and security apparatus that comes after that and the lead character is this teenage hacker who’s kind of fighting against this. And so what I have my students do is they read the book, I have them blog about it in the course blog—so that is a digital technology that they use—but when they come to class, I ask them to get into small groups, I give each group a couple of large Post-it Notes—so these are the kind of five-inch by seven-inch brightly colored Post-it Notes—and some markers. And I say, “Your job in the group is to find two arguments in the book in favor of surveillance and two arguments in the book in favor of privacy.” And so they have to kind of page through the book, they’re looking for arguments made by specific characters in favor of one of those two things. And so the privacy arguments go on Post-it Notes of one color and surveillance arguments go on Post-it Notes of another color. And so then, once they’ve done that piece, the second phase is they in turn go up to the chalkboard and they put their Post-it Notes on the board one at a time, and they have to do two things here. One is they have to put practical arguments towards one end of the board. Like, “If we monitored everyone’s subway movements, are we actually going to catch bad guys?” Like that’s a practical argument. And then have to put principled arguments at the other end of the board. So one of the characters says that, “Hey, it’s about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in that order. If you’re not alive, you can’t be happy, so we got to keep you safe.” That’s a principled argument. And so the students have to put their their Post-it Notes along this axis and then they also have to use the chalk to connect their argument to something already on the board. Because basically, there’s this really complex debate space around safety, and security, and privacy, and surveillance, and I want my students to know how complex that is and to start to see the relationships between some of those arguments and ideas. “This argument is a counter to that argument, or this argument is a support to that argument.” So by the end of class, they’ve constructed this debate map on the chalkboard out of Post-it Notes. And they have, I think, a much better sense of the complexity of this debate. They’ll do more with this. They’ll write about this topic throughout the semester. And so that debate map, that knowledge organization that they’ve constructed collaboratively, can then inform the arguments they make as they take positions within that debate later. And in this case—as I said—this is pretty low-tech, it’s Post-it Notes and chalkboards. I actually tried it once using some software, but having students build this map in a collaborative digital space at the same time was just too chaotic and so I needed to kind of slow the process down, and the Post-it Notes were really great for that. And so this is something I’ve used several times in my course and I think it’s a really great way to help students see how the ideas in an argument space are connected.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve liked about using Post-it Notes in some of the kinds of things that I do in my classrooms is that it is easy to change your mind too. You can easily pick it up and move it and it doesn’t seem as intimidating as trying to navigate software to make a decision or something. It somehow lowers a whole bunch of barriers and then it’s a little more flexible and fluid.

Derek: Yeah, absolutely.

John: And you’ve got them thinking about it among multiple dimensions and also making connections, which really, I would think would help them develop a lot of scaffolding there and a lot of connections that they wouldn’t necessarily do with their own reading. So it’s forcing them to develop better close reading skills and analytical skills, and so forth. It’s a wonderful exercise.

One of the principles of learning is that it helps for students to have lots of feedback opportunities and lots of practice, and I see you have a chapter on that. Could you tell us just a little bit about what you focus on there or some of the points that are made in that chapter?

Derek: Sure. So I actually start the chapter of the story about how I learned how to ski a couple of years ago, because learning to ski as an adult is a challenging process, as I found. [LAUGHTER] It involves much falling down. And every time you fall down when you’re learning how to ski, your body is getting a little bit of feedback about what works and what didn’t. And so in a very kind of physical motor skills way, to learn to ski, you have to practice skiing. You fail a lot, your body gets feedback, and then hopefully over time you get better at manipulating your limbs and controlling your muscles so you’re going kind of where you want to go. And so our students need this too, this is actually so key to learning is that we have to practice with the stuff that we’re learning, we have to do stuff with it and we have to get feedback on that practice. It’s a key part of learning. In the chapter, I use this as an opportunity to talk about the so-called flipped classroom because I think there’s a traditional model in some of our disciplines where students get an introduction to information during class. And then after class, they go and do something with it. They do the practice, they have a problem set, right? And the problem is that the practice and feedback part, it’s really important and also really hard. And so to have students do that when they’re left to their own devices, is a lost opportunity actually. And so the flipped classroom model says, “Let’s take some of that activity. Instead of doing it later on your own, let’s do it together collaboratively during class.” And so in the chapter I talk about some ways that some faculty have used technology creatively to help students practice the skills of their discipline during class. I mentioned the classroom response systems as certainly an option for this. I think sometimes when I talked to faculty around technology in the classroom, there’s sometimes an assumption that you’re talking about AV tech. We have a projector, we have some speakers… and that’s great, we need that, that’s helpful. But all my examples involves students using the technology because I think that’s really important. One of my favorites, actually is Kathryn Tomasek from Wheaton College. She’s a historian, and she wanted her students to practice doing the kind of close reading that historians do. When they get a primary-source document, a lot of that reading they do is looking at it line by line, word by word, figuring out who is that person? What is that term? What does it mean? Looking at the very building blocks of this primary-source document, because especially if you’re separated in time by one hundred or two hundred years, you got to do a lot of this close reading to kind of make sense of what it is. And so she had her students work with… she started with historical documents in her library’s special collections and asked her students to do what’s called a TEI. It’s a text-encoding initiative, it’s a way of marking up the text—kind of like HTML a little bit if you know web development—where you’re actually kind of tagging things in the text and labeling them as to what they are. So this is a date, this is a noun, this is a person, this is a location, or in her case, this is a theme that comes out in the sentence. And so her students, they would do this together in class. Like she’d take a piece of it and walk them through it collaboratively on the big screen and then have them take their own pieces and do this markup. And the neat part is the students were actually contributing to a larger digital history project because their markup would be kind of incorporated in this bigger database and shared online. And the work that they did with the primary source documents would then inform the writing and the argumentation that they do later in the semester. But in this case, she wanted to target a very particular skill that’s kind of close reading in history and she found a technology that digital historians use actually pretty regularly to create these opportunities for practice during class to help our students do this kind of work. I share another example of Richard Flagan from Caltech and he was doing chemical engineering. Very different course. But he used little mini projectors to kind of turn his lecture hall into an active learning classroom so his students could work in groups and do some coding—they were doing MATLAB coding in this case—and he found that when he introduced the coding in class and had them work on it after class, they would get hung up on these really small errors around grammar and syntax in the code. So he shifted that work into class to do group works in class and so then he’s able to kind of circulate among them, see what they’re doing on their little projector screens, and intervene and ask questions and help them. And so again, it’s kind of targeting these very particular skills that students need practice with that will inform often bigger projects later in the semester, but creating some time and space in class through technology to give them a chance to practice those skills and get feedback either from each other or from the instructor.

Rebecca: A lot of those examples I think are opportunities for faculty to also see where misconceptions are happening because it’s happening in class soyou can address them one-on-one, but you can also address those bigger themes that bubble up as well as a bigger group rather than having the same conversation 20 plus times.

Derek: Absolutely. Yeah,you may walk over and talk to one student or a small group or you may see a pattern across the students and then kind of take a moment to kind of gather everyone’s attention and try to kind of walk them through together as a whole class.

John: Doing some just in time teaching type of techniques, which is much more efficient use of class time.

Rebecca: That seems really tied to the knowledge organization that you were talking about as well because I think those same kinds of things happen when you’re doing those sorts of activities in class too, right? Like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that you thought this was connected to that,” right? And you can help negotiate that. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Yeah, and these teaching principles overlap, right? So when I had my students do that debate map activity in class, we were doing practice and feedback. We were taking class time, it was just that this kind of analysis level where they were making connections across topics as opposed to Kathryn’s example of the close reading. That wasn’t necessarily a big picture kind of practice and feedback, it was a very skill focused practice and feedback.

Rebecca: I also really like that these are examples that don’t necessarily make feedback more work for faculty. It’s embedded in the practice in the classroom and it’s just when they need it. And it makes more sense because they’re getting it while they’re doing something so they’re probably more apt to listen to said feedback rather than getting it on an assignment that you hand back and they put it in the garbage or something.

Derek: There’s this book by Walvoord and Anderson called Effective Grading that you may be familiar with and I remember the first time I read about what they called light grading. L-i-g-h-t grading. I thought, “Oh, this makes so much sense. I don’t have to grade everything the students do very rigorously, I could give them a grade on the effort or I could give them a zero, one, or two if the work that they’ve invested in that little piece then shows up later.” So if I have them write a blog post before class to get ready for class, I don’t have to grade that very intensely because we’re going to talk about that material in class and that’s where they get the feedback. I may need the grade it enough to motivate them to do it, but I don’t have to give them detailed feedback at that stage, it will happen during class discussion. And I think that’s kind of freeing for instructors to know I don’t have to grade the heck out of everything. I can kind of design a sequence where students get the feedback they need apart from the grade itself.

Rebecca: I think faculty always appreciate those opportunities. [LAUGHTER]

John: And in the podcast that’ll be coming out a week before this, we talked briefly about specifications grading, which is a variation on the same theme.

Derek: Oh sure.

John: One of your chapters is entitled “Thin Slices of Learning.” Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Derek: I am so glad you asked. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, so this may be my my favorite chapter in the book just because I think the creativity that faculty brought to their use of technology in some of the examples I share, it’s just really amazing. And I also get to quote, one of my mentors a couple of times. Randy Bass is, as I like to say, the Vice Provost of Awesomeness at Georgetown University. [LAUGHTER] That’s not his actual title, but he gets to do some really amazing things there. He’s also really active in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning world and I think he’s just a really deep thinker about how learning works and so there’s a couple of things that he talks about that I’ve heard him talk about before. He was doing some video projects with his students in an American Studies class a while back and he would look at their finished products—these short videos that they put together as a class assignment—and he realized that he wasn’t seen all of their learning. That—as he said it—there’s a lot of learning that’s left on the cutting room floor. And actually, in the book I talk about how my daughter wrote—she created a short film a couple years ago just because she wanted to—and she filmed, I think three hours of footage for a two-minute film. And so to decide what footage to use, what footage not to use, which angle, which take, even kind of which characters she wanted to include in the final product, there was a ton of decisions that went into those final two minutes. But if you just look at the two minutes, you may not know what those decisions are.Ttechnology, though, can be really good at making visible student learning, and in particular, thin slices of student learning. The kind of choices and sense making that they’re doing in the middle of learning, or creating, or designing, or producing something, and the more we can learn about how our students learn, the more we can kind of get those thin slices of learning in front of us. We can be responsive, we can be helpful, we can guide, and we can direct. And so the examples in this chapter about using technology to make visible (or sometimes audible) kinds of learning that students might not kind of share with us naturally. My all time favorite example of teaching with Twitter is from Margaret Rubega. She is a biology professor at the University of Connecticut. She’s also I think, Connecticut’s State Ornithologist, and she teaches a course on ornithology. So it’s a course on birds and so she has—wait for it—she has her students tweet about tweeters. [LAUGHTER] She’s so articulate about it, like students come to this class—and it’s a fairly large class, I don’t know, 40, 50 students—and they’ve seen really cool birds on National Geographic or YouTube and they think of birds as doing really amazing things in the Amazon and in Africa and far away. And she wants her students to know that birds in rural Connecticut also do really interesting things. Their ecology, their behavior, their biology is all very interesting. And so what she has them do as they’re learning about birds in the course is several times a semester they’re asked to tweet about their observations of birds as they go about their lives. So they’re on their way to work, they’re on the way to school, they see a bird, they see it do something or behave in a way that connects with what they’re learning in class. And she asked them to tweet about it. They have to kind of include their observation and where they are, and they have to connect to the course material, and they’ve got now 280 characters to do that on Twitter. Sometimes they get photos of birds that they see, which Twitter is really good at handling that. The thing I like about it is that it’s leveraging the field observation device that they carry around with them in their pockets—also known as their smartphone—or their regular phone, whatever it is. When they’re in the moment when they see that bird doing something, they’re able to kind of capture that and then share that back with her and with the entire class actually. One of my favorite tweets is a student who was walking by a golf course and he noticed the bird song sounded different in different parts of the golf course and in his tweet he conjectured that the golf course itself was dividing bird territory. [LAUGHTER] I was like, “That’s genius,” right? I don’t know if he’s right, but he’s really paying attention. And what Margaret’s doing is she’s helping her students practice transfer, taking what they learned in the classroom and apply it to real-world situations outside of the classroom and that’s one of the hardest things about learning, is how to transfer learning to new context. And she’s giving her students explicit practice in this, but then also making visible that practice by having this class hashtag on Twitter, #birdclass. And if you go search on Twitter for bird class you’ll see some of the tweets from her students because they’re sharing their observations with her, with each other. I just think it’s a really beautiful use of a very particular technology for a very particular reason. I love the bird class example.

Rebecca: That’s really fun.

John: Yeah, that’s a great example.

Rebecca: I couldn’t help but think that if my two-year-old could tweet, she’d be really into it right now. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Does she have a lot of observations about life that she tries to share?

Rebecca: A lot about birds lately. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: But you think about all the learning that students do when they’re not with us that may be really important. I have another example from Mark Sample at Davidson College, where he had his students live tweet the film they were watching in his sci-fi class. They watched it on their own time in their own rooms or whatever, but it was Blade Runner and they would live tweet their observations about the film. And it’s one thing if we have our students read something or watch something and then write a response paper and bring that to class and then we discuss it, right? That’s great. But he was getting kind of a next level down. They are kind of immediate in the moment reactions to what they were seeing in the film and kind of surfacing that and making that visible. And this is a great use of technology. There’s other ways to do this but technology can be really good at this kind of thin slices of learning piece and that’s one of the connections I want folks to make in the book is that, if you think about it, “Hey, Twitter seems really useful. What can we do with Twitter and our teaching?” Well, there’s a lot of things you can do. But one of those is to surface thin slices of student learning. And that provides some focus for thinking about how you might use Twitter in your class for a very particular purpose.

Rebecca: Sounds really fun.

John: It does, and you can see this in other areas of biology or botany. I think Michelle Miller was on a while back and she talked about a class where students went out in the field to identify plants and tweet back photos and so forth.

Derek: Yeah, and I shared this with a grad student here in civil engineering and she has her students tweet about structural things they see in the built environment that connect to the material that they’re learning. I’ve ran into teacher educators who have their students—while respecting some privacy—but they’ll tweet about what they see in the field when they’re in classrooms and they’re observing teachers in action. They’ll tweet those observations and so yeah, I think there’s a lot of different uses for this kind of application.

Rebecca: This also moves a little bit into the idea of learning communities, because this is a community practice using a hashtag where you’re kind of seeing things outside, but you also have a whole chapter on just learning communities.

Derek: Yeah, and I mentioned the bird class, because there’s a lot of things going on with the bird class piece. And part of it is that yes, by making the students tweets visible to the other students, you have this other dynamic going on which is that the students are starting to learn from and with each other. And students can learn a lot from their professors certainly—and we have a lot of expertise and authority that we that we use in the classroom—but if you think about the places where you learn naturally when you’re picking up a new hobby, or you’ve got some interest of yours that you want to pursue, you’re often connecting with other people who do that too. So like, I have a friend who just went to a quilting conference in Nashville because she loves to quilt and she’s going to connect with other quilters. And that’s how she learns how to quilt, it’s this kind of peer-to-peer learning that she does. And so we can leverage that in the classroom. It’s always a little authentic. Students in a statistics class aren’t going to just get super passionate about statistics and learn from each other necessarily, they’re going to bring their own levels of intrinsic motivation to this. But if you think about all of the different perspectives and experiences that you have in the room with your students, they have a lot to bring and they can actually learn a lot from each other and you can learn a lot from your students. But you’ve got to create some mechanisms for that, it’s not necessarily going to happen naturally. And so bird class is a great example because as the students, I mean, they’re all in Connecticut, right? But other than that, they’re going to different places, they’re seeing different parts of town, then they go to different locations for spring break, and see different birds, and so they’re all bringing their kind of different perspective on this. And by making that visible, they can start to learn from each other. In my chapter I talk about, I use a social bookmarking tool called Diigo, which allows basically students to share links with each other. And so we create a group for a class and I give them these assignments, in my cryptography class especially. So, find an example of cryptography in the news or find an example of military cryptography or let’s find out something about the National Security Agency. And so what’s really cool is—especially for a course like this—students bring a lot of different interests into this topic. And so I’ll have students who have kind of like a literature interest—I had a Sherlock Holmes buff in the class once and so she was always finding really interesting examples of cryptography in literature to share—I had students who were always interested in kind of cybersecurity and computer science and so they’re bringing in kind of modern news and technology. I had one student—bless her heart—she loved Russia, she found a way to find a Russian connection to everything that she did. And so it was really great, right, because she found all these examples of cryptography, especially kind of Cold War espionage stuff that we wouldn’t have seen if she didn’t have this passion for Russia and then found resources and shared them with the class. And so by having students share these resources, in a shared space and then talk talking about them in class, I can really leverage the fact that we’ve got a number of individuals in this room that have different experiences and perspectives and if we can make advantage of that, we can actually all learn more deeply.

Rebecca: I’ve used Slack in my web design classes to do troubleshooting and technical help but I use the same Slack channel across semesters. And so what I found is that people who have graduated who are out in the field will sometimes randomly pop in and answer questions, and it’s really cool, but I remind the students that I’m not the only one that can answer questions. They can help each other out. But sometimes—you never know—some other lurker might pop in and help out. And they have some sort of vested interest, you know, because they were also in that class at one time.

Derek: Absolutely, and that’s one of the advantages. One thing that can happen when you shift away from a course management system, course management systems are good for a lot of things but they’re not good for semester to semester continuity. They kind of put courses in little boxes by semester and the students can’t get out of those boxes. And so once you move to Slack or social bookmarking—like my Diigo group, we’ve been doing it for like seven years. We’ve got hundreds of resources collected by students over time. Course blogs are really good for that too—and so that’s really exciting when you can use some technology to make some student work public and persistent in a way that invites future or past students to participate. It’s still a learning community, it’s just expanding beyond the time and space of this one particular course offering

John: One of the issues with learning management systems is—as Robin DeRosa and other people have called it—is that the assignments often take on the nature of a disposable assignment, that they’ve done the work and then at the end of the semester, they even lose access to it unless they keep it outside. And there’s a lot of advantages to having a sort of persistent work that you’re describing there.

Rebecca: It seems like you’re moving right into another chapter of Derek’s book on “Authentic Audiences.”

Derek: I mean this is the other thing—and again, the book is not a critique of course management systems—but I will say course management systems also make it hard for student work to escape, to be seen by anyone not in the course, and often that’s appropriate. When students are first learning a topic or a discipline, they need a private space to practice, and screw up, and say dumb things, and get feedback, and get better. And that’s true for the assignments, right? Sometimes we have students turn in an assignment to us and we’re the only one who looks at it because they’re still learning the skill set and they need some good practice on that. But when we have students construct work or produce work for authentic audiences outside of the course, that can be hugely motivating for students. Hugely motivating. I’ll quote Randy Bass again, he’s got this white paper where he coins this term social pedagogies. These are pedagogies where we’re asking students to construct their knowledge by representing that knowledge for an authentic audience other than the instructor, and it could just be each other. That can be really powerful as well. But when students see that the work that they’re doing is not disposable, it’s not going to be gone. Students often do write a paper and there’s only one human being on the planet who ever looks at it, but if you can build toward some assignments where students are writing or constructing or producing for an external audience or an authentic audience, there’s a lot of motivational benefits to this for students and they start to take their work very seriously and invest in it in ways that they don’t sometimes in the disposable assignments. One of my favorite examples, Jonathan Rattner teaches cinema and media arts here at Vanderbilt and he had connected with a colleague of his from grad school who was teaching a writing course, Bridget Draxler, she was at another institution. Jonathan was teaching students how to create short experimental films and they needed an audience to share that work with. Bridget was teaching her students to critique media and she wanted her students to find media to critique where they could interact with the creator, and so they just set up a course blog for the two of them, these two courses. It wasn’t public to the world but Jonathan’s students were creating media for her students and her students were critiquing it and then they would have this conversation. And this idea of connecting your course, with just one other course—somewhere else on your campus or maybe at another institution where you have colleagues working—all of a sudden, you have this really authentic audience for the work. And in this case, this was really intentional too, this wasn’t just a random pairing “We want to share stuff with someone,” but there was this kind of synthesis that worked well across the two courses. But that’s a fairly easy way to create some authentic audiences for your students. I also talked about Tim Foster who used to teach Spanish here—he’s out at one of the University of Texas schools now—and he had his students write for Wikipedia. This is actually becoming increasingly common in higher education where you have students write for Wikipedia. There’s certain standards that you have to follow and it’s kind of hard to get content to stick on Wikipedia because of that. He was actually teaching an introduction to Portuguese course—so this was first semester Portuguese language learners—and what they realized was that the Portuguese language page for Nashville on Wikipedia was very skimpy. And what his students didn’t know at first is that Portuguese Wikipedia is not just a translation of English Wikipedia. Portuguese speakers create their own Wikipedia. And so the national page was kind of skimpy. So as a class project, he had his students create content for the Portuguese language Wikipedia page for the city where we are. And so it was great as a language production task for them because they could focus on writing two or three sentences, first semester language learners, but they knew that actual people are going to look at this so they took it very seriously. Some of them went above and beyond. I think this is just a really powerful pedagogy. And again, you don’t have to use technology but this is something technology is actually good at, is connecting people across time and space. Having students use some technology to create something for an authentic audience can be really powerful.

Rebecca: I think you have one last chapter that we didn’t quite get to yet and that’s…

John: “Multimodal Assignments.”

Rebecca: Which, you know, technology is also really good at that whole multimodal thing, right? [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Sure. I was so close to calling this chapter “Beyond the Five-Page Paper.” [LAUGHTER] Because again, the five-page paper has its place where students write a thing, and it’s just text, and they give it to the professor, and they get feedback. Again, there’s a lot of practice and feedback that happens in activities like that. But there’s a lot of research that says, not so much that learning styles exist. The research actually doesn’t support this idea that I need to match my teaching modality to my students learning preference. So the matching hypothesis would say that I have some visual learners and some verbal learners and some kinesthetic learners and so I should do visual stuff with the visual learners and verbal stuff with the verbal learners and kinesthetic stuff with the kinesthetic learners. There’s no research that supports that actually. So there’s kind of this learning styles myth that I like to debunk when I can but where the research does support is multimodal learning. Now, we all learn better when we encounter stuff in multiple ways. And so I think this is the reason the learning styles feels so compelling to a lot of instructors, is that if they’re doing that, if they’re thinking about their lesson plan and saying, “Oh, I got to have some visual stuff, I got to have some verbal stuff, I got to have some activities.” It’s not that they match those with individual students, it’s that all students are benefiting from those three different modalities happening in the same classroom. This chapter is all about multimodal assignments, ways to tap into this dual coding that our brains do where we take in information in verbal ways and in visual ways and kind of put that together and it’s stronger. We’ve done a lot of work at Vanderbilt. We call it students as producers. This is kind of a course design and assignment design approach that we work a lot with here through our course design institute and elsewhere. It’s helping faculty move away from some of those traditional text-only assignments and moving to more open-ended assignments, more multimodal projects, student projects that have authentic audiences. And so actually, this chapter is kind of all Vanderbilt examples which sounds a little self-serving, but I just happen to know a lot of faculty here who are experimenting a lot in this area. I share an example for my own classroom about infographics in a stats class where I’m asking students to represent quantitative information visually. There’s an English grad student here, Kylie Korsnack, who has her students take a paper they wrote, and revise it in a different medium. So it starts off as a traditional paper but they have to revise it as a Prezi or a concept map or choose your own adventure novel, or one student did a Pinterest pin board. And so by kind of re-seeing their work, moving into this other sort of medium, the students are often able to see their work in new ways and realize, “Oh, that’s what my argument really was,” or, “Oh, my transitions are terrible. Now I know how things have to be connected.” And so there’s a lot of value in having students move into different media than straight text as a way to help them make sense of things. I’ve been experimenting a lot with podcasting. So I got this idea from Gilbert Gonzales, a colleague of mine here in health policy, who had his students create podcast episodes instead of research papers. And he really wanted them to be fluent with the language of healthcare policy. HMOs and PPOs and all this kind of stuff. And so an audio assignment made a lot of sense, actually, for the students. And he founded it with a lot more fun to listen to a few podcasts than grade a few papers [LAUGHTER]. And podcasting is a low bar, right? Not to say that what we’re doing isn’t super challenging here, but you can, you know, create a pretty decent podcast with your phone, right? It’s not going to be super high quality, but you can record and you can edit using some free software and so I now have my students do a podcast assignment in my cryptography course. And with about 25 minutes of in classroom technical training, they’re able to produce some interesting things and then we can focus on “How do you tell a story through audio?” Or in my class, how do you explain this kind of technical mathematical stuff that they’re studying through audio only without pictures? And so, again, all of these are about kind of moving to different modalities and shifting between modalities to help students see and understand the material in different ways. And if you keep doing that, they’ll start to kind of triangulate and, and make a lot more sense out of it.

John: I would think it would force them to think about it a bit more deeply to make connections that they might not otherwise. Just seeing things from a different perspective seems to have a lot of value in it.

Derek: Yeah. I would also add that when you move to a non-traditional assignment—this is something that I realized kind of late in writing the book—is that we asked you to do a podcast they walk in and they don’t know how to do podcasts. So Gilbert and I were like, “Okay, so we have to listen to some podcasts together and critique them, and then maybe come up with a rubric together, and they need to outline it and maybe even turning the script and get it approved.” We have this whole scaffolding process around preparing students to do this type of work. Well, some of our students come in and they don’t know how to write a five-page paper either. We assume they do, we assume they’re good at it, that they’ve learned that in high school or something. But for some of these traditional assignments, we have students who really struggle and so one of the things that non-traditional assignments do for faculty is help them realize, “Oh, I really have to get in the head of my students and figure out what’s the scaffolding they need.” And we really should be applying that to more traditional assignments as well, because a lot of our students struggle because we don’t have them submit a proposal, or get feedback on a rough draft, or practice how to find a credible source. These are all things that we that it’s easy to assume our students can do, but they can’t always actually do that. And so moving to a non-traditional assignment often then helps faculty move back to more traditional assignments with a new lens with greater intentionality.

Rebecca: So we have to wait until November to get this book? [LAUGHTER]

John: Yeah, I know I saw when you posted this on Twitter, I said “I’d like this now.” [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Well thank you, yes. The book production process is a long timeline as I’ve found.

John: Yeah.

Rebecca: It’s a good tease though, right? [LAUGHTER] So you were also just talking about how you’ve been experimenting with podcasts and you’ve been the host of Leading Lines since 2016. How did you get interested in doing all this podcasting stuff in the first place?

Derek: Part of it was that—at the time—I had a 45 minute commute to work so I was listening to a lot of podcasts and appreciating podcasts and wishing I had more podcasts like Tea for Teaching that talk about teaching, learning, and higher education. And so that was part of it. I think, also, I was involved in a pretty big online course project that involved a ton of video work. And I saw how powerful that was, but how much work it was to put together really high-quality video and I thought, “What if we had a podcast on educational technology?” There’s folks that I run into here on campus and elsewhere who are doing really cool things and I would just love to kind of give them a bigger audience for the innovative teaching that they’re doing, and producing a podcast seems way more tractable than producing a YouTube series. [LAUGHTER] So I mentioned this at a meeting here, we were having this meeting on campus with some other folks who deal with educational technology. One of our Associate Provosts, John Sloop, for digital learning, he’s like, “I would love to do a podcast.” We kind of both had been thinking about this idea for a while and so we combined forces. And so it’s the Center for Teaching, it’s our libraries, it’s our Institute for Digital Learning. We created Leading Lines, we’ve been doing it for a few years now, each episode is an interview with a faculty, staff, or grad student who’s kind of doing something interesting in the educational technology space. We call it Leading Lines because it has this kind of connotation of looking into the future. So leading lines in a photograph, are those kind of straight lines that draw your eye into the frame. And so we’re not really trying to predict the future—because I think that’s a fool’s errand—but I’d rather kind of shape it and influence it and so we’re looking for folks who are doing things that are kind of one or two steps down the road with technology. And it’s been really great, I mean several of the examples in my book are drawn from interviews I did for Leading Lines. It just gives me this occasion to talk to interesting people who are doing interesting things.

Rebecca: Now you know our secret. [LAUGHTER]

Derek: Right.

John: We’ve gotten this opportunity to talk to all these people doing some wonderful research that we wouldn’t be able to be in contact with so many of them otherwise.

Derek: Yeah, absolutely. I’m always referencing these people that I’ve met and the work that they’re doing and my other work here, connecting faculty, and it’s been a lot of fun. And it’s been fun to work here. So we have about six of us who do interviews for Leading Lines and so we have a little bigger team then you guys have and they go in different directions. Sometimes I’m like, “That’s really not an interesting topic,” and then they do an interview and it’s an interesting topic. And so it’s been really fun to kind of work with my colleagues here and having this collaborative project across multiple units at Vanderbilt, that’s been pretty great too.

Rebecca: Cool.

John: On one of the recent episodes, you had a discussion of the VandyVox project. And in particular you had a podcast from there. Could you tell us what this project is and how that came about?

Derek: So I had this idea actually just last summer. We were running a course design institute here at the teaching center and we had several faculty who are really interested in doing podcast projects because I think I had shared Gilbert Gonzales’s Health Policy Radio podcasts with them. And several faculty started thinking, “Oh I could really use this in my teaching,” and I thought, “This is great, but if we have Vanderbilt undergrads, especially, who are producing really interesting audio for class assignments all over campus, wouldn’t it be fun to curate that to have a podcast of podcasts?” So then I reached out to my colleagues at Vanderbilt student media and they’re like, “Yeah, that sounds great. We love to help students make media and share media with the world.” And so they were able to do all the heavy lifting on the technology piece, all I had to do was reach out to some faculty members and ask them to recommend some student produced audio for this and so this spring we launched VandyVox. It’s the best of student produced audio from all over campus. It’s a bit of a fudge, right? Like if some student has a Sports Radio Podcast, we’re not covering that. But if there’s an academic component to it, if it’s curricular or co-curricular, we’re happy to feature it on the podcast. And so it kind of serves two purposes. One is to kind of shine a spotlight on some student work, show this great stuff that our students are doing to provide some inspiration maybe for faculty and students to have students engaged in this kind of work. In the show notes for each episode, we have some background information about what the assignment was, or how the faculty members worked with students around this. So there’s a faculty development piece to it as well. But it’s been really fun to see what students are doing all over campus. You know, I highlighted some Health Policy Radio piece, we had a student from an anthropology course on health care politics. She created a 10 minute speculative fiction audio story…

Rebecca: Oh, cool.

