166. Course Villain

A number of online services exist that facilitate academic dishonesty. In this episode, Zachary Dixon and Kelly George join us to discuss Course Villain, a platform they created to detect crowd-sources plagiarism. Zachary is an Assistant Professor of English at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical College, and Kelly is an Associate Professor of Economics, also at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical College.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: A number of online services exist that facilitate academic dishonesty. In this episode, we discuss one institution’s project designed to automate the detection of academic integrity violations.

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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 guests today are Zachary Dixon and Kelly George. Zack is an Assistant Professor of English at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical College. And Kelly is an Associate Professor of Economics, also at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical College. They are co-creators of the Course Villain tool, which is designed to track crowd-sourced plagiarism. Welcome.

Zachary: Thank you.

Kelly: Thank you.

John: Our teas today are:

Zachary: Sparkling water for me.

Kelly:I have hot lemon water for me.

John: Oh, that’s close.

Rebecca: That’s close enough to tea. I have Scottish breakfast.

John: And I have ginger peach black tea. We’ve invited you here to talk about Course Villain. I saw your presentation on this at the OLC Accelerate conference recently, and we invited you here so you can share that with our listeners. Could you give us a brief overview of how this program came about?

Zachary: Sure. Actually, we were at a college faculty meeting for all of the College of Arts and Sciences and plagiarism was kind of up for discussion a little bit. And I’m on the younger side of the faculty, or I was at the time, at least, and Kelly has children of her own to keep her more in touch, I guess, with the digital scene. And so Kelly and I were like, “Well, does anybody else know what’s happening on this place called CourseHero. And so many of our other fellow faculty did not know they’re kind of like, “No, what’s that?” …and we pulled it up on a screen on a laptop and really started to blow some minds. And so Kelly and I started talking about that and just got to the idea that, you know, this doesn’t seem like it has to be an impossible problem. This is more an interesting problem. Let’s see if we can game this a little bit. And we started coming up with some strategies and ideas on how to track this kind of behavior and see if we could use old Google Alerts, it was our first kind of ambitious attempt. We tried to manipulate Google Alerts into telling us when things happened on Course Hero , and it was a terrible failure. It didn’t really show us anything at all. And so that kind of prompted us like,”Wow, we need to do better.” And so we started calling the computer science department and trying to find some researchers, and it kind of just took off from there. We saw this one little issue and we thought maybe we could game it and play around with it, and it’s developed into something fun from that.

John: Could you tell us a little more about how the program you developed functions? What does it do?

Kelly: The program itself is a software function that it’s been built in a number of iterations with computer engineering students, and they use a web crawler and a web scraper. So you would put in your query. John, being an econ major, you would say, “Well, I wonder how much of econ 101 John Kane is on CourseHero.” And so you would put in the query the search features. And then what this program does is it goes into CourseHero, and it then generates hits, which are artifacts. And depending on the time that we have it running, it will generate a report to us, the user, of the 20 most recently uploaded artifacts that meet your query, so you can determine for your class what’s going on. So before it, old school, if you were a faculty member, you’d create a syllabus, and then you want to see what’s out there in the world that would make your course compromised. And at one point in time, we had it scanning once every 24 hours. You can set the duration, we can change it to 12 hours to 24 hours. The report comes back to us, and then we can look at the artifacts. Sometimes it’s a very top level screening by the instructor. We can say, “Yeah, that’s the final exam that shouldn’t be uploaded,” We had an option in the second part of the program is it auto generates that takedown feature that is so difficult to overcome with CourseHero. If you did it manually, if you have 40,000 documents, I think someone at our conference said last year, they generated something to the tune of like 60 or 70,000 takedown requests for CourseHero. And if you’re doing that by hand, that’s more than just one person doing that takedown request because of their requirements. So that was the bigger challenge, I think, in this program was to generate the takedown request. So what we envisioned was this program just kind of constantly working. So it’s constantly scraping and generating reports, and we were generating takedown requests. And Zack was the one who said it’s kind of the old Disney YouTube dynamic and phenomenon. Way back early in YouTube, back in the early 2000s, you can find every Disney movie across YouTube. And then basically Disney’s teams of lawyers and copyright content owners got involved. And they made it so difficult that now YouTube, they have algorithms and they have firewalls where you can’t upload Snow White on YouTube. And so that was kind of like in our perfect world, Where would you want to get to be where CourseHero says “Ah, that’s from Embry-Riddle. We don’t want it. It’s too difficult.”

Zachary: In terms of the functionality of the program, it’s deceptively simple, where really we just kind of built a very carefully tuned search engine, just like Yahoo or Google, where we’re essentially just leveraging the API metadata, that application program interface that the big dogs use. We kind of just built our own smaller version that does what we needed to, and that’s about it.

John: Have you tried using this with anything other than CourseHero, for some of the other sites out there for Chegg and and all the many sites that have been appearing in the last few years?

Kelly: No, not yet.

Zachary: No, we haven’t.

Kelly: It’s on that map of what you want to do. It’s all resources. You’ve got to get students to maintain the program and keep working it and to alter it a little bit. That would be the ultimate goal, to put them on the other big crowdsourced study aid platforms.

Zachary: And following up, it connects back to that leveraging that API metadata and that interface does restrict our ability to move between platforms, because we would have to re-tailor it, so to speak, kind of recut and sew it. And one of the challenges over the lifetime of the project now for coming up on three years has been exactly that, maintaining that interface. CourseHero is also always updating and revising it, trying to get better profiles on the search engines and maybe assumably trying to keep people like us out. So the maintenance keeps this one step working, and then that’s also kind of deterred us from trying other platforms.

John: So you’re searching primarily on the instructor’s name and the course? Is that the criteria?

Zachary: Well, you can define any criteria in Course Villain right now. The only kind of hard tuning we have is that we have manipulated Course Villain to only search for Embry-Riddle content right now. So we’ve restricted the search engine’s functions by our university, and that has allowed us to have better accuracy in our reporting, because before we are getting anything with English 123 would pop up and really cloud the results, so we had to kind of throttle back the scope.

John: One thing I’ve noticed recently with CourseHero in particular, is that my material now is showing up with me at nearby institutions. So students may have tuned into this because I have Eco 101 materials and Eco 350 materials at Cornell, at Syracuse University, and a few other places now, including, I think, one in North Carolina, which is my content that I created, and it has my name there, but students are getting a little bit… not terribly…but a little bit more savvy on trying to avoid detection by instructors. So, that may be something you want to look at.

Kelly: But, I think also one of the explanations for that is, not only our students getting savvy, Lord knows, they can re-engineer anything fairly quickly, instead of just doing the work. But if your material is being recycled, so primary, it’s yours at your institution, and then someone who’s just looking to do a paper or to do something is just plunking around out in the web and steal some of your things and brings it in and then when they recycle your material and upload it, because CourseHero has got that pay for play, you got to upload something. So, I can just upload this material, and then you move into the second and third generation of your material.

John: Interesting. I hadn’t thought about that possibility. Because this was material from last year, some of it was exams from last year. And I just assumed it was my own students who posted it somewhere else to share it with other students, letting them know where to look so that they could evade detection. But the possibility of it being recycled is certainly a real one.

Zachary: Seeing your own work not labeled appropriately. I also saw the same thing. I think there’s also like a level of student error involved where students will like create department names and college names that don’t exist at the university, and maybe they just don’t know. Something else, and Kelly observed this really well in our data analysis, was the issue of student agency is really hot here. And it’s probably like, three steps ahead of where we’re thinking, because students are gaming us, they’re gaming the university, and they’re gaming CourseHero too. They will not just post reasonable material. It could be John Kane’s exam, and it’s just like two lines of nothing text. CourseHero doesn’t appear to have a lot of oversight over their own collection and so the students are really steering the ship in a crazy way.

Kelly: The one thing that made me look at that was when we were doing an analysis on one of the first reports and these four documents for like a physics course kept popping up. And they were like almost management case studies or something like… notes on Boeing or something… they kept popping up. And then I drilled down and what I realized was one student must have been doing the pay for play and the student just took six or seven documents that were readily available, not necessarily their documents, like their paper, where someone could actually go in and if you didn’t remove your name or anything like that you can see. My students examples are always Joe Bagadonuts. So, you know, it’s Joe Bagadonuts’ English paper or economics paper. So this individual was just uploading these PDFs, and these documents, just to get their ticker up so that they can download documents to compromise.

Rebecca: Do students know about Course Villain at your institution?

Kelly: They do now. [LAUGHTER] Marketing finally got ahold of us. We’ve had a little bit of localized publication. And then actually, from that, a fellow colleague of mine, who didn’t know we were working on this, came back and said, “Here’s an idea,” he actually appealed to his students, and said why you wouldn’t want your work up on CourseHero. And through that, in his small class, he was actually pretty successful in getting them to take down the work. And because I asked him, I was like, “How did you do that?” And he said his line was “Well, I asked them politely,” but then he gave an explanation of how he appealed to students. And it got me thinking that, in our next iteration, instead of just trying to prevent or catch the plagiarism after the fact, that that would be a good preemptive strike, to create some type of a PR campaign with our students in our university to say “Here, you can help us out here. This is why you don’t want your material up on CourseHero.” So if we came at the problem from both ends, it just hadn’t slipped our mind. That was eventually our end goal. My end goal was always that as a university, our honor code system would expand so much that our students had so much pride in the honor code system, that they would work to elevate that. And that would be one idea of how to start out that prong of the research.

Zachary: One interesting student dynamic has been our student researchers, our programmers. So we’re pretty proud of the fact that we have funded all of Course Villains so far with internal grants through the university, and we’ve only employed student programmers to do the work. Neither Kelly nor myself are capable programmers. I can maybe throw together some HTML if I tried, but we really have been leaning heavy on our student programmers. And they’ve had a really positive response to this experience. They’re aware of CourseHero when they come into this and the kind of that ilk, and I think they appreciate the hacker mentality that we kind of foster. We kind of have a cool proverbial David and Goliath situation here, this kind of huge onslaught of material and this kind of corporate juggernauts. And compared to just a couple faculty members and a small budget, it does create a cool atmosphere. And I will say, with no judgment on anyone using or not using CourseHero, though, when we do get our student programmers involved and we kind of sit down and talk about it, I definitely get the sense that diligent students appreciate this work in that it is combating something that they understand undermines the quality of their education experience.

JOHNr: How have your colleagues responded to the reports you’ve generated on the frequency of materials from their courses appearing on CourseHero?

Kelly: Shocked. It would shock any instructor. Disheartened, and then engaged. They want to use our software right away. And, because not only do they want to pre-empt, they want to get their own material taken down. They want to catch the students that are flagrantly violating academic integrity, and they want to use it. So, they’ve sprinted way, way ahead of us. So, the motivation is there. I think it’s a matter of trying to figure out where in the grand piece of the puzzle of our institution that this product can work.

Rebecca: How many takedown notices has Course Villain created or generated?

Kelly: I was not prepared for that question.

Rebecca: Oh. We can cut it out.

John: I hadn’t thought of it either., but it’s a good question.

Rebecca: But I am curious. [LAUGHTER]

Kelly: No, I wouldn’t take it out. I just think, wow… That’s a good question. Actually. We were too busy the last two years. The first year we did was “Could we create this mousetrap?” The second year was dedicated to “How well does this mousetrap work?” And then this next year, this year that we’re in, was really a question of “How can we incorporate the use of this? How effective is it? And how do we incorporate it into our instructional design process and get it into our workflow to where it helps us rather than becomes just an obstacle you had to come around?” So we don’t have the data on the takedown requests. I’m gonna get it though. [LAUGHTER]

Zachary: The early experiments that I can definitely recall and speak to on the takedown requests have been pretty largely unsuccessful insofar as CourseHero is looking for specific amounts and specific kinds of verbiage in that takedown request. And since we’ve been more focused on, like Kelly said, program development and stabilisation, we haven’t been able to focus in on “What is that verbiage that we can achieve from a programmatic perspective? Like, “Can I make Course Villain say the right thing that will work every time?” or do I really have to work with an instructor level basis, like “You’re gonna have to supply this part of it,” because we can auto populate the whole form and send it on. But, so far, the couple dozen I’ve tried (focused on trying to make the thing work) have all gotten bounced back to me, you know, “More information is needed.” Essentially, you need a better argument. And the next step is largely experimental. Like, what is that? And it’s a lot to do with institutional workflow, really clarifying, like, whose intellectual property is what and why? What are we able to defend and argue? Some of these are questions for the development team, for Kelly and I, some of these questions for administration at our university, to help us chisel out here, to have that ability to kind of go back to CourseHero. You get to that legal end of things and things get weird, I think.

Kelly: Within our college, I just taught a master’s level class and now all the major assignments that are submitted in this research levels class does have the copyright at the bottom. Remember, Zack, about a year ago, we were talking about that? Well, if all Embry-Riddle submitted assignments had this statement at the bottom, like in the footer of the assignment, then it would be protected. That was one of the ways to combat the changing language and requirements of CourseHero. So if you can say “No, this is copyrighted, I’m a representative of Embry-Riddle. So, you do have to take this information down.” But I did notice that, in the last class that I taught, the research methods, that that was a fundamental change.

Zachary: There is also a pretty murky or wicked issue in terms of disciplinarity. And what exactly students are posting in there. And so there is kind of a level of judgment that has to be made where, “is this appropriate to be taken down? Is this truly our/my/the university’s intellectual property or just does that belong to the student?” And as I study academic integrity, and plagiarism, in particular, that line is really down to communities of practice, professional organizations, disciplines, courses, and instructors themselves. So that line has to be teased out too. That’s kind of worth mentioning.

Rebecca: So in addition to tools like this, what are some other strategies you’ve seen faculty in your department or at your college start implementing to help reduce the use of sites like this? You mentioned one faculty of doing an intervention. [LAUGHTER] Have you heard of other things that faculty are doing perhaps as a result of you’ve been hearing about Course Villain, and CourseHero?

Zachary: Well, I know one large-scale institutional change is we’ve actually revised the Student Code of Conduct to include these kinds of sites and the behavior of sharing work. It is defined as plagiarism, as a violation of academic integrity, to even be involved. Still, that kind of leads to weird and murkyish paths, where “Can we track down someone based on a name on a document and an avatar on an open site?” I don’t know. That kind of these legal things that go beyond my simple English professor life and knowledge. But changing the Student Code of Conduct was a big one. And I think in STEM fields, physics, math, I know we talk a lot with a faculty about micro changes to assignments, where you don’t have to do a lot to revise a mathematics or a physics equation-based assignment: change decimals, change units, change little things here and there that can really fundamentally alter the structure of an assignment. And that makes it more resilient in terms of how it’s shared and used. And from an English Composition perspective, my best work against plagiarism has always been to encourage students to follow their own passions and ideas, to write about what they want to, to let students guide topics and selections as much as they can. And then to complement that with long-term scaffolding where you’re gonna pick something and we’re gonna work on that something all term. And so if you’re committed to plagiarizing in that context, then that’s a whole lot of dedication I’m not prepared to counter at the moment, but otherwise, it’s like, “Well, if I get to choose my adventure here, maybe I don’t have to go steal it.”

Kelly: Yeah, I was gonna piggyback off of Zack with “It’s the authentic assignments.” Having taught this last half year to a year I’ve been teaching a lot of the upper-level research methods class, where these are the students they’re rolling into their thesis, we call them capstones. So they start with the problem statement. Each problem statement is unique. Getting the data… the data has got to be the most recent. I did have one student that I think he must have had some material. And about halfway through the class, he realized that the authenticness was going to be removed fairly quickly, and he was going to be found out, because he changed pretty quick about halfway through the semester he said, “You know, I’ve got a better idea” and did all that. So it’s just building a better learning experience for the student. Unfortunately, it’s a better learning experience for the student that’s born out of this malicious behavio.r

Zachary: And otherwise, at Embry-Riddle, we also do operate with TurnItin software, there are investments being made in lockdown browsers, and two or more factor identification to try and get at some of the more complicated forms of contract cheating that are… I don’t think they’re pervasive… but they are very hard to deal with.

John: Have you requested any funding from your university in developing this package?

Kelly: Early on with the university, we filled out our university intellectual property, and you meet with the intellectual property office. And the whole idea is: “Is there some technology that you can eventually move into some type of a commercial project out of the academic world into the commercial world?” And I think maybe we weren’t just expressing ourselves. I almost feel like it was Shark Tank. We had this idea, but it wasn’t a business yet. It was a great idea. We had some kind of functionality, but it wasn’t a business yet. It just wasn’t developed enough yet for them to be able to take it out and market it around. Because now there is a team in our IT department {we’re on the committee) where they put out a request for proposal. And it was for software that helps combat plagiarism and things of this nature. So we haven’t seen the proposals that have come back in. But it seemed to us this was a tool that you would think that one of these educational learning management systems would be interested in taking and incorporating into… we all use Canvas… if that was integrated into Canvas, where not only just a turnitin report came up, CourseHero or one of these other crowdsourced platforms would come up as well. So the request for proposal’s out, we haven’t seen anything in there. But it would be interesting if we could re-engage the Intellectual Property Office at our university to see if there’s really, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, “Is this something?”

John: Along those lines, I know Lumen Learning, who produced the Waymaker personalized learning platform, have put together an API that automatically checks the web for postings of their questions and content. And they do use a lot of algorithmic questions so that each student gets a different version of the question. And I believe some publishers have started to do this. I haven’t checked that myself. But it would be nice if the arms race could escalate a little bit more on the side of deterring academic integrity violations. One of the things that’s happened, though, on the other side is many departments had picked up departmental subscriptions to places like CourseHero, because one thing that many of us are troubled by, myself included, is having to pay $15 or $16 a month for a subscription to a service primarily engaged in facilitating cheating. And many departments have created departmental accounts. And Chegg, for example, now, is only allowing you to use a given account on specific computers. So, you’re limited to the number of computers that you can connect to. I had my own account for this for a while now, because I teach a lot of classes where these things come up. But, I know some departments had created departmental accounts where many people were using the same account, cheating a little bit on the instructor side, to try to shut some of this down at a lower cost and without subsidizing them quite as actively. But more and more places are starting to move their stuff behind a paywall, which may make it a little bit harder to detect some of these violations.

Zachary: Well, John, I’ll follow that up. Actually, the College of Arts and Sciences here at Embry-Riddle Worldwide, we’ve also purchased a kind of college subscription for the same access. And Course Villain isn’t exempt from that kind of dependence either, because one of the really annoying issues we stumbled into early, was CourseHero’s own document preview limits, where you could only view 10 documents… their cover page, so to speak… before they would ice you out and give you kind of a grade. This is only for your eyes only kind of situation. And if you don’t have that paid access… that limit. So paying for it does kind of peel back that one layer and at least give us the option to view the artifacts and help correlate them. But that’s tough. But I also want to come back to the kind of arms race idea. If I had just my closing stump speech for Course Villain, it’s that it doesn’t have to be a very difficult arms race. It can be kind of an arms walk, where I’m really excited and pleased with our development of Course Villain and we’ve accomplished that with about $8,000 of internal funding. $8,000, two faculty members, and we’ve hired two research assistants… two student programmers… over the course of these couple years. And we’ve developed what we have. And I think our model is replicable. If we’re not going to create a product that the university wants to sell to other people. I really encourage other universities, other faculty, other interested researchers to start coming up with your own low-cost mousetraps, because that’s all it takes is kind of just chipping away at it, and before you know it, we will find that corner, that inroad, that kind of loophole that allows us to make really good work. It’s not out there. We don’t have to wait for publishers and juggernauts to do it. We can handle this. I really am confident in that.

Kelly: And we actually had this conversation after the last conference, should we have one more conversation with our university with the Intellectual Property Office of our university? Or do we just turn around and say, here’s the open source, go forth and provide it to other universities, and do our own crowdsource of how to combat it and see where it can go from that?

John: That could be an interesting project where other institutions may contribute work on other platforms, where people could get a menu where they could choose what to look for, and perhaps some people could specialize on generating those takedown requests. So that it wouldn’t require the work of just a few people there, it could be distributed more widely. That would be an interesting possibility.

Kelly: I bet there’s a grant in there somewhere, Zach.

Zachary: I hope so. [LAUGHTER]

John: Are there any other things you’d like to share with our listeners?

Zachary: If there’s one thing I would add that I don’t think I got a chance to really frame in the strongest sense that I wanted to at the conference, is the idea that what’s also at stake in this kind of scary moment, as we talked earlier about how people are finding themselves forced into this digital environment. And it’s easy to have your breath taken away at the scope and scale of this problem of people sharing coursework in kind of an illicit fashion. The other opportunity there is that we’re suddenly getting more data than we’d ever dreamed of. For my research from looking back at the histories of plagiarism of academic integrity violations. When you try and find the hard numbers of frequency or prevalence of this behavior, it doesn’t look like the Internet has really changed the nature of academic dishonesty, it just brought it into a new venue. And that makes it look scary, because now it’s like, “Oh, it’s happening fast and on really big scales.” But this kind of fundamental issue appears to remain largely the same. But what’s changed is our ability to understand and track that problem, because now it’s not between hands, under desks, or in dorm rooms or in the hallways where it could never, or very rarely, be tracked down. I think of like the kind of investigatory efforts invested in like the Naval Academy plagiarism scandals, where you have to track down students and interrogate them, and like bring them against charges, to get them to rat each other out, and then you expose this network of plagiarism when it was really just some people sharing something in a problematic way. But now that’s rendered in this digital space, and that’s a really cool opportunity to re approach a lot of our old ideas about how, why, these things happen, and put us in touch with a really cool new data set about this behavior that I think can help us understand how and why people commit academic dishonesty.

Kelly: I do know of one graduating student that I’ve advised along the way, and he’s going into the cyber security world. So here’s a huge world. He’s going through lie detector tests and background checks and things like that. And one of the things that he thought of was, they ask like, “Have you cheated in your coursework?” And he had to think, “Okay, with CourseHeroe, is that considered cheating?” It’s certainly unethical. Well, I guess that’s a whole ‘nother podcast in of itself. But we think it’s unethical, it’d be interesting to get someone on the other side, arguing that it wouldn’t be. I don’t know, if I was going for any kind of security clearance or anything like that, I don’t want to be defending that choice to the investigator that I may or may not work for at some point in time.

John: I think one takeaway, though, from your discussion is that we can design our courses in such a way so that it’s not so easy just to copy and paste solutions into questions. And we can come up with better ways of assessing learning, which many people have been working online have been doing for many years now. But with the sudden transition of so many faculty online, who are trying to, as in the early days of online instruction, replicate what they were doing in the classroom in an online environment, it just doesn’t work in the same way. And we need to work with things that work better in this medium.

Kelly: Yeah.

Rebecca: This has been a really interesting conversation, really providing some new perspectives on things that I think will help faculty think through these things a little bit more. We usually wrap up by asking: “what’s next?”

Zachary: I think what’s next from a research perspective is Kelly and I are on track to track brand new course material from its online birth, so to speak, and to track it long term, kind of one course or one assignment. What does that course look like? What is its kind of online life look like… almost like tracking a single butterfly, like a monarch, as it goes from point A to point B. I’d like to use Course Villain to track one really specific thing and try and flesh out that narrative. So, just like I mentioned earlier, to get at that “What’s happening here beyond the obvious?” And I think that’s a cool way this tool facilitates that.

Kelly: I would like to also go into strengthening the student portion of this, try and to get them engaged and come at it from that point. I’d like to do some work in there and thinking about working with my colleagues. Then also I’ll work with the workflow. How can we put it in our workflow? We’re are all trying to be so efficient, so you can’t come up with a unique thing every time a course is run. So I’d like to see where in the workflow that will go, and get more students involved. There’s one group of students that we really gave free rein to, because we weren’t paying them and it was during COVID. Also, we just said, “Here’s some source code, here’s the problem, what would you do with it?” …and we kind of threw it at them. And they went on to “Oh, we’re going to have it learn and go…” And one student was really big into AI, so he was going to work with them. And so that was kind of fun. I’d like to reengage them and see what they would do with it. They’re the students. They’re the ones with the better ideas.

Zachary: And I’ll throw a shout out there to Embry-Riddle Prescott campus… that’s their cybersecurity club. We basically gave them a clone of the tool and we’re like, “Hey, play with it. See what you can develop.” They’ve been really hip on the idea of machine learning. And how can we get Course Villain to figure out its own prerogatives and do its own tracking work without so much supervision?

Kelly: They each had, like a specialized talent. And one, I really think it would work more efficiently if we hosted it using this language instead of that language. And I said, “Sure, go ahead”. He was a little taken aback like “You’re not bought into that.” And I was like, “No, you guys are the creators. Go for it.

Rebecca: So, it’s pretty exciting to see how it might have a life of its own.

Kelly: Yeah.

John: Especially if it becomes an AI bot, somehow. [LAUGHTER]

Zachary: Yeah, absolutely.

Zachary: I love your idea, John, of a Linux model. I’d like to see some version of this program or some version of a program like this. Getting back to that kind of David and Goliath narrative, if we can all chip in some small piece to a project like this, we could develop something that’s really cool, that I think could give these kind of sites and their prerogative a kind of a tough run for their money.

John: You could always create a GitHub site or a SourceForge site, and then people could work on it from there.

Zachary: That’s a good idea. Thank you.

Kelly: A GoFundMe page. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: You might get a lot of takers on that.

Zachary: I just hope we don’t find the code itself on CourseHero. [LAUGHTER]

Kelly: Yes.

Zachary: That would be very disheartening.

Kelly: Imagine that takedown request.

Zachary: That’s right.

John: Well, thank you. This has been fascinating, and I think this is an area that many people are concerned about, and this was very informative. Thank you.

Kelly: Oh, thank you.

Zachary: Rebecca, John, thank you so much.

Rebecca: Thank you. I hope it sparked a lot of ideas.

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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.

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165. Educational Pipeline

A college degree, especially in one of the STEM fields, can provide students with higher incomes, more stable employment prospects, and more pleasant working conditions. Many  students who could benefit from a college degree face a variety of barriers that prevent them from successfully completing their degree. In this episode, Jill Lansing joins us to discuss what colleges and universities can do to help smooth the educational journey from Pre-K to college and to careers for all of our students. Jill is an Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of Education Pipeline Initiatives at the State University of New York. Before moving to this position in 2009, she had been the Coordinator of P-16 Strategic Planning for the New York State Department of Education.

Transcript

John: A college degree, especially in one of the STEM fields, can provide students with higher incomes, more stable employment prospects, and more pleasant working conditions. Many students who could benefit from a college degree face a variety of barriers that prevent them from successfully completing their degree. In this episode, we discuss what colleges and universities can do to help smooth the educational journey from Pre-K to college and to careers for all of our students.

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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 Jill Lansing. She is an Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of Education Pipeline Initiatives at the State University of New York. Before moving to this position in 2009, Jill had been the Coordinator of P-16 Strategic Planning for the New York State Department of Education. Welcome, Jill.

John: Welcome, Jill.

Jill: Thanks so much for having me today. It’s really truly an honor and a privilege to be here. And

John: Today’s teas are:

Jill: I’m drinking iced tea because of the podcast, and some water.

Rebecca: It’s a little cold outside for me to have iced tea today, but I have Big Red Sun again. And as you can see, I am drinking my way through one whole canister of the same tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: I am drinking Tea Forte’s Earl Grey today.

Rebecca: So Jill, we’ve invited you here today to talk a little bit about your work on educational pathways. Can you tell us a little bit about your role?

Jill: About 10 years ago, almost 11 years ago now, I started at the State University of New York in this role to really try to help to strengthen the alignment between K through 12 education and higher education and adult education, also encouraging adults to return to college. And it has been such an amazing opportunity, I have to say. It’s amazing, It’s been 10 years already, 11 years to think about this pathway. But, I think the idea was, many of the faculty that are listening today have been doing it forever. So they know what works and what doesn’t work. What we did when we started this work about 10 years ago was to really try to create more opportunities to bring resources to the table for faculty at our colleges. So the idea was really, and I’ve been lucky in this regard, was really to figure out what grant opportunities we could apply for, what pathways were available that we could actually say: “This works. This doesn’t” …to try to avoid places where people have had difficulties in the past. So, I spend a lot of my time actually learning from the faculty at SUNY about what does work, and then also try to bring resources to those things that are successful. Before my role at SUNY, I was working as the coordinator of P-16 strategic planning for the State Education Department. And I worked in many different capacities there, one of the places that I worked, that I loved the most, was working in the Office of the Professions and Higher Education. And in the professions, I was so new, I was a graduate student when I started and I got the opportunity to be in the role of the public management internship program at the time, which was to really try to create opportunities for new people to have the opportunity to learn about the government and learn about public administration. And so the idea was to create a public information campaign around career opportunities in the professions like architecture, dentistry, engineering, nursing. And so I was able to learn about so many opportunities there, there are nearly 45 licensed professionals in New York State, all opportunities for students to have career opportunities in. And also from there, I was able to work in the Office of Higher Education, and also the Office of at the time, it was Elementary, Secondary and Continuing Education. And so I really did get to see all of the amazing work that goes on in the State Education Department to support students, and also the pathways that are available for student success. So it really gave me an idea of what we could do at SUNY to really support students beginning at the very early age of pre-kindergarten all the way through elementary school, secondary school, and then into college. So lots of good experience that led to, hopefully, better outcomes for students,

John: What are some of the barriers or the challenges that students face as they move along their educational pathways in the state.

Jill: So I always like to start with opportunities. [LAUGHTER] But I think that barriers are real. In fact, they very much are real. So last year, I had the great opportunity to work with the National Center for Education Statistics as part of the Data Institute team to kind of look at the data and to find out some of those barriers. So, we did some regression analyses, and one of the things that we knew were true, but it really became evident in the numbers, is that economics and race matter. My dissertation was around college choice. And it’s amazing to me that, when the odds are stacked against you when you’re looking for college, that puts you in an unbelievable place where you’re really trying to figure out how to go about college choice, how to go about succeeding in college. So we really do try to look at that in the beginning. But barriers are, you know, your a risk for college. The Education Trust has been an enormous resource for us. They were looking at things like student suspensions in high school. It’s a demoralizer, it also really places students behind where they could be if they didn’t have to experience those kinds of challenges in their high school. So, I would say that the barriers are real, and we’re trying, through our programming, to really address those barriers. I also think another barrier is, and I know a lot of our faculty are interested in this, it has to do with the growth mindset and to what extent is students believe they have the ability to succeed and I think that pervades all economic lines and it’s really an important thing to keep in mind because, as faculty are thinking about how do we work with new students, and they’ve given me so much advice, as we look for money and programming, how do you really try to build a student up and help to empower them as they try to be successful in college? So, I think the barriers are real. And we really need to think about that. And it’s good to have this opportunity to talk about what we can do to really make a difference.

John: What does the data suggest is effective in helping students overcome some of these challenges?

Jill: That’s a great question. And there are so many data points that help to think about what the challenges are, and how to create change around the barriers. So one of the things we’ve been working on right now in collaboration with the Community College Resource Consortium, and also Jobs for the Future is the idea of Guided Pathways. For a long time, students would come into college, particularly in community colleges, and take courses that they were interested in, but didn’t necessarily count toward their major. So, they would take some courses, they weren’t sure what major they were interested in studying, and then they would take some courses, and then they may or may not add up to the total number of credits they need to graduate. So, we’ve been trying to really focus in on college completion and graduation. And that consortium has led us to become part of something called Strong Start to Finish, which is a national initiative to try to get students to complete gateway courses in their first year of college. So, really try to focus in on what matters, also try to avoid remediation through co-requisite coursework, and also opportunities where students don’t have to kind of get behind in their classes and can really kind of get up to speed on what they need to complete their gateway courses. So, that’s been very helpful. And also the Guided Pathways Initiative. If you talk to college presidents across the state, they are head over heels about Guided Pathways. So students enroll in college, they enroll in a meta major, instead of necessarily a particular major, and really try to take the courses in the very beginning of their curriculum that would lead to success in the health sciences professions, Hospitality and Culinary Institute, business professions. So, it’s not we’re asking high school students to make a decision right away about their major, but kind of “tell us what you’re interested in, and then we can connect you with the courses that would actually add up to success.” Because, I think, where the Community College Research Consortium has found many students fall away from college is when it’s not adding up to their degree program or to their area of interest. So, that’s been very powerful. Another area is our P-Tech and Smart Scholars programs that have been guided by faculty, and I’ll say the Faculty Council of Community Colleges, in the very beginning of any early High School initiatives, put in place standards for what quality looks like. And one of the things I was going to talk about later, but I’ll say it now, because it’s so critical, is that rigor matters. So, when faculty put rigorous standards in place, it inspires students to succeed. And I think that they feel a different benchmark about where they’re supposed to be in their collegiate life. So I think rigor matters, and I applaud all those faculty who do this day in and day out, because it’s hard. It is hard in times of COVID-19, it’s hard every day, but just to keep the rigorous standards in place, and then support students on that pathway really matters. So, those are some opportunities, many more. We were able to, a couple of years ago, win a grant from the National Science Foundation, and also from Battelle Institute to help our graduate students work with middle school students to be, in their words, deputized as scientists beginning fourth, fifth and sixth grade in high need school districts. And having the connection between the graduate students and the middle school students was powerful, and all this was under the direction of faculty in our colleges. So, we had our scientists, across SUNY, overseeing this effort. And their ability to really create opportunities for these middle school students, who otherwise would never have had the chance to become scientists in laboratories at our SUNY Colleges, was huge. So I think that there are so many examples that I could share with you, but the ones where I think faculty, graduate students, aspiring faculty, put their passion and their heart into it, as well as their intellect and rigor, those are the ones that really matter for our students.

Rebecca: I wanted to follow up on the picking a major piece a little bit, because I think that is a real struggle for students when they head into colleges with an expectation of like, “Well, what are you going to do when you grow up? What are you going to study?” And the names of majors are so abstract to students, and there’s many careers that students have no idea even exist, and if you’re already in academia, you might have a clearer vision of what those things can lead to, but our students just don’t, and there’s no reason for them to know that

Jill: Exactly. When I was an undergraduate student, physical therapy and occupational therapy were big majors in my school and I didn’t know what they were at all. So the idea of helping students to come into a major in health sciences really will allow them to understand what opportunities are available to them. Another resource I should talk about is a resource called the Empire State STEM Learning Network. And in my career, one of the things that I’ve learned is that often when grants are distributed to an organization, the project period ends when the grant period ends. And one of the lucky things that I’ve been a part of, thanks to the regional leadership across the state, is something called the Empire State STEM Learning Network. And the idea for the STEM Learning Network was to bring together educators and business leaders in regions across the state to really focus on the educational pathway that leads to jobs in healthcare, in manufacturing, in Information Sciences, and architecture, and so many other fields. And I will say that one of the things that made the Empire State STEM Learning Network successful was the commitment regionally to develop partnerships to help lead students into careers. Because, you’re right, students don’t really know what they want, necessarily, in the very beginning of their life. But once they have the experience to be exposed to these opportunities, then all of a sudden, that could open the door for them and really spark an interest in them that we hadn’t thought about before. And even if they don’t go into architecture, maybe they would be interested in something related in engineering, or in teaching architecture. So I think the spark matters. And you’re absolutely right, Rebecca, it’s a really good question, because how would you know what the opportunities are for you? But really trying to create a level of interest with the students and also a level of “I can do it, this is real for me,” that really does matter. And I think our faculty, I mean, I’m talking to our faculty, and I’m so honored, because our faculty are often the drivers of everything that we do, and you know what drives students, what motivates them, and how to really think about what their needs are. And I think young high school students, I am always amazed at what they can do when they see exemplars of success, and also when they understand rigor. But also, I would say, in the way of how to be successful, I think we need to meet students where they are. One of the things that we learned from our colleagues at the Community College Research Consortium was that remediation can be very detrimental to students… the word remediation, the idea behind “I need to still catch up.” But, instead, trying to help to develop the skills that the student is interested in. So astrophysics is a big dream. But really, if you start, piece by piece, level by level, it can be a possibility, or another career option in that same field or discipline could also be possible for students. So really trying to motivate the students to success, I would say, but you’re right, students figure out what they want right off the bat when they’re coming to college is really a challenge.