Derek: …dramatized it as her project where she kind of imagined what would happen in the future with gene editing and baby selection. It’s just a really great sci fi kind of look at the course topic. Well researched, right? Like she turned in an annotated bibliography with all this so it’s all kind of backed up by the latest research. We had law students who were doing podcast episodes on immigration and refugee law talking to some immigrants and refugees. For that audio. We have Robbie Spivey in our Women’s and Gender Studies class teaches a course called Women Who Kill [LAUGHTER]—which is a great name for a course—and so she had her students do kind of true-crime podcasts about women who kill and how we make sense of that as a society. And then our last episode of season one, which came out recently, featured some work by Anna Butrico, who was a senior here last year, an English major. She did her senior honors thesis on podcasting and kind of connected it to ancient Greek rhetorical forms, which is really great. But her senior thesis had audio pieces to it. It’s hard to do a senior thesis on podcasting without creating a podcast and so we featured the audio introduction to her senior thesis, which I was really excited because Anna actually did a lot of work with podcasting while she was at Vanderbilt and her technical skills and her composition and storytelling skills are really strong. So it’s been really fun to kind of see something of a critical mass here at Vanderbilt around student podcasts and to be able to kind of highlight that a little bit. And I’m really excited, we’ve got some good stuff lined up for season two this fall as I’m kind of reaching out to more faculty and students about the the audio work that they’re doing. And again, part of it is getting started with a podcast is not hard. Doing it really well is still very hard, but the bar for entry is pretty low actually. And so if you want to have your students kind of move into a different modality—and again, you need to kind of be intentional about why you’re doing it and how it connects to your course goals—but podcasts offer a really great option for that. And I’ve just seening more and more faculty start to embrace this as a kind of creative output for students.

John: Going back a little bit, you mentioned that video project or the the video intensive project, I’m assuming those are the two MOOCs you have on teaching in STEM courses. I participated in the first one when it first came out.

Derek: Oh, that’s great.

John: It was a lot of fun, it was really useful. I didn’t do the second one. I think we both recommend those to a lot of faculty and encourage more people to take those. I believe they’re still running on Coursera?

Derek: Oh, yeah, we’re running one every semester. They’re not on Coursera anymore, they’re on edX. But you can always go to stemteachingcourse.org and you can find out information about those courses.

Rebecca: So you’ve already talked about the podcast that you’re working on and your book, the editing process and such that takes a long time, so you’ve got a lot of things in the cooker but we always wrap up by asking, what’s next?

Derek: Short run, we’re running a couple of course design institutes in the first of May and so that will occupy the next several weeks as kind of prep for that and those are always fun because I get to work with faculty. It’s on the theme of students as producers so we’ll be working with faculty around these creative nontraditional assignments. That’s always pretty exciting. There’s also—this is just an idea right now—but I keep running into faculty who are teaching with games or having their students design games, board games especially, as course assignments. I mentioned this text-based game that Alisha Karabinus uses and so I just keep finding examples of games and simulations that have a learning goal or learning purpose and so I’m hoping maybe this fall to put together a little one day symposium on campus on games for learning, games for social change, that kind of thing. I think that’d be a fun space to explore. And the other thing that I’m seeing—and I talked a little bit about this in the book—is this move towards active learning classrooms. I mentioned I like to walk into a classroom and see wheels on the chairs, because we can move them around and make them do what we want. The affordances that our classrooms have really matter for the choices we make as teachers. And so classrooms that are designed to facilitate small group work, student collaboration, active learning, this is a strong trend in higher education. I’m really kind of shocked how even from like three years ago, where I was having to tell people about this idea for the first time, now and here on our campus, our campus planners have decided this is a standard classroom configuration going forward. And so I see a lot of campuses moving towards active learning classrooms. Again, digital and analog technologies that support learning and so I want faculty to use them in intentional ways. And so I think we’re going to be doing a lot more with active learning classrooms here on campus, probably starting a learning community on that in the fall and I’m excited to dig into that work too.

Rebecca: Sounds like a lot of exciting things going on.

Derek: I try to stay busy. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s going to be hard to keep up with all of them.

John: Well, we appreciate that and we’re looking forward to the book coming out.

Derek: Awesome.

Rebecca: Well thanks so much for joining us. It’s been really exciting and I know we all have a countdown now.

Derek: Thanks so much for having me on. This has been a really fun conversation. I’m happy to get the chance to share a little bit.

[MUSIC]

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

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

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

80. Self-Regulated Learning

Most students arrive at college with serious misconceptions about effective learning strategies. In this episode, Dr. Linda Nilson joins us to examine what we as faculty can do to help students develop their metacognitive skills and become self-regulated learners.

Dr. Nilson is the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She is the author of many superb books, book chapters, and articles on teaching and learning. In this episode we focus on discussing one of her books: Creating Self-regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-awareness and Learning Skills.

Show Notes

  • Linda Nilson—Director Emeritus of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation (OTEI) at Clemson University
  • Nilson, L. (2013). Creating Self-regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-awareness and Learning Skills. Stylus Publishing, LLC..
  • Nilson, L. (2014). Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Professional and Organizational Development (POD)—Network in Higher Education Conference
  • Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1121.

Transcript

This transcript has been edited to improve readability.

Rebecca: Most students arrive at college with serious misconceptions about effective learning strategies. In this episode, we examine what we as faculty can do to help students develop their metacognitive skills and become self-regulated learners.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

John: Today our guest is Dr. Linda Nilson, the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. Dr. Nilson is the author of many superb books, book chapters, and articles on teaching and learning. Welcome.

Linda: I’m very honored to be here. Thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

John: Are you drinking any tea?

Linda: Yes, I am drinking tea. I am drinking Lemon Lift.

Rebecca: Oh that sounds like a great way to start the day.

Linda: It is. It’s a very good way. Well, I also started it with coffee, but… [LAUGHTER]

John: And I’m drinking Ginger Peach Black tea.

Rebecca: And I have my Golden Monkey tea today.

John: We’ve invited you here today to talk about your book, Creating Self-regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-Awareness and Learning Skills. Could you define what it means to be a self-regulated learner?

Linda: Yes. Self-regulated learning is the conscious planning, monitoring, and evaluation of one’s learning for the purpose of maximizing it. That’s a very fancy way of putting it. It’s that voice in your head that asks you questions about your learning as you’re involved in some sort of learning task, questions like, “Okay, I’m going to do a reading now, what strategy works best for me?” Now you just might brush over that because you’ve done readings of this type a dozen times, a hundred times, whatever, but you’ve asked yourself that question along the way. “What’s my best strategy? What kind of a task is this? And monitoring: are my strategies working for me? Am I getting it? Can I paraphrase the last couple of paragraphs that I just read?” It’s a reading thing, but it works also in lecture. And then at the end, you evaluate yourself. “Well, let’s see. I had a goal, being able to recite five main points from this chapter, let’s see if I can do it,” without looking at the chapter of course. [LAUGHTER] So you evaluate your abilities, you evaluate your strategies. That’s really what it’s all about and it involves a great deal of talking to yourself.

Rebecca: So how did you get interested in talking to yourself? [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Well, I heard voices. [LAUGHTER] Well, how did I get interested in this topic? Actually, it was an accounting professor at Clemson that got me interested in it. This is 2007, right, this is a long time ago. And so she said to me, “What about giving a workshop on self-regulated learning?” In my head I said, “Huh? What’s that?” I’d never heard of it. And so I decided to go find out about it and it took me a few years to really get a workshop together on it and I decided, “Gosh, this is wonderful. This is learning how to learn. This is familiar to me,” because I’ve been talking to myself for years. [LAUGHTER] So I thought, “Okay, I’m not crazy. This is a learning strategy, a major learning strategy, one that you can use throughout your life.” And so I gave the workshop, I started giving workshops, like at the POD Network Conference—which is made up by people like me who go to this conference every year—and then I decided—well, I didn’t decide—a book publisher came up to me and said, “Please write a book on this, I will publish it.” Since I was in love with the topic anyway, I decided to do it. And so I did and delved into it deeply.

John: As you’ve described it, it sounds like part of this deals with improving student metacognition, but you note that it goes a bit further. Could you talk about the additional aspects of it?

Linda: Metacognition is the cognitive part of self-regulated learning, which is a major part of it. However, there are a couple of other elements to it that I don’t know that you could say are really focused on cognition. There is the emotional element to it, which involves getting yourself to be motivated and interested in the topic. Remembering, reviewing what your professor told you about the relevance of this topic, and thinking about it yourself. We can motivate ourselves, we can reframe a task for ourselves, and we can certainly reframe what is going on in terms of a learning experience. That’s a major, major part of it. The emotional part of the end is: “If you didn’t reach your goal, what do you do about it?” Do you give up, walk away, and say, “Well, I wasn’t born to do engineering,” or whatever the topic is. No, what you should say is, “Let’s try another strategy. Let’s look into possible strategies.” As instructors, we need to familiarize students with various strategies because they come to us—I like the phrase—“as feral children” in terms of the life of the mind and what they know about learning. We don’t have cognitive psychologists—unfortunately—teaching first grade or fifth grade, and so we need to equip them with how their mind works. There is one other element, a physical element, and that involves planning, monitoring, and evaluating your physical setting, where do you study best. If doing a reading or writing assignment, is it in a coffee shop, or do you have to essentially be in a soundproof booth where you don’t have any stimulation? How much coffee should you have? Or tea? [LAUGHTER] What kind of an environment should you set up for yourself—perhaps putting your digital distractions in another room. How should you schedule your breaks? Other things that you might want to consider is the amount of sleep that you have had because that can be a very important element of learning and writing. Some people study better to mild background noises as long as they are familiar music they’ve never heard before. You’ve got to try out these different things and find out your best setting.

John: In your book you describe how you became a self-regulated learner. Could you relay that story?

Linda: Yes, it was based on fear and terror. [LAUGHTER] As a child, I went to a private Catholic girls school—great education, but not in the sweetest of ways. From about fifth grade on, we had what was called recitation every single day in English and history classes. The nuns would ask a question and would randomly call out students’ names—we were in small classes so it wasn’t an absurd thing—and we had to get up and we’d better have the answer to the question. Now, not all the kids did, but I needed to be Little Miss Perfect because I wanted to get into college. Somehow I thought that the answers that I gave in fifth and sixth and seventh and eighth grade would or would not get me into college. So I learned to quiz myself while I was reading chapters or essays. Constantly quizzing myself. And another thing we had to do, usually later in the day, was called “exercise period.” We had 35 minutes to write an answer to an essay question that was generally related to the readings. And we couldn’t look at our books. It was out of desperation that I was trying different strategies so I could perform very well every day, and I was really quite successful. So when I was reading about self-regulated learning, I said, “My God, I was doing this as a child.” That’s why it sounded so familiar to me.

John: But that’s not the experience I think that the students we have entering our colleges have.

Linda: You are so right. You are so right. And we don’t do this to children anymore, okay? There is a good side to it—there really is—because you do buckle under and get very serious about your homework, very serious about your studies, or you look like an idiot the next day. Anyway, the sport I’m trying to think of is that sport where you get the ice or any kind of ice particles out of the way.…

Rebecca: Curling?

Linda: Curling! Curling, yes, we are curling teachers and curling parents. We try to clear the way for our students. We don’t want to put them in stressful situations. We don’t want to ask Johnny to read if Johnny might not be able to read—and I mean, get up and read well—and the problem with this is that students are denied the opportunity for achievement. And there is no achievement without the possibility of failure, there just isn’t. So students have no idea what fear and terror in school might be. There’s bullying and all that, but I mean from the learning experience. So no, they don’t have any kind of the experiences that I had.

Rebecca: How do we start coaching students then to become self-regulated learners if they’re coming out of this really different environment that’s much more supportive and doesn’t allow for failure seemingly?

Linda: They start failing in college. We’re still sort of, you know, curling them a little bit, but they are really facing a much greater challenge. They get insecure really quickly because they’ve been told how special they are and how smart they are, and then they begin to question that, because they’re not doing as well as they were in high school, where you could get an A relatively easily. Now, “Oh my, it can be really hard,” and then they start getting C’s, and then you have their attention. That’s a way that you can tell them that, “There are ways that you can get A’s, you did not learn how to study, here is a way to learn.” Does it involves a sort of effort? Sure, but it’s really just talking to yourself and deciding what strategies would be best for you, testing out strategies, seeing how they work, and you will be more successful. And there have been studies of students—like in developmental courses—that show that the students who are struggling the most tend to know the least about self-regulated learning strategies and start to do better if they use these strategies.Of course we’ve got to get them to use the strategies, we’ve got to explain these strategies. It can be life changing for them in the most positive way.

John: I think part of the issue is that faculty generally haven’t been taught these strategies themselves. They somehow found ways to be successful, so they become self-regulated learners, but faculty are the exceptions. They’re not the typical student, and they’ve never really been trained to teach students how to become more effective learners, in part because they never learned that directly themselves quite often. What can faculty do to be more effective in this way?

Linda: Well first of all, faculty have to realize that they’re the weird ones, and everybody else is normal. [LAUGHTER] So we have to stop projecting our learning abilities, our strategies, our interests in the life of the mind onto everybody else. We have to not only sell our material, but we have to equip students to learn our material. We don’t want to do that. We say, “They should know by now.” Well, guess what? They don’t. So what are you going to do about it? You’ve got to start from where they are. Teaching students learning strategies takes a couple of sentences every class. Now, if you really want to get into self-regulated learning activities and assignments with them, that might take a few minutes per class period, but you don’t have to do it every class period, and a lot of self-regulated learning activities can be homework, in which case they take no class time at all. This is so easy to do. This is why I think faculty have really been attracted to my book and why I’m asked to speak on it so often, because there are so many little things you can do that don’t take away from the content at all—rather, they reinforce the content—that make this huge difference in the performance of most students. You can’t always bring everybody along with you. There are some people—some students—who’d just as soon shoot themselves in their foot, but most do not. They find these activities so easy to do. They don’t take a lot of time and they get to know themselves and start doing better, so students don’t complain about this.

Rebecca: Can you describe what a couple of those activities might be?

Linda: Sure, absolutely. Well, let’s consider the different parts of the course and I’ll just give you just a few, some of my personal favorites. For starting a course for instance—starting and you can also end it with these sorts of activities—but one of them is a goal setting activity. You can assign this as homework, you can have students do it in class with students write on “How I earned an A in this course.” Now, you would be surprised and students will be surprised—C students and B students will be surprised—that they know what it takes to earn an A in a course, and they will come up with, “Well, I’ve got to come to class every day, don’t I? And in class I can’t fiddle around with my mobile device, and I have to start a paper sort of early and I have to keep up with the readings.” For many people, writing this down is goal setting for them. They think, “Well, you know, maybe I could do this, maybe this isn’t so absurd.” If you make a discussion out of it afterwards, the A students will say, “Yeah, I do these things, it’s not unrealistic.” And then the C and B and F students will say, “Well, let’s give it a whirl.” Then at the end of the course, you give them another little essay assignment, “How I earned an A in this course—or not.” [LAUGHTER] True confessions time, right? And so students assess how well they met their goals. Goal setting is definitely a part of self-regulated learning, the planning and then self-evaluation at the end. Another thing that you can do is you can give your students essay questions. If you give an essay final—or have any essays on it at all—you can give them the essays on the final to take the first day. This will not take much class time at all, because students will know very little, or they’ll try to BS an answer. So they will try but they can be really quite wrong. Now at the end, for the final, they correct their answers, and then rewrite these answers given the knowledge that they have gained throughout the course. This can be really interesting for faculty—for not just faculty… well, it can be interesting for them, too—because they can see exactly what they learned. So it is a measure of learning. Faculty will never get that comment on the student evaluations saying, “Well, I didn’t learn anything in this course.” Never again, that’s gone. So anyway, those are a couple of things that you can do. Little assignments you can make on the readings. Little reflection exercises like, “What did you think was the most important point in this reading? What surprised you the most? What connections can you make between what you read and your prior knowledge, what you already know? Or to your life? Or your emotional reactions to it, if the material is amenable to that?” So those are little reflections you can give on the readings. Another exercise, a self-testing exercise, is called “read, recall, review.” This is the best way to do reading. Forget about rereading, that’s what students really do… It’s really a waste of time. What students should do is to read a portion of the chapter or the whole chapter, put their notes away, close the book, and then recall as much as they can and write it down. Then they should go back and look in the chapter for what they forgot and what they might have gummed up. And they know that, “I didn’t really get that point.” And so they go back and look at it, and then they recall again. Read, recall, review. Studies that have been done on this showing it is so much more effective than rereading. It really doesn’t take that long, and then you actually have the material in your head, even in your long-term memory. You get retrieval practice, you get deliberate practice, so there’s nothing as good as testing yourself except—well, the nicest thing we can do for students is to test them. In lectures—I should say mini-lectures—it’s a good idea to have students do this. You stop, let’s say, every 15 minutes or so and have students do the same thing. Write down everything that they can recall, and then work with their neighbor to fill in the blanks—their own blanks—and ask any questions they have. First they ask their neighbor their questions, and then they ask you. This doesn’t take very long at all, maybe five minutes, but then you know that the students got it and can remember it. Again, most effective… studies done on this, too. So this makes students aware of their learning or their lack of learning. You can give students what are called active learning checks. You give your mini-lecture, and then you stop—and by the way, you can warn students you’re going to do this so they’re listening—and ask them, “Okay, what are the three major points in my last mini-lecture that I talked about in the last 15 minutes?” Then they write those things down—and it could be two things or four things depending—and turn them in. They don’t really have to turn them in, but you know, you might want to see them yourself. Then you reveal the three most important points, and they monitor and evaluate their learning skills. Now, students are motivated to want to learn how to listen to you, so they want to improve. According to a study that was done, they improve really quickly. The first time, 45 percent of students got all three points correct. By the third time, 75 percent of the students got these correct. Remarkable progress, really remarkable. Then there are meta-assignments. In a problem solving field like chemistry or math, we are denying students learning opportunities when all we do is mark the wrong answers as wrong or incomplete and then drop the subject. Students should be able to correct their mistakes to get half the points back, let’s say. In other words, they’re going to learn how to solve that problem if it’s the last thing they do. [LAUGHTER] Again, you give them some sort of an incentive, then they learn. There have been studies on this technique as well. It’s extremely effective. And students can learn not just from you, but in peer groups. Peers can help each other very effectively. There is a wrapper—they’re called “wrappers”—for an exam, a reflection that students do after they get their exams back where they answer questions like, “How did your expected grade compare with your actual grade? How do you feel about that?” So they have to look at the exam and your feedback. “How many hours did you study? Was that enough? What did you do while studying? Might you want to change your strategies? Why did you lose points? Were there any patterns that you see here? How are you going to study more effectively for the next exam?” This has been life changing for students because they’ve never thought about this before. They’ve never really looked at their exams, their mistakes. They drop them too, right? They don’t want to see what they did wrong. Yet these are the best learning opportunities possible, and they will remember them. We remember our mistakes, we learn from our mistakes, and it’s sad that we don’t stop and use those errors. These are just a small sample of self-regulated learning activities. I can give you many more. [LAUGHTER]

John: And there are many in the book, which we strongly recommend to people.

Linda: Yes, yes, yeah…

Rebecca: A lot of what you’re talking about seems tied to growth mindset as well.

Linda: Exactly, and this creates, this generates the growth mindset because students learn that they can learn, they can do better. Otherwise they feel like their learning is like the weather. “Maybe it’ll rain on me, and maybe not. [LAUGHTER] There’s really nothing I can do about it. Because it’s all about you, professor, you are responsible for my learning, just like the fates are responsible for the weather. [LAUGHTER] And if I’m not learning, you’re not a good instructor, or you’re pitching the material over my head, or your teaching strategies are wrong.” And so everybody else gets blamed, and then they start to realize, “Oh, I can do this.” Now, this isn’t the best news for them in the world because then they have to start taking responsibility for their learning. And that can be, for some students, a hard pill to swallow. For other students it will be very empowering, and what we want to encourage in students is that sense of empowerment.

John: And that’s especially important, I think, in freshman-level classes, because students generally don’t come in with that type of mindset. They’ve often been able to blame it on the teacher and do things over and over again until they get the grade they want or get the extensions and so forth with a focus on self-esteem in many classrooms.

Linda: Oh, yeah, self-esteem without achievement.

John: But it’s an adjustment. So if they come in with a fixed mindset, and they’re confronted with failure, it’s pretty easy to give up. So we need to encourage students, I think, to see failure as a learning opportunity as you’ve mentioned. As instructors, I think we have to somehow convince them of that, because they don’t come in naturally picking it up, but the techniques you’ve mentioned are very good for that.

Linda: You know, our whole society makes them feel they’re not responsible for their learning. Look at what happens in K-12. Students have to take standardized tests and if they don’t do well, who gets blamed and who suffers? The teacher and the school, and that’s nuts. In the final analysis, we teach ourselves. We are responsible for our own learning. Good teaching can make a big difference because we can be motivated or unmotivated by teaching. We can acquire learning strategies through teaching. So it’s not that students are just left adrift on their own, we do have to help them. We do have to put them in learning experiences where learning becomes attractive for them, or you can’t help but learn, right? But they’ve got to pick up that learning and run with it themselves.

Rebecca: So you mentioned the idea of encouraging students to see learning and the self-regulation as empowering. What about those students who are a little resistant to that because it’s surprising to them that they’re not getting it and they’re failing and that it’s going to be more work? What are some things that we can do to encourage those students to see things a little differently?

Linda: Yes, first of all, if they’re failing and they subconsciously want to—it happens, it really does —[LAUGHTER] there is not a whole lot you can do about it. They might need some counseling and they might need to get some help from professionals like psychologists. But again, it can be difficult for students to realize that the ball is in their court because it’s a whole different gestalt for them. The only cure for that is success—a little bit of success—where they start doing a little better, let’s say, on the quiz on the readings or they start being able to solve more problems. That’s really the only cure. And we are assuming that they want to be successful. Again, if they prefer failure, then they are responsible for their own failure.

Rebecca: Right, they’re the ones that are normal and we are not, right? [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Exactly.

Rebecca: Maybe that should be the refrain of this interview, right?

Linda: Yes. They are the normal ones and we are strange. And we always have been strange. We were the strange kids in school, too. [LAUGHTER]

John: In your book you mentioned the Dunning-Kruger effect as being a barrier to some students, that the students who don’t understand things as well often overestimate their understanding. How can we overcome that?

Linda: Self-regulated learning helps when we give them activities and assignments where they do self-evaluation, because the only way to learn self-evaluation is through practice, practice with feedback. And that feedback doesn’t even have to come from you; it can come from peers or a computer program. We don’t give students a lot of practice in self-evaluation, and they certainly haven’t had much of it in K-12l. But the nice thing is that when we have students look back to see if they met their goals, or to evaluate their study strategies, or to assess their mistakes and the reasons for their mistakes, it makes all the difference in the world. After low-stakes practice, you can introduce higher stakes self-evaluation assignments and see more savvy self-evaluations.

John: What recommendations do you have for faculty who’d like to start building more self-regulation? Are there small steps that faculty could take to get started on this path?

Linda: Absolutely. There’s a sense in which most of the assignments, most of the activities, are little things. Here’s a little thing you can start off the course with, I was talking about essay questions, but you can just have students do a little reflection the first day and then again on the last day about the subject matter, as in, “What do you think chemistry is? Why is it a science?” You can find out a lot about students’ misconceptions just by looking at these reflections. And then of course, they’ve hopefully corrected a lot of misconceptions by the end. This could take like all of five minutes the first day. There’s so many little things. Here are some ideas for experiential learning. It’s so easy for students not to make a connection between a simulation, an interesting role play, a service-learning experience, or field work to the course. So it’s important that whenever you do an experiential assignment or activity, students reflect on what they are learning—for a simulation, to look back and explain what their goals were, to evaluate how well they met their goals, to assess their strategies, to explain how their strategies changed and their responses to other players. It’s very important that students become conscious of what’s going on in their heads. Only by becoming conscious can they remember the strategies? [LAUGHTER] And then they can write them down and articulate them. You can have students do short papers associated with papers and projects where they record, while they are doing it, the process they are following. If you’ve given them a process to follow, they even have a skeletal outline of what they should be doing. This is a place also for self-evaluation. If you have students do a revision, oftentimes you give them feedback on what they should revise, and they may or may not read your advice. So you can have them paraphrase your feedback back to them and write out their goals for the revision. What are they going to do? What are their strategies for revision? These are just little things. Students start to realize the value of this. And again, this is an assignment where you can’t screw up. It’s not a test, it’s just a reflection of what’s going on in your head. Students like to learn about themselves. And this is like the reading reflections. This is no stress. How do you mess this up? It takes less stress to just write an honest answer than it is to make one up that sounds credible. [LAUGHTER] I want to make faculty aware that the activities don’t have to be graded at all. The assignments don’t really have to be graded. You “grade” them pass-fail. Students pass just by completing the assignment. Let’s say, you had them answering three questions, three reflections. Did they answer three reflections? Is it vaguely on the chapter? Okay it’s not about football, it’s something about what’s in the chapter. [LAUGHTER] And did they meet the length requirement? It’s always a good idea to give length requirements on these reflections because for students, length means depth. So if you ask them to write a minimum of 150 words, you know, they’ll tend to do that. Those who don’t fail.You don’t count every word that students write. You eyeball the reflection. Essentially you are “grading” pass-fail at a glance. It doesn’t take much time. Plus, it gets students to do the readings in the easiest way and most productive way for them. It’s all about them, and it’s not about us. We just have to hold them accountable in some very quick way. Even the longer assignments that you might associate with a paper or project can be graded pass-fail. You have to make them worth some points if you’re still on a point system. But there are alternatives, that’s what specifications grading is all about. You don’t have to use points. In any case, you do have to at least eyeball the reflections and give some value in your course however you are grading. That communicates to students that this is important to you, that you put value on this meta-assignment or assignment wrapper, as you might call it. The same thing with the post-exam wrapper, these reflections on this exam. You make students do it because it’s worth 10 points if they simply complete it and hand it in—even though it’s for them—and they will realize right away that there is some value to this. Again, for some students, it will be life changing in the most positive way. And they will start to realize the way that they’ve been preparing for or taking exams may not be the best. They will realize what they tend to do when they’re taking an exam, such as to misread the question, or to be careless, or to not budget their time, or to not really thoroughly study all the material. Cramming is not very effective. You don’t have to spend time grading these exercises or giving any feedback at all. They can give themselves their own feedback. If they did it and they get the 10 points, okay, that’s plenty of feedback for them. They did it. You regard it as their meeting the requirements of the assignment.

John: And this is a topic you cover in another book on specifications grading, which is also another book we’d like to recommend. We’ll include a link to both of those on the show notes.

Linda: The title of the book is Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students—it’s been found to be motivating—and Saving Faculty Time, saving you time. If there’s one thing we don’t have, it’s time. Time is really more precious to us than money. Otherwise, we’d be working in some venture capital firm or something. [LAUGHTER] But time is really quite a precious thing for us. So, in terms of these sort of assignments, for self-regulated learning assignments, they’re all what we’d call “specs graded.” You set out the specs, they’re very simple, and you just grade them pass-fail.

Rebecca: I think pointing out how it doesn’t have to be complicated for faculty is important because I think we all want students to learn. We all want them to be self-regulated learners.

John: We all want to give students feedback, but we don’t want to make it impossible for us to keep up with our work.

Rebecca: Yeah. Or feedback that’s going to get ignored anyways.

John: Right.

Linda: You’re worried about students reading the feedback, and our feedback is valuable. We’ve given it, we’ve taken the time, and so you make them paraphrase it back to you. And this could be a learning experience for us because we might be “misread.” Students might not understand something that we’ve said. Awkward—that’s my favorite one—a sentence structure is awkward. What does that mean? That student didn’t set out to write an awkward sentence. That in itself will not help them because they don’t know what you’re talking about, and this is most unfortunate. But again, it’s a learning experience for us and we can learn to express ourselves somewhat differently. Too often, students get back a paper from us and look at the grade, read the paragraph at the end of the paper, and put it in their “circular file.” They dump it. They don’t read that feedback, so how are they going to get better? So paraphrasing our feedback back to us can be a very valuable exercise for them. And you can let them gain back some points for it. I just think that faculty should look at themselves as responsible for helping our students learn. They don’t come to us with those skills. We can be the finest instructor in the world, have the most interesting classes, hold their attention, and motivate them, but if they don’t know how to process that material in their own minds, it’s all for naught. Now, maybe, hopefully, seniors have learned to learn their material along the line. And by the way, there can be different learning strategies for different subject matter. There are different self-regulated learning activities and assignments for problem solving mathematically-based fields, and different ones for the social sciences and humanities. There can different kinds of assignments, different kinds of readings, actually different kinds of lectures. So we have to respect that. But we have to become conscious of study strategies, learning strategies, our strategies, and other strategies that are out there. But self-regulated learning strategies, to my mind, they’re the shortest distance between two points. Shortest distance between ignorance and learning because it’s all going on in your head, and it’s so powerful. The value of it to students becomes evident rather quickly.

Rebecca: And it’s a skill that can help through a whole lifetime, not just while they’re in college and I think helping students realize that is also really valuable.

Linda: Like no other generation before, these younger generations are going to have to learn to learn on their own. They’re going to have to keep up with their field, whatever their field is, and they might have to—will very likely have to—pivot into another field because their first field might run its course. They’re going to have to learn on their own. They aren’t going to have employers holding their hand. Not at all. They’re probably going to have to learn online, where you really are responsible for your own processing, more so than you might feel let’s say in a face-to-face class, and for your own motivating as well. There needs to be more motivation than simple fear that you will go hungry and won’t be able to get a job. [LAUGHTER] Yes, students are going to really have to learn how to learn. If they consider that a bitter pill, that’s too bad. This is reality, this is life, and most of them have not learned that life is hard. Many of them are wondering where their next meal is coming from, but a lot of students have not. Students need to learn along the line that life is not easy, that nobody does curling on their path. And they will face challenges, but if they have the strategies for facing these challenges, no problem. They needn’t be paralyzed. They needn’t freeze.

John: You foster some really good advice and I think our listeners will appreciate this and it’s really powerful.

Rebecca: Yeah, I agree. We’re all wondering, what’s next for you?

Linda: I’m actually Director Emeritus. I’m actually retired from Clemson University. But you know how academics are, [LAUGHTER] they don’t disappear, they just sort of like fade away. So I’m trying to ease into retirement because it’s not an easy thing to do? Not when you love what you’ve been doing. But I have sworn off writing books. That’s progress! [LAUGHTER] I’ve written some articles and chapters in other people’s books, so that’s fine. And I’m still traveling to give keynotes and faculty workshops. That’s hard to give up because it’s interesting to go somewhere else, somewhere new.” And I still give webinars and podcasts. But eventually I won’t be doing that anymore. Ultimately I want to work with animals. I do love animals but I’m still busy doing this and still loving doing this, but also loving just as much not having to do bureaucratic tasks for the university [LAUGHTER] and not having to stay up until two in the morning doing my email. When I’m traveling, not have to worry about, what’s going on back at the office. So I’m not complaining about retirement. I really like where I’m at right now, but I know that I will eventually fade into the sunset. That’s okay because then I’ll reinvent myself.

Rebecca: Sounds like some self-regulation was going on there, I’m pretty sure. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Yes, I’m trying, I’m trying to retire but not too quickly.

John: Well, we’re glad you haven’t, fully yet.

Rebecca: This was really great. Thank you so much for spending some time with us today.

Linda: Well thank you for this opportunity. I hope that I have helped some faculty members out there to help them help their students to achieve more, because again, we all do want our students to learn. We’re all in love with our material, it’s worth learning, and we just have to help our students do that. So thank you ever so much, and thank all of you listeners for listening.

Rebecca: Thank you so much.

[Music]

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

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

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

79. Self-Learning vs. Online Instruction

Research shows that online classes are most effective when there is substantial interaction among the students and between the students and the instructor. In this episode, Dr. Spiros Protopsaltis and Dr. Sandy Baum join us to discuss the possible adverse effects of proposed changes in federal regulations that may reduce the extent of this interaction.

Dr. Protopsaltis is an Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Education Policy and Evaluation at George Mason University, and he was a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Higher Education and Student Financial Aid at the U.S. Education Department during the Obama administration. Dr. Baum is a Fellow in the Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute, and a professor emeritus of economics at Skidmore College.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Research shows that online classes are most effective when there is substantial interaction among the students and between the students and the instructor. In this episode, we discuss the possible adverse effects of proposed changes in federal regulations that may reduce the extent of this interaction.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Our guests today are Dr. Spiros Protopsaltis and Dr. Sandy Baum. Dr. Protopsaltis is an Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Education Policy and Evaluation at George Mason University, and he was a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Higher Education and Student Financial Aid at the U.S. Education Department during the Obama administration. Dr. Baum is a Fellow in the Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute, and a professor emeritus of economics at Skidmore College. Welcome.

Spiros: Thank you for having me.

Sandy: Glad to be here.

John: We’re glad to have you here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Spiros: Coffee for me.

Sandy: Water for me.

[LAUGHTER]

John: I’m drinking Ginger Peach Black tea.

Rebecca: And I have English Afternoon.

John: One of your usuals.

Rebecca: Yeah. We invited you here today to discuss your January 2019 paper on online education entitled “Does Online Education Live Up to Its Promise? A Look at Evidence and Implications for Federal Policy.” In this paper, you raise some significant concerns about the outcomes of online education. What prompted your interest in this topic?

Spiros: The conversation in higher education around the role of technology in tackling a lot of the major challenges in the sector has been going on for a long time. In recent years, we’ve seen the conversation focus on MOOCs, most recently on competency-based education, but before all that, the big focus was on online education. And there was a big debate in Washington that unfolded over a decade or so about whether online education should gain access to federal student aid, which it did in 2006. When I was working in the Senate for Senator Harkin, who was chairman of the Health Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, we conducted very thorough and brought investigation of the for-profit college sector in light of increasing concerns regarding student debt, student outcomes, and overall predatory practices in the sector. And as we were doing that investigation, one thing that jumped out at me is that a lot of these actors—a lot of these schools that we were investigating—had a huge online presence and had experienced exponential growth in just a very short period of time. Obviously, that was the period of the Great Recession. So, as we know, enrollment in higher education is counter-cyclical to the economy, so part of it was explained by that. But this huge explosion in online education was something that I wanted to investigate a little bit more in depth. At the same time, there were these increasing conversations happening around online education and regulation. And a lot of folks were saying whether we should deregulate online education, whether there’s possibility for more innovation in the space, et cetera et cetera. So I partnered with Sandy to write this paper because it was an opportunity to do exactly that: to look back and see, what does the evidence tell us? Did online education live up to its promise as it’s advocates had stated when they successfully had the law changed in 2006 and gained access to federal student aid? What exactly is this potential and has it been realized? So it was a combination of many years working on higher education issues and constantly listening to the same argument of advocates on the innovation side of the equation, saying that technology holds the key for transforming higher education, and tackling it’s big challenges. And that if we deregulate higher education, and if we remove “barriers to innovation,” we’re going to unleash this huge potential of technology and we’re going to be able to reduce costs, get more students in college, and improve student outcomes. This was a great opportunity for us to take the time and to do a deep dive and to see what exactly is the evidence in this area?

Sandy: One of the things that is really notable about the conversation about increasing access to higher education and reducing the price of higher education in recent years is that the discussion so rarely talks about quality and about what students learn. So the idea sort of seems to be if we can get more students to spend less time getting more credentials, we’ll be in good shape, and that’s clearly not enough. So we really wanted to look at, if students do engage in this different method of learning, will they learn? Will they succeed? What does it mean for them?

John: What’s been happening to the share of students in online education?

Spiros: I’ll talk a little bit on the enrollment trends and then I’m going to pass it on to Sandy, who specifically focused on a lot of the review of the research literature on outcomes. We had seen an explosive growth in online education, almost one-in-three college students, over 6 million students, take any online courses. Half of these students—three million students—are enrolled in exclusively online programs, what we would call fully online programs, while the other three million take at least one, but not all of their courses online. So one-third of students today are involved in online education, one-sixth of students are enrolled in exclusively fully online education. Now, when you look at for-profit colleges, and just so we get a sense of the concentration—or rather the disproportionate share in the sector—for-profit colleges enroll six percent of all students, thirteen percent of students taking at least a course online, but a full one-quarter of fully online students. Eighty percent of students at four-year for-profit colleges take courses online. That’s more than two and a half times the rate at public institutions and triple the rate at private nonprofit higher education institutions. Today, seventy percent of four-year for-profit college students are fully online. So in other words, when you look at the entire four-year for-profit college sector, seven out of ten of their students never have in-person contact with peers or instructors. They are fully online. That is seven times the rate at public institutions, and a three and a half times the rate at nonprofit institutions. So big picture, online education enrollment is booming, it has experienced an explosive growth, and it has been disproportionately significant in the for-profit college, and how it coincided with a change in the law, I think you can reasonably say that, yes, there is a relationship there for sure, and that was a significant driver of the enrollment growth. But I would like Sandy to weigh in on these points as well, because she’s focused on that.

Sandy: So just a couple of clarifications about this enrollment growth. One is that although the growth has been much more rapid in the for-profit sector than in other sectors, and the share of for-profit students enrolled online is higher—much higher than the share in other sectors—large public state universities are seeing big efforts in the online space. I mean, you could interpret this as trying to provide opportunities for different groups of students, or as looking for a revenue source. So the revenue is also an issue for these public institutions. And there are a number of private nonprofit large institutions—just a very small number—that enroll thousands and thousands of online students. Another issue that is really important to understand is that much of the research that we looked at focuses on courses that are taught fully online. So there’s a distinction between your whole program being online and never seeing a human being, and just taking one course online. But there’s also a distinction between taking a course that is fully online and of course, that is what we call a hybrid course, that adds technology to some classroom experiences. And the evidence is that these hybrid methods are actually quite good for students and that the outcomes are at least as good as they are in traditional classroom courses. It’s the fully online coursework that we’re talking about, and about which there is a lot of evidence of questionable outcomes.

John: Earlier you noted that one of the arguments for increased use of online instruction is to lower costs and increase access. Have costs been lowered, either to students or to institutions by expanding online programs?

Sandy: By and large, no. There is some evidence that at institutions that do a lot of online education there may be some lower tuition prices, but the fact is that tuition is frequently higher. So it may be possible in the future for online coursework to save money. We don’t want to say that we know that that can’t be the case—because it’s logical that it could be the case—but right now, it hasn’t happened, and some of that has to do with individual institutions reinventing the wheel of course, and big investment overall in online education could in the future solve this problem. But today, no, it’s not cheaper.

Spiros: One point I wanted to add to what Sandy said is that it’s also an issue of incentives here. We obviously have University of Maryland, University College that has been one of the big players in the space for a long time and Arizona State University has always been a player, they’re announcing even more of an expansion. And as Sandy mentioned, one of the reasons is revenue. In other words, a lot of institutions see online education as a way to get more revenue. Then the question is, even if they become successful in reducing the costs of production—which as Sandy correctly pointed out, raises significant issues around quality—what would be the incentive to pass on the savings to students? So in other words, in many ways online education—even if it has the potential to reduce costs of production—the big question remains, is that going to translate into reducing the costs of attendance for students? And I’m not sure that the incentives are there for that to happen. And one of the things that we have seen is that not only do they charge the same tuition as they do for their regular programs, so if the university let’s say has a Bachelor’s in psychology, which is a brick-and-mortar program and then it offers a Bachelor’s in psychology online, and we see that they charge the same tuition, then they add on top of that a variety of technology fee s, and other things just for online, which ends up making it more expensive. And so there was one conclusion that we reached on the paper is that no, online education has not realized its potential of reducing costs in higher education today.

Rebecca: I’d like to focus a little bit on the quality issue that you’ve raised multiple times now. There’s a wide variety of courses that are online, you mentioned, certainly recording a video and putting it online and allowing many people to see it is very different than interactions that you might have with students. Can you talk a little bit about the differences in quality and what some of your findings were in that area?

Sandy: Well unfortunately, a lot of the studies that compare outcomes among students in fully online versus other courses don’t actually go into much detail about how those courses were taught, so the careful studies of this are rather limited. What is clear from all of the evidence is that interaction, personal interaction, makes a difference. That when you look at students who have no interaction with their classmates or with instructors, they are less likely to get good grades, they are less likely to complete their courses, and they voice this concern. In particular, it is vulnerable groups of students who suffer from this lack of interaction. So you see that students who are well prepared, who already know how to study, who are motivated, know how to learn, have good GPAs going into the courses, are most likely to do just as well in a fully online course as they would in a classroom course. But it’s those with weaker preparation, it’s students with low GPAs, it’s black and Hispanic students, students from low-income backgrounds. These students do very poorly in these courses, so that the socioeconomic gap in outcomes is greater in online courses than it is in classroom courses. This is a huge problem because people actually are hoping that online courses will make it easier for adult students, students with other responsibilities, work responsibilities, children, that for them—where the travel to a physical location is more difficult—this online learning could be the saving grace and that they would learn more from this. And those are the very students who are struggling most from it. And there is just a lot of evidence that the problem is learning—and we know this from the psychological literature as well— learning is a social process. I mean, we can all read something, but it’s not just a matter of pouring information into people’s heads, it’s learning to solve problems, it’s engaging in discussions, and for people who don’t have a lot of experience with that, the interaction is particularly important and the fully online learning environment is particularly risky.

Rebecca: You’re kind of emphasizing the idea that having an expert in the field to help guide the way students are learning how to think in the discipline is particularly important?

Spiros: Yeah, substantive expertise is key. The instructor has to be a subject matter expert, and has to interact with students. That is the essence of education. The educational process is intrinsically an interactive process. When if you go and look up in Oxford the definition of education, it’s gonna say, it’s between a teacher and a student interacting. I mean, you can’t have an education without the interaction. What is happening though now is that we’re seeing a glorification of self-learning. We’re seeing a glorification where you have students interacting with software programs, students interacting with technology, and that might be fine, but that’s not education. That’s self-learning. And the big distinction in the federal law between correspondence education—which is self-learning—and distance education is that in distance education—online education—students have to interact with an instructor on a regular basis and in a substantive manner. That regular and substantive interaction is legally, statutorily (in law), a regular education. And what was surprising to us is that in looking at the evidence we uncovered a large number of studies making that exact point. How from a pedagogical perspective, interaction between students and instructors is absolutely critical. And we found evidence that that is what increases student learning, that is what increases student satisfaction, that is what improve student outcomes. We reviewed those studies and the verdict was in, you got to have strong interaction. And so the current efforts by this administration to water down those requirements is very concerning because it’s going to blur the lines between self-learning and education. And interestingly, our paper coincided with a beginning of the negotiated rulemaking process at the Department of Education on a host of issues, including this one, under the general guise of promoting innovation and flexibility in higher education.

John: Actually, I think at least one of the studies that found this was a study of online instruction at the State University of New York by Peter Shea who found that classes that had more active instructor engagement and more interaction were more successful. But adaptive learning, on the other hand, has been shown to be effective in face-to-face classes, and I believe online as well. But I don’t think the ideas are mutually incompatible – that having students work individually with computer mediated instruction can be useful as long as they’re also interacting actively with the instructor and the class community and getting feedback on their work. So I don’t think we have to rule out adaptive learning tools to say that having active instructor engagement in the class is really important to learning.

Sandy: Adaptive learning is a whole other thing from what we’re talking about. And so we’re not saying that technology can’t help—of course, technology can help—and adaptive learning can be terrific. It’s not cheap, but it can be terrific. We’re not saying that there are no good fully online courses, either. I mean, that’s not the question. It’s about how most of this is done, and how it’s done, if it’s not carefully designed adaptive learning, and if it doesn’t involve personal interaction with subject matter experts.

Rebecca: In addition to the personal interaction, were there other things that you discovered would be really useful to help those populations that are particularly at risk that you mentioned earlier?

Spiros: I’m gonna ask Sandy to weigh in as well. But I can tell you that what we know from the literature about student outcomes in higher education in general, beyond what we examine in online education, is that academically underprepared and at-risk populations—including students from lower-income families, first-generation students, and the students with remedial needs, I mean, what we would call in general at-risk populations in higher education—they need significant academic and student support services to help them succeed. That requires a significant investment from the institution. It requires a purposeful and meaningful strategy that specifically is designed to address the unique needs of these populations. Of course, it’s difficult to cover all of the research and the literature in my comment, but we know that it takes a whole lot to support these students and to ensure their success. Everybody talks about the CUNY ASAP program, which has become the new poster child of what it takes to have tremendous success with these populations. That’s a very expensive program. It’s a great program, but it’s also a very expensive program. It again confirms what we know, which is: we know what needs to be done, but you have to have the investments and you have to have a purposeful strategy. But Sandy, I would like for you to weigh in on this as well.

Sandy: Yeah, I think it’s really important to understand that all of that evidence suggests that for at-risk students, for students with weak academic backgrounds, and with many factors that could interfere with their academic success, these students need really strong support systems, it’s not just about money. And it’s not just about time, it’s about the need for support systems. So it is certainly true that for many of these students, if they can take some courses online, this could actually help them to graduate because you can take more courses online, because you can do them in the evening and on flexible schedules. And even if you fail a lot of them still, you might end up accumulating more courses. But taking some courses online is not the same thing as thinking that you can just sit at home with your computer and get your whole education and succeed that way. Because being part of a community, part of an intellectual community, part of an academic support community, and part of a social support community is what these students need. Understanding that should make it possible for us to develop systems that take advantage of the things that online learning can contribute without assuming that it’s going to be the silver bullet, and that it can replace the important components of traditional learning. I think that’s one of the problems we always have is somebody sees something that adds an important component to the education system where they say, “Okay, let’s junk everything else and just do that. And that our evidence clearly suggests is not going to be a good strategy.

John: How do employers view online education relative to face-to-face education?

Sandy: There are surveys of employers, of faculty members, of academic administrators, of the public, uniformly they say that the perception is that online education does not produce the same outcomes as in-person education. Now, perceptions are not always a reflection of reality, but particularly for employers you would expect that perceptions would pretty quickly catch up to reality because those perceptions are, to a great extent, based on the performance of people they hire.

Rebecca: So you shared a lot of things that I think faculty or administrators who are developing online courses should certainly be thinking about. We’ve also talked a little bit about some of the legal issues that we might want to be concerned with. Are there things that faculty and institutions should be doing to make sure that quality is ensured, and that as institutions of higher education, and the value of education is held moving forward?

Spiros: Every industry needs to listen to its customers. Higher education needs to listen to students. And students surveys consistently emphasize the desire for greater interaction with their instructors and their peers, and so that is something that higher education needs to be responsive to. So even if they dismiss our paper, they dismissed what I think, what Sandy thinks, let’s just boil it down to the basics which is they need to listen to the students that they serve. I don’t like talking about students as customers or consumers. But just for the purposes of this conversation, they should listen to the consumers of their services, and so they definitely need to put a focus on that. They definitely need to understand that we have to ask if students need additional services. And they need to listen to their faculty. And we’ve seen many examples for faculty involvement in online programming hasn’t been that strong. Institutions are in a hurry to set up programs for revenue purposes and others, and they do not take the thoughtful approach that includes feedback and input from the faculty. So I think faculty involvement is critical. At the end of the day, faculty are the experts, faculty know pedagogy, faculty are the ones who work and teach the students, so I think that that’s another advice that that I would have. And again, I would be making the point that quality matters. It’s not just about just building the platform and going out there and offering online, you have to pay attention to making sure that it’s a quality education.

John: Speaking of Quality Matters, there is a Quality Matters rubric out there that’s used in many institutions to evaluate online education. And SUNY—along with the Online Learning Consortium—has also developed the OSCQR rubric. Will those types of things perhaps help ensure a higher quality of online instruction?

Spiros: Frankly, I’m not familiar with either of them. I’m not a traditional academic, I came out after eight years in government. So to be honest with you, I’m not particularly familiar with those. I don’t know if Sandy is, but I would say that all tools that are geared towards ensuring quality definitely are welcome into contributing that effort.

Sandy: So, what we do know is that the people who have worked on quality for online education agree that an important component of quality is making sure that there is substantive interaction. So these efforts seem to all be headed in a similar direction, which is, let’s make sure that we think about how students learn and that we incorporate that knowledge into how we design our courses. The problem that they’re going to run into is that it’s more expensive to do that. So it’s really important for the people who are focused on quality, who have evidence about quality, who care about quality, to stand up to the people on campus who are just saying, “Well, the goal here was to make more money, so let’s make it cheaper.” So yes, I mean, all of these efforts are really moving in the right direction and certainly compiling evidence is the best way to make sure that we improve outcomes at the same time that we broaden opportunities and promote innovation.

Rebecca: So you’ve mentioned that, on campuses, people who are emphasizing the quality are all moving in the right direction. But you also mentioned earlier that the legislation is moving in the other direction. So can you talk a little bit about that disconnect, and maybe some of the actions that we could try to take to, to help align those?

Sandy: Let me just say that—and Spiros is more of an expert on the details of the legislation—but there’s a clear movement under the current administration to reduce regulation, regardless, and there are obviously regulations in higher education and elsewhere, that are counterproductive that raise costs without improving outcomes, that burden providers and so on. And so looking at regulations is certainly worth doing and I think past administrations have done the same thing. But in this case, there is just a wholesale effort to remove the regulations that have been developed in order to protect students… to protect consumers. And so we just need to look at that and say, “Let’s look each time there was a proposal to reduce regulation and ask why that regulation was imposed, if there’s any evidence that it’s helping, and what the results of removing it would likely be,” and in higher education, it’s really frightening to watch and see how everything that in any way interferes, particularly with the providers of for-profit education, is assumed to be a bad thing. And we need innovation, we need to allow things to change and develop. We need new ideas. But we have a big history of the changes in the federal financial aid system, opening up to for-profit providers, leading to generating a huge growth in this sector that obviously included—well, it includes some quality institutions included—lots of organizations that were not interested in really educating students. So that could easily happen again, if we just say, “Oh, you have a good idea, you say it works. Go ahead, do it. We’ll pay for it.” That’s so obviously going to lead to big problems.

Spiros: Yeah, everything Sandy said was correct. And the one point I would make is people use the word innovation and I think it’s important to remember there’s good innovation and there’s bad innovation. Not all innovation is a good thing. Innovation means doing things differently, you can do things differently and have a better outcome and you can do things differently and have a worse outcome. So I think a lot of these changes that are being advanced by the administration, and here’s the disturbing part: Oftentimes, with the support of the higher education institutions, and the higher education sector overall—and I don’t know of any industry that loves regulation, higher education is no exception.—and it’s under this framing of “if we get rid of all these laws and all these regulations, et cetera, we’re going to have innovation.” And if we’ve learned anything from history—if we study history of regulation in higher education—is that every time we do that, there was a huge period of a lot of fraud, waste, and abuse, because the incentive structure in higher education promotes those behaviors. And we need to understand that when we change our regulation, we’re not just changing it for the good schools out there, we’re changing it for all the schools. So when you lower these barriers, when you remove these barriers—all of whom, by the way, are there for a reason—and the good actors might continue acting in a responsible manner, but there are a lot of bad actors who have an incentive to take advantage of that removal of the “barrier.” So when we’re talking about one hundred fifty billion dollars a year—that’s according to the College Board, when you throw all the aid in and Sandy’s the author of that report so she knows that well—but when we’re talking about one hundred fifty billion a year with tax expenditures and everything, that’s a pretty significant investment we need to safeguard and we need to understand that all of these changes actually have significant implications, most importantly for students, but also for taxpayers. So the stakes are high, essentially, is what I’m trying to say and we need to look behind the curtain of innovation and behind the veil of flexibility, and see exactly what are these changes meant to do and who is going to benefit from them. So just to give a specific example, a year and a half ago the OIG—the Office of the Inspector General—in the Department of Education did an audit of Western Governors University and found that they hadn’t really complied with regular and substantive interaction. And WGU is what I would call—based on the outcomes it has—decent student outcomes, affordable school, nonprofit, and does not have a track record of any sort of abuses of predatory behavior or anything like that. So it’s a pretty solid school that has a very strong reputation among policymakers. So everybody jumped to the defense of WGU saying, “Oh, no, no, no, you know, let’s be careful here, let’s not penalize them, because maybe they were not in compliance, let’s change the law to make sure that the law complies with WGU, rather than WGU complying with the law.” The point here is though, that while WGU might have been the specific example, changing the law is not only going to help WGU, it’s going to impact everybody. So while WGU might benefit, a lot of bad actors are also going to benefit from such changes. And the results from such a change with bad actors is probably not going to be something that we’re proud of or that we should be proud of. And so in politics and in policy it’s important to look not only at who is the obvious beneficiary of something but also who is the potential beneficiary behind the scenes, and we talk about that in the paper towards the end.

John: What recommendations would you have for faculty teaching online classes or developing new courses or programs in creating high quality online programs?

Sandy: Many faculty members who have a bias against online learning have found when they engage in it that actually it goes very well and their students learn, but those same people are very likely to say that they put more work into the online course then they did into their regular courses. So I would say that faculty should be open to the opportunity but they should not expect it to be just the easy way out, they should be prepared to learn how to teach well in this environment, to be prepared to put their resources and their time into getting to know the students, and into helping the students learn. And it’s quite likely to be a big investment at first, a bigger investment than just continuing your courses. Now we know that faculty members don’t all do a good job in the classroom either. So the idea is not that every classroom course is better than every online course. But faculty members need to understand that this is a big investment and they need to learn how to do it. They need to accept support from people who have experience at doing it well. And they have to urge their institutions to have the goal of doing this right, putting resources into it, integrating—again—personal interaction with the technology, and making sure that the primary goal is not just to save the institution money, but to really create positive learning experiences for students and I think if faculty and the administration share those goals, that there is potential for this to go a lot better. But the there’s a real risk of everybody just looking for an easy way out. I think many people agree on what is important, but they don’t know quite how to do it. And so learning how to do it… doing a lot of studying, examining the successful efforts. And then again, putting the students first is the best advice for people who are developing this kind of learning opportunity.

Spiros: I would only add, as well, for faculty to pay attention to what’s happening right now in negotiated rulemaking, that these changes that are being considered are going to have an impact on education, on faculty. And there are a lot of folks in higher education, who really want to downgrade the role of faculty in the educational process and want to minimize this importance of interaction between students and faculty, and would rather have students interacting with software and calling that an education. So I know that AAUP and others are paying attention to this, but I think it’s important for all faculty to be following these conversations because they have wide ranging implications that really, really impact our daily lives and how we engage in this practice,

Sandy: I think we really want people to understand that what we’re talking about is learning, education, and quality. We’re not talking about sort of making a blanket condemnation, either of technology and online learning or of the for-profit sector, but we are saying that these problems are very evident there and that we have to work this out, acknowledging where they are concentrated.

Spiros: The one thing I would I would say is this. From a policy perspective—from like the thirty-thousand foot level—the argument is that higher education has not been serving non-traditional populations well and that technology has the potential to provide access to opportunity for a lot of these populations. Based on what we found, and the bad outcomes that online education has been producing for these exact populations, I am very, very worried that if we don’t fix the issues identified in the paper, we are moving in a situation where instead of engines of mobility and equality, we are making online education engines of inequality. And instead of helping and addressing the huge achievement gaps and attainment gaps in this country, we’re actually going to be making them even more severe and augmenting them. So from a very big sort of high level, the concern here is that if online education is the tool that folks believe can help close the achievement gaps, is actually increasing those achievement gaps, then it’s urgent that we fix these issues. Otherwise, we are really making things worse instead of better.

Sandy: Yeah, I think that is really our most important point. And if the institutions that have ample resources put those resources into doing a really good job of adaptive learning and hybrid learning and so on, then the gap is going to grow even greater… that students who have had the preparation and the resources to enroll in institutions that do this well will have even better opportunities whereas students who are at risk and are going to the under-resourced institutions that are struggling to really provide the support that they need are going to end up pushed online into courses that are not carefully constructed in programs that don’t serve them well. And the socioeconomic gaps in educational outcomes and attainment are going to grow and that’s what we really want to avoid.

Rebecca: I think that the research that you shared should be really compelling to any faculty whether or not they teach online, to push their institutions to do the right thing to push their colleagues to do the right thing… to push their representatives do the right thing in the regulatory sphere.

John: We’ve already seen decades of worsening economic inequality and reduced intergenerational mobility and your arguments suggest that that’s just going to get worse if online education, which is a growing share of education, continues to widen the performance gap between first-generation and continuing-generation college students.

Sandy: That’s right.

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

Spiros: What next? I mean, you know, as with everything, once you you write a paper on something, you do research on something, and it’s not like you switch off the light. We continue being engaged. We recently published a notepad with Sandy in the Chronicle of Higher Education and we summarize a lot of the arguments that we have in the paper. We’re participating in podcasts like yours and events and panels, and we continue to write about the issue and following closely what’s happening in D.C. on this. So I think we’re just continuing to spread and share what we learned in the paper with others, and hopefully, it’s going to have an impact.

Sandy: You know our main interest, I mean online education is one component and one symptom of the issues that we’re interested in. So thinking about access and success in higher education and increasing opportunities is the key. And certainly we expect our research to continue in that direction, but understanding the relationships. I mean, I think that there are a lot of cases where people think that a solution is a progressive solution that will really increase opportunities and it turns out not to be. And how can people understand the difference between something that sounds like it increases opportunity and something that really does increase opportunities is very difficult and very important.

Rebecca: I look forward to following your research. That’s a really interesting and important topic. So thank you so much for joining us and sharing your work with us.

John: Yes, thank you.

Sandy: Thank you.

Spiros: Thank you.

[Music]

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

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

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

77. First-Generation Students

The process of transitioning from high school to college can be quite challenging, especially for first-generation college students. In this episode, Dr. Lisa Nunn joins us to explore a variety of techniques that we can use to help first-year and first-year students successfully navigate this critical period in their educational journey.

Lisa is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of San Diego, and the author of 33 Simple Strategies for Faculty: A Week-By-Week Resource for Teaching First-Year and First-Generation Students.

Show Notes

  • Dr. Lisa Nunn – Lisa Nunn’s website.
  • Nunn, Lisa. (2018). 3 Simple Strategies for Faculty: A Week-By-Week Resource for Teaching First-Year and First-Generation Students. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press
  • Dr. Nunn’s forthcoming coming book – College Belonging: How First-Year and First-Generation Students Navigate Campus Life

John: The process of transitioning from high school to college can be quite challenging, especially for first-generation college students. In this episode, we explore a variety of techniques that we can use to help students successfully navigate this critical period in their educational journey.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Our guest today is Dr. Lisa Nunn, an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of San Diego, and the author of 33 Simple Strategies for Faculty: A Week-By-Week Resource for Teaching First-Year and First-Generation Students. Welcome, Lisa.

Lisa: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Rebecca: We’re grateful to have you. Today’s teas are:

Lisa: I’m drinking Orange Spice.

Rebecca: Yum.

John: I’m drinking Ginger Peach Black tea,

Rebecca: I’m really boring and drinking Afternoon tea again. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your book, 33 Simple Strategies for Faculty. Could you tell us a bit about the research project that you engaged in that inspired this book?

Lisa: Yes, the bigger project that this book came out of is actually a project on sense of belonging among college students. So, I interviewed students in their very first semester at the end of their first year and at the end of their second year at two different universities, trying to get a sense of how students do or don’t develop a sense of belonging on campus. And what happened was, as I was interviewing students…particularly in their very first semester…I was asking them a lot of questions about academic belonging, also questions about social belonging, but the stuff that came forward for this book was mostly on academic belonging. So I would ask them, “What’s your favorite class? And what’s that professor doing that’s working for you?” and “What’s your least favorite class? And what’s that professor doing that’s not working for you?” just to get them to talk about their experiences of whether or not they felt like they belonged academically in college, or in their particular classes. And I just found myself keeping side notes. So a student would say something great that their professor did, and I would think, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to do that in my class,” and I take a little note. And then on the flip side too, students would talk about something they found particularly frustrating and I would think, “Oh, I do that,” and it never occurred to me that you could receive it that way. I’m never going to do that again. So I had this kind of running list of do’s and don’ts and I started to share them with other faculty on my own campus and it slowly developed into this idea of every single week, we could be doing just one or two targeted things that might really make a big difference at that moment in their transition to college.

John: In general, I think it’s probably a good strategy to talk to our students more and get that type of feedback. So I’m glad you did this, and I enjoyed reading the book.

Lisa: Thank you.

John: A good deal of focus in the book is actually focused on the student voices so that when you talk about a strategy, you give some examples of students. That’s a little different than most books on teaching and learning. Could you talk a little bit about why you adopted that strategy?

Lisa: It’s partly from the way that these strategies came out of a different research project. Not entirely different, I guess. But it’s a qualitative study where student voices are the data. So to show my evidence for why I was recommending this strategy or that strategy, it just made sense to include the data itself from students. But also I really wanted to give faculty a little glimpse into what it feels like to be going through the things that first-year students are going through, and particularly first-gen students just to hear, in their own words, what the world looks like and feels like for them in the classroom.

Rebecca: I think sometimes as faculty, you might have been in that position at one point in time, but perhaps it was a while ago, right?