John: What types of approaches have been effective in overcoming gaps in prior education? Because one of the main issues is that there’s quite a bit of disparity in the amount of training that students receive in their high schools, and that’s tied to a whole host of issues related to funding and housing segregation and other issues. While remedial work can be discouraging, or just even the term “remediation” is discouraging, what strategies have you seen that have been effective in helping students bridge any gaps in their background, to help them get to speed more quickly without being faced with a whole sequence of courses needed to enter, say, the STEM fields?

Jill: Precisely. So, good question. I would say to look at the following programs for good benchmarks and good outcomes data, Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), the EOC, the Liberty Partnerships Program, also very powerful. STEP and CSTEP have been incredible about meeting students where they are and getting the students where they need to be P-Tech has been amazing. And I think the best P-Tech programs and the best early college programs, the best programs that we have across the board, are those that are led by faculty who are determined to help students succeed. For example, in our community colleges, which are open access, and many students come to as the first opportunity they have to enroll in higher education, where there are collaborative opportunities for the students to participate in STEM research opportunities, that is so powerful, it almost closes the gap in the way of letting students have the opportunity to become scientists. I was talking earlier about programs where we worked in our middle schools to help our graduate students come to the middle school students and talk about “Here are opportunities for you to become a deputized scientist.” So, then when that student actually comes to community college, and they’re saying, “Oh, I’m gonna research climate change with my faculty member,” or whatever the research opportunity may be, it becomes a way for the student to see themselves in that career. And then they understand the pathway to the career. So I can’t say enough about the hard work of faculty in this effort, because (and this is my own experience as well), is that faculty in my life have taught me how to think. And I often tell students in high school that college is a place where they can learn to think. And they think that they’re behind the eight ball in some ways, and that they feel like they have to tell the professor about how much they know. And, instead, if you listen to faculty, and I’ve worked with both of you, and you’ve been teaching me about, like, how to think about this, how to think about talking to people, how to think about getting a message out, and I think often new college students feel that they have to prove themselves versus they can learn something, and you’re actually willing to help them. [LAUGHTER] So, I wanted to share an example. A couple years ago, I was interested in the process of statistical process controls as a way of thinking about, “Well, if we are trying to achieve student success at scale, how can we look at numbers and data to help us do that?” So, I was thinking that statistical process control could be helpful in higher education, about seeing trends over time, seeing when there are differences, and why there are differences. Maybe, perhaps, that the spring semester wasn’t working out for students because of X, Y and Z. And the faculty, again, provide such leadership, maybe we could learn from one another. So anyway, I went to this course on statistical process control that was offered by SUNY Polytechnic Institute. And there with me, were three Community College faculty. And they were interested in statistical process control, because they wanted to be able to integrate that curriculum into their coursework. They said, “So many students are coming to us, and they’re interested in manufacturing and machining. And they keep talking about statistical process control.” So they were seeing how can we integrate those into our work, so that the learning opportunities are more aligned with their goals, professionally and personally. And so I thought it was really amazing that these faculties sought out these professional development opportunities to really try to make learning matter for the students and make it something that they were interested in that they could actually apply to their jobs. And I think we talk a lot about workforce, we also are talking about educating a citizenry, and especially with the political climate change, I think we really have an opportunity. We’ve learned a lot in 2020, about COVID-19, about our responsibilities to citizens in this country, African-American citizens in particular. We focus a lot about Black Lives Matter. And after the passing of George Floyd and so many other unfortunate events this year, we’ve learned a lot about why we really have to be focused in on those liberal arts opportunities, and also about governance, and religion. And we need to have active citizens in this country. And I think that is equally important. Often, we talk a lot about STEM and job opportunities, but we have to think about the big picture. And I think that our faculty are leaders in that work. And so, to the extent that we can learn from them, and, again, create opportunities that help to advance our agenda. is really powerful.

John: A couple of times you mentioned P-Tech, for those listeners who may not be familiar with that, could you describe that program and how it works.

Jill: So the P-Tech program has been a program that is being led by IBM, and they’ve been really a front runner in this work. And they’ve put a lot of thought into how to connect high school faculty, high school programs with our colleges, and then also with workforce opportunities in high need fields. And I think that it’s been an awesome opportunity for our students. They are able to enroll in the P-Tech program as high school students, free of charge to students and their families. And I would also add, at this point too, that one of the big assets of SUNY is affordability. And so there are often times where students can actually earn SUNY degrees free of charge. And that is really incredible to graduate debt free. That also reduces a lot of the burdens that we talked about in the very beginning, around economic burdens, challenges around race, all of these opportunities are now readily available to students. So that’s been very powerful through the P-Tech program. And I think the P-Tech program is something that we can model across the board. And we have tried to do that in collaboration with regional BOCES, regional K-12 leaders, to actually develop a scope and sequence of courses beginning in grade 12, that continues on to higher education and then into the workforce. So, what happens is K-12 leaders, community college faculty (also many of our technical colleges also have P-Tech programs), and our business leaders come around the table together. And they think about what would a student need in order to be successful in life and in business in the long term. And I think what it develops is a real true camaraderie that allows successful programming development to happen. What is fortunate about the P-Tech is that it is enabled by grants from the State Education Department. So it does provide opportunities for faculty at K-12, faculty at higher education, business leaders to come together. But that seems to be very powerful when college faculty can also work with K-12 faculty to find out what the needs are, where the gaps are, and how they can work together to try to mitigate those gaps. So, often what I heard when I interview faculty in our community colleges in our technical colleges is that often they are unaware of some of the challenges that K-12 faculty face and then K-12 faculty are so eager to learn more about all of the expertise that community college and our technical colleges and also even graduate programs have to offer. So, when they have the opportunity to speak to one another, then all of a sudden, they’re all on board on changing curriculum and helping students to succeed. So I think the magic in the P-Tech is about this collaborative experience. I often find that regional collaborations are really also very powerful in that our faculty in our regions know what kind of high school students are coming from. And then when they talk to faculty and they can identify, you know, maybe the student didn’t have a fourth year math course in high school, or maybe there are some skills that for some reason the student wasn’t able to develop, and especially this important in COVID-19, because we’re hearing students that are struggling. So I think the connection between high school and college and then regional workforce leaders are very important. And we talk a lot, too, in our work, about regional economic development, and helping to really strengthen New York as a whole through our regional workforce capital. So we’re looking at that. And again, I would say, to create and develop good citizens of the state and of the nation, I think it’s very important. So, I feel like the opportunity for faculty at the K-12 level to connect with our faculty at SUNY, and then also with our workforce and industry leaders (many of whom are SUNY alumni), is a very powerful connection.

John: What are some examples of good collaborations between colleges and P-12 programs? What has worked in terms of helping to bridge the gap in terms of creating an environment of good communication? You mentioned P-tech. Are there any other models that have worked well?

Jill: I can name so many examples of what has been successful. I’m thinking about also the gaps between community colleges and our baccalaureate degree granting programs and our graduate programs. I was thinking offhand about Binghamton University and its collaboration with Broome Community College, really trying to help students who perhaps in the beginning didn’t meet the admission requirements for Binghamton, but had a lot of promise and a lot of opportunity for skill development in STEM. And so they entered into a collaboration with SUNY Broome to help those students to develop the skills at SUNY Broome that would make them eligible for upper-level credits at Binghamton University. So there’s so many examples like that. Our early college high school programs, in addition to our P-Techs are also powerful for making the connection between high school and college. We’ve also done a lot of work with our teacher education programs. We’re really very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with the deans of all of our SUNY teacher education programs, to help them to develop more practical experiences for their teachers to work with the students and try to bridge the gap between high school and college. And I think that that has been so successful, our teacher education programs. And the faculty there have really led the way in terms of helping us to better understand K-12 experiences and create clinical opportunities for prospective teachers. So that has been huge because educator preparation is so essential to really helping to bridge the gap between K-12 and college and they’ve come back to us with so many ideas and opportunities, things that we’ve been able to win grants for and bring resources into the classroom about. So I’ve mentioned the Empire State STEM network before and they have just been amazing. So our colleges will frequently partner with our K-12 leaders to do things like in Buffalo, there’s something called the hands-in-hand program where the students were able to use 3D printing to develop hands for other students internationally, who actually need hands or limbs for some reason in their life. And they’ve been able to actually generate that through 3D printing. The other thing is computer science, cyber security. Our students right now in the P-Tech program are working with SUNY-Orange to develop skills in cybersecurity. So P-Tech is one example. But there are so many, and again, the graduate students that are working across the state with our K-12 students in STEM is also pretty awesome.

Rebecca: The ingredients of successful programs seem to include some collaboration between faculty at different levels to develop curriculum and mentorship, with either faculty at the college level with students, or college students with high school students. Are there other ingredients that we should focus on or highlight as being important to the success of these kinds of programs?

Jill: I think you said it so well, that it’s mostly customized opportunities for students and the places where we find success. And I was just reading the Journal of Higher Education this month, and it was talking about STEM student success and STEM student success at the community college level. And it was really focused around this idea of faculty in the very first year creating an experience for students that gets them engaged in their learning experience across the curriculum… and I think that idea of faculty engagement at the very beginning of learning experiences that are aligned to the student’s personal and professional goals. And again, it comes back to rigor. The students are so inspired by rigor, the students are so inspired by the benchmark is high, and these are the things that I can learn to be successful and to be like faculty. And so I just think faculty role modeling, faculty advising, academic success is so important. We also have the great benefit of SUNY of so many amazing student affairs professionals who also provide coaching and leadership and just a really well rounded approach to student development. Like I’ve mentioned before, the EOP programs are so successful because of this. So I think you’re right, Rebecca, the magic ingredient is collaboration. It’s also about rigor. It’s also about looking at the research and data and talking about what programs can actually generate data to improve success. I also think I’ve learned a lot from faculty about the idea of sort of an interdisciplinary approach to learning I often find that for me in education, if I go and look at that economics literature or the anthropology literature, or the political science literature, I can also learn a lot about how to help to bring these other resources to the table to really think about what success looks like. I recently had the opportunity to work with some medical professionals around the development of guidelines and the rigor to which they looked at guidelines and looked at evidence in the field to make judgments about what they should do, and the way of supporting medical advancements was so powerful that I thought we need to benchmark this in education. So I think looking at what the data tells us, and we’ve had our colleagues, like I mentioned before, at the Community College Research Consortium, at Jobs for the Future, at Achieving the Dream, and so many more places looked at the data for us. But I think that we need to be focused on the long term. And we need to think about what is the data telling us and how that can continue to improve our practice. And then I often think about the importance of qualitative data, what the faculty are telling us in the different disciplines. So that’s why it’s such a great opportunity in this position, because I’m working with faculty, often from economics, from English literature, from science, from political science, from public administration, so many different perspectives. But they all really come to bear when we talk about student success. So that’s been really tremendous for us here at SUNY,

John: Many of the programs you talked about have been at the community college level. And these don’t seem to be quite as common yet at comprehensive institutions. What can traditional liberal arts colleges do to reach out in the ways that community college have been doing for decades? What else should four-year colleges do to emulate the success that many community colleges have had in bridging some of these gaps?

Jill: I really think that you do it well. And I think this is where the SUNY advantage comes in. Because the quality and the dedication of faculty at the four-year colleges and the comprehensive colleges and the University Centers are amazing.

John: What can faculty at four year institutions or University Centers do to reach out to students in high schools to help them see the potential that’s available to them.

Jill: When they have an opportunity to listen to podcasts from faculty or actually engage in their research, it becomes really powerful to these students. And I think part of the challenge with faculty is really in finding a way to kind of create an inroad with these students. And so that’s why I was talking earlier about research opportunities, or really introducing students. I think you also have to help the students learn more about your expertise and try to again meet them where they are, trying to contextualize learning so that the expertise that you have at the comprehensive level and the university center level really can be matched to something that they might see an interest in long term. I’ve worked with an organization called the Army Education Opportunity Program. And this was through an opportunity that we had with Battelle. And the army is trying to recruit the future researchers, scientists, engineers. And what they encourage students to do was to work in groups with a faculty member and a science mentor to address challenges in their own local community. So, what kind of STEM challenges would they need to accomplish in their community? So, they look at things like recycling or safety and parks or child safety. But when the student can see how your expertise at the faculty level applies to their lives, then they are so engaged and faculty will tell me that they’re often outperforming them… that we have students in Long Island, for example, that are applying for patents on downloading data from their computer to a flash drive in instantaneous time, because they actually were listening to a faculty saying, “Ah, this takes so long to download that I actually need some help with this.” So they figured out the magnetic structure behind the thumb drive, and they actually created something that would help them to expedite the time in which they could download data. It was a big win-win, because the faculty was overjoyed. And also the student was able to learn the fundamentals from the faculty member to actually create innovation and to create change. So I think you have it, I was going to talk a little bit about the college choice process, which is so interesting to me, because students in high school have so many options, so many choices, there are 270 plus colleges and universities in New York State alone. And so when you think about the whole universe, and how students go about selecting a place where they can see their baccalaureate success dreams come true or their associate dreams come true. And think about graduate studies, what are they looking for? And based on the literature, after they go through the first predisposition phase, and then the search phase, they actually always talk about student culture in terms of why they make a decision about one college over another. And I also have seen literature that suggests that retention rates are impacted by the choice process around how much the student believes that they fit in. And so it’s hard for faculty at that point to connect with students. But I think that, to the extent that they could appreciate students’ development process and understand that their professional and personal goals and really try to connect them with their own research interests or their own academic interest, I think that can be very powerful in and of itself to really connect the student with the college culture, and with the rigor and academic excellence expectations that faculty have. I think it’s powerful. The other thing I think, is that Chancellor Malatras has been very committed to faculty diversity, because I also really believe that students need to see themselves in their faculty and see themselves in their mentoring experiences. So faculty diversity is also very critical. Our graduate students have been helpful with that as well, to try to make the connection between the faculty ranks and also with our colleges. The Education Trust has some amazing data around faculty diversity at the college level and also at the K-12 level. Because I really do think we need to do more in both arenas to really achieve change for our students, because our students are changing. And the other thing that drives success, and the main thing that drives success is student voices, because we have to hear from our students. And the more that I work with students and work within the framework of student success, I keep going back to the literature to find out what it is that motivates students of various backgrounds, how to really hear their voices, and how to integrate their voices into our activities to really strengthen the outcomes of students in our colleges. So student voices are fundamental to this work.

Rebecca: I think you’ve given a good view of how much has already been done, but also how much there is still to do. So. we usually wrap up by asking what’s next? [LAUGHTER]

Jill: So, so much exciting things are next, I think. In our office, we have an opportunity that was made available to us through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation around trying to strengthen communications, advocacy and success tools for students. So the idea would be: how do we really make students understand the value added of SUNY, the value added of the work that we’re doing to try to improve college completion rates, and student success Initiatives. So I would welcome faculty feedback on this. As I said before, faculty have always driven the work that we’ve been leading in our office. And so ideas around how we can better communicate these opportunities that are available to our students and to our parents, also to our guidance counselors, and then policymakers and government leaders about what is the SUNY advantage and about how they can have a part in this, I will say that if you look at SUNY, affordability matters, affordability is huge. The student debt crisis is alarming. And that’s where SUNY has the value and the added advantage. Also, the graduation rates of SUNY often surpass the national average, and are very amazing in terms of what the experience is that post grad and into careers that we’ve been able to achieve for students. And the alumni networks are so strong. And so someone asked me the other day that the SUNY Community College Trustees have been very powerful, great advocates, and they asked, “Can you provide an example of what it looks like to be student of Guided Pathways? So, what is the outcome? And how is it different than it was before? So I guess if faculty could share with us their ideas on first of all, how to continue to improve outcomes around student success, and also how to improve communications, because often faculty are doing this in our classrooms, but they’re saying how do we get the word out that this is so good, that we’re really making a difference, like this student came to us not knowing all the opportunities, and now is head of the class or now is really making huge changes in their field? What are those things that we can highlight, also transfer opportunities, students that might come to community college and then go to our baccalaureate degree institution, or I’m always interested in those that go on to graduate studies, our business and industry partners have been trying to create programs that meet students at the high school or community college level, and then drive them all the way to be our future engineers and scientists and researchers and physicians and faculty and all of the great career opportunities are available students. So what are those pathways look like from your perspective? And I think with this funding, and with this opportunity to really try to communicate these outcomes, we could really have some power that would drive us into the future. So I appreciate the question. And we certainly welcome your input and opportunities.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much, Jill, for sharing your experiences with us.

Jill: Well, thank you for the opportunity. And I would just say again, our faculty at SUNY are top notch, number one, and really have driven student success as we’ve started this work where we really put an anchor into the ground to try to help to strengthen the alignment between K-12, higher education and workforce, and citizenry. And I would just keep encouraging your great ideas, and we hope to continue to work with you into the future. So thanks for the opportunity to talk to you today. And it’s really an open door. So please keep your ideas coming.

John: Thank you. And we will share your contact information if anyone has any ideas that they’d like to sharee. Thank you very much.

Jill: Thank you so much.

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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.

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164. New Faculty in a Pandemic

Being a new faculty member at a new institution can be challenging in normal times, but also has additional hurdles during COVID-19. Most institutions begin the academic year by providing orientation activities to help new faculty learn about the institution and to meet and network with their new colleagues.  In this episode, Emily Estrada and Martin Coen join us to to compare their experiences as new faculty during a pandemic with their earlier experiences at prior institutions. Emily is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Martin is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at SUNY Oswego.

Transcript

Rebecca: Being a new faculty member at a new institution can be challenging in normal times, but also has additional hurdles during COVID-19. Most institutions begin the academic year by providing orientation activities to help new faculty learn about the institution and to meet and network with their new colleagues. In this episode, we examine how the shift to an online orientation altered the experiences for new faculty members.

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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 guests today are Emily Estrada and Martin Coen. Emily is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Martin is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at SUNY Oswego. Emily and Martin both joined the Oswego faculty this fall. Welcome, Emily and Martin.

Martin: Thanks for having us.

Emily: Thank you.

John: Our teas today are:

Martin: I’m drinking coffee.

Emily: Ooohhhh, it’s late in the day….no judgment, sorry…. [LAUGHTER] I guess that is a lot of judgment. Whoo.

Martin: I’m also drinking sparkling water, so I’ll switch between the two… and regular water, yeah.

Emily: I’m just straight up tap water.

Rebecca: I have Big Red Sun again.

John: And I have Earl Grey today.

Martin: Oh, nice. Like a good Earl Grey.

Rebecca: I’m noticing you’ve been drinking black tea later in the day these days.

John: That’s because I’ve been getting so much less sleep since March.

Rebecca: Well, you haven’t upgraded to Martin’s coffee in the late afternoon, so, I guess that’s a good sign. [LAUGHTER]

Martin: It’s a very dark roast, so there’s not a lot of caffeine in it.

Rebecca: We’ve invited you here today to discuss the experience of joining a department during the pandemic. You’ve each worked at other institutions before. So, can you talk a little bit about how joining Oswego during a pandemic is different than your experiences of joining previous faculty have been.

Emily: I think there’s some of the more obvious ways that it’s been different for me this go round. It’s challenging not having those face-to-face interactions with my new colleagues, with my new administration, and with the students, most certainly. Even though I think that SUNY Oswego has done a pretty good job helping me feel integrated and connected to at least the university and my department, the students, I feel like, I still am experiencing a pretty significant amount of disconnect. I think one of the biggest things that’s been different for me and my previous institution, because when you first start, there’s so much excitement, and there’s so much kind of fanfare surrounding that transition into the new institution, you start to feel kind of bonded to the university itself. You start to feel kind of loyal to the university brand and to the image, and you start to feel pride for being a part of this new institution. And I think that that’s been different this time for me, because there is so much disconnect and campus really is so quiet. Even though I’m working from campus a lot, it’s just not the same type of allegiance, I guess, has not been the same for me this go round.

Martin: It’s interesting, because I would say the same thing in terms of the allegiance thing. I felt the same way when I started before and now I’m feeling the same way as you here. I would say, overall, coming to SUNY Oswego was easier than my first transition, predominantly because I had learned a lot of things the first time around. First time around, I learned, you got to hound people to get things, right? So, the first time around, I was told your email address will be given to you on this day, your office will be given to this and this and this. And then when I reached out to people there to find out just various information, people would not respond to me until their contract started. That was not the case here at SUNY Oswego. I had the phone number of my department chair immediately after I had signed my contract, and essentially the person who would become my faculty mentor, I had their phone number. And so a lot of things were sorted out quite quickly. I had some difficulty with paperwork here at SUNY Oswego, getting all that sorted… people losing things, people putting in wrong information and sending my first paycheck to my address in Indiana, stuff like that. But, other than that, from like a social perspective, I’d say that things were a lot smoother. But, I think a lot of it also had to do with the fact that I’ve learned previously that you got to just hound people to get information. And so I felt very prepared. I hardly stressed me out transitioning.

Emily: Yeah. And I will say that had I been starting in this position straight out of my Ph.D. program, I think it would be a lot more challenging because, like Martin just said, and he and I have talked about this previously, it is nice, having that previous experience of starting a tenure-track position at a university in normal times, so to speak, because we kind of know what’s going to happen when we get back to that normalcy. And so, if we’re feeling less of an allegiance… and that may not be the right word, but if we’re feeling less…

John: connected?

Emily: …connected, yeah, but more in like a school spirit type sense. If we’re not necessarily feeling that school spirit right now, I know that it will come. I know it’s going to happen and that may not be the case for people who are coming straight out of their PhD programs who don’t know that that will happen.

Martin: When I started at my previous institution, I was hit with: “you need to publish, and you need to prep, like four courses.” And one of the courses was statistics, which I had never taught in my life. So, I knew, when I came to SUNY Oswego, that I needed to have all my ducks in a row, publication wise. And so over the summer, I put in a lot of work working on publications, so that in case things hit me really hard from a teaching standpoint, at SUNY Oswego, that I would be able to take that hit. And luckily, to my surprise, transitioning over because of my experience, prepping, knowing where to go for information, what strategies to follow, prepping some new courses just weren’t as challenging as I experienced it four years ago.

John: What are some of the types of things that you had to ask for that were not automatically given to you that a new faculty, perhaps, might not know to ask about?

Emily: Well, I think things related to technology, like the headset that I’m wearing right now, I didn’t want to buy it myself. I know that funds are always pretty tight in a state school system and especially given the situation that we’re in right now. And so I reached out to CTS on campus, and they were able to provide me with a headset and a wireless keyboard and a wireless mouse. Also things related to different programs that I need in order to do my research.

Martin: I would agree with you though, Emily, one of the things that I really wanted to make sure I have was my email address, so that I could sign up for instructor resources at the various textbook publishers, and then also getting my hands on desk and review copies of books so that I don’t have to go and blow $300 on Amazon, just to prep my classes. When I moved to my previous institution, they didn’t give me my email address until day one. And so I had one week to prep three classes, because I had one double class and I had to find textbooks and stuff. So all this stuff I bought on Amazon Prime so that I could have it. So, in this case, I started going after: “What’s my email address? Can you hook me up with my Oswego and Blackboard?” And so I was making sure, technology wise, I had all that. And then also regarding my campus computer, I just badgered people until I got what I needed. But, I will say a lot of things came automatically a lot of things came from my department chair, Roger Guy. He would text me and say, “Hey, did you ask for this? Did you ask for that? Hey, make sure to look at this opportunity. By the way, we have these funds in our department, you should try to ask for this from this person.” So, I got a lot of help from my department chair, which is something that I did not get where I previously went straight out of grad school.

Rebecca: It’s really interesting hearing both of you talk about the transition here during a pandemic, because it wasn’t that long ago that I transitioned here, and from a different institution, and I had a very similar experience. I had to badger. But I knew to ask for certain things that I didn’t know to ask for the first time around. I knew how the system worked. So I knew who to ask for certain kinds of things. So, I had all the good technology and everything I needed up front, too. But that’s because we knew who to ask. And so it’s interesting that that really hasn’t changed. That’s just experience speaking. [LAUGHTER]

Martin: Yeah.

John: And I am still badgering people, and I’ve been here [LAUGHTER] for decades. That doesn’t always end. But, that’s really good advice for people starting to make sure that they do ask for the things that they’re going to need to be successful.

Martin: Yeah, I read this book over the summer. And essentially, one of the points that you learn from it is that don’t be embarrassed to ask questions and get the things that you feel you need to succeed. And sometimes I think people feel, especially when you’re brand new at an institution, you don’t want to be sort of a hassle or an annoyance. You don’t want to come off that way. And so I feel like some people are hesitant and just go out and ask for something. And that was one thing I learned to overcome, coming to SUNY Oswego.

Emily: I think that’s absolutely right, that it’s important to be proactive as a new faculty member. And that’s probably the case whether or not you’re starting in this insane environment or in more normal times. I also feel, though, that it’s important to recognize how problematic that can be, especially for members of certain social groups. So academia, in general, is elitist, and it is very white. And so certain people, people who may identify with those groups or with that identity, they’re going to be more comfortable with being proactive and getting their own and hounding the people and going and going until they get what they need. And I think that that is more challenging for people who are members of groups who have been historically underrepresented in the academy and so while, yes on one hand and because this is a podcast, I should make it clear, I identify as a white person and probably more importantly, I am identified by others as a white person. And so, I think in some ways, it’s easier for me as somebody who possesses that cultural capital, white cultural capital and white privilege to, feel comfortable hounding people, whereas people from other underrepresented groups along a variety of dimensions may find that more challenging.

Martin: I would agree 100% with you, I think even the fact that I’m a man, you come off more as a go getter when you’re a man badgering people about things, and it might not be the same for people of other groups.

Emily: I’m snapping, [LAUGHTER] ‘cause I really like that point. Good reflection, the’re.

Martin: Good.

John: For things where it’s not clear if you’re asking for something that it’s not clear that is generally provided, might it make sense, perhaps, to start within your department to talk to some of your colleagues that you feel comfortable with just to ask whether this is something that’s normally done? Because people are concerned about pushing for things that could cause them to be perceived as being a problem in some sense. Might that be a useful starting point before you start pursuing something too aggressively? If it’s something that’s not going to happen, might it make sense to get a feel for that before you start the badgering process?

Rebecca: I like that it’s a badgering process. [LAUGHTER]

Emily: It’s work.

Martin: Yeah, that’s how it goes. So I emailed Roger, and I was like, “Hey, I’m gonna ask you these millions of questions. Do you know who I need to go after?” And sometimes he directed me to the person who became my faculty mentor, Maggie, and other times, he directed me to Michelle, our administrative person in our department. And then otherwise, he’d be like “Reach out to this person in this department.” And so I preface it with, “Hey, I want to succeed when I get here. These are some questions I have.” And I think any relatively rational department chair wouldn’t have a problem with helping you out there if you say, “Hey, I want to succeed. And this will help me succeed…” and you just have to be honest about it, in my opinion.

Emily: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think that mentorship within the department is really important. I also think that mentorship outside the department can also be really helpful. Because sometimes there are a lot of dynamics within departments. I feel very comfortable with my department, we’re smaller, and I feel comfortable voicing any concerns that I may have or asking advice. But at the same time, I think it’s important to be able to go to people that aren’t so close to home, so to speak, so that if there are awkward, uncomfortable questions, you can go to them without as much riding on it, if that makes sense.

Rebecca: I think that’s a really good point, making connections to other departments early or people just across campus, whether or not they’re in an academic department or not. That’s really important. And you can bounce things off of other folks and find out if that’s how other departments do things. [LAUGHTER]

John: Yeah, but I would imagine that’s a little more challenging under these circumstances. Because typically, at the start of the semester, when there’s all those bonding experiences, when there’s the big dinners welcoming new faculty, the lunches, when the presidents and the provosts and the deans welcome everyone and create this nice positive welcoming environment. There’s also lots of informal gatherings and receptions where new faculty get to meet other new faculty in person as well as people from other departments who might share some similar interest. Has there been very many opportunities to form those wider networks beyond your departments this year.

Martin: For me, there has been, and again, this has been the consequence of me going after certain opportunities. So, at the beginning when I started, I told Roger that I needed service. And I understood that there’s a pandemic going and that getting service would be difficult. And to some extent, I feel like, given that I was new, he wanted to shield me a little bit from it, which is pretty typical of department chairs for the first semester. But I went out of my way to tell them, “Look, this is technically my fifth year in academia. So, I want to try my best to keep that going.” And so at that point, he was like, “Okay, well, this committee needs someone, this committee…, aAnd in the end, I joined about three university-wide committees. And so that’s allowed me to interact with people completely outside, even of my college. And so that’s really allowed me to expose myself to other people, hear different viewpoints, understand certain organizational frames. So again, it was because I badgered Roger about service work.

Emily: And we have had monthly new faculty networking Zoom chats that I’ve enjoyed. I don’t know what typically happens at SUNY Oswego in normal times, but like you were saying, John, at the beginning of the semester, there is all this kind of flurry of activity and dinners and lunches. And I think that that’s all great and part of me really does miss having missed that. But I think what’s been really great about the new faculty networking Zoom things that we do is that they’ve happened across the semester. That’s not how it was at my previous institution, there was a lot of stuff happening at the beginning of this semester, like, “let’s get all excited, newbies,” but then it kind of fizzled off as the semester went on. And I think that having the Zoom meetings every month, has helped keep that connection going. And there are breakout sessions and so you get to know people a little bit more personally. So, I think that that’s been good.

Martin: I would agree with Emily on that one. Those have been very helpful sessions, it’s been also good to see where I fall in terms of how prepared I feel compared to other faculty. And one thing that stands out is the fact that I have this experience, it makes it seem like I’m a little more confident in what to do and how to handle different things, just because of that experience. So, that’s been great. But yes, learning from other new faculty and also people outside of my immediate social circle. However, I will also point out the importance of having a faculty mentor who is not in your department. When I was at my previous institution, I had someone in the communications department, his name is Wes, and I could confide everything in him. When I was on the job market. I had several offers. And he was one of the ones who told me to take this one when I was mulling it over with him. And so the thing that was really nice was I could go to him and say, “Hey, I don’t understand why my department’s doing this. Do you know why they would be doing that?” or “I don’t like this.” I still text him, I still talk to him about stuff. So, that’s something I think that where there’s an opportunity at SUNY Oswego is to connect new faculty with people outside of their department as well.

John: That was something actually that was put together this year for the first time. And it was the Dean of Arts and Sciences, Kristin Croyle, who, to a large extent, organized that. We’ve been working with her to help coordinate it, but she put the whole program together. And I’ve been really pleased with how it’s been working.

Martin: Yes.

John: And I think we may continue this beyond the pandemic, because it does seem to provide that ongoing sort of connection. Because, as you said, Emily, typically there’s this big flurry for three or four weeks at the beginning of the semester with various receptions at different levels, and then there’s nothing until the very end of the semester, where there’s a short flurry, and then again, another short flurry at the beginning of the spring semester, and then it pretty much disappears until you come back with new faculty in future years to the same events.

Emily: Yeah, and we have the Slack that we’ve been using… the new faculty… and I think that Slack has been really effective as well. And there was someone in our cohort who posted a message that was like this open call of “Hey, is anybody else on campus? Do you want to go for a walk?” …and she and I went back and forth a little bit. And a few weeks ago, we went on a walk around campus, and it was really great getting to know her. I am a transplant to the area, I have spent all of my life in the south. And so she is from New York State. And she’s been really helpful and kind of helping me think about the weather and what to expect. And I actually met up with her earlier today. She had a bag full of clothes for my daughter that her sister picked up from a friend to give to me, [LAUGHTER] which was just so kind and generous. And really kind of the vibe that I’ve gotten from New York State since moving here in July. But it’s happening, it’s just kind of on a smaller scale and a little bit more low key than it was at my previous institution, which makes me really excited for what’s to come whenever we’re normal, right? It’s just going to blow up. It’s going to be all the more better than it is right now.

Martin: You know, one thing that just sort of occurred to me, I wonder to what extent the fact that with this whole pandemic, right, we’ve been telling each other to be patient with each other, to show grace. And I wonder to what extent the fact that maybe other people in our organizational environments doing that, is being beneficial to our success here. I wonder how much that plays a role outside of just our own attempts to connect with people.

Emily: Yeah.

Martin: I don’t know.

Emily: I will say I’ve had several conversations with people in our cohort, people who have come straight from PhD programs, and some of them have communicated how they feel like starting in the pandemic has kind of decreased the pressure they would otherwise feel, that it’s giving them a little bit of an opportunity to kind of ease in to this new position and the new institution in ways that probably wouldn’t have happened had we not had the pandemic. Of course, the pandemic is awful, [LAUGHTER] like, I feel compelled to like give that… like, of course, I think everybody… they would welcome the pressure. Like, I’m not trying to suggest anything otherwise, but it’s more about like silver linings…

Martin: Yes.

Emily: Like, the patience and the grace… [LAUGHTER] …everybody is doing the best they can right now.

Rebecca: I found that it’s really great that senior faculty are really busy with other things because they’re not volunteering everybody to do everything else. [LAUGHTER]

John: And having said that, if you’d like to make some more connections across campus, we do have a teaching center advisory board, if either of you would like to join. We won’t pressure you for that now, but if at some point you would like to, just let us know, and we’ll add you to the list.

Rebecca: That’s actually the first committee I joined when I was a faculty member transferring from a different institution to connect with other folks. That was the way I did it. And look at me now. [LAUGHTER] You know, we’ve talked a lot about the differences and really seeing yourself having that experience coming in and how that’s benefited. If we were to give like a top five things for new faculty to think about asking for, or to get help on when they start at a new institution when they’ve not had experienced before, what are those things?

Martin: I would reach out to other people teaching in the department, ask them to share syllabi with you, because one thing I wanted to do is I want to make sure that when I come and I teach, that my classes aren’t completely different from what the students are used to. And to some extent, I experienced that. One of my classes, I made it way too hard for them. And that was a class again, that was completely my own doing. It was a special topics elective. But the other classes, I was able to reach out to some of the faculty and they were kind enough to share some of their materials with me. So, I was able to see, okay, this is what standard looks like. Now I can prep my own course in that way. And so that is definitely, I would reach out to other people in your department, have constant communication with your chair (I’d say that’s definitely a good thing), and get your technology sorted out way before.