Lisa: It was a while ago and many of us were not first-gen students. And I really think even in my own teaching, even though I might have first-year students and I know they’re in their very first semester, in my mind I think, “Oh, but they just figure it all out by the time they’re sophomores and juniors and seniors, they’ve got it all worked out,” and you forget how painful and how critical some of these ups and downs and transitional moments are in that first semester.

John: And the ones that survived to the time they get to be juniors and seniors are ones who have figured it all out, but there’s a lot of people who get lost along the way.

Lisa: Exactly right.

John: You focus both, as you noted, on first-generation and first-year students. In what ways are their interests and needs similar and different from those of other students?

Lisa: The transition to college is a real challenge for most students. And first-gen students tend to have particular challenges, but all students are getting the hang of it. Like we just said, by the time they’re in their second year, or their third year, they’ve figured out some habits that work for them, but they’re just learning those habits in that first semester. So it’s a particularly important time to pay attention to students and their brand new experiences, and they’re just figuring out what they need as well. As for first-gen students, the definition of first-gen is that you don’t have parents who have these college experiences that they can just pass on wisdom or offer unsolicited advice when you’re having a struggle of some kind. And it’s helpful for faculty and everyone on campus to just keep in mind that reaching out or offering unsolicited advice is exactly what students need and not everyone’s getting that from their family life.

Rebecca: Why is the focus on first-generation students important to closing performance gaps that result from differences in the quality of primary and secondary background education?

Lisa: So first-generation students are likely to be from low-income backgrounds…not all of them, certainly…but this is the way economics works in the United States. If you have a college degree, you have stronger earning power. So if your parents have college degrees, you’re less likely to be in a low-income neighborhood and low-income neighborhoods tend to have mediocre at best K through 12 public education. So if you went to your neighborhood school, you were just much less likely to have been prepared for college as well as your college classmates who went to some, you know, very excellent public schools or even private schools. So first-gen students and low-income…in general…students tend to come in the college doors plenty smart to handle the work and very eager and motivated to be successful, but they just may not have had that high-quality content in their physics class or their English composition class. And it’s about content and it’s also about study skills. They may not have been practicing the same kind of learning and studying and homework habits that have been really instilled in students in higher quality, more academically rigorous schools.

John: What types of strategies can instructors use to help students who haven’t been exposed to these more effective study strategies, or who have weaker backgrounds in certain areas?

Lisa: There are several. And again, many of these are the kinds of comments that students in interviews told me that their favorite professors were doing and that I realized many of them that I don’t do, and one is to offer a study guide. I used to think that giving a study guide for the midterms and final to my students meant that I was doing their thinking for them, because I try very hard on my syllabus to have weekly headings that summarize the issue at hand and on my lecture slides I have definitions of key concepts. Key concepts are in the headings of the lecture slides, I mean, I’ve really tried to sign post it. And I just didn’t realize that a lot of first-gen students don’t have the habit…they have never developed this skill…have never had to, based on the kind of high-school experiences they had…develop the skill of sifting through mountains of information and figuring out what is the most important stuff to really focus on for an exam. So, not offering a study guide only exacerbated this difference between students in my class who had excellent K through 12 educations and those who didn’t have such an excellent K through 12 education, because they already knew how to do this. And it’s a skill that you cultivate. And so I have now committed to helping cultivate that skill. I offer a study guide for the first midterm and then we work together to learn how to create such a study guide as the future midterms move on and by the final, they’re on their own. Okay, so that’s one, study guides. Also, one of my favorite strategies from this book is the mini-midterm. It’s often a week six, week seven, maybe even week eight of the semester before they get real feedback on their work after the first midterm has been given and it takes a little while for us to grade the midterms and give them back. And it’s only then, this very late moment in the semester, when students realize that they got a D or an F or maybe even a C can be heartbreaking. And they just are learning or discovering, in that moment, that their study habits aren’t quite up to snuff. And if we give them a teeny tiny, right, mine is two questions, but it’s a two-question version of the real midterm and I give it at the end of week two or the beginning of week three and I grade it as fast as I can so that they can figure out: first what my test style is like, what my grading expectations are, and also whether or not they are taking the right notes in class or thinking about the concepts in the right way to do well. So I very explicitly have this conversation about why we have the mini-midterm and that has been a game changer for my classes. And then other ways to address some other strategies in the book…about addressing this difference in levels of preparation is students tell me that they really appreciate it when their professor, like calculus professor, says, “Calculus is hard. I know it’s hard. Hang in there,” right? “This stuff is hard.” And they really feel disheartened when we say things like, “Yeah, I know this is review for most of you from your AP chemistry class,” or whatever it is. So, changing our habits of speech just a little bit can help just motivate and validate students who are feeling a little unsure or a little unhappy with how competent they feel academically in the first weeks. I also recommend that we explain our pedagogic rationales for the things that we require or prohibit in our classes. And also just to tell students right out of the gate, what is the best way to study for your class, because every professor is different. For example, I don’t want students to give me a word-for-word definition in the blue-book exam answer…the word-for-word definition that they learned from the book or learned from my lecture slides. I want them to say it in their own words so I can see if they really mastered the content rather than memorize a definition. But different classes and different professors want different things. Sometimes it is a word-for-word definition. So anyway, just to let them know exactly what we’re looking for, and why.

John: So don’t let the test be a surprise or something where students will say, “This isn’t what I was expecting,” so that students can prepare appropriately to meet the learning objectives that you set.

Lisa: Exactly. One of the students in my study called it the “Guess what’s in the professor’s head” game. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I found that trying to make things a little more explicit does change the classroom atmosphere in general. Students are much more open to letting the faculty know where they’re struggling or each other know where they’re struggling if you set those expectations up front and say things like, “Hey, maybe it’s been a long time since you’ve actually learned something new, like totally new, and learning something new is really hard.”

Lisa: That’s exactly right.

John: And that strategy you suggested of letting students know that this is going to be difficult and it’s going to be work and you’re going to have to work through those things and that everyone has to when they’re learning it, also perhaps might help build a growth mindset and I think a number of your strategies may address that growth mindset concept. Could you talk a little bit about some ways in which we can help students develop that mindset…that they can achieve?

Lisa: Yeah, absolutely. I think that the growth mindset is a helpful way to think about things, especially helping students understand that just because it’s an intro class doesn’t mean it’s easy. You’re learning a whole new discipline, a whole new way of thinking about the world, perhaps, and it might be an intro class but it’s a little bit like learning how to play guitar or learning how to dribble a soccer ball. And it takes a lot of practice and a lot of mistakes and kind of falling flat in order to get the hang of this brand new thing, and students often have this misconception that just because it’s a 100-level class and “introduction” is in the title that it’s somehow going to be easy for them, and then they’re frustrated and confused when it’s not so easy. So just having that in our minds and in the way that we communicate what’s going on in the class can help. But also, you know, thinking about failure as this phrase “failing forward,” growing and learning based on our failures rather than seeing failure as evidence that we aren’t cut out for this kind of work. And some of that, again, I think is just faculty holding that idea in our head so that when we’re just communicating in everyday ways with students that comes out, this idea that, “Yeah, a mistake is great, that tells you where you need to focus some energy for next time.” In the book I have some explicit strategies. Late in the semester I suggest sharing a failure CV, which is kind of a fun activity. I wrote one myself. It was a little embarrassing actually, to write it myself and to put it in the book about my own life and my own failures. I tried to focus on my undergraduate days, but there are also some good ones online. Students in these interviews with me tell me how successful we seem and how smart and how accomplished and it’s wonderful for them when we admit that we have failed along the way a million times. It feels very reassuring. So a failure CV, also I recommend helping students use this tool “fifteen questions to find your life purpose.” And faculty also, I call them stories of woe, sharing some academic story of woe. Some terrible mistake or bad grade or missed assignment that happened to you as an undergraduate just to let students know that it happens to all of us, and we just pick ourselves up and move forward.

Rebecca: I was just sharing some of those stories this morning. [LAUGHTER] Some of my students, who were putting too much pressure on themselves and expecting to kind of have results immediately when it was something brand new that we were just starting, expecting that somehow they were going to catch on immediately. It certainly was, I think, reassuring for the students to hear that, “You know, I also had those moments.” [LAUGHTER]

Lisa: Exactly right. And some of us even fail the class that ended up being a foundational class for the future discipline we pursued much later on. It just happens.

Rebecca: One of the other things that happens a lot for first year students is transitioning to a new place, being away from family, or just not being in a situation where maybe more structure is employed for them, and they have to make their own structure, their own study time, their own rules about eating and taking care of themselves. Can you talk a little bit about ways that faculty can help guide and support students in those ways?

Lisa: In the book, I recommend just taking a few minutes of class time…it doesn’t have to be class time, of course — and just sharing, for example, sharing what stress management activities you do in your own life. More than one first-year student told me that they didn’t have any. They had zero stress-management techniques in their repertoires of life. And they were just realizing that they needed to learn how to take time for themselves, they needed to learn how to figure out when they need some time away from people, or when they need to be around certain I don’t know, people or activities to re-energize. They’re just figuring this out. Just spending five minutes telling what you do when you need to relieve stress, or what you do to keep sane week-by-week. I also always share with them — like meditation, for example, is something I always think about doing and I never do it, so it’s kind of an aspirational stress-management technique for me, but what I actually do is go for a walk. That’s my go to. I kind of let them know that sometimes we imagine ourselves to be these much more balanced humans than we are and that’s okay, too. Stress management and just reminding them even in just small ways, small sentences, small moments that when we get overwhelmed, we cope in sometimes very unhealthy ways. Too much alcohol, too much other kinds of substances, self-sabotage, where we postpone doing something that intimidates us until it gets to the point where there’s no way that we have enough time to really do it successfully. And these are things that all of us deal with in life that are especially acute for college students with all these new routines, and new deadlines, and new expectations.

Rebecca: I feel like some students who are at the senior level, just getting ready to transition into being a professional have that same scary moment that’s happening as well, and asking those same questions or reminding them about those same strategies can be useful at that moment in time too.

Lisa: Yeah, that’s a great point.

John: One of the things you mentioned in talking to students you discovered that quite a few students had issues where they initially created a network of friends, but then sometimes that didn’t work out so well, and you suggest that one useful thing you can do in the classroom is to help students build a wider social network. Could you talk a little bit about that, and some of the strategies you recommend to help students develop a wider network?

Lisa: I recommend an explicit interview assignment — and of course, people can modify this in ways that makes sense for their own classes — but it’s around late October, early November, I discovered that first-year students, it’s not that everyone feels unsatisfied with the friendships they’ve made, but they’re all…or most of them at least…seem to be hungry for more. And what they say to me is that they feel like they would like to reach out and make some new friends but everyone seems already kind of cliqued off into their social groups, they themselves feel cliqued off, and they don’t know how to break through those barriers. And I was really surprised to discover how common this was among students and none of them seem to indicate that they knew that other people were feeling the same way. I give examples of this in the book that people can just print out and use. So I ask them to interview one person in class, and then outside of class, they have to interview at least one more person and I recommend up to five people. And I tell them explicitly, this activity is designed…yeah, you’re going to practice you know, thinking and having conversations about a sociological issue that’s important…but it’s designed on purpose right now because we know that first-year students are feeling a little hungry for more friendships. And so choose someone that you’ve kind of had your eye on as a friend and invite them to do this interview with you and maybe you’ll end up in a study group together, or maybe you’ll be able to have dinner together that night, or I don’t know what, but maybe a friendship will bloom. So, it’s very explicit in that way, in the way that I present it. And other professors that my students told me about in interviews talk about the way that the professor strategically organizes study groups among students in the class. If you’re an early-morning study person, go to the back corner of the room, if you’re a late-night study person, go to this front corner of the room, mix and mingle, exchange phone numbers, and, you know, kind of coordinating for students this ability to network in a way that they might be too shy to do on their own.

Rebecca: Or might just not have a way to facilitate on their own. I can imagine, how would you know necessarily who is an early-morning person but if you are one, that’s who you want to meet, those are the people who have the same kind of time schedules, so that seems really strategic and such an easy thing to do.

Lisa: Exactly. When that student told me about that the first time in the interview, I thought, “Oh, right. That’s about five minutes of class on the first day,” or whenever. Easy… and it really solves a problem for students.

Rebecca: It’s funny how sometimes these things can be just so easy but so easily overlooked.

Lisa: Yeah, exactly.

John: And those types of connections can help improve colleges’ retention rates and so forth because when students have more connections with other people on campus, other students, they’re much more likely to want to be successful and to want to continue. So it can help increase the odds of students staying in longer, I would think.

Lisa: That’s exactly the goal, right? I think about all of this is connected to belonging. How do we let all the members of our community know that they belong here, they’re valued here, we want them here, and their success matters to us?

Rebecca: One of the topics that are related to that academic belonging that you mentioned at the beginning of our interview that I think about a lot is how to connect first-year students to potential mentors, and how to get them connected to role models or people besides just their peer group because they don’t necessarily have an adult on campus that they look up to or can go to for things. How do you help facilitate students finding those connections?

Lisa: Some campuses like my own have structures for first-year students. I teach a class that is entirely comprised of first-year students and I am their academic advisor until they declare a major. So some institutions have tried to structure this…even that, there are students who don’t quite gravitate toward that advisor relationship and the strategies that I recommend in the book are very interpersonal. One of the strategies is just: this week, pick five students to reach out to, maybe it’s to send a short email, or maybe it’s to approach them before or after class, and just say hi and make it clear that you know who they are and they’re on your radar. I also recommend when you talk about your office hours…or first of all to talk about your office hours and to tell students what they might expect in there…but to also personally invite students when you’re chatting with them or if you have a moment before class, just kind of wander the aisles of the desk and say hi to people and make it a habit to just invite students to come and see you in office hours to talk more about something, or to get to know each other better. All of this is connected to not just being available, but being perceived as available to students. One of my favorite strategies in the book is to not seem busy. And this is really hard, because we are very busy. But students told me in these interviews that especially before and after class, this is kind of a testing ground for some students. They want to approach and ask a question, or just even say, “Hello,” or thank you for the class and they try it out to get a sense of how you might be and can they be brave enough to come to your office hours. And when we are frantically putting our things together or, if you happen to have four minutes before class starts, trying to get that one last thing read or marked up, the sense that we are too busy for them is a message that they take home. That they take very seriously. If you can just linger and just not be doing anything and just seem calm and available to be approached with a question…even just for those three-minutes, right before class starts, it makes a big difference for students feeling like they can approach us. And I also recommend holding one of your office hours just before or just after your first-year class so that you can tell students, “I’m right here, walk with me to my office if you want that office hour right now at the end of class. Let’s continue this conversation.” We all hold office hours. We all know that students can email us, but to be perceived as available is one more dimension.

John: One issue for first-year students is that, in the past when they were in high school, they often do not see going to someone’s office as being a very positive thing. So, creating that welcoming environment could be really useful. And I know this is one I struggle with because often when students stop by, I’m going to a meeting or I’m in the middle of a meeting, but making yourself open is really useful and I try to do that by saying, “I have to leave right now, but if you stop back, I’ll be here between two and five or two and six,” or something similar, and that often works in them coming back. But it is a concern I think that many of us have that we do get stuck in a lot of meetings. I had seven hours of meetings yesterday, for example, and I had a lot of students who wanted to see me about projects and I tried to accommodate them. In some cases I’ll share my phone number and tell them they can call me later if they have other questions, but it can be challenging.

Lisa: It is challenging. I remember feeling so flattered in graduate school, the first time a professor was racing off to some other meeting and had to cut our conversation short and he said, “Can we walk and talk?” and I was like, “What does that mean?” he’s like, “I need to walk over to this meeting that’s 10 minutes away. Can you walk with me?” and I was so flattered that he was willing to continue the conversation. Our campus is much smaller, it doesn’t really take 10 minutes to walk anywhere, but I try to remember that with students and just, “I have to go, but why don’t you keep asking me? Keep asking me this question, walk with me.”

Rebecca: Or “I need to eat lunch, but you’re welcome to come sit with me.” [LAUGHTER]

John: Yes.

Lisa: Yeah.

John: You suggest that it’s really helpful to be open with students and to encourage the students to come in and talk to you, but also, it’s important to maintain boundaries. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Lisa: This is something I think a lot of us learn the hard way…I know that I did…but I am completely convinced that setting boundaries is beneficial for our students as well as ourselves. So in my institution we have to hold five hours of office hours a week. That is enough time. Now certainly I’ll make appointments if someone’s schedule is crazy, but that is just enough time. I don’t need to be available at any whimsical moment that students might need me in a panic. But also emotionally, I want my students to know that I care about them, I care deeply about their wellbeing, and for me, the way to show that most effectively…of course if they’re sharing a personal trouble, to listen compassionately…but the best I can do is guide them toward the resources that might actually offer some resolution to their struggles. And I used to take on my student’s problems as my own and carry that emotional burden around and what it did was exhaust me and it made me unhelpful to other students, or even to those same students in the end, because I was depleted and it made me unhelpful to my own family and my own friends and my own self. I was just depleted. So setting healthy boundaries with the amount of emotional care that you can or are willing to give is good. You’re not short changing anyone, you’re modeling healthy behavior. You’re also practicing self-care. You know, I am not qualified to be a mental health counselor. I don’t want the job, I don’t have the credentials for it, and it doesn’t serve anyone for me to play that role at all. I can just dial the phone and help students get their own appointment with someone who can do that.

Rebecca: I think those are always good reminders.

John: I think we all fall into that at first, especially. One of the issues that many first-generation students have is that their faculty may come from very different backgrounds, their fellow students may, and they may be in a discipline where they’re underrepresented. What are some of the things you recommend to help students get past that stereotype threat?

Lisa: One is to simply add images of scholars and researchers that you’re talking about, or reading about in your class. Just add images to your lecture slides. Students may not be able to recognize from the name of the author, what this person’s background might be or whether or not it’s a person who looks like me, for example, and it’s really helpful. So I’m in sociology and this is relatively easy for me. My syllabus is full of scholars of color and women scholars and people who present their gender in nontraditional ways, and so an image is a really powerful tool to just show off the diversity in our field. And I don’t linger on the slide, I just put up the image, I say, “Here she is, we’re reading a chapter today from her first book,” and then we just move along. And I realize that some disciplines don’t have that luxury. You might be teaching a class where almost everyone is white or almost everyone is male on your syllabus. But I hope that this suggestion even helps people who teach such classes to think of creative ways to include more current scholars of color or women into their classroom, even if you’re not reading a whole week’s worth of content on someone, you might be able to present on five minutes on exciting new work in the field. And the idea is that, especially on my campus, students of color might look around the room and or look around campus and feel like it’s a world of white faces. But that’s not true entirely for academics and presenting images in this way is a very powerful message that scholars of color and women and non-gender conforming folks have a routine everyday place in the academic world. Here they are. Even if, when you look around this classroom, it may not seem that way. So that’s one. And the other strategies that I think that speak to issues like stereotype threat are again these small gestures that faculty can make to reach out to students. Just these five people that you might send a quick email to, and just share your favorite TED Talk or a great podcast that you just listened to or whatever it is, just this idea that, “You’re on my mind, I’m thinking of you.” Even if I just got your name off my roster. It doesn’t have to be some person that you actually have already established a connection with. But to really validate that student’s presence in your class, in your department, on your campus that they matter, that we see them.

Rebecca: Those are really great suggestions and again, things that are just super easy to implement, that aren’t time consuming. They just take a little time and thought, and if we have those five hours of office hours where students aren’t actually showing up, you probably have time to do it. [LAUGHTER]

Lisa: That’s the idea.

John: You’re working on another book called College Belonging: How First-Year and First-Generation Students Navigate Campus Life. What will be some of the differences in this new book?

Lisa: The current book is just a targeted…particularly for faculty…set of ideas and strategies to implement in our interactions with students. So the College Belonging book isn’t targeted that way at all but it is about this same general issue of sense of belonging for our students. As you mentioned earlier, John, sense of belonging is associated with all kinds of positive outcomes for students: better persistence rates, better graduation rates, better overall wellbeing, and the College Belonging book is more about articulating some of the issues and dynamics around developing a sense of belonging. First, this idea that students experience academic belonging separately from social belonging, even though they’re interrelated and overlap a bit, the scholarship on belonging really tends to focus on social belonging and there’s a lot less out there on what academic belonging is and how students navigate through it. And also thinking about the institutional structures at each of the two campuses in my study that really foster and promote maybe social belonging over academic belonging or vice versa. Yeah, it’s a bigger study about belonging and what the institutional features are and the particular obstacles or kind of wide-open straightforward pathways that students experience their real differences for first-gen students compared to continuing generation students, so exploring all of those differences.

Rebecca: Wow, that sounds really exciting.

Lisa: I think it is.

Rebecca: Yeah. Sounds super interesting.

John: It does.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next? So that’s… it’s coming, but what’s next?

Lisa: This bigger book, it’s not written yet. So what’s coming is the next book on the larger dynamics of sense of belonging at college, and where this book 33 Simple Strategies is targeted for faculty interactions with students, the College Belonging book will have recommendations for institutions.

Rebecca: That’s great.

Lisa: I have no idea what’s going to be next next after that, so that’s good as I can get you. [LAUGHTER]

John: Writing a book is plenty.

Lisa: Thank you, it feels like it.

Rebecca: Yeah, and that’s not going to take any time or anything, so. [LAUGHTER]

Lisa: You know, I’m just going to whip that out this weekend.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: We’ll check back next week to see.

Rebecca: Get an update.

Lisa: I’ll send you a draft.

[LAUGHTER]

John: Thank you for joining us. This was really interesting.

Rebecca: Yeah, I can’t wait to see your next book and also to try some of the things that were in the book we just talked about today.

Lisa: Thank you so much. I’m glad that these ideas are useful.

Rebecca: Well, thank you. This was really great.

[Music]

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

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

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

76. Courses with travel

International travel can be intimidating, but it provides invaluable learning opportunities. In this episode, Jeffery Schneider and Casey Raymond join us to discuss their course in which students travel with them to study the science of fermentation in a global city.

Jeffery Schneider and Casey Raymond are associate professors in the chemistry department at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Show Notes

Show Notes

Rebecca: International travel can be intimidating, but it provides invaluable learning opportunities. In this episode, we’ll examine a course in which students travel with faculty members to study the science of fermentation in a global city.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Today our guests are Jeffery Schneider and Casey Raymond, associate professors in the chemistry department at the State University of New York at Oswego. Welcome, Jeff, and welcome back, Casey.

Jeff: Thank you.

Casey: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

Jeff: I’ve got no tea, they wouldn’t let me bring in anything more stronger than that.

Casey: I’ve got Earl Grey.

John: And I’m drinking Ginger Peach Green tea.

Rebecca: I have my standard issue English Afternoon.

Casey: It is afternoon.

Jeff: Pip, pip, cheerio.

John: We invited here to talk about your course Fermentation Science in a Global Society. Can you tell us a little bit about the course and how you got away with… uh… how it started?

Jeff: So back in 2005, I think, I was a member of the International Education Advisory Board and we had a big board meeting and they were talking about a way to get more quarter courses and get students interested and I was being kind of a smartass at the time, and I said…

Rebecca: You? [LAUGHTER]

Jeff: Right?

John: At the time.

Jeff: Right? And I said, “Oh, I could teach a course on scotch” and the D ean at the time—I won’t name any names in case she’s listening—but she said, “Oh, that’d be great, because then I can help you guys, I could teach about some of the history,” and everybody at the table is like “Ha ha ha ha ha,” and nobody took it seriously. And I was kind of mad that nobody took it seriously. And so then I went over to Casey and I said, “You know, I just had this talk, and I thought we could do a thing on scotch,” and Casey says, “Well I don’t really know too much about scotch, but I bet we could do something on Belgian beer,” and being easy as I am, I said, “Oh, okay.” [LAUGHTER] And so we proposed the course and, you know, they said, “Okay,” and so we did. They gave us money to go explore and so we ended up taking a little exploratory trip to Belgium in the middle of January.

Casey: In 2006.

Jeff: 2006, yeah.

Rebecca: That sounds really awful.

Jeff: You know, it wasn’t actually that bad. [LAUGHTER]

Casey: I think she was being sarcastic. [LAUGHTER] It was really an opportunity to spin a hobby—I’ve been home brewing about eight years at that point and had started getting Jeff interested in home brewing—to spin the hobby into a class. And so we did that exploration trip in January to work out a few details and then that May took fourteen students to Belgium for, I guess it worked out, nine days at that point in May.

John: And how many times have you done this?

Jeff: Since 2006 we’ve only…

Casey: Only not done three years.

JEF: …not done three years, I think. It was because we couldn’t get enough students. It was really strange for whatever reason, there was one point—I hate to say it—but I think it was around that time when terrorism was kind of a big thing and parents were a little reluctant to send their kids and so we did see a dip then, but then all of a sudden, it’s like, “I guess everything’s okay.” We’ve only never done it three times but we’ve tried every year since.

Casey: And I think in one case, we were proposing to go back to the Czech Republic, we had done one trip there. And I think that wasn’t just maybe not as a high-interest location for some students as others. But we’ve done Belgium, we’ve done Scotland—which is where we’re going back to this year—we’ve done a trip to Munich, Germany, and we’ve done a trip to Amsterdam and the surrounding areas in the Netherlands.

Rebecca: So SUNY Oswego has a number of quarter courses, which you mentioned that this is one of. Why does this particular format work so well for a class like this?

Casey: So the format is: it ’s seven weeks of instruction on campus and then travel over spring break or in the case of the second half of spring semester, travel in May after graduation, and it really gives the students a chance to have a study abroad experience without committing to a whole semester. And in some majors, it’s hard to commit a semester without falling a whole year behind. And there’s also students that are hesitant to go that far for a whole semester. And we have always said that, “Yeah, we’re interested in this. We know students are interested,” and it’s more about giving those students the opportunity to experience something abroad than the actual content that we’re covering.

Jeff: And we’ve always taken quite a few students and a lot of them have never been out of the country before and a lot of them have never been outside of New York State before, and so it’s a good opportunity for them because it really is a different clientele between the quarter course students and the whole semester students. It’s the kids that haven’t traveled before, they’re a little afraid, they don’t know if it’s for them, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to learn a language. Do I have to learn a language?” and so it just gives them an opportunity. But then we’ve had kids after that, we’ve kind of given them the travel bug and they just go off and travel and I know one student in particular now she’s actually living in France.

Rebecca: That’s been my experience too, teaching the quarter classes with travel. I think that’s who those classes are really designed for. What have you found the balance of course content is in terms of helping students learn to travel, the subject matter you’re covering, and then also the country you’re traveling to? Because you’ve gone to different places.

Jeff: In our course we tried to have science just about every course period. You got to teach them about money, you got to teach them about what they’re going to expect, you got to teach them what not to do because that’s always important. And if it’s a place where English is not the native language, then we got to teach them a little bit of language as well. And if you take them to someplace like Scotland, where English is the native language, you still have to teach them a little bit as well, because you can’t understand a word they say.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the science that you cover?

Casey: So one of the things that we try to focus on is how broad fermentation is and how long we’ve been doing it and it was only relatively recently that we really understood what was happening in fermentation in making bread, in making beer, in making wine, in making cheese.

Jeff: When Casey says “we” he means it as “we” as a society.

Rebecca: Not you? You’re not making cheese in your basement? [LAUGHTER]

John: Not for centuries.

Jeff: Not right now, but we have.

Casey: Not right now. We have made cheese and that’s one of the things as well that we do with students in terms of getting them a sense of the science outside the classroom. We usually do a demonstration day where in the past we’ve had a couple people maybe brewing beer, we’ve done a session where we’ve actually gone through the cheese- making process so they can kind of see how that works. The very first time we did it, it was an absolute disaster.

Jeff: It was terrible.

Casey: But we’ve learned.

Rebecca: You’re going to tell us about that then, right?

Casey: The simple fact of the matter is, we squeezed too much of the liquid out of it and it became a hard rock. [LAUGHTER]

Jeff: But I tell you what, we took that cheese to Belgium with us and we did a day trip to Amsterdam and we all sat down—there was construction outside of Centennial at the time—but we sat down outside the little barrier and everybody…

Casey: …tried…

Jeff: got that cheese down. [LAUGHTER]

Casey: It was bad. But we’ve learned. It really is to give them a sense of appreciation of the science behind it all, not to make them experts, so that when we’re visiting breweries, or cheese production, or distilleries, they have a sense of the science behind it. We’re not trying to make them experts in it and so that’s really the balance. And we’ve had everywhere from first- year students to graduating seniors and art, english, history majors, chemistry, biochemistry, so we just kind of have to take each class as a group and figure out what the balance is.

Rebecca: Do you tend to have many science students as part of your student body?

Jeff: We have, but that also fluctuates. There will be some years when a chemistry major says, “Oh, hey, so and so, do you want to take this course? I’m taking it…” and then all of a sudden you’ve got a mass of chemistry majors or science majors taking the course. Other times you get maybe one or two, so it’s varied.

John: How many hours does a class meet if it’s a quarter course?

Casey: Most of the quarter courses on our campus meet one hour a week and then have the rest of the content delivered when they’re abroad. Our course, we meet two hours a week just to be sure we get the science covered as well as the travel… the location information… covered. And so we meet two hours a week on campus, and then we go abroad for in general eight to ten days.

Rebecca: You hinted a little bit at some of the kinds of places that you visit when you travel. Can you talk a little bit more about what your in-country experience is like?

Casey: It is pretty varied, and it certainly depends a little bit on where we go. Besides visiting things specific to fermentation, we try and also visit things that are historical or cultural. Many times, but not always, we will be in a couple different destinations, cities, instead of just staying in one location the whole time. And all of the transportation that we do, we try to do on local buses and trains. We very rarely have a charter service. Part of the reasoning for that is one it’s easy and two it gets the students a little more experience of what Europe’s like.

Jeff: And it also keeps the cost down.

Casey: Yup.

John: How do you prepare students for the trip in terms of preparing them for the culture and the experiences in advance?

Casey: I think part of it is getting them a few common phrases, if it’s a foreign language, getting them a sense of what the customs are, but likewise, letting them know that it’s not that different. Sometimes it’s a case of, “I need to pack absolutely everything.”

Jeff: Right, they think that we’re going to a third-world country and so we have to remind them: “You know, Belgium is a first-world country. The Netherlands is a first-world country. You can buy toothpaste, it’s okay. You don’t have to pack it. Or if you forget it, it’s not the end of the world.”

Casey: And sometimes it’s a fun experience to have to go, “Okay, what am I trying to find?”

Jeff: Of course, if a student gets sick, and they have to go to a pharmacy, that’s also an interesting time.

Casey: Which we have had occur.

Jeff: Our inaugural experience, we had a young lady terribly sick and she went to a pharmacy. She got some cough medicine and we said, “That’s great,” until Casey read the bottle and it said it was loaded with codeine. [LAUGHTER] And so she was taking it easy after we said, “Hey, don’t chug that.” [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: The benefit of having a scientist with you on a trip. [LAUGHTER]

Casey: Yeah.

Jeff: Well, yeah.

Casey: Partly. But I also know in many European countries, the pharmacists have a lot more leeway. You still have to talk to them to get ibuprofen or aspirin, but they also have the ability to sell you hydrocodone cough syrup, if that’s what they think you need. So things like that in terms of preparing students.

Jeff: You know, how to deal with money, right? That’s always the hard part. We’ve had kids lose their debit card, we’ve had kids bring traveler’s checks, and over the years we’ve built up a list of no’s and we just tell them, “Bring your debit card, that’s all you need.” Make sure though that it’s current because the one kid’s was not current and that’s why his card was eaten by the machine. And so then, of course, that was on a weekend and so we had to loan him a little cash. I don’t remember if it was me or Casey, but one of us floated him some cash. So we also have to be a bank while we’re over there. [LAUGHTER] My son went on that first trip with us, and everybody started calling me the international bank of dad.

John: What were some of the best experiences you had during the travel component?

Jeff: Personally I love traveling so I think all of the experiences are good. A kid will say something funny or whatever and everybody has a good time because even the kid who said it realizes, “Yeah, I guess that doesn’t make sense, does it?” I think it’s just fun being with the kids. There have been some probably not so great times, but…

Casey: …only a couple.

Jeff: …but only a couple.

Casey: Only a couple of situations where we’ve traveled that have been, let’s say, taxing and not ideal.

Rebecca: Like? [LAUGHTER]

Jeff: I can think of one in particular.

Casey: Basically, students thinking they knew what they were doing and deciding they were going to go off on their own and got themselves stuck in a different city overnight. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Oops.

Casey: Because they basically decided to do things on their own without consulting with anybody that actually knew what was going on. And it happened to be a day that was a holiday in Europe.

Jeff: And they just left us a note. And finally somebody came and knocked on my door late and said, “Uhh so-and-so and so-and-so and s o-and-so are nowhere to be found.” I said, “Oh boy,” “But they left us this note.” I said, “Oh, what does the note say?” And it said, “Went off to discover mother Europe,” and they ended up not returning til the next morning.

John: You brought most of them back to Oswego, right?

Jeff: We’ve never lost a student. We’ve wanted to. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Actively tried.

John: They’ve always found their way back.

Jeff: But we’ve never lost a student. We’ve never had to send anybody home early.

Casey: No.

Jeff: Although it certainly, we may have…

Casey: That incident was close.

Jeff: That was close. And we probably wanted to, but honestly—and hopefully no future students are listening—honestly, we didn’t want to deal with the hassle.

Rebecca: It’s too much work, right?

Jeff: It’s a lot of work.

John: Yeah.

Casey: It’s a case, though, that by and large, it’s gone really well.

Jeff: Yeah I’d say overall, we’ve done well. I think the students always give us glowing reports back as well. They have a great time and they learn a lot. And I think sometimes they don’t realize it until after they’ve come back that they’ve actually learned a lot.

Casey: We make them keep a journal. We have six, seven, eight specific assignments we want them to write about, but we really stress, “Use it as a log,” so that you can look back on it and remember. And that’s, I think, where they really start to realize how much they’ve learned if they take it serious and write everything. In terms of losing students—and trying to lose students—one of the challenges we sometimes have is getting the students to go off on their own. They want to stay right with us all the time and as part of their experience they need to, in small groups—not alone, but small groups—go do your own thing.

Jeff: Yeah, some of them like to be glued to you at the hip and it’s because as I said before, not everybody has traveled. They’re afraid, it’s a new place, the language might be different, they just don’t know. And you really see a difference between whether or not you’re taking a freshman versus whether or not you’re taking a senior.

Rebecca: What have been some of the challenges and opportunities of co-developing and co-teaching this class?

Casey: One of the situations we encountered is we developed this and even the very, very first year we did it, there were people on campus that were incredibly uncomfortable of us teaching this class. They were very concerned that we were teaching a class all about drinking and that’s not the case at all. And Josh in International Ed…

Jeff: This is not a “how-to” course in how to drink.

Casey: No, and we’ve heard it several times that in many respects because it’s a course that involves alcohol and it’s all about appreciating alcohol and understanding it, we have less problems with drunkenness than some of the other study abroad classes that don’t really address it. But that very first year or two that we did teach the class there was a lot of skepticism and concern by several people on campus about what we were actually doing.

Jeff: Well, and even if somebody would mention the fact, “Oh, you teach the beer course, hahaha,” right, and they kind of give you this kind of snide look like, “You’re a joke” kind of thing. Say what you will, but we know what we do and we do it well and kids get an understanding of fermentation and all the processes that go into it and an appreciation.

John: And it is applied chemistry.

Casey: It is.

Jeff: It is applied chemistry, applied biology, it’s applied science. One of the things that people have to keep perspective of is that alcohol is a multibillion dollar industry, right? …a multibillion dollar global industry. And people don’t appreciate that.

Casey: Sometimes it’s juggling who’s scheduling what because we do almost all of our own planning and organization for the study abroad component.

Jeff: I would agree. Just even this latest trip, Casey and I are both trying to plan hotel accommodations and it’s like, “Hold it. Did you talk to someone?” “No, wait, I thought you were,” “Oh? No I didn’t.” So that’s probably one of the challenges. Opportunity, I don’t know, we get to work together.

Casey: Yeah. And it provides…

Jeff: Doing something we like.

Casey: Yeah. It provides a little extra coverage in those times when it’s like, “Oh, I can’t quite get to class tonight. Can you cover?” and it gives us that balance as well. It gives us a little more balance when we’re abroad. Kind of keeping track of students especially in the trip’s locations where we’re moving destinations and hopping between trains.

Jeff: Right. One of us will be in the front, one of us will be in the back, Casey will do a count, I’ll do a count, hopefully they’re the same. [LAUGHTER] So it does make it a little easier.

Casey: Thinking about trains, challenging instances. When we went to Munich, we took the train from the airport to the city.

Jeff: Yeah, we did.

Casey: Two of the students didn’t realize we were serious when we said, “When the doors open at the next stop, get off,” because the doors closed before they got off. We were able to signal to try and get turned around.

Jeff: If this was visual, you could see me waving like they did, because as they’re going they’re just “Ugh.”

Casey: Now what? [LAUGHTER] And it happened to be two students that year that didn’t have a cell phone that would work in-country. So that’s something that’s changed a lot since we first taught courses, the wireless and cell phone and technology. But you know, 40 minutes later, they’d find their way back to that.

Jeff: They had the presence of mind to get off at the next stop, cross the tracks, get back on, and come back to where we were. We didn’t move, we waited, and not having cell phones when we went to Belgium—must have been 2011—we took my daughter with us. I took all of my kids when they were 16-years-old, with my daughters. And it just happened that it was always to Belgium. Well this time we took a day trip to Amsterdam and…

Casey: No, we stayed in Amsterdam.

Jeff: Oh we did. That’s right we did.

Casey: We landed in Amsterdam to stay there.

Jeff: And we’re wandering around and…

Casey: Introducing them to the city that first day.

Jeff: And all of a sudden…

Casey: We sent everybody to ATMs to get money because we just got in the country.

Jeff: And it’s like, “Hold it. Where’s my daughter?” She was only 16. I said to my wife, “Where is she?” so we’re going one direction and I think somebody told me where they had seen her and we went that way and turns out, Casey and his wife and my daughter are going a different way looking for us and I was just…

Casey: You had like, two students with you and I had the other 10 with me.

Jeff: …round and round and round. And yeah, so cell phones would have been helpful. But I mean, you think about it even seven, eight years ago, cell phone technology is vastly different. So that can be a challenge sometimes. And the lesson I took away with that is don’t take my own kids with me. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: The lesson of the 40 minute wait is nobody else wants to be that kid next time, so it’s like, lesson learned the first 40 minutes we’re here.

Casey: And it’s something we tell classes now. We’re serious when we say get off the train, get off the train.

Rebecca: This is why you don’t take too much luggage with you. [LAUGHTER]

Jeff: We do tell them to pack light. I will admit that as I’ve gotten older I tend to check a bag rather than carry it on but Casey will get there, he just doesn’t know it yet.

John: What would a typical day be like while you’re in-country?

Casey: Usually see everybody at breakfast, it’s kind of a standard.

Jeff: We tell them, we want to see, we don’t care if you eat—even though breakfast is probably included—but we got to see you at 9 o’clock or whatever it is.

Casey: And then usually we’ll have half of the day planned… programmed… scheduled. There’s cases where it’s a whole-day situation but usually we’ll have half-day things planned so we’ll do that and then they’ll have a chunk of open time to explore things that they’re particularly interested in. We certainly make recommendations and suggestions. But we found it’s really valuable to have the free-time for them to do things they want and do their own exploring.

Rebecca: But I bet the free time is really good for you.

Casey: It is. [LAUGHTER]

Jeff: Maybe…

Casey: It is. And it also gives us the flexibility to adjust our schedule in some cases. If we’ve had something planned outdoors and it’s a really cruddy day and we know the next day is going to be better, we’ve been known to flip things around to make it work. The very first year, our flight was six hours late leaving New York City which then affected things we were going to do that first day in the country. And we just started flip flopping things and we made it all work, but it was a lesson immediately: Build in that flexibility.

Rebecca: I can imagine that by students taking this class if they weren’t interested in science or didn’t know that much about it, that when you see how it’s applied and have a practical application that maybe they didn’t experience in high school that they might actually develop an interest in an area that they didn’t know they had an interest in.

Casey: I’ve spoken with people, some parents but others and they asked what I teach, and I say chemistry. “Oh, my student will never have you for class,” or, “I would have never had you for chemistry,” I said, “Well, you might take the fermentation science course.”

Jeff: “What?”

Casey: Wuh…. huh… what? And it’s really about—I said many times—it’s sort of enticing students into a course based on the topic. I usually actually say, “Sucker them into a course,” because they think it’s going to be about something, but it really is: give them that basic science that appreciation, but really give them a chance to experience something different, something very eye opening.

Jeff: And we’ve had kids actually go on and work in the industry, and being brewers and distillers.

Casey: Yeah.

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

Jeff: What’s next? Well I know come spring break, Casey’s taking a bunch of kids to Paris.

Casey: It’s an honors course, related to food science.

Jeff: And I’ll be taking a dozen kids to Dublin for spring break. That course is not about drinking.

Casey: You talk about challenges. This year has been a different challenge because Jeff’s planning Dublin, I’ve been planning France for spring break, and then we’re planning Scotland in May. And so I’m trying to keep things straight.

Jeff: It was hectic. It was hectic.

Rebecca: I made that mistake. The first year I took students abroad I planned another U.S. travel class in the same year, so like Q3 was a travel and then Q4 was. I hear you, I learned my lesson. [LAUGHTER]

Jeff: Well, no, the lesson is you just have to keep practicing.

Rebecca: O, oh, oh yeah.

Casey: Thankfully Jeff’s done Dublin several times.

Jeff: I’ve done Dublin several times now and I basically plan it as soon as I get back after spring break. This year I’ll have the next year planned already or pretty close.

Casey: And we’ve been to Scotland so most of that was set. At least, we knew what we wanted to do, it’s just a matter of finalizing things. And we’ll do the same thing, end of May we’ll come back and we’ll start strategizing, “Okay, what’s the location for May ‘20?”

Jeff: I mean even before that, we’ve already talked a little bit about the location for May ‘20.

Rebecca: Which is going to be?

Jeff: Well, we haven’t decided yet.

Casey: It may be the Netherlands, it may be Munich.

Jeff: I love Amsterdam and I love Munich as well.

Casey: I haven’t put on his radar that we could go to Cologne.

Jeff: Well, we could go to Cologne… ah…Decisions.

John: And what is your class in Ireland?

Jeff: The class in Ireland, that’s GLS 100. It’s a Global Cities course and so there’s always some question as to, you know, is Dublin really a global city? Because there’s some kind of fancy-pancy definition of what a global city is and I’m not quite sure if Dublin actually fits but I think it’s a global enough city. It’s cosmopolitan, it’s got a lot of political problems, especially now with Brexit coming up. It’s a fun course. We talk about culture of Ireland and Dublin and the history and we spend a lot of time on the 1916 revolution and things like that and so kids get a lot of information. I only meet one night a week, like most global courses, and then we’ll be gone for all of spring break. In fact, we’re going to leave the Friday before spring break, and we’ll be coming back midnight or one Monday morning.

John: Well, thank you. This has been fascinating.

Jeff: Thank you.

Casey: You’re welcome.

John: It sounds like an interesting class.

Rebecca: Thank you.

Jeff: Thank you.

John: We’ve recorded this podcast a couple weeks early, which is somewhat new to us because we’re often recording these within a week of their release. But as we were completing editing on the podcast, we got an email from Casey who noted that perhaps some things can go wrong on trips that they had not yet experienced. So Casey, would you like to tell us a little bit about what happened?

Casey: Yeah, John. I led the spring break class to France, as I indicated at the end in the last podcast. And I recalled you asking about challenging or difficult situations that occur. And in our case, it reminded me that I probably needed to do this little addendum. Specifically, we were scheduled to leave Syracuse Friday afternoon and we had all 13 students at the airport on time. We actually even boarded the plane Friday afternoon, and the pilot came on and made an announcement that during his walkthrough, he noticed a small leak. He wasn’t sure what it was, they were bringing mechanics over to look at it. A couple minutes later, he comes back on and says, “They’re not sure, we need to de-plane so they can figure it out.” And so everybody’s off, everybody gets in line to the ticket counter for fear of missing connections and rebooking and lo and behold, they weren’t sure what the problem was. When they finally did find the leaking part, they didn’t have a replacement, and it wouldn’t come in until maybe six o’clock Friday night, in which case we would have missed our international flights. And so I contacted our travel agent, she couldn’t really do anything because it was all airport control. I ended up working with a supervisor, just by chance, he pulled me out of line to try and rebook 15 of us on a single ticket. And so as he was working with corporate trying to map this out and come up with a plan, we ended up needing to split our group to come up with options because there just weren’t seats available leading into spring break, dealing with some weather issues that were happening, and the fact that the 737 Max grounding had limited some of the airlines—not ours—but there just weren’t seats available. And so I agreed to split the group, my wife would go with one part, I would go with another part and we came back with our new itinerary, instead of a direct flight from Washington D.C. to Paris, the first group of us was going to fly from Washington D.C. to Chicago, to Frankfurt, and then to Paris. The second group was going to fly from Washington D.C. to Zurich to Paris. So we get in a couple hours apart… day late… which would affect our train travel to Lyons because our first four days was going to be there. And so it’s like, “Well, it’s the best we can do, that’s what we’ll do.” And so we stayed in a hotel Friday night as a group, got to the airport Saturday morning, and by about 9:30…10 a.m. Saturday morning, they had completely canceled our flight because they still didn’t have the right repair part and they couldn’t bus us to Washington D.C. So the next thing we knew they were going to bus us to New York City so we could have a direct flight from JFK, but they couldn’t find busing to get us to JFK. And so then they rerouted us on a Sunday night like from Washington D.C. to Paris, with the promise they would get us to Washington D.C. Saturday night. So now we’ve spent all of Friday afternoon sitting in the airport. Now we’re going to spend all day Saturday sitting in the airport. And some of the students got together with parents that were local, some of the students hopped an Uber and ran to the mall to kill some time. But we finally got out of Syracuse on the fixed plane. Saturday night about 8:30 got to Washington D.C. about 10pm, got into a hotel there—the airline put us up—and then Sunday morning, students studied, did various things, but we all got to the airport Sunday afternoon, and finally got on our flight to Paris. So we arrived in Paris Monday morning instead of Saturday morning. by Saturday afternoon, when I knew we’re going to miss two days and that the things we had planned on Monday were not going to be possible, we just weren’t going to make it, and that was a key reason for going to Lyons, I all of a sudden was in the mode of, I need to completely reconfigure the whole front end of my class. And so I started working with International Ed and the person on the ground in Paris. We have to try and get two additional nights of lodging in Paris, just cancel the whole Lyons part of it, try and recruit rail ticket expenses, cancel the hotel there—which did cost us two nights of lodging, but not all four—and then try and figure out what am I going to do in Paris with this group food related in the two days now that I have? So it really wasn’t until Wednesday afternoon that I finally started to feel comfortable and relaxed on this trip just because of all the upheaval. The crew at the Syracuse airport that was trying to help us… the person there… was outstanding. He was doing everything he possibly could to help the class. The students were really pretty good. They understood that was not a lot we could do other than keep pushing along. Some were concerned, some were upset, there were certainly frustration and disappointment for all of us, especially as we had to cancel things we were planning to do. But it was a situation that you hope you never really encounter. But it’s a case of, you really have to be ready for almost anything. And as Jeff and I indicated before, you’ve got to be ready to be flexible. And this was really an extreme case of it because all of a sudden, I’m rescheduling basically half of our overseas experience completely on the fly and largely with an internet connection through a cell phone.

John: Flexibility is important. There are a lot of moving parts there. And if one of them stops moving, it affects all the others.

Casey: Yeah.

John: Overall, how did it work?

Casey: Overall, it worked out really as best as it could under those situations. Once we got into France, everything went fine on the ground there. It actually worked out amazingly well that the extra two hotel nights were in the same hotel we originally going to be in. And I discovered at least one activity in Paris as a substitute… a cheese tasting that worked out outstandingly for the students and it was a great experience. So in the grand scheme of things, I think it all worked. We’re disappointed to have missed a few things that we had originally planned, but I think the students still benefited from what happened and the stress that I experienced didn’t really negatively impact the class.

John: Great. Well, thank you for the update.

Casey: You’re welcome.

John: And we look forward to hearing more stories about more pleasant travel experiences in the future.

Casey: Me too.

[Music]

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

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

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

75. Concourse Syllabus Platform

Syllabi are important resources for students, faculty and institutions. Syllabi that are readily available, consistent, accessible, and up to date can provide important scaffolding for students. In this episode, Jeffrey Riman joins us to discuss a tool that can help both faculty and institutions accomplish all of those things while keeping faculty focused on learning outcomes and course design.

Jeffrey is a coordinator of the Center for Excellence in Teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He’s also a consultant and educator at Parsons The New School University. Jeffrey is a chair of the State University of New York faculty Advisory Council on teaching and technology at FIT, the Fashion Institute of Technology. He is also the chair of their Faculty Senate Committee on instructional technology.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Syllabi are important resources for students, faculty and institutions. Syllabi that are readily available, consistent, accessible, and up to date can provide important scaffolding for students. In this episode, we’ll talk about a tool that can help both faculty and institutions accomplish all of those things while keeping faculty focused on learning outcomes and course design.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Today our guest is Jeffrey Riman. Jeffrey is a coordinator of the Center for Excellence in Teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He’s also a consultant and educator at Parsons The New School University. Jeffrey is a chair of the State University of New York faculty Advisory Council on teaching and technology at FIT, the Fashion Institute of Technology. He is also the chair of their Faculty Senate Committee on instructional technology. Welcome back, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Nice to be back.

Rebecca: Glad to have you.

Jeffrey: [LAUGHTER] You make me sound so busy that I think I have to cancel, though. So we’ll do this another time. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I think you are just as busy as it sounds from what I know.

Jeffrey: And I’m very happy to set the time aside to be with you guys. This is a great topic, so thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Jeffrey: Russian Caravan.

John: Yorkshire Gold.

Rebecca:…and Jasmine Green tea.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about the use of the Concourse syllabus management platform that’s been adopted at FIT. Could you tell us a little bit about this service?

Jeffrey: Yes, thanks. The product itself—and I like to preface whenever I talk about this product or VoiceThread for that matter—is we’re always looking to have choices in the products that we use and it’s really always a needs-based issue. What do you want to do and how are you going to get it done? In the case of Concourse, which is a product made by a company called Intellidemia, we knew that we had some challenges with the use of syllabi at FIT and we wanted to find a way to manage them. In most cases, what we found were products that were distributing PDF files or text files, but they weren’t truly interactive living syllabi, and let me explain what that means. First of all, like many colleges we have a very high percentage of part- time faculty, which means that many of them only are in the college to teach their courses, which means that they are not necessarily exposed to the curricular process or all of the syllabi that represent the curriculum they’re teaching. These syllabi tend to be handed down from semester to semester, in some cases, generation to generation. And, as a result, we were finding that many syllabi either had no learning outcomes or the course description was out of date. We’re all teaching in a technology driven world and a lot of what we teach at FIT is really based on practice, so products change, textbooks change very frequently. This is not unusual for any college but at FIT, because we have about 70% part timers, it’s a bigger challenge. So in doing a search we found Concourse and what Concourse allows us to do are a few things. First of all, it allows us to synchronize how all syllabi are formatted so students going to each class where Concourse syllabi appears are seeing a very similar appearance and the sequence is very similar. Now I want to stress that it is editable, it allows for full academic freedom, except in certain areas where the college—and I’m talking about the Faculty Senate Curriculum Committee—and the faculty as a whole feel certain things should not be edited. For example, the course description and the learning outcomes that the course is predicated upon. Those should be uniform, so if all three of us are taking the same course from different instructors, we should not have different outcomes. And many faculty were taking it upon themselves—with all sincerity—to amend the outcomes to better fit their practice or to better fit the way they think the course should be taught. And this, by the way, was not just the part timers, the full timers too. In one department, I was pelted with tomatoes when they found out that they were no longer able to edit the outcomes. [LAUGHTER] However, we need to put the students front and center in this situation. They sign up for a course and their friends are taking the same course, they should have certain unifying elements. So the synchronization of format, the format is fully digital but you can make a very nice looking PDF. It is completely compliant for screen readers. Font size, color contrast, and they have a VPAT that is easy to access that you can see basically their compliance levels which have improved and when you look at it it’s not like a beautiful piece of graphic design but it has a pleasing appearance. So many syllabi are in Times Roman and people are editing Word documents when they don’t know how to manage the formatting. The formatted syllabi allow you to input all the things you’re allowed to input and let me give you examples of what faculty will input. They’ll input their own unique course policies. They’ll input their absence policy. At FIT we do not regulate the grading scale from course to course, so there are some people who have an A that starts at 94 and others have an A that starts at 95. Those things are permitted. In addition, you can put down the materials needed for the course, the office hours, and really your whole calendar of how you have the course unfold. So if all three of us using this scenario are taking the same course in different sections, the syllabi can be quite different with respect to how each professor teaches to their strengths , but that does not mean that the pillars that support that course and the way assessment is achieved are unified. So how do we do this? First of all, like many colleges in the SUNY network I can speak to they use Banner. And Banner feeds will synchronize through the Concourse product. So we actually input all of our learning outcomes and all of our course descriptions into feeds that are updated on a daily basis. So I’ll explain how the feeds work a little bit more in a minute. But what that means though is everybody in each course is getting the same thing. Now that is on a course level. When you look at an institution-wide level, there were many policies and services that are available to everybody in the college, and we found that many syllabi either were out of date or did not even have them. So here’s examples of things that will go into what we call school policies and resources. Where is the center that helps students with special needs? Where is the learning center? The tutoring center? Advisement? Counseling? Where is the policy on academic integrity? All of these things are put into a separate feed that’s updated each semester so that they represent the current state of affairs. We’re never more than 14 weeks out of date.

Rebecca: From a student point of view, I can imagine how useful it would be to have this consistency that you’re describing from class to class. So that you know that the information that you get as accurate but also where in the document it is. That the heading structures and things look familiar so it’s easy to skim and look at it. I don’t think faculty always stop to think about that a student might have five classes and for each class, it’s almost like having five different employers where each place has its own set of policies and like, “This information is located here, and that information is located there.” So I can imagine for consistency purposes how useful that could actually be for a student.

Jeffrey: It does help the students and it helps the students and the faculty. And I’ll give you two examples. If there is a concern about plagiarism, both the professor and the student can go to the syllabi and click on the latest policy and procedure for dealing with plagiarism. Because we have different schools of thought on plagiarism, right? Some people think they should be tarred, feathered, and you know, left outside on a cold day. And other people treat it more like it’s a learning process. The school has very, very clear prescriptives on how to deal with plagiarism and when everybody’s using the same tool, it means that the students are informed of their rights and their ability to defend themselves and to deal with the issue. And faculty are prescribed a step-by-step process as well. That’s a great unification of process. It also is reassuring to a student who doesn’t have to go looking for that information. Another example is the academic integrity policies in general are very prescriptive to the students and the faculty alike in terms of best practices when it comes to the proper attribution of content and also the rights of use. And actually we have a significant issue with visual plagiarism.

Rebecca: Yup.

JEFFERY: … I knew you’d say “yup” to that one. [LAUGHTER] And so, this works. So without beating it to death too much in simple terms, so what we do is if you visualize your college, your college usually has several schools and within those schools are departments and within those departments are the courses. Taken as a whole—for instance, FIT runs around 2100 sections per semester—we have five schools and many departments within. The way we use it is from the highest level, course policies and resources are shared throughout the school. Course descriptions, learning outcomes are curriculum specific. And then the rest of it is left up to the faculty. The first time they create a syllabus, it could take them a good hour and a half because you need to input each thing individually and on a week-by-week basis. Building your calendar the very first time will take more time. But then once you’ve done it, it is easily transportable from section to section semester to semester. So the import process not unlike importing a Blackboard course—well, Blackboard you push from the old to the new and with Concourse you pull—so you go into the new course. So let me talk a little bit about the integration. Not that anybody’s stopping me here. [LAUGHTER] We are a Blackboard school, at least at the present time. We are fully integrated with Blackboard. We use a product called API Adapter which helps to manage the connection between Concourse and our Banner system. And it’s very simple, it’s just like middleware, it’s open-source, it’s easily used. On a larger scale there might be a fee but for our size college it’s not really a big deal. So, as the courses are run in Blackboard and we do run three times a day early in the semester, there were several things that happened in every school that’s using an LMS. The teacher assignments are updated, the course sections are updated, and course shells are generated. And Concourse will run right behind those runs so that if John is teaching a course and he has three sections and one section was cancelled, that update will be evident in Blackboard and you will not be able to create a syllabus in the course that was cancelled. Or conversely if a time has changed, that’s updated too. All of this goes through Banner. So if you just basically think of it as a one-two kick, we do our feeds for courses through Blackboard and then syllabi into Blackboard. Every single course that is a credit- bearing course has a syllabus template associated with it. Now let’s just say it’s an old course and it doesn’t have outcomes, Concourse understands when there’s something missing and will allow you to edit it. So if for some reason you got a course that didn’t have outcomes at all, and in the early days—we have some courses we’ve been teaching here for 45 years—like shoe making. [LAUGHTER] The outcomes are not that different now than then, except maybe now you’re using a 3D printer to make some of these pieces and back then it was all nails and leather and hands, you know? So, nonetheless, when something is missing, the door is open to paste it in. Now, they’re supposed to notify us when things are missing and we do get notified. Now the faculty who use it like it, but it is an adoption process. One of the challenges is most part-time faculty are not notified they’re teaching a course until anywhere from three weeks, a month, to 48 hours. And so a lot of times they have to use what they have and that means that the Concourse syllabus is less likely to get used. Now, I’ve explained to you how we use it, and before we move on, maybe I should give you guys a little oxygen to ask me questions.

John: One question is, can students access this outside of Blackboard or can they only do it within their course?

Jeffrey: Okay, so the answer is yes. When you create a syllabus there is a link that you can get that’s called a public link, and that link can be shared just like a Google Doc that is view only. So they can use that link. They can print a syllabus, it makes a very nice looking PDF file if you generate a PDF file from it.

John: And is that persistent? If someone say wants to transfer a course into another institution? Can they go back and use that same link to get a copy?

JEFREY: To another institution?

John: Well for example, I’ll have a student who two or three years ago took an online class here at Oswego from me and then they want to copy of that because they’re transferring from one school to another. Is there a persistent link?

Jeffrey: Yeah they’re better off making a PDF because the students only access Concourse through either public links that are deliberately shared by the faculty or through Blackboard and we close our Blackboard courses about a month after the end of the semester. So they would not have access to their course. And the link, I don’t think the link would work, but I’ve never tried it. You’ve given me something to add to my list. [LAUGHTER]

John: I was just thinking if they could get it, it could save faculty a lot of work because I keep getting emails from past students who want a copy of the syllabus.

Jeffrey: Wow, I’ve never had that happen. But you know, it’s an interesting thought. I will definitely look into that.

John: Well it’s partly because I have 340 to 420 students in my large class every fall and some of them transfer or some of them were online students who are doing it for some other institution.

Jeffrey: And at Parsons it would take me nine years to have that many. [LAUGHTER]

John: Although that’s just one class but…

Jeffrey: Okay, okay… [LAUGHTER]

John: I still have several other…

Rebecca: He always wins that one. [LAUGHTER]

John: I’m not sure that’ winning. [LAUGHTER]
In a recent podcast, Christine Harrington talked about her book on creating syllabi and so forth and one of the things she noted is that she runs syllabus workshops that are really professional development workshops and Rebecca does the same thing here, that building a syllabus could be really useful in terms of guiding faculty towards backwards design or to better instructional practices. Is that being used to some extent or have you seen it being used in that way at FIT?

Jeffrey: I personally, when I work with faculty for the first time, that’s exactly what I talk to them about. The process of building syllabi from different sources, meaning how you have historically taught the course, what your unique policies are, but the normal natural constraint of abiding by what the curriculum committee approved. So, in some ways you’re constrained, which means you need to understand, analyze, and incorporate the way the curriculum was designed. And then at the same time, we can really engage them in what is the pedagogy that they’re going to use in their course? When they build their calendars we talk about the different types of activities and assignments that they can hypothetically project by doing their calendar ahead of time. And a lot of times, they just haven’t had the time to really explore what are other ways that I can assess my students progress? So the syllabus process allows you to really re-examine everything, kind of like when you clean out a closet, you put things back one at a time. I like that metaphor. You know, that’s a good one. But that’s what building a syllabi is and this product kind of requires that you do that. I can tell you there’s other scenarios though that are being used. For example, some departments have course coordinators who coordinate all the faculty teaching that curriculum. And so the course coordinator will meet with the faculty as a whole and share their syllabi so that the other teachers can actually, if you will, harvest intelligence from them. And because they have a course coordinator, they can touch base as needed on what works, what doesn’t work, and what they need. That’s a side benefit.

John: What are some of the other features that you don’t use, and why not?