Emily: Yeah, I think the technology thing is really big. I would also say to be proactive in asking for help in terms of how to navigate the various portals that we have to access. Like they’re all new to us, especially things that are a little bit more complicated like Degree Works. I know in my department, I’m expected to do advising, I think that’s a common expectation among faculty on campus. And so you’re not being a pain to ask for help. And if you don’t understand, you have to ask and ask and ask again until it makes sense. And I think that when you come into a new place, you may feel like you’re being a pain, right? Or that you’re being a nuisance, or that you’re encroaching on somebody else’s precious time. And maybe you are being all of those things. But, it’s kind of the expectation of a new faculty member, like you’re supposed to be those things, you’re supposed to ask those things, because otherwise, you’re never going to learn. And in a few years, you will be the person who a new faculty member is asking questions to. And so, yeah, that’s what I would say.

John: And we should probably note that Degree Works is software designed to help students transition their way to a degree, it lists all of the requirements, which courses satisfy them, and so forth. And it can be a little challenging when you’re seeing it for the first time and just learning about the gen ed requirements.

John: But not all departments have first-year faculty doing advisement. That’s probably more of an exception, I think. I’m not positive on that. I know we don’t assign in my department, new faculty for advisees until at least their second year, just to give them time to adjust to the institution and the requirements, and so forth.

Emily: I think some of that could be because I am coming in with prior years of service.

Martin: Same here.

Emily: And I just have two advisees. And so it’s not like I have 20. It’s almost like my training wheels, I feel like… my advising training wheels. I mentioned Degree Works, but really, it is about figuring out the gen ed curriculum, all of the requirements for graduation. Like, they’re significantly different than my previous institution. And so, asking those questions, because I feel like advising in particular, like, I take it really seriously, I know that students are ultimately responsible for their progress and for keeping an eye on their progress to degree and all of that, but I feel like they’re in my hands to a certain extent. And so I want to know the ins and outs, and I want to be a very like hands on advisor. And so that’s really what I was talking about, like figuring out how to advise effectively.

Martin: Regarding the advisees, I have like 20 advisees this semester. And luckily at my previous institution, we were dealing with Degree Works. So all that I needed to figure out was sort of what were some of the parameters regarding sequence and prereqs and stuff. So I was able to deal with that pretty well. But it is difficult. I feel like some students are less independent than others. And they demand more attention and when I’m reaching that season where it’s conference season, even though they’re virtual, and you prepare for that and I have an R&R and all these other things and then students ask questions that they can pretty much look up themselves and they want a Zoom meeting for it and you can’t just say no, and so that’s been frustrating. And luckily from Degree Works, I’d actually say the version of Degree Works that we’re using as SUNY Oswego is better than the version we were using where I previously worked. And so it’s been a lot more streamlined, a lot faster, you don’t have to, like manually search students’ names, they’re in a drop-down menu, which makes it so much easier. So, in that regard, I’m okay with it. But, yeah, advising in November is never great.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that you guys are highlighting without directly saying is that one of the things that a new faculty member has to do that isn’t totally obvious, but it takes a long time to actually figure out how the courses you’re teaching map to the curriculum within your department and how that curriculum in the department maps to the entire campus and how the gen ed fits in. And just really getting a good mental model of how the institution works as a whole for students, especially because different institutions are so different from one another, and how that is put together that I think we underestimate, often, how long it actually takes to learn how that works, and what that looks like, both for our students, we underestimate how long it takes them to learn it, and also how long it takes us to learn it. I’ve been here for eight years, I would ask questions about our degree to my department chair, I was like, “You know what, I’ve actually been confused about this, I don’t know, for eight years. [LAUGHTER] And I would really like an answer about x.”

Martin: Again, the nice thing that I have, at least with Roger, is that I will just, in the middle of a Zoom meeting, if I don’t have the answer to a question, I’ll pick up my cell phone, and I’ll give him a ring. And he gladly answers the phone and answers the question. So again, having that support makes life a lot easier.

John: maybe we could talk a little bit about your adjustment to pandemic teaching. In the spring, I think you had some experience with a rapid transition. Over the summer, you had some chance to prepare for the fall, and again, a somewhat unusual teaching environment. Could you tell us a little bit about the ways in which you’re teaching and how that’s been going.

Emily: So I am teaching exclusively online this semester, asynchronous courses, I decided to do asynchronous this fall, because in the spring, when we did have that rapid transition, it seemed like a lot of the stuff I was seeing kind of emphasized making things as simple and as straightforward as possible for students and for instructors. And based on what I was reading that meant doing asynchronous. And so that’s what I did in the spring when we transitioned at my previous institution. And that’s what I decided to do this semester as well. I think it’s working well for the most part. I will say, what I’ve come to realize at the tail end of the semester now, I feel like it’s working for the students. I did an informal mid-semester survey, and students responded, they had some constructive criticism, some constructive feedback, which I welcomed and was glad to be able to address in the semester going forward. But there was also some really positive things that I would expect to have received in a regular face-to-face semester. And so I feel like I’m at the point where I have this realization that it’s working for the students, for the most part, even though I know they’re overwhelmed and stressed, and bless their hearts, and all that stuff. It’s working for them. I feel like it’s working less for me. I didn’t realize until I haven’t been in the classroom for months and months now, I didn’t realize how much that face-to-face interaction sustained me as a teacher, I never realized that the energy that I have was so dependent on the energy students were giving me… which is really not that great of me as a sociologist, I should have had this kind of awareness all along, but I didn’t. And now that I don’t have them, now that I don’t have that face to face, as the semester’s gone on, I feel like my energy and my motivation has kind of waned, even if the students still feel really into the class and into my video lectures and all of that.

Martin: Yeah, I would agree with you on that. I’m starting to notice it now too. And I feel like, oftentimes, my own success in the classroom has depended on being able to get a sense of what the student culture is by interacting with them, understanding the body language, I like to shoot the breeze with students, I like to show up 10 minutes before class, and then usually have those three or four super devoted students that are already sitting there. And I like to shoot the breeze with them, because you get to figure out what TV shows they’re watching, what music they’re listening to, and that allows you an opportunity to investigate those things and find ways to connect what you’re teaching to that… especially with my students, they all watch all kinds of crime shows and stuff, so when I’m teaching criminal justice, it’s very easy to do that. So that had always been one of the pillars of my success. And so going completely online, it’s been more difficult and so, similar to Emily, I’ve been relying on Blackboard surveys and when you deal with that feedback, when it’s anonymous, it can be harsh, and those people who are willing to face it, to confront it, and accept it, are the people who succeed afterwards. But then there’s one student on a Blackboard survey this semester when I ask them what’s your least favorite thing about the class? They said, “Martin.” [LAUGHTER]

Emily: But that’s not very constructive.

Martin: It’s not constructive.

Rebecca: No.

Emily: …and they’re wrong. [LAUGHTER]

Martin: Yeah, exactly. [LAUGHTER] And in my response to the class, I usually will send anonymous results in a PDF file in the email. Well, usually in class, when I do those surveys, I’ll deal with it on the board. But I sent it and I said, “I’d like for all the students to like me, but I implore them the next time they take the survey, they should name specific things they don’t like about me, because then I can do something about it, maybe.” [LAUGHTER] But the thing is, you have to have a thick skin with this stuff, and if you can handle that, then you’ll succeed. But I will say, when I taught at my previous institution, I was ready for the coronavirus. I’m a very anxious person to begin with. And so when things were happening in Europe, and in China, I was already freaking out. And so I started adopting the HyFlex model in January. And so when everything hit the fan, it was really not a big deal for me. It was more just me supporting the students, making sure they’re okay, they’re feeling okay, they can handle everything. And I backed off a little bit, I allowed them all to adjust. But for me, that was okay. And next semester, even though I’m teaching synchronous via Zoom, or whatever, I’m still going to offer the HyFlex model informally by offering asynchronous content that’s consistent with what we’re learning in class, because I feel like that is going to be to some people, unfortunately, to me, fortunately, the future of teaching,

Emily: To just say one thing about what you were saying just now, Martin, I think that in terms of not being in the classroom, face to face, missing those more informal interactions have been really hard. I think a big part of my success in teaching in a face-to-face environment has to do with… I purposely am very authentic in the classroom. And so I show students my personality, and that works for me, I know that it doesn’t work for everyone, and I think that that’s fine. But, it works for me, that they get to know who I am as a person, they still have to respect my authority and my knowledge, but at the same time, being a little bit more informal with them is very effective for me. And I don’t have that opportunity as much teaching online. So, what I have found going back to your question, John, of how I’ve adapted, I have found that I’ve become a little bit more informal in my written communication with students. So whereas before, when I’m face to face, I can be informal. And so when I’m sending them an email, I can be very formal and professorial and all of that, but now they don’t get any of that informality. And so I’m using emojis…

Martin: …the same.

Emily: …and putting the gifs in my email. There’s a really great Snoop Dogg TikTok about reading the syllabus that’s gone out to all of my classes several times.

Martin: Nice.

Emily: …and so, I don’t know, I’ll be interested to see what the evals say about that… if they say anything at all, and the people who are evaluating my courses, their feedback on those things, but I think that that’s one strategy I found of introducing that informality in an online setting.

Rebecca: I had a couple of students indicate how much they really like emojis and things. My TA had done something that I thought was really stellar, and I sent her a metal

Martin: Nice.

Emily: Oh, that’s funny.

Rebecca: …like and emoji metal. She’s like, “I really like it when you do stuff like that.” [LAUGHTER[

Emily: Do more of that please.

Martin: Yeah.

Rebecca: Yeah, so I was like, “Oh, okay. I thought people would think I was really dorky.” So I just started doing it more…

Emily: Yeah.

Rebecca: …for the other students too. And it seems uplifting.

Emily: Well, and it’s like their language, right?

Martin: Yeah.

John: Yeah, and it’s authentic dorkiness, which I think is the key.

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely.

Emily: And that’s exactly what I thought when you said that Rebecca, like, don’t get me wrong. I’m pretty sure my students think I’m like a dork sending out this Snoop Dogg, whatever. [LAUGHTER] And I am, there’s no getting around that, but it’s endearing. [LAUGHTER] It’s a part of my charm.

Rebecca: Yeah, I wasn’t sure if it was gonna be charming or not. That was the key. Like, is this gonna be a turn off? Or is it gonna be something good? [LAUGHTER]

Emily: Yeah, it can go one of two ways. Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ll include a link to the Snoop Dogg video in the show notes.

Emily: Ok.

John: I already have it because I’ve sent it out to my students as well.

Emily: There you go. [LAUGHTER]

Martin: Cool.

John: Are there any things that you’ve tried this semester that you hadn’t done in the past that you’re going to continue even in a post-pandemic world, in terms of your teaching,

Emily: I am really excited about Flipgrid forums. It’s like a discussion board, except that students record a video of themselves responding to the prompt and then I require that students reply to each other with a video message. And, it’s not without its issues. I recognize what those are. And at the same time, I feel like it’s been really great for me to get to know my students more personally than I would typically would and kind of a more standard discussion board format. And I think that students are getting to know one another better as well, because I see, when I grade them from week to week, I see that the same people are responding to each other or they’re saying like, “Oh, you talked about this a few weeks ago,” and I never really have seen that in a traditional forum. There’s something about the video that works really well. I only do it for the smaller class that I’m teaching. I couldn’t do it for a 100 person intro class, I don’t think, but it’s proving effective for my upper-division course, I don’t know if I will continue it moving forward, but I’ve really enjoyed it.

John: I’ve used VoiceThread, which is very similar. One advantage of Flipgrid is that, now that Microsoft owns Flipgrid, it’s a free service provided to educators. But one of the things I did is I allowed students to either use just voice or video, and they almost exclusively used just a voice. So they weren’t very comfortable sharing videos. But even when they were just sharing voice, it was in an asynchronous online class, one of the things that really struck me and many of the students commented on this in some of the other discussion forums is whenever they read something in the course from that person, they’d hear it in the voice of the student, because they’ve learned the voices of students and it created a little more sense of community or connection to the other students that was generally not there when they were text only discussion forums.

Martin: Yeah, I agree. I’ve never used Flipgrid. But I do think that I’ll explore that a little bit. But I will continue to use the blackboard discussion forums, or at least some form of online discussion. Also, I’m going to use Zoom for office hours and meetings with students. I find Zoom to be so great for advising and any sort of meeting with a student like, especially when it comes to… I had a student the other day needing me to find something about an assignment. So I was able to just share my screen, show them in the syllabus what I meant by whatever. I was able to show them how to make use of Google Scholar and how you can leverage that when you’re looking things up in the library website. And with that being said too, incorporating HyFlex, in pretty much everything I do. I was talking to Roger yesterday, and some students, even though their seniors and juniors are still having difficulty finding peer-reviewed articles. And so I told him, you know, what, I’m just going to go ahead and make a video that shows you how to use Google Scholar, how to use the library database, how to get what you need, and then I have that video, and I can just copy and paste it on subsequent Blackboard forums. But I also think that the asynchronous content that I’ve created over the last two years, especially a lot of that’s been created this semester, I’m going to continue to share it in subsequent classes and upkeep it. I think as we start to cater to newer students, people coming from non traditional backgrounds, having the asynchronous option in any classes, I think, would help break down barriers and help students succeed. And so that’s something I feel like this HyFlex approach to pretty much all teaching… at least, it’s easier in criminal justice. It’s not that easy in other courses. But for me, that’s something I’m going to apply to my classes until someone tells me I can’t.

John: And I think a lot of people this summer have created new videos and other explanatory materials that can work in any modality. And that’s something we strongly encouraged faculty to do in the workshops that we did last spring and over the summer as well. And it’s nice to see that. Students generally react really positively to having those video resources.

Martin: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

John: Typically, new faculty orientation consists of this series of meetings where there’s a tremendous amount of information thrown at you all at once. This time, all those presentations were converted into videos that people could access at their own time and pace. How did that work? And or what could institutions do to make the transition easier? Because the type of transition you experienced is also the type of transition situation that many adjuncts will experience who are not physically located in the communities where they’re teaching. So even when the pandemic ends, I think there may be some lessons learned from this new faculty orientation that can continue beyond. What worked well from the orientation and what could we have done better to reach out to people who were not physically present.

Martin: So, one thing that I think worked really well is that, again, there were recorded videos that we could access, I think we didn’t necessarily need two days of sort of where you were on Zoom, I don’t think we necessarily needed that. I think one day would have been good. And then you should have been left with the videos like this asynchronous content. I think that helped me a lot, when I needed to look at how to do something, I was able to just quickly go on that Blackboard page and find the resources I needed. And if I couldn’t find it, I’ll just email my chair, and it would be fixed. So I think that was very good. I would much rather do what I did here, then go and sit with people in a building and do all that, like I get the social aspect of that. And that can be arranged, but what I’m going to orientation, I want to learn what I need to do to succeed in my job, because that’s how I work. So I like the fact that I was able to just sit there and focus on the content that was most necessary for me at that time, because there was a lot of stuff that I already knew, because I’ve already learned it at my previous institution that wasn’t necessarily pertinent to me. And so by allowing that asynchronous content to stay up for so long, I think that helped me succeed a lot. Do we need two days? No. One thing that I also think is very important is for departments on the department level to form a committee and create onboarding packets. That’s something I’ve pushed for really hard where I used to work and then it just kept on getting pushed away and away and away. But what people within the department think is important, that your department chair can just email you right when your contracts been signed and accepted, and then you know, oh, reach out to this person, if you need your email, reach out here, this is where you’ll get this. This is what you need. Reach out to this person for X, Y, and Z. I think those things, if you focus on working on them right now, and it’s just a document you can update over time, especially here at SUNY Oswego, where we use Google Drive for everything. It’s so easy just to invite someone to the document. So, I think a lot of pre-emptive stuff can be done. But, I will say I very much enjoy not having to go to campus and sit through orientations that I didn’t think was necessary to me, because it’s not my first rodeo.

Emily: I really like that idea, Martin, of having onboarding packets at the departmental level. I think that would alleviate some of the emphasis on faculty being proactive in getting what they need… that we were talking about before, especially considering how problematic that is for a variety of reasons. I think the orientation, I agree, I liked the videos, found them very informational. I like the breakout session that we have had, I think it was actually on the second day where we got to pick which group we wanted to go ask more questions to. I think more of that could have been beneficial, because we only had an opportunity to really speak with one group around campus. I wish that as part of the orientation, there would have been information on shared governance, the structure of shared governance in the SUNY system and on SUNY Oswego because it is a multi-level system bureaucracy, and it’s still not clear to me exactly what that order of things looks like, Who’s in charge of what. To some, like really clear mapping of the shared governance hierarchy. And just some really basic flowcharts on processes would have also been really, really helpful for me during orientation. Stepping aside from orientation, specifically, and thinking more about transitioning your life from one place to another. I think SUNY Oswego did a pretty good job helping us transition into the university system itself. But I really could have used some assistance with housing, some more formal assistance. And I did reach out, I think my acting chair is phenomenal. She put me in contact with people who put me in contact with people who put me in contact with people, I was talking to all these people, some of which I still have yet to see face to face. And that was all great. And I have a place to live here. But it was just a lot of work. on my end, trying to put that together. And the place that we’re in right now is not the best. It’s probably one of the biggest stressors in my life right now. And so had there been some more institutional support.. Like, I don’t know what that would look like. I think that that would have been really, really helpful. And I think that that’s probably the case, whenever somebody is transitioning into this position in general, but especially in the pandemic, when I couldn’t travel easily to the area and take a look at things for myself.

Rebecca: Yeah, that’s a problem for sure. Housing here has been an issue for a very long time.

Martin: Yeah, we had the same issue. Luckily, through Maggie, she connected me with the right person. And then bam, I found a place to stay. And then the person didn’t like that we had a dog. And so I offered him an extra hundred dollars a month so we could just keep the dog in there. And luckily, he went for it. And so now we have a place. But, yeah, it was a major stressor. And when you have to live in the Syracuse area, the cost of living is different there than in Oswego. And so it almost makes your salary less when you’re living outside of the area. So. when you’re an assistant professor making an assistant professor salary, you want to maximize that, and so by living in Oswego is much better. And so, yeah, I totally agree with you Emily, that’s one of the major issues.

Emily: To your point, Martin, it may be easier to find an adequate place to live in the Syracuse area, but I have never in my life experienced a housing market like the one that I tried to get into here in Oswego. I mean, it was just bizarre. And so it just does seem to be much more informal than in most places that I’ve ever lived. And that was a struggle, not being from this area. It really was the strength of weak ties for me is what made it so that my family and I could have a roof over our head when we moved here in July.

Martin: And I will say that living in Oswego is awesome.

Emily: Yeah, I like that. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Martin: I really like living here.

Emily: Yeah, I find it quite charming…

Martin: Yeah.

Emily: …and weird in a really great way. But I’m also holding my breath for that winter. {LAUGHTER] ‘Cause, again, I was born and raised in Texas, North Carolina for 12 years, we shall see.

John: We should note, just for people, not from Oswego. that Oswego is a city which saw a very big peak in population by the mid 1800s with the canal system, and since then the population has gradually declined with the loss of the industry. So housing prices are relatively low in the region. And there’s a lot of houses that are very old, with varying quality, some of which is very low quality and some of which is very high. But it’s difficult to find good housing. And it’s a bit of a search. It’s a challenge, especially when you’re trying to make those arrangements from another part of the country.

Rebecca: We always end by asking, what’s next?

Martin: I’m going to make sure I get tenure. That’s what’s next. I’m going to keep on crushing it and get tenure. [LAUGHTER]

Emily: What’s next for me, I will say regroup, recharge and reboot. And that was not a prepared line… [LAUGHTER] …noted for the record. That’s just all spontaneous. I don’t know if it makes a whole lot of sense. But yeah, just getting by, just taking the winter break that is around the corner, taking that time to breathe a little bit and to make some adjustments and then getting through the spring semester, and then getting back to some type of normalcy. I have to believe that’s on the horizon. So yeah.

Martin: Yeah, fingers crossed.

John: I think we’re all hoping for that. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Indeed. Indeed. Thank you so much for joining us. This has been really helpful and I hope it’ll help multiple institutions really think through just transitions for faculty in general.

Martin: Thank you.

Emily: Thank you for having me.

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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.

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163. Student Voices

As teachers we may ask for, and act on, student feedback periodically throughout the semester or from semester to semester. What we often don’t hear, as faculty, is the student perspective on their overall learning experience. In this episode, Jessamyn Neuhaus and Theresa Hyland join us to discuss the importance of listening to, and placing value on, student voices in the design of learning experiences.

Jessamyn is the Interim Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is also a recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She’s the author of Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds who Want to be Effective Teachers. Theresa is a nontraditional student in the BA/MST History and Adolescent Education program at SUNY Plattsburgh and is looking forward to her career as a high school teacher.

Show Notes

  • Neuhaus, J. (2019). Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers. West Virginia University Press.

Transcript

John: As teachers we may ask for, and act on, student feedback periodically throughout the semester or from semester to semester. What we often don’t hear, as faculty, is the student perspective on their overall learning experience. In this episode, we talk with a student about listening to, and placing value on, student voices in the design of learning experiences.

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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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John: Our guests today are Jessamyn Neuhaus and Theresa Hyland. Jessamyn is the Interim Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is also a recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She’s the author of Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds who Want to be Effective Teachers. Theresa is a nontraditional student in the BA/MST History and Adolescent Education program at SUNY Plattsburgh and is looking forward to her career as a high school teacher. Welcome, Theresa, and welcome back, Jessamyn.

Jessamyn: Thanks for having us.

Theresa: Thank you for having me.

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

Jessamyn: I am. And it’s Prickly Pear Cactus, which is a good tea for an introvert. Like, don’t touch me, stay away. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s perfect.

Jessamyn: It’s perfect.

Rebecca: Theresa?

Theresa: Mine is a Chinese style gunpowder green…

Rebecca: Nice.

Theresa: that’s very good.

John: And I’m drinking a pure ginger tea today.

Rebecca: And I have Golden Monkey. I feel like I needed to treat myself today. [LAUGHTER]

John: As we’re recording this, we’re waiting for election results from the national election. So. some of us haven’t been getting a lot of sleep because we’re checking all the counts regularly.

Rebecca: So, the golden monkey is totally self indulgent.

Jessamyn: Very necessary. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here today to talk about the student experience during a pandemic, and about ways in which we could productively incorporate student voices into professional development activities, and we’re practicing that right now. [LAUGHTER] So, let’s talk a little bit about the impact of the transition to remote instruction last March. What was that like from a student perspective?

Theresa: Oh, yeah, that was intense. [LAUGHTER] It was really the most disorganized and disorienting sort of thing, which I thought was completely understandable, on the one hand, because every single person involved, the students and the professors, were being asked to do something they had never signed up to do. The professor’s teaching our in-person classes had never signed up to be online professors; the students taking the in-person classes were obviously taking in-person classes for a reason, none of us really wanted to go online. Everybody had a different way of doing things when we got online. Sometimes, I had people who were trying a couple of different things because they weren’t sure what was actually going to work. And of course, we had tech issues, and just all kinds of things. So, it was pretty confusing and a little bit messy, and it made things a lot more difficult than they had to be, I think, but it was also the only reasonable solution. Because what else could we have done? …just closed everything and gone: “Oh, well, we’ll just try it again in the next spring.” [LAUGHTER] …like no, that’s not going to work. [LAUGHTER] In my case, too, it was particularly difficult because my father died in February, like three weeks before we went on break. And so going online removed my main source of outside support, which was going to classes because it forced me to get up and leave the house every day, and it put me around people in very controlled environments, and it had been helping a lot and then all of a sudden, that got taken away. So, for me, it was also a depressing experience, because now I had to deal with all of this stuff by myself… completely by myself.

Rebecca: I think that’s an experience that more people experience than we ever really acknowledge… the death of a family member or just any other kind of extra stress on top of the moving online that was happening. So, I think it’s important to acknowledge that students and faculty were experiencing these things, which just added to the complexity of the situation, the stress of the situation for everybody involved.

Theresa: It’s like I’ve been saying, that 2020 is the worst year of my life, even leaving COVID out of it, because other things have happened too that I’m not going to get into, but it’s been the worst year of my life, even without COVID,and now we’ve got a pandemic on top of it that’s not making anything better or easier to deal with… at all.

John: But at least we don’t have any social strife [LAUGHTER] or any other types of stresses in society this year.

Jessamyn: No other major global crises happening.

Theresa: Things are so peaceful [LAUGHTER] and I’m completely expecting a peaceful transition of power to happen any minute now.

John: Are things better this fall in terms of the adjustment to a still unusual environment for teaching?

Theresa: Yeah, it’s not an easy answer. I would say yes and no. The yes comes from the classes I’ve had that have moved online, either kind of officially they moved online recently when we started having COVID cases at Plattsburgh or they moved online for me unofficially when I asked for it, which in and of itself was a long and complicated and messy process. In that case, I think the people who are offering online options were much better prepared and knew what they were doing. So, there isn’t that feeling of disorganization and confusion with the online classes. Because by this time, the people offering them have figured out how they like to do it, have figured out the best way that works for them and their students. And so that is very nice and organized. Unfortunately, for the in-person option, I would have to say… not so much. Because we wound up with some really weird situations with in-person learning. At the beginning of the term, I had five classes, only one of which was in a classroom that was ever meant to be a classroom. And that classroom can usually hold about 40 students plus the professor. But right now, because of COVID, they have it at half capacity. So I had a class of 40 people, but only 20 of us could be in the room at a time. So that professor had to do some kind of strange things like divide us in half, and half of us came on Monday and half of us came on Wednesday, and we all met by Zoom on Friday. And then my other classes were in rooms that were never meant to be classrooms. Three of my classes were in a converted ballroom, and they took this ballroom and divided it in half with one of those dividing walls that doesn’t really do anything except give you a visual separation. So, if something was going on in one classroom that was loud, you could hear it in the other one. If someone was trying to use the microphone, and they didn’t quite get the tech right, all of a sudden their lecture was going into the other room too. The lighting was horrible. The acoustics were awful. There were cases where I had professors who didn’t really want to use the microphone, and I couldn’t hear them. And I had cases I couldn’t hear my classmates at all. So, of course, there was no socializing at the beginning of class. And we were all sitting six feet apart and wearing our masks, we can’t hear each other, and we’re not socializing. And it kind of got to the point for me, where I actually felt like I was almost being punished. And I know that’s not the case, I know that nobody was punishing anybody. But that’s kind of how it felt. I felt like I was walking into something in the Hunger Games or something. [LAUGHTER] When I walked into these classrooms, it was just such a stressful experience, and isolating. I was in a room with 40 other people, and I’ve never felt so isolated. I lived in Japan, in situations where I was like the only non-Japanese person for miles around for months on end, and I felt less isolated than I felt in this classroom. And I’ve been reflecting lately… one of the things that makes me non traditional is I already have two master’s degrees, one of which is in teaching English to speakers of other languages. And one of the things that got really hammered in that course that I did was making a classroom environment pleasant to facilitate learning. There’s nothing pleasant about being in a poorly lit, bad acoustics, socially distant Hunger Games classroom. There just isn’t. And, so I dropped one of the classes. I moved online for other ones as much as I’ve been able to. And so it’s better now, but only because I forced it to be. And I got help from most of my professors to make it be that way.

John: Gamification can be a useful learning strategy in terms of motivation, but perhaps not to the Hunger Games extreme. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: Not to the Hunger Games extent.

Theresa: No. I mean, [LAUGHTER] I know some people will be super motivated by that, but maybe for like two class sessions, not forever, and not in the punishment aspect of it, but in the actual games aspects of it. I’m not that kind of nerd. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: I had one student describe it, too, as being such a powerful reminder of the terrible pandemic…

Theresa: Yeah.

Jessamyn: … raging around the world… that the experience of sitting in a socially distanced classroom and masks, was not only so different from an ideal learning environment, and expectations about the learning environment, but a very visual, emotional, intellectual reminder that a potentially deadly virus is circulating among us. And that that knowledge, that anxiety, that reminder in the classroom was, of course, a huge obstacle to effective learning.

Theresa: And I think that point, too, about the expectations is really interesting, because, to me, what it kind of feels like whenever people talk to us about “Oh, well, we’re giving you the in-person classes, because that’s what you asked for as students.” We asked for what we knew, before COVID, we didn’t ask for Hunger Games classrooms. [LAUGHTER] And there are a lot of people right now, I think, who prefer being in person so strongly that it doesn’t matter to them, and they would rather be in-person in a Hunger Games classroom then be online in their own living rooms, or whatever. And that’s totally valid. I’m not criticizing them. But, for some of us, that isn’t working at all. And it’s not at all what we were expecting. And in my case, I think I was very optimistic, but also very naive, because I did not expect to be in that kind of situation. I thought, well, maybe we’ll be wearing masks or maybe we’ll be social distancing. Somehow, I didn’t think we’ll be wearing masks and social distancing in rooms that were never meant as classrooms, and it’s going to feel awful.

Jessamyn: Yeah. Teresa’s perspective has really powerfully reminded me of how much of effective teaching and learning is that community piece, that welcoming classroom and that inclusive classroom and how much of that emotional component goes into effective learning, and, especially for brainiacs and geeky academics, we’re so focused on our subject and in content coverage, and we forget just how central the emotional connections, the human connections, and the productive professional relationships in the classroom are.

Theresa: And even just think of it in terms of practicalities, like having a group discussion, which is one of the whole points of being in person to begin with, is that you have that give and take back and forth between the students and the professor and between the students themselves. And if you’re in a classroom where nobody can hear what’s going on, or you’re in a classroom where If more than one person talks, it’s so echoey that nobody can hear or understand, that entire purpose cannot exist.

Rebecca: Yeah, we want to make sure that we’re moving beyond the sage on the stage. And we want to make sure that we’re using active learning in these things and technology can be a really powerful way of doing that…

Theresa: Yeah.

Rebecca: …in ways that maybe people didn’t realize going into the pandemic and are discovering.

John: Did you have any classes where there were some people face to face and others in Zoom at the same time, because that presented even some additional challenges that many of us warned against, but it was something that many colleges and many faculty tried to do, and I think a lot of people are backing away from that once they realize that it’s difficult to maintain two separate groups in some type of community.

Theresa: I have not had that happen simultaneously, I had one professor who offered the same class, two different sections, one in person and one online. And, in her case, that was actually how I was able to unofficially switch to online before she moved my in-person section online. But, I haven’t had anyone trying to do a simultaneous in-person while doing Zoom situation.

Rebecca: Because it’s not possible to be in two places at the same time… [LAUGHTER] Last I checked the science is not up on that. [LAUGHTER]

Theresa: Yeah. The only way I can imagine that would work would be if you recorded the in-person class and then posted it on Zoom, which then removes the simultaneous aspect and presents a whole different set of issues.

Jessamyn: Yeah, I would say, here at Plattsburgh, that what was, at least for a while, being called that HyFlex model, has really been utilized very much.

John: We had quite a few people trying it, but I don’t think there’s going to be as many people trying it in the spring.

Rebecca: No, I think people have now officially learned the way they want to teach. [LAUGHTER]

Theresa: Yeah.

Rebecca: This was the experiment. [LAUGHTER]

John: It was a massive experiment.

Rebecca: Yeah, an international experiment on higher education. … Glad that we had this opportunity.

Jessamyn: Yeah. Right.

John: As someone finding a career in teaching, what are some of the takeaways from this experience that you’ll bring into your own future teaching.

Theresa: So I spend a lot of time, first of all, in my own head, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that I literally am alone in my apartment with my budgies most of the time these days, [LAUGHTER] because of online learning I’ve been thinking a lot about things like: “What does it mean to do various things? Or what do various things mean to begin with”? So, for example, what does it mean to teach and learn? What does it mean to educate? And what does it mean to be educated? Why do we do certain things in the classroom? Why do we require term papers? As opposed either in general, or as opposed to something else? Why do we require students to memorize information before they take a test, instead of allowing open notes, open books, their cheat sheets? Why do we do these things? And what changes can we make to support the fact that this is an extraordinarily stressful time, on all levels? It’s like everything happening at once, for everybody, all the time, in every location. There is no such thing as taking a break anymore, really, there’s no break from some things. So, what can a teacher do to help eliminate or limit a source of stress, because let’s face it, school is a source of stress. Even if you want to be here, even if you love learning, even if you could easily be a student for the rest of your life, it is still a source of stress, because, for most of us, something about our future is riding on this. Something about our future is riding on our success here. And it’s not just “Oh, am I going to have the knowledge I need?” It’s also “Am I going to have the grades that I need to be attractive to employers? Am I going to have the grades that I need to keep my financial aid? If I lose my financial aid, what do I do?” Am I going to be out on the street with my birds, trying to find some basement to live in or something? Like, what’s going to happen?” And these things are all concerns that are floating around in people’s heads to varying degrees and varying levels. So, my question, as a teacher, is “What can I do to lessen that burden?” And I think it can be hard because, especially at the high school level, I think there’s a lot that comes down from above. My impression, anyway, is that there’s a lot that comes down from above that I can’t change. But, what can I do about the things that I can change? If I were teaching at the college level, I would be inclined right now to say things like open notes, open books, or cheat sheets on exams, fewer high-stakes exams, replace them with more low-stakes exams, either no term papers or shorter term papers… replace the term papers with something like reflection essays. So much depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. And I think sometimes, at all levels of education, we do things because that’s how they’ve been done. And especially right now, that’s just not going to work forever. And I think right now, whether we like it or not, we’ve been handed a golden opportunity to try some new things. And to see if these new things work at all, to see if they work better, to see if maybe we think that they don’t work better, but they work better in this situation, so we’ll keep up for now and go back to the old way after. Whatever. But, right now is a time I think that all educators, past, present, and future need to be really thinking about what it means to do those different things, and why certain things are happening in the classroom, and how they can change what’s going on in the classroom, to limit a source of stress that a lot of people just don’t have the energy for anymore.

John: These are all things that most teaching centers have been suggesting to faculty for quite a while. But faculty don’t always listen to that. And one of the reasons we wanted to talk to you about this is that, at your institution, you gave a presentation to faculty about this. And I think that maybe hearing student voices can provide a little more compelling story to faculty than if they just hear it from people who run teaching centers. Could you talk a little bit about that experience?

Theresa: Yeah, from my end, it felt really nice. It was like, “Oh, wow, these professors have all shown up.” And it wasn’t just professors, there were some people from the library as well. But like, “Oh, wow, these people have all shown up to listen to what I have to say. And they care about what I have to say.” And I know that there were people who probably watched the recorded session later. So, that was good. But I also know a few things. One, I’m kind of weird, [LAUGHTER] in that…. I’m weird in a lot of ways like, but in all harmless ways, I promise. But, in this case, I’m weird in that I had that opportunity. There are thousands of students here, and I’m the one who got to have that conversation. So, most of us don’t get that chance… at all. And I think, too, a lot of students, especially younger students who are new to college, feel like they’re not going to be listened to. They can say whatever they want to whoever they want and nobody’s gonna listen to them. And why should they speak up, anyway? And I don’t have any power in the classroom, the power is all with the professor. And I don’t have any power at this institution, it’s all with the administration. And that’s assuming that you can even figure out what’s coming from the professor and what’s coming from administration, because most of the time, we students don’t know that. Let’s take attendance policies in example, I don’t know what part of attendance policies are coming from administration and what part is coming from the professors themselves, just as an example. So if I have a problem with an attendance policy, I don’t really know who to talk to, directly. And I don’t know how to address it, maybe, as a student. So, for me, yeah, it felt fantastic to sit there and be able to talk to these people. And they were all great people and very receptive, I thought. But I also know that that’s unusual for a lot of students’ experiences. And I know quite frankly, that had I been 18 and in my first semester as a freshman, I don’t know if I would have been willing to do that…

Jessamyn: Sure.

Theresa: …because I would have been staring down that…

Jessamyn: Yeah.

Theresa: …group of people. Even though they were very nice, kind, friendly people, I still would have been absolutely terrified. So I think that there’s a gap in what students can actually do and what they think they can do. And it’s not necessarily a gap that the students can bridge, or at least it’s not one that they can bridge alone. And that this is a case where professors need to use the power and privilege they have, as professors, to help bridge that gap and prove to us students that if we speak up that you will listen, basically.

Jessamyn: Yeah, I think incorporating more student voices into faculty development is an awesome goal. And it’s not easy. I don’t think it’s easy to do for some of the reasons Theresa mentioned. And it really depends on your student population and your campus culture. Our students at SUNY Plattsburgh are incredibly polite and respectful, and have learned to be passive learners in their high school experience. Not everybody, but that’s the general culture… speaking directly to power with a face… even if it’s on a screen via Zoom…a whole posse of professors would not come easily to most students at any point in their career… maybe when they were seniors… maybe. So, I’ve been looking for ways to get student perspectives into our programming, I used a model created by Jessica Tinklenberg at the Claremont College’s Teaching and Learning Center. She created a model called “What your students want you to know,” a series of discussions where a faculty representative or a staff or mentor figure on campus who worked with certain groups of students, checked in with their students, polled their students, and then reported to the faculty, and we did that this semester. So, like the Coordinator for International Students came and spoke to a group of faculty: “Here’s what your international students want you to know,” the Assistant Athletic Director came and spoke: “Here’s what student athletes want you to know.” So that’s a way to get student voices into the conversation without having that direct, perhaps confrontational, sense. Theresa is a non-traditional student. I’ve worked with her before. We had a class together during that horrible impossible semester. And she’s also my advisee, we share a love of pop culture. So, we got that in common. She came, actually it was during advising and she came to me for advising and got to talking about what her experiences have been like in face-to-face classes. I am teaching this semester, but it’s totally online. So her perspective, combined with I knew her to be confident enough and able to articulate very clearly her experiences and not get weirded out by facing down some professors… and it’s self selecting too. With the faculty development events, people come who want to be there. So, it’s not like a mandatory event: “Now listen to students.” I know the Center for Teaching Excellence did have a Student Advisory Board for a while. It’s been quite a few years since that board was in place. And it’s very difficult to ask students, especially right now, to take on additional labor of any kind, even if it’s just offering a perspective. What I’d like to do is have a selection process to have two student Center for Teaching Excellence fellows next semester, but I’ve run into a major bureaucratic red tape snarl. A shout out to state universities… it’s like a major undertaking to offer a $200 honorarium to a student as part of a student fellowship. So stay tuned… to be continued, I will be trying to wrestle that. Unfortunately, I’m just awful at paperwork. So, we’ll see. But, that’s how Theresa ended up at the round table. And it was the most successful one, I think, of the semester so far of the presentations and discussions. People were very, very interested.

Rebecca: We had a really good experience with students sharing their feedback in our Accessibility Fellows Program, which is a smaller group of faculty with seven faculty at the time. And we worked with our disability services office, essentially, to recruit a few students to come and share some of their experiences and the technology they use with that group. But it was like a very closed situation and it was a small situation and it was not a recorded situation. And I think the students had a good experience based on the responses afterwards. And the faculty all had really great experiences that have impacted all of us in really deep ways by having those structured conversations about something specific. But, I think there’s something about it being kind of a tight knit group, someone they trust is who recruited them to have the conversation. None of their faculty members were there. [LAUGHTER] It was different faculty members. But, it was really powerful. So, I think the more we can find ways to include those voices of students in safe ways, ways that they perceive as being safe, the better.

Jessamyn: Well, especially right now is just so crucial. It’s challenging. We have to figure out ways to do it, though. At Theresa’s roundtable, \my colleague, John Locke, Director of Technology Enhanced Learning, shared that he had really been struggling with some of the decisions he made about his moving online. Did he do the right thing? Was this the best? And hearing Theresa and talking with her, really powerfully confirmed that, yes, he was on the right track. And that kind of feedback, above and beyond what we might be asking from the students as we’re actually teaching them, just can be so incredibly helpful right now. Wow. That’s what we all need. Is this working? Theresa, like you said, we’re trying something new. How will we know without the student perspective?

Rebecca: I’ve been fortunate this semester to also have a TA which I don’t generally have for my classes. That has actually helped a lot, to get that student feedback. I’m getting her feedback on her perceptions of what’s happening and what she thinks might work based on her own experiences as a student in other classes. But also, the student voice is getting filtered to me from her because they feel comfortable talking to her. And so although I don’t generally use a TA in my classes, I found it really important to do it as I was transitioning to teaching online, because I hadn’t taught online before. And it’s been really powerful. She’s helped me think a little bit about what to do next semester, based on what this semester was like. She co-created some of our assignments and activities that we’ve been doing, and it was really important to the design of the experience to have her perspective. And, I think, maybe I didn’t even realize that as much until we were just talking with you right now, Theresa, like how much that actually was really valuable to the students this semester. Because, she’s acted as a sounding board. Even over the summer I ran a few things by her before the semester even started.

Theresa: So, that’s good. Remember too, though, this has to be a two-way street. Because if you get a bunch of students, you can ask for all the student perspectives that you want. But if the professors are not listening and responding, it’s screaming into the void. And you can get me, you can get all the freshmen, you can get the seniors, you can get the grad students, you can get anyone you want. And if we’re screaming into the void, then that doesn’t really produce any kind of results. And I think that they’re kind of multiple problems here. Like I mentioned, the problem with convincing students to speak up to begin with, getting faculty who maybe are less inclined to listen to actually listen and pay attention and follow through, and making sure that the students actually feel like they’ve been heard. And that, even if something doesn’t happen immediately, that something is happening behind the scenes, because I think sometimes they can say something and then nothing happens. And then they go, “Oh, you’re asking me for my opinion again? Well, the last time I gave you my opinion, nothing happened. So, why am I going to bother this time?” So yes, it’s important to focus on that one end of how do I get the students to share their feelings and their thoughts, but there’s also how do we get the faculty and administration to respond in a way that encourages that to continue.

Jessamyn: And here’s another problem. In this context of meaningful student feedback, we have a serious issue in academia getting meaningful student feedback, just from our own individual classes. Even during the before times, the student evaluations of teaching are deeply flawed. They’re often administered very poorly. And every faculty member has a horror story about student evaluations of teaching. They’ve got some incredibly mean, miserable, sexist, racist, homophobic, derogatory, hurtful, demeaning comments, and they will remember them forever. And, for many faculty, that’s the only experience they’ve had with directly soliciting student feedback. And it’s terrible. It’s the worst possible place to start. And it’s not good for students, either. It’s often presented in a way that they don’t understand what they’re being used for. If it’s the first time they’ve been asked for their opinion, they’re going to feel, just like Theresa said, “What’s the point?” They don’t know how it’s used in evaluations. So, in this already really pretty toxic way, we have established… because like Theresa said, “That’s how we’ve always done it.” And then to try to wrestle us out of that and have a more meaningful student voice and student perspective in faculty development. I think, like Theresa said, that the problems are multiple. The challenges are many layered.

Theresa: And with those kinds of evaluations, I think, that also gets back to the point of students don’t know where a problem is coming from, they might know that there’s a problem, or they perceive that as a problem, but they don’t know where it’s coming from. So, something that’s actually an administrative problem gets taken out on the faculty. The racism and sexism, that’s obviously a problem with the student. We know where that problem is coming from. And that’s something that needs to be dealt with, but it shouldn’t be on the shoulders of one individual professor to deal with that. So, just to be clear, I think that’s completely inappropriate of the students and they should not be doing that. [LAUGHTER] But, consider it, too, from the student side, the side of the non-racist and non-sexist students [LAUGHTER] who are angry about something legit, but they don’t know who to direct it at. They don’t know how to direct it…

Jessamyn: Yes.

Theresa: …because they’ve never had the chance to speak before.

Jessamyn: That’s right.

Theresa: I was thinking, even for myself, I have some feedback I really want to give to a professor of mine right now. But I’m kind of sitting here going, “What’s the point? I’m sure this person has tenure and isn’t really going to pay attention. I’m sure that this is how this has been taught forever. Why am I gonna do this?” And it’s a really harmless thing that I’m talking about. And I know that it’s a professor thing, not an administration thing. And I’m obviously not going to go out there and be horrible to this person, because I’m not the kind of person and there’s no need for it. But I’m literally sitting here going, “I want to give you feedback on this part of how the class is taught, but why should I? …because I don’t think that anything is going to happen if I do.” And a lot of times too, remember, there are situations, of course, where students have the same Professor over and over again. But that doesn’t happen all the time. So, very often we give feedback, and we never see if anything comes of it, because we never see that person again. So we have no idea if anything comes of it. So again, it’s that screaming into the void. Why should I bother?

Rebecca: That’s actually one of the challenges of anonymous feedback…

Theresa: Yeah.

Rebecca: …to some extent, is like not being able to have the two-way communication or having a dialogue about something. It’s kind of a one-way scream one way or another, but maybe listened to or not. But, being able to have a dialogue can be really rich and helpful and you can ask follow up questions about like, “What do you mean by that?” or “Have you had an experience somewhere else where it’s worked better? Can you tell me about that?” I’ve been fortunate enough to have some of those experiences of being able to have the dialogue version of that. And it’s so powerful and so helpful, and it helps everybody. It helps the students, because then we can immediately act. It helps the faculty long term. But, I think that’s going to work the best in the situation where the faculty’s open to feedback and sets up a situation where it’s known that feedback will be used. You’re telling students how that feedbacks going to be used, you’re validating the student voice, and then also providing that feedback… like why you might not have done something even though that suggestion was made or whatever. And from my experience, students respond really well when you have that dialogue piece.

Theresa: Absolutely. But it’s something that has to happen from day one of the class.

Jessamyn: And all these nuances are just making me think about how it’s even more challenging right now. So everything is harder now, period. Every single thing is harder now. But when emotions are running high, and we want to lash out, because the world’s on fire, and we’re angry, and we’re disempowered, which is everybody to some extent, and more for some groups than others. And into this, like boiling of emotions, we’re gonna add a complicated dynamic. It’s hard.

John: One of the things we’ve always recommended to faculty is that they request student feedback periodically, either with a form or with open discussions. But one thing I’ve noticed is a lot of people, as they move into new modalities of teaching, have been doing that fairly regularly. Some people do it every class period, asking what’s working, what’s not working, and many people are doing it every week in some way. So, I hope that’s a practice that will continue once we move past the current crisis, as faculty become more used to inviting feedback. And it is important that faculty respond to it. So, just collecting the feedback doesn’t do much if the students don’t see any sort of response. But, if faculty would respond to it, and sometimes it might be by saying, “Well, I understand why you would like this change, but here’s why I don’t think we can do that at this time.” But, at least having that dialogue, whether it’s anonymous or not, at least they’re responding to the voices that they’re hearing and letting people know that their voices are valued and taken into account.

Rebecca: …and not responding in the moment, not being able to take action in the moment is still reasonable. It is a pandemic, it is really difficult to shift gears right now. And if it’s something that’s just too big to change, maybe it does need to wait until next semester, but communicating that like “Hey, I have my barriers, too.” I found that students are really responsive to that. They recognize we’re humans, if you actually admit that you’re a human.

Theresa: Yeah.

John: …if you act like one.

Theresa: Exactly, yeah. And it’s important to keep in mind that you don’t know our outside lives, but we don’t know yours. We only know what you share with us. And like Rebecca was saying, the more human you seem to us, the more likely you are to get feedback, the more likely you are to get useful feedback, I think, and the more likely you are to actually be able to develop that dialogue with your students that will actually result in something fruitful and good, and not just a bunch of pent up complaining at the end of the term. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: Yes, exactly. Yeah, that humanizing element is so key to online learning. That’s Michelle Pacansky-Brock talks about humanizing online learning so important. And Flower Darby talks about the online teacher presence. But, it’s also face to face, it’s the whole undertaking of teaching and learning. Communication is so key. And as it’s sort of my shtick here, I mean, there’s a lot of nerdy academic brainiacs who just don’t communicate very well, who may be trying something to cope with this unprecedented time with all the best intentions. But, if it’s not communicated clearly to students, they’re not going to get it, and it’s not going to be effective. So, the clear communication part seems even more important. Theresa mentioned our ability to be flexible, and to really focus in on the key student learning outcomes. What is it we actually want students to be able to do at the end of the class? And really focusing on that, and how can we humanize those and be as flexible as possible? And I think this conversation is making me think too, about just how important the communication part is. Like I had a student tell me she was having trouble connecting with a professor. And I said, “Okay, so you emailed her, she didn’t answer the email.” We have Zoom class. Like, okay, so when you go early… this student always arrives early… is the professor there? She’s like, “Yes, but she doesn’t have the volume on or she’s won’t talk to me or something.” That’s one thing about teleconferencing. your face is right there. How can you not try to communicate with a student when you’re staring into each other’s eyes like, why? It’s that ability to communicate, and just to build that rapport and those connections, and it’s hard right now, because everything’s harder.

Theresa: One thing I was really grateful for in the spring, ironically enough, is that we actually did have those few weeks of in-person learning before we went online because I actually knew my professors, and I knew them as people. Like, I didn’t know every detail about their lives, of course, but I knew them as human beings who stood in front of my classroom and had a presence and had mannerisms and I knew how they acted and I kind of guessed how they would react to certain things. And I think that without that experience, it would have been a lot harder and a lot more miserable really, to go online with so little notice,

Rebecca: One of the things that I’m noticing from this conversation, and the last few conversations we’ve had on Tea for Teaching is how much communication and relationship building is important to learning. It’s so important to underscore that those two things are key to learning and reducing stress. Those are all really fundamental to learning. And we focused a lot on technology as we’ve shifted more to online pieces of teaching. But those elements are important, regardless if there’s technology involved. And it really gets back to that foundation of things that we need to be thinking about as teachers.

Jessamyn: And it does not have to be a touchy feely, squishy, non rigorous way of connecting. I think one reason Theresa and I work so well together is neither of us is a touchy feely, squishy person. We are not warm and fuzzy at all. But we’ve established a good rapport around our subject, around the intellectual exploration, and now more around teaching and learning. So, you can be yourself, you don’t have to transform into the motherly, fatherly, grandfatherly professor that everybody loves, and you just want to be around, or the professor who, once we’re post OVID is always hugging their students, you don’t have to do all that.

Theresa: Please don’t hug your students. [LAUGHTER] Not without explicit consent, at least. Oh my gosh.

Jessamyn: But, that connection, and that communication, and those productive professional working relationships are so, so key.

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

Theresa: Well, what’s next for me is making it through the rest of the week. Yeah, I have one more class tomorrow. And I have an exam this week. But it’s a pretty easy exam, so I’m not too concerned. In my immediate future, in the spring, I did actually manage to get an entirely online slate of classes, which is important for me, because I’m one of those people who really shouldn’t be around people right now. And I’m not talking emotionally, I’m totally talking in terms of my physical health. And the fact that if I get COVID, it’s not going to go well, for me, so I was going to say I’m looking forward… but I’m looking towards that. [LAUGHTER] And it remains to be seen if I’m looking forward or kind of feeling trepidatious, or what’s gonna happen with that? Yeah, so I guess in the immediate future it’s just kind of plugging along and doing the best I can and making the best of this really horrifying situation.

Jessamyn: I’m not sure I can better that particular goal. But, I’ll say that scholarship wise, I’m currently editing an anthology of insights into effective teaching and learning from women and underrepresented faculty. I’ve got the working table of contents. And the contributors are working on their revisions, and it’s going to be a fantastic collection. It’s the most practical, yet inspiring, collection of articles I’ve read about teaching and learning all in one place. So I’m really excited about that. I’m going to be the Interim Director next semester. So I’ll continue working with the teaching center. And we’re doing a book group with the SUNY Oswego Teaching and Learning Center, hosts of this fine podcast, and I’ll be doing some other programming as well.

Rebecca: Thank you both for your insights and sharing your experiences, and we’re definitely looking forward to your new book, Jessamyn,

John: When is it coming out? Do you have a timetable on its arrival?

Jessamyn: I don’t have a publication date yet. And I am keeping the deadline to get it to the publishers top secret so I can make sure all my contributors get their revisions done on time.

John: Excellent.

Jessamyn: But, hopefully, I would say 2021, I think late in 2021, or very early 2022.

Rebecca: Excellent. Good luck for the rest of the semester, Theresa. You can do it. [LAUGHTER]

Theresa: Thank you. We’re gonna try.

John: Well, thank you. Thanks for joining us. And this was a great discussion. And I think all of us should spend more time listening to students and having a dialogue with students about what’s working and what’s not… all the time, but especially in these times.

Jessamyn: Thanks for having us.

[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.

[MUSIC]

162. Bichronous Learning

When we talk about online learning we often focus on asynchronous learning. In this episode, Jessica Kruger joins us to discuss the creation of rich online learning experiences that include a combination of synchronous and asynchronous components. Jessica is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior, and the Interim Coordinator for Teaching Innovation and Excellence for the School of Public Health and Health Professions at the University at Buffalo.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: When we talk about online learning we often focus on asynchronous learning. In this episode, we discuss the creation of rich online learning experiences that include a combination of synchronous and asynchronous components.

[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]

Rebecca: Our guest today is Jessica Kruger, a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior, and the Interim Coordinator for Teaching Innovation and Excellence for the School of Public Health and Health Professions at the University at Buffalo. Welcome back, Jessica.

Jessica: Glad to be back.

John: It’s great to have you here again. It’s been a while.

Jessica: It has. I’m so excited to be back and drinking tea with the both of you.

John: Speaking of tea, today’s teas are:

Jessica: I’m enjoying green tea with ginseng.

Rebecca: That sounds good. I have Big Red Sun again.
Bichronous online learning, which you experimented with this past semester. Could you first start by describing what bichronous online learning is?

Jessica: Yes, there was a recent paper, it really put a name to this type of learning. And it is basically a blend of both asynchronous and synchronous online learning. This is where students can participate in anytime, anywhere, and doing that asynchronous part of the course. But then they can also participate in real-time activities in the synchronous sessions. And so this actually can be varied, whether you have a predominantly asynchronous or predominantly synchronous course. So, it allows some flexibility.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how bichronous learning is different from blended, hybrid or hyflex learning that we’ve become so familiar with during COVID-19.

Jessica: There are many terms that are being used for the types of modalities of courses. The blended and hybrid approach, this is where that course in combination has a face-to-face and an asynchronous online delivery. And then that blended synchronous is a combination of face-to-face and synchronous components with online students in the course. And then of course, there’s hyflex, and this is designed as a model where students have options to be online or on-campus. And so this is a little bit different than all of these types, because it’s blending synchronous and asynchronous, but both online. And the neat part about this is that blend could

John: One thing I think people may wonder is, how is this different than a hybrid course where there are some synchronous activities and some asynchronous activities? What’s the difference in the approach that makes it this new category?

Jessica: I think it’s the approach because it’s not and/or it’s kind of this sliding scale of what you’re doing synchronously versus asynchronously. Traditionally hybrid and blended have been face to face, whereas this is focused more online. And maybe we’re splitting hairs creating a new term for it. But I think it does kind of create this new category that we can begin to think about and further explore. Is this model conducive to specific learners? We don’t know. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to begin researching and exploring these differences.

John: And this whole mode of synchronous online is really something that just exploded recently. That’s an area that we really haven’t looked at very much in the past, or most faculty hadn’t really explored very much in the past, that, for many, has become the dominant mode of instruction. So, thinking about it in this way, I think, could be really helpful. What would be an example of a structure that would use that approach,

Jessica: The bichronous approach? Let me tell you a little bit about my courses. Thi semester, I’m teaching a variety of courses in a variety of different levels. And I accidentally stumbled on doing this because it felt right. I really didn’t want my students to be all asynchronous. I wanted to meet them. I wanted them to be able to have time to ask questions, and for us to do some active learning online. And so how I decided to format my course was that students would have asynchronous components to where they would go through some videos, some readings, but once a week, they would come and join a 30-minute class session. During that class session, there’s a short intro talking about what they’re exploring this week. We also discuss a little bit about the assessments and the upcoming assessments, we answer any questions, and then we move right into active learning. And that’s where they get put into breakout rooms, they get to talk to each other, work on problems, think about solutions. We come back together, debrief for a short period of time, and we’re done. The neat part about that is, because my classes tend to be larger, I offer choice in the section in which they come to. So, students can choose to come to one of two sessions that are offered on that day. And those sessions are actually offered within the class time that’s listed in the course schedule. So, let’s say you’re busy, you have to work that day, or something else came up. I also offer an alternative assessment each week. So whether you’re Zoomed out, or you got called into work, you can still earn those participation points. This allows for flexibility and choice for the students.

Rebecca: Can you talk about some of the advantages of bichronous online learning and how that synchronous component complements the asynchronous component for students?

Jessica: I think it’s so nice to be able to get to talk to students, especially in this virtual environment. And sometimes it’s as simple as clarifying what you wrote in text. And so a lot of times when we start off class, there’s minor questions about the upcoming assessment such as, “What did you mean by this part of this assignment?” And I can easily clarify that and give some examples. Also, by whatever questions students are asking, I can kind of tailor our synchronous sessions so that we can talk through some of those challenging concepts. I think it also brings together a community. Students get to talk with other students. They’re all going through the same struggles right now, or similar struggles. And so having that time where they get to go into breakout rooms, talk about a topic, say something about their day, I think it really creates that community that we’re looking for online. And hey, when I go to the breakout rooms and say, ‘Hello,” they almost always have their cameras on for each other, which I think is a pretty cool thing.

Rebecca: I think Jessica, I was mentioning before we started recording that I’m also doing the bichronous online learning, I just didn’t know it had a name. And I’m finding that students really enjoy that synchronous time, and they request more time with each other. That’s the piece of it that they really love, is interacting and formulating community with each other and around the topic of the class.

Jessica: And I think that’s so important, especially as we’re all isolated due to COVID, that they have that time to talk out these assignments or to talk through these problems. And yeah, just as you said, the students always want more time. The 30 minutes doesn’t seem to be enough for them.

John: Did students know in advance when they signed up for the course that they would be synchronous meetings, as well as the asynchronous component.

Jessica: The course was actually listed in the course catalog as recorded and live sessions. And so at the beginning, they were actually pretty happy that they didn’t have to come for an hour and 15 minutes twice a week. Instead, they got to come for a shorter period of time and earn those same points and get that same information.

Rebecca: It’s interesting that my class also was listed that it was a synchronous time slot, it was listed as a hybrid. But it really was more of an online synchronous class with these synchronous components. And because I teach a studio class, the normal contact hours are six hours a week, which I couldn’t imagine us doing. It would be terrible. So we did the same thing. We were always meeting at the beginning of the week. And then I do small group meetings with students at other times during our regular class time during the week, and students have requested more time together, even if it’s just… we call it accountability club, where they’re just working during the class time on class things in a breakout room together, even if they’re not talking to each other.

Jessica: I love that idea. That sounds like a great way to get students to interact even outside of the typical class time.

John: It sounds as if these courses could be set up on a continuum where some of them are primarily synchronous with some asynchronous components. Or they could be primarily asynchronous with some optional or flexible, synchronous components. Is that correct?

Jessica: You know, that’s a great way to look at it. I’ve had a really nice conversation with some of my colleagues who have put so much time and effort into putting their courses online and making them quality, that they’re really kind of sad to see that in the future, hopefully, we’ll get to come back together and be in person, but you really don’t want all that effort and content to go to waste. So thinking about it as providing some extra flexibility might be a nice way to rationalize all that time that we’ve all put into our courses,

John: Like so many other things. It’s not necessarily a binary choice, that there’s a whole continuum on which people can select an option that works best for their specific courses.

Jessica: Yeah, and I think that is really what’s at the core of this model, is that it is really something that can flow one way or another. And I’m even thinking in the future, how can we continue to bolster this or give students more choice when it comes to their learning? We know that the choice is really important. And I think this way of kind of creating courses could be a way of the future.

Rebecca: I’m wondering if the synchronous component is particularly valuable in these online courses for students right now because it does provide that immediacy with one another but also instructor presence. So, we all actually feel like “Hey, there are humans behind the name and things that are in this online environment” …and help us formulate an understanding that we are all a learning community and a classroom community in a way that maybe is more difficult to get your head around in something that’s entirely asynchronous.

Jessica: I think that’s a good point. And I don’t require my students to turn on their cameras when we’re in person, but I do think they get a sense of who I am, and more than they would in just videos. We can have a conversation. And there’s some times I’m asking them to put information in the Zoom chat or reply. But, as I’ve gone through these courses, I’ve noticed more students are willing to unmute and talk out loud, even in these big courses. And that shows me that they’re beginning to be more comfortable not only with their peers, but with me and how I run these courses, which I think is a really good sign that we can create that community, even online.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about the specific courses you’re teaching and the size of the courses as well as a little bit more about the division of your activities between what you do synchronously and what you do in an asynchronous modality?

Jessica: Sure. So I, ironically, teach a course called stress and population health. And this is a very salient topic nowadays, as you can imagine. This is an undergraduate course, and I have 125 students within it. During a typical week, I will have readings posted in our learning management system. I like to do a few videos, and I have the luxury of being able to be in front of a green screen for some of those videos. So, students do get a little bit of who I am and the wacky things I do while I’m giving them some lecture material. Along with that there’s some outside information that I like to pull in, whether it’s current news articles, or whatnot. But they have a substantial portion of what they’re doing that is basically asynchronous. When they come during our synchronous session, we start off with “How are you?” I usually have a wacky sort of “how are you?” question that’s themed around whatever the holidays are. I had them rate their mood based on candy and other silly scales, just to kind of have an icebreaker. And then, as we talk a little bit about the content, we then do some breakout sessions. So, today, we were talking about a new report that came out about stress in America. So, they had to look through this report and begin to talk about how this report relates to community stress and how we would assess the stress levels of what’s happening within various communities using some kind of higher level data versus that individual self assessment. And so they’re really applying the content when we’re together. And my other course I teach is a 88-person course… I know, real small. And this class is on models and methods in public health. And so, again, they have videos and readings to go through. In that course, we actually create an OER textbook, which is a fun activity. But, when we come together, we’re applying the models, they’re working together as a team to fit different problems, almost case studies together, or they’re doing something like a scavenger hunt. I’ve even done something like Kahoot!, which has been a lot of fun and students are now requesting we have more Kahoots! It does work virtually, which is kind of neat, except I can’t give them the prizes that I typically would in class. My last course that I teach is a 40-person course on incarceration and public health. And this class is a little bit different because we have more discussion. So, when we’re together, it is purely discussion based. And students do a really good job at interacting with each other. And so sometimes we stay together, sometimes we break into groups, where my TA is helping to run some of the discussion. But, that one works a little bit differently than my two larger courses, and it’s an upper-level course. So, I feel like we can really get into the meat of the conversation.

John: You mentioned that you do provide multiple times. And a nice thing about the Kahoot! is that, while they may have fun doing it synchronously, there’s also the option of posting it online so students could try it later if they weren’t able to attend one of the synchronous sessions. I’ve been doing that in my classes too, and students have really enjoyed it.

Jessica: Yeah, it’s a great way to fit in the alternative assessment or assignment that, if you miss class and aren’t there to hear some of the explanations on Kahoot!, I end up having students actually look up the correct answers and telling me why, as a way to have a little bit of deeper learning with that game.

Rebecca: How have students responded to the format overall?

Jessica: Oh, they absolutely love it. In kind of a midterm assessment that I put out, I asked about how do you like this model, and they said, “It’s great. I love that I can come in 30 minutes. We’re in, we’re out, we’re done.” But it’s also I think, created more of a connection, I have students reaching out asking for advice on “What do I do? Should I go to grad school? How do I do some of these life skills?” …and that shows me that they are making that connection to me as a faculty member, which is exactly what we want in these courses, especially these larger courses. And students will tell you, “I have courses where I sit through hour lectures, and it’s really hard for me to stay focused,” whereas in this, they’re continually doing something new, and they’re doing it in a short amount of time that has ultimately a high impact, because they’re getting their questions answered, they’re doing some active learning, they’re working together, and they’re getting to form a relationship with their instructor,

John: What are some limitations of bichronous learning, compared to, say, a fully online class?

Jessica: I think it takes some time to think about what activities you want to do live. With a totally asynchronous class, I think some of the alignment with the course objectives and the assessments become a little bit easier, because you have your roadmap, you know that this discussion board is going to align with this objective. Whereas this, it can be a little challenging to figure out: one, how to stay creative. You don’t want every session to be boring or the same sort of thing. Also, from an instructor standpoint, I’m repeating the same class. And in the model, it doesn’t mean that you have to repeat the same class. I do that personally, because I want smaller groups. And so, some days, it’s like Groundhog Day, when I’m doing the same class back to back. But, you know what? The second time, it’s always better. So, [LAUGHTER] it’s a good way to continually improve my teaching, and really reflect on how I’m displaying information or teaching the content.

Rebecca: If a faculty member was interested in incorporating something like this in the spring, what should their next steps be? It sounds like one thing is making sure that there’s some sort of time slot established for the class. But, beyond that, what else should they be thinking about?

Jessica: Yeah, I think the university modality’s important, making sure you’re transparent with your students about what they’ve signed up for. It’s never fun to find out that you signed up for a class and it’s going to be presented in a little bit of a different way. Second, I think it’s really figuring out what works best for you and your content. So, what content is going to be asynchronous? What content is going to be synchronous? And how are you going to establish some sort of rhythm or schedule for your students? And is this going to be… you only come one time once a week and you only have that choice? Or no choice in this case? Or are you going to make it with some choice? Are you going to offer multiple sessions? Are you comfortable with offering an alternative assignment for students? The reason why I came up with the alternative assessment is because I have students who are in different countries in different time zones, along with people in the active duty military, and they’re not always able to make it to the synchronous session. So I wanted to give them an opportunity to make up those points and to make it fair for students who… life happens. And the nice part about it is, it actually reduced my time in working through students’ challenges such as Internet outages. One day, we had a huge outage in Buffalo… well, you know, no problem… join the next day’s session, and you’re good to go, or do the alternative assessment. And so figuring out what your teaching philosophy is around the flexibility and choice, I think is kind of that next step, and then go for it. It’s a lot of fun to really get to meet and talk with your students so that you can explore this new way of teaching and engage your students in a different way.

John: For those students who, because of their work schedules need to take courses in an asynchronous manner, might this modality serve as a deterrent for those students?

Jessica: Most definitely, I think students who sign up for an asynchronous course are expecting an asynchronous course, I think this is just a different way to think about our delivery model, whether that be having the option of that synchronous session, or moving to a bichronous model to where you’re kind of in between the two and allowing some flexibility and some choice for the students. Or maybe it’s just a way for you to try something a little bit different each week, whether it’s one day synchronous, and the next day asynchronous. I think testing out these different models are important as we’re moving through this new online world.

John: We always end by asking what’s next? Which is the question we’re always t hinking about this year?

Jessica: That’s for sure. I’m interested in actually doing some research on students’ perception of this modality of learning. It’s so new that I think we need to begin by understanding what do students think about it and does it affect their overall performance in a course? And, from an instructor standpoint, what is it like at the end? We’re still figuring this all out. There is some research that’s being planned around asking faculty about how they’re rationalizing or thinking about this topic. Rebecca, you and I both are teaching this way. But, I’m sure it looks very different from both of our standpoints. And so I’m really excited to see where this research goes and hoping to be part of it.

John: It’s wonderful talking to you again, and we’re looking forward to having you back on the podcast again, with whatever your next venture is. I should also note, you mentioned that you have been doing this OER project. We have a podcast we recorded with you on your first iteration of that, and we’ll share a link to that in the show notes.

Jessica: Excellent. I’ll also share our newly published paper on some of the results around that.

Rebecca: Excellent. That sounds exciting. Thanks so much for sharing a new way of thinking about the spring. Hopefully it sparks some ideas for faculty as they move into what’s probably going to be another tough semester,

Jessica: That’s for sure. Hang in there, everyone.

[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.

[MUSIC]

161. Relationship-Rich Education

Many students enter our colleges and universities with hopes for a better future, but depart, often with a large burden of debt, before achieving their goals. In this episode, Peter Felton and Leo Lambert join us to discuss the importance of human connections in supporting students on their educational journey.

Peter is the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning, the Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning, and a Professor of History at Elon University. Leo is a Professor of Education and President Emeritus, also at Elon University. Peter and Leo are co-authors of Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College, which was just released in late October of this year. They also were co-authors of The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most.

Show Notes

  • Felten, P., & Lambert, L. M. (2020). Relationship-rich education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Felten, P., Gardner, J. N., Schroeder, C. C., Lambert, L. M., Barefoot, B. O., & Hrabowski, F. A. (2016). The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Rudy’s Lakeside Drive-in
  • Jack, A. A. (2019). The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students. Harvard University Press.
  • Barnett, Elisabeth (2018). Faculty Leadership and Student Persistence – A Story from Oakton Community College. Community College Research Center. May 9.

Transcript

John: Many students enter our colleges and universities with hopes for a better future, but depart, often with a large burden of debt, before achieving their goals. In this episode, we examine the importance of human connections in supporting students on 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.

[MUSIC]

John: Our guests today are Peter Felton and Leo Lambert. Peter is the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning, the Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning, and a Professor of History at Elon University. Leo is a Professor of Education and President Emeritus, also at Elon University. Peter and Leo are co-authors of Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College, which was just released in late October of this year. They also were co-authors of The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most.

John: Welcome

Peter: Thanks, John. Thanks, Rebecca.

Leo: Thank you. Great to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are: …Leo, are you drinking any tea

Leo: I am having a cup of coffee. But, I was explaining to John that what I wish I were drinking was a chocolate milkshake from Rudy’s Drive-In in Oswego, New York, one of my favorite places to go and watch a sunset. People who have never been to Oswego don’t know that Oswego is one of the most beautiful places in the world to see a sunset. And I’ve had the privilege of doing that many times. So, you’re very lucky to be situated where you are.

Rebecca: Definitely. It’s beautiful. And it’s beautiful at this time of year for sure.

Peter: Right on the Great Lake

Rebecca: Just cold,

Leo: Yes.

Rebecca: …especially by Rudy’s Drive-in. [LAUGHTER].

John: But it’s less crowded, which makes it a little bit nicer. It’s been a little less crowded this summer with COVID, from what I understand. I haven’t been there, but they were doing takeout as soon as they could bre-open again.

Rebecca: It was. It was my daughter’s favorite thing to do. How about you, Peter, are you drinking tea?

Peter: I have a big glass of water. But, now I want a chocolate milkshake.