Jeffrey: One of the things that it is capable of doing is allowing a department chair or even a dean to audit all the syllabi, to view all the syllabi, so there’s a management function there that allows you to, in effect, take a look at what the syllabi looks like that are going to the students. We don’t do that at FIT. Some departments request or require that the syllabus be submitted each semester by a certain date and others just coordinate and follow up with the faculty without that formality. So the Concourse product allows you to audit and manage as much as is either permitted or accepted within your culture. At FIT faculty really like to hold their syllabi close and they are not all comfortable and this reminds me of the argument at MIT when they went with, you know, opening all their syllabi that there were still professors who will not permit that, and that’s the same thing here. There are some people who said, “Everybody can look at my syllabus,” and others say, “No,” and no is no. So the college does not take a very strong top-down position on that.

John: In my department, at least, the secretary collects all the syllabi for review or potential review. I don’t think anyone’s really reviewing them except when we go through Middle States accreditation and so forth, and then that whole portfolio goes to the evaluators. But occasionally we’ve had a syllabi study on campus where people have gone through and evaluated them, but it was generally voluntary submissions to that.

Jeffrey: Just to give you another perspective, at The New School you’re required to submit your syllabi for every section you teach named in a very specific fashion and the implied consequence of not submitting it could interfere with your reappointment. So they feel very strongly it’s very important. And I agree with you, John. They probably don’t read everyone. But if there’s a problem, they have everyone and they can look at it. And I bet you they do look at areas they’re concerned about.

Rebecca: I was going to say, that reminds me of when you were talking about some of the capabilities of the system that I was thinking having some of these structured ways of having policies and things in the documents and having a repository where they’re all located prevents the ask mom versus as a dad. Like the scenario where students are trying to find the answer they’re looking for. So they’ll just keep asking people until someone gives them the answer that they want to hear, but if it’s really formalized and that process is reinforced and that the policies are reinforced and consistent, that they’re always going to get the same answer no matter who they ask.

Jeffrey: And I’ve had faculty thank me as if I created the product because this takes some of the guesswork out of what they need to do. And I think, realistically speaking, especially as we all look to bring in learners from different stages of their lives and different points in their careers, whether they be right out of high school or they’re coming back for additional learning, that tools like this permit a more consistent product for whoever is coming in from anywhere and it kind of helps support what I’m going to call the shared governance of a faculty that generates curriculum, which is the lifeblood of the college. And that protection is really, really valuable. So many people work so hard to make sure that these courses maintain their relevance and at FIT we’re opening up new degree programs and closing old. And so as we continue to build toward the near future, this product becomes more and more valuable. But I will say on the other side, it’s an organic process and it takes time.

John: What went wrong along the way? What things might you do differently if you were to implement it now?

Jeffrey: First of all, typically a lot of people who are instructional designers would be involved in training people to use a product like this and showing its value within a course design. But the upfront implementation process in a Banner school really requires that you have somebody who understands how feeds work, how to generate feeds, and how to test feeds.The folks at Intellidemia—they refer to themselves as syllabus geeks—will provide an implementation manual, but that manual is best read first by IT. To be perfectly candid, you need that upfront integration to be rock solid in order for everything else to work. In my case, we came in early on the product and their implementation strategy was not 100% clear. And I want to emphasize that my experiences were more challenging than many people who are newer customers, but you do need to have IT support and engagement with it. And I recommend do a pilot with just a small amount of courses so you see how it plays out. Initially we did previews. I did a pilot with 14 faculty. They all loved it to bits but they all had trouble convincing other people to try it. And the organic process of growth has begun to speed up now, but the initial sell was difficult and you can’t push. You have to kind of show value and, “If you build it, they will come” is not always true. We still have resistance in some pockets of the college and our Academic Affairs Office has been very reticent to do a top down push on this. However, I will tell you that one of our Business and Technology departments that has a very high adoption rate, about 80% of the syllabi in that department—and that department has 1200 students. It’s bigger than some community colleges, just that department—and when they had an accreditation review by an organization that directly works with the merchandising and marketing type colleges and courses. They cited this product as being an integral part of the success of the department, the way they are coordinating courses and making sure that everybody has that same syllabus tool at their disposal and is implemented. And so they were congratulated for what they did to the point where I know they’ve encouraged others to do the same.

Rebecca: I can imagine that some faculty pushback would come from the assumption that if most of the structure is there and you can only edit some of the language… Some of the ideas that Christine Harrington brings out in the motivational syllabus, writing from a particular point of view, being warm and welcoming, and not like: “Don’t do this, don’t do that,” kind of language could get lost if you’re not the writer of all of the content or have the ability to do some of those things. Can you address that a little bit?

Jeffrey: Yes, and actually, I’m going to tell you that your interpretation right now is far more constrained than the reality of what we do. When you open up your course for the first time and you see the syllabus template, here’s what you will see that’s generated by the college, let’s say, or by the system. The header which has your course number, your CRN, the meeting date, the meeting time, and the meeting location are all managed through Banner. Then your name will appear as it appears in the system. So that’s always manageable, if somebody’s unhappy about something or they’ve hyphenated or you know, all these things that happen. And then the next thing they see is the course description as approved and the learning outcomes. The only other part of the syllabus that is constrained are the institution’s policies and resources. The faculty have complete freedom without any approval process to then add to the syllabus everything about their absence policies, their philosophy on teaching, their calendar is completely written in their own voice, so it’s really only those three things. The institution’s resources, the learning outcomes, and the course description. Everything else is up for grabs and is used very, very differently by different people.

Rebecca: I can imagine. I kind of had the idea that that was probably the case, but I think a lot of times when we hear a system that’s going to manage these things, red flags come up, and that’s what the assumption is and that can prevent adoption. So thanks for making that more clear.

John: Pretty much all colleges have fixed statements that have to be included in the syllabi. We certainly have them. But I suspect if we looked at all the courses out there, we’d see some were five-years old, some were 20-years old, and some might, perhaps, have never gotten in statements on disability access, and so on.

Jeffrey: And, you know, as I’m sure Christine Harrington has stressed also, many teachers are not trained to be educators. They are practitioners, they are people who have been out in the world, they’re bringing their world experience in, and then they’re being asked to follow the structures of an educational institution. And so we’re actually, by doing this, providing them with, let’s call it the core skeletal needs that every syllabi should have. And let’s be candid, you know, many people take more than one course or one semester to improve their practice, so the better we equip them upfront, the better start they get.

Rebecca: Seems only fair that we scaffold for faculty like we try to scaffold for our students.

Jeffrey: Yeah we don’t talk about that enough, do we? I remember the first time I taught as a part timer. You know, I felt like I had a great experience but I went in and was talking to a bunch of 20-year olds. The only 20-year old I’ve been talking to lately was my own daughter, and that’s not such a good conversation all the time. [LAUGHTER] So with your students, you learn over time that when you’re working with employees versus students, there’s similarities, but there’s far greater differences, especially when it comes to motivation, risk taking, quality of work, and so on. So we need the freedom to learn and to grow and to help each other. It’s a kumbaya moment we just had.

Rebecca: Yeah, that feels very supportive and loving. How have students responded in general? I don’t think we’ve really addressed that.

Jeffrey: Feedback I’ve heard is that the student reaction has been positive. Ironically, some faculty were thinking it was not advantageous for students to see the same format in different classes, but students actually recognize it makes it a lot easier for them to navigate. I’m going to make an analogy that I think works. I’m making a generalized statement here, most faculty who use rubrics have far less problems with their students in terms of their perception of assessment because they know that the entire class is being graded with the same tool. And I think that when they know that all of their colleagues— or their classmates if you will—are getting a product that is also regulated in the fundamental basics, that tells them that their teacher and their friends teacher are dealing with the same basic toolset before they go in and exercise their freedom as educators. Does that makes sense? Is that a good analogy?

John: It does.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think that’s a good way to look at it. It also gives the perception that the faculty… that they’re all at the same level. Or they all have expertise and they’re all to be respected, which can be really helpful.

Jeffrey: Students give great feedback, and especially when they’re asked. I don’t want to digress into it too much, but even in like in an open pedagogy situation where students are really generating content, it can be amazing how they can be so insightful as to the benefits. Maybe we don’t always give them enough credit, but my interactions with students about the product have been, it shouldn’t be a big deal that this should be a no brainer. To them it’s kind of like, “Why is anybody not using it?” You know, and I don’t want the Intellidemia people to be too happy.

John: Because there’s always room for improvement.

Jeffrey: I want them to worry. I want them to worry and I want other people to make a product that competes with them too because we shouldn’t just have a singular product that functions in this level. However, the amount of work that Intellidemia has done to make the plumbing work I think is it truly impressive and it’s kind of, and I’ve mentioned before VoiceThread and you know the three of us talked about VoiceThread some time ago. VoiceThread continues to improve their product in ways that are very impressive, including most recently automatic captioning. And with the syllabus product, a lot of what they’re doing in terms of improvement is related to the simplicity of setting it up, the appearance of the product, the compliance of the product, and also—and this was a weak point for the product for some time—reporting. In the early days, I could not get a report that would tell me exactly how many syllabi had been opened. It took a long time before they were able to do that, not because they disagreed with my request or anybody else’s, but because they were really working on their back-end systems to be as flexible as possible so they can continue to add on. So although we do not use the management tools I’m going to call them, they continue to improve those as well so that if each of you were chairs of a department, you would be able to get an instant picture of how many syllabi are out there and you would be able to view them. I know there’s different points-of-view about that. But I think there’s a difference between looking at something and playing an editorial role at its creation. I think that people who overstep the administration side and start telling faculty what the verbiage should be, or what the emphasis should be, they’re tread ing in very dangerous territory. And that’s true whether or not you’re using Microsoft Office, or Acrobat, or Intellidemia, right? It’s really a principle, it’s not unique to any one product.

John: I do get reminders for sending in one of my syllabi every Spring because I have the students develop some of the syllabus on the first day of class. So, I just have to remind the secretary for my department that the syllabus will be coming as soon as we have a chance to finish putting it together. But again, that’s not unique to this, because even without the system, secretaries can be monitoring to make sure everyone has submitted their syllabus.

Jeffrey: But you know, there’s a good scenario there, John, where even with this product—and, by the way, I do this in my class—I have a conversation with them about how late is late, and how many absences have an impact, and what does an A mean and a B and so on. So even though they may not be able to alter exactly what we’re doing in terms of what’s required, they do get to change the verbiage on some of this stuff to fit what’s real. And so if you are using Intellidemia, you make those edits either in the classroom or that night. And that’s the way everybody will see it the next time they go in.

John: Right.

Jeffrey: You’re working with a live link. One other thing one, some faculty actually use the syllabi as a living document of what the assignments are. In other words, they update the calendar daily to represent what’s due each and every week.

Rebecca: I do that. [LAUGHTER]

Jeffrey: Yeah so there you go, you would love this for that reason then. So students know that they must go into Blackboard to view their syllabi or use the link that they’ve gotten to view it and not to depend on a static document.

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

Jeffrey: As far as this topic is concerned, we’re beginning to work with the Office of Academic Affairs which we report up to on having more workshops on the creation, editing, and strengthening of syllabi, and we’re using that as a unifying message about actual course design as well. So if somebody is projecting how their syllabi will impact their students and then they link that or align it with the course design, it makes for a much more powerful subject as opposed to feeling that they’re related, but they’re not connected. And we’re trying to connect them so that’s really what—it’s much more holistic than it is anything else. I will say this that anybody is welcome to contact me if they want more information. I would then be willing to share with them an example of the syllabi for example. So, there you go.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for joining us, Jeffrey. It’s always a pleasure.

Jeffrey: It is a pleasure. It’s nice to see you both, and let’s keep that tea going. [LAUGHTER]

John: Yeah, mine is empty.

Jeffrey: I just have to say that I think that you guys do a great job. The series is so relevant, and I’m doing a commercial now for you but it’s from the heart. You guys are really performing a great service and I just encourage anybody who’s listening for the first time to go back and look at the incredible archive of content there that is all relevant and frankly, none of it is older than what, about 18 months John?

John: I think so. I think our first significant podcast was November of 2017, the first week of November.

Jeffrey: That’s right. I have found that it really enhances not only my teaching process, but it also helps me in terms of my work I do as a faculty developer. So thank you both for that. It’s really great.

John: It’s been a lot of fun.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you for such kind words. And if you want that full list, we do have a page for that now. It’s teaforteaching.com/episodes.

John: Or just go to teaforteaching.com and click on… I think it’s episodes at the top so you don’t have to scroll through six or seven pages of descriptions now. Well, thank you again Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: My pleasure. I look forward to seeing you guys again soon. Take care.

[Music]

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

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

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

74. Uncoverage

Introductory textbooks in most college disciplines tend to become thicker over time as new topics are steadily added while old topics remain. Classes designed to “cover” all of these topics necessarily sacrifice depth of coverage. In this episode, Dr. David Voelker joins us to examine how some faculty are changing their focus from “coverage” to providing students with an opportunity to actively engage in the discipline and uncover its power to help explain their world.

David is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. He is also the Co-Director of the Wisconsin Teaching Fellows and Scholars Program and the co-author with Joel Sipress of “The End of the History Survey Course: The Rise and Fall of the Coverage Model,” which was published in the Journal of American History in March 2011.

Show Notes

  • Voelker, D. J. (2008). Assessing student understanding in introductory courses: A sample strategy. The History Teacher, 41(4), 505-518
  • Sipress, J. M., & Voelker, D. J. (2009). From learning history to doing history. Exploring signature pedagogies: Approaches to teaching disciplinary habits of mind, 19-35.
  • Sipress, J. M., & Voelker, D. J. (2011). The end of the history survey course: The rise and fall of the coverage model. The Journal of American History, 97(4), 1050-1066.
  • Voelker, D. J., & Armstrong, A. (2013). Designing a question-driven US history course. OAH Magazine of History, 27(3), 19-24.
  • Wiggins, G., Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Ascd.
  • Gordon Wood – Author and History Professor
  • Gary Nash – American historian
  • Angela Bauer – Professor and Chair of Biology at High Point University
  • Ryan Martin – Psychology Professor and Associate Dean of Recruitment, Outreach, and Communications at University of Wisconsin at Green Bay
  • Bain, K. (2011). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press.
  • 61. A Motivational Syllabus. Tea for Teaching podcast (with Christine Harrington)
  • Christine Harrington – Associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at New Jersey City University and the author of Dynamic Lecturing
  • Lendol Calder – Professor of History at Augustana College
  • University of Wisconsin’s Teaching Fellows and Scholars Program
  • UW Faculty College
  • Spring Conference on Teaching and Learning
  • Regan Gurung – Professor of Human Development and Psychology at UW Green Bay
  • Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
  • Gurung, R. A., Chick, N. L., & Haynie, A. (2009). Exploring signature pedagogies: Approaches to teaching disciplinary habits of mind. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Ciccone, A. A. (2012). Exploring more signature pedagogies: Approaches to teaching disciplinary habits of mind. Stylus Publishing, LLC..
  • Gurung, R. A., & Voelker, D. J. (Eds. Gurung, R. A., & Landrum, R. E. (2013). Assessment and the scholarship of teaching and learning..). (2017). Big Picture Pedagogy: Finding Interdisciplinary Solutions to Common Learning Problems: New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Number 151. John Wiley & Sons.
  • 54. SOTL. Tea for Teaching podcast
  • International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
  • American Historical Association
  • Tuning Project

Transcript

John: Introductory textbooks in most college disciplines tend to become thicker over time as new topics are steadily added while old topics remain. Classes designed to “cover” all of these topics necessarily sacrifice depth of coverage. In this episode, we examine how some faculty are changing their focus from “coverage” to providing students with an opportunity to actively engage in the discipline and uncover its power to help explain their world.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Today our guest is Dr. David J. Voelker, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. He is also the Co-Director of the Wisconsin Teaching Fellows and Scholars Program. He is the co-author with Joel Sipress of “The End of the History Survey Course: The Rise and Fall of the Coverage Model,” which was published in the Journal of American History in March 2011. Welcome, David.

David: It’s nice to join you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

John:…are you drinking tea?

David: Oh of course, always. Yes. I’m having a Moroccan Mint Green tea.

Rebecca: So you’re a tea drinker so you can come anytime. [LAUGHTER]

John: I’m drinking Black Raspberry Green tea.

David: Oh that sounds nice.

Rebecca: And I have Bombay Chai today.

John: We’ve invited you here primarily to talk about your work on redesigning the introductory history course. Could you tell us a little bit about the problems that you observed in the traditional approach to teaching the survey course?

David: I started teaching history at UW-Green Bay in 2003 and I was trying to create a class that would be very engaging for students. We would look at primary documents, I would really encourage them to think critically about the materials, and so forth. But I was still doing a lot of coverage, I went through the standard list of topics that you would follow to teach American History and I had a textbook. Well, after doing that a couple of years, I had two really wonderful students in my office. These were very engaged, hardworking, curious students, and they were talking to me about an upcoming exam and I found that they were just trying to memorize the content as I had taught it. Now, they were clearly capable of so much more, and they were doing more than that. But when it came time to the hard work they were putting in to study, they saw it as a memorization exercise. And I realized, “Wow, if these are the most engaged students in the class, then something’s not going the way I want it to go,” because that’s where their attention was…on memorization. That’s when I began a long journey to rebuild the way I was teaching—or reconceived how I was teaching—the intro history course. I ended up actually developing not only a new way of teaching the course, but entirely new ways of assessing student learning. So that when students were studying, when they were really putting in the effort and so forth, they would be focusing on the things that I really wanted them to learn, which was: how to interpret a primary source, how to find the argument made by another historian, how to put all that together into historical analysis. So that’s a quick summary of how I got on the path of reworking my introductory history course.

John: I don’t think this is unique to history. I see the same thing in economics. And in general, when students come to college, they often learn somewhere along the way that memorizing lists of things is what they’re expected to be able to do in college, and what you’re addressing is a problem that we see in all of our disciplines to some extent. So what would you recommend as an alternative? How have you approached this issue, or how have you tried to resolve this?

David: Well, first I should say I was really inspired by the book Understanding by Design. And I just looked at my copy and apparently I acquired that and started reading it in 2006. So it’s been a while ago, and it’s quite marked up. But the basic premise there is, instead of starting with, “Here’s a list of all the things I want to cover,” or “Here’s a list of all the things I want students to read,” you really start with “What is it that I want students to be able to do as a result of taking this class?” Now, students taking an intro history class, I’m not going to say, “Well, I want them to be able to build a house,” or something like that. What they’re going to be able to do is think in particular ways. You know, not necessarily the kind of skills that you would be able to observe in some product other than their thought. So I really tried to develop a class that would help students develop their ability to think historically. Now I realize they’re doing that for an intro course at a beginner kind of level, but the emphasis is still on historical thinking.

Rebecca: When you’re talking about the ways that we want students to think and work, we often get frustrated as faculty when students aren’t doing that but we don’t always take the time to articulate that, so I think it’s important to highlight that as a good starting point.

David: One thing I tried to do here is… well, just to be really intentional. What is it that I want them to learn? And then I think the crux of it is to make sure that I’m actually assessing them on the things that I really want them to learn. And I would guess that the overwhelming majority of college level history instructors really do want their students to come away with the ability to think historically, or at least to have some growth in that area with the ability to know what to do with a primary source, you know, historical documents, or perhaps an artifact or something like that. So I would say our hearts are in the right place but the question is, how do we actually get there? How do we align our highest learning outcomes with the actual assessments that we’re doing? In Understanding by Design—I don’t think I mentioned the authors earlier but Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe—they really put a lot of emphasis on assessment. Now I know in higher education there are folks who are wary of assessment and they’re thinking of institutional assessment, which I would say is important, but here we’re thinking about how are you grading the students? How do you know what they’re learning? So I decided to rethink my assessment and make sure that my exams were really requiring students to do some historical thinking on the spot, also drawing on and demonstrating that they have knowledge about the history we’ve been studying. So rather than seeing if they memorize some content, and you know they can somehow show that on an objective exam, what I do is on exams, they encounter a historical claim. So a really simple one would be “Christopher Columbus discovered a new world in 1492,” and I ask them to think about that critically and to think about that the way a historian thinks about it. And I asked them to argue both for and against the statement like that. So they’re arguing, they’re not simply regurgitating information. That means they’re using evidence and, in order to use evidence, you have to have content knowledge, right? You have to have knowledge of historical context, you have to know some of the sources. And so I see all that stuff that we “cover,” so to speak, really is the raw materials that students are working with as they develop their ability to think historically.

John: You’ve mentioned using in general, a backwards design approach, and what you’ve just described is part of it, where you start with the ultimate learning objective and then you design assessments that would measure that. How do you prepare students to reach that level?

David: Well, I guess that’s another big question, right? One thing, I try to be very transparent about this. I mean it’s interesting how sometimes in higher education we’re not very transparent. And that means that I talk with students about what it means to think historically, what that looks like. I try to model that for them, of course, but I do it in a way that’s explicit. I mean, here again, I would say most history faculty across the nation model historical thinking all the time, but they may not be very explicit about what they’re doing. So I tr y to be explicit about what it means to think historically and then also to give students a chance to practice that in class. So it happens my classes are 80 minutes long and well, I’m very grateful that I’m not lecturing for 80 minutes straight. I would just find that very difficult to believe I’m engaging anybody… I’m covering stuff for 80 minutes. So, I really try to break the class session up and have students not only talking about primary documents—which is pretty common for history classes—but we also look at different perspectives from historians. Now, I don’t introduce them to the vast historiography on any topic that we’re looking at, but I do make sure that they know about at least two different perspectives on major issues of the colonization of North America, or the American Revolution, or the coming of the American Civil War. So they can see that there’s actually a debate out there, rather than assuming that, “Well, history is pretty cut and dry. Like, we know what happened, we’re just describing it.” So, I really try to introduce to them the ways in which the study of history is an ongoing dialogue among historians, that we’re always turning up new sources, and we have new ways of thinking about old sources. And so I give them examples of how historical thinking is working in the field and really ask them to wrestle with some big questions. Again, it’s at an introductory level, so they’re not going off and reading everything that Gordon Wood wrote about the American Revolution and then comparing that to Gary Nash’s interpretation or something like that, but they are getting little snippets of that sort of thing so they can really get a sense of the debate and they talk about that in class. I don’t actually hold formal debates but I’ll have small groups discussing a particular issue and then I make a sort of matrix on the whiteboard and they go up to the whiteboard and sort of vote for where they think this historian stands, and where they think a different historian stands on the issue, and then where their group is, and so they’re really playing around with those different positions. And then, of course, on the exams, they’re actually making their own individual arguments using the primary sources and the secondary sources.

Rebecca: One of the things that you said was “modeling, but making that explicit.” Could you talk a little bit about how you shift from just modeling modeling explicitly or being explicit about doing that?

David: Yeah, sure. Well, one thing I do is I have a kind of graphic that I show that I created that tries to describe in a basic way what historical thinking looks like because I do think a lot of students come in with a really simplistic understanding of history. Again, this notion that it’s pretty cut and dry, it’s a description of what happened in the past. And so I try to help them understand both, through my own comments but then through practice that, “Okay, yeah, we have descriptions about the past, but those are based on evidence that has to be interpreted.” And those descriptions, we assemble those into a narrative and built into those narratives is an actual explanation and analysis of what happened. So we’re really thinking about why things turned out the way they did, how different things are interconnected, and then finally—and maybe the most importantly—is significance. Historians are also wrestling with the significance of the past, different events, and developments. Not only the significance in a narrow historical sense like, “Okay, this event was significant because it led to another event,” but also a longer term significance, and then I think even a kind of moral significance. What can we learn from the past? How can we use the past to understand American national identity? Those sorts of questions. So we really kind of build up, there’s multiple levels of complexity there. And I try to get my students at least beginning to climb that ladder to some of those higher levels, even if they’re just doing it in a really rudimentary way. But then I hope they can really see the value of history that goes beyond just kind of rote recollection of something that happened in the past.

John: Do students sometimes resist moving into this more appropriate view of history? They’ve learned through elementary and secondary schools what history is. How do you break their expectations and get them into this more active role?

David: I’m kind of smiling, or maybe even grimacing right now, because I usually am able to win students over. I mean, there’s so much about the past that’s exciting, that’s interesting, that’s unexpected. When we start to dig deeply into some of these topics, they’re interested and they’re curious and sometimes they’re also pretty frustrated or even angry because they feel like they’ve been misled in the past. In other words, that maybe the basic information they had from high school—of course the quality of that instruction varies—but I do have a lot of students who come in who are upset. They feel like they’ve been misled. And I want to rush to add that I have many students who have had excellent teachers in the past and are already really interested in history in part for that reason. So I think there’s a lot for students to be curious about. Occasionally I do run into a student who is very resistant. Most students find that, “Hey, turns out this is a lot more interesting and engaging,” than the history they had been exposed to in the past, or it’s deepening and complicating the pretty good understanding that they already had.

Rebecca: Do you find that they’re surprised by the first assessment or exam because they have these prior expectations and then your methodology in your class is different from their past experience?

David: Well that’s something that I anticipated and so we actually have a practice exam, so to speak, very early in the semester. In fact, that example I gave a moment ago of Christopher Columbus discovered a new world and 1492 is a sort of maybe second week of class practice exam prompt. And so I have them do that outside of class and then bring it in and we essentially go over that together. They share their thoughts with their classmates, we talk it over, I give them a number of examples. So for a student who’s coming to class and whose keeping up, there aren’t really going to be any big surprises and I give them some samples of what the exams are going to look like from other classes. I used to teach a lot more modern American history and so I can easily just share some sample exams that students told me it was fine if I shared and I think that’s really helpful, especially if there’s a big change in expectations, then I think to be fair to students, you should really be clear with them about how the expectations might be different than what they’ve encountered in the past. And a lot of students actually like the assessments I’m using. I think they find them more interesting. They’re perhaps a little harder to study for in the sense that it’s a little less clear cut but they have a pretty good idea of what the major topics are and I give them some suggestions for what they should be reviewing in terms of sources. So they really come in thinking, “Well, I’m going to need to refer to least a couple of these primary documents and the perspective or argument of this historian.” We practice all that in class because again, that’s what I want them to be able to do. So I make sure that we spend a lot of class time essentially practicing the very thing that they’re going to be assessed on.

John: If someone were to come into your class, what would it typically look like? Are the students broken up into really small groups? Bigger groups? How do you have them engage with the material that way?

David: Well I typically have about 65 students in my introductory US history class. I have another class that I teach in a similar fashion that’s actually a writing e mphasis class though it’s a little smaller at 45. So an intro level class and environmental history. But in both of those classes, we will typically start out with the whole group and I make some introductory comments. Sometimes I give a brief lecture on background context. I mean, historians really do value context. This is part of how you make sense of the primary documents and so forth. So I do all of that and you would expect to see that in a history classroom, but then before too long, I’m giving the students some kind of a series of questions and they’re working with primary documents or they’re working with some short essays by historians and talking those through in their small groups and then we have various ways of reporting out. Like I said, sometimes I will send them to the board so they’re kind of recording their analysis on the whiteboard. Other times it’s just more like I’ll choose particular groups to respond and sometimes I just open it up. So, I think that’s all pretty typical except that I’m constantly going back and forth from maybe a brief lecture to small group discussions to a large group discussion. I suspect there’s more back and forth than you would typically see in a more traditional coverage oriented history classroom. Again, many instructors do use primary documents and they would have students talking about them. I think maybe where I’m going further is just that they’re going to have to write about those sources on an exam.

Rebecca: I think sometimes demonstrating that you really value a particular practice by spending so much class time on it really helps students understand how that’s a part of the discipline or a way a discipline works.

David: Yeah I think so, and many students really seem to appreciate having quite a bit of discussion time. I mean they find it productive, they have a clear task, they have something they’re working with. So at the end of the semester I do have a lot of students who say, “Wow that was so valuable to hear different perspectives.” And I think especially for first-year students, many of their classes are very large, many of their classes are lecture based, and so they don’t actually have very many opportunities to talk with other students in a meaningful way about the course material. And I realized that maybe at a small liberal arts college it would be a whole different story, but I’m at a regional comprehensive public university and I know that a lot of my students are in that kind of situation.

Rebecca: I think sometimes there’s a mismatch between the assessments that we assign and what our real objectives are…because it’s easier to assess other things than what we really want to know, and that tends to lead faculty to be resistant because of workload concerns. Can you talk a little bit about the grading and how you might manage that?

David: I have to agree with everything you’re saying there. That’s a real conundrum. The most meaningful assessments are also usually the most labor intensive and so I’ve had to be very deliberate in my case about what compromises I’m going to make. And one thing that I’ve had to do with the for and against essays, students write maybe six of these essays during the semester and they’re fairly brief. I really emphasize with the students that there’s not any room for BS in these essays. So there aren’t a lot of preliminaries and so forth, they just dive right in and make their arguments for and against. So that’s one thing that I’m doing. It’s not a formal essay because I don’t have time to go over all that extra content when I’m grading. I think the other thing that I do is most of the feedback I give on those essays I do with the whole class. So I give a kind of collective feedback where I show some examples. I actually fabricate a kind of weak response [LAUGHTER] and put that up on the screen and ask the students to assess it and then I show them a stronger response and then we talk about that. So they’re getting some examples of work that could use improvement and that’s generally a composite. I mean, I don’t ever show bad student work. But then often the strong examples…I’ve asked the students, “Hey can I share this with the class?” and we’ll take a look at that as well. So what I’m getting at here is one way I save time is a lot of the feedback I’m giving is collective feedback. If I were writing extensive comments on every one of these essays for 65 students, it just wouldn’t be feasible. I would have to do something else. So I’ve decided that’s a compromise that’s worth it.

John: When they’re looking at someone else’s work, the work that you fabricated, it’s probably a lot easier for them to recognize problems than when they try to diagnose it in their own, because they’ve taken ownership of theirs and they become committed. But when you prompt them by giving them this type of thing, it’s a whole lot easier for them to see mistakes and recognize them and perhaps avoid them in their own work.

David: Yeah, I think so, or at least that’s my hope. And, you know, they talk with their classmates about it. So they’re getting multiple perspectives on the shortcomings of a weak historical interpretation.

Rebecca: Have you or your colleagues seen a difference in the upper-level classes that build upon this like introductory class where the move has gone from coverage to uncoverage? Have they been more successful at the upper level or do you have any evidence related to that?

David: That’s a really good question and I certainly don’t have systematically collected evidence to respond to that. Now I do see a lot of these students again in upper-level classes and the students I’ve worked with before do seem well prepared to jump into deeper conversations, whether that’s using more primary documents or more extensive secondary sources. So I find that they’re well prepared for upper-level classes as far as what I’m able to observe among my own students. Now, we do still have courses that are closer to the coverage model on my campus, for sure. I mean, different colleagues of mine, they all have their own approaches. And just to be clear, I would never say my approach is the one right way to do anything. It’s something that works for me and that I think really serves the learning outcomes that are important in my discipline and in my department, but also to me. But I think there’s a lot of different ways to get to that. I guess I would say I don’t have any regrets when it comes to upper level classes. I don’t feel like, “Well, these students aren’t well prepared because we didn’t cover everything at the intro level.” I am always reminding myself, “Well, just because I’ve covered something doesn’t mean that anyone has learned it.”

Rebecca: We’ve been talking about this a lot. We have these first-year signature classes on our campus that are for first-year students that may or may not be continuing in a particular discipline but are really meant to help students integrate into our college and acting like a college student, et cetera. So they don’t have as many coverage concerns in terms of topics that we’re historically thinking about. So we’ve been talking a lot about how that frees you up a lot to really focus on some of these ways of thinking. So we’ve been having this conversation a lot, we’ve had a couple of recent podcast episodes related to that but we’ve also had these conversations on campus that have really made me, and I think some of my colleagues, think about, what is it that we really want students to learn even at the upper levels? We think about, “Oh we got to make sure we get through the whole textbook,” or whatever but really at the end of the day, I think sometimes we place value on things that we don’t actually value.

David: Well what you said really resonates for me. I’ve been teaching a first-year seminar for I think five years now and that’s actually in the Environmental Humanities where there is no canon. There is no textbook. And I’ve certainly had to build on scholarship that’s out there. I mean, I’m not just creating this out of thin air, but I didn’t have to worry about the pressure to cover some specific body of material. Nobody was counting on me to be sure to cover these 10 things. And I learned a lot from teaching in that first-year seminar context where the pressure for coverage is largely eliminated and I think it’s made me a better teacher in all of my classes. I really do believe that, because I’ve taken some of that spirit into some more traditional history courses.

John: I think this is an issue that comes up in many disciplines. I know in economics there have been discussions for years. The economics textbooks—just like history textbooks—keep getting bigger, there’s new chapters added. Since I was in the history class, there’s been a whole lot of time included, [LAUGHTER] you know, in terms of the chronological study. But more generally, in economics, there’s a lot of discussion about how difficult it is to cover all of this and how little students seem to come out learning. But there’s a trade-off when sometimes an introductory economics class is the only thing required for perhaps all upper-level courses, so there is some pressure to make sure you cover it. It’s a very active dialogue right now and there’s many attempts to reach a consensus, but I think this is happening in many disciplines, isn’t it?

David: I think so. Several years ago, I was reading some workshops on this very topic for the UW system and when I was doing that, I interviewed some colleagues in other disciplines. I talked with Angela Bauer, who’s now at High Point University in biology and I talked with my colleague Brian Martin in psychology here at UW Green Bay. And what I found was that they were really trying to go down this road in disciplines where the knowledge is more structured. As you go through you really are building on stuff that you learned earlier, maybe in more linear fashion. And in the history major, we’re looking at the history of so many different times and places that no one person can master all of that. So you don’t have quite the same expectation. But in any case, what they were doing was starting out with some big questions and this is something that Wiggins and McTighe recommend in Understanding by Design as well. So you can structure a course around big questions. And those questions should be interesting to most students who are engaging in the discipline particularly if they want to go on. And I find that really helpful. So I do that in my history courses but I think that you can do that in any discipline. Like what are the big issues here? What are the big questions in the discipline? And to answer those questions, you’re going to be using specific disciplinary ways of thinking and disciplinary tools, so you can really start to align things there. Here’s kind of the raw material you’re working with, here are the skills and other kinds of thinking tools you’re going to be using, and here’s what you need to be able to do in the end. If you can really line those things up, I think students walk away with so much more than if they are simply approaching it as, “Okay, we’re covering this, I’m going to take a test on this, and then probably I can forget most of it.”

John: Ken Bain has written about this extensively in terms of picking those big goals and developing it in What the Best College Teachers Do.

David: Yeah.

John: And we just recently had a podcast with Christine Harrington, where she talked about that in terms of building a syllabus, starting with those big questions and building your course around that. It’s a really important topic to help build student motivation and interests and tie everything together.

David: I really admire the work of both Ken Bain and Christine Harrington. Back when I got started with all of this, in addition to Understanding by Design and history, Lendol Calder was doing a lot of work in this area—and he still is today—and I think he pulled this word out of Understanding by Design, but “uncoverage.” So what can we uncover about discipline and disciplinary thinking? Because if we’re using the coverage model, yeah, we’re covering lot of things, but we’re also covering up many of the fundamental aspects of the discipline. If what you have in front of you is a history textbook, it’s written in a single authoritative voice. This is what happened, this is how it was, this is how it is. There’s something really misleading about that, because that’s not how the discipline of history really works. Where did all that knowledge come from? What are the debates? And so forth. So I really liked that idea of uncoverage and I wanted to acknowledge both Understanding by Design and Lendol Calder for sharing that concept with me. I think it’s a really helpful way of thinking about what we should be doing even in our introductory courses, or maybe especially in our introductory courses. What can we do to uncover the key concepts and ways of thinking in our disciplines?

Rebecca: When you decided to shift from a coverage model to more of an uncoverage model, did you decide to just jump in with two feet or did you take more of an iterative approach? I’m sure other faculty who are interested in this idea would like some guidance on that.

David: Well, yeah, so do as I say, not as I did. I really jumped in with two feet and maybe even got in over my head for a while. And you know, that’s something you can do from time to time. I don’t regret doing that. At the time I was a participant in the Wisconsin Teaching Fellows and Scholars Program—which I’ve now been co-director of for six years. It’s actually my final year—but back then I was just getting my feet wet in the scholarship of teaching and learning. And I believe I had a one-course reassignment that year and so I had just a little bit more time to try to implement a pretty radical makeover for my intro history class and there have been many iterations since then, including some pretty significant changes because, of course, you always learn a lot when you make big changes in a classroom. There are always things you would do differently. That said, I think you really can just choose some part of the class and really start working on getting to some of that deeper learning and assessing in new ways. You can try out new ways to assess with new ways to get students working more directly toward your learning outcomes.

Rebecca: You just mentioned the Teaching Fellows and Scholars Program at your institution. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is?

David: This is actually a UW System program so it’s statewide and it’s been around for probably 30 years, although it has evolved quite a bit ―I think by the late 90s, it was taking a turn toward the scholarship of teaching and learning—so it’s a year-long professional development opportunity for instructors in the UW system and we have many campuses here across the state and each of those campuses sends a couple of representatives to participate in this program. We have something we call Faculty College that meets every year and that’s several days, usually in late May, so kind of right after the academic year has ended. You have these really dedicated teachers going right back at it, like, “Hey, we’re going to spend almost a week working on improving teaching and learning.” So that’s actually a broader program that the Wisconsin Teaching Fellows and Scholars participate in that and that’s sort of where we launch the cohort each year. Then a little later in the summer we have a week-long summer institute and the fellows and scholars are actually designing scholarship of teaching and learning projects at that point. So they’re figuring out what kind of research questions would they like to look at in their classes, what kind of evidence of student learning are they going to gather, and so forth. Then we come back together again in January and do some troubleshooting on the project which they’ve been working on through the fall semester and they typically are gathering more data in the spring semester or more evidence to analyze. And then they actually do poster presentations in April at a statewide teaching and learning conference. So it’s a pretty substantive program. A lot of folks do end up continuing to work on their project and ultimately publishing something. It’s not necessarily a requirement, but many of the participants do go on and remain active in the scholarship of teaching and learning. For me, I think it’s really important because it provides a community in the UW system around teaching and learning, and so while you’re actually working on your projects for that year, you have some support. You have a support network to help you figure out how to handle your data analysis or how to get through the IRB process or whatever it might be. But then that community continues on afterwards and so we’ve had quite a few…thinking of three or four different books…published on the scholarship of teaching and learning where many of the participants that were in the book project came out of the Wisconsin Teaching Fellows and Scholars program so there’s the signature pedagogies book, it’s called Exploring Signature Pedagogies and then Exploring More Signature Pedagogies, two wonderful books and Regan Gurung and I recently published collection of essays on Big Picture Pedagogy, and that’s taking a kind of interdisciplinary approach to the scholarship of teaching and learning. And most of the folks in there came out of the UW system, and many of them were former teaching fellows and scholars. So it’s a really interesting program that I think really enriches what we’re doing here in Wisconsin.

John: That sounds like a wonderful program. I wish we had more of that here.

Rebecca: Yeah. Do you have a little bit of advice for people who are interested in starting in the scholarship of teaching and learning? That’s one of the things that we’ve talked about quite a bit on this podcast and anytime we can get someone to provide a little insight into getting that started…

John: In fact, Regan was on a few months back.

David: It can be intimidating to get started in the scholarship of teaching and learning, especially if you’re coming from a discipline that doesn’t normally do research on or with living people. Like, you know, for me as a historian, my research subjects are typically dead and gone. [LAUGHTER] So it’s quite different to think about doing research on my student learning or with my students and their learning. So I think it’s helpful to start small and just to try to think of the question about student learning that you can answer using methodologies that you’re already pretty familiar with. So you don’t want to tackle a project that’s going to require you to learn how to do advanced statistical analysis if you don’t have experience with that already. So I think it’s important to realize there are a lot of different ways to collect and analyze evidence of student learning and if you continue to develop as a SOTL scholar you will explore more and more of those ways of gathering and analyzing evidence. But it’s completely fine to start out with something that you’re already comfortable with and familiar with and you’re really asking a question—or you can start with a simple question about—what are my students learning in this particular area? I know there’s a struggle here, I know there’s something difficult here, and I’m going to pay some extra attention. I’m going to look at this in a more systematic way than I normally would just in the regular course of grading some papers or exams.

John: In your paper on the rise and fall of the coverage model, I think you noted that there’s a growing emphasis on the scholarship of teaching and learning within history and that seems to be resulting in a growing network of scholars who are working in this. Could you tell us just a little bit about that?

David: Sure. Let’s see, back in 2006 a group came together called the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History and I don’t know exactly what the membership or the participation in that group is but it’s a substantial group of history scholars who are really interested in promoting the scholarship of teaching and learning in history. Along with that, the American Historical Association now maybe for a decade or so has been working on something called the Tuning Project and that’s focusing on learning outcomes for history majors and that project has involved many, many people across the country in all different subfields of history thinking about what is it that we really expect and want history majors to learn and that transcends any particular content area. In other words, if you’re asking that for about history, and we’re thinking about historians coming in who are, not only United States historians, but looking at many different periods of time and in places around the world, you can’t just come up with, “Well here’s a list of twenty thousand facts [LAUGHTER] that we expect all history majors to know.” It was apparent that wasn’t going to work. And so what the Tuning Project has done, it’s allowed our discipline here in the United States to really think carefully about historical thinking and the basic skills and practices of being a historian and that at this point, it’s all very well spelled out. And history departments can then use that to improve the learning outcomes at their program level and you can take that down to the level of individual courses as well. So I think between the scholarship of teaching and learning and this assessment oriented Tuning Project, that we’ve had a real increase in interest and commitment here when it comes to thinking about what does it mean to learn history and to learn how to do history?

John: The last question we always ask is, what are you doing next?

David: I’m happy to say I have a sabbatical a year from now, just a one-semester sabbatical in the spring of 2020, and I’ve really become interested in environmental history and more broadly environmental humanities (I mentioned that earlier in terms of the first-year seminar I’ve been teaching). And my project is going to be to try to articulate a pedagogy for environmental history and environmental humanities and what I’m thinking of there is that there’s more to this field of study than the usual kind of content and skill mastery. And I think there are a lot of areas where this is true, but there seems to me to be a kind of affective component here, an emotional component, as we’re facing up to the environmental degradation and numerous environmental crises in our time. I say facing up to—sometimes we’re not facing up to those problems—and it can just be overwhelming from the standpoint of a learner—especially a young person—to really come to terms with the content that we would have to look at to the areas of environmental studies more generally. So I’m looking at contemplative pedagogies to think about one way to help students come to terms with and to deeply process what it is we’re studying when we look at problems with sustainability. For example, climate change. I’m really excited to dig into that next year.

John: Those sound like fascinating topics, and they should be fun to look at. And it’ll be an interesting challenge working with those issues, especially now.

Rebecca: Yeah it sounds really intense, but really needed.

David: Yeah, I think it is going to be necessary to grapple with those issues going forward.

John: Thank you for joining us. This has been really interesting.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much.

David: Oh, thank you. I really enjoyed the conversation and my tea cup is empty, I don’t know about yours but I think I’m going to have to go get another cup.

John: Yeah, mine’s empty too.

Rebecca: Yeah mine’s getting really close.

John: I don’t know if you can see it, but we have a whole table covered with tea back there in the back of the room.

David: Oh I see that now.

[Music]

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

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

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

73. The Injustice League

Difficult conversations like those around injustice and inequity can be challenging to facilitate no matter the student body, but first-year students have additional barriers to overcome like establishing a sense of belonging on campus. In this episode, Dr. Margaret Schmuhl joins us to discuss how comic books and programming outside of the classroom can help first-year students develop the confidence to engage with complex social issues. Maggie is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Show Notes

  • Mya Brown – Assistant Professor in the Theatre department at SUNY Oswego
  • Amy Bidwell – Associate professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Wellness at SUNY Oswego
  • ACUE – Association of College and University Educators – certificate of effective college instruction

Transcript

Rebecca: Difficult conversations like those around injustice and inequity can be challenging to facilitate no matter the student body, but first-year students have additional barriers to overcome, like establishing a sense of belonging on campus. In this episode, we examine how comic books and programming outside of the classroom can help first-year students develop the confidence to engage with complex social issues.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Margaret Schmuhl an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Oswego. Welcome back Maggie.

Maggie: Hi everyone.

John: Good to have you back.

Maggie: It’s good to be here.

John: Our teas today are….

Maggie: I am having a black ginger and peach tea.

Rebecca: Oh, one of John’s favorites.

John: It is [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m having English afternoon tea.

John: And I have Tea Forte black currant tea.

Rebecca: Oh, another one of your favorites.

John: I have many favorites.

Maggie: That’s a favorite of mine too.

John: We invited you here to discuss your first-year Signature Course here at as Oswego called the Injustice League: Crime, Justice, and Inequality in Comic Books. Sounds like a really fun course. Can you tell us a little bit about the course and how it differs from your other introductory criminal justice courses?

Maggie: This class was a lot of fun to teach. In the class we read various comic books, we watched different superhero movies and we talked about, within those comic books, what it means to have justice, to recognize injustice, and how society responds to crime and maintains or perpetuates various inequalities in those stories and movies.

Rebecca: How does that class differ from the other classes that you teach in your subject area? Because it’s a First-Year Signature Course, so that has particular meaning at our institution.

Maggie: Yeah. So the signature courses here at SUNY Oswego are about bringing a student engagement aspect to our academic course content. And so in this class there’s a balance of introducing our subject matter (in my case, Criminal Justice Studies) to the students but through a really fun way, but also working with students to help them with their academic success and getting engaged with each other and with our campus community.

Rebecca: Are these usually majors that are in this class or non majors?

Maggie: So I actually had a mix of majors and non majors. I had probably about 19 students. I had about 10 or so majors and so about half of the class were non majors. And they came from a variety of disciplines, including computer science, communication studies, and we even had some undeclared majors in the course.

John: And this is part of a broader initiative that we talked about in a prior podcast, and we will include a link to that in the show notes for anyone who wants to learn more about the first-year signature courses here. So one of the purposes of this, as you said, is to build more of engagement with the college community and also amongst themselves so that students will feel more connected. And one of the first things you did, I believe, was take them on a field trip. Could you tell us a little bit about that field trip?

Maggie: In Oswego, there’s a local comic shop that we ordered some of the students comic books from. In the very first class I asked them which comic books they were interested in purchasing and how many students we’re going to accompany me to the comic book shop here in town. And so to get to the comic book shop, you have to take the public bus, or at least if you don’t have a car, and many first year students don’t, they have to learn how to take the public bus. And so part of this field trip was not only obtaining some of the course materials for the class, but also getting the students familiar with public transit in the town and how to navigate a new place with them. So we arrived at the comic book shop and the owner was very gracious to us. She made us cookies and we had coffee and the students picked up their books and some of them even got some additional materials. We had a lot of fun. It was an amusing trip bringing a bunch of college students on a bus, and some of them their first time using public transit, and the bus drivers were even entertained by the group of us, so we had a really good time.

Rebecca: I think you also discovered the infrequency of the buses….

Maggie: Oh yes.

Rebecca: …in our town, right?

Maggie: Yeah…

Maggie: Oh yes.

John: Particularly on weekends.

Maggie: Yeah, particularly on weekends. We did wait about an hour for the bus on Sunday. So that was a little bit of a lag, but we made it through.

John: I should note that the comic book shop is actually owned by the wife of a former member of my department. It’s Arlene Spizman who runs that store.

Maggie: Yeah, Arlene was wonderful.

John: She’s a very nice person.

Maggie: I didn’t realize she had that connection.

John: In fact, I just finished a paper with her husband.

Rebecca: I’m sure it can be difficult to have an authentic conversation about justice in general, especially with a diverse population of students and maybe students that don’t know each other very well. How did talking about comic books as a way to get into the topic help facilitate those discussions?

Maggie: Comic books offer a different world for students to experience some of the concepts and some of the issues that we struggle with as a society. And so to be able to visually see these issues play out across the panels, it’s a place where students don’t feel nervous or threatened, it feels safe. They’re taking these comic books and they’re finding ways to relate with them and work out some of their preconceived notions or feel like it’s okay to start working on some of these biases and issues in society.

Rebecca: It seems like it has a lot in common with some of the other topics that we’ve talked about on the podcast before, like simulations and role playing, where it’s a place to escape the real world and talk about something really challenging in a so-called fake environment, but really they’re working out real-life issues and biases and all kinds of things that can be really difficult to talk about, but it’s a lot easier to talk about character that’s not real.

Maggie: Absolutely. Yeah. One of the comic books we read is an X-Men comic book called God Loves, Man Kills and we talked a lot about the concept of othering and what it means to target out and marginalize a group of people and in a lot of ways X-Men plays out what has happened in race relations in society and in other groups who have been historically marginalized. And so for students to consume this information through a comic book, they can better reflect on their own experiences and start to understand the position of others in society.

Rebecca: It probably also makes it a lot easier to make mistakes when you’re talking about that. I think sometimes students don’t want to talk about touchy topics because they’re afraid of offending someone or saying something in the wrong way but if it’s not about anybody real….

Maggie:Yeah

Rebecca: …then it’s not going to hurt someone’s feelings.

Maggie: Yeah, absolutely…. And another thing that we did in this course right from the get go was to set ground rules for discussion and conversation. And so I had the students come up with various guidelines for discussions and we would write them down so that we could refer back to them as we continued throughout the semester, so that they all understood that they had a responsibility to each other to make sure that everyone was comfortable and safe in this classroom. It really helped to facilitate a lot of these very difficult discussions in a very similar way that comic books themselves kind of help us talk about very critical and very upsetting social issues.

John: They also come in probably very familiar with many of these comics because they’ve seen them in movies, and some of them may have read some of these as well. Could you give us some specific examples of some issues in criminal justice that you were able to address using comic books?

Maggie: In terms of the classroom breakup, we have many students who were avid comic book readers. And we had many students who were somewhat interested in comic books but were more in tuned with the recent TV shows and movies that have come out of Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes. And so there’s, you know, quite a range of knowledge around this. But for the most part, most all of the students were interested in some kind of criminal justice aspect of their studies. And so, one of the concepts that we tried to discuss in this class was the issue of mass incarceration in society. And so what we did was we read a book called Bitch Planet, and in this planet, women are incarcerated on another planet. It has a lot of strong connections to some of the ways that society has restricted women’s rights throughout history and how the punishment of women has differed across time and across place. So to be able to see these concepts in a comic book and to talk about the parallels that exist in our society was a really, really cool process for the students.

John: Did you mostly focus on comic books they were familiar with, or you mentioned Bitch Planet, which was one that perhaps many of them hadn’t seen before. Did you bring in many that were things that they hadn’t expected or that they were less familiar with?

Maggie: There was really a mix. I even had some criminology textbooks that had various criminological theories played out in comic book form and we read a few of those to give us a baseline of various theoretical perspectives on criminal behavior. But most of the comic books I’d say we’re falling in the mainstream. I think that’s what students were typically looking forward to, but they really did enjoy the new reboot of Miss Marvel, with Kamala Khan and Bitch Planet and those were perhaps a little more on the periphery than Black Panther and X-Men.

John: How did students react to this? Did they generally find it interesting? Were some students troubled by using comic books? What about the imbalance between those students who were very avid comic book fans with those who were less familiar? How did that play out?

Maggie: Some of the very avid comic book fans in the class had a lot more context to really draw from when discussing histories of the Joker or Black Panther and the development of the character over time. But because comic books have become so popular in mainstream media, with TV shows on Netflix and pretty much a new Marvel movie coming out each year, that students really had a lot to draw from. Students didn’t need a great depth of knowledge of comic books prior to coming to this class.

John: For those students who were avid comic book fans, was it a little more challenging, perhaps, than they expected to look at some of these things through perhaps a more critical lens?

Maggie: I think that comic books, even if you don’t have a great background of reading comic books, or knowing the development of various characters, I think comic books allow for anyone to just pick them up and start thinking about them in a different way. They’re relatively quick reads, which really helps. Students can read them a couple of times and start to reflect back on some of the course concepts and theories that we discussed and how they apply and pull out those very specific examples. So I think the medium of comic books really provides a great range of abilities for students.

Rebecca: What are some of the things that you learned from teaching this class that you started employing in other classes?

Maggie: Oh, that’s a good question. One of the things that teaching the Injustice League has helped me with my other courses is to really think about being explicit with what I expect and what I hope students learn from various assignments and activities. In the Injustice League, students are entering college for the very first time and so they may not always understand why we’re reading this particular article or how it relates to the comic book that we’re reading today. And so for me to slow down as an educator and say that “Here’s why we’re doing this. Here’s what the research is showing us about why low-stakes testing in this class is a good thing.” That’s helped me in my other courses be more explicit with why I’m making decisions in various teaching practices.

Rebecca: Have you done anything else that’s related to bringing more comic books to other classes or field trips or some of the other things that brought the fun piece to the class that I think really energized the group as a whole?

Maggie: In my research methods class, I’m hoping that students will be able to assist in it by going out into the community and surveying people about dating formerly incarcerated persons. And so I think to get them out into the community and to start locating various areas of the community will bring some of that campus engagement aspect to it. In my crime-mapping class we actually started geocoding some of the locations around campus and so these are more upper-division courses but I’m trying to, even though the winter months make it a little more difficult to get outside, but trying to get outside of the classroom and really talk about how important it is to be connected to our community and to understand our relationship with the community.

John: I believe there was also some type of a video or a movie that you showed and I think other classes participated in that. Could you tell us a little bit about that and how it fits into other classes?

Maggie: There was a collaborative effort among some of the first-year signature course instructors to bring our students together in a common place. We ended up watching a episode of Luke Cage and this particular episode really spoke to a lot of the different courses that were being offered in the Signature Course program. Obviously my course, as one that deals with comic books and crime and justice and inequalities, Luke Cage is a very good example of many of the concepts that we talked about in class. But Mya Brown in the theater department also taught a class called Blackish Mirror and it followed the development of black characters on television. And so this was also a really good place for her class to talk about how various stereotypes that they had learned existed and/or were resisted against in Luke Cage. We also had a professor from political science and from communication studies, talk about political organizing or activism in Luke Cage, as well as narrative and the use of narrative in TV shows. We even had a signature course instructor in the health and wellness department… their class made snacks for the students to enjoy at the event.

John: Healthy snacks.

Maggie: Yeah, healthy snacks and it was brilliant. The students loved it. They created a snack mix that could be created and replicated by using ingredients found on campus. So that was a really cool way to bring in even a discipline that’s not necessarily focused on examining social inequalities in media to this event, and so it really spoke to a lot of students across various disciplines.

John: And we should note that, that person was Amy Bidwell, who was on an earlier episode. Were there any surprises in teaching the class that you didn’t expect?

Maggie: The class was a lot of fun. I don’t think I’ve had as much fun teaching any other classes I had teaching this class. It was really fun to pick up a hobby of mine, something like reading comic books, to bring this to the classroom and to start and challenge students to think about the media they consume in a new way, and how it reflects what we do in society and various values that society has. One of the most surprising things in the classroom was really how much of a community the students had at the end of the class. They had been speaking about other courses and working together on other projects and planning their course schedules for the next semester so that others would be in their courses together and so that was a really cool outcome of the class.

John: …and I believe you also opened an Instagram account for the class.

Maggie: I did and so you can follow it @the_injustice_league_oz… each word is underscored. I won’t say that I have many followers on the Instagram account but a lot of the students who did follow it seemed to really enjoy it.

John: And are you going to be teaching this again?

Maggie: I will be teaching this class next fall. So I’m very much looking forward to the next cohort of Injustice League members.

Rebecca: Did you carry on the superhero fantasy world theme throughout the class? You talked about rules for discussion or rules for engagement at the beginning. It’s almost like world building. Did you think about theming that more? Could you talk about how you might have done some of that?

Maggie: All of the designing my syllabus was all thinking of the class as being a part of a group of superheroes as opposed to just a group of students in the class. I even designed the midterm exam to look like a top-secret mission directive from their Professor S, which is me. The secret mission was about identifying various concepts that we talked about in class and applying them to a new comic book that we hadn’t read in the class. And so, in this midterm exam, they got to explore some of their favorites that we may not have gotten to touch on the class. It was a good opportunity for them to get creative and think about how these theories and concerns about justice translate across various stories.

John: And that way, you’re giving them some autonomy, but you’re also helping them develop transfer skills so they can take the things you learned and apply them in new circumstances, which is a really good practice.

Maggie: Even one of my students, when we were discussing moral panics, stopped into my office hours one day and was ecstatic because he had just realized that his journalism course was talking about moral panics, and so to be able to identify these concepts across disciplines was also a really cool outcome of the class.

Rebecca: You talked a bit about the class being really fun to teach. And part of that’s because you brought your hobby and your discipline together. But were there other things that made the class fun? I can imagine that you’ve all thought about yourselves as a part of a league. So maybe that you felt more connected to your students, or am I kind of projecting?

Maggie: Oh, absolutely. So, I called myself Professor S as a play on Professor X in X-men and so the students really loved that and they had a really good time with the way we even addressed each other in the class. The Instagram account even helped create more of a community by bringing in various pictures of each other doing or identifying various comic things across our everyday lives and interactions.

John: How did you first get interested in comic books?

Maggie: Actually, my first interest in comic books came from graphic novels and reading Persepolis as a kid. But, of course, I fell in love with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and I’ve watched pretty much all of the movies in chronological order.

Rebecca: Of course [LAUGHTER]

Maggie: I called it “research,” the summer I rewatched them all, it was a wonderful time. After reading a novel like Persepolis it was also something that really got me interested in criminal justice and society and inequalities in social life.

John: Did the students seem more open to discussing some of these issues having been exposed to them through comic books?

Maggie: Comic books reflect a lot of what is going on currently in society and they provide us a way to talk about really difficult topics of racism and sexism and things that occur and that people and students are experiencing in their everyday lives. So using comic books to facilitate these conversations is really important for students just beginning to question some of these processes.

John: One aspect of this course, as you said before, was to help introduce students to college life and help them create bonds and connections. But that also frees you up quite a bit because you don’t have a standard curriculum. Is this the first time you’ve ever taught a class where you didn’t have a fixed amount of material you had to cover in the course?

Maggie: Yeah, so this class was really flexible in that way. As I look back on the class, I’d say that it’s equally as important for us to be talking about some of the content about comic books and the sociological and criminological aspects of them as it was to help students become more connected to their community and to their campus, but also to ensure that they will be successful students at moving forward. And so this class really allowed me to work on some of their questions that would just come up, like calculating a GPA or registering for classes. And so the flexibility that exists in this class lets me respond to the students and their concerns in the moment and to occasionally tie-in some of those issues in current events to what we’re discussing in these comic books.

Rebecca: I could also imagine that it allows for the tangents that might occur as you start talking about something related to the comic book but you think it’s a valuable discussion. But if you have a finite amount of material in a finite amount of time, you might not be able to b go down those rabbit holes, but they can be such valuable conversations.

Maggie: Yeah, absolutely. You know, the flexibility of this course isn’t just to my benefit, but to the students benefit, where they can ask questions and we don’t have to worry about how much material we get through. We don’t have that curriculum that requires various elements to be covered and so the students can explore some of their questions in a very meaningful way.

Rebecca: I think it might be useful to just clarify that these classes are not part of any specific major, and they’re not a prerequisite for anything. So that’s what we’ve been talking about in terms of them being kind of freeing. I don’t know if we explicitly stated that.

John: Did you get to know the students better than you would in a typical introductory class?

Maggie: O ne of the good things about this particular classes is that there were only 19 students, and so it really allowed for me to get to know each of them individually and be able to see their personalities through our discussions and to have that comfort level with the classroom to talk about what made their day not so great today and what they really enjoyed about the weekend. And so to have that sort of informal relationship in a very formal setting was a really cool experience.

Rebecca: I know that one of the things that I’ve been thinking about after hearing many of the faculty who taught the signature classes talk about their classes is just finding ways to have some more of those informal opportunities in class, but also thinking very carefully about the content that I think that needs to be covered versus what maybe actually needs to be covered. There tends to be a disconnect, We think we need to cram in so much stuff. What are some of the key principles and things? And can we go into more depth for some of those if students are interested? And I’ve allowed that to happen a little bit this semester, and it’s been really delightful, I think, for everybody involved.

Maggie: Yeah, that was one of the things that I struggled with in the class. At the very beginning I was treating the class like a topics course and cramming, or at least planning to cram, a ton of information in. A few weeks in, I realized that it just wasn’t going to work for this type of class, that this class really did need time to facilitate these relationships and to help students learn and navigate their first semester here on campus. And so to have that flexibility for them to be able to explore their questions and concerns on campus and off campus was a important part of this class.

Rebecca: Sometimes I think that these functional aspects of being a student can get in the way of learning. So spending the time and just addressing those concerns that are preoccupying a student can free them up to actually think about the content and spend time investigating it. So, if they’re really concerned about figuring out their GPA or really concerned about making sure they’re registering for the right classes, addressing that concern up front can actually free them to focus on learning.