John: And I’m drinking Lady Grey tea today.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s a switch up. I have Big Red Sun, Big Red Sun tea, and a big cup of it.

John: And what is Red Sun Tea?

Rebecca: It is a black tea blend from Harney and Sons.

John: Very good.

Rebecca: I’m switching it up, John.

John: So, we’ve invited you here to talk about your new book, Relationship-Rich Education. Could you tell us a bit about the origin of this project?

Leo: Sure, John, I’m happy to do that. In 2016, Peter and I published another book with three friends, John Gardner and Betsy Barefoot, who have long been involved in the freshman year experience program. John really gave birth to that 40 years ago at the University of South Carolina. And they’re prolific scholars and have written so many great things about undergraduate education, as you know, and also with Charles Schroeder, who’s one of the deans of student affairs in this country. And the book was called The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most. We tried to drill down to what really counts in undergraduate education. And we came up with six things, learning matters, relationships matter, expectations matter, having high expectations of students, alignment matters, bringing all the parts and pieces of the university together in alignment, improvement matters, kind of a spirit or a culture of continuous improvement, and leadership matters. And we had an unusual amount of resonance and commentary on this idea of how important relationships were, in the undergraduate experience… something we’ve known through research for more than four decades. And it inspired us to drill down more deeply and write a book on relationships. And that’s what we have spent the last two years doing.

John: As part of this process, you interviewed 385 students, faculty, and staff at 29 campuses. How did you pull this together? What was the process of finding the subjects of the interviews, and then the focus of the interviews?

Peter: John, we started by surveying a fairly large number of higher ed leaders, administrators, faculty, staff around the country, and also foundations and people like that, asking them, where are their really good things happening in undergraduate education? And from that we built this sort of set of programs and institutions that we thought were particularly interesting, and we wanted a diverse set, because American higher education is about 40% Community College students, that we wanted to make sure we had strong community college representation, a lot of the regional comprehensives, a few small liberal arts, and a little bit of everything. So we identified all of those. And then it turns out, people are nice, and you write to them and say, “We’d like to come to your campus for a couple days and talk to your students and colleagues about their experiences.” They say “yes,” and so, back when you could actually travel, we spent a lot of time traveling, a couple days on each campus, and talking with small groups or individuals, asking them often about stories by starting to say, “Tell us about a relationship that’s mattered a lot in your education or in your teaching or in your work here.” And then using that to sort of spin out into broader conversations about identity and education, in all sorts of different directions. So, it was the most fun research I’ve ever done.

John: And you weave those in In throughout the book to illustrate it. And I think that makes a book much more effective by building on that narrative.

Peter: As we have said, John, we know the research is really clear: that relationships matter. They matter for all sorts of things from learning to belonging to motivation, and they matter even more for first-gen students and students of color. And so we knew that. We knew we didn’t have to prove that. What we thought is the stories would help us all understand what that actually means in lived experience… maybe motivate, challenge, inspire, all of us to do better.

Rebecca: I think stories are such a powerful way to learn anything. It’s the nice hook to get us all interested and reading the stories, I think, brings all this data to life, which is really exciting, and, I think, incredibly helpful for faculty and the wider higher ed community.

Peter: Well, thanks. I agree, I got to say, the stories from students and the conversations with students about what’s mattered in their education. If you’ve never done that, sit down with some students and ask them who has mattered in your education and why and just listen, and you’ll be impressed and inspired about professors they talk about, but also the people who work in coffee shops and the campus cop, and moms and dads and just all sorts of people who do small and large things that really support and challenge students in powerful ways.

Rebecca: In the introduction, you describe the changing composition of the student population and describe some of the challenges that are faced by many first-generation students today. What are some of those challenges that have been rising in significance?

Leo: Well, I think when you think about who the American college student is, in the general public consciousness, they probably think of someone who is 18 to 22 years old, going to school full time on an ivy covered campus, sitting on a lawn somewhere, and having the best four years of their lives, right? But, that is increasingly not who the American college student is at all. First of all, 39% of American college students are at two-year colleges. And increasingly, they are people of color, they are working. They are balancing family responsibilities, taking care of children or aging parents. And increasingly, they’re first-generation and new Americans as well. So, we really tried to focus on institutions and people in this book that represent this, what we call an emerging new American majority college student. So, some of the challenges are that these students obviously don’t benefit, oftentimes, by this multi-generational mentoring that occurs almost by osmosis in a lot of families. And so you go off to college, expecting that you might have an experience in study abroad, or expecting that you might do research with professors that, you know, the Academy… Anthony Jack has written a lot about the privileged poor and this hidden code in the academy that is not hidden. It’s quite obvious for people that know the rules of the road for higher education with families that have had generations of experience with colleges and universities. So, that’s a challenge. And I think we also saw very clearly that many of these students, I think, really feel pressured into careers, into needing to do well by their families. This is an incredible opportunity that I have, but I need to get a job. I need to make money. One of the women that we talked to, a Professor at Rutgers University, Newark, Sadia Abbas, speaks about how many of these students almost need permission to be intellectual. They’re interested in philosophy and art history and English, and are passionate, in many cases want to pursue these subjects. But, oftentimes, I think, feel some pressure from families to pursue a degree in accounting or nursing because, not that there’s anything wrong with accounting or nursing, quite far from it, but simply because the pressure for the career dominates. One of the things that Peter and I wanted to be really clear about is that we also think it’s important to recognize that these students bring a lot of assets and agency to college with them. They don’t often recognize all the agency and all the assets, all that they have, but they have accomplished important things in their lives. I mean, they have raised children, they have held down a job, they have sometimes overcome barrier after barrier after barrier to arrive at the gates of higher education. And so we were so inspired by talking to so many faculty who build those assets and build that agency into their curriculum and into their courses and help their students learn to tap into everything that they’ve accomplished. And to be proud of that and to build on that. Many of these students speak multiple languages, are multicultural. And so I think it’s important that we not think of them as disadvantaged students… they have significant advantages and bring a lot to their institutions and to their courses and to the curriculum, if we can be creative about thinking about ways that we can tap into that, as teachers.

John: Following up on that, one of the things you suggest in your book is that we help students develop a sense of meaning and purpose to move beyond this careerist focus that an increasingly large share of students come in with. Why is that important? And what can we do to help students shift their focus to develop these other goals?

Leo: It’s a great question. And I think one of the things I’m most frustrated about with regard to the higher education enterprise at large these days is how often we talk to our students about college in very transactional terms: the number of credits that you need to get this major, what criteria you have to meet to get into this sorority? What hoops you have to get through? What do I have to do, John or Rebecca, to get a B in your class? Students are too often talked to about higher education in this transactional context. And what Peter and I are passionate about is that all of us need to develop a vocabulary and a mindset to help students think about their experiences from a relational approach. And that includes, especially, addressing these big questions of meaning and purpose. We want students in college to be asking questions about: Who am I? What is my identity? What is my purpose? What talents do I have? And I love this big question that our friend, Randy Bass, at Georgetown, who we reference several times in the book, he asks this question about: Who are you becoming for other people, not just yourself? That’s a big question to put before students, and questions like that are best asked and answered and reconsidered in conversations with people that we care about and that care about us. Our mentors, our friends. That’s one of the most important aspects of college. And, so often, it is given short shrift. Think about this time of year how we’re using advising appointments with students, getting them ready to register for classes next semester. And what are we too often focus on? Not the big questions, but the nitty gritty, the hurdles, the degree requirements, we need to be more mindful of making the shift to the relational, away from the transactional?

Peter: And can I add two things to Leo’s really wise response? One is: this doesn’t have to be super complicated. And it doesn’t have to require us all to become philosophers or counselors in some ways. I mean, there’s simple questions. One of the best questions, or best prompts that we heard in this was someone who says to her students, “Tell me your story.” It’s an open invitation to the student to talk about what’s important to them. We heard a lot of students say the most powerful question they get asked is “How are you?” …with someone really just follows it. And then the second thing that I want to say is that we need to recognize that what we do with students… we help them ask each other good questions, too. So when I’m not sure my students always say the most profound things on their mind when they’re talking to me. But what I’m hoping is sometimes the questions I ask get them talking to their friends to say, “You know, professors kept asking me like, “What’s my story? and I’m trying to figure that out? What is my story?” or “Who am I for other people?” …and so they don’t need to tell me, but we need to help seed these conversations and these questions about meaning and purpose.

Leo: We interviewed a fellow by the name of Steve Grande, who’s a Director of Service Learning at James Madison University in Virginia. And he said something very profound. And that is that every day when he goes into work, he tries to raise his consciousness about how much his words matter to students. And the value of five and 10 minute conversations with students that to him might seem, not all that profound and important, but in the life of an undergraduate student, are enormously important. You know that from your own experience. And it could be a conversation in the hallway or the stairwell or in your office or in a coffee shop, where a student sees a gift that they might have that’s been revealed to them in some new and different ways. They’ve discovered something new about themselves as a result of that conversation. We were speaking earlier, before the podcast began, about all the stress that faculty are under right now. And oh, my goodness, you know, it just seems like we’re just barreling through, trying to pull body and soul together during this COVID crisis. But, all the more important during these times, to raise our consciousness about how even those short periods of time we are spending with students is the mortar that is holding the college experience together for our undergraduates. And I wish we could all adopt Steve’s mantra about raising our consciousness with regard to the importance of this work really matters.

Rebecca: I think those relationships and that power goes both ways. Right now, it’s not just what’s holding the undergraduates together things, what’s holding the faculty together? [LAUGHTER]

Leo: Amen.

Peter: Yeah, definitely, my students are the best part of most of my days.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’ve had some really great conversations with students this semester. I tend to have classes where I get to know students really well, because I teach in a studio setting. But, even more so now, even though I have less interaction, I feel like I know them in a really interesting and profound way, which is really exciting. And as you’re talking about relationships, I’m thinking back to my own experience as a first-generation college student. And the things that I do remember are those relationships, I remember very little about individual classes or facts, or whatever, right? [LAUGHTER] But, I remember certain exchanges that I had with a very limited number of people, but those limited number of people is what made me even think about pursuing a higher degree. I wouldn’t have considered it at all. That’s not something that happened in my family. So, I think it’s really interesting. It’s sounding true to me too, those relationships is what I remember.

Peter: And Rebecca, we heard versions of that, and when we could have told those stories ourselves, too. But we heard that from students all over the country, with all sorts of different backgrounds. And one of the big lessons I’ve taken from this is helping students see the capacities they have within them, that they might not believe, they might not trust, they might not know. And so one of the gifts this book has given me and I’m loving it this semester is just every time I’m talking to my students, I try to say something good that they’re doing. This part of your work was really strong, you have other things you need to work on, but this part was powerful. And just the reminder to point out those capacities and help students see that, you know, this is part of a developmental thing. So often students come to higher ed thinking it’s about grades and performance. And it’s not about learning and growth, right? And so they find something hard and they’re embarrassed by it. It’s like “No, the hard stuff is the good stuff.” Let’s focus there and say, “You don’t know how to do this now. But I bet you will be able to know how to do it, maybe not this fall, maybe next spring, maybe next year. But, let’s get there.”

Rebecca: I really like where the conversation is going in terms of thinking about really practical things that faculty can do to help build these relationships. I know you have a whole chapter on just the classroom and the relationships that we build as faculty. Can we talk a little bit about some of the practices that you discovered in your interviews that really worked and had a big impact on students?

Peter: Yeah, just a couple ideas, to begin. And I want to reinforce Leo’s point from Steve Grande that what we do matters a lot, but that everything doesn’t have to come through us. And everything doesn’t have to be one-on-one because it is not scalable. It is not possible for a faculty member to have a powerful, long-term relationship with every one of their students. So recognizing just two different things. One is how we can say the same thing to all our students at once. One of the great stories we heard was from a writing center tutor at LaGuardia Community College, who said when she was in her first semester of writing course, the professor about halfway through the semester came into the class and said, “You know, this is the time in the semester, where one of my best students always just disappears, and I don’t know what it is, if they feel like they’re getting behind, or they feel like they didn’t do as well as they should have this last time. But I need to say to you, ‘Don’t disappear. Come see me. You can get through this.’” And this student thought the professor was speaking to her and went and talked to the professor, ended up being successful, was a writing center tutor. And she said, “The thing that’s stunned her is how many students came in and said, “This professor said this story, and he was talking right to me.” And so there’s ways where we can speak in general to all of our students to help them feel validated, feel that capacity, feel their struggles are common. And then second thing is how do we help students see each other as allies and assets in this work. And the good news is a lot of what we do with active learning is really constructive in that way. It puts students together solving problems and everything. I found one thing in our research that suggests this, students turn out to be like other humans. And so encouraging them to do things like first, introduce yourself to the people in the small group and say each other’s names, because they’ll spend the whole semester working together on projects and sometimes go “What’s his name again?” …and so, don’t let that happen. But put them into purposeful groups and encourage them to see each other as allies in this work.

Leo: We were reminded constantly in the book that some of the interventions are very simple and very powerful. And the power to institute these practices can be in the hands of departments or small groups of faculty. They don’t have to wait for an initiative from the Provost. Sometimes I think, when Peter and I’ve been invited to speak to entire groups of faculty, and I think the faculty are thinking, “Oh Lord, this is going to result in the Provost wanting to create six new formalized mentoring programs at the institution.” And that’s not what we’re trying to see happen, at all. Quite the contrary. I want to give you an example of something simple and powerful to illustrate what I’m talking about here at Oakton Community College, they have the Faculty Project for Student Persistence. It’s a commitment on the part of faculty to get to know their students as well as they can, given that faculty have very heavy teaching loads. These are not small classes. But, they’re trying to create an institutional culture at open, that is relational, where students are going to feel that there is at least one person on campus that knows who I am, and has shown an interest in me. So, there are four things about the persistence project: faculty that are in it commit to know their students’ names. Secondly, they commit, in the first couple of weeks of class, to have a 15-minute private conversation with a student. Now, that’s time consuming. If you’ve got 30 students in your class, that’s quite a bit of time. They commit some time in the early, maybe, say first three weeks of the course, to give students some graded feedback. And fourthly, they promise to uphold high expectations in the class, not impossibly high expectations, but they want there to be a degree of challenge associated with these courses as well. And they’ve had enormous success with this program. And the institution is trying to arrange things such that every student would have at least one of these classes during their first year, so that one of these faculty members is going to be an anchor person in their lives. We tell the story in a book about a former Marine who was in Professor Holly Graff’s philosophy course. And he was concerned that she was going to stereotype him because he had been a marine in his prior career and that she would think certain things about him. He wanted her to know, for instance, that he was a Bernie Sanders supporter. And in their conversation, she learned that, in all of the independent reading he had been doing in the Marines, he had read more philosophy than anyone else in the class. And he left her office after that brief conversation with an honors contract for the course. I mean, think about how that relationship between that learner and that Professor changed as a result of one 15-minute conversation. He’s known, he’s inspired, the professor’s inspired by this incredible student that she has in her class, and the learning dynamic has changed. Because of a really simple faculty-led, faculty-inspired, faculty-developed program.

John: You encourage the development of these networks. But you note that one barrier to that is the incentive systems that faculty face, that the rewards are not very well aligned to creating these types of networks with these types of interactions, what can be done to alter that?

Peter: That’s the easiest question you’re gonna ask us. So, we wish we had a simple solution. But I think there’s at least two parts that we need to think about individually, and we need to think about collectively. So, one thing is this has to be on the agenda of faculty senates, and Deans and things like this. But what we should be asking is what is getting evaluated. Because, often on many campuses, there’s an immense amount of invisible labor, that faculty and others do too. But, since this is primarily about teaching, let’s talk about faculty… where some of our faculty, often let’s say, faculty of color, LGBTQ faculty, do a lot of mentoring that is identity based, that students come to them in particular, and they carry this heavy load apart and on top of everything else. And if that is invisible labor, but that is keeping students at the institution, that is helping students succeed. Sometimes it’s helping students wrestle with the most important questions in their lives. So, there’s invisible labor, and even if it’s not identity based work, we know, you know, some people teach first year students and have those students come back every semester just to say, “Hi.” There’s all this kind of relational stuff that happens. So, how do we find ways to actually capture what’s happening that matters? And then how do we evaluate this? One of the questions that we’ve heard from a number of faculty is that institutions that are trying to reward faculty for doing, let’s say, good mentoring at institutions. We often know how to reward faculty and recognize faculty who have students who go on to graduate school, right? Students who go present at conferences, we can see that. So, honor students, you know, check. It’s really hard, often, to recognize the mentoring that’s happening that helps someone graduate with a C average, and accept that student’s experience at the institution and their education is as important. Perhaps that mentoring is more important and helping the C student graduate than it was to help that honor student… and I mentor honor students, I love them. But the honor student who always knew she wanted to study history, and is coming and working with me, and look, she’s doing great things. So we need to have evaluation systems that both capture the important work. And let us recognize that success might look different for different people in different roles in this work ,and recognize that there’s not one path forward on success.

Leo: I would think also that there needs to be a formalization and a recognition of what constitutes faculty work. Early in my tenure as president of Elon, we took two years to develop a statement, the entire faculty worked on this, called the faculty-teacher-scholar-mentor model at Elon. And it’s something that’s kind of our guide, we were at a point of institutional change where the professional schools were undergoing accreditations and the role of scholarship was rising, to have the business school be AACSB accredited, and so forth. We’re adding lots of faculty, the faculty was growing and changing. And it was one of these moments where we really had to stop and think… we need to move very carefully here and think about what we value as an institution, and how the model of faculty work at a place like Elon needs to be well defined, so that we’re serving our students. Well, we’re meeting our accreditation requirements, our faculty ambitions. And we were very clear that teaching mattered the most, that this was going to be 50% of what constituted the most important work in promotion and tenure criteria. But we differentiated mentoring from classroom teaching and other aspects of teaching to formalize the roles that faculty spend outside of the classroom in so many important ways: helping our students to develop, advising undergraduate research projects, and supervising internships, and traveling with our students all over the world, and leading experiential learning programs of very high quality. And they’re doing their scholarship on top of that, but I think this requires great intentionality. And without the intentionality, I think the relationships, the mentoring, is never going to get factored into the work. Our buckets are so clear in most promotion and tenure processes at institutions I’ve been in in the past: there’s a teaching bucket, and there’s a scholarship bucket, and there’s a service bucket. Where do relationships and mentoring fit in that model. They really don’t. And so I think we have to be more creative and more intentional about redefining the nature of those buckets, if we really want relationships to matter. And we argue in this book, they really do. So I think these are formal conversations that institutions, faculty, deans, provosts, boards of trustees need to have to fundamentally re-examine the importance of faculty spending time on these kinds of activities and being appropriately rewarded for it.

Rebecca: I think along those same lines, there’s a group of faculty, like part-time faculty, adjunct faculty, who play a really critical role here in relationships and maintaining those relationships that are widely overlooked even more so than maybe tenure-track faculty.

Leo: Oh, my goodness, we talked with the Vice President for Academic Affairs at Patrick Henry Community College and, at a lot of our institutions, a lot of community colleges, especially, you’ll find 50% of the teaching load is shouldered by adjuncts. And they went through a tremendously important process there to re-examine the ways… and again, in their words, this was not rocket science, but it was very intentional… the ways they could support their faculty in achieving greater levels of success with their students. And it was the simplest of things like having spaces for them to meet with students before and after class and perhaps have a cup of coffee, access to a copying machine, and the basics. What the faculty wanted most was information. Full-time faculty had lots of information about all the support services that students could tap into if they were food insecure, or needed clothing, those services were available at the school. But, oftentimes, the adjunct professors were in the dark about where to turn to help their students in this regard. They intentionally paired full-time faculty with adjunct faculty, so that there was a greater dialogue and a sense of cohesion between the two groups of faculty. So much can be done. There’s so many adjunct faculty that Peter and I met as a part of this process, who are so committed to our students and our students’ success. And they’re doing this work with the scantest of support systems behind them. And with a little bit of intentionality and creativity on institutions’ part, we can do a lot more to undergird the student and faculty relationship that exists with adjuncts.

Peter: And just to add one thing to what Leo said, when we talk to students, they told us powerful stories about what adjunct faculty had done to transform their lives. So, students don’t think “Well, I’m just with Professor Felton, who’s an adjunct, so it doesn’t really matter.” This is their professor, this is the person who’s giving them feedback. This is the person who’s inspiring and challenging them. And so we at institutions and we on faculty really need to support our adjunct colleagues, because they are so powerful in students’ educations.

Rebecca: I think along those lines, right now, when students are facing a lot of remote learning still, online learning, online synchronous learning, and having less face-to-face communication in the classroom, those interactions with faculty may be even more important than they were before because they may not be interacting with some of the other folks on campus who may have been important when they were in a physical space. So, what advice do you have during this time to help faculty facilitate some of the relationship building between students, because they’re so isolated right now?

Peter: Yeah, Rebecca, this is really important. This is really hard. We don’t have any simple solutions. One of the places we did visit, though, was Southern New Hampshire University in their online setting. And one of the people we interviewed there said something that just really has resonated with Leo and I, which is, this person said: “My role for these students is to be the human in these courses, that so much is just remote and distant and asynchronous, and there needs to be a human presence in this. And that has to be me.” So, how can we be present for our students? Even if it’s asynchronous, right? How can we check in with them? How can we create opportunities for meaningful formal and informal interaction. So, two small examples for you: one, and you’ve probably seen this with your colleagues. But I’ve been so impressed with some of my colleagues, who are teaching classes in Zoom when they have synchronous moments. And the first few minutes of class, what always happens is when students come in, the professor says, “Hello,” when sends them into small groups with questions that the students have to talk with each other about. These are purposeful questions connected to the work of the class. But, they’re the kinds of questions that are meant to engage conversation. And so students don’t come into class and start by being silent and staring. They start by saying hello to the professor, and then talking with a couple peers. And a second thing is just finding ways to emphasize with our students, that their well being is connected to their learning, and their learning is connected to their well being. And so if they can’t, if they can’t do something right now, if their world is falling apart, we need to be able to be flexible enough and clear enough about what’s most important in this. That doesn’t mean we don’t have standards. It doesn’t mean we don’t challenge our students to work through really difficult things. But recognizing that sometimes your class isn’t the most important thing or the most urgent thing in a student’s life right now. Often they do have challenges they don’t want to talk to us about and just offering a little grace and saying, “Okay, so you can’t get this draft to me today. How’s Monday?”

Leo: One thing I’m hoping that all of us are doing during these very challenging times is, at least in informal ways, being chroniclers of this experience, to have these moments of consciousness about what we are doing, what we are doing well during these times. And I’m of the strong opinion that the world is never going to go back to 2019. Higher Education is never going to go back to 2019. And I think in the early days of the pandemic, we were under this illusion that “Well, things will get back to normal.” We’re not going back to precisely the way things were before. Look at this conversation we’re having here this afternoon and all the ways our teaching has shifted. The ways that I think higher ed is going to think about what constitutes the higher education experience differently, this blending of face-to-face and residential and experiential and online, that could look quite different than the patterns that have always existed. Why do classes have to be 16 weeks long? I think there’s going to be a lot of deconstruction ahead and reconstruction. What I’m hoping is that as we turn our attention to building something newer and better as we emerge from this, that we’ll put relationships at the very center of what we intend to create. That’s, I think, the big challenge before us, that’s what really matters. I think Peter and I both believe that, when students look back on their undergraduate experience, when the two of you, john and Rebecca, look back on your undergraduate experiences, probably what means the most to you are a set of people that helped you become who you are today, professors and peers and advisors, and people that tapped you on the shoulder and helped you discover something about yourself, or gave you confidence that you didn’t know that you had. This is what needs to be prioritized. And I hope that whatever we build will be built around this idea.

John: We always end with the question, what’s next? Which is a very good question at this time.

Peter: So two things I would like to say. One is that, again, the interviews we did, especially with students all over the country, are so inspiring that I’ve just really personally committed to asking these kinds of questions of the students I encounter and asking them about their education and just making that part of my work. And then a second thing Leo and I have been talking about, and we’re eagerly brainstorming about, is it recognizing that students need to be the primary actors in this… creating their own relationship-rich environment, right? Institutions can do a lot, but just like we can’t learn for them, we can’t build webs of relationships for them. We can put them in these environments that are rich, but they need to act. So we’re trying to think about ways that we can create resources and encouragement and support for all students to see themselves as actors in this kind of educational experience. So, whether that’s some sort of book or online resources, or what, we don’t know. But we’re going to partner with some folks, including students around the country, and say: “What can we do to really help students, especially first-gen students who don’t understand the ways and the whyfors of higher ed, come in and not learn by the time they’re seniors that I should have paid attention When my professor said, “Do you want to have a cup of coffee?”

Leo: I would add to that by saying there were times where Peter and I were struck, whether it was students at Brown, or the University of Michigan, or the University of Washington, or LaGuardia Community College, or Nevada State College, we were struck over and over again, about the power of the question: “How are you?” I remember a phone conversation probably in an airport where we were talking back and forth to one another, in our respective places in the country, and having this dialogue about should we call the book: “How are you?” …and then decided that’s probably [LAUGHTER] not a smart idea. But that is such an important question. And students, and especially today, during this COVID crisis, want to be heard. Students want to be heard. They’re not necessarily looking for us to solve all their problems for them, but they want to be seen, and they want to be heard, and they want to be recognized. So I think a part of what’s next for all of us is going back to this very basic idea of not losing sight of this enormous privilege that we have to be on college campuses and to take five or 10 minutes with students to listen generously, after asking the question: “How are you?” It makes all the difference in the world, everywhere. And, in our busyness, and in the craziness of COVID, it’s really easy to forget that. But, some days, it’s the critical question that keeps a student in school, we were struck about how many students acknowledged that at one time or another in their career, again, including at the most prestigious institutions in the country, were one conversation away from leaving school, and “How are you?” …can be the gateway to keeping a student in school and successful, and motivated and inspired… very simple stuff.

Rebecca: Thank you both for such a great conversation and a really powerful book. If you want some positive moments in your life, you can read some of the great stories in this book.[LAUGHTER]

Peter: Our goal was to do justice to the stories people told us, because if we could do that, we knew the book was going to be helpful. And it was going to be powerful, because the stories were just an amazing gift.

Leo: There’s great work going on in higher education in this country. It is rich and deep and powerful and lively. And faculty are working so hard, and students are working so hard. And so much of the Chronicle coverage and the broader media coverage of higher education is so not on point in terms of… you know that… and describing what’s really going on in the halls and corridors and classrooms of our institutions. And we were inspired by how many wonderful, wonderful things are happening all over the country. We have a great system of higher education in this country. It’s something to be proud of. And it’s changing lives every day, and we shouldn’t take our eye off that fact either.

John: Your book does a wonderful job refocusing your attention away from educational technology and back on the things that are most important, the relationships among the participants in the process.

Leo: Thank you

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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.

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160. Inclusive Communication

Communication in academia has hidden and unwritten rules that present barriers for students. In this episode, Kristina Ruiz-Mesa joins us to discuss inclusive communication strategies we can use as teachers and mentors to help students feel like they belong in the academy.

Kristina is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at California State University – Los Angeles. Kristina previously worked in diversity, equity and inclusion research at Villanova University, and as a communication and diversity consultant. Her research on these topics has been published in a variety of academic journals and in book chapters. Her forthcoming textbook Inclusive Public Speaking: Communicating in a Diverse World will be available in late 2020 through Fountainhead Press.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Communication in academia has hidden and unwritten rules that present barriers for students. In this episode, we explore inclusive communication strategies we can use as teachers and mentors to help students feel like they belong in the academy.

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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 Kristina Ruiz-Mesa. She is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at California State University – Los Angeles. Kristina previously worked in diversity, equity and inclusion research at Villanova University, and as a communication and diversity consultant. Her research on these topics has been published in a variety of academic journals and in book chapters. Her forthcoming textbook Inclusive Public Speaking: Communicating in a Diverse World will be available in late 2020 through Fountainhead Press.

John: We can also note that we just saw you recently in ACUE’s webinar on Preparing an Inclusive Online Course, which was released in early October and is available online. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes.

Rebecca: Welcome, Kristina.

John: Welcome, Kristina.

Kristina: Thank you so much for having me.

John: Today’s teas are:…Are you drinking tea, Kristina?

Kristina: I am drinking carbonated water.

Rebecca: …out of a tea cup I might note.

Kristina: I thought it was appropriate. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s a beautiful tea cup.

Kristina: Thank you.

John: That’s close enough. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m drinking Scottish afternoon tea.

John: And I’m drinking a mix of peppermint and spearmint tea.

Kristina: Lovely.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your work on inclusive communication. First, though, could you tell us how you became interested in this area of research?

Kristina: Absolutely. So, the research actually started in my own life, a little more than 30 years ago. And so I grew up in southern New Jersey, in a really diverse town in a Caribbean family. And so my dad’s Cuban, my mom’s Puerto Rican, and lived in this really diverse place. And I went to an inner city Catholic School, where I was one of a few students of color and started noticing differences, differences between how our families communicated, how our teachers communicated with our families. And that sparked an interest in me in saying, “Eell, communication seems to not be one-size-fits-all, we all have different ways of communicating.” And yet, when I was studying communication, and when I was in learning, it was like a one-size-fits-all, like “if you do these communicative practices, you will get the same response.” And that was not the case. I didn’t find that to be the case. And so I wanted to know, how culture, how identities, how intersectional experiences impact the ways that we communicate, the ways that we construct messages, the ways that we analyze our audiences, and think about ways that we can train students to most effectively communicate. So, how they can most effectively communicate in different audiences in different places to achieve their personal and professional goals.

Rebecca: Colleges and Universities have become increasingly diverse, and the composition of faculty, though, not so much so… What sort of challenges does this present for communication between faculty and students?

Kristina: I think this is such an important issue, and one that we are feeling as faculty as well, as in “How can we best serve the needs of all of our students, and recognizing that representation matters in the classroom, and that communication matters in the classroom?” And so when I think about how do we address mentoring? how do we address teaching? And how do we address the practices that we are using in the classroom? What do our materials look like? And so we can’t change our racial identities, we can’t change who our students are, and we wouldn’t want to, right? And so how can we make sure that we are teaching all of the students and so one of the things that I always stress is your course materials. Regardless of subject, you have examples, and you have data sets that you use or readings that you’re using. And so, how are you incorporating more voices, more experiences more identities into the course. And so that can be a way to really show your students’ representation. If you feel like you are not representing all of the identities of your students, which none of us are, no matter what our identities are, we can never fully represent all of our students. So how can we bring in this idea of polyvocality? Lots of different voices, lots of different experiences. And sometimes that means thinking about the datasets that you’re using. Are they representative? Who are they speaking about? Who are they speaking to? Who are the scholars that we’re bringing into conversations? And so I think these are all ways that we can help address diversity, equity, and inclusion in the classroom, and make sure that our students see themselves in the course and see themselves in the materials. And obviously, yes, increasing faculty diversity, staff diversity, making sure that our students feel their experiences and their identities are a part of academia and a part of their institutions. Absolutely. And, there are things that we can do immediately in each of our classrooms to make sure that we are making our classrooms as inclusive as possible.

Rebecca: I like how you’re emphasizing our role or our ability to curate, and not just kind of be everything to everybody, but we can curate experiences that include many points of view.

Kristina: I love that you said curate. So, I always, when I teach my graduate students, I say we have like the coolest museum in the world, right? We get to pick all of these scholars and authors and examples and bring them together into one exhibit, whether that exhibit’s in a face-to-face classroom, in a virtual classroom space, we get to showcase different voices experiences, theories, and applications.

John: That can enrich the conversation by bringing in a diversity of examples and leveraging that diversity in the classroom to provide a richer learning experience.

Kristina: Absolutely. My mantra for teaching and thinking about teaching and what my course materials are, we always start by planning backwards. What do we want our students to know at the end of this course? What do we want them to remember? And I always think about how can I challenge the canon? So the canon that we all learned in graduate school, that we have been reading for decades, some for centuries this material has been going on. How do we challenge and think about ways to expand that knowledge, ways that we can incorporate new voices? And I think that that’s so important.

Rebecca: One of the things that I found really wonderful, and I feel like it’s actually happening more right now because we’re trying extra hard to include students in conversations and make them feel included in a virtual environment to allow them to co-curate with us and to pick sources and to share materials. And my reading list got really long this semester… [LAUGHTER] … ‘cause based on all the things that students have brought to the table, podcasts that they’ve introduced me to, videos that they’ve introduced me to, I have a long list of homework to do.

Kristina: Absolutely. And I love that right. I love that idea of “Okay, we’re co-learners here.” And there’s such a reach. And Rebecca, I love that you say that with podcasts. And my students have introduced me to so many artists and performers and theorists that I was like, “Okay, yes.” And they’re seeing it in social media. They’re seeing up and coming scholars whose work perhaps hasn’t come out and those big journals yet, but that they are releasing blogs, they’re doing podcasts, and I love the perspectives and identities and experiences and new knowledge that’s being incorporated through these venues and avenues.

John: Let’s go back to the mismatch between the diversity of the faculty and the more diverse student body that we’re finally getting in most colleges and universities, now. What’s the impact of that, say, on persistence rates for first-gen students and students from underrepresented groups?

Kristina: Absolutely. So, the research has consistently shown us that mentoring and inclusive pedagogical practices matter. I teach in East Los Angeles. And so, as a Latina scholar teaching a predominately Latino student population, as the only tenured or tenure-track faculty who is Latino, who is Spanish speaking, who can connect with families at graduation and at different ceremonies, I find that I have a very easy time connecting with my students and their experiences, even though our families are from different Latin American countries. I grew up on the East Coast, not the West Coast, I’m Caribbean. And so like all of these differences are still under this umbrella of, I think about, like, cultural norms. And I think about cultural values. And one of them that I stress in my teaching is this idea of familismo, this cultural commitment to family and the family role. And I think about how that influences student persistence. And we’re seeing it very clearly now on our campus. So, my role at Cal State LA is that I’m an associate professor, but I’m also the Director of Oral Communication in Communication, which means we have 4000 students taking a standardized general education oral communication course. And so my instructors see 4000 incoming freshmen every year, and we are hearing consistently this semester that workloads combined with having your classroom now be your living space with your families, how do we negotiate and how do we navigate these spaces? And that is absolutely going to impact persistence and graduation rates. And so I think, for faculty, understanding not only how your students are coming in, what knowledge they are coming in with, but understanding the cultural context in which they’re living, and how that may be impacting the learning experience, the needs of the students in terms of… I always think about applied skills, I teach communication, and so when I came into Cal State, LA, one of the first things I did was say, “How can we get an interview assignment into oral communication?” It’s not part of the general education requirements of the state. And so I went to the chancellor’s office, and I said, here’s my pitch. 80% of our students are first gen. We know that interviewing skills, so much of it is based on these unwritten rules and laws that you learn kind of through family, through friends. But, if you’re your first person in your family who’s gone to college, you might not get those experiences kind of organically. And so we needed to embed it into the general education requirement so that all students benefit from it. And again, the universal design we’re talking about, no one’s going to be disadvantaged from learning interviewing skills and practicing interviewing. And so, I think, thinking about persistence in really applied ways and material realities matter. How are we going to get students to get those internships to get those jobs? And so thinking about how our skills can be taught in a way that is problem posing, and that can be applied to students lives as soon as possible.

Rebecca: What I like about what you’re talking about in terms of the oral communication piece is that it’s such a big part of being professional in every discipline, but we often teach public speaking classes as if it’s a very separate activity. [LAUGHTER] Like, I want to stand up and give speeches. I don’t stand up and give speeches, and most people don’t, the kind of communication you do is different. So, putting it in context like that, and providing a clear application of how those skills can be used somewhere, I think is really helpful, especially for students that don’t have that kind of context to build from.

Kristina: I totally agree.

John: And you mentioned some of the challenges associated with students interacting with families in their homes. One of the issues that faculty keep raising is “Our students won’t turn on their cameras.” And we address that regularly with faculty. But, it’s an issue where faculty are used to seeing faces on the screen. And they’re really upset when people choose not to. How do you respond to that?

Kristina: This is something that I have been hearing in my circles as well. And well meaning faculty are frustrated, because we know that a large percentage of our communication is nonverbal. So, if we are missing those nonverbal cues of understanding, of confusion, it is limiting our ability to be able to connect with our students that way. I get that. And the hard truth is that it’s not about us. And so that’s one of those tough kind of answers. Because, right now, it’s about our students and their success, and whatever we need to do whatever practices that we need to kind of adapt to, it’s about them and about their learning. And so one of the things that I have done is incorporate more of the thumbs up, thumbs down, type in the chat. So you can do a popcorn response by giving an emoji. So offering students various ways of interacting, I think is huge. Also, normalizing the ways that we communicate. So, for a speech, for example, we do want to see them in terms of their nonverbals, we want to see your gesturing, we want to see the ways that you’re connecting. And so we normalized giving speeches in bathtubs, giving them from parking lots, giving them in cars, doing our own mini lectures from like, on the floor in the bathroom, because if we’re doing it, then you can do it. And so kind of modeling, that it’s okay, and that we don’t all have these perfect offices that look like they came off of HGTV, and that there might be a dog barking in the background or someone crying. And that’s okay, this is a global pandemic, there are more important things than whether you can hear a baby crying, or a dog barking, or someone in the background. And so I think also being realistic about our expectations, and as empathetic as we can. And one of the things that I often think about is that many of us teaching at the college level, we’re in the top 5%, top 2% of higher education attainment, how we learned and our experiences and how we are now… We have to remember. We have to remember, what was it like to be an undergrad? And for many of us, that meant “Where are we studying? How could we study, if you don’t have the privilege of going to a library right now or a quiet space?” …then being empathetic enough to know that you don’t understand all of the experiences and lives of your students and give them the benefit of the doubt. that they are trying their best. and they’re doing the best we can… all of us.

John: One of the things I asked my students was to share some of their challenges in a low-stakes discussion forum. And I’ve been amazed at how many students talk about just how difficult it is to find time that’s quiet. They may have a spouse or a partner who’s playing live video games, or more typically, they may have small children or they may have siblings in the rooms or in the dwellings with them. And that makes it very challenging where some of them are saying “I wake up at six in the morning, just so I can find some quiet time in order to do my work.” Or, “I have to wait until everyone’s asleep after midnight or at one in the morning.” And it’s something I think we do need to be a little more cognizant of… even just asking them what sort of challenges they face, perhaps, can help faculty adjust to this somewhat challenging environment we’re all in.

Rebecca: Are you sure those are students talking? Because I feel like you just describe what I’m doing. [LAUGHTER]

John: Faculty have had very similar challenges since last March.

Rebecca: I do think, actually, the struggles that faculty are having with family and things being in the same space as them has actually really, really helped start to connect to some of the real challenges that students face regularly, and not just during a pandemic.

Kristina: Absolutely. And then we compound that with housing insecurity, food insecurity, and the things that our students are experiencing. Just every time my students come into my class, I thank them. That’s the first thing I do. Thank you all so much for being here. I’m excited to have our conversation. And I think that goes a long way. And at the end of every class, acknowledging that, and say, “I know that you’ve got a lot going on, and I am really proud of you.” And I think that that transparency of saying, “This is why I need you to do this assignment. This is why I gave you three readings instead of two.” And I think really explaining the “why” is going even further than it has in the past. And so thinking about the ways that we can make our assignments and our assessments as practical and applied as possible… really helpful right now… as well as checking in with students. I’ve been doing the first kind of 10 minutes of class checking in. Now, I know that’s not possible for all classes, and for all students and for every class, but when it is and when we can or a discussion post, tell me the best thing that’s going on in your week. Just connecting, and having this connection in the classroom, I think, is really important now for maintaining not only community and engagement, but also persistence.

John: Ggiven the challenges you’ve mentioned with communications between faculty and students, one of the issues that may come up is microaggressions. And I know you’ve done some research on that. Could you tell us a little bit about your research on microaggressions in the classroom?

Kristina: Sure. I did a study on microaggressions at a predominantly white institution of higher education and looking at racial microaggressions that students of color were experiencing on campus. And so, just as a quick recap, Wing Sue defines microaggressions as kind of brief commonplace verbal behavior, or environmental indignities. And they can be intentional or unintentional, and they communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults. But microaggressions can be about sexuality, about social class, about gender. So, they can be across identities. And my research showed that African-American males and Latino males experienced microaggressions at the highest rates of any students. And the experiences oftentimes lead to what we’d call student misbehaviors in the classroom. If students are feeling disrespected by an instructor or by other peers, there was a few paths they would take. One is they would act out in the class. So, they might say things, they might be seemingly disrespectful about the material about the course. They would drop out, and you would never hear from them again. You wouldn’t know why they weren’t engaging the class, they were just gone. And we also saw psychological stressors. So, higher instances of isolation feelings, that they didn’t belong on campus. And again, this was a predominately white institution, and so students of color have these feelings of belonging, questioning of belonging. And so when they experienced microaggressions, these feelings were exacerbated, and they increased experiences of anxiety, depression and social isolation. What my research found was that, if we could inoculate against microaggressions by offering micro-practices and services on campus, that was where we were able to support students in building academic habits that would help support their success. And so this inoculation came in the form of having Diversity, Equity and Inclusion centers, having counseling resources, having safe spaces and inclusive and brave spaces where students could share their experiences. So that it wasn’t just one person saying,”It must be me. It’s something I’m doing.” But, recognizing that these were structural and systemic, and these were problems that were permeating throughout the campus. And so that was something that we found in the research was that primarily African-American males and Latino males were experiencing this more often on campus, and that the ways to minimize the academic impact was to offer services early and often, having male mentoring groups on campus was helpful and having spaces where students could share their counter-narratives and counter-experiences on campus. All were beneficial.

John: And that’s a useful form of remediation, but what can be done, perhaps, in the classroom to address those as they occur?

Kristina: Absolutely, that is my number one piece of advice for faculty is when you see something, when your, like, hairs on the back of your neck are standing up, you’re like, “Oh, this isn’t good,” you need to say something. And that is something that is scary. And for many of us, particularly folks who are not tenured, who are contingent faculty who are hired by the quarter or semester, that can be really scary, because we know that student evaluations matter. Having grievances can affect your job. And so that, and I’m in a privileged position, I’m a tenured state university professor. So I recognize that. And I think that it’s important that if we are going to have inclusive conversations, inclusive learning environments, we have to intervene. Now, knowing how to intervene takes practice, and knowing that you’re not going to get it right every time is humbling, and knowing that we’re always learning and that’s one of the things that I always stress to faculty is that we are literally trained for this we are trained to learn. That is our job, our job is to learn as much as we can, figure out new, innovative, cool ways to apply it, explain it, expand it, that’s the gig. And so this is another area of knowledge that we need to learn, that we need to just say, “Okay, I needed to learn a new computer system, I needed to learn how to teach online, I need to learn what my students are experiencing, so that I can be a better teacher. So that I can learn what has already worked, what practices are embedded.” And so one of the things that I’ve done in the last few years, and that I found to be helpful is to write down what are the specific practices? …not just saying “You need to be an inclusive educator.” Cool. What does that mean? And what does that look like in my classroom. And so, one of my most cited articles is this quick, best practices piece that I can share the link with. It’s a free download. And it’s 10 Best Practices for Facilitating Difficult Dialogues. And it’s tips, for example, like we disagree with ideas, not people. So we focus on the idea not the person, the other is maintaining immediacy, so making sure that we’re talking at the end of class, you don’t leave conversations undone or unsaid. So keeping track of time and recognizing that you might need two or three minutes at the end of class to do relationship repair, to do community check-ins, to do that repair… really important. Also making sure our language is inclusive. So, thinking about the ways that we, from day one, are establishing inclusive language. Are we getting rid of kind of gender binaries and making assumptions about student genders? Are we asking students: “What is your name?” I never read out of rosters. I always have students introduce themselves. Tell me your name. Share your pronouns with me, and modeling that for students. I also include a pronunciation guide because much like we want our students’ names to be honored, we want our names to be honored and said correctly. So, offering tools and resources and normalizing this in communication, whether you’re teaching comm, psychology, math, chemistry, normalizing that this is how effective communication works. And I think that’s really helpful in the classroom. And of course, setting the ground rules, setting the tone, the things that we know as faculty that we ought to do. But those are some of the big ones. And also, the “oops,” and the “ouch” rule is something that we use a lot and saying that, again, in a single 50 minute, hour and 15 minute class, I’m going to say thousands of words. The chances that one or two of them are wrong, or came out too quickly. Or I didn’t mean to say that? Likely. So, recognizing and having the humility to say, “Okay, if I’m going to say an oops, that was my bad. Let’s start over. Let’s take that again.” And, recognizing that if I miss something, having a mechanism in place with the “Ouch,” to say “That was hurtful, I didn’t appreciate that. Can we talk about that for a second?” And pausing and saying, “I’m sorry. How was that hurtful? I’m sorry.” And acknowledging the moment. And I think these are practical things that can feel super awkward if we don’t establish them on day one. But, if it’s just how things are, the beauty of being a college professor, is that every 10 weeks, 16 weeks, quarter semester, we get to start over. And so, re-establish the norms, re-establish how we communicate and how we want to communicate for an inclusive environment.

Rebecca: If you think of it that way, we get so many do overs.

Kristina: Exactly.

John: Eventually, we’ll get things right. I’m still waiting.

Rebecca: That’s empowering. Yeah, I really love the idea of the oops, and the ouch, and really establishing the idea and reminding ourselves that we’re learners too. And we make mistakes, and it does take practice. But just like we want our students to take that first try, we have to do it too. Boy, we should listen to ourselves sometimes,

Kristina: Right, once in a while. [LAUGHTER]

John: Would you recommend that, perhaps, when you have those rules, you give students some say in discussing them and establishing the ground rules?

Kristina: Absolutely. I usually have a few rules that I propose. And then I ask students to add to them, and we do a Google Doc in class, and they can add them in real time. And then I also say from now until next week, review them. If something doesn’t feel right, if you want further explanation, let’s write it out, and let’s talk about it and see how we can come to this together.

Rebecca: One of the things that I really recognize teaching more online than in person is how much more time there really should be to do some of those things at the beginning of the semester, in any semester. But I took the time this semester, and it was really helpful.

Kristina: Love that, that is one of the benefits of teaching online is that I feel like if I miss something, I can make a video, there’s time to kind of fix it. Whereas in face to face, I can send an email, but it’s not the same. Whereas, if everything is built into my learning management system, it’s another opportunity.

Rebecca: So, we talked a little bit about privilege, and how that might impact the kind of experiences you have access to. And one thing that I think we don’t always consider is how our own race, gender, social status and ability status, impact our own social norms. And we don’t necessarily recognize them as being social norms, or that somehow we learned these behaviors, what are some things that we could think about as faculty to better understand what those practices are? And to undo some of them maybe, or at least recognize that there are norms and invite students in to understand that?

Kristina: One of the kind of keys for me is when I hear the word “ought,” like “it ought to be this way,” or “it ought to be…” and I’m like, “Hmm, says who? A really important part of being a good teacher is recognizing that we cannot be all things to all people, and that we have to be critically self reflexive. I read a lot of Bell Hooks work and think about the ways that Hooks asks us to be kind of these self-actualized beings. How do we model the vulnerability and the space? And again, I recognize, I teach communication, I’m humanities professor, I have kind of more flexibility than my spouse who teaches chemistry. And so this idea that it’s going to look different in different classrooms. Absolutely. And, thinking about the ways that we come up with examples, I think, is a way that reflects our own identities. And so one of the ways that I think about that is psychological noise. And so, am I giving an example that is helping students move along in their understanding of a concept? Or have I just put up a giant roadblock because I used an example that’s not clear. And now they’re thinking about the example and they’ve forgotten the concept. So recognizing which examples are from a privileged experience… If you’re giving an example in your like, “So, let’s say you’re in Paris eating a croissant,” and you’re like, “Cool, I saw Emily in Paris, does that count? That was a good show.” And now they’re starting to think about a tangent, that they forgot what you’re teaching. And so, thinking about the ways that our examples can demonstrate our own privileges, and recognizing that talking about more privileged experiences, like, I was thinking about this the other day, when students were talking about having to go to the grocery store, and I was thinking about how many people in my circle were like “Groceries have been delivered since March” and the privilege that that reflects about saying, “Oh, no, I’ve been perfect. I have not had to leave my house.” That’s a privilege. And recognizing that we have paid positions, we still have jobs. And so recognizing that how our examples are privileged, I think, is really important for all of us. And I find the longer that I’m teaching, the more I have to kind of check myself, the more I have to say, “Is this a universal or pretty broad experience? Is this the example resonating?” Is this, as my students would say, “Is that just really boojie?” Like, is this just a really privileged expensive thing, and I’m like, “You caught me.” And I think being humble enough to recognize what our own racial financial gendered positions are, and how our experiences may be tied to those identities and experiences and how that may differ from our students. So, I think that’s something. Examples are one way that I think are really something we can all work on. The other is the ways that we make assumptions about what students ought to know. I’m big on saying that we don’t have underprepared students, we have underprepared teachers, because our students are who our students are on day one. And that’s where we teach them from. What they know is what we know and we’ll build. And I’m very big on understanding that it is my obligation in these 16 weeks to teach them as much as I can. But I have to start where they are. And that’s my job. And if it means that I have to go back in week one, and stay up till midnight, redoing my course schedule, so be it. That’s my job, to make sure that my students are learning and recognizing that where I think they ought to be doesn’t matter. It’s where they are that matters. And that’s our starting place.

Rebecca: So, the way we prevent too much workload at the beginning is we just don’t plan the like last five weeks of the semester, so that if you need to add stuff in the beginning, you can just shift everything.

Kristina: Well, I have my syllabus, and it has the first five weeks, and I always say tentative at the top, and I say this is going to serve the needs of our students and we’ll adjust. And, I think, Rebecca, you hit the nail on the head. Yes, being flexible and adapting and saying, “If we need to take two weeks on this, but you learn it, that’s more important to me than just kind of checking off my boxes, like, Oh, good, we’re in week eight now or week nine.” Absolutely.

Rebecca: I had a conversation with my students this week about projects that they were working on, and they were getting frustrated because they weren’t being as productive as maybe they would be in a non-pandemic situation. Imagine that.

Kristina: Right?

Rebecca: And so they’re like, “But I don’t know how I’m gonna get it done.” It’s like, well, because you’re being unreasonable. Let’s take that back a couple notches, the thing you’re talking about, that’s your next revision. That’s next time. That’s not this time. And I think having those conversations with students about kind of a reality check of what’s even reasonable right now is helpful, because there are these norms of what maybe a normal semester is like, that’s just unrealistic. And maybe it’s unrealistic all the time.

Kristina: Absolutely. And I think for ourselves, too, as faculty, I mean, I have found myself, I don’t know about you all, but I’m working seven days a week. And I’m like, this is not healthy. This is not sustainable. And I’m telling my students, and I’m really open with them. I teach mostly graduate students, but I’m really open with them saying, “Please do as I say, not as I do, because I’m still learning, and I’m still a work in progress, and I’m still trying.” But, I don’t want them to fall into the same patterns that I’m falling into where it’s midnight, and we’re still working. And it’s all the time. And I think that that leads to burnout. And. I know I have been meeting with many more students than in a typical semester. And it’s more one-on-one meetings. And I appreciate that, and I value our time together. And I also am recognizing that I’m making appointments, like from seven, eight in the morning, all the way until late at night. And so our days are kind of blending. And I think that that’s really stressful. And my colleagues who have young children, I feel for them, because they are just working nonstop. And I think we have to be kind to ourselves, we have to show ourselves and our students and our colleagues grace. And to say, Rebecca, I think as you say, this is a pandemic world. So let’s all chill with our expectations, here. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: And I think along those lines, emphasizing still how much learning is actually happening.

Kristina: Yes.

Rebecca: …because, what I’ve discovered, is not that students are learning any less. They might be producing less work, but the quality is actually quite good.

Kristina: Absolutely.

Rebecca: And they’re demonstrating that they’re meeting the learning objectives. It’s just maybe there’s some things there that didn’t need to be there.

Kristina: And I don’t know if you all are seeing this, but I’m finding there’s like a decentering of faculty because I’m not lecturing for three hours in a graduate class. I’m, again, curating materials, making mini-lectures, and then using our time together when we have synchronous time, for discussion. And so I’m finding it to be really enriching. Our conversations are great. The chat… students who I have not heard from in previous semesters are now super engaged and participating because they feel more comfortable. Perhaps there’s communication apprehension, and they didn’t want to speak up in front of everyone, but they can chat and they can type in the chat, and that is another avenue. So, I think we’re also seeing opportunities for further engagement and students really taking on the ownership of saying, “I need to do the reading, because I’m not going to get a three-hour lecture, and so I can’t depend on that. I have to depend on myself.” And I think we’re going to see on the other end of this, perhaps, stronger practices of self efficacy and engagement.

Rebecca: I had a whole class of people who read their stuff today. It was amazing.

Kristina: Amazing. [LAUGHTER] Love that. Love it.

John: I haven’t quite gotten there with everyone. But I have somewhat larger classes, too. But yeah, some of the things that we’ve been doing in terms of having people have the chat capability as a backchannel has been really enriching. And I’m hoping that that becomes more widely adopted later. And also, the move to online discussion forums also gives more students a voice than would occur with synchronous communications, because there’s always some people who want to think and process things a little bit more before they jump out there and say something. And I think in that way, at least, we’ve moved to somewhat more inclusive environments. In many ways we haven’t, but at least that’s one area that I think can be useful moving forward.

Kristina: Absolutely. And I think that, John, exactly to your point, I think that we are creating some more opportunities for engagement. And I see the big barrier is getting folks in the classes and making sure they have the WiFi making sure they have a device. I think that’s the big challenge at the beginning of the semester. And so thinking about planning for next semester, for many of us who already know that we are going to stay remote, is thinking about how those first two weeks can be really flexible, because it might take students a while to get access after the holidays and after the New Year. Depending what happens with the election and different things that are happening, they might need a little bit more time to get their financial aid checks. And so thinking about how those first few weeks can be caught u, I think is gonna be really important for the spring

Rebecca: I think that’s a nice lead into how we normally wrap up, which is: What’s next? {LAUGHTER]

Kristina: Who knows? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s it, that’s all there is.

Kristina: Who knows? What’s interesting to me is when I think about the possibilities for higher education, I think this is really exciting. So, when I think about the different, you know, 1636 and Harvard’s founding, we have seen really slow change in higher education. And all of the slow change was laughed at in March when they’re like: “Guess what? We are going from moving the battleship to like a jet ski right now. We are going fast, and we are hoping for the best.” And so I think we’re gonna see some rapid and lasting changes in US higher education that would have taken decades had there not been a pandemic. And so my hope is that we are going to increase hybrid offerings, we’re going to increase our capabilities of serving more students by offering more online options. And my hope is that institutions will respond by creating tenured and tenure-track lines or online, totally online, programs and teachings. And we’ve got more than 3000 institutions of higher education in this country, that we can really create more access and engagement and higher education achievement in this country. That’s my hope for what’s next.

Rebecca: I think ending on a hopeful note is a good thing. [LAUGHTER] It’s a time when we need a lot of hope.

John: Certainly.

Kristina: Absolutely.

Rebecca: Thank you so much, Kristina. You’ve given us lots to think about and actions to actually take.

Kristina: Thank you. Thanks for the opportunity. This was super fun. I enjoyed it very much. I enjoyed our conversation

John: We have too and we hope we’ll be talking to you again in the future.

Kristina: Anytime. Thank you.

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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.

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159. Nurturing a Growth Mindset

Emotions and past experiences can lead us to develop fixed mindsets in particular aspects of our lives and learning. In this episode, Kelly Theisen joins us to discuss ways to help foster growth mindsets within a course from the beginning to the end of the semester. Kelly is an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.

Show Notes

  • Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
  • Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Institutional Impediments to Effective Training”. Learning, remembering, believing: Enhancing human performance.
  • Bjork, R.A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe & A. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing (pp. 185-205). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Yue, C. L., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2013). Reducing verbal redundancy in multimedia learning: An undesired desirable difficulty?. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), 266.

Transcript

John: Emotions and past experiences can lead us to develop fixed mindsets in particular aspects of our lives and learning. In this episode, we discuss ways to help foster growth mindsets within a course from the beginning to the end of the semester.

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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. Kelly Theisen. Kelly is an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. Welcome, Kelly

Kelly: Thanks for having me.

John: Our teas today are:

Kelly: I have Earl Grey today.

Rebecca: And John, get this. I have a different kind, Gingersnap tea.

Kelly: Oh, that sounds good.

John: Where did you get that?

Rebecca: It’s a Tea Forte, you’d be happy to know.

John: Oh, I haven’t seen that one.

I have a summer berry green tea that I picked up in Epcot last year. My supply is dwindling, though.

Rebecca: I know, and you’re very disappointed you’re not going to be there this fall.

John: I know. I had planned to, but I will be online at that conference.

We’ve invited you here, Kelly, to talk about how you’ve been working to help students reframe their academic anxiety by helping them to cultivate a growth mindset. Before we discuss how you’ve been doing that, could you tell us a little bit about the courses that you teach?

Kelly: Yeah, sure. So I teach primarily my general biochemistry course for non major students, and I teach that every semester. And then in the spring, I also teach physical biochemistry, which is a much smaller class for biochemistry majors only.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about why it’s important that students develop a growth mindset?

Kelly: Yeah, so I think it’s especially important for my 371, the general biochem students to have the growth mindset, because they usually come into my class terrified, absolutely terrified of biochemistry, they’ve heard it’s like the worst class ever. And they think it has math, and they’re just so scared. So, I think that it’s important for them to have the growth mindset so that they feel like they can actually succeed in the class, which a lot of them again, they come in not thinking that they can. So, developing a growth mindset, reminding them that it’s hard, like the class is not gonna be easy, but that they can do it, they can get better with trying, is really key for helping them to keep going if they start to struggle. What I don’t want is for them to get to the first set of content that’s difficult, and then just give up. I want them to keep working at it, because I know that practice is going to make it better for them. For me, that’s why it’s so important, it’s because I want all of my students to be able to succeed, not just the ones who are already super motivated, and everything. I want everybody to get through the class and do well.

John: Why do you think so many people come into our classes with this fixed mindset?

Kelly: So, it can have lots of different origins. And I think some are internal and some are external. So, for example, a student could have somebody in a previous class, any previous STEM class who has told them, you’re not good at STEM, or you’re bad at math, or things like that. And so all it takes is maybe one teacher in school, a professor, when they get to college, who tells them that,for them to decide that this is just not for me, and I just have to take these classes for my major, but I’m just going to get through them because I’m not going to be good at it. And so that’s one way they can develop a fixed mindset about it. Also, it’s possible to have a fixed mindset in one area of your life and not in others. So student athletes is where I think of the most for this, where they have a growth mindset in terms of their athletics. They know that going to practice, working on whatever technique it is, is going to help them improve and do better during the game. But, they don’t always think to apply that to their academics as well. And so they might say, “I did badly on this test. That’s it, I’m done. There’s no point in me trying any more in this class.” Things like that can lead to the fixed mindset in classes, even if they don’t have one in other areas. So, it can be like I said, internal from them, or external with other people telling them, “You’re bad at this,” or whatever. And that happened to me actually a lot growing up, and in my career. Lots of people told me it shouldn’t or couldn’t be in chemistry, lots of very stupid reasons for that. But still, it happened enough that if I hadn’t had a growth mindset myself, and knowing that just because this person tells me I’m bad at something doesn’t mean I really am. Or just because I had to ask for help doesn’t mean I will never get this or that I’m bad at it, then I don’t think I would be here having this conversation with you, frankly.

Rebecca: Sometimes I find that the students that you might least expect to have a fixed mindset do, they might be the students that you think of as good students who have done well or have succeed[ed] previously in other classes they’ve had with you or in the discipline, but they come across a hurdle, maybe for the first time, and they just don’t know what to do, because things have come easy for them, or they haven’t had to work so hard.

Kelly: Right? Or they got by on just memorizing in high school, and then they get to college, and it doesn’t work anymore. And so then they can say, “This is just not working. I’m just going to give up. And I don’t know what else to do besides memorize, and if that’s not cutting it, then what am I doing here?” So, yeah, definitely. And biochemistry is a difficult class, and so not everybody is going to get 100% on every exam. [LAUGHTER] And so that can be challenging for some students, where they really want that hundred percent.

Rebecca: Yeah, and especially in the sciences, or any place where you need to explore or experiment, taking a risk can be really challenging if you have a fixed mindset.

Kelly: Yeah, exactly. And I want the students to think critically about what they’re learning. I don’t want them to just memorize the information and then spit it back out on the test. That’s not what science is really about. It’s about exploring and trying to figure out why things work the way that they do. And so, that risk taking, I usually make them do that every day in class. We do active learning, and they have to say, “Here, try to answer this problem before I’ve explained it to you. And so you’re gonna get it wrong, it’s fine.” And so that process, again, it’s sort of encouraging the growth mindset, but it’s difficult for them at first. They want to know the right answer ahead of time a lot of the time. So, you have to remind them and reassure them: “It’s okay, I’m not gonna grade you badly if you get it wrong. You’re just supposed to try and do the best you can.”

John: While anyone can have a fixed mindset coming into your class, some of students who expect to do well, some others based on their prior experience who might not expect to do very well. But, are there some patterns, perhaps, where first-gen students or students from underrepresented groups might be more subject to this, particularly in the STEM fields,

Kelly: I think that they’re just more likely to have been told that they’re not good at this or that they shouldn’t be in X, Y, or Z discipline. And as I said, that happened to me a lot. I was a first-gen student and female man going into chemistry, which is still pretty heavily male dominated. And then I went into computational chemistry, which is even more heavily male dominated. And so, yeah, I think that just because of that background, they might be more likely to have heard things like that before. And so actually, one of the things I do on the first day of class is, I say, “How many of you were told this or something similar to this?” I don’t usually get a lot of hands. I don’t think a lot of people want to disclose that necessarily in front of the rest of the class, which is fine. But the point of asking is, so that I can tell them, this happened to me all the time. And I made it through and I’m now a professor, and I’m doing these things that they told me I wasn’t any good at, but I actually am. So, that means that you can too, basically.

Rebecca: It’s funny how those early comments from teachers can have a really big impact for a long time.

Kelly: Yeah.

Rebecca: I had some similar experiences. I remember very distinctly in eighth grade, like math teacher telling me I couldn’t do math. I remember a seventh grade art teacher telling me I couldn’t do art. And now I do art that has math in it.

Kelly: Right. Exactly. My teacher in high school told me I wasn’t good at computers, because I couldn’t type both quickly and accurately. Turns out, I’m just dyslexic, and so I just hadn’t practiced typing enough at that point. And I’m now a computational chemist, and I work with Linux and programming, and so it’s fine. It just took me a little longer to get up to that level that they were expecting, then it did some other people. But again, it’s just about focusing on “You can do it, you just have to keep practicing.” And knowing that where you start is only where you start, and that you’re the one who gets to decide where you end up.

Rebecca: You suggested that a growth mindset is a scientific mindset. Can you elaborate on that?

Kelly: Yeah, I think anybody who has done research knows that you have to have a growth mindset to go into research… to enjoy doing research, at least… because you’re going to fail all the time. You’re going to start an experiment, and it’s not going to go right, or it’s not going to happen at all, [LAUGHTER] and you have to figure out why, you have to understand, “Okay, something went wrong. Did I do something wrong? Is it the experiment is actually showing us negative data? What is happening? And that really does take a growth mindset. You have to be willing to fail to go into research. You have to understand that it’s not you necessarily failing, the process of science requires a lot of failure. So, that’s one of the other things I try to tell the students is like, you’re actually living like a scientist, right now. [LAUGHTER] And this is what we do all the time, we set something up, and who knows? We just have to see what happens and then go from there. And one of the things that I really like the most about growth mindset is it sort of freeing, it gives you the ability to just try and know that your first effort is not going to be your best. And I really love that because it frees you from perfectionism, or wanting things to be exactly a certain way, the very first time you do it. You just know, whatever I do, it’s only where I started, and it’s not going to be perfect. And that’s okay, I’m always going to get better from that point. And so I feel like that, at least, has helped me to approach research and teaching and knowing that I might not be great at everything to begin with. And it helped me to try things that I might not have been comfortable with necessarily. But again, it was “Okay, I know, I’m not gonna be great at this right now, but I’m still gonna do it. And I’m going to try my best and that I know, I’m going to get better from there.”

John: What are some of the approaches you use to help nurture a growth mindset in your students?

Kelly: So, there’s actually quite a few that I like, and I use them in all my classes, but again, especially in the general biochemistry for non majors class. So one of them is the frequent low-stakes assignments, it helps the students to build confidence in the material and it gives them sort of a grade cushion, for the exams. And the low-stakes assignments, it helps with inclusion and equity as well. So, one of the other things I do when we have face-to-face exams… I’m not doing it this semester, because this semester everything’s online. But, when I head face-to-face exams, I was doing exam corrections. So, basically, the students could earn back up to half the points that they missed on the exam. And basically, I think that this helps students continue to engage with the material, instead of you learn it for the exam, and then you forget it immediately afterwards. They would have to go back and look up what they had missed, and try to understand why they got it wrong, which helps them to keep engaging with that content. But it also helps them to stick with learning things that are difficult, right? Even the exam is kind of not the end, I guess. I always thank students for asking questions, or for volunteering answers in class, even if they get it wrong, because that kind of thing helps everybody learn. So, I always tell them that I appreciate that, that that’s good. I guess just reassuring students that even if they failed at something, that that’s a step in the right direction to helping them succeed eventually. This semester for the exams, I have them look up a research paper ahead of time. And a lot of students were apologizing because they hadn’t gotten it right the first time or even the second time. And so I had to remind them just because you tried it, that’s the point. Even if you failed, you’re getting better at it just by trying it. And then I think the last thing that I do, and the students really seem to like this, because it comes up on my evaluations quite frequently, is the learning objectives. And I actually think that this promotes growth mindset, because having sort of almost a checklist that they can go through and say here is everything I’m responsible for for the exam. It kind of gives them a way to say “Okay, here’s the things I already know, and here’s the things they still need to work on.” So, it almost forces them to have a growth mindset by going through and checking everything off. So, I really like to do that as well.

John: You mentioned having a list of learning objectives, is that something that you include, say in the course module in your learning management system?

Kelly: It’s on the slides every day. So, when they walk into class, the first couple slides will have the learning objectives. And then I show them again at the end. When we were doing face-to-face classes, there would actually be on their daily worksheet, they’d have a question at the very last thing, which said, “Is there anything you’re still confused about from today? Are there any learning objectives you feel were not met?” And then that gave them a spot to write in, if they had any questions remaining. And that way, I could kind of check in with them as well. It’s harder to do that online I found. And so I kind of missed that this semester. But the students really do seem to love putting questions in the chat and things like that. So. I think we’re still managing to do that okay.

Rebecca: One of the things that, along those same lines, that I like to have conversations with students about, is the more mistakes and things they make they end up learning more. [LAUGHTER] So, it’s like, “Well, if you got that all right the first time, you wouldn’t have had this whole learning adventure that you didn’t plan for.” And I find that framing it like that tends to put a positive spin on something that they might seem as being a very big negative.

Kelly: I don’t know if anybody else is as big of a nerd as I am and watches Disney movies, but in Meet the Robinsons, there’s the part where he’s trying to fix something and he completely fails, and it just like bursts apart. And they tell him that “Well, you learn from failure, you don’t learn as much from success.” And so it’s kind of the same idea.

John: And earlier, you mentioned too that you share some of your own struggles and some of the challenges you were faced with. And I think that probably helps build a growth mindset in your students too, by setting that example and normalizing struggles and failure as part of the growth experience.

Kelly: Yeah, exactly. And I think one of the things that instructors can definitely do is to model a growth mindset for their students, to tell them that things are not always easy for me, even. I’m an expert, but I still come across research problems where I’m like, “I don’t know what’s wrong.” I did that over the summer, I started a new project, and it took us, gosh, it was like months to figure out what was going wrong with our experiment. So, you’re right, normalizing it is great. Saying that just struggling with something is good, in fact. It’s how you learn.

Rebecca: You also mentioned setting up problems that they solve in class that they’re not quite ready for. Can you talk about how that nurtures growth mindset as well?

Kelly: I got this idea from a book called Make it Stick, where it’s called desirable difficulty. And I just love it. We do this all the time in my other classes. Well, that’s like the main principle that I use for my smaller majors class is having them try it before it’s explained to them. And again, it’s trying to get them to let go of that idea that I have to know the right answer before I can try anything, or I have to have had this explained before I can even try, which I think it’s kind of burned into them in the K through 12 system sometimes. Where you’re given the information, memorize it, spit it back on the test, that’s it, you’re done. And that’s what learning is to them. So getting them out of that habit is what I’m trying to do with giving them these assignments that they’re not quite sure about. And I actually tell them that that’s what this is called, especially this semester, I’ve really leaned into just like, here’s my teaching method, it’s called desirable difficulty. And here’s what it’s going to do for you, it’s actually going to help you understand it better when I explain it to you if you’ve tried it on your own first and gotten it wrong. And so we’ll do things like I will ask them, How does the entropy increase when the hydrophobic effect occurs? And they’re like, “Well, I don’t know.” And I was like, “I know you don’t know. Think about it. Here’s the system, here’s what’s going to happen. And what do you think and then don’t look it up?” And actually, they seem to not look it up this year, which was good. I was worried they might because we were on Zoom. But, they actually seemed to refrain from googling it. Because I did see a lot of wrong answers. I think it went pretty well. And then just kind of over the semester, they get better and better and less fearful about putting wrong things down on the worksheets, because they know, first of all, that they’re going to get the grade no matter what, as long as they put something down. But, also because I think that they’re learning to try more and to think critically. And so that’s what I hope for them at least.

Rebecca: Do you have them discuss their solutions in small groups? Or is it an individual activity?

Kelly: Yeah, so in class, I would typically do like a think-pair-share where they would get with another person, and then I could talk to them as the class. This semester, we’re now doing breakout rooms, because I have 50 students, and it’s a little hard to get them in pairs, and then in a bigger group, so I’ve just assigned them groups for the semester at this time. And then they will go and work with their group and discuss. And usually there’s a few minutes delay anyways, in terms of getting the breakout rooms ready to go and everybody into them. So, they have some time to think on their own as well, just because of that.