Maggie: Yeah, absolutely. And a lot of students, they come into the classroom and they think that college is going to be just like their high school experiences and so that studying in the same ways is going to be effective for them or that GPA’s and what credit hours are. There’s a lot of new information that makes transitioning to college more difficult one then, say, transitioning from their middle school to their high school . And so I think this does give them the time in class to talk with a faculty member to try to work out some of these questions in a way that they may not get to in their other courses and so it does certainly alleviate some of their anxiety around these issues.

Rebecca: When there’s not a context like that I think the option is going to office hours or something and that can be really intimidating, I think, for first-year students, or they just have no idea what office hours are for, which is another thing.

Maggie: Right, or how to book an appointment…

Rebecca: Yeah.

Maggie: …and all of that. And so I know many of the First-Year Signature Course instructors, including myself, tried to have individual meetings with students to break the barrier of setting up an appointment for office hours and how to draft emails to your professors and such and so I think it really helps them not be as nervous about getting the help they need and the resources that they may need in the future moving forward.

John: Because in the past if they were called into go to someone’s office after class…

Rebecca: Right, it was a bad thing, yeah.

John: Exactly. And so, you know, that’s something they do need to get past and it takes a while often and by then sometimes a little too late. So that’s really helpful.

Rebecca: Speaking of criminal justice, right? [LAUGHTER]

Maggie: Colleges, it’s a different culture than they’re used to and so to get assimilated to that culture is really important in many different ways.

Rebecca: Right, it’s like mentoring instead of a penal system.

Maggie: Right? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Kind of a weird word flip there.

Maggie: Yeah, absolutely.

John: And one of the nice things about this whole program is it was set up as a randomized controlled experiment where students were asked if they were interested in courses and then they were randomly assigned or not assigned. And there’s some work that’s being done right now analyzing how their outcomes compared to outcomes of the students who were not in one of these groups, and they’ll be followed a bit to see how this works overall. So, I’m looking forward to seeing more, but the preliminary results they have, as were reported in the meeting this morning, were fairly positive.

Maggie: Yeah, retention was really good and so hopefully that’ll continue.

John: Semester-to-semester retention….

Maggie: for underrepresented populations, yeah. There was…

John: …was 100% retention semester to semester.

Maggie: Yeah.

John: It’ll be interesting to see if that persists, because that has not always been the experience of Freshmen.

Maggie: Right, and hopefully it does and I think one of the things this Signature Course program is trying to promote are those students and faculty relationships and that if students have a strong bond with a staff member or faculty that they’ll be more successful in all aspects of their academic life.

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

Maggie: Well next, I’m currently meeting with various new faculty members for the Signature Course program so we’re going to work our way through more course prep, and I’m very excited to meet the newest members of the Injustice League next Fall.

John: And you’re also joining the cohort of people in ACUE…

Maggie: Yes.

John: …which is starting up here on campus very shortly.

Rebecca: …another league.

Maggie: Yeah, another league of sorts. [LAUGHTER] I’m very excited… very excited for that as well.

John: T hank you. It’s been a lot of fun talking to you about this course and I wish I could take most of these courses.

Rebecca: I know, they’re always so much fun to hear about, but I think they give us lots of prompts and interesting things that we can start to consider in other contexts too.

Maggie: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

[Music]

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

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

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

72. Maintaining Balance

How can faculty and students maintain a healthy lifestyle while managing their stressful workloads? In this episode, Dr. Amy Bidwell joins us to discuss strategies that faculty and students can use to create a more productive learning environment. Amy is an associate professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Wellness at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: How can faculty and students maintain a healthy lifestyle while managing their stressful workloads? In this episode, we discuss strategies that faculty and students can use to create a more productive learning environment.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Our guest today is Dr. Amy Bidwell, an associate professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Wellness at the State University of New York at Oswego. Welcome, Amy.

Amy: Thank you, John.

John: How can faculty and students maintain a healthy lifestyle while managing their stressful workloads? In this episode, we discuss strategies that faculty and students can use to create a more productive learning environment.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are… Amy, are you drinking tea?

Amy: I do not have tea this morning.

Rebecca: That’s disappointing. Are you drinking anything?

Amy: I am drinking water.

Rebecca: That sounds healthy.

Amy: It is very healthy.

John: I have pineapple ginger green tea.

Rebecca: I have my good old English Afternoon. Faculty and professional staff have regularly asked for professional development related to work-life balance. And you’ve done some workshops for us on this topic that have been wildly popular. Faculty have many demands on their time and attention…. from students and teaching to colleagues and committees to family and personal obligations. So if we’re so far out of balance, how do we get back into balance?

Amy: Well, Rebecca, that’s actually pretty interesting because I fall out of balance quite a bit and I would say that the key is that people don’t understand… they need to take time for themselves. We schedule all these things into our day, we’re constantly running around here and there, we forget to stop and smell the roses. And it’s interesting because you can actually be so much more efficient if you actually just take time to just sit back and relax and enjoy the moment and there’s actually a lot of books that I read. Jon Kabat Zinn talks all about being in the moment. We’re going from place to place. Some of us have an hour plus commute, and what are we doing during that commuting? We’re thinking about the zillions of things that we have to do. And this book is really cool and I read it 20 plus years ago, and he has since redone it, but if you actually focus on what you’re doing in that very moment… So for instance, think of all that free time we would have if we actually utilized our driving time or something as simple as our walking time. If we can just focus on that moment… what we’re doing at that moment. So if you focus on the actual act of driving, or the act of washing dishes,or walking to class, it actually frees your brain up. It’s called in brain psychology, the “agile mind.” So the agile mind is being able to go from this kind of high stress workload to quickly this resting state in our brain. And so if we as faculty, and staff, and students, and so on, can really focus on changing our brain states more efficiently, I think it really will help us just calm down and try to get in what we need for the day. Like I said, instead of us rushing to get to the next point, if we really just focus on what we’re doing at that moment. It actually makes us much more efficient.

John: And one of the things you could be doing at those moments is listening to podcasts like this one. [LAUGHTER] …..But actually taking that downtime is helpful. It lets you consolidate new information you’ve picked up, as well as just being relaxing

Amy: Right! I think our lives in general are just going 100 miles an hour all the time and that’s why we are so stressed… because we don’t give our brains a chance to relax and it’s obviously easier said than done. So again, just using that tip of listening to podcasts in the car instead of crazy music, or putting the phone away or the electronics away for just five minutes to give our brain a chance to rest. So, again, it’s easy for me to say, do this, do that, but I practice it myself. I really do. And it just takes five minutes. When was the last time you actually drove in your car with no noise? Maybe just this podcast but no noise at all; no radio, take the phone off… it will make the rest of your day that much more efficient. It really does… and it sounds kind of corny, but it’s true.

Rebecca: I don’t know the last time I did that it was freezing rain and I was really focused on not dying, but…. [LAUGHTER]

Amy: But what you were focused on something… that’s good. Next time focus on your breathing, focus on the snowflakes falling. It sounds really odd, but let me tell you, it really helps us maintain our stress levels.

Rebecca: Faculty sometimes have particular stressful times. Going up for tenure and promotion, for example, or part-time faculty who may have multiple positions and they’re commuting back and forth multiple schools and trying to balance this big workload and not having job security. What can we do when stress levels are particularly high? I think the example that you gave before was kind of that constant day-to-day stress that we can focus, but what about these like really intense moments of stress?

Amy: Well, coming from a faculty that just went through the tenure process and a faculty that has been on search committees so I’ve seen it all. And we all— just like our students—we have that up and down as the semester goes. And it’s really funny we tell our students this, to not wait until the last minute, but imagine if us as faculty didn’t wait until the last minute to do our stuff. As our semester progresses and I think I see this a lot in the tenure process. I think one thing that helped me is I looked at every year as its own entity. And I didn’t look at it as “I can kind of slack year one and two, just focus on my teaching,” and then all of a sudden it’s year five and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I really need to get this research done.” So us,as faculty, really not procrastinating ourselves, putting it into our calendar. One thing that I do that’s very helpful is on Thursdays I don’t teach and I don’t schedule any meetings and from 8 a.m. until say, 3:45—and that’s when my daughter gets off the bus—I block it off and it just says Oswego and that means research and/or grading. We don’t work efficiently as human beings by doing little bit here, 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there. And so as somebody that’s moving all over the place, and really trying to grasp that relationship between academics and scholarship and service, just taking a day out of your week in your calendar that specifically says, “Okay, today I’m going to work on my grant, next Thursday it’s going to be a grading day. The following Thursday, I’m going to have all my meetings lined up with potential collaborators.” But I really find that trying to incorporate it an hour here or an hour there, it doesn’t make you efficient because… think of it… by the time you get into your office, shut the door, turn the computer on, get done checking your text messages and all that, you’ve lost 25 minutes. And I tell people in all of the realms of areas that I’ve worked in, “You need to schedule your own time, you need to schedule your research, you need to schedule your scholarship, you need to schedule even your service. You can’t just fit it in here and there.” And I think that helps in something as simple as scheduling 10 minutes of downtime for your brain; if that’s what you need to do, put it in your calendar. I think this day and age it’s so easy because we have all these electronics, we can actually use this to our advantage. It beeps, “Okay, I need 10 minutes to myself. Everybody out of my office, I need to breathe.”

John: What about some of the issues that students face? Because they may not have as much control over the timing of the pressure and so forth?

Amy: That’s a great question John. And I started to teach a new class this past fall “Bounce onto Campus.” And the purpose of the class is just how do incoming students manage the day to day changes that occur in a college setting. And going back to your question before about how do faculty survive this whole concept of getting through their hurdles and their obstacles, students have the same things and it’s really the same techniques but for my students, for SUNY Oswego students, what I tell them is first and foremost, and I did this in my class the first week, they all had to come in with a calendar, you know, a planner— and I was actually surprised at the amount people that still use paper calendars, I’m very electronic. But they all came in and we took all their syllabi, and we wrote in all their assignments for the whole 15 weeks. Which, right there was a huge eye-opener because almost looks like they had nothing for two weeks, you know how it is… nothing for two weeks, and then your midterm exam. Well, they’re thinking “Oh, I have nothing for two weeks.” But so what we did after this is we then went in and said “Okay, now I want you to look at your day and schedule in your day… I’m going to work on my ECO 101 homework from 2–4 pm. Even though I know I don’t have an exam until October 31st, or five or six weeks down the road, I have that actually planned into my schedule.” And so my students found that extremely helpful. Another thing, there’s actually a lot of apps that you can use that will actually turn off the internet. And so I taught my students… actually they taught me “Okay, what does your evening look like? Are you in your room on your computer doing your work, and then all of a sudden, you feel the need to get on social media?” Well, these apps will turn all that off, so you can’t. And so we talked about those apps and how to utilize them and they actually use them so I think between laying out their whole schedule in their planner for 15 weeks, and then within the 15 weeks plan out their study time right in there. It actually worked really well. And then what we did also was re-evaluated it mid-semester and we looked at their mid-semester grades and we looked at the study habits and the students feedback was that they found just writing in their planner “go to library” huge. I think anyone would agree with me that the biggest no-no for college students is to go back to their dorm rooms in between classes because what do we see? We see that cozy comfy bed that’s calling out our name so you want to take a nap, and next thing you know, you slept through your library time. I would say for students, incoming students as far as stress… planning it out… you have got to plan it out.

Rebecca: In addition to time-management issues, what are some of the other struggles that students have when they’re away from home for the first time and become responsible for their own health and wellness?

Amy: Well, that’s really interesting, because this is the first time I’ve ever worked with first-year students. And what an eye-opener because I guess my experience in college was… I didn’t experience a lot of homesickness, and I was about two and a half hours away, but we have so many students that are from so far away. So a couple things. One, the biggest issue is you walk into this environment and it’s all-you-can-eat buffet, two, three times a day. And so that’s one thing that the students really struggled with. We spent a lot of time not necessarily condoning eating certain things, but planning what you’re going to eat before you go into the dining hall, knowing that you essentially can eat anything you want, you don’t have anybody hovering over you. And so I had my upperclassmen take the students to the dining hall, and we actually had discussions about, “Okay, what would your plate look like?” And so just opening up their minds about being more in tune to what they were eating… as far as the same thing when we drive and we have no idea of how we got to point A to point B because we’re focusing on so many other things. I tell them, “Be mindful when you eat. Don’t just eat anything that you can get your hands on, because it’s all you can eat.” We have a pretty intense conversation about managing the dining halls as a first-year student. They opened my eyes up to “late-night.” I wasn’t really sure what “late-night” was for the first few years I was here. “Late night”… I can explain it as like after-hours dining, I suppose. And I think the purpose of it is for people that missed dinner, but what I see is students that had dinner that want a late-night snack. It’s not necessarily the healthiest and I will be the first to say I don’t think we need to get rid of unhealthy food. I think we need to just educate people on moderation and when to eat it. So we had a nice discussion about if you’re going to go to late night for the social setting, what can you eat? And how much of it can you eat? I think the diet is the big issue for incoming first-year students. And there’s two other things. One is the social anxiety, you don’t know anyone and if you’re lucky, maybe you do know a few people from your high school, but you don’t know anyone. And so in our first-year course, it was a first-year Signature Course, we had an opportunity as a group to do some extracurricular activities and they got to know each other outside of class… that I think helped a lot to a point where towards the end of the semester, I would walk into class and I couldn’t get them to calm down. Literally, they were talking about their evenings and that has helped, I think, socially. We talked about the importance of getting out of your dorm room, getting involved with extracurricular activities more for a social way of just getting away from the studying, but to get to know people and to meet new people. And then I think the third thing, as I’ve already addressed a little bit, was so many students are surprised at the amount of workload they have in college. If I had to take a poll, I’d say 90% of my class said that either high school was way too easy or college is way too hard, but they didn’t feel like they were prepared for the workload and from what I gather it’s more the independent workload. It’s a matter of they have this exam that’s five weeks down the road and yet nothing due in between. In high school you would have assignments due every week to keep you on task, now it’s, “You have an exam in five weeks and it’s up to you to do well on it.” And so we talked about… again…going into their planner and putting in there every day or every week “Library Time: Study ECO 101,” or whatever class you have. So those tools helped them a lot, but I would say those three things, managing the dining halls and the food, finding friends, and that kind of goes along with missing their friends at home, and then managing their study time.

John: One of the things I think faculty can do for that, and you’ve mentioned ECO 101, is in every economics class, I believe, there’s weekly assignments that are due. So it’s scaffolded. And so they don’t have to worry about waiting to study. Basically, their work in most economics classes, and I think a growing number of classes in general, have some sort of scaffolding to basically ensure that students are regularly working on the material.

Amy: I agree, and I know compared to my academic experience as a student it was three exams in a whole semester and then that’s it. Whereas I feel like SUNY Oswego… as really the help of CELT and all of that… with learning how to scaffold your semester. I know I have assignments due every week. They’re usually low-stakes assignments, it could be just a two points for class participation where they, instead of me taking the time to take attendance, I will just ask them one or two questions, they write it out, and I get it back, I get the attendance for the day. I know a lot of people do Kahoot and using clickers, but that keeps students engaged, but also keeps them wanting to be prepared on a day-to-day basis.

Rebecca: I think that accountability makes a big difference.

Amy: Yes, yes. And, you know, I do grade them or I don’t grade them. And if I do grade them, it’s only worth a few points. So if they miss class, it’s not the end of the world. They can’t make it up. But the students know that when they walk into class, there’s an expectation that they’ve reviewed the notes from the previous lesson.

John: Going back to things like procrastination. One thing that behavioral economists have found is that commitment devices can be really helpful. And you mentioned that finding friends and making connections can help but that can also be used to help I think, encourage persistence towards goals, which could be any number of goals.

Amy: Yes, I definitely agree. You know, something as simple as, for instance, if you were looking at like a physical activity goal. Any brand of activity monitor, you can sync it up with a friend or you can watch a friend on the app to see how they’re doing for the day. I know I have a couple friends on my activity monitor app, which I don’t pay attention to too much, but I do know that if I’m kind of feeling a little lazy that day, that l’ll kind of click over to see what they did. And I’m like, “Oh, they have 10,000 steps in today, now I have to get moving.” So that, from a physical activity perspective, really helps me. And then I do agree something as simple as social networks… I think the social media can kind of be a downfall sometimes, but I think we can use it in a positive way. For instance, going out with a friend to the lake and taking a picture of yourself in front of the lake. That’s a good thing. You know, you’re not showing off yourself you’re showing off the fact that you’re socializing with a friend, you’re taking time to enjoy life. And then I’m also a really big fan of the different software that all sync together. So if I write it to do list down, it’ll cue me on all my devices to say, “Okay, let’s stop. Let’s take five minutes to myself. Or let’s go to the gym.” Technology, I think, gets a bad rap. I think we can really use it to our advantage by networking with each other and doing some light-hearted competition with each other with the different apps, especially the physical activity apps. But again, social networking isn’t really as bad as it seems. You know, our students… that’s how they socialize and you know, it’s okay if they want to talk about going out that night, but they’re socializing. And so maybe bringing it back more to say, you know, “I went to this event on campus, I went to this showing of a particular movie. This was my experience, next time can you come with me?”

John: … and if you have any exercise goals or study goals, agreeing to meet at a certain time for a certain while, can help encourage each person because you don’t want to let your friends down.

Amy: Yes.

John: I remember we had an associate director at the teaching center not too long ago, who often would go to the gym along with a couple of friends. And if one of them didn’t show up, pictures would show up saying, “We’re missing you.” [LAUGHTER]

Amy: [LAUGHTER] Yes, yes. Another perfect use of social media, I completely agree. In our first-year experience class, we actually did a lot of that where it was more studying. You know, we only had a class of 19 people but we realized that there were kids that were taking the same courses and then by the end of the semester they had study partners with each other… study groups… and I knew just by coming into class and overhearing conversations that so and so didn’t show up that night. And now that person hears about it the next day, and they feel almost guilty, and they respond by coming the next time. For my BOUNCE class, we took them to the gym. We showed them how to use the equipment and how to get involved with different classes. And we did it as a group because, as we know as human beings, most human beings can be motivated by others. There’s that extrinsic motivation, knowing that that person is there waiting for you, then you need to go and be there. And I think studying and exercise are two very easy examples. Exercising with a buddy and setting up study times with friends in the library or wherever.

Rebecca: It works for faculty too.

Amy: …Yes..

Rebecca: Our accessibility fellows group is meeting weekly for an hour and we’re getting tons done collaboratively, but also individually because we have that time set aside. I think early on we had a bad weather day and people ask like, “Hey, are we still meeting?” like, “Yeah, I’m here already.” You know, and everybody showed up.[LAUGHTER]

Amy: [LAUGHTER] It’s the social setting. I definitely agree that, from a faculty perspective, we have so many groups on campus. You know, something as simple as book club, the amount of people that show up for that type of stuff. I think in technology now I’m noticing many more people are using Zoom. But knowing that they’re there and seeing their face up on the screen, it gives you that feeling of collaboration. And from a faculty perspective, I think we sometimes get lost in our own little worlds, we get lost in our grading. And again, you know, going back to what we were talking about earlier with the tenure lines and how to navigate the stress related to that, another piece of advice would be, collaborating with others, but making the time to do that. And I think making it regular scheduled time, like it sounds like you guys have, which is, you know, at a certain time, every week you’re meeting at the library or at the cafe to spend two hours discussing your research, or whatever it is. I completely agree with that. I think people get stuck in their own little office and forget that we have technology… if the weather is bad, you can Zoom in or whatever. I think that helps tremendously.

Rebecca: A lot of times we think of like, faculty do this in a group or students can do this. But the class that I’m currently teaching is a travel class to the Czech Republic and my students and myself and another group of students and another faculty member who are all traveling together, are all in an app together to learn some language skills….

Amy: Oh, wow.

Rebecca: …And so there’s leaderboards and what have you, and it provides some friendly competition. And so every week when we meet as a class, I’d say like, “Oh, good job,” whoever, you know…

Amy: Right.

Rebecca: …got the leaderboard, the faculty joke a little bit about like, okay, we’ll keep our third place. [LAUGHTER]

Amy: [LAUGHTER] I think there’s so much opportunity to collaborate within the economic environment with students and faculty. We worked on a study a few years ago, or a project I would call it more less, where we had Brazilian students here. Their faculty came and worked with me and I worked with his students and my students and we all learned Portuguese together. Well, my students learned Portuguese, I just sat in the back of the classroom thinking how are they doing this, but they did an amazing job. But it was faculty and students in the same classroom from two completely different countries learning different languages and we were all equal. And it was such a great experience that I wish we actually more of that.

Rebecca: We’ve talked a lot about healthy habits and things that we can all take advantage of. What role do faculty have in helping students develop those kinds of habits?

Amy: We have a role. And one of the projects that my students did in my BOUNCE class was to find ways to incorporate physical activity and stress management skills in the classroom. And it wasn’t just my classroom, but it was if they were in another classroom, how could they tell their professor, we need five minutes. And a situation that came to my attention this year is, my daughter’s class, she’s in fifth grade, and her teacher is very much into the importance of physical activity and stress management for brain function. And so every hour, they actually have five minute brain breaks. And my thought process with faculty is if a teacher with a classroom full of 27 ten-year olds can get them to do five minutes and calm down and get right back on task, then I think a classroom of 20-25 twenty- year olds can do it as well. Some of the things that they came up with was to, even in a 55- minute class, halfway through have the instructor stop. And I did this in my class the other day, because you saw the eyes kind of getting a little lazy. And so they literally, we stood up, just walking slowly, five circles around the room… stopped… and went five in the other direction. They sat right back down, and it was like a whole different class. And so having the faculty understand that just like it’s hard for us to sit for 55 minutes or an hour and 20 minutes, to focus on one thing, it’s hard for them. And what’s wrong with actually giving them a five- or six-minute break in between. Sometimes I’ll actually have a break where I’ll say, “Go ahead. You have five minutes to check all your text messages, answer all calls, go to the bathroom.” Because I get sick of the students coming in and out of the classroom to go to the bathroom. And so I’m like, “Okay, let’s take five minutes to do this.” And then we start up again. And they’re like 100% on task. I think they respect you because you understand that they need that time. But then they perform better because they gave themselves a brain break. Just like all these activity monitors that tell us to get up and move after 50 minutes. It is so important. And there’s a lot of research to show that… it’s not a lot, it’s an enormous amount of research now… that says, physical inactivity is the new smoking. If we can get up and move for five or 10 minutes every hour we’re negating that issue of sedentary activity. And so if our faculty and staff can understand the importance of getting our students up moving, there’s so much research to support their brain health. And in fact, there’s a couple studies in New Zealand in college students and in grade school that their standardized test scores have increased substantially since they started incorporating five-minute physical activity brain breaks into their day. And what they thought is, instead of spending an hour on math, you might only get 50 minutes in of math. But that 50 minutes is so much more efficient because the brain is working so much more efficiently. And so they’ve reduced the length of time they spend on these, say, math, science, English, whatever, and they spend less time on it, but they’re more efficient. As a professor, set an alarm after 40 minutes, “Okay, let’s stop.” I don’t need an alarm, I can just gauge it for my students, their brains are starting to falter a little bit. There’s nothing wrong with taking three or four minutes, tell them to “get up, switch seats.” I did this a couple semesters ago. In the middle of the class I had everyone get up, I was in the lecture hall, everyone get up and completely sit on the opposite side of the room. It’s amazing how their attention completely changed. Just like I use the example of if you are driving to work the same route every day and all of a sudden there’s a detour and you have to go a different way, all of a sudden you’re paying attention a little bit more. And so I noticed something as simple as switching their seats, having them switch it, so it’s not you forcing something on them. But that worked actually really well, it was kind of funny too. And then the next day they all came in those new seats.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s funny.

Amy: Yeah, it was great.

John: Students do tend, once they get into a seat, they tend to stay there. But there’s a lot of other activities like clicker questions…

Amy: Yes.

John: … or other things you can do, just to break up the class and and bring their attention back to focus. This discussion also reminds me that a lot of students have been using a Pomodoro technique where you have a timer or an app that gives you 25 minutes of focused attention. And then you take five minutes off to do something else and then go back and focus again.

Amy: Yes, I had the Student Academic Success specialist come into my first-year class and they taught them that. A lot of the students already did know it but there’s actually an app… the Pomodoro app, I don’t know the exact name of it. But I actually did it myself because my problem is, most of my students’ assignments are on Blackboard. And so I’ll be at home grading my papers, and then I last about five minutes and I get distracted, and I go on and start window shopping on the internet. And so I actually use it myself and from a faculty perspective, it makes me so much more efficient. So for the students it’s great. I learned so much about the different apps, there’s also one a time management app where the students can lay out exactly where they spend all of their time. And then they notice how many hours they actually have free. I know when I start to work with people from a physical activity perspective, what is the number one reason that people don’t exercise? They don’t have time. So I actually use this app where they actually fill in where their day is, and then they realize that there’s four hours where they’re really not doing anything. Instead of spending five minutes five times a day on social media, combine that all up, walk, and there’s your physical activity for the day

John: One other strategy, going back to behavioral economics, there’s a website called Stickk.com that Dean Karlin (a friend of mine) and some other economists put together where you make a commitment to do something and you post that. You give them your credit card number and then if you don’t meet your goal, a certain amount of money is deducted. You don’t have to put money up against it, but that’s strongly recommended. And the money could go to a charity, it could go to an organization…

Rebecca: You did that, right?

John: I did that, yeah.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: But what they actually recommend as being most effective is an anti-charity. You set a goal—they break it up into weekly segments—it could be exercising for a certain number of hours or studying a certain number of hours. It could be anything you want. They have some preset ones and then you can configure your own. You find someone who will verify that report, a weekly report, and then if you don’t meet it, money is taken out. So what they recommend is using an anti-charity where if, say you’re a liberal, money would go to the NRA if you don’t meet your goal, or to a Republican super PAC. If you’re relatively conservative, they recommend using something like the ACLU or a Democratic super PAC. And they found that that’s been fairly effective. There’s been a number of studies doing that.

Amy: That is absolutely amazing. That’s something that would work really well for me. I know there’s some apps and programs where if you check-in at a gym to exercise, I don’t know if you have to be there for a certain length of time, I don’t know exactly how it works, but you get money put back into an account. But I think any way to motivate somebody, whatever it is, I almost wonder if we could create something where you check into the library a certain number of times to study, where you meet with your study groups a certain number of times. I know in my BOUNCE class they have to set weekly goals and those goals are recorded in their online journals that I look at so I’m they’re kind of big brother, so to speak, watching over them. And the goals that these students have accomplished just knowing that I’m looking at it, that motivation helps. I remember when I first started running, I announced it on social media and it wasn’t to brag. It was to give myself that…

John: Well, it’s a commitment…it’s a commitment device… You stated it publicly.

Amy: It’s a commitment. Yes, I stated it publicly. So now I’m telling everybody out there, “I am really going to do this. I don’t care if you’re paying attention or reading this but knowing I just told the world that I’m going to exercise three times a week, now I’m going to do it.” And so… again, using social media to our advantage. And goal setting, however you do it, is huge. We do this in my BOUNCE class. We set goals every week, they have to enter this journal. I mean, in a way we’re doing that… we’re giving them points, graded points for completing their journal entry. There’s no way for me to say whether you’re doing it or not. I can’t tell if you really went to the gym those days. But I think eventually the student realizes that they’re only cheating themselves. And I tell them this all time in my class, “Don’t just write these goals out to get your five points. The point of the class is a behavior change.” And I’m thinking the students, they have appreciated this weekly goal setting so much. And I think using these different—I think you mentioned it’s called ClickIt—these different…

John: Stickk.com.

Amy: I think these different apps and technology use it in our favor. We have so much out there to use and I think we need to use it in our favor.

REBECA: The last thing I wanted to really ask you about is one of the things that I find that I end up having conversations with my students about is the fact that they actually need to sleep and eat.

Amy: Yes. We have in my BOUNCE class—like two weeks we talk about sleeping and eating. Again when we had the SASS people coming in, the Student Support Specialist… Academic Support Specialist, when they showed us these programs where you can record all of your time that you spend. What I was finding is—and what the students actually discovered—they thought they were up until one in the morning studying. No, they were up til one in the morning either on their phones or on the computer watching different movies. And so I actually get in my class, what we get involved with physiologically, what’s happening with your body, when you don’t sleep. Something as simple as that fretful cortisol hormone that is increased with lack of sleep and that causes your body to store fat. And so really, they look at their daily behavioral patterns and they start to actually schedule sleep into their calendar. And again, going back to some of those apps. There’s apps that turn off the phones and turn off the computers at a certain time, and the students are actually using it, which surprises me and then they come into class and it’s like a whole ‘nother person. It’s like, “Wow, you look so different when you actually get more than two hours of sleep.” And then after we navigate the sleep system, we discuss the importance of getting up just 10 minutes earlier and grabbing something to eat, even if it’s just a simple granola bar walking out the door. How important it is to fuel your body. I use the example of picture a fire, your metabolism is your fire. And as that nice big fire’s going throughout the day, it starts to slow down at night, and the way you have to grab that fire back up, is to throw logs on it, throw sticks on it. Same thing with your eating. When you wake up in the morning that fire has kind of died down. You need to throw some sticks on it to rev it back up. And so even if it’s, you know, 100 calorie snack here and there—I know people just sometimes hate to eat breakfast—but you cannot survive without sleep and without breakfast, whatever it is. Something…except candy. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Was there anything else that we wanted to make sure we discuss?

Amy: You know, I think overall if I wanted to just summarize everything that we chatted about from a faculty perspective and professional staff, taking time to live in the moment—I mentioned it in the very beginning—but if you could really just take five minutes every hour to just turn everything off and breathe, you will be so much more productive. And then scheduling in time chunks, very large chunks of time to get the research done, get the grading done, get the social collaboration in there, putting that into your schedule is huge. And then from a student perspective, scheduling into your planner your exams, your exams for the whole entire semester, and then putting right into your schedule time going to the library or going to the dining hall. We had people actually scheduling in lunch because they would forget to eat lunch. Scheduling in physical activity, whatever it is… planning. Just planning being present and participating. And then keeping in mind that technology can be our friend if it’s used in the right way.

John: We always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Amy: What is next? Well, there’s lots next. For one, I am offering a program, a BOUNCE now for adults, for faculty and staff that actually focuses on the eight dimensions of wellness. And we actually—I teach you the behavior change techniques needed to encompass all of this. And then from a student perspective, you can take BOUNCE for credit in the Spring. Anyone can take it. In the Fall, it’s just first-year students. And then if you wanted to really know what’s next, it’s to take five minutes for yourself.

John: Thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much.

Amy: Thank you. This was enjoyable.

[Music]

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

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

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

71. Small Teaching Online

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Sounds yummy.

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

Rebecca: I have my Golden Monkey again today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flower: Mmm-hmm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca and John: Yes. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flower: Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flower: Right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: Thank you.

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

[Music]

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

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

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