John: How large are the groups that you’ve been using in the breakout rooms?

Kelly: About five usually for each group. And that’s because, first of all, I wasn’t sure how engaged everybody was going to be in each group. So, I kind of wanted it to be big enough that if a few people went AWOL, that they still had a group. But also it’s nice just that people can work better with other people, and so then they have a couple options in terms of partners, if they wanted to work with just a few people.

Rebecca: Kelly, you’ve talked a lot about ways to foster the growth mindset throughout the semester. But, how do you set the stage maybe on the first day of class,

Kelly: This year, I actually did what’s called first-day fears, a brand new activity I’d thought of, but I had emails and some survey responses over the summer that said a lot of students were terrified of online learning, things like that. And everything was changing, and we were scared. And so it was just this whole mess. And so I basically said, “Here’s your first activity for the day, go into the breakout rooms with your group, write down everything you’re anxious about for the semester, and then I’m going to talk to you and we’re going to try to work through everything.” And so they did that. And I had a lot of “I’m scared of online learning. I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” And we talked about how you can approach some of those anxieties with growth mindset, in terms of try something for the online learning. If it’s not working right away, then change it. Talk to me, see what else we can do that can help you manage your time better, whatever it is. And so that was how I framed it this semester was, “Yes, you’re anxious about things, here’s how you can address some of those with growth mindset.” Unfortunately, all the growth mindset in the world will not make COVID go away, it won’t give us more money if we need it, that kind of thing. So it’s not perfect, obviously. But in terms of the things that we can control, that’s what I love growth mindset for. So, helping them to understand that I’m a resource, that their group is a resource, and that we’re going to keep doing check ins throughout the semester. The other thing that I did is part of the activities, I told them what I was anxious about. So, I told them that I’m anxious about online learning, too. I’ve never done it before. I spent the summer learning about it, but it’s still the first time I’m doing it. And so I told them, here’s some of the things that you can do to help me, which is, if your camera’s not on, I can’t tell if you’re confused. So, you have to tell me that you’re confused. Say, “Hey, wait, stop, I need that explained again,” or put your questions in the chat. And here’s the ways you can do that. Yeah, so we basically just talked about things all of us were anxious about and trying to show them that, first of all, they’re not alone. Look, how many of your classmates have the same worries, this is why you’re in a group, so that you have people to talk to and then you can talk to me as well, then just trying to clear the air a little bit before we could get started, I guess, with learning this semester.

John: So you’ve talked a bit about how you try to help your students build a growth mindset. Do you explicitly talk to them about the differences between growth mindset and a fixed mindset.

Kelly: I do, actually. So, there’s a slide from the first day where I put some students’ examples of what a fixed mindset could look like, and what a growth mindset could look like. So, for example, from the student perspective, if you did badly on an exam or in a class, it might lead you to think “I’m stupid, I’m not gonna get this, why am I trying?” Or “Why am I participating in this class, everybody else is better than me,” it might lead you to think things like that, which are more fixed mindset. And then on the other side of the slide, then I had what a growth mindset would look like for that, which is to say, if you’re struggling, you should ask for help, you can learn more with practice. So, you should go and get more resources, ask for it to be explained, again, things like that. That you should still contribute to class because your responses are unique like you are. And so my favorite example, the one that I shared with them, I had a student my first semester at SUNY Plattsburgh, who was a great student, wonderful in class, and they completely bombed the first exam. And I felt so bad, because I knew they were trying, but anyways, so they kind of wasn’t sure how they were gonna bounce back from that, or if they were, and then we a little bit later, maybe a week or two, after the exam, we were having an activity about allostery, and nobody was getting it. Everybody was complaining: “This is so hard.” “I don’t understand what we’re doing.” “What is going on?” And there was just complaining. [LAUGHTER] And so I was walking around the class trying to help. And I got to the student’s desk. And they were like, “Well, I don’t know. But what about this?” …and they had got it, clearly they had understood what I was actually asking. And so I asked them to share with the class. And they did, and it was like a light bulb went on for everybody else. And so I was just reminding the students like this person failed the first exam, but they were the only person in the class who actually got the next thing. So, it doesn’t matter if you failed, you still have these valuable contributions to make, you’re still a part of the classroom, you’re still supposed to be here. So that’s, as I said, one of the ways that I tried to improve inclusion is just to say, “You’re always supposed to be here, this is where you are, we want you and you’re supposed to be in this class.”

Rebecca: I like how you’re framing things related to the anxiety and emotions that can be big blockers, to moving forward and addressing those emotions and normalizing those emotions and verifying that yes, indeed, we might be frustrated or confused or scared, but if we can acknowledge that and know that that’s what we’re working with, we can move forward and continue to grow and learn. And I think that students don’t always recognize that those emotions can get in the way.

Kelly: Yeah. And it’s about also recognizing what is in your control and what’s not. So, there’s some things that are not in your control, right? COVID is not under anybody’s control right now. Not any of us anyways. So, you can’t tell the students well, you should growth mindset yourself so that this doesn’t affect you anymore. No, that’s not how this works. The growth mindset is to say, “Okay, I’m trying in my classes, something’s not going right. Is there something I can change to maybe make it go better?” Or even just to recognize, “I’m doing the best I can. This is the most that I can do right now. And that’s okay.”

Rebecca: Yeah. Especially with the balancing act and the extra stress of COVID-19, and what have you. Recognizing that like, it might take longer.

Kelly: Yeah.

Rebecca: It might not be an A, it might not be a B.

Kelly: Right.

Rebecca: But, like, you got something. [LAUGHTER]

Kelly: Yes, exactly. And if you decide to try it again, later, you’re gonna do better because of it.

John: And having students share their anxieties makes them feel perhaps a bit less isolated, and recognizing that some of these challenges are ones that are shared by everyone, which I would think would help to build a better community or more productive community within the class.

Kelly: Yeah, that’s what I was hoping for. And again, that’s why I assigned them to the groups as well. With 50 students, I knew they weren’t going to meet everybody online. They barely meet everybody if they’re in person. So, I wanted them to have kind of a core smaller community that they knew, “Oh, yeah, we did this on the first day. We were all nervous about the same thing.” Yeah.

Rebecca: I’ve had those consistent smaller groups in my classes this semester, too, and it’s helped a lot… have it that tight community to express anxiety or share frustrations with. [LAUGHTER]

Kelly: Yeah, and I’ve called them their growth mindset groups, which is hokey, but I couldn’t think of another name. But, yeah, we’ve done a couple check ins so far. There was a question on the first exam about a situation that they had to face, like an academic challenge and did you approach it with a growth or fixed mindset… and then “How could you maybe change what you did?” or something like that, and then we did another… right after the first exam, we did a learning reflection, which is… same idea. I told them, you know, check your current grade on Moodle, because a lot of times they don’t always realize that that’s up there, and then come up with a growth mindset plan for going forward. You know, if you’re not happy with your grade, okay, what can we try that might help you do better?

John: Yeah, that sort of metacognitive reflection, I think, can be really helpful and helping students recognize how much they’re learning, and to see that they can change the pattern.

Kelly: Yes, and to look at the overall grade instead of just the exam grade, because a lot of them saw the exam grade and panicked. [LAUGHTER] And they didn’t realize that the exams are only 40% of the total grade. So, [LAUGHTER] you’re probably still okay,

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

Kelly: So, what I would like to do next… a couple things. First, the SUNY Plattsburgh orientations have started incorporating a growth mindset aspect to it. And so what I’m hoping is to see more and more students coming in who already know about growth mindset, then have started to develop it in their earlier classes too, which would be fantastic. I already lean in pretty hard to growth mindset in my classes, but maybe lean even further into it in terms of assessing it, and trying to see if my class structure actually helps students develop a growth mindset as they go. I’ve had a few students put that on their evaluations at the end, that the idea of growth mindset helped them to succeed in the class. And it was one of the first times they’d heard of it or things like that, where they’ve said that that plus the active learning helped them to be successful. But, in terms of actually assessing overall, even if they don’t tell me that up front, you know, can I determine if it’s actually helped them to develop a growth mindset is one of the things I’d like to do.

Rebecca: Sounds like good research project.

Kelly: Yes, yes, I do education research on top of computational research because I’m a crazy person, and I want to study everything. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well, thank you. It’s been great talking to you.

Kelly: Thanks for having me.

Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you very much.

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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.

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158. Distracted

It is easy to become distracted when materials or experiences seem irrelevant, unobtainable, or uninteresting. In this episode, James Lang joins us to explore strategies to build and strengthen student attention to improve learning outcomes. James is a professor of English and the Director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption University and is also the editor of the West Virginia University Press series,Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, and the author of numerous articles and books on teaching and learning, including Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning and Teaching and Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: It is easy to become distracted when materials or experiences seem irrelevant, unobtainable, or uninteresting. In this episode, we explore strategies to build and strengthen student attention to improve learning outcomes.

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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 James Lang. James is a professor of English and the Director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption University and is also the editor of the West Virginia University Press series,Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, and the author of numerous articles and books on teaching and learning, including Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning and Teaching and Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It. Welcome, Jim.

Jim: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

John: Good to see you again.

Jim: Yes.

John: Our teas today are:

Jim: I’m actually a tea aficionado. I get my tea from David’s Teas, which is a Canadian company. They, I think, have suffered a lot during the pandemic and closed most of their stores, but they still have a great online presence. And my favorite is Nepal Black.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds good.

Jim: Yeah, it’s a great black tea. And I have many David’s Teas, though. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I almost forgot about David’s Teas. I need to cycle back to that.

Jim: Yeah, it’s great stuff.

Rebecca: I’m on my last cup of a big pot of English Breakfast tea.

Jim: I love English breakfast. I love Earl Grey. You know, all the greens. I just love tea.

Rebecca: You’re in the right place, then.

Jim: [LAUGHTER] Yeah, exactly.

John: And, you may remember the collection of teas we had in our workshop.

Jim: Oh, I totally remember. Yes, that was like tea Nirvana in your center.

John: It’s sitting there kind of empty right now. But, we’re hoping we’ll be back there soon.

Jim: Yeah.

Rebecca: The collection of teas is lonely. [LAUGHTER]

John: Although every now and then some get pilfered from the office. And I’m drinking one of them right now. A blueberry green tea.

Rebecca: That sounds good.

Jim: Yeah.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your upcoming book, Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It, which I’m really looking forward to receiving when it comes out in October, I believe. Perhaps we could start by talking about the role of attention in learning. Why should we focus so much on attention?

Jim: So, in the book, I argue that we need to think about attention as actually the kind of foundational step for all learning; no learning happens without attention. So, I actually think it’s a value that we need to be more willing to kind of fold into our pedagogical thinking. If you look at the research on how people learn, almost all of it will tell you that the first thing that has to happen is the learner has to attend to whatever the content might be. And I also believe that it’s important for us to make attention a value in the way we form community in the classroom. We should be attending not only to the course content, but to one another. So, we’ve talked a lot in recent decades about the importance of having a learning community in the classroom, about having relationships between us and our students, and the students having relationships with one another. All of those things depend upon the attention that we pay to one another. So, to me, there’s a kind of cognitive aspect to this. But, there’s also a kind of ethical aspect to it. We owe that attention to one another, we need to be able to pay attention to the students and to the specific students in our room and not just sort of a generic idea of a student, we want students to listen to one another. When students are airing their ideas in the classroom, we as teachers want to be able to listen to them, but we want students to be able to listen to them as well. So, I think we really do need to pay more attention to attention in our pedagogical thinking. So, that’s kind of what the book is about. The kind of overarching point of it really is to get away from this thinking that attention is sort of the norm or that this is something we can just take for granted in the classroom. And that we should expect students just to be able to sit and pay attention, because that’s the normal modus operandi in the classroom. And instead, to recognize that attention is an achievement. It’s something that we have to work at. And as a result, faculty members have to think about how do they support student attention in the classroom. How are they deliberately cultivating it? And how are they deliberately sustaining it, both to the classroom content and to the other human beings in the room?

Rebecca: Like other kind of pedagogical approaches, it seems like talking about attention with your students might be a good thing to start off the semester, and explain what attention actually is. Do you have any recommendations for thinking through that with students?

Jim: Absolutely. There are great resources out there that can help us educate our students about attention and about distraction. And we have to start with those kinds of conversations about how we make the classroom a place where attention is a primary value. And again, this doesn’t mean like attention, where it’s just sort of me laser focused in on the teacher and being attentive like that for 50 or 75 minutes. We’re not built that way. That’s not how attention works. But we want to do our best to kind of continually renew the attention that we pay to one another. And I think that has to start with an explicit conversation with our students. And to say that “Look, you know, it’s important for me to hear your ideas. So, when you come in here, if you’re doing other things, then the contributions that you would make to this classroom, which I know are important, are going to get lost. And when your fellow students are speaking, I want us all to be paying attention and listening to what that student has to say.” So, I think we have to start with those kinds of conversations. And maybe not in the first day… I think there’s a lot we can do on the first day to try to engage students and set the tone for the course… but, sometime in that first week, to really have a conversation with students to say it’s important for us to pay attention to one another in the classroom. Here are the guidelines I’ve developed t do that and I welcome your input on those guidelines. And then, by the end of this week, we’re going to come to an agreement on these are the rules that we all will follow together in order to make sure that we are fulfilling our obligations to one another, in terms of building a community and paying attention to one another, and paying attention to one other’s ideas.

Rebecca: If we build the value of attention into our course, what does that look like,over the course of the semester? We talked a little bit about a discussion, setting some boundaries or some rules, but, how does that play out over the course of the semester?

Jim: Well, so two things. So, first of all, I do argue in the book, actually, that I think there’s value in having an explicit kind of guideline for how we will deal with both attention and distraction in the classroom. And that includes what we’re going to do with our technologies, but it’s not limited to that, and to develop some explicit guidelines that are shared with students that they’re invited to comment on that, then they actually will sign and say, you know, “I agree to sort of abide by this policy,” and then to revisit it, to come back to it in the middle of the semester, for example, at a midterm evaluations and say, “How are we doing with the guidelines? Do we need to update these? Or do we feel like everyone is kind of on board or are people slipping away? What can I do to help get everyone back and make sure that we’re still paying attention to one other? …because attention fatigues over time, that happens in an individual class session, but also happens over the semester, right? So, we’re going to get to a point of this semester, at which we’re all tired, we’re finding it harder and harder to pay attention to one another because there’s lots of stuff going on, and for the students, all their midterms and getting toward the end of the semester. So, it needs to be addressed initially, and it needs to be revisited. Now, from the teacher’s side, there’s a lot of things that we can do to kind of say, “Look, I’m doing everything I can to help support your attention in the classroom here.” And all those are kind of explicit pedagogical practices that we can take. And in the book, I talk about two creative ways of thinking about this, to think like a playwright and to think like a poet playwrights have long experiences of trying to guide people through experiences that unfold over time. So, a playwright has to think about “how do I maintain the attention of an audience for an hour, two, or three hours, sitting in a dark room, where the audience is supposed to be looking just at this stage and following the story?” How do they do that? They vary the structure, right? There are acts and scenes and intermissions, there’s rising and falling action, there are stories unfolding. Not only that, but like you go to the symphony or whatever, right? It’s the same thing, you’re going to have movements, you’re going to have pauses in the action, you’re going to have a movement that ends quietly, but then begins with a bang. The people that have had to think about “how do I pull the attention of an audience over time? …we can learn a lot from that. So, I think teachers need to think a little bit more like that, to think about the classroom experience as something that unfolds over time, and therefore needs to have a structure and variety to it. Right? So, that, essentially, I argue in the book for thinking about your classroom experiences, as kind of a modular one, where you’re going to have an opening activity that takes 10 minutes, and then there’s going to be something that goes on for 20 minutes, and then you’ll have a finishing thing. And not only to make those changes, because change renews attention, right? We know that from the research, change can renew attention. So, you have the changes. But then you also have the fact that these things are different. So, that like I’m doing something passive, like I’m listening to a mini lecture, but then I stop and do something. And then maybe I get that another passive experience. So, that’s the first thing is to think a little bit more like how we’re varying the structure of the classroom experience. And by thinking like a poet, what I mean by that is that one of the things that poetry and literature can do for us, it helps us see the world anew, right? Like, it takes everyday experiences and objects and things that we’re familiar with, and it shows them to us in a new light. So, we wake up to them or say, “Wow, like, I never thought about a peach like that, right? Like, that’s amazing.” There’s this incredibly beautiful and complex thing” or like a still life painting is trying to do the same thing for us, right? …to show the world back to us, in all its wonders and complexities and intrigue. And I think we need to do that as well. We need to think about like, what are the opportunities that we have to show students the amazing, wondrous, mysterious aspects of our discipline that can awaken their attention to what we’re trying to teach. So, in the book, I argue for a what I call signature attention activities, which might be something that you would do, you know, once a day, once a week, a few times a semester, but that are really kind of like creative pedagogical things that get students re-energized and re-engaged. And recognizing, like this everyday thing they might be experiencing, actually is an incredible, amazing thing that deserves their interest and engagement. So, thinking like a playwright, thinking like a poet… to me, those are two kinds of ways to try and develop new approaches to cultivating and sustaining student attention.

John: So, in terms of thinking like a playwright, would it make sense to break up each class period into a narrative or into a storyline where you have those modules that you talk about, but perhaps do something at the beginning to activate attention to provoke curiosity?

Jim: Absolutely. I mean, there’s lots of things that you can do, I think, at the beginning to kind of get them engaged. You can tell a great story, you can pose a problem or a question, but you have to do something other than just kind of “Okay, here we go. Here are the four concepts that we’re going to talk about today.” I think, if you really want people’s attention. Here you can expand it to other creative arts as well. When you pick up a novel, The first two pages, a novelist knows, they’ve got to draw you in in those first two pages, you’re going to put the book down, right? A television show, think about how many television shows, films, they begin with something that really is designed to capture your attention and draw you in and keep you engaged for the rest of that experience. We’re drawn to stories, we’re drawn to questions and problems. But, if we can think about foregrounding those, that’s a way of getting us engaged before we then go through and are doing the sort of harder cognitive work of whatever that classroom might be.

Rebecca: You mentioned some signature pedagogies to implement throughout the semester to focus our attention. In the spirit of small teaching, is there one that’s small and easy that faculty who maybe are under stress during a semester can implement right now.

Jim: The example I give it, the book… I’ll start with the one that kind of originally got me thinking about this. There was a faculty member actually across town for me at Holy Cross, an art historian, who since passed away. But she had her students go to the Worcester Art History Museum, and every week, they had to go to the museum and look at the same painting and write a different one- to two-page essay about that same painting over the course of the entire semester. They do 13 short essays about the same painting. And that, to me, is a great example of creative thinking about like, this is how you make attention a value. You know, you start and you look at it in a very surface oriented way. And then you just have to keep looking and looking and looking. And the more you look, the deeper you get into it. And the more you start to see all the sort of incredible stuff in there. So, I kind of encourage people to think about what is the thing in your discipline that’s like that painting that like you can go back to, or that you can develop some kind of strategy that’s going to get students to see it anew for the first time. So, one that is a little bit more kind of every day, I observed a theologian on my campus, who had her students engaged in an activity that was modeled on study of the Torah, the scholars studying the Torah use, which is she had the students get in pairs. And I was able to observe this class, they sat across from one another. And they were instructed to read out loud to each other the first few paragraphs of Genesis, but after every sentence, they were supposed to stop and say, “Okay, what do I see here?” Like, “What does this remind me of? What word is strange here? What do I notice here that connects to other things that we’ve talked about in the class?” And this went on for like 20 minutes. And some people only got like two paragraphs in like a 20-minute exercise of doing this. But, it was incredible to listen to what they came up with. And I stayed in the class and listened to some students afterwards. One student said, “I’m from an evangelical background, I’ve read these passages so many times, but I’ve never thought about some of the things that we talked about today.” And so it was a way to kind of reawaken them to something that was very familiar and that she could have got up there and given a lecture on things in the first book of Genesis, but the students uncovered it themselves, and were able to do that. So, I actually kind of talked through a process that was developed by someone at the teaching center at Brown University, which is trying to model like, very close looking at something in your discipline. And you start by just sort of doing that, “what is it?” Like, “What is here? Let’s really get in and describe it as much as possible.” And then the second thing we do is we say, “Okay, so what? Why is it important? What matters about it? What does it connect to in terms of other things that we know or are learning?” And the last thing is sort of “Where can we go from here?” Like, what questions does this raise that we can then go and think further about, or for example, that I might go and write a paper about or do some research about?” So, the careful look at it, then the thinking about how it connects outside of that thing to other things? And then the “Okay, now let’s go further, I’m going to develop my own kind of way of thinking about and understanding this thing.” You know, John Dewey, a long time ago, had students doing object analysis, where they would analyze like everyday things in their homes, or like that they encounter on an everyday basis, and trace those everyday things: “Who made it? What is the production of it, say about like, our economy and our world?” And you know, you can do that with anything, and almost any discipline, right? Like this t-shirt I’m wearing, right? Who made that t-shirt? That has huge implications for, like economics and politics and trade and inviting that kind of activity into the classroom seems to me like something that can help students see the discipline in a new way, and then re-engage their attention to show them this course actually has relevance and connections to things outside of the box of this classroom.

John: When in the classroom, one possible source of distraction, which I know you’ve written about before in the Chronicle and other places, is mobile devices. When we’re in a classroom environment, how can we help students use their mobile devices more effectively.

Jim: So, I think we have to be explicit about them. So, when we have those conversations at the beginning of the semester, I actually recommend in the book, an open source PowerPoint presentation that anyone can get and use. It was developed by a psychology instructor at the University of Toronto, which kind of shows students some of the issues that we face when we’re using our devices in the classroom. And of course, when students are using their devices off task in the classroom, it impacts their own learning, of course. We all know that. But, the bigger challenge is the way that impacts the students around them. And there is some pretty good research that shows that if a student is off task on a device, other students are drawn to that device, and that steals their attention away from whatever might be going on in the classroom. So, I think we have to talk to students about that, We have to say, “Look, you know, your device use is not just a personal choice that you’re making that has no broader implications. It does have broader implications, it has the potential to kind of tamp down the overall level of attention in this classroom.” And again, I think when we make that appeal, we need to do it on community grounds, right? Like, we owe each other our attention in this space. And we are all going to benefit from people’s contributions and those contributions are going to be richer, if we’re paying attention to one another, if we’re thinking together about the ideas. So, I’m not in favor, actually, of sort of full technology bans. I’m also not in favor of saying we should never have a technology ban. I argue in the book for a context-driven policy, which suggests that there may be times when we say no one needs their devices, right now, we’re going to talk about what this means. And you don’t need to take notes on that by hand or by device. There are other times when I may be lecturing, and you can use your devices, or you can take your notes by hand. There are times when we’re going to be having a discussion, you know, you can write down something if you’re so moved, but otherwise, I’d rather have us focus on one another here. We’re gonna be doing an activity and everyone’s going to go to the board, so you don’t need your devices for that. I’m segmenting off sections of the board here, and I want everyone to brainstorm a list of these five things. To me, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to say, we’re never gonna use technology in here, or there’s just an open technology policy, which we can use any time. It depends on what’s going on. And I think if we take that approach, that also helps us be better planners, because we have to think about “Okay, well, what is going to be happening in the first 20 minutes, and would that benefit from technology use? Or couldn’t some students benefit from that?” If so, okay, then great, I’m gonna be explicit about that. But, there may be these other times where it’s gonna do nothing but interfere. And at those times, I want to be able to say, you don’t need your device right now.

Rebecca: I think that makes perfect sense. Right now, I’m teaching synchronously online. So, I’m exploring some different ways of using technology and different ways that pure distraction might play out in a screen environment. Do you have any thoughts about how we can help students attend to each other more so in an online environment? Sometimes it’s a little more obvious, I think, in a physical environment of how to set things up, and maybe not as obvious in an online environment.

Jim: It’s definitely not as obvious whether people are distracted in their online environments, right? Because they can have their phone right next to the laptop. And I’m sure we have all done this in our zoom meetings, department meetings, or whatever committee meetings where things get a little slow, you pop over and you do something else for a little while, and then you come back in. And again, I think, even an online class, we can be explicit about that, when you’re stopping out like that you’re pausing your own thinking, and that’s going to lead to a sort of a less rich conversation for us all. When students have their cameras on, it’s a little bit easier to see obvious sources of distractions. But, of course, I think we do need to give students the option to not have those cameras on for a variety of reasons. To me, because I think about, as I’ve been doing workshops …and a lot of the faculty workshops that I do on other campuses, of course, have switched virtual… what I’ve seen a lot is that the people will actively engage with the chat room. So, when the chat room is there and is explicitly encouraged, that can be a way that keeps people engaged. In some ways, it’s not quite ideal, because people can also get off track in the chat room. I’ve definitely seen that happen as well. But, trying to find regular ways to make sure that people are engaged in parallel activities, or something that’s kind of supporting whatever it is that’s going on. You can still use polling, you can use chat rooms, you can use breakout rooms, you just have to think about the same thing that you think about in the classroom. How am I continuing to provide sort of variety and shifting from one kind of activity to the next. People always talk about like, well, you lose students attention over the course of a 50- or 75-minute lecture, you lose people’s attention over 50- or 75-minute discussion too. Anything that you do for a long period of time, your attention is going to fatigue. So, to me, there is no like one pedagogical technique online or in face to face that’s like this is going to keep people’s attention, guaranteed, for everyone in the room for this amount of time. That’s just not realistic expectations. So, we just have to think about how we are providing that kind of variety, giving people opportunities to actively engage. And kind of what I encourage people to do is what I did during the two years while I was researching the book, and what I’ve been doing over the last six months in my online environments, is just look at like when do people pay attention? When do people get off track? We can learn from those moments. That’s what I’m essentially trying to argue to faculty as well. And what I hope the book will do is get people together on campuses and say, “Okay, let’s just think about this collectively. When do our students drift off? And like, why is that happening? When do our students get really engaged? Why is that happening? And how can we take the sort of engagement moments and maximize what’s happening there, and take the distraction moments and use those as an opportunity to develop creative new approaches?” So, for the online classes, I just encourage people to think about what have their experiences been in your Zoom meetings and your webinars and things that you’ve done when you’re a participant. What’s helped you, and what’s brought you back, and what sent you away? I’ll just say one last thing about it. To me, in the Zoom context, or like a synchronous online class is one of the lines of research I follow in the book, is the use of names, we all perk up at the use of our names. So, if John was drifting right now, and I said, “John, what do you think?”, he’s gonna “What?” If he was drifting, he’s suddenly back in the room, right? So like, even if you don’t have cameras on, you can still be saying, “I’m regularly gonna invite people to post in the chat or to see if they have comments. And I’ll do that by calling your names.” Just even saying that it’s going to get people “Okay, you know what, I need to be kind of attentive here.” But once I actually say, “Hey, Rebecca, what do you think? You know, boom, you are like right there. So, there are simple things like that, that we can do that help. There’s no sure fire solution online or face to face, we just have to keep trying these different approaches.

Rebecca: One of the things I really love is the fact that there are names.

Jim: Yes, I know. Right? Exactly.

Rebecca: That’s amazing. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: Yeah, the first couple weeks in class, it’s hard to do that sometimes. Right? Because you’re still learning everyone’s names.

Rebecca: Yeah. What I noticed about what you were just saying, though, is using this object-based learning or close-look approach on ourselves or within the teaching arena. So this area that we want to study teaching…

Jim: Right.

Rebecca: …you’re actually offering up the suggestion that we do the same thing that we’re suggesting that our students should do within our disciplines.

Jim: Yeah, that’s true, actually, you’re taking a look at the classroom, but through this other lens. We look at it through all kinds of lenses. But, I think if you look at it through the lens of attention and distraction, to me, that’s like an avenue toward creative new thinking. And that’s kind of ultimately what we want here. This is basically the same approach I tried to take in Cheating Lessons, which is to look at like the issue of academic integrity, where does it happen and why? And then say, “Okay, once we understand that, what can we do differently? And how can we use that problem to improve education in general?” And that’s kind of what I’m trying to do here with attention to distraction? How can we use the problem of distraction to help us become better teachers in general?

John: Does your book also address issues of how we can help our students maintain focused attention when they were engaged in out-of-class activities?

Jim: This is a really challenging issue. So, one of the things I’d hoped to find in doing the research for the book was that strategies that people have touted as improving our general attentional capacities, that there are some of those that work. And the truth is, there doesn’t seem to be as much of that as we would like, especially evidence-based strategies that can sort of improve people’s attentional capacities. So, the one that’s been the most thoroughly researched in education in recent years has been mindfulness. So, if we practice mindfulness, to what extent can that actually improve our ability to pay attention? And there is some research that supports that, but it supports it if you are really all in on it, like you’ve got to be doing mindfulness on a daily basis for a significant chunk of time. And you’ve got to be really willing to make that commitment to mindfulness. When you do that, it can help. But we don’t have the ability to do that with our students, for the most part. And most of the experiments that you see being done in this area are like three- to five-minute little mindfulness activities in the classroom. I’m a fan of those, I think those can be really great and helping in the moment. We can help sort of in acute… like we can improve our attentional spins in an acute way. But, in terms of like developing strategies that are going to help students actually improve their attentional capacities in the long term, and outside of the classroom, I’m not sure we have anything yet that has proven to do that. Well, we do have one thing, but again, it’s nothing we should be doing in the classroom, it’s physical exercise, like physical activity improves your blood flow to your brain. And that improves all kinds of your cognitive functioning. But again, we can tell our students to do that, but it’s not like something we can enforce or get our students to do in the classroom. But, I look at some of the research in a great book on distraction called The Distracted Mind by Adam Gazaley and Larry Rosen, and they do a pretty good job of looking at like brain games and drugs and mindfulness and nature exposure. And their conclusion is, so far, we really only know one thing that is evidence based to improve people’s cognitive control, and it’s physical exercise. Everything else, we’re still not sure yet, like we’re exploring. There may be some positive studies here, but, we don’t really have enough to make it prescriptive yet.

Rebecca: Seems to me like something that could be useful to students outside of classes, just having them be aware of attention.

Jim: Absolutely.

Rebecca: …and what being attentive looks like, so that they can self monitor, if they so wish.

Jim: Absolutely. We can give them the sort of tools and instruction they need, and we can give ourselves the same. As the result of doing all this research, I’ve kind of realized that, in my own work life, there are things that I can do with my email and my Twitter feed open, like responding to emails and doing sort of committee work, that kind of stuff. But, if I want to write, I have to close everything out. And you know, since the whole pandemic thing, the weather has been better, I got in my backyard, I close everything out, and I just have Word open, and I do that for 45 minutes and then I get myself a 15-minute break, right? I take a walk around, I look at Twitter, that kind of thing. So, we need to do the same kind of look at our own attentional patterns and like habits and distractions. And we can encourage students to do that. We can help them understand how to do that. It’s up to them ultimately, of course, to decide whether or not they’re going to put those ideas into practice. We can also model for it in the classroom, though, and that’s another reason why I argue that there may be times when it’s a good idea to say to students “All devices away at this point for 20 minutes here, we are going to just brainstorm. We are going to think with nothing but our brains and the book or the problem, or whatever it might be, and the whiteboards, and let’s just try to come up with something. One of the things I suggest in the book is that devices and distractions are around us all the time. That’s our normal way of being. And we want to be able to prepare students for that world. That’s why I argue that we shouldn’t ban technology. We’re gonna be working with technology, like we need to know how to work productively with it. At the same time, it may be that there’s good reason to think that the classroom sometimes is an escape from all that, that the classroom is like an attention retreat, where we can go, put away all that stuff, and use our brains in a different way. And it may be that the more technology sort of intersects with our lives on an everyday, 24-hour, basis, that those spaces are really valuable, actually, and that they give students a taste of what it’s like to put things away and just focus our collective brains on something and see what emerges from that. And if we can give them the opportunity to do that in the classroom, then they may recognize, “Oh, you know, actually, this was really valuable. And there may be times when I want to do it myself outside of the classroom with a few peers, or even just by myself.

Rebecca: I certainly have had students in the past have experienced really stressful times, say like, they’re all in on a particular class or something, because it’s an escape, and it’s a place where they can focus and they put all their attention there. And I think a lot of students are doing that right now, during the pandemic, as well. I have a lot of students that are really focused right now on some of their schoolwork, because they’re stressed by other things that are going on around them.

Jim: Yeah, my last Chronicle column was a review of a book called Lost in Thought, by Zena Hitz. And one of the things she argues and that is that we need to recapture the value of just sort of getting lost in our own thoughts and engaging with ideas and the great thinkers and problems of the past and present. And part of the argument she makes is that when we do that, we have an opportunity to get away from our material circumstances, right? …like the world that we’re living in. And that kind of escape can be really valuable. It’s valuable, both for sort of mental health purposes, like, you know, you step away, and you get to sort of engage with something fascinating and intriguing, and get into kind of like a flow state or a thinking state. But, it’s also valuable, because it can give you a new perspective, like, that’s the moment which you might come up with, like a really creative idea. And I bet almost everybody listening to this podcast right now has had moments where they’re like in the shower, on a walk in the woods, riding their bike, whatever, and something suddenly hits them, and then a problem that they’ve been wrestling with opens up. What’s going on there is you are away from the other stuff. In those moments, that’s where the ideas sometimes emerge. So again, sometimes ideas emerge because you’re online, and you’re seeing all kinds of different stuff. And that’s great. But we want to have these other opportunities as well. And so the classroom should be able to provide a little bit of that for students as well.

Rebecca: I found that some students also respond really well to hearing examples from us of our experiences with attention or lack of focus and how we’ve wrestled with those things. I know that this morning, my class was talking about being tired or having anxiety, and I just expressed that I was also experiencing that as well. And all of a sudden, like we were all in the same place, we were all attentive to each other because we had this kind of common experience.

Jim: Yeah, one of the other major points I hope people take away from the book is just empathy, to recognize that attention is hard. And it’s especially hard in a time like this, when there’s so much going on in the world around us. When we have the pandemic, we’ve got an upcoming election, we’ve got Black Lives Matter. We have all kinds of things that are making us concerned or unhappy or frustrated or anxious. And so those things steal away our attention. And we have to be empathetic to ourselves. First, we have to recognize that our own attention is suffering right now. And then we have to bring that empathy to our students as well. A student who’s drifting away in the classroom. Sure, that can be because they’re looking at their Instagram, but maybe they’re looking at their Instagram, because they’re so stressed out. And this is kind of an easy thing that they do that gives them a quick little relief from everything else that they’re worrying about. Or maybe they’re drifting away in the classroom because they had a terrible night’s sleep, and they’re up with a sick relative. I mean, attention is drawn away, not just by our devices, but by all kinds of things. The more that we recognize that and the more that we are empathetic with our students, the more we can work with them to develop solutions.

John: You mentioned the importance of attention by both students and by faculty. We’ve talked mostly about students’ attention. Do you have any suggestions for faculty on how we can be more effective in maintaining attention to our students and their needs at any given time.

Jim: It’s just the basic stuff that we all think about in terms of the responsibilities that we have to build community in the classroom are essentially the ones I’m arguing for in the book as well. Names are important, knowing individual names, I argue in the book also for an activity like values affirmations in which students get to tell you what matters to them at the beginning of the semester. So, we can do our icebreaker activities in which hometown major, you know, all that kind of stuff. But, to get more substantive, and to get to know the students a little bit better. Invite them to tell you what matters to them what they’re good at, and to be able to kind of then keep those things in your mind and use them in the conversations that you have with students or in the feedback that you give to students. Giving individual feedback, thinking about how we’re doing that, using students’ names, and knowing a little bit about the assets that they bring into the classroom, I think there’s been a lot of good research on the ways that we can help foster community in the classroom. And to me, those are the things that are going to help foster attention as well. Attention is reciprocal. If I pay attention to you, you’re more likely to pay attention to me. If we’re sitting at a coffee shop together, and we’re there to meet and discuss something, and you pick up your phone, that’s the moment in which I’m going to pick up my phone as well. Whereas if neither of us does that, if none of us makes that initial move, we’re probably more likely to continue the conversation with one another and pay attention to each other. So, when our attention is drawn away from the students, when we’re not giving them our full attention, they’re not going to give us their full attention either.

John: Is there anything else from your book that you’d like to share with our listeners,

Jim: The only other thing that I talk about in the book that might be worth mentioning is the role that assessment can play in attention. And I do believe there is a role for assessment to play in supporting attention. And what I argue here is that your great students are going to try to pay attention to everything that happens in class. Your students that are struggling, that may have a harder time managing their academic work, those students actually can benefit from assessments which help them recognize this is a moment where I really should be paying attention in this class. And if an assessment is well designed, and it’s going to promote learning, then I think we’re only doing them a favor by helping students recognize “This is an important thing here, this matters.” And that can be low stakes. But, even low stakes can get some students over the threshold of “I’m going to sit here and check out” or “I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing here. So, I’m not going to say anything, I’m gonna hide in the back.” The students saying “Okay, actually, this counts a little bit. So, I better try and trying is going to help them.” So like, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with thinking about the role that our assessments can play in pointing students toward the activities that are going to help them learn. So, I argue for that in the book as well, that assessments do have a role to play in this process.

John: And it’s not just low-stakes assessments, I’ve been amazed at how much attention and enjoyment students get out of using things like Kahoot!, which is entirely anonymous, but just that feedback they’re getting on how well they’re doing and that somewhat competitive atmosphere with it, where there’s no harm if they make mistakes, but they become really excited about how they do on those.

Jim: Yeah, “I want to see if I got it, right,” like “I’m trying this, I want to see if I got it right.” Because that’s gonna tell me how I’m gonna do in the class. And so, those kinds of activities, I think, can be really helpful for engaging attention.

John: And it’s giving the students feedback, but also giving us feedback. So, we know where they’re struggling, so we can help address those needs.

Jim: Exactly.

Rebecca: I think projects are also another form of assessment that we didn’t discuss right here. But, I think even having small amounts of scaffolded projects where there’s something that like, is done and accomplished, and you can check it off, is another way of kind of feeling accomplishment, but also being aware that you’re focusing on the things that you’re supposed to be focusing on, to move forward in a larger scale project.

Jim: Exactly, and like a lot of this stuff, that scaffolding is good for all kinds of reasons. And one of those reasons is, as we just said, like I can go through, I can check it off, I know that this is important. So, I have to get it done before I can do the next thing. That’s going to keep their attention engaged throughout that process of doing a larger project.

John: And it reduces cognitive load…

Jim: Yeah.

John: …it reduces the amount of anxiety they have, and they’re getting guidance along the way. So, they don’t go off in a direction that it’s hard to recover from later.

Jim: Right. And anxiety and cognitive load are all connected with attention, [LAUGHTER] like anxiety, it steals our attention. When the cognitive load is too heavy, we lose our attention. So, all these things. You know, attention is like one of these things that, once you to start really thinking about it, it intersects with everything. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s why it should be a value. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: Exactly. That’s what I’m saying. Yeah.

John: Yeah, well, I hope this gets the attention of a lot of our listeners [LAUGHTER]

Jim: Well done.

John: …so they can focus more attention.

Rebecca: We always end by asking, what’s next?

Jim: Well, I’m on sabbatical. So, I am writing a book. And for the first time, I’m kind of going back to my discipline. I’ve been doing sort of off-and-on research on George Orwell for a long time. My area Is 20th century and contemporary British literatures. So, I am using this sabbatical as an opportunity to try and get that book project going. And I hope to be able to have a book. or at least a good chunk of a book, by the end of my sabbatical. There also is a second edition of Small Teaching that we’re working on. And so that will be out at the end of 2021. So, that’s a second edition, which will have updated research, some updated recommendations for techniques, and, actually, there is going to be a chapter on building community. So they’ll be an additional chapter. And so I’m excited for that as well.

Rebecca: That’s like a lot of things to look forward to.

Jim: Yeah.

John: And living in the Orwellian world we’re in right, now… [LAUGHTER] I’m very much looking forward to that.

Jim: Yeah, definitely. There’s definitely a lot of relevance there. And that’s why I hope the book will get some attention. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Nicely done. Thanks so much for joining us and sharing your expertise. And I know that I’m definitely looking forward to picking up your recent book, and I’m sure many of our listeners will too.

Jim: All right. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

John: 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.

[MUSIC]

157. Takeover

Tea for Teaching has been taken over this week by a couple of our favorite authors! Join our friends, Sarah Rose Cavanagh and Josh Eyler, as they interview each other about their current book projects.

Sarah is the author of The Spark of Learning: Energizing Education with the Science of Emotion and of Hivemind: Thinking Alike in a Divided World and numerous scholarly publications. She is the Associate Director for Grants and Research at the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, the Co-Director of the Laboratory for Cognitive and Affective Science, and also Research Affiliate at the Emotion, Brain, and Behavior Laboratory at Tufts University. Josh is the Director of Faculty Development and a lecturer in Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. Josh is the author of How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective Teaching.

Show Notes

  • The tweet containing the graph discussed in the podcast.
  • Eyler, J. R. (2018). How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching. West Virginia University Press.
  • Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed, Herder & Herder.
  • Hooks, B. (2014). Teaching to transgress. Routledge.
  • Cavanagh, Sarah Rose (2019). The Best (and Worst) Ways to Respond to Student Anxiety. The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 5.
  • Yeager, D., Walton, G., & Cohen, G. L. (2013). Addressing achievement gaps with psychological interventions. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(5), 62-65.
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. West Virginia University Press.
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2019). Hivemind: The New Science of Tribalism in our Divided World. Grand Central Publishing.

Transcript

John: Tea for Teaching has been taken over this week by a couple of our favorite authors! Join our friends, Sarah and Josh, as they interview each other about their current book projects.

[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]

Sarah: Hello, Josh.

Josh: Hello, Sarah.

Sarah: So, I’m Sarah Rose Cavanagh. I work at Assumption University, where I am an Associate Professor of Psychology and also Associate Director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence. And since we’re here on Tea for Teaching, I will tell you that I am drinking water, because I have had an almost toxic amount of coffee already today.

Josh: And I am Josh Eyler, the Director of Faculty Development and Faculty in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. And I always feel as if I disappoint John and Rebecca on this podcast, because I’m drinking water as well. I never drink tea. [LAUGHTER] And we’re here for, I won’t say a special episode of the podcast, but it is a different episode, and we’re hoping not to crash it. So Sarah, do you want to tell everyone what we’re doing here?

Sarah: Absolutely. So, we both announced on Twitter that we have new book projects. And I wanted to interview Josh for his new book project. And he said maybe we could interview each other. And then John said, “Hey, you want a space to do that, publicly?” And so here we are interviewing each other about our new book projects on Tea for Teaching. We’ve taken over the podcast.

Josh: Yes, we have. And it’s my go round to ask the first question. But, I just want to say first, it’s always a lot of fun to talk with Sarah about her work, and so it’s a special honor today to hear about her new work. I’m working on two projects, a book on grades, which will be making up the bulk of the questions, but a smaller project on test anxiety and other kinds of academic anxieties. And so I have a question about that as well. And that’s the one that I’d actually like to start with. And so, Sarah, I’d like to ask you about the attributes of class climate that can lead to anxiousness. I know that you’re working on a project that has to do with our learning environments, and its connections to student wellbeing. And so I’m curious on your take, both from your own perspective, and from the research that you’re doing. What are some of the elements of class climates that can lead to anxiousness in students?

Sarah: Awesome, and thank you for that question. I think that our projects are very related, which isn’t surprising. We also are working together on a grant project that, in part, tackles the question of emotions and grading. And so, for me, anxiety is all about uncertainty. And when we’re unsure of our footing, when we think “what if this terrible thing happens?” when we can’t picture the future? these are conditions under which anxiety arises. So, in terms of classroom climate, the sorts of things that research suggests make students more anxious have to do with uncertainty and with a lack of clarity. And so when students don’t understand the material, when they feel like the material is presented in such a way that they cannot understand it, when there’s clarity and uncertainty there, that makes them feel anxious. When they’re not quite sure where they should be investing their time, and what they should be doing with their time and how their grade is going to be determined, that can also lead to anxiety. And when they are unsure of how they’ll be assessed, what a good result looks like, what the instructor is looking for… and every instructor grades differently, assesses differently, is looking for slightly different things. And I always felt as a student, that part of beginning a class was figuring out what does this instructor want? And what are they looking for? And so all of these things can increase anxiety. I think that climates that reduce anxiety are ones that help students feel safe, help them feel like they belong, and ones that are really transparent and clear. And one of the things I’m trying to tackle in my new project is that we need students to be able to grapple with uncertainty. And I think that we need learning environments in which students feel safe, and they feel like they belong, so that they can tackle uncertainty and so that they can be a little unsteady and a little unsure, without anxiety spiking.

Josh: Great, thank you so much.

Sarah: Alright. So you recently shared on Twitter a graph, and I’m going to try to describe it, [LAUGHTER] because we’re all audio, but it was about grading alternatives. And you had two axes crossing each other. So, if the audience can picture four different quadrants, one of the axes was liberation, from not liberating at all to very liberating… a grading scheme. And then the other axis had to do with logistics, fewer to more logistics. So, various grading schemes were in the different quadrants. We can think of specifications or mastery grading, which have lots of logistics. We can think of ungrading, which has fewer logistics. So, I have a couple questions about that. But, my first question is, what is your operational definition of liberation or liberating? What are its characteristics? Its defining attributes? How do we measure it? This is a psychology question. [LAUGHTER] What is ”liberation”?

Josh: Right, definitely. And thank you for that question. I should say that this book is kind of a first step in a new development for the way I’m taking my writing. It’s different from the last book, in that it doesn’t focus solely on higher ed, but looks at educational systems more broadly, from preschool to grad school, it’s the way I’ve kind of been describing it. And so that’s important for the kind of responses I’ll be giving, I think. Now, about the graph… Everyone loves when people in the humanities delves into graphs [LAUGHTER] and math-like things. So, this should be interesting. To answer your specific question, though, much of my philosophy about higher education is rooted in work on critical pedagogy, in particular, the work of Paulo Freire and bell hooks, both of whom talk about education as a practice of freedom. And for Freire, who was deeply invested in the political climate of Brazil, education as a practice of freedom means giving students agency, empowerment, and the tools, to be able to remake the world that both benefits them, but society at large, as well. So, the liberation there comes from freeing the classroom of the kind of controlling elements that prevent that kind of learning taking place. For hooks (her writing is, as far as I’m concerned, the best education writing that has been done over the last number of decades), she takes it in a slightly different direction. And for her, the liberatory practice, education as a practice of freedom means freeing the student to be able to remake themselves and carve out a meaningful life for themselves. In order to do that, a classroom has to break down some of the hierarchies, it has to give over control to the students equally, and importantly, for bell hooks, it also means that that is a very difficult process for students, and it requires them to be vulnerable. And if we’re going to ask students to be vulnerable, the faculty member has to be vulnerable as well, or be willing to be vulnerable. And for me, in the context of grading, what that means is wrestling with the traditions that we have been handed about what education means and what teaching means. And when I refer to some of these grading practices as being more liberatory, what I mean is that by removing the emphasis on evaluation, and placing the focus on feedback, it gives over some of that control, some of that agency and empowerment, to students. So, that’s the direction that I’m moving in, and how I conceptualize it in terms of mapping the practices. Now, when I posted that on social media, it was an honest and open invitation for discussion, because where they are on that grid for me is not set in stone. In fact, I’ve had really interesting conversations about some folks who do portfolio grading… has lots of logistics. And so that was an interesting conversation. Ungrading, for me to make sense of it in my head, take some logistics to help the students feel comfortable with the process. But then I know others who have a lot of success with fewer logistics with that. But, that aside, what I’m really looking at… how much agency does the grading scheme allow students to take over for themselves?

Sarah: Lovely. Thank you.

Josh: And now, the rest of the questions are going to be kind of rooted in that project, the book about grades. And so I’m really excited to hear what you had to say about these. And the first one is kind of more of a personal question, reflecting on some of your own responses to the grades that you got when you were a student, Sarah, and how that might have an impact on the grading models you use now, as a faculty member.

Sarah: Well, I don’t think you’re gonna like my answer, [LAUGHTER] unfortunately. But I loved being graded. It was my favorite thing. So I, in middle school, and in the beginning of high school, I was always intellectually curious, but I wasn’t super into school, I would rather be buried in my books reading. And I got kind of As and Bs and occasional C in junior high. And then I started in high school, and I started racking up A’s and I was like, “Oh, I’m good at this.” So, I started getting more and more invested in my studies and more invested in grading. And I actually ended up valedictorian of my high school class. I also particularly loved… and I’ll have a question related to this later on… I loved taking exams. It’s actually the thing that I miss the most about being in college, because it was a very mastery motivated sort of thing. It was like me versus this exam. People talk about flow, and they talk about the zone, and taking an exam is where I experienced that the most. And so I had this almost gamification approach to grades. I was going to figure things out. I was going to master this thing. And I had a lot of fun with it. And then when I got to college, I was sort of in this, you know, well, I’m not going to not get an A in the class, because now I’m someone who gets As and always gets As. And that, and I’ve written about this for the Chronicle of Higher Education and writing about this in my own book on student mental health, that was part of what helped me getting over my own personal struggles with anxiety, because I wasn’t anxious about grades, and I wasn’t anxious about exams, but I was anxious for social reasons. And I was anxious about participation. And I had a really hard time participating. And I managed to get through most of my college degree without participating in class and still getting As because even though professors would say you have to participate to get an A, they would still, based on exam scores and papers, give out As. But then I started picking up women’s studies classes and these women’s studies classes had a third of the grade was participation, because it was all about discussion and all about sharing and really grappling with lived experiences. And I was kind of confronted with this, you know, am I going to not get an A? Or am I going to try to do something about my social anxiety? So, the grades were actually the motivator that helped me, not just with my intellectual journey, but also with my mental health journey. And I’m not saying that that would happen to everyone, or that my anxiety was as severe as some people’s but for me, personally, grades were fun, and they were also this motivator that had this huge effect on my life.

Josh: Great. And what you said about, particularly your approach to grades in high school, really resonated with me. I was an athlete in high school and college and really approached it in much the same way, that it was just one more competitor, one more opponent on the wrestling path…

Sarah: Yeah.

Josh: …to be conquered. But, reflecting back on it thinking, Okay, well, that obviously, there was an element of success there. But do I remember much about what I was learning in those classes? Thank you for that answer. I appreciate it.

Sarah: Well, you’re welcome. And I’m going to return to your graph, if that’s okay. [LAUGHTER]

Josh: Okay.

Sarah: So, we talked about liberation. And thank you for that beautiful answer. And I love thinking about student agency and autonomy and motivation. But, my second question is about the logistics-the other axis- and this is, in my own thinking about my own grading, something that I struggle with. And so I absolutely am in agreement, that agency and autonomy, and giving students that control, and releasing your own status are all really important. But, logistics… I think of some of these grading schemes can get kind of Byzantine and convoluted, and I have experimented with all sorts of different schemes, and I know we’re going to talk about what we’ve done in the classroom ourselves. And I think students sometimes find those really confusing, and it reduces certainty, and it reduces predictability and transparency sometimes, and they’re trying to navigate it, and they’re really struggling. And I think that that can increase anxiety more than a traditional grade structure sometimes. But then, on the other hand, the ones that are low in logistics, I have experienced student feedback where they just feel like they’re left at sea, and they don’t know where they are in the grading scheme. And most of us are teaching in institutions where, at the end of the semester, no matter what you’ve done, you have to put a grade in the system. So, certainly, it seems like liberation is good to you – more liberation is better than less liberation. How about logistics? More better, less better? Sort of your thoughts and curve?

Josh: Yeah, I think, in the way, I was envisioning that, logistics are kind of neutral. If you think about that y-axis, the liberation as being the philosophical access, the logistics is the pragmatic axis. And so, what I’m really trying to do with that particular graphic or image is to help people make decisions about what they might want to try. And, as you’re saying, for both the students and the faculty, a scheme, a model that has more logistics could be intimidating, or it could be a deciding factor. Okay, yes, I want to move in the direction of having a more progressive grading model, but doing something that is going to completely change the way I’ve approached my work for the last 20 years, and pile on top of it all these other details to think about, may just be too much. So, maybe rather than going to mastery grading, maybe I’ll start with contract grading, which can have many fewer logistics, and see how that goes. See how it aligns with my own goals and values, and pair that with how the students respond to it. In trying a number of different models, one thing is consistent and that’s what you’re saying. The students uncomfortability with changing the way they interact with grades, the way they respond to grades. So, even in the portfolio-based grading system, which to me is the baby step out of the traditional grading model, where you’re giving mostly feedback but a traditional grade at the end. I mean, the grade happens to be based somewhat on improvement over time, but still fairly traditional. Even then, there’s a lot of groundwork with students, building up their level of tolerance and comfort for that. So, yes, any shift toward a grading model that privileges feedback over evaluation is going to increase nervousness and anxiety at some level with students. And so one thing I talked about with faculty all the time is there has to be a lot of work upfront, being very transparent with students and working through this particular process. And to be honest, I don’t blame the students, because they’ve had at least 12 years of being conditioned in an educational environment where grades have meant something very specific to them. So, logistics for me, neither good nor bad, but an important factor in making decisions, both for our own workload and the student response. And I think it’s worth taking that into consideration. Because, it really matters. If we choose something right out of the gate that has a ton of logistics, and we’re trying to navigate those and help our students, it may actually discourage some people from trying out or continuing down that avenue. And that’s not what we want. And so I have known folks who have experimented, gotten frustrated, and just gone back to the grading schemes that seemed easier for them. So, that, I think is where logistics really come into this equation, both on the faculty and the student side.

Sarah: Thank you.

Josh: So, we talked about your own response to grades as a student, but what about the models that you now use as a faculty member?

Sarah: So I’ve experimented with various parts of your quadrants. And so I’ve done something in one of my classes, not purely mastery, or specifications, grading, but getting there, where there’s a lot of options, and everything is evaluated, not on a numerical score or a letter score, but instead, developing competence, achieved competence, that sort of thing. And so I’ve done kind of more high logistics versions. And then, in one of my seminar classes, which is all seniors, 15 students, and three-hour class, we’re sitting around talking about peer-reviewed neuroscience articles, I’ve taken a more purely ungrading approach. And the thing that I think I’ve decided about all of this, for at least at my institution with the courses that I teach, is that some of these techniques don’t work as well with the lower-level classes that have more content, that are more introductory, and that have younger students in them. In those classes, the students have a much more negative reaction to these untraditional schemes. They have many questions, they get frustrated. And I also, and this will lead into a question that I have for you, our students, most of them work a lot. So they’re working a lot of hours. A lot of them are commuting, they have very complicated lives. And they are not super grade conscious compared to other places that I’ve taught. They’re more focused on getting through the degree program, getting their credits, they are not “I need that A,” for the most part. And they seem to, in particular, dislike some of these grading schemes, because they want to know where they’re at. I had a student come to me, I always give a mid-semester check in and say, “Here’s where I think you’re at, where do you think you’re at?” We talk about it… but we were right before that. And she was kind of lost. And she said, “I’m working 35 hours a week. I’m taking care of my little brother. I’m taking five classes, and I just want a B in all my classes. And I have this limited pool of time. And I need to know where I should be putting my time, and I don’t know where I’m at, do I have an A minus? Do I have a C plus, I want to know if I’m in that (upper) range, because if I am I’m going to dedicate more of my time elsewhere.” And so, that was a struggle. That said, my upper-level class, I absolutely love it. So, in that seminar class, I don’t grade anything. I give them constant feedback on everything that they submit. I have tons of rubrics, and I give them lots of feedback on all different aspects. So, we’re constantly back and forth, back and forth. But we check in once in mid-semester. I ask them where they think they’re at for a grade. And it almost always matches where I think they’re at. And it just takes grading completely off the table, and we’re just talking about neuroscience, and it’s really about the intellectual discovery, and it’s not at all about evaluation. Interestingly, these students because they’re neuroscience majors, for the most part, and their seniors, they are more grade focused, but they’re more motivated and we just chat and it’s lovely.

Josh: Wow, that’s exactly what you hope for.

Sarah: Yes, [LAUGHTER] yes. I will never grade in that class again. Ever.

Josh: That’s great.

Sarah: And so I guess that leads me into this question that I have for you. So, that story of the student who just wanted to know where to divert her time and her efforts, and then my own experience with grades being sort of fun, and then also a motivation that helps me tackle some personal challenges. And then also, I think, especially in the lower-level classes, there’s a lot that is sort of just boring, rote stuff that we have to get through. And that students need that information in order to get up to those upper-level classes, and to have the foundational knowledge where they can start thinking critically, and they can start being more creative. And I think for that sort of just getting the basics down, sometimes extrinsic motivators are really valuable. And I think that the data for motivation research shows that, for creativity and critical thinking and things, we need intrinsic motivation, but for just mechanical kind of rote things, extrinsic motivation goes a long way. And so my question for you is, given all of those elements – are grades always eeevvil? [LAUGHTER] Or can they sometimes key students in to what a professor values, you know, put more effort here less effort here, motivate some of this rote learning and encourage students to face some challenges?

Josh: That’s such a good question because, I think, too often, when we begin to have this discussion in any kind of group of faculty, it’s been my experience that some people hear this as a kind of confrontation or an accusation. You give grades, grades are evil, LAUGHTER] therefore, you must be evil, which is not at all what we’re saying. What we’re trying to find here are the best approaches to help our students to learn in a meaningful way. So, I want to not flip the question, but change it just a little bit in that, for those goals that we have that are more rooted in knowledge building and rote memorization, and I agree that having some element of an extrinsic motivator can get you out of bed and into the classroom and paying attention and focus on the reason why you’re there and why you need to do well. So, I agree at that level. The question for me, especially in those lower-level courses, is what does a grade communicate? And I’m drawn to the work on inclusive pedagogy and on opportunity gaps, and what grades communicate to students who are coming to our colleges and universities from under-resourced schools where they have not had the same kind of educational opportunities. For example, to have AP classes that would prepare them, to have teachers who were invested in moving beyond just what was on the page, to have the right books, to have the right materials. And so, certainly for a subset of students from well resourced educational backgrounds, a grade in an introductory level course, could be a communicator of this information as important, pay attention to it. The grade communicates that you have mastered it well. For another subset of students from less resourced schools. I think that what the research shows is that more often than not, the grade is penalizing them for what they didn’t have, rather than being able to demonstrate what they know and can do at that point in their career. Now, there’s time over four years to bridge that opportunity gap to get them to a different place. So, what I think about this question, ultimately, in thinking through what we were just talking about with grading models, is that there’s a happy medium, where we could take an approach in introductory level classes with a mastery-based grading scheme, where knowledge standards are an important component of that grade. So, you have a whole mastery based grading, you determine the standard and the points along the way that show that students have mastered that goal. And for an intro psych course, a significant subset of those standards could be focused on knowledge and the information. And if they don’t know the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, then they haven’t checked that box. They haven’t moved their way up to mastering that particular standard. So, for me, that’s a scheme and I was just addressing this question with folks in STEM, who were talking about this very thing. People need to know information before they go out and become doctors and pharmacists and other fields. [LAUGHTER] And that’s a scheme that allows you to accomplish that goal, and to account for the educational opportunities and backgrounds of students who are coming into those introductory level classes.

Sarah: And I think part of that response makes me think that, and I know we don’t have time to unpack all of this, but the relationship between assessment and grading, and so your response makes me think more about “What kind of assessments are you using?” And of course, it’s critically tied together with grading. But, I just finished intro psych this semester, and I taught it all online. And I had previously had exams, and they were in class. And so they were by nature timed, and students had to memorize things. And because we flipped to the online environment, and I was not about to use one of those proctoring softwares, they were weekly quizzes that they had the whole day to do… very similar material. But, because it was open book and untimed, I had higher expectations. And I just calculated my grades this morning, and I had the same grade point average as last fall. And so I think that we can probably still grade, but we can make the assessing process more equitable, I think, while still using traditional grading schemes at times.

Josh: That’s a really great point. And the mastery based schemes ultimately give what look like traditional grades. But, it’s the assessments… exactly what you’re talking about…that look very different from traditional courses. You asked about extrinsic motivation. And I’m going to flip it to intrinsic motivation. [LAUGHTER] And I have some amazing colleagues in the psychology department here, who came to a recent talk that I gave on this subject. And I kind of opened with the classic research that shows that grades are an extrinsic motivator, and will impede intrinsic motivation. And for the sake of time, I was kind of glossing over some important distinctions, maybe, but they gave me some really great feedback that I’ve taken to heart and sort of built into subsequent iterations of this, which is that, “okay, but just because you get rid of grades does not mean that magically students are now intrinsically motivated,” because, as you were just talking about, some of the work in introductory level courses is really, really difficult. So, for example, they said, “You might really want to learn how to play the piano, but at the beginning, it’s really difficult.” And so, the ultimate point here, is that in order to really capitalize on the opportunities presented by decreasing the emphasis on grades for increasing intrinsic motivation, you have to have good scaffolding in there, a teacher has to come in and cultivate the intrinsic motivation, it doesn’t magically appear. So, first I wondered if you agreed with that, and second, what are some ways that we can do that work? What are some ways that we can cultivate the intrinsic motivation?

Sarah: Absolutely. And I do agree. And I think that some of the ways that cultivate intrinsic motivation is to really demonstrate how these building blocks get you to really interesting places. LAUGHTER] And one example I had was in one of my first speaking engagements. And someone there shared the story that they were in a nursing program, and some of their introductory courses were very difficult and very rote. And the students were a long way from being nurses, and that they were having trouble motivating their students. And what they did, which I thought was wonderful, is they had their students who were in internship or placements. And in their senior year, or right after their senior year, they had them come back to their class and do a whole class on specifically what they were doing now, which was very interesting, working with patients and all the things that the students were looking forward to. But then they shared explicitly how they were using the information that they were learning in these introductory classes. And so this very real life demonstration of “Yes, this is kind of a slog right now, and I know it’s a struggle. But here are the ways that mastering this content is going to get you to this place.” And I think we talk a lot about various forms of representation. But, like having someone that you can visualize, “Oh, this is me in four years, and here’s how they are using this material in pursuing the goal that I want to pursue…” I thought it was a really beautiful example of doing some of that scaffolding. And even if you don’t have access to that sort of setup, I think that ways of not just staying in the simple foundational knowledge, but showing how “Oh, this is how this informs this current controversy, or this informs these decisions that are being made in the real world,” I think, are ways to demonstrate the intrinsically interesting aspects of this foundational knowledge.

Josh: Great.

Sarah: So, as you know, my new project is all focused on the best learning environments for student mental health, in particular. And you have one very successful book on how human beings learn and are working on these new projects on anxiety and grading. You direct your Center for Teaching Excellence and you get talks all over the country. So you are an ideal person to ask: “What do you see as the best learning environment to both help students learn and enhance their well being and mental health?”

Josh: I can’t wait to read this new book that you are working on. I think it’s gonna be great. So, what I keep coming back to the area of research that you and I both really love and keep coming back to, and that is emotion, and the environments that I see my own classrooms, my own university, but many places elsewhere, always come back to care and compassion. That over and over again, the learning environments that are most successful for students are those where they feel as if the instructor cares about their learner. And that can look wildly different depending on who the faculty member is. But the student response tends to be the same. I felt invested, because it was clear that the instructor really cared that I succeeded in this class. And you were just saying… Sarah gave a great talk at the University of Mississippi on Tuesday. And she was saying in that talk, and I thought it was a great point, that whenever you move into this discussion, an automatic reaction is “This is getting into touchy feely territory. Right?” [LAUGHTER] That’s a dominant response. And I understand that response. But that is not what we’re talking about. We’re simply talking about having an environment where students feel respected, where they feel valued, where they feel as if their success matters. And sadly, I think in a lot of learning environments, they don’t feel that. So it’s surprising to them when they are in a class that does allow them to feel those emotions. On the faculty side of it, and this is where I think this automatic response comes from, it doesn’t mean you have to develop friendships, although sometimes down the road that happens, and I still keep in touch with students I had 10 years ago, and they’re doing amazing things. But, that’s not what we’re talking about. You can keep all the professional boundaries in the world that you want, and still show students that you are there to help them succeed. Some of the research that I admire the most in the area of social belonging, Geoffrey Cohen and Gregory Walton have a wonderful paper that showed the amazing benefit of a simple comment at the top of a student’s paper. So one group of students only got targeted feedback, another group got targeted feedback plus a comment at the top that said, “I’m giving you this feedback, because I have high standards, and I have every reason to believe that you can meet those standards.” And that had ripple effects that they traced over years in the success of those students academically over time. And while that may seem extraordinary, the sentiment is not. In practice, that one simple way of communicating to a student that the faculty member is here to help you succeed. I’m not here to hear myself talk, I get tired of that, right? [LAUGHTER] I’m not here for me, I’m here for you. And that is the common denominator that, at least, I have observed, both in practice and in research as being the most beneficial thing for helping students in that way.

I have a question that I just thought of this morning. So, I hope you’re okay with some improvisation. It’s a general question, though. So no preparation needed. It’s in two parts. So, maybe if we take the first part, and then come back to the second one? The type of writing that you’re doing now, Sarah, is not… I wouldn’t say very different, but it isn’t necessarily traditional academic writing. It’s popular scientific writing. It’s for a general educated audience. And so I was wondering if you could just talk about how you made that transition as a writer and some of the strategies that you use, I think the audience may really value hearing about that process for you and the evolution of your time.

Sarah: Well, I had done quite a lot of academic writing. And then my first book… Jim Lang approached me about writing a book for his series, because I had been blogging. So, I guess that predated it. So I’d been doing some blogging, first for a Martha Stewart publication, and then for Psychology Today, and he was looking for people who could write accessibly about cognitive science. And he said to me that most social scientists write like robots. [LAUGHTER] And he said, “I don’t want my books to read like they’re written by robots. And so would you be willing to do this?” And so I think that part is just stopping writing like a robot and picturing your audience. You know, a lot of writing advice talks about picturing your audience and writing for an audience, and I think that that’s true. But I think what really is the answer is that I write in my teaching voice. And the voice that I have, I sometimes don’t like my writing voice, I think gets a little chatty, but I tap into the same part of myself when I teach. And so I think that it’s: how does this material relate to my own personal experiences? to things going on in the world? to real-life phenomena? What are metaphors that I can use? What are anecdotes that I can use to illustrate this? What are ways that I could do this in a way that’s kind of positive and hopeful? And all of these things are things that I try to do when I teach. And Hivemind, my second book, it had a purpose, but a lot of it was: here are the coolest things that I’ve been sharing in my classes for the last 10 years, my favorite neuroscience studies, my favorite psychology studies. And then there’s certainly an overarching framework. So, that was even more clearly my teaching voice in writing form.

Josh: I love one of the ways that Jim talks about writing is “the voice of the colleague down the hall.”

Sarah: Mm hmm.

Josh: And I think that you do that so well. He does that so well. And it’s really accessible. And I think an important development in books about teaching.

Sarah: Well, thank you.

Josh: The second part of this question, though, is a little bit more technical, but I think people might benefit from hearing about it. And that is, the sort of interviews that you and I are doing right now, that you did a lot in Hivemind, that you’re doing in your book, are different from the kinds of interviews that social scientists would do in peer-reviewed publications, because we’re not trying to use the interviews to make a research claim, we’re using them more in an illustrative sort of way. Here’s our point. Here’s someone who’s doing that thing, or thinking about that thing, and illustrating that. And so my kind of technical point that I think is worth thinking about, what is the role of your IRB in doing this kind of writing? Because I know, on my campus, they want me to submit about this project, and talk about the fact that the interviews look more like what a journalist would do than what a social scientist would do. So, that they can say this does not actually qualify as research. It’s just kind of a box checking, so that they have it on file, and they know what’s going on, and that makes a lot of sense to me. But, I’m wondering, kind of from a technical standpoint, what do you have to do at your campus to make this writing work for your school and your career?

Sarah: Well, until recently, I was chair of my IRB. [LAUGHTER] So, I don’t know if that taints my response, but it’s two different things. So, the interviews like this, I’m actually a little surprised to hear that your IRB had you submit. It sounds like an exempt, just checking that it’s exempt from IRB review, which is not IRB review. But, actually, the Common Rule states that journalism and oral history projects and a couple other sorts of categories of doing interviews, they’re not considered research. Research has this technical definition of data gathered in order to contribute to generalizable knowledge. And because things like oral histories and journalism are on specific topics and they’re opinions about things, they are not considered research. And so, on my campus, they don’t go through IRB review. The exception is, so in my new project, unlike my older projects, I am also doing student interviews, and that is actually not even exempt from IRB review. It’s gone under IRB review. And so that part of the project, I did submit for official review, and a number of committee members reviewed it and approved it. And so the student data, and that will be anonymous… The student interviews were considered research. were reviewed by the IRB, even though it’s for kind of a journalistic book project, but the expert interviews that I’m doing, I did not.

Josh: I just think it’s interesting, too, as we think about doing different types of writing, how our campuses see that, and what kind of role they play in that, as well. So thank you.

Sarah: So what’s next, Josh?

Josh: A lot of writing is next, I think. [LAUGHTER] And you know how this is, these are writing projects that require a lot of mapping out ahead of time and squeezing that into campus responsibilities, like workshops, and things like that. But, I’m looking forward to the process. It’s always fun to be kind of starting out on something new. Sarah, what’s next with you?

Sarah: Pretty much the same. [LAUGHTER] I’m going to be doing a lot of interviews. So, people listening to this may be getting little taps on their shoulders. And I am also launching the student interview portion, which I’m excited about, because I’m eager to hear what they think. This is my first qualitative study I’ve ever done. So, it’s going to feed into the book project, but it’s also hopefully going to be a peer-reviewed article. And I’m working on that with my honors student, Jasmin Veerapen, and she and I are presenting at POD together. So, people who go to POD, you can check that out. And I’m eager to see what students have to say about all of this, because we’re going to try to let the data speak to us, let the students speak to us. And so we have hypotheses in our head, but we want to see where they take the conversations.

Josh: That was an amazing conversation.

Sarah: This has been fun. Thank you.

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

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Savannah Norton.

